Twilight Zone rocks New Year's Day. Why might Miss. folks like it?

January 2, 2018

 

 

Syfy’s annual New Year’s Eve The Twilight Zone marathon rocked the viewer ratings this New Year's Day.

 

"It transported 1.1 million total viewers into that fifth dimension between light and shadow, and science and superstition," stated tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com.

 

The prime time viewership (8-11PM) rose nine percent versus 2011.

 

Says the website, "The entire marathon (8AM-6AM) averaged 893,000 total viewers with the 5PM telecast delivering the top numbers of the day at 1.3 million. That classic episode, “It’s a Good Life,” originally starred Cloris Leachman and Billy Mumy, who played a six-year-old boy possessing the power to change things with a thought inside his mind."

 

Why the jump in numbers? Who can clearly say. But so many love the show and new generations are being turned on to it.

 

I believe many Mississippians--those who are passionate about their Christian faith--would like it if they don't already. 

 

One of the reasons is that many of Serling’s most memorable episodes often had a Judeo-Christian worldview . A sense of justice—that man’s inhumanity to man would eventually be recompensed—runs through his scripts.

 

The enduring appeal and legacy of The Twilight Zone is summer up by Douglas Brode, who said, “The significance of Zone resides in its appeal not only to young people of the late 1950s and early 1960s but to each new generation that rediscovers it—and more incredibly, spots something of themselves in Rod’s world… No writer of his time possessed a greater imagination. And none turned out anything that comes close to his body of work in terms of lasting importance.”

 

The only people who can remember when The Twilight Zone, CBS’s successful sci-fi/fantasy series that ran from 1959 to 1964, was on the air are Baby Boomers and the “Greatest Generation” Born in the 1980s, my personal introduction to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t on CBS at all, but rather on the Sy-Fy channel, thanks to the network’s recurring July 4th and New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day Twilight Zone marathon. Rod Serling’s series is practically the only black and white anthology show from TV’s “Golden Age” that ever appears on Sy-Fy channel. New Year’s Day is a good moment to raise the question: why has such a series stood the test of time so well?

 

As decades have passed, a number of critical analyses of the series have been published, perhaps the two best being The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (1983) and Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone by Douglass Brode and Carol Serling (2009). Based on his own comments after the end of the series, it doesn’t appear that Rod Serling expected the show to have a long duration. Of his own scripts, he said he’d produced some things that were “adequate” for the moment, but nothing that could be called classic. As is often the case with great writers, Serling sold himself short.

 

The genius of Rod Serling

 

In the late 1950s, when The Twilight Zone originally aired, television was still a very new form of entertainment. Science fiction was by that time a respectable genre, though not to the same extent that it is today. Serling, a progressive in many respects—he was a pacifist and was an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights movement—wanted to write something “important” for television, something a cut above so much of what was standard fare on the networks at the time.

 

With censorship being what it was in the 50s, Serling eventually learned he couldn’t explicitly say anything and everything he wanted to, if he was crafting a story which advocated for social change. Much like C.S. Lewis had done two decades earlier in his Space Trilogy, Serling learned he could use science fiction as a means of “disguising” his message so that it would be above suspicion, yet still have an impact on the way people view society.

 

Serling wasn’t interested in mere shock value, or scaring viewers for the sake of scaring them (although some of his scripts are genuinely frightening). He wanted to say something substantive about human nature. Because human nature hasn’t changed that much, the show is still as “relevant” today as it was five decades ago. As Douglas Brode said in his 2009 essay, “Why Should We Take Rod Serling i?”: “While watching, we come to better understand not just America at a past point of transition but America itself. Then and now. Not only who we were but who we are today—and what we may yet become.”

 

Serling’s worldview

 

A good example of Serling's worldview is “Judgment Night”, which aired during the first season. In this episode, a German military captain who commanded a torpedo to be fired at a boat carrying civilians is punished in the after life by being forced to ride the ghost of the ship—as it is shot down and sinks to the bottom—every night for eternity. At one point, the character scoffs at a warning of judgment—he condescendingly calls his companion “religious”, as if that meant having a low IQ.

 

In “The Obsolete Man” (2nd season), a librarian is about to be executed by the state simply because they have deemed him and his profession obsolete to their society. The condemned man spends his last minutes alive reading the psalms. The God-fearing victim is portrayed sympathetically, while the fascist state is portrayed as merciless.

 

In the 3rd season episode, “Deaths Head Revisited”, he tackles the immensely difficult subject of the Holocaust, showing the insanity of exterminating people based on their race. In the 4th season, he again dealt with Nazism, this time in a script called “He’s Alive.”

 

In “The Gift” (3rd season), Serling tells the story of an alien sent to earth with a gift, but before he even has a chance to give it, the earthlings, assuming the alien must be dangerous, kill him. After it’s too late, the people of earth are made aware that the gift, had they been willing to receive it, was a book containing the way to find a cure for any and every form of cancer. The parallel between the alien and Christ—both benevolent visitors from another world, both bearing gifts, both misunderstood and killed by the people of the earth—are very apparent.

 

Science-fiction as a genre has produced numerous classics from a secular/irreligious perspective (consider the writings of H.G. Wells, for instance). Serling was different though. As Douglas Brode said, “Week after week for nearly five years, Rod Serling and company assured us that miracles (for the Judeo-Christian mind)… aren’t forced out of existence by science—at least not for the open-minded, the truly liberal in the best sense of the term.”

 

 

If you have never given this series a chance, I would highly encourage you to. For more information about the series, check out Twilight Zone's Internet Movie Database page at www.imdb.com/title/tt0052520/.

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MississippiMatters is a news blog of cooperative writers, videographers and podcasters published by  The Well Writers Guild, a 501c3 devoted to mentoring Mississippi writers and to addressing uncovered or under-covered topics.  MississippiMatters focuses on offering creative "takes" on our state's culture, ideas, events and more.