Classic Sci Fi TV: Our ongoing look back at many of the classics of science fiction and fantasy television.
What Is It? Hosted by series creator Rod Serling, this classic anthology offered stories with sci fi, fantasy, and horror elements that often acted as cautionary tales commenting on the foibles of human nature. All of this is introduced by the infamous opening lines from the show:
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
Aired: 1959-64, CBS, 5 Seasons Totaling 156 Episodes
Notable Guest Stars: William Shatner, Burt Reynolds, Jack Klugman, Leonard Nimoy, Bill Mumy, Bill Bixby, Carol Burnett
Created By: Rod Serling
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi TV? Yes. This show represented sci fi growing up on television and it delivered some moments that count as all-time classics for TV history. It also set the bar for anthology shows and sci fi TV in general for many years after it aired.
The Skinny: At the time that The Twilight Zone debuted in 1959, sci fi TV was generally considered for kids only, but Rod Serling saw in the genre an opportunity to tell more adult stories disguised by elements of the fantastic. He had grown frustrated with the networks clamping down on the social commentary he injected in the dramas he had written up to that point and this series presented a way to get around the network censors. Much like what Gene Roddenberry would do with Star Trek later in the 60’s, Rod Serling presented The Twilight Zone as a sci fi / fantasy show while using it to address contemporary issues that the networks were skittish about. They tended to clamp down on those stories when presented in a contemporary setting, but allowed them to get by in a sci fi / fantasy tale. And the series had more than its fair share of classic tales with standouts like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “The Good Life”, “The Invaders”, “The Hitch-Hiker”, “The Shelter” and many, many more. Of course, as with any anthology, it has it share of clunkers and so-so episodes as well. But even some of the low key stories can be quite poignant and leave a lasting impression.
Some may say that the original Twilight Zone has not aged that well because the stories lack sophistication and are often stilted with a staged feel about them. But I actually believe its simple and straight-forward delivery gives the show more of a timeless feel. TZ aired at the end of the live television era when episodes were much more like a theatrical production, meaning they could not rely too much on visual enhancement. The story and actors had to carry the show, and so often they did with The Twilight Zone. Whether it delivered creepy tales, sci fi standouts, or hard-hitting social commentary, this show relied on its stories and its cast of name-worthy actors to make it into the classic it is. And while it has had its challengers over the years (most recently the excellent Black Mirror), it still stands as one of the all-time best anthology series as well as a major turning point for the sci fi genre on television.
Cancelled Too Soon? No, after five seasons, this show delivered more than its fair share of classic episodes and definitely made its mark on television. CBS decided not to bring it back for a sixth season, and Rod Serling toyed with the idea of doing a new anthology on another network. Nothing came of that (though he did eventually deliver Night Gallery to NBC in 1970), and the show was laid to rest until the 80’s revival.
Revival: This series has been through multiple revivals to which its format lends itself quite well. There was a big screen adaptation in 1983 followed two years later by a new series that lasted for three seasons. In 2002, The WB did another revival that lasted only one season. None of these quite matched up to the original, though J. Michael Staczynski served as writer and story editor for the third season of the first revival and produced some notable episodes, plus there were a few other standouts from across the four revival years. CBS has just announced that a new revival is in the works and it will run on that network’s streaming service CBS All Access. That will, for the first time, give the show freedom from the network censors and could rejuvenate the franchise for the 21st century.
Should It Be Rebooted? Oh yes. Like the Outer Limits, this is a timeless show that should return to television from time to time. Its anthology format gives its plenty of freedom and the ever-changing social and political climate gives it plenty of fuel. Even redoing classic episodes is not a bad idea because you can put a modern spin on them just as the the 2002 revival did quite well with “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” by switching it to a post-911 environment.
Interesting Fact: In 1958, Rod Serling wrote the very Twilight Zone-ish script “The Time Element” which he intended as the pilot for a weekly anthology series. CBS bought the script but did nothing with it, nor were they interested in an ongoing series. But the producer of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse discovered the script and decided to use it for his show. The critics and audience responded very positively (supposedly the network received over 6,000 letters praising the episode) and CBS wisely decided that an anthology series from Serling was a good idea after all.
Where Can You Watch It? The original series is widely available and streams on the Big 3 services (Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu). Syfy also does its holiday marathons of the show on a regular basis. The revivals are not as easy to find, though Syfy tends to include the episodes in its marathons, and all of the incarnations of the series are available on DVD.
Available from Amazon.com: