"Sunnyvale Rest, a dying place for ancient people who have forgotten the fragile magic of youth. A dying place for those who have forgotten that childhood, maturity and old age are curiously intertwined and not separate. A dying place for those who have grown too stiff in their thinking to visit the Twilight Zone."
- Rod Serling, closing monologue for “Kick the Can” 3x86
Out of the 156 episodes that make up the five seasons of The Twilight Zone, George Clayton Johnson’s “Kick the Can” is not my favorite. It is, however, a brilliant summary on the allure, creative purpose, and enduring qualities that keep a 52 year old television program afloat in the modern public’s social and pop culture conscience.
The Twilight Zone remains in the forefront of genre and prime time television for simple, although yet to be as successfully imitated, reasons and a bit of slight of hand magic.
The series relies on being socially aware, examining complex moral concerns of the time as well as tackling ’universal’ issues - all in the mist of the red scare, the rise of McCarthyism, the near promise of nuclear threat, and rising television censorship. Risks were taken; Rod Serling and the California Sorcerers (novelists, short story masters, and Twilight Zone writers Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson) went about disguising their messages as fables and allegories in twenty-two minute science fiction, fantasy, and horror segments. Every episode has something to say, and most episodes hit their intended notes perfectly; yet few critics at the time believed The Twilight Zone to be anything more than “vapid escapism”.
Once in an interview Rod Serling was asked by Mike Wallace,
"You’re going to be, obviously, working so hard on The Twilight Zone that, in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?"
A question which effectively shows the general public’s common view of science fiction, and thus how such a series was able to slip under the radar while still making profound social commentary during a time when television was deemed to be and crafted almost exclusively as light hearted entertainment.
The thing many people of late 50s and early 60s, and even now, didn’t totally “get” about The Twilight Zone was the set up; was the importance of the imagery, the “space” the series dwells in - one affectionately labeled the ‘Twilight Zone’. We all know those opening theme notes, we’re familiar with the variations of Serling’s opening monologue - but these monologues are the key to understanding the social commentary, or rather the key to recognizing there is commentary to be found, and they are what props up the challenge the series puts in front of it’s viewers.
You’re not just watching a weekly anthology series about guardian angels, space men, time travelers, and pig faced people; you’re being invited into the Twilight Zone. You’re being asked to view the material in a different state of mind; a critical mind; a mind of childlike wonder; a mind lacking in prejudice and cynicism. As a viewer you are challenged to recognize the sign post up ahead, to see that possibilities and your depth of understanding for the stories that unfold are only limited by your own imagination. Ultimately, The Twilight Zone wants to spark belief; belief in the strength and relevance science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories can bring; belief in injecting and looking for the intended commentary and meaning behind the stories you write and view; and belief in the ideas that can come to you, that you can share, and that you experience when your mind and being is not limited by hesitation, what is expected, social norms or, of course, censorship.