“Every time.” Behind me and to my left, in the darkened theater, a voice says these words aloud. Remarking on the gut-wrenching exasperation and hopelessness of the infamous ending to Rod Serling’s masterful 1959 episode “Time Enough at Last,” one audience member relives the pain, alongside Burgess Meredith, on the fateful library steps. At my right, another watcher gasps, “oh my god” as she sees, for the first time, Agnes Moorehead pick up a knife in a desperate attempt at a counterattack, in the season two episode, “The Invaders” — one of six digitally restored episodes shown as a package with a short documentary about the mastermind behind the now-classic science fiction anthology “The Twilight Zone.”
The show’s creator and narrator, Rod Serling, who had originally intended for Orson Welles of Citizen Kane fame to narrate the series, wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, whose themes would consistently explore topics such as social injustice and racial relations, controversial both then and now. Serling fought hard against network censorship and for creative control in order to broach topics that were personally meaningful to him, such as returning to one’s childhood home, as in the season one episode “Walking Distance,” starring Gig Young as a 36-year-old ad exec, burnt out by the big city and longing to return to the world of his youth that had long passed him by. Though he finds he cannot return, “We each only get one summer,” he finds new hope that band concerts and carousels might exist in his own time, if only he looked ahead instead of back. It is this tiny gleam of light, in a world of ever increasing darkness, that Serling leaves us with, time and again. He cleverly serves us the bitter truth with a sliver of hope that we, as human beings, can and must prevail.
We were treated to three other Rod Serling–crafted episodes, including one that unforgettably juxtaposes attraction and repulsion, horror and hope, “Eye of the Beholder,” arguably the epitome of the plot twist shocker. At the very start, much of the crowd groaned in unison, as if we all shared a sinister little secret. Another of Serling’s great gifts was to leave us with more questions than answers: When is this? Where is this? And what kind of society finds beauty unacceptable and prizes ugliness as the norm?
A crowd favorite, “To Serve Man,” lures us into believing that the nine-foot-tall aliens, the Kanamits, have brought with them nothing but peace and prosperity to the inhabitants of Earth. As expected with a classic Twilight Zone ending, a big reveal teaches us that things are not always what they seem, and the fate of man can be wrought with unexpectedly horrific consequences.
With “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” giggles at nostalgia turned to gasps and sympathetic sighs, as a suburban neighborhood finds itself rocked by murder and mayhem at the intersection of paranoia and the paranormal. The enemy, we find out, watches and waits, as we destroy ourselves, street by street, town by town.
Following the six episodes, the short documentary tribute to Serling explores the life and mind of this pioneer of the television industry, with interviews of friends, family, colleagues, and the author of The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia, Steven Jay Rubin, painting us a picture of the private world of Rod Serling. We learn about his role as a loving father; a fighter for justice, with an intensely driven work ethic; his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder; and a smoking habit of three to four packs of cigarettes a day, leading to cardiac disease and an early death at the age of 50. Clips of his lectures from Ithaca College, where he taught from the late 1960s until his death in 1975, provided a glimpse into the workings of his mind and nuances of his craft. According to Serling, a writer should not only create the idea but apply hard work to the creation process and find a way to relate it to society and its concerns. These insights, along with words of high praise, hailing him as an encouraging mentor and a truly unique and wonderful man, make this love letter to Serling a pleasure to watch.
In unsure and chaotic times, it is these societal concerns that still resonate today and drive us to find meaning and answers to these timeless questions. Whether you’ve seen these classic black-and-white episodes in reruns umpteen times or whether you’re discovering them for the first time, chances are things and ideas of both shadow and substance will stir your imagination to wonder “why.”