We are going to examine the work of the television writer and producer Rod Serling on this “worth watching” episode of the Sci Phi Show
Rod Serling was an American television writer, he is best known for his work on The Twilight Zone that ran from 1959 – 1964 and Serling, always the prolific screenwriter, penned 92 of the 156 episodes of the show and fought over the years to get and maintain creative control of the show. Serling also served in the Army in World War 2 seeing action in the Philipines and helping with the occupation of Japan at the end of the war. Serling died on July 7 1975 during open heart surgery.
I first encountered the work of Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone and it always left a lasting impression on me. I have very fond memories of going to an old cinema in town that showed old episodes of the Twilight Zone on their quite small, “big screen” on a Saturday night. I assume the cinema is long gone but it was a fun way to spend a saturday evening with friends when I was teenager.
Serling got his start in writing at high school after his 7th Grade English teacher Helen Foley encouraged his writing talent. However when he finished high school the Second World War was raging and Serling wanted to do his part, so he enlisted with his older brother Robert on the day he finished high school. Serling joined the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division and shipped out to fight the Japanese in the Pacific, much to his disappointment, as he had hoped to go to Europe and fight the Nazi's. He first saw action on the Philippine Island of Leyte in 1944. He also served during the Battle for the Philippines in which he was wounded and after healing served in the occupation of Japan at wars end. The war left a lasting mark on the young Private and he had flashbacks and nightmares for years after. He was possibly suffering from what we recognize today as PTSD. Serling turned to writing after the war as a way of dealing with everything he had experienced.
Aften demobilization he turned to writing professionally for radio doing copy work for ads and other things while spending his off time writing scripts for radio plays and trying to sell those to broadcaster. He met with some success but really found his medium when he tried his hand at screen writing for the new technology of television. After numerous rejections and a slow start Serling got a big break in 1955 when the nationwide Kraft Television Theater used Serling's script Patterns which was a hit. This was Serling's 72nd script and Serling had no real expectations for it and he missed the first broadcast of Patterns. Patterns was so successful that it was the first or one of the first television plays that was scheduled for a rerun, which at the time meant repeating the performance with the same cast. Serling started selling a number of scripts at this point. You can find a link to Patterns in the show notes.
Serling's career took off and with his next major sale, “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, which was aired on Playhouse 90, Serling had the first of many run ins with sponsors and censors. Playhouse 90 was sponsored by a lighter manufacturer and they asked for the line “Got a match?” to be changed because the sponsor was concerned about negative publicity for their product. Likewise a later script of Serling's was edited because the show it was run on was sponsored by Ford and the story used the Chrysler building as a backdrop. Serling had regular run ins over such things and he knew the only way out of this was to get his own show and maintain as much control as possible over it.
Serling worked for and managed to get a pilot script to be considered by CBS for the Twilight Zone. The script, “The Time Element”, centered on the story of a Pearl Harbor veteran who sees a psychiatrist for nightmares and flashbacks of the Pearl Harbor attack. The twist ending, something Serling was a fan of and used to good effect was that the person having the vivid dream was actually the psychiatrist and the veteran had actually perished in the original Pearl Harbor attack. “The Time Element” ended up airing on Westinghouse Desilu Theatre, but it was so well received and so popular that CBS ok'd The Twilight Zone and the first episode aired on October 2nd, 1959.
The Twilight Zone ran for 5 seasons and as earlier episodes of the Sci Phi Show would suggest, they often touched on interesting ideas and some deep philosophical themes. I will certainly be touching on more of these as the show goes forward. Serling's experiences in world war 2 were often drawn on to illustrate themes of life and death and the often random nature of such things. More than a few of the episodes were set during world war 2. Like Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, The Twilight Zone often used its fantasy and science fiction setting to deal with issues that would be difficult to address and get past censors and sponsors in a more contemporary setting. Serling did use The Twilight Zone as a vehicle for his anti-war views and his liberal views on race relations.
After the Twilight Zone was canceled, Rod Serlings next big show was Nights Gallery, a show similar to The Twilight zone, it aimed for a more Gothic Horror feel than Twilight Zone and consisted of three short stories introduced by Serling playing the,part of gallery curator as he displayed paintings to illustrate each story. Night's Gallery ran for three seasons from 1969 to 1973. Along with television Serling also wrote, taught and lectured to keep his calendar full.
It is difficult to estimate Serling's legacy and impact on modern culture. The distinctive Twilight Zone theme is instantly recognizable as a signal of something strange is about to happen. The comic tributes payed to the twilight Zone by the Simpsons in their Tree Houses of Horror episodes and by Futurama in their Scary Door vignettes also show the depth of the,legacy left to us by Serling's work. The Twilight Zone was also revived twice, first in the mid Eighties and for a second time at the turn of the century with some remakes of original episodes and with all new material. Both of the remakes are worthwhile continuations of the legacy of the original and worth checking out. Although the original still has a unique charm that is hard to beat.
There are so many great Twilight Zone episodes so I thought I would touch on a few of my favorites, although the list is hardly exhaustive.
One of the episodes that I always found interesting was “The Purple Testament” from season 1. It is set in the Pacific during World War 2 and concentrates on the character of Lt. Fitzgerald and man who knows who is going to die based on a purple light that appears on their face. What I liked about the episode was some of the questions it raised. There is a general comment on the futility and waste that war is early in the episode, this being a common theme that Serling liked to touch upon but also it shows the struggle of Fitzgerald as he tried to convince those around him that he isn't crazy. How could you convince someone that you had an ability like this? Especially given the price of experimentation. More importantly how would you cope going in battle knowing that some of the men around you are going to die no matter what you do? This is true potentially of any solider and something they need to deal with in battle but the certainty aspect of it, the knowledge of who will and wont make it back would be difficult to deal with. Perhaps it came as a relief for Lt. Fitzgerald to see his own face glowing purple as he boards the jeep at the end of the episode.
Another great episode, set during the cold war, also from Season 1, is “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. It is a fascinating episode that points to the real problem with man and idea that we are out own worst enemies. That so little would send us into a panic and have us turn on one another. They remade this episode for the 2000's series of the Twilight Zone and replaced who was studying the people on Maple Street. I think the original was better but both are interesting explorations of the irrationality of crowds of scared people and the difficulty a voice of reason had prevailing.
Finally there is the classic episode, “To Serve Man”, an amusing tale of a human savior from the stars, the Kanamits. These benefactors for mankind do turn out to offer humans the solution to all their problems, solving, war, famine, disease and all of their other problems. It appears to be the most wonderful gift possible and humans travel to the Kanamits home world to see this utopia for themselves. The only problem is that the book the Kanamits carry, “To Serve Man”, turns out not to be a tome on acts of service and charity, but instead a cook book. An interesting tale that warns against taking at first glance any offer to solve all your problems for free. I always enjoyed this one for the ramifications for human politics. Humans are always listening to politicians and other leaders that offer them something for nothing, usually you don't end up as dinner but the parallels are there.
There are so many great Twilight Zone episodes and I will definitely be revisiting the Twilight Zone in them in future episodes of the show. If you have never watched much, or any, of the Twilight Zone, I highly recommend picking up the box sets and giving them a watch. They are entertaining and do make you think.
I hope you have found this overview of the life and work of Rod Serling interesting and informative and I hope you will enjoy his work as much as I have. You can find more information and links to purchase his works in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via email@example.com, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via sciphishow on twitter. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitate to ask. And it's Phi with a P-H
Let me know what you think.