“Being like everybody is the same as being nobody.”
– Rod Serling
Of all those I think of as personal idols or geniuses in the writing profession, Rod Serling is something of a different breed entirely.
Rod Serling was many things- among them, a television pioneer, a writing genius, an anti-war activist, and the creator of The Twilight Zone. In researching and read about him now, over fifty years after even the first episode of The Twilight Zone debuted, it’s really eye-opening to hear the battles he faced concerning censorship in comparisons to today’s television culture.
In an interview done in 1959 with Mike Wallace, at once point he speaks about a television special he’d seen with his young daughters in the early fifties based on Lassie, in which puppies are born. He goes on to discuss how the network, after airing this special, was inundated with complaint letters from viewers outraged by even the suggestion of birth on TV. Puppies – can you imagine that sort of thing as being considered racy by any means in our current culture of reality shows which detail the lives of horrid people and obsession with materialism and fleeting ‘beauty’? Rod himself wrote seriously sociological pieces namely- before The Twilight Zone, faced criticism from networks regarding stories he’d written involving racism, and issues focused on World War II. The stories and shows are more than just fiction. They’re moralistic tales, always deeply underlined with the idea of right vs wrong. Good vs evil.
Not only were the topics which Rod Serling wrote about deeply imaginative and dark, but also his characters were amazingly written. You could, and can, identify them in a way that I believe it takes a true artist to do. I have many favorites when it comes to The Twilight Zone. The episode Stopover in a Quiet Town is a classic favorite of mine- the story of a couple who wake up after a night of partying in a strange house with no memory of how they got there, only to realize they are the only people in the entire town. Then of course From Agnes With Love, the episode about the computer scientist who’s inevitably faced with his computer which falls in love with him and tries to wreck his current relationship. (Mind you, in the early sixties, the computers were the size of rooms- a bit different now, obviously.)
My ultimate favorite is an episode titled The Lonely. The story is based in a futuristic world where prisoners, instead of being imprisoned on earth, are imprisoned on distant meteors and planets, in complete solitude from human contact. Every few years, they’re brought food or a project, such as a car, to preoccupy their time. In this protagonist’s situation, when we meet him he has already been banished on the meteor he’s on for eight years or so. When the military personnel come and replenish his food source, they leave him with something else as well – a large box. This box contains not a project, but a comrade: a female robot named Alicia. He disregards her, wanting no part in it, until she begins to cry. When he sees that even though she is a robot she still has the ability to shed real tears, he has a complete change of heart. It’s one of those stories I can watch to this day, after seeing it so many times, and still find myself completely immersed in the plot, and the characters themselves.
If you’ve never seen The Twilight Zone, I’d highly suggest you gave it a shot. As Rod himself said, good writing is like good wine, which needs to age some before it can really being truly appreciated. The fact that it’s on Netflix Instant Streaming now (all the episodes, no doubt,) means I am never short on something to watch when I need some true inspiration. Some real storytelling.
I only wonder what Rod Serling would think of not only our culture but also of television as it currently exists, today. Unfortunately I was surprised to read tonight that he died at the age of only 50. As he was a huge critic of the television phenomena himself, I’m sure he would be a bit less than impressed with the overabundance of cheap, overly produced productions that grace (and disgrace) the screen today. There are many exceptions of course. But still, in my eyes at least, there will never be anything else that comes close to what The Twilight Zone did for not only television, but for this new sort of world of technology and civilization itself.
“You see. No shock. No engulfment. No tearing asunder. What you feared would come like an explosion is like a whisper. What you thought was the end is the beginning.”
– Rod Serling