Written By Summer 2013 : Page 16

Written by Marc Scott Zicree FILM LIT Twilight of the Censors Rod Serling & Television Transcendence od Serling never set out to be a writer of science fiction, horror, or fantasy. Once Rod Serling sold The Twilight Zone as a series in 1958, he called up Ray Bradbury in a panic and pleaded, “Help me, I don’t know anything about science fiction.” “Come on over,” Ray said. He led Rod into his base-ment office and took several books off the shelves: one by John Collier, two by Bradbury protégés Richard Mathe-son and Charles Beaumont, and one by himself. “Read these and then let’s talk.” Oh, to have a recording of the subsequent talk that led to the iconic Twilight Zone ! Although Bradbury’s imagination proved inspirational, Serling undoubtedly brought to their conversation a stark realism that could be known only by surviving the nightmare of war. Serling had World War II to thank (or curse) for such knowledge. After graduating from high school in 1943, he enlisted the next day, becoming a paratrooper. While fighting for the liberation of Manila, his unit suffered a 50 percent casualty rate. He witnessed unfathomable horrors and was twice wounded and hospitalized, receiv-ing the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Combat left Ser-ling “bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service,” he later said. “I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.” While in college at Antioch on the G.I. Bill, he be-gan scripting radio dramas. His first sale was for the Dr. Christian radio show. He once said of this apprenticeship: continues on page 56 R 16 • WG A W W R i TT en By S u MM er 20 13

Film Lit

Marc Scott Zicree

Twilight of the Censors<br /> <br /> Rod Serling & Television Transcendence<br /> <br /> Rod Serling never set out to be a writer of science fiction, horror, or fantasy. Once Rod Serling sold The Twilight Zone as a series in 1958, he called up Ray Bradbury in a panic and pleaded, “Help me, I don’t know anything about science fiction.”<br /> <br /> “Come on over,” Ray said. He led Rod into his basement office and took several books off the shelves: one by John Collier, two by Bradbury protégés Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, and one by himself. “Read these and then let’s talk.”<br /> <br /> Oh, to have a recording of the subsequent talk that led to the iconic Twilight Zone! Although Bradbury’s imagination proved inspirational, Serling undoubtedly brought to their conversation a stark realism that could be known only by surviving the nightmare of war.<br /> <br /> Serling had World War II to thank (or curse) for such knowledge. After graduating from high school in 1943, he enlisted the next day, becoming a paratrooper. While fighting for the liberation of Manila, his unit suffered a 50 percent casualty rate. He witnessed unfathomable horrors and was twice wounded and hospitalized, receiving the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Combat left Serling “bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service,” he later said. “I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.”<br /> <br /> While in college at Antioch on the G.I. Bill, he began scripting radio dramas. His first sale was for the Dr. Christian radio show. He once said of this apprenticeship:<br /> <br /> “I learned ‘time,’ writing for a medium that is measured in seconds.” If a radio script didn’t sell, he’d submit it to the newly born medium of television.<br /> <br /> More than being derived from motion pictures, television was the direct descendant of radio: half-hour drama anthologies thrived on both.Soon Serling was writing dozens of half-hour and hour dramas, and even, in the case of Playhouse 90, some 90-minute teleplays. There was also the occasional script for film, such as Saddle the Wind. His reputation grew for hard-hitting naturalistic dramas, especially Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Comedian.<br /> <br /> The 1950s was a decade of political upheaval, from the Blacklist and McCarthyism to the civil rights struggle. Serling wanted his work to comment on these social issues, but with each attempt to write about race or politics, he met censorship. When African-American teenager Emmett Till was sadistically murdered and his killers acquitted, Serling scripted two fictional stories inspired by the crime: “Noon on Doomsday” and “A Town Has Turned to Dust.” By the time these aired, all meaning had been stripped away by the network and sponsors. Of the latter piece, Serling grumbled, “My script had turned to dust,” adding that the censors “chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” With his script “The Arena,” set in the U.S. Senate, Serling wasn’t allowed to mention any vital social issue of the day, or even use the terms Democrat and Republican. “In retrospect,” Serling commented, “I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, set it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots.”<br /> <br /> Thus censorship begat The Twilight Zone.<br /> <br /> Going Around the Censors<br /> <br /> But the road to getting the show on the air was far from easy.Serling’s first attempted Twilight Zone pilot, “The Time Element,” was an hour-long script about a man traveling back in time to Pearl Harbor and trying fruitlessly to warn about the imminent attack (adapted from a shorter script Serling had written some years earlier for The Storm, a live anthology show aired in Ohio). CBS shelved the pilot, finding it too original and challenging for their tastes. But producer Bert Granet heard about the script and shot it as the first episode for a new series, the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse.<br /> <br /> The popularity of the episode prompted CBS to order another hour-long Twilight Zone pilot. Serling’s next attempt became “The Happy Place,” set in a totalitarian world of the future in which citizens are euthanized at age 60. Once again, CBS judged the writing too dark. Undaunted, Serling wrote another hour-long Twilight Zone pilot, “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” about a benevolent alien who arrives on Earth, only to be misunderstood and killed. It too was a strikeout. (Serling later reused the title on a totally different Twilight Zone episode and revised the plot for another as “The Gift.”)<br /> <br /> Finally, Serling came up with “Where Is Everybody?,” a half-hour teleplay about an amnesiac wandering an empty town, awakening to find he’s actually an astronaut-trainee in an isolation experiment and has been hallucinating the entire narrative. The story seems utterly realistic, with no science fiction or fantasy elements; more prosaic than any of his previous pilot scripts, it proved just earthbound enough to get the network and sponsors to greenlight the series.<br /> <br /> The Twilight Zone made its official debut October 2, 1959.<br /> <br /> If unfamiliar with sci-fi fantasy, Serling had done his homework. Modern alienation is the great theme of The Twilight Zone, a reason the show resonates so powerfully.H. P. Lovecraft once defined our highest anxiety to be “the fear of the unknown.” Serling went Lovecraft one better, re-vising it to “the fear of the unknown working on you, which you can’t share with others.” With this simple phrase, Serling defined the engine that drove many of the greatest Twilight Zone stories, from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing of his passenger plane sabotaging the jet engines, to “Living Doll,” where Telly Savalas is driven to his death by the malevolent doll Talky Tina, to “The Hitch-Hiker,” in which cross-country driver Inger Stevens is stalked by a mysterious vagrant she alone can see.<br /> <br /> Brilliantly crafted and structured, Twilight Zone is famous for its twist endings, the “snappers” that render many episodes distinctive. But what makes the series profound is Serling’s great empathy for ordinary people—always rooting for the little guy.Twilight Zone presents characters at the crossroads, where the fantasy element forces them to rise to a challenge and either become better selves or, failing from lack of courage or compassion, succumb to a grim fate. “Won’t anyone take a lamp or bottle and end this?” pleads a character in “It’s a Good Life” just before the psychic child Anthony transforms him into a Jackin- the-box; no one finds the courage to save him or strike their captor, and so a collective lack of responsibility dooms them to endure a living nightmare. For with rare exceptions, such as “To Serve Man” and “Time Enough at Last,” Twilight Zone takes place in a moral universe in which we humans alone are responsible for making our world heaven or hell.<br /> <br /> Among Twilight Zone writers, Serling was by far the most prolific, dictating 92 of the show’s 156 episodes over five seasons.He set the tone, one emulated by other writers. But above all, it was a writers’ show, to the degree that, when Serling accepted his second Emmy for Twilight Zone, he raised the award over his head and invited Matheson, Beaumont, and George Clayton Johnson to come to his house where “we’ll carve it up like a turkey.”<br /> <br /> Twilight Zone never became a network ratings hit during its initial run, always appealing to a “fringe” audience. It was cancelled twice but resurrected both times after Serling campaigns, ultimately ending its network run after five seasons in 1964.<br /> <br /> Today, its iconic status has transformed Serling’s series into a classic that’s remained in syndication ever since, enjoying success in home video as well. It’s spawned books, toys, videogames, graphic novels, incarnations in film and TV. But no version ever came close to equaling the quality of Serling’s original. It’s the masterpiece by a distinctive artist triumphing in a new medium.<br /> <br /> He’d have turned 90 next year but died at age 50 in 1975, the victim of heavy smoking, genetics (his father died at 52 of heart troubles), and broiling emotions—he suffered nightmares and flashbacks from his war experiences, and his combat wounds caused lifelong health ailments. And writing more than 200 scripts added stress, especially if censored.<br /> <br /> “I just want them to remember me a hundred years from now,” he confided in his last interview a few months before his death. “I don’t care that they’re not able to quote a single line that I’ve written. But just that they can say, ‘Oh, he was a writer,’ that’s a sufficiently honored place for me.”

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