“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone.”
Almost sixty years later, it’s still as captivating, atmospheric, and unmistakable as it ever was. The above is a copy of one of the several opening monologues which prefaced episodes of the original series of The Twilight Zone. Performed by the inimitable Rod Serling, the opening monologue was read aloud over what is arguably one of the most iconic and universally recognised piano motifs of all time. A simple, hypnotic four-note loop which induces an almost trance-like state on its listener, a spell only broken as the last lines of the episode are uttered and the final stages of the plot unravel themselves. The emotional effect of this simple opening title sequence is almost eerie in its power – pulling its viewer from the superficial comforts of their living room and escorting them far, far away to that beloved land of the uncanny. An anthology series, The Twilight Zone explored and exhibited the human condition through a lens which was always slightly askew. Ultimately, each episode was a moral tale, based in a reality which resembled our own, or at least a plausible version of it. Carefully treading the line between the ordinary and the fantastical, the worlds explored in The Twilight Zone were always just a few degrees off-centre of the reality we know. The stories showed us people not unlike ourselves, who would become swept away and tangled in various fantastical and uncanny circumstances, often leading them to a nightmarish and macabre end, as a punishment for their immoral, yet always deeply human, deeds. For a show which first aired in the 1950’s, The Twilight Zone was almost scarily ahead of its time, offering deeply moving and potent commentaries on issues such as racism, war, government and human society in general – commentaries which were certainly not reflective of the state of American society at the time.
Watching the series in 2018, one can’t help but be struck by the relevance it bears to today’s society, especially the current political climate in the US. One episode, “It’s A Good Life”, centres around a small village who live in a state of constant, paralysing fear of a monster who is plaguing the peaceful existence of the community. This monster, as is revealed early on in the episode, is a six-year-old boy named Anthony. Despite his small size and presumed harmlessness, Anthony possesses special powers which allow him to read the minds of the villagers and, if he so pleases, banish them to the dreaded cornfield, from which they can never return. Anthony also possesses an ill and volatile temper, forcing the villagers to tread lightly around him and bow to his every demand, for fear that he will banished from the village and forced to wander the cornfield for eternity. The parallels between this episode and Trump-era America aren’t exactly hard to fish out. One volatile figure who rules over all, equipped with a power far beyond what he is capable of controlling, bowed to and fearfully treaded around by those who surround him. It almost seems like a direct commentary, and would certainly have been read as such if it hadn’t been written over fifty years ago.
Another episode, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” follows the residents of a small suburban town, who begin to experience frequent power-outages and fluctuations in electricity. A local young boy, influenced by a comic book he has been reading, suggests that the power outages are a result of alien interference – a suggestion which is understandably dismissed by the townspeople, but nonetheless plants a budding seed of fear in the collective consciousness of the town. Unable to find the cause of the power fluctuations, the residents begin to grow increasingly agitated and suspect. They meet on the streets, discussing the problem as a group, and it isn’t long before accusations start to fly and the residents begin to turn on one another. The slowly rising tension eventually boils over, leading to one of the residents being shot and the town descending into a self-inflicted chaos. The twist, which was a staple of the show, reveals that the power outages were in fact a result of alien interference. The final scene of the episode takes place in some sort of alien spacecraft, as two creatures watch the events on Maple Street unfold on a monitor. It is revealed that they plan to achieve Earth-domination by causing slight interferences in the status quo of individual towns, and watch on passively as the humans inevitably turn on themselves and wipe each other out. This is certainly reminiscent of a lot of what we see happening in the current climate. Corporations and political institutions leading us to believe that we, the people, are our own enemies. Immigrants are to blame. Black people are to blame. We turn on each other and divide ourselves even further, as the aliens watch on in silent glee, because this is all part of the plan.
Even if you have never seen the show, the name most likely carries some air of familiarity to you. The show was a smash hit and has since etched itself deep into the heart of popular culture. Black Mirror, a modern show which has taken the world by storm in a similar fashion, has the blood of The Twilight Zone running deep within its veins. The central theme of seemingly normal characters being plunged into the depths of the fantastical is common to both shows. While the influence of The Twilight Zone is undeniable, and its social commentaries powerful, it’s seedy 1950’s underbelly cannot be ignored. Despite the progressive and anti-racist views of the show’s creator and host, Rod Serling, the systematic racial inequality of the 1950’s runs through the show like a visible thread. The overwhelming majority of episodes centre around white, middle class characters, with the appearances of any people of colour being few and far between throughout the 156 aired episodes. Research would suggest that Rod Serling was not to blame for this, as his progressive views on racial equality were widely known, and were seen as radical at the time. A 1958 teleplay written by Serling, entitled “A Town Has Turned To Dust”, centred around a real-life brutal murder of black teenager Emmett Till which took place in Mississippi in 1955. The teleplay, however, was chopped up and morphed by nervous sponsors to such an extent that the story no longer even resembled the Emmett Till case. Despite Serling’s wishes, the stories of America’s oppressed, which he so longed to tell, were consistently shut down and silenced by sponsors and the establishment.
However, almost fifty years after his death, Serling’s wish just might be about to come true. Just last week, on the 20th of September a teaser trailer for a new series of The Twilight Zone was shared on Twitter. The trailer was shared by none other than Oscar-winning director of 2017’s Get Out, Jordan Peele. Rumours had been circulating for a while that a new series would be released, with Jordan Peele taking on Rod Serling’s iconic role of the host. Peele’s tweet finally confirmed this. The trailer featured the iconic opening monologue of the series, featuring the voices of both Serling and Peele. The trailer served as a fitting passing of the torch, as Serling’s iconic reading of the opening lines faded out, and we got our first glimpse into Peele’s hosting of the show as he read the final lines of the monologue. The new series is being marketed as a return to The Twilight Zone, but it’s arguable that we, as a society, never really left. It seems as though a new series of The Twilight Zone would be just about the easiest thing in the world to write – all the inspiration needed to come up with some moral tale of dystopia and injustice is right outside our windows. When you think about it, we’re deeper into The Twilight Zone than we’ve been in a long time.