In some ways The Twilight Zone seemed like an odd choice for Rod Serling in 1959. He had already flexed his muscles writing celebrated scripts on television shows like Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90, and by this point in time he had already received an impressive collection of Primetime Emmy and Peabody Awards. So why pursue a fantasy/science fiction variety show? At the time science fiction was not exactly considered Shakespearean, and many questioned whether or not the medium of television could lend itself toward serious literary innovation.
Serling, a native son of Binghamton New York, was a World War II veteran and man of letters thanks to his English Literature degree from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He began to hone his craft working in radio in Cincinnati, before ultimately deciding that radio was an artistic medium in decline, and so he started writings scripts and developing ideas for television shows. His first big success came with Kraft Television Theatre through a script Serling wrote called “Patterns” (it won a Primetime Emmy). It was about an aging boss and his struggle to handle a rising young executive intending to be his replacement. Serling’s next big success came with “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” a story about a boxer produced for Playhouse 90 in 1956 (which also won a Primetime Emmy).
As the industry moved westward so went the Serling family. Rod Serling relocated to California in 1957 and he quickly developed a reputation as the “angry young man of Hollywood” partly for his courageous opposition to censors, sponsors, and studio executives who wished to revise or silence his social commentary on issues ranging from the Vietnam War to racial prejudice. Most notably he wrote a script called “Noon On Doomsday” about a Southern lynching which was intended to be a commentary on the murder of Emmett Till. Needless to say, the script was heavily redacted by censors and sponsors. Growing tired of all the revisions and yearning for more creative freedom, Serling submitted a script entitled “The Time Element” to CBS. His intent was to launch a whole new television variety program, but instead CBS used the script in 1958 for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, a show produced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. However the episode received so much critical acclaim that CBS ultimately relented and granted Rod Serling the opportunity to create his own show. Thus The Twilight Zone was born.
In pre-production, Serling took careful efforts to maintain creative control over the show. He created his own production company called Cayuga Productions (named after his family’s cabin growing up on Cayuga Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region). Serling also consulted with a group of extraordinary creative talent. First, he discussed the show with legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury who was then at the height of his career. Mr. Bradbury helped considerably in the development of the first season of The Twilight Zone, and perhaps most importantly he opened the door for Serling to secure two of the greatest science fiction authors of the 20th century: Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. They were soon followed by a collection of other brilliant writers including George Clayton Johnson, Montgomery Pittman, Earl Hamner, Jr., Jerry Sohl, John Tomerlin. Sadly as time passed Serling and Bradbury had a falling out, but one of Bradbury’s scripts was eventually accepted into the show later in the third season. With the exception of “The Chaser” (written by Robert Presnell Jr.) the first season featured scripts exclusively written by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, or Richard Matheson. In addition to talented writers, Serling managed to secure one of the greatest musical composers of the 20th century Bernard Herrmann, whose long list of amazing credentials need not be echoed here, but his atmospheric score for the first season perfectly captures the tone of The Twilight Zone (this theme song was later replaced by Marius Constant’s theme which is the more recognizable song from the second season onward).
For the pilot episode “Where Is Everybody?” Serling worked with CBS producer William Self, but all future episodes from seasons 1-3 were produced by Buck Houghton.
Today, the first season of The Twilight Zone represents the pinnacle of golden age television. Season 1 contains some of the greatest episodes in the whole series, including “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” “Walking Distance,” “The Lonely,” “Time Enough At Last,” “The Hitch-Hiker,” “Mirror Image,” “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” “A Stop At Willoughby,” “The After Hours,” and “A World Of His Own” among many others. Thus far, I have resisted efforts to rank or group my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. Each one is like a little masterpiece to me, and ranking episodes is simply too difficult a task for me.