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 inaugural episode of The Twilight Zone aired October 2, 1959 on CBS. It was written by the great man of letters, Rod Serling, and the episode was directed by the notable Hitchcockian, Robert Stevens. The music for this first season was also created by frequent Hitchcock collaborator: Bernard Herrmann. This was the first of six episodes he composed the score for, along with the famous theme music. Today, television is generally considered somewhat inferior to the more serious and enduring business of feature-filmmaking, however Rod Serling’s incredible Twilight Zone series challenges this perspective by offering a cerebral show that explores the modern condition through a lens of infinite possibilities. Each episode is a little masterpiece -the stories are often simple but the ideas are immensely complex.
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 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.“Rod Serling
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. Coffee is brewing on the stove. Why are there no people anywhere? Have the Soviets dropped the bomb? If so, why are buildings still standing? Is this merely a cruel joke? The man barges into the kitchen demanding food, but again he finds no one. He decides to pour himself coffee and he accidentally breaks a cooking clock. At the same moment the jukebox stops playing. Is someone there?
He walks to a nearby city square -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 filmed, among other movies). A church bell rings out. The man finds a woman in a car. He starts talking to her, but when he gets a little closer 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 town. He is sweaty and he begins to feel the eerie sense that he is being watched. He grows paranoid.
Suddenly, the phone rings in a nearby telephone booth. He dashes to the phone but the line is silent. He hangs up and tries to call the operator but he only gets a recorded message. There are no people anywhere, and despite being in a small town -one of the safest communities- the man realizes his own vulnerability. There are no other people anywhere. No man is unto himself an island, and there is greater safety when other people are around.
The man frantically enters the police station. He uses the radio to send out 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 as 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 vision is 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 a light flashes 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 techniques. On his last straw he comes upon a cross-walk. He emphatically pushes a pedestrian-crossing button over and over begging for help.
We (the audience) are now pulled out of this horrific fantasy. We discover that the man is 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 is prepping for a solo voyage to the moon. He 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 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.“Rod Serling
This episode forces us to confront the troubling reality of modern science -a project which often sacrifices the experience of the human mind in favor of processes or methodology. How does a human being survive in total isolation for hundreds of hours? Should we even consider isolating a human being for that long? Gone are the days of Aristotelian philosophic 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 find out in the vastness of space? Today we see this obsession 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 driven forward, upward, outward to explore new horizons -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 for The Twilight Zone was “The Happy Place”, which focused on a society in which executed older people upon reaching the age of 60 because they were no longer useful. CBS executive William Self rejected the story, feeling it was too dark and would scare away advertisers. Serling eventually relented and wrote “Where is Everybody?” as a more acceptable substitute.
- Rod Serling’s original ending for the episode had Mike Ferris find a movie ticket stub in his pocket from the theatre in his hallucination leaving the audience to question his reality. In fact, actor Earl Holliman also suggested an alternative ending: he suggested the episode conclude with him holding a page out of a phone book 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.
- 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. When it became known that Van Hooris would be unavailable for future episodes (and Orson Welles was too expensive), Mr. Serling opted to record the narration himself and would continue to do so for the sake of consistency. Van Hooris “Westbrook Van Hoorhis, the voice of The March of Time, narrated the pilot, but it was decided that he was a little too pompous-sounding.
- Rod Serling revealed how 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.