Writer, Serling scholar and editor Tony Albarella discusses his landmark series “As Timeless As Infinity” and the formative effect Rod Serling’s work had on his life.
by William P. Simmons
Previously published in Cemetery Dance magazine, reprinted by author’s permission
Without question, that pinnacle of social and artistic achievement known by fans worldwide lovingly as The Twilight Zone has exerted a strange and socially complex (not to mention bold) hand-print across the skin of our national, social, and emotional environments. Turning toward the literary traditions/techniques of fantasy and fable to explore socially, politically, and spiritually sensitive issues either ignored or downplayed by gutless corporate America, the Twilight Zone allowed its creator Rod Serling to examine racism, injustice, political abuse, and the ambiguity of moral fortitude in a manner that has become famous (and deservedly so) for its enjoyable manner of exploring the emotionally bizarre. While several of Serling’s scripts are widely acknowledged masterworks of humanistic drama wherein meticulously evoked characters attempt to adapt, survive, and transform amidst moments of subverted reality, thrown into situations of the horrific or fantastic, the stories beneath the stories in the thematic context are just as important for what is suggested as for what is openly said.
Facing dilemmas of conscience and mind too often avoided by mainstream television, a poet of our times and every time, Serling’s Twilight Zone looked deeply into the heart of the often in-human human condition. That he found within its emotional, spiritual, and intellectual geographies a potentiality for greatness as well as fear and hatred speaks highly of Serling as both a writer and a man. While his writing occasionally errs by preaching, harming the dramatic intensity of STORY by over emphasizing his own liberal political leanings, Serling’s humanistic concerns were rarely less than enthralling, and the dialogue which gave his characters undeniable life still stands as some of the most authentic language to have ever graced the arts. People were Serling’s emphasis on the Twilight Zone. People captured in their weak, insecure, and lonely worst. People good and kind and earnest. People captured in both the summit of their kindness and within the darkest pits of their fears. People treated as people, not as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
If Rod Serling created a speculative forum for controversial moral complexities in the Twilight Zone, excelling as a storyteller with a conscience, he also reaffirmed the aesthetic importance and complexity of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The Twilight Zone became an aesthetic border-land between the realistic and the impossible — a time and place where paradoxes met, tangled, and reflected one another through the symbolic tools of language. For language is where Serling shone brightest as a poet of the heart. His scripts have lost little of their ability to entertain and challenge, and readers who wish to lose (and in some cases find) themselves in his work will soon have reason to celebrate.
Thanks to the creative efforts of Tony Albarella and Gauntlet Press, the next seven years will see the publication of all 92 of Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone scripts. Entitled AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE COMPLETE TWILIGHT ZONE SCRIPTS OF ROD SERLING, volume one is slated for Spring 2004. Editor Tony Albarella (one of the Board of Directors for the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation) will be responsible for offering a definitive look at Rod Serling’s landmark teleplays. Reprinted from Serling’s personal collection (housed in the Special Collections Archive at Ithaca College), these scripts will appear in their original format, including Rod’s handwritten changes/notations, and in some cases, revisions and script drafts differing from the final shooting scripts. Albarella, a life-long fan and authority on Serling’s work, will provide commentary. A collector of Serling memorabilia and a thoughtful critic, Albarella will also include interview material with cast and crew members.
While many projects of this nature would run the danger of veering into indiscriminating hero worship, waxing poetic, Albarella approaches Serling’s storytelling with passion and objectivity. The result promises to be a series emphasizing Serling’s successes as well as his failings — something needed if an accurate and balanced evaluation of the man is to be approached. A labor of love and a culmination of a lifetime’s interest, Tony Albarella approaches his responsibility with humility. After speaking with Albarella about Serling’s career and the upcoming Twilight Zone scripts it is easy to see that the editor is preparing a literary testament capable of presenting Serling’s flights of fear, fantasy, and fancy with the respectful depth that they deserve.
WS: Gauntlet is publishing all 92 of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone scripts in 7-10 volumes over the next few years. Entitled As Timeless As Infinity:The Complete Twilight Zone Scripts Of Rod Serling, this collection is a monumental undertaking. How would you say that your presentation of the scripts will differ from other books about Rod Serling?
TA: The scripts themselves, which are naturally the focus of the series, have made sporadic appearances over the years. Some appeared as part of a continuing feature of the now-defunct Twilight Zone Magazine and in textbooks and the like. However, the ones we’ll be reprinting are not typeset or reformatted. They are reprints of Rod’s personal script copies, which have been archived at Ithaca Collage in New York. For the first time, fans can have access to Rod’s actual scripts, complete in some cases with handwritten notations and corrections. Beyond that, this collection includes multiple versions and drafts that have never seen the light of day until now. This allows unprecedented access to Rod’s creative process.
As for the supplemental material, the series will contain episode commentaries, a “Tributes and Rarities” section, and appreciations to the man and the artist. It will contain production photos and rare material such as original correspondence. The commentaries will incorporate both documentation that has been extensively researched and new, exclusive interview material. So although the scripts make this a series written not so much about Rod as by Rod, I’ve tried to frame his work in a unique and comprehensive way, one deserving of the subject matter.
WS: What can you tell us about the contents and approach taken with the first volume?
TA: Each book will include script selections from various seasons of the show. Volume one will differ from other entries in the series in one respect: Being the inaugural release, I felt it appropriate to start off with both the official and un-official pilots of the show. A few years prior to the launch of Twilight Zone, an hour-long script entitled “The Time Element” was written by Serling as a pilot but shelved by CBS, only to be produced later for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Technically not an episode of Twilight Zone, “The Time Element” garnered such a positive response that the network asked Serling for another pilot, and this eventually evolved into the official series pilot, “Where is Everybody?” Both are included in volume one as well as the backstory surrounding the scripts. “The Time Element” is rarely seen today and the teleplay has never been published in any form. The other scripts featured in the first volume are “Third from the Sun,” “The Purple Testament,” “The Big, Tall Wish,” “A Most Unusual Camera,” “The Mind and the Matter,” “The Dummy” and the classic “Eye of the Beholder.”
WS: Carol Serling gave her permission for the scripts to be printed. How did you approach her? How closely has she been involved?
TA: I had been in contact with Carol prior to this series due to my other Serling — and Twilight Zone — related writings, and my involvement with the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation. Carol allowed publication, of course, and she authorized Ithaca College to open its Archives to me. Without her intervention this series simply would not have been possible. Yet her involvement goes far beyond these initial steps. She’s offered valuable input on everything from script selection to cover artwork. She has opened her files to supply me with some rare items, provided an introductory message, and has remained in constant contact to offer opinions and advice. Without her help, this series wouldn’t be as comprehensive or as interesting as I intend it to be.
WS: How did you find out about/get access to the Serling Twilight Zone scripts, currently in the “Special Collections Archive” at Ithaca College? Why do you believe much of this material has never before been seen? In addition, why do you believe no one else has attempted a collection of this magnitude and depth?
TA: I found out about the Ithaca Archive long ago, while doing research on Serling. But the material housed in Ithaca has rarely been seen (and never published) because copies of the scripts can only be viewed by appointment at the college itself, and cannot be reproduced or published without Carol Serling’s approval.
A collection like this has never been attempted due to its vast and comprehensive nature. This is a very ambitious project and only Gauntlet Press was willing to tackle it without limiting the scope or forcing restrictions upon me. Remember that this will encompass all ninety-two of Serling’s scripts plus supplemental material, in an oversized, signed, limited hardcover format that will fill several volumes over several years. A mass-market publisher would never risk a commitment of this magnitude, nor would they allow the time and support that such an effort requires without cutting corners.
WS: Gauntlet will publish every one of Serling’s TZ scripts in their original form, including facsimiles of Serling’s original typewritten pages, handwritten changes, and multiple drafts that vary widely from the filmed versions. Can you discuss any of the supplemental material? Why will it be of interest to fans of the Serling and the series?
TA: Supplemental material will take several forms. First, we have people signing (for the lettered editions) and writing appreciations (which will appear in both the numbered and lettered editions). These participants range from those knew and admired Serling to current talents and personalities who were inspired by Rod’s work. And Carol Serling will be signing all editions.
Next, a tribute section will include comments and essays by people who worked with Serling or on Twilight Zone, as well as those who were motivated into successful careers of their own by following Serling’s work. Examples include producer Buck Houghton, associate producer Del Reisman, Rod’s brother and best-selling author Robert Serling, writers J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Braunbeck, and several actors and directors.
Some rarities will also be reproduced, material that offers an insider’s peek at the production of the show. These tidbits will include correspondence to and from Rod about the show, memos from CBS, newspaper reviews from Rod’s files, rare production photos, etc.
Finally, I’ll be composing a commentary piece for each script. In addition to analyzing the teleplay and the degree to which the transition to television was successful, I’ll be utilizing comments gathered from many sources. So far, I’ve interviewed well over one hundred people — actors, crew members, directors, friends, family, colleagues — and I’m still tracking down subjects. I’ll incorporate their memories into the commentaries, where appropriate, or the tribute section. Naturally, since these productions were completed over forty years ago, in some cases there simply isn’t anyone left to speak with, but I’ve been able to gather material from many sources in addition to exclusive interviews.
WS: How do you present the script variations without confusion? When comparing multiple drafts, tracing the evolution of a script, how difficult is it to decide what to include and what material to leave out? How challenging has the task proved, trying to balance the final scripts with Rod’s process? And what does this show about his work/writing process?
TA: It is challenging to find a way to present subtle layers of variation in a way that isn’t confusing or overbearing; it’s like assembling a coherent picture from pieces of several different puzzles. Some of the teleplays from Ithaca’s files contain six, eight, even ten or more drafts. There are several levels and grades of script evolution; some vary little as subsequent rewrites progress while others start out far removed from the final version. But I think I’ve managed to find a nice balance between Rod’s final work and the process that brought him to it.
In many cases I’ll run the final draft, which contains all the revisions and is basically Rod’s completed script. Bear in mind, however, that often these “shooting scripts” differ from what was actually filmed, edited and presented on the screen. Often they contain dialogue that didn’t make it to production or ended up on the cutting room floor. For the earlier drafts, when appropriate, I can reprint only those scenes that differ greatly from the shooting script, for the purpose of comparison. It’s something that will evolve as the series progresses since each script has its own history; it’s own paper trail.
In some instances, I’ve found an earlier draft so different from the final version that I’ve decided to include both. Volume one, for instance, will include two complete versions of “A Most Unusual Camera.” One is close to the version that was filmed while the other contains a different framework, variant scenes and an alternate ending. Both will be included for fans to enjoy and compare. My overall goal is to present Serling’s finalized work while offering an exclusive peek at the evolution of these beloved teleplays.
WS: In addition to other articles, you’ve edited and written commentary for The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner. How did the research and work on these projects prepare you for this undertaking?
TA: Magazine features allowed me to develop my writing and interview skills while adjusting to the practices of rewriting, forming a particular angle on a subject, and sharpening the focus of the piece. Compiling the book with Earl involved all those skills but took things to another level. It taught me the business of publishing with all its myriad challenges. Editing involves so many details; the finished product is just the tip of the iceberg that peeks about the surface. It’s built upon a massive and carefully constructed foundation, which the reader will never see. All of my experiences with writing and publishing to date were critical in preparing me to work on a project of this scope.
WS: How rewarding and intimidating is chronicling some of Serling’s greatest work? How do you plan on presenting the material in a way that does it justice?
TA: It’s incredibly rewarding to have the honor of bringing this work out for fellow fans to enjoy. At the same time, it’s a responsibility that can be daunting and demands a lot of time and energy. When I begin to feel any trepidation, I bear in mind that Rod’s work speaks for itself. My role is simply to assemble the fragmented pieces and introduce them.
WS: What would you say were the greatest elements of Serling’s writing? What thematic and/or stylistic elements can be uniquely considered his alone?
TA: First is his innate regard for and fundamental belief in the spirit of the individual. People’s dreams, aspirations, their lives and hopes. Rod’s work is filled with little people, forgotten by life or swept away by it, individuals who make a difference and rail against oppression and find the inner strength to rise above problematic circumstances. People that are prominent in character, if not stature; rich in spirit if not money. Most are called upon to make tough moral choices and often find within themselves the power to deny the easy and choose what is right. The moral dilemma is a Serling trademark. When a character makes the right moral choices, often he is redeemed. When he denies or ignores these responsibilities, he invariably suffers. The majority of Rod’s work involves individual choice to one degree or another, as does real life. Decisions large and small which have to be made, and have ramifications for which we are responsible.
Second is Serling’s dedication to social examination. Many episodes of the Twilight Zone can mistakenly be viewed as fanciful, escapist fiction if taken at face value. Nothing could be further from the truth. By tackling important social themes under the guise of science fiction and fantasy, Serling freed himself to do what he did best: comment on the human condition. Trapped in an era when television had a mechanism that would not allow him to properly address controversial issues, he brilliantly bypassed the system. He tapped a genre that had previously strived for little of lasting importance, for nothing greater than Saturday matinee fare, and used it, via metaphor, as parable, to speak to concerns that straight drama would not allow at that time.
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” for example, isn’t about an invasion by silver-suited space aliens. That’s just the dressing. It’s really about McCarthyism and the animal traits that lurk just below our civilized facade. It’s about the mob mentality and need to deflect blame to a scapegoat in times of crisis. It’s an examination of who we really are and to what depths we can sink when stripped of our masks and put to the test. About how little it takes to make us abandon our platitudes and moral righteousness and engage in brutal, naked survival. It’s a peek at the frightening traits that we spend our lives trying to deny. No sponsor-driven, commercial television network of the late fifties would dare touch themes of this nature, so Serling pulled a bait-and-switch. He created a series that dealt in fantasy but was more adult, more probing, and more real than anything on television. This is perhaps his greatest legacy.
The third thematic element that appeals to me is Serling’s wistful, nostalgic streak. His intimate and evocative connection with people and places from the past. Life as he lived it before his war experiences, before he encountered the demands of success. Life as is was before the act of growing up eroded the simplicity of existence. Serling became his characters in these pieces, and they him, because his personal involvement with the material blurred the lines of fact and fiction. His most honest, moving work takes root and flourishes within this topic. There’s a bittersweet sentimentality that accompanies this type of story, and Serling captured it magnificently, many times.
WS: Preparations for As Timeless As Infinity began around 2002. What was the impetus for this project? What are your major aspirations?