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?
TA: I met with Barry Hoffman in early 2002 on an unrelated issue, and when he learned of my previous Twilight Zone work and my association with the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, he expressed an interest in publishing Rod’s Twilight Zone scripts. I took the request to Carol Serling and – upon seeing samples of Gauntlet’s product and the quality of their work – she was very receptive of the idea. She green-lighted the project and authorized the release of Ithaca’s archives.
Aside from presenting the scripts in as definitive and interesting a collection as possible, my personal hope is that the series does well for two reasons. First, I want to get Rod’s work into as many willing hands and minds as possible. Second, if demand is high for Rod’s teleplays, it gives us the possibility of releasing some of Serling’s non-Twilight Zone work. His landmark Playhouse 90 scripts perhaps, or a collection of his Emmy Award-winning teleplays. Anything is possible if a market exists. Naturally, I’d love to bring out this material.
WS: What do you admire most about Rod Serling? To what extent has he influenced your life?
TA: I suppose the trait I admire the most was Rod’s passion. That, and the obligation he felt to expose and address important issues within his work. It’s hard enough to combine art and business, which writing does, especially in the field of television. Rod was fascinated by and cared deeply about humanity. His best work explores all facets of man and society and the human condition in all its beauty and ugliness. He felt an artist had a duty to comment on issues important to both himself and his audience. In a business so hell-bent on money and status, he resisted the easy path and stayed true to himself in his writing. Lord knows it wasn’t easy for him or beneficial for his career, but he felt a self-imposed responsibility to utilize his position; not for the most personal gain possible, not to milk the system, but to use it as a tool to educate and inform as well as entertain.
It’s hard to quantify the degree to which Serling’s work has influenced my life. I know that I wouldn’t be the same person without it, and I like who I am, so I’m extremely grateful. I wouldn’t be a writer without his inspiration and I doubt I’d have such an appreciation for language. His work was entertaining to me as a young adult, but his vision really started to dawn on me when I grew old enough to grasp the subtleties and underlying themes of his writing. It was a marvelous way to experience his work: to be scared and mystified and enthralled by the surface of his tales as a child, and then to find that these familiar stories held so much more meaning and depth than I first realized. My interests in politics, literature, musical scores and quality drama surely originate with Serling and Twilight Zone, and my capabilities for compassion and empathy were, at an early age, nurtured by his example.
WS: What would you say are the artistic, intellectual and/or cultural aspects of the Twilight Zone which make it such a mainstay of our culture? What influence would you say that Serling’s Zone had exerted on culture?
TA: There are certainly many examples of Twilight Zone’s influence on popular culture. References to individual tales and the show’s distinctive style crop up in everything from Looney Tunes shorts and The Simpsons to prime time television, commercials, and newspapers. But the association, I think, goes far beyond the quantifiable. Just about everyone recognizes the clipped tone of Rod Serling or associates anything characterized of bizarre or abnormal circumstances with the phrase “Twilight Zone.” Even people that aren’t interested in or familiar with television. The show has made a cultural leap that transcends a single medium.
And I think this is very appropriate, because the show itself is a continuation of the timeless tradition of people passing along lessons through imaginative stories that have a purpose and a moral. The Twilight Zone is an amalgam of Aesop and Dickens and O. Henry and Sophocles and Shakespeare. It’s a mid-Twentieth-Century incarnation of the tall tales told around the fire in the early days of language and history. So naturally the cumulative effect of 156 Twilight Zone episodes has permeated the world’s culture and remains vital today, almost half a century after it premiered.
WS: How did you become involved in the study and criticism of Rod Serling? In the preservation of his memory and work?
TA: I lived in silent appreciation of his work until I learned of the existence of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation. I became an active member and met a circle of friends and associates whom I treasure to this day. One, Chris Conlon, is an author and teacher of literature; Chris encouraged me to engage my dream of writing and mentored my early attempts. With his gracious help, I was able to place a magazine article and this led to future and current successes.
WS: Two print and two video biographies exist on Rod Serling, I believe. What is your opinion of these? To what extent do they succeed or fail in evoking a thoughtful, accurate depiction of his life and work?
TA: Of the print biographies, I can’t say I’m really satisfied with either of them. One sought scandal, spinning events and making suppositions where no scandal existed, and was remarkably lacking in balance. The other was much better, but a bit too distant and presumptuous for my tastes.
The video biographies couldn’t be more different in my opinion. One is a work of salacious fiction while the other is remarkably complete and balanced. The E! Entertainment Network special was an expose-style mess that catered to the gossip crowd. The film makers obviously had a pre-conceived agenda and sought out dirt whether it was available or not. I’m familiar with several people who were interviewed for the show; their positive comments were abandoned while anything that could remotely be construed as negative was spun for maximum effect or taken out of context.
The PBS American Masters segment on Rod, conversely, was a well-researched and unbiased examination of Serling, a complex man, and his considerable body of work. It didn’t lionize or demonize Rod, but presented his accomplishments and setbacks with a journalistic professionalism and an obvious respect for the intelligence of its audience. It has become the most requested episode of the American Masters series, I hear, and I’m not surprised.
WS: Several articles, essays and books on Serling appear to either demonize or glorify Serling, approaching him as an object for infamy or hero worship rather than as a man capable of both positive and negative traits. Do too many writers and studies of Serling and The Twilight Zone approach their subjects as untouchable idols? If so, how is this a disservice to both Rod Serling and his vision and to fans? Further, how do you approach him and the series in your own commentaries? How do you temper enthusiasm and love of your subject with objectivity?
TA: I’m constructing it as a tribute series to Serling and his work. But I don’t believe I have to sweep anything under the rug to do so, nor do I need to inject hyperbole. The comments I gather from people are in response to general questions about Serling and their experiences with him. No one is led to unduly praise him; in fact, my goal is to use all these different colors to paint an accurate picture of a man I’ve never met. I’m not looking just for the primary colors here. I want to use the greys as well to convey this iconic figure as a regular man who achieved great things, who impacted people with his work. I haven’t had to face the decision of editing out objectionable comments, simply because I haven’t yet encountered any.
As for the commentaries, I know in many instances I’m guilty of viewing things in the most positive light – or, some might say, through rose-colored glasses – but I don’t believe I’ve ever engaged in dishonest comments for the sake of fawning. I can recognize weakness. My critiques would be useless if they were incessantly, unrelentingly optimistic. But I feel that problems can be addressed and failures taken to task without resorting to attack. There are many factors that can lead to weak or inept episodes; writing is critical but only the first step in a long chain of production and things can go awry at any stage. I do not believe, however, that a certain failure – be it in writing, acting, direction or any other phase – necessarily requires that an entire episode be dismissed. I think it’s important and constructive to point out both the weak and strong points of each episode.
WS: Did Rod Serling make the art of storytelling (particularly in television) grow up, so to speak, by focusing attention (often to the distain of network, sponsors and audiences) on such unpopular phenomena as racism, prejudice, violence, mass mentality, and misplaced idealism? If so, to what effect?
TA: Serling, along with a select group of other writers, did view the infant medium as a conduit for legitimate drama, “theater” with a mass audience. They struggled long and hard to help television fulfill its potential and reach an intellectual, adult audience. But Serling’s battles, the same ones that later drove most other playwrights out of the medium, resulted from a polemic difference of opinion between the artists and the people who operated the business end of the art form. This conflict usually led, unfortunately, to concession and a dilution of drama. A writer capitulated, or quit, or was silenced. As powerful as most of Serling’s early dramas were, it’s tantalizing to ponder what could have been achieved had the restraints of primitive television been lifted . . . and remarkable to consider what the writer was indeed able to accomplish while bound by suffocating, excessive regulation.
For the most part, networks and sponsors gave precious little thought to the growth of television as an art form. Those who were receptive to television’s potential were eventually phased out by businessmen who found that sitcoms and game shows could move more product at a cheaper cost than the prestige shows, and this signaled a decline in the more qualitative productions. It started a war of merit vs. the bottom line, of distinction vs. mediocrity, a war that continues in television to this day. Many fine shows have risen from the ashes over the years, but not without struggle and compromise.
These topics of “unpopular phenomena,” while bleak and controversial, led to the creation of many challenging, intriguing, thought-provoking productions. There is always an audience for that, even if the networks consider it a minority. Serling and other writers of his caliber found ways to focus broad, remote concepts like racism and prejudice, to bring to down to the level of the individual. To force people to realize that these evils exist in our everyday life and must be confronted. But of course, there will always be viewers who seek to use television not as a tool of education but as a means of escape. Which is why the Twilight Zone, in particular, succeeds as both art and entertainment. It transports viewers from the mundane to a place of imagination, where anything could happen, a respite from the real but not at the expense of reality. Many of the show’s tales drive home the fact that human beings are creatures of conflicting natures, possessing both inherent flaws and limitless potential, capable of great ugliness and great beauty.
WS: Serling’s moving, emotionally draining scripts often depict men and women lost to themselves and others, struggling to understand themselves and the worlds around them, with perception being a key to transformation. What do you believe was Serling’s attachment to this motif?
TA: Simply that he understood the roots of conflict, and knew that evocative, engaging drama came not from the circumstances into which he thrust his characters, but their reaction to it. His drama is very internal; it’s something that was rarely understood by those in television management.
WS: After the Twilight Zone, Rod worked on Night Gallery, an anthology series that focused on more traditional horror fiction than did the morally ambiguous themes and stories of the Twilight Zone. A) What was your opinion of Night Gallery? How about compared with the Twilight Zone? B) What do you feel was Rod’s feelings towards his work on that particular show?
TA: As with any series – especially one that utilizes the anthology format – Night Gallery has some notably strong episodes and some real turkeys. I do feel Rod gave Night Gallery some of its finest moments, so the series was not a total waste of his talent or time. But fine episodes were few and far between, and those infamous comedy shorts, the blackout sketches, are downright embarrassing. They totally destroy any mood of tension or suspense and are dreadfully unfunny. One thing I do admire about the series was the attempt to mine the field of classic horror literature for source material. It didn’t always work, however. A brilliant short story does not a brilliant television episode make. Many of the masters, H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, read much better than they translate to screen. I generally found Night Gallery to be lacking, devoid of the meaning and the magic of the Twilight Zone. Enjoyable exceptions for me include two of Serling’s sentimental teleplays, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” and “The Messiah on Mott Street,” and two chilling, atmospheric, well executed tales, “The Caterpillar” and “The Doll.” I’m sure the whole experience was crushing for Rod. He must have gone in with high hopes, having finally succeeded in revisiting the weekly anthology, but things quickly fell apart. His vision was discarded, his work was altered, and he had little say in the matter. Worse yet, as creator and host, all the public indications were there that this was his series, his baby. Critics and viewers must have thought that Serling had really slipped since his Twilight Zone years but that was not the case. There were other captains at the wheel of this ship, yet it was emblazoned with Rod’s name and it was his reputation that suffered when it frequently veered off course and eventually sank
WS: What other works of Rod’s do you most recommend outside of the Twilight Zone as testaments of his craft?
TA: The Emmy Award winners are obvious choices: Kraft Television Theater’s “Patterns,” Playhouse 90’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and “The Comedian,” and a Bob Hope Presents The Chrysler Theater entry called “It’s Mental Work.” You really can’t go wrong with any of Rod’s Playhouse 90 productions, as all are powerful and engaging dramas: “In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” “The Rank and File,” “Bomber’s Moon,” “The Velvet Alley” and “A Town has Turned to Dust” among them. Then there’s the Night Gallery pilot and the episodes of that series previously discussed, plus several episodes of The Loner, an underrated and overlooked Western that was anything but typical.
As for screenplays, Seven Days In May is by far the most taunt and successful of Serling’s movies. Also of note is the 1962 theatrical version of Requiem For A Heavyweight, which is darker in tone that its television counterpart yet more true to the dramatic integrity of the bleak subject matter. A comparison of the divergent productions shows the flexibility and range of Serling’s writing, and both versions feature excellent acting, direction and overall production.
WS: What, in your opinion, made Serling such a great writer for the medium of television? How did his topics, approach, and style of composition fit the demands of the medium?
TA: Television is an intimate medium, the home of the “close-up.” Rod understood this and mastered it early on. His character-driven pieces and the sparse nature of television meshed very well. Television – now, yet even more so in the days of its infancy – is much more limited than the movie screen in terms of scope, scenery, action, time and pacing…almost like a theatrical stage, but one in which every audience member enjoys a front-row seat. And Serling’s teleplays were basically just that: plays for television.
He was a hybrid of the classic playwright and today’s successful television writers, and he knew how to maintain this balance. His dramas started fast and were tight, focused. He knew how to insert the teasers and “artificial curtains” in the storyline that were necessitated by television’s commercial-break requirements. Serling’s unique talents allowed him prosper under restrictions that hampered other writers. And I think the reverse is also true: Rod never fully made the transition to the motion picture screenplay. Compared to television, movies allow for a broader landscape, a richer scope, more exteriors, and a larger cast of characters. It’s a totally different animal than television and Rod was a bit out of his element on the big screen.
WS: It has been mentioned that several of the concepts, ideas, and references of the Twilight Zone were directly relevant (and perhaps bound with) the time period in which it was produced. Could you explain this further? B) And while this may be true, do they need to be seen or read in their proper context to be appreciated? Or doesn’t the timelessness of Serling’s themes and the empathy of his characters make such stories pertinent to any age and culture?
TA: One result of Serling’s passion to explore social issues is that Twilight Zone does indeed reflect the “hot button” issues of the day, circa 1959-1964. McCarthyism, the atomic age, nuclear holocaust, conformity, the Cuban missile crisis, urban sprawl, the past horrors of World War II, the coming horrors of Vietnam, space exploration, the mechanization and dehumanization of society, etc. The show debuted at the end of the conservative fifties and continued into the mid-sixties, years of incredible societal upheaval. Twilight Zone is very much a product of its time, a microcosm of the political and cultural mores of the day.
And while the trappings of some stories may be dated, the messages they impart are as relevant today as they were then. Not only because they share the timeless themes of the folk tale, but because history does indeed repeat itself. It’s cyclical. Parallels exist everywhere. In our era, the mass graves necessitated by the atrocities of a Saddam Hussein or a Slobodan Melosivic recall the Jewish casualties of Hitler. Yesterday’s Vietnam is today’s Iraq, at the very least in terms of the debate over whether or not either was a necessary war. September 11 is the horrible progeny of Pearl Harbor. The dream of touching the Moon has evolved into the dream to touch Mars. The same erudite, sophisticated people who snickered at the one-time preoccupation with backyard bomb shelters (and schoolchildren ducking under desks to survive nuclear fallout) now protect their homes and loved ones with duct tape and plastic sheeting. The modus operandi changes, the details alter, the villains and their weapons of fear evolve, but the basic nature of human beings – and the events they cause and react to – remains constant.