Cinema and Media Studies The Twilight Zone
by
Lester H. Hunt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0280

Introduction

The television series The Twilight Zone (1959–1964, hereafter referred to as “the series”) has attracted the attention of scholars for a number of reasons. It was the first television series presenting science fiction and fantasy for adults. It introduced modernist (and some would argue, postmodernist) elements into popular entertainment. It broached controversial subjects, such as war and race, that were carefully avoided by other television series of the day. It provoked thought about fundamental philosophical, moral, and political issues. It was the first series to be strongly associated in the public mind with its writer, Rod Serling. It made Serling the most well-known living author in the world at the time, and Serling took care to showcase the other writers, such as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Earl Hamner, who contributed scripts to the series. Above all, the series achieved levels of excellence in every creative department—including writing, direction, acting, and visual style—that have stood the test of time. The bibliography should make it clear that, though a scholarly literature on the series is beginning to accumulate, there is much that can still be done.

Historical Context

What was the position of the series in the context of the ideology and sensibility of its time? Was it bold and principled, cautious and opportunistic, or something between these extremes? Boulton 2014, Gordon 2009, and Hill 2008 point out that by dealing with contemporary controversies indirectly, through symbolism and allegory, it was able to broach ideas that were too controversial for television when the series began. Norris 2009 credits the series with pioneering a postmodern sensibility, and Mortenson 2014 points out ways in which its visual style undermined comfortable ways of thinking. Booker 2002, however, points out that the rebellious ethos of the series was already embedded in the culture of its time. Venuti 1981 treats the indirect approach to issues as a second-best substitute for the direct approach, and Worland 1996 finds it vague and evasive. Hunt 2009 argues, to the contrary, that the indirect approach enabled the series to achieve works of art that are more universal and lasting in their appeal than would otherwise have been the case. Kraszewski 2008 treats the series as a shortsighted and failed attempt to achieve Serling’s career goals. Pulliam and Fonseca 2016 finds gender stereotypes typical of their times in several Matheson-scripted episodes.

  • Booker, M. Keith. “The Twilight Zone and American Society in the Long 1950s: Between the Modern and the Postmodern.” In Strange TV: Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to The X-Files. By M. Keith Booker, 49–69. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

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    Discusses the series as an instance of one of the more general claims that “all television is postmodern,” postmodernism being “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” Claims that the individualism of the series and its sympathy for rebelliousness were actually ideas embedded in the culture of the time.

  • Boulton, Mark. “Sending the Extremists to the Cornfield: Rod Serling’s Crusade against Radical Conservatism.” Journal of Popular Culture 47.6 (January 2014): 1226–1244.

    DOI: 10.1111/jpcu.12208E-mail Citation »

    Boulton chronicles Serling’s campaign’s against various right-wing spokespersons and organizations and in support of a more tolerant and inclusive society, and argues that their passionate intensity indicates that we ought to take the political content of The Twilight Zone seriously.

  • Gordon, Louis. “Through the Twilight of Non-Being: Two Exemplars of Race in Serling’s Classic Series.” In Philosophy in The Twilight Zone. Edited by Noël Carroll and Lester H. Hunt, 111–122. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444310375.ch7E-mail Citation »

    Gordon points out that the indirect, ambiguous way in which the series treats issues of race is one strategy for dealing with such issues in the context of a racist society: it is a subject that the intended audience wishes to avoid; one therefore deals with the subject while seeming not to.

  • Hill, Rodney. “Anthology Drama: Mapping The Twilight Zone’s Cultural and Mythological Terrain.” In The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader. Edited by J. P. Telotte, 11–126. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

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    Argues, through readings of several episodes, that the series was able to broach controversial issues that other series of the time avoided because it dealt with the issues though science fiction’s “seeming remove from reality.”

  • Hunt, Lester H. “And Now Rod Serling, the Creator of The Twilight Zone: The Author as Auteur.” In Philosophy in The Twilight Zone. Edited by Noël Carroll and Lester H. Hunt, 5–25. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444310375.ch1E-mail Citation »

    Argues that Serling’s attempt to avoid censorship by dealing with controversial issues, far from being a vitiating compromise, actually enhanced the breadth and depth of the meanings that the series embodies.

  • Kraszewski, Jon. “Do Not Go Gentle into that Twilight: Rod Serling’s Challenge to 1960s’ Television Production.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 6.3 (December 2008): 343–364.

    DOI: 10.1080/17400300802424899E-mail Citation »

    This is a brief production history of the series based on archived documents. It depicts Serling as using the fantasy genre as an attempt to protect the “creative authority” of the writer during a period that saw that authority shifting from writers to producers. But this effort was shortsighted and ultimately failed to achieve its purpose.

  • Mortenson, Erik. “A Journey into the Shadows: The Twilight Zone’s Visual Critique of the Cold War.” Science Fiction Film and Television 7.1 (2014): 55–76.

    DOI: 10.3828/sfftv.2014.3E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the visual style of the series, in particular its use of shadow imagery, supported its effort to undermine dichotomous, black-and-white thinking. Analyzes the opening title sequence and three episodes: “Where is Everybody?,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” and “The Shelter.”

  • Norris, Van. “Retro Landscapes: Reorganizing the New Frontier in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.” In Channeling the Future: Essays on Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Edited by Lincoln Geraghty, 1–23. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2009.

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    Uses depictions of frontier and wasteland landscapes in the series as examples of the ways in which it played an active role in the creation of a postmodern sensibility in television.

  • Pulliam, June M., and Anthony J. Fonseca. “The Twilight Zone Years.” In Richard Matheson’s Monsters: Gender in the Stories, Scripts, Novels, and Twilight Zone Episodes. By June M. Pulliam and Anthony J. Fonseca, 85–115. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

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    The authors find stereotypical 1950s and early 1960s gender roles in episodes such as “Death Ship,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Steel,” “Third from the Sun,” “Nick of Time,” and “A World of His Own.”

  • Venuti, Lawrence. “Rod Serling, Television Censorship, The Twilight Zone.” Western Humanities Review 35.4 (Winter 1981): 354–366.

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    Explains the transformation in Serling’s approach as a writer, in which he turned from the social realism of his earlier work to the genre of fantasy and science fiction, as a response to censorship by sponsors. Serling’s later, more indirect way of expressing ideas is depicted here as a second-best substitute forced on him by capitalist society.

  • Worland, Rick. “Sign-Posts-up-Ahead: The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and TV Political Fantasy 1959–1965.” Science-Fiction Studies 23 (March 1996): 103–122.

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    Worland views the series as tending to express New Frontier–style liberalism, and thus as a somewhat cautious step away from the ethos of 1950s science fiction, which generally embodied Cold War paranoia. For the most part, Worland views the political content of the series as “vague,” “confused,” and “evasive.”

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