How The Twilight Zone Changed Speculative Fiction and Television Forever
On October 2, 1959, the worlds of science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, fantasy and television itself changed forever with the airing of the very first episode of The Twilight Zone. Its creator Rod Serling delivered a new vision of reality that its viewers could not unsee. And it forever changed how we see ourselves and our world.
In the premiere episode of the series, “Where Is Everybody?” an amnesiac wanders into a town with no people. Spoiler alert: he’s actually stuck in his own mind.
With this first peek into the world of The Twilight Zone, Serling sets the tone for all that is to come, namely: everything you see here will come down to the mysteries of the human mind.
It was never a show about what’s “out there” but always, from the very beginning, about what’s “in here.” As an article in the Saturday Evening Post explained, “each episode turns on an essential truth about humanity.”
And, for the genres it represented and all audio-visual storytelling since, that was revolutionary.
Pre- and Post-TZ
The original Twilight Zone series — all episodes streaming now on Paramount+ — marked a major turning point in television. Before The Twilight Zone, horror and speculative fiction were presented much differently than they were afterward.
From every Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons to every M. Night Shyamalan film, the strange and scary took on new and greater depth; you could no longer take them at just face value.
Even genres from comedy to crime shows took a lesson from the changing audience desires and expectations as originally gestated in The Twilight Zone, injecting meaning and message into their stories.
Before The Twilight Zone, stories on television were, for the most part, predictable. The characters, costumes, sets and plotlines were all simple to understand and stereotypical, familiar and easily digestible.
It was based on the belief that people didn’t want to think when they were watching television; they just wanted escape, and true escape was supposed to be easy, unlike life. Audiences wanted to see the world they knew reflected back at them so they didn’t feel so alone. The Twilight Zone turned that on its ear.
Here, you had different characters in different settings with disconnected plot lines left purposely perplexing and ambiguous and, therefore, demanding much work on the part of the viewer.
Its anthology format is, in fact, one of the very ways the show transformed television, which previously hinged on showing the same characters in the same settings each and every time
Now, anthology shows like Netflix’s Black Mirror and Amazon Prime’s Tales From the Loop are commonplace. The Twilight Zone made audiences work, and gave them the credit for wanting to do that work of growth, of mind expansion and personal reflection.
Another way The Twilight Zone thwarted the predictability of convention is by introducing twist endings into the TV (and film) storytelling parlance.
Consider the episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” in which criminals emerge from an intentional 100-year hideaway slumber only to find the gold they so smartly secured for their future was now, in the actual future, completely worthless.
Or Time Enough at Last in which the last man on earth finds his ultimate salvation when he discovers a stash of books, only to break his glasses.
Now, consider J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi/horror film 10 Cloverfield Lane, in which the audience is misled into believing they’ve outsmarted the film and figured out its ultimate plot twist—that there’s actually no alien invasion after all—only to be shown how wrong they were.
Each time, the story uses a twist ending to highlight a different challenge of humanity, respectively: greed, metaphorical blindness and regret.
Voices of the Margins
Before The Twilight Zone, the faces people saw on TV looked like the faces they saw in the mirror. They were based on a belief–it could be said they fostered and perpetuated a belief–that the world looked one way.
The Twilight Zone threatened that world view by presenting minorities in more than just stereotypical bit parts but in leading roles.
It presented them—presented us—as multifaceted, real, rounded and relatable human beings, rather than a two-dimensional representation as determined by others.
And, this elevation of the unheard voices wasn’t restricted to race; it extended to power and class as well. It questioned what made one person virtuous or deserving and the effects of discrimination and oppression.
One rather blatant example is the Fahrenheit 451-esque episode “The Obsolete Man” about a place that bans books and executes librarians. It pits two forms of power against one another–that of the state and that of ideas.
Promise of the Future
Before The Twilight Zone, science and technology were always depicted as the coming saviors of humanity, as the bringers of health, happiness and longevity, as the deliverers of the answers to the mysteries of the universe and, perhaps most importantly, as continued proof of humanity’s primacy and validation that we are the most powerful, good and central forces in the universe.
The Twilight Zone, by contrast, confronted us each episode with our innate human frailties, fears and weakness in the face of temptation. It forced us to take long, hard looks at ourselves and the world around us and either be better or accept the consequences.
Science fiction, horror and the like formerly showed merely how humanity can overcome even the darkest of forces and most impossible of hurdles; The Twilight Zone confronted us with our intrinsic helplessness in the face of the mysteries and inequities of the world.
This leads nicely to the next distinction…
Political and Social Allegory
In The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling experimented with infusing political commentary into his stories. As the National Communication Association (NCA) says, “Through the lens of fantasy and science fiction, The Twilight Zone offered power messages on topics such as war, racism, addiction, extremism, violence, ageism, and consumerism.”
Consider filmmaker Jordan Peele, whose horror-thrillers are more than just means to scare the bejeezus out of you and keep you up at night; they’re social commentary. His film “Get Out” is rather overtly about racism and elitism, while “Us,” he summarized at a talk he delivered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, as being “fundamentally about America’s misplaced fear of outsiders.”
Peele has also said that The Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image,” in which a woman is confronted by her doppelganger directly influenced the film.
The scifi-thriller Ex Machina was more than about a sexy AI robot’s attempt to convince a kind-hearted, romantic and likely naive young man to set her free, only to deign to destroy the very species that built her. It was about what makes us human.
At the end of every episode of The Twilight Zone, Serling’s foreboding voice comes back in to put the story we just witnessed into a vast, universal and human context, then links it all back to the world of the series. As though to remind us, The Twilight Zone is the universe.
With that in mind: thanks, Rod; we’ve got it from here.
You’ve entered the world of television (and film) redefined completely and irrevocably by one series. A world in which all genres and forms–even those beyond horror, science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy–are forever transformed.
Where shows like All in the Family crossed the line from superficial comedy into political; where shows like Northern Exposure crossed the line from high-concept dramedy to humanist commentary.
Face it, you’re no longer just entering The Twilight Zone–you’re already living in it.
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
Stuart Conover is a father, husband, published author, blogger, geek, entrepreneur, horror fanatic, and runs a few websites including Horror Tree!