Original Air Date: October 2, 1959
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Stevens
“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.” - Rod Serling
This brilliant Cold War-influenced, pre-space travel debut of The Twilight Zone aired October 2, 1959 on CBS. It was written by television’s great man of letters Rod Serling, and directed by the notable Hitchcockian, Robert Stevens. We have Bernard Herrmann to thank for the eerie, atmospheric music in this first season. “Where Is Everybody?” is the first of six episodes he composed for the series (episodes featuring Herrmann’s music are often ranked among the best in the whole series). Today, television is generally considered somewhat inferior to the more serious and enduring business of feature-filmmaking, however Rod Serling’s incredible Twilight Zone program challenges this perspective sixty years after its initial release. The Twilight Zone offers a cerebral show which mines the depths of the modern condition through a lens of infinite possibilities. It is science fiction presented at its finest. Each episode is a little masterpiece -the stories are often simple but the ideas are immensely complex. In truth, there is no such thing as a bad episode of The Twilight Zone, only some that are perhaps superior to others.
The first episode of The Twilight Zone opens with its signature lines (shown above) amidst murky shots of a lagoon. Suddenly, we see a man stumbling down a dirt road wearing U.S. Air Force coveralls. He approaches a nearby cafe.
“The place is here. The time is now. And the journey into the shadows that we are about to watch, could be our journey.“
The man is an amnesiac played by American television actor, Earl Holliman. He enters the cafe and calls out for a meal only to find no one there. A jukebox is playing loudly in the background. Coffee is brewing on the stove. Where all the people? Have the Soviets dropped the bomb? If so, why are all the buildings still standing? Is this merely a cruel joke? Is this all a dream? The man barges into the kitchen demanding food, but again he finds no one. He decides to pour himself a cup of coffee but he accidentally breaks a cooking clock in the kitchen at the same moment that the jukebox stops playing. Is someone there?
He wanders to a nearby city square –the square is a symbol of safety and security (the city square in the episode was filmed at Universal’s famed “Courthouse Square” where To Kill A Mockingbird was also filmed among other classic movies). A church bell rings out over the square. The man finds a woman in a car. Relieved, he starts talking to her, but when he approaches the car he is horrified to find she is merely a mannequin. We quickly learn that he is suffering from amnesia. Is this whole town playing an elaborate joke on this poor veteran? He looks around. He is sweaty and begins to feel the eerie sense of being watched. He begins to grow paranoid.
Suddenly, the phone rings in a nearby telephone booth. He dashes across the street but the line is silent. He hangs up and tries to call the operator but only gets a recorded message. There are no people anywhere, and despite being in a small town –one of the safest places– the man realizes his own vulnerability. There are no people anywhere. No man is unto himself an island –except for this man.
He frantically enters the police station. He uses the radio to broadcast a message “calling all cars… calling all cars…” but there is no response. He spots a fresh cigar smoldering in an ash tray, and in a prison cell a man has very recently been shaving. He starts to feel as if he’s in a dream. He wanders to a nearby “soda shop” where he scoops himself some ice cream and talks to himself in the mirror -“I’m sorry old buddy but I don’t recollect your name.” He compares his situation to Scrooge’s assessment of Jacob Marley in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol –his current circumstance is perhaps nothing more than an old scrap of dinner, a phantasm of his imagination. He thumbs through stacks of pulp fiction novels on display –one is titled The Last Man on Earth, dated Feb. 1959.
“I wish I could shake that feeling…That crazy feeling of being watched… listened to…”
Anxious, he runs out of the empty shop. Night falls and lights flash at the local movie theater. A 1957 war film, Battle Hymn, is playing at the cinema. Suddenly he recalls his employment: he is in the Air Force! It is not books, but movies that help him to realize his true identity. He runs up to the projection room –once again it is empty. In a panic, he runs down the stairs and crashes straight into a floor-length mirror. The broken mirror ends his fantasy. The illusion of his dream, or at least his isolated existence in this small town has been destroyed.
Next, we see him bloodied, stumbling out into the street. His madness and paranoia is untamed amidst oddly angled shots reminiscent of German Expressionist cinematography. On his last straw he comes upon a cross-walk. He emphatically pushes the pedestrian button over and over begging for help.
We (the audience) are now pulled out of this horrific fantasy. We discover that the man is named Sergeant Mike Ferris. He has, in fact, been sitting alone in an isolated booth under close observation by his military superiors. Sgt. Ferris was pushing a panic button inside his booth while undergoing a test of his mental and physical fitness to become an astronaut. He has been prepping for a solo voyage to the moon. His isolation has lasted 484 hours and 36 minutes while strapped to wires alone and enclosed within a booth. We see a broken clock on the wall, much like the clock he dropped in his fantasy. In the absence of civilization, his mind has fabricated a dreamland, but it could not fully recreate the illusion of companionship. Sergeant Ferris is carried away on a stretcher while the moon appears high in the night sky. The episode ends as he ominously comments with a delirious smile: “Hey don’t go away up there, next time it won’t be a dream or a nightmare, next time it’ll be for real, so don’t go away….we’ll be up there in a little while…”
“The barrier of loneliness: The palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man. Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting… in The Twilight Zone.“
This episode forces us to confront the troubling reality of modern science –a project which often sacrifices the experience of actually being human in favor of endless processes or methodologies. For example, how does a human being survive in total isolation for hundreds of hours? Should we even consider isolating a human being for such a long period of time? Gone are the days of Aristotelian observation of the natural world. In the modern age, one man’s psychology is ancillary to the all-conquering goal of discovering our own limits. Like Cyrus or Alexander or Napoleon, modern man still desires to conquer new horizons –the great march of science pushes us outward, ever higher into the heavens. At the time of this episode’s airing humans had not yet landed on the moon, but the prospects were growing ever closer -what would we discover out in the vastness of space? Today we see this obsession further materialized in the desire to launch a manned voyage to Mars. But in this new age, according to Nietzsche, mankind is like a rope stretched over an abyss, pulled between his baser instincts (i.e. the need for companionship) and yet he is also driven forward, upward, outward to explore new worlds -to bridge the gap between Earth and the Moon, or Earth and Mars. But Nietzsche also warns us: if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you. There are natural limits to the human condition. Similarly Sgt. Ferris reaches the edge of the void in “Where Is Everybody?”
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Rod Serling’s original pilot script for The Twilight Zone was called “The Happy Place.” It was a story about a society in which older people are executed upon reaching the age of 60, because they lack utility. CBS executive William Self rejected the story feeling it was too dark and would scare away advertisers. Serling eventually relented and instead he wrote “Where is Everybody?” which was a more acceptable substitute for CBS, however, as would sometimes be the case, “the”Where Is Everybody?” was met with accusations of plagiarism (including by legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury).
- Rod Serling’s original ending for the episode had Mike Ferris find a movie ticket stub in his pocket from the movie theater he experienced in his hallucination, leaving the audience to question the distinction between truth and fiction. In fact, actor Earl Holliman suggested his own alternative ending: he wanted the episode conclude with him holding a page out of a phone book that he ripped during his hallucination.
- Unlike other episodes, which were filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, “Where is Everybody?” was filmed at Universal Studios, using Courthouse Square as the episode’s Oakwood town. Courthouse Square was featured in a number of shows and movies throughout the years including To Kill A Mockingbird and Back To The Future.
- “Where is Everybody?” is the only episode not filmed at MGM aside from Season 5’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which used outside source material.
- Rod Serling was not originally intended to be the narrator for the episode (or the series for that matter). Instead, announcer Westbrook Van Voorhis was slated for the job (narrater for March of Time). When it became known that Van Hooris would be unavailable for future episodes (and Orson Welles was found to be too expensive), Mr. Serling opted to record the narration himself and would continue to do so for the sake of consistency. Rod Serling later recorded second act narration off-screen that never made it into the final product: “The barrier of loneliness. The palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man.”
- Rod Serling revealed that he developed the idea: “This particular show I got from a Time magazine article that they were putting guys in isolation booths in preparation for extra-terrestrial travel.”
- Robert Stevens was also the notable director of certain Hitchcock episodes and he later directed what some consider the greatest Twilight Zone episode: “Walking Distance” (the fifth episode of Season 1).
- Lead actor Earl Holliman had the flu during filming of this episode (he had a fever of over 100 degrees). Rod Serling later shared this fact while delivering a lecture at Sherwood Oaks College.
- Earl Holliman had previously appeared in a Playhouse 90 episode entitled “Dark Side of the Earth.”
- Tony Curtis was offered the lead role for this episode but he asked for too much money so his involvement was scrapped.
- Although Buck Houghton is often listed as the producer, in actuality the producer at the time of this pilot episode was William Self.
- The fiction on the shelves at the drugstore includes The Last Man on Earth, a book by frequent Twilight Zone writer and legendary science fiction author Richard Matheson (famous for his novel I Am Legend).