Introduction to The Twilight Zone: Season 5

After experimenting with the hour-long format in Season 4, by the time Season 5 rolled around The Twilight Zone thankfully returned to its familiar collection of half-hour installments. While this was a celebrated return to form, Season 5 is often regarded as a jumbled mix of high quality episodes coupled with head-scratchingly mediocre episodes, a trend which becomes increasingly apparent as the season’s end nears.

By the time Season 5 was in production, Rod Serling was already fatigued from his extraordinary run as the show’s creative force. In addition, lead writer Charles Beaumont was now incapacitated due to the onset of his debilitating illness (Mr. Beaumont’s single fifth season script “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” adapted from his 1960 short story, was sadly never produced). Mr. Beaumont’s friends and fellow writers Jerry Sohl and John Tomerlin stepped in co-write several scripts in his stead. Other tensions emerged behind the scenes like George Clayton Johnson’s bitter spat with producer William Froug over full-scale re-writes to his fifth season script “Tick of Time” (renamed as “Ninety Years Without Slumbering”). This caused George Clayton Johnson to entirely walk away from The Twilight Zone.

On the plus side, Richard Matheson’s scripts saw much success and newcomer Henry Slesar also contributed several memorable scripts. The big shift came when producer Bert Granet abruptly departed the show after producing the first thirteen episodes of Season 5. He was replaced by William Froug, now known as the producer of shows like Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched. Mr. Froug unfortunately discarded scripts by Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Jerry Sohl and others which were already in pre-production, and instead he brought in new writers whose output was demonstrably subpar in contrast to the show’s prior greatness.

Despite background exasperations and frustrations, the fifth season of The Twilight Zone contains some absolutely wonderful episodes like “In Praise of Pip,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Living Doll,” “The Old Man in the Cave,” “The Long Morrow,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” “Black Leather Jackets,” “Night Call,” “From Agnes – With Love,” “Spur of the Moment,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Queen of the Nile,” “The Masks,” “Jeopardy Room,” and “The Encounter.”

Strangely, I picked up on a recurring theme of domestic/familial disharmony in this season which is not as prominent in earlier Twilight Zone seasons. Episodes like “In Praise of Pip,” “Living Doll,” “The Masks,” “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” and “The Bewitchin’ Pool” showcase neglectful or downright abusive parental/spousal/children characters in various ways. Some of them are drunk, verbally abusive, or exploitative in nature. In addition, episodes like “Uncle Simon,” “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross,” and especially “What’s In The Box” are simply too uncomfortable to watch as they are rife with overtly manipulative or physically abusive families. These latter three episodes represent a low-point for The Twilight Zone in my view.

Nevertheless, along with a litany of problems and certain points of declining quality, the fifth season still represents some extraordinary flashes of brilliance from The Twilight Zone.

By the end of January 1964, CBS President Jim Aubrey decided he was tired of The Twilight Zone. He felt the show was not pulling good ratings and that it was costing too much. In truth it still had solid ratings though in the top ten, and it mainly stayed within budget but “An Occurrence At Owl Creek” eventually pushed the show over its bottom line. Meanwhile Rod Serling was also ready to end the series. Discussions of selling showed took place –first to NBC which passed and then ABC which considered renaming the show “Witches, Warlocks, and Werewolves” as borrowed from a Serling anthology edition. However, Mr. Serling was not enthusiastic. He was not interested in a regular B-movie horror anthology program (at one point he considered “Rod Serling’s Wax Museum”) and so the idea was buried. Cayuga Productions, Rod Serling’s production company, officially closed its doors.

In the years following The Twilight Zone Rod Serling remained a busy man. He sadly sold the rights to The Twilight Zone to CBS who claimed at the time that they would never be able to recoup their losses with the show, but in decades of syndication that has been proven false. Mr. Serling won another Emmy in 1964 for “It’s Mental Work” which was part of Bob Hope Presents The Chrystal Theatre, and in 1965 he launched a unique character-driven Western called The Loner. While it was lauded by critics, it did not fit the typical Western formula and the show was canceled midway through its first season amidst squabbles between CBS executives and Mr. Serling.

Throughout the 1960s, Rod Serling’s celebrity grew. He hosted the Emmy Awards, as well as “Rod Serling’s Wonderful World Of…” –a show which examined various forms of prejudice and other human failings. He narrated a variety of programs from the Zero Hour radio broadcast to various Jacques Cousteau specials and he served as President for two years of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He continued writing celebrated television scripts as well as the first several drafts of the feature film script for Planet of the Apes. He appeared in many commercials which paid him handsomely but when he wrote the television movie Doomsday Flight (a movie about a skilled pilot who lands a plane amid a serious bomb threat) it was followed by real bomb threats on airplanes –this situation was described as a personal low point for Mr. Serling.

In 1969, NBC aired the pilot episode of Night Gallery, a unique anthology series of the mysterious and the supernatural which was hosted by Rod Serling (incidentally Steven Spielberg made his directorial debut on the program). However, while it was quickly renamed Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, Mr. Serling was often excluded from the production end of things and the studio tended to sacrifice quality for mere shock value. It still won a couple Emmy awards despite Mr. Serling’s constant battles with NBC and Universal about the declining quality of the program. He was contractually obligated to remain host until the show was canceled.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Rod Serling lectured at many colleges. He spoke out vehemently against the War in Vietnam as well as the rising racial tensions throughout the nation. Tragically, a lifelong chainsmoker, he died at the young age of 50 in 1975 due to heart failure.

In the 1980s, Steven Spielberg took up the mantle of The Twilight Zone by creating a multi-part feature film entitled Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) which was not particularly well-received. It was marred by all manner of production problems including an unfortunate helicopter crash that killed two illegally hired child actors. George Clayton Johnson dubbed it “a tragedy, just a bloody tragedy.” Around the same time, numerous directors tried to revive the television show with CBS, including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1985, finally CBS greenlit a new series with writers like Harlan Ellison and George R. R. Martin, and narrated by Charles Aidman. It lasted for three season (1985-1989). In 2002 another reboot was announced by UPN hosted by Forest Whitaker but this was canceled after two seasons. And most recently, CBS rebooted The Twilight Zone series (2019-2020) which was narrated by Jordan Peele, however unfortunately this series was also met with disappointing reviews. Unsurprisingly, no later remake of The Twilight Zone has been able to match the genius of the original program which continues to challenge and inspire new generations of actors, directors, and writers.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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