Tota l Recall
The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling is still looking dapper.
He had the look of a salesman or a real estate agent or the kind of Madison Avenue dream merchant who would one day be immortalised in Mad Men: natty black suit and tie, slick, military- neat hair, an eternally smouldering cigarette. But Rod Serling sold fantasies far wilder than the chrome and Tupperware dreams of post- war America. His real estate was the fifth dimension, “a land of both shadows and substance, things and ideas.” Next stop: The Twilight Zone…
As creator and curator of this twist- packed anthology series Serling would haunt the edges of his stories like a benign spectre. His two- tone wardrobe was perfect for black and white screens while that ever present curl of smoke from a lit Chesterfield drifted like ectoplasm across the airwaves. This was his realm: the Twilight Zone, with its infinite storytelling possibilities, was really the nascent medium of TV itself, its “shadows and substance” the grain and fuzz of those early grey images. Topping and tailing each weekly episode he broke the flickering fourth wall and addressed his audience directly. He had plenty to say.
Serling came to the Zone with a strong reputation as a firebrand dramatist, a passionate, provocative voice committed to tackling such topics as war, racism and social injustice. Known for brawling with networks over questions of censorship he claimed, at first, that this little science fiction show was a retreat. “I don’t want to fight anymore,” he stated, seemingly sick of clashing with an industry that prized the whims of its advertisers over crusaders with typewriters.
But Serling also said, “I have never written beneath myself ” and The Twilight Zone, for all its mysterioso trappings, became a stealth expression of the outsized heart beneath that black suit. Episodes explored racial prejudice, the instinctive fear of the outsider, the weaponised madness of mankind, the heartbreaking lure of nostalgia ( driven by Serling’s own “desperate hunger to go back where it all began”). Still resonant, still relevant, these stories endure, too full of soul and humanity to ever be monochrome museum pieces.
“That’s the marvellous phenomenon of television,” Serling observed, over half a century ago. “It lends immortality to almost everything.”
Nick longs to see a gremlin on a plane’s wing at 20,000ft.