On a Friday night in October 1959, Americans began slipping into a dimension of imagination as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. They've really never returned.
“The Twilight Zone,” first submitted for the public's approval by a reluctant CBS, has resonated with viewers from generation to generation with memorable stories carrying universal messages about society's ills and the human condition.
Like the time-space warps that anchored so many of the show's plots, Rod Serling's veiled commentary remains as soul-baring today as it did a half-century ago, and the show's popularity endures in multiple facets of American pop culture.
“I'm interested in the escapist ideas, the psychological nature of the stories,” said Lauren Chizinski of Houston, a first-year graduate student in sculpting at Syracuse University who is among two dozen students taking a class on show and its 50th anniversary.
“The Twilight Zone” has been exulted in mediums such as pinball and video games and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Disney theme parks.
The original show — which ran just five seasons, 1959-1964 — led to a feature film by Steven Spielberg and John Landis in 1983, and is reportedly soon to appear again on the silver screen from Leonardo DiCaprio's production company.
It's also resulted in short-lived television series in the 1980s and in 2002, and has been the subject of scores of books, Web sites, blogs, comic books and magazines and a radio series. It's even inspired music from the Grateful Dead, Rush, Golden Earring and Michael Jackson.
“Even people who have never seen 'The Twilight Zone' know about it,” said Doug Brode, who is teaching the Serling class at Syracuse and teamed with Serling's widow to write “Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone: The 50th Anniversary Tribute.”
With quality writing, acting and production, “The Twilight Zone” pioneered a genre, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
“The whole idea of 'The Twilight Zone' jumped off the television screen and became a catchphrase, a buzzword for something much beyond the TV show itself,” Thompson added. “When you say Twilight Zone, it's its own genre. The X-Files was working in 'The Twilight Zone' genre.”
Its signature theme song even became part of popular language, allowing people to describe unusual or inexplicable moments with a simple “doo-doo doo-doo,” Thompson said.
CBS has no plans to observe the show's 50th anniversary, said spokesman Chris Ender. The show has enjoyed nearly uninterrupted popularity through television, syndication and DVD releases and is under license to air in 30 countries, he said.
The Syfy Channel regularly broadcasts The Twilight Zone and plans a 15-show marathon Oct. 2.
Anniversary observances are planned in Binghamton, N.Y., where Serling grew up and went to high school; at Ithaca College in New York, where Serling taught from 1967 until his death in 1975, and which keeps Serling's archives; and at Antioch College in Ohio, where Serling was a student — met his wife, Carol — and later taught before moving to Cincinnati and taking a writing job at WLW radio.
“I don't think he would have thought in a million years that Twilight Zone would be having an important 50th birthday or that it would still be on,” said Carol Serling, who will attend the celebrations in Ithaca and Binghamton.
“Through parable and suggestion, he could make points that he couldn't make on straight television because there were too many sacred cows and sponsors and people who said you couldn't do that,” she said, referring to the networks' reluctance to deal with contemporary issues in its prime-time programming.
There were 156 episodes filmed for the original series; Serling wrote 92 of them and other contributors included Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, two of the deans of science fiction writing.
In a time on television when suburbia was idealized in popular shows such as “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Make Room for Daddy,” Serling offered a mixture of fantasy, science fiction, suspense, horror — and the show's trademark macabre or unexpected twist.
Serling had already earned acclaim for his television writing (“Requiem for a Heavyweight,” ''Patterns,”) but found himself fighting CBS to get “The Twilight Zone” on the air. Serling would have repeated conflicts with network censors throughout his career.
In 1958, CBS bought Serling's teleplay, “The Time Element,” which he hoped would be the pilot to his weekly series. The story was about a bartender who keeps waking up in Pearl Harbor knowing the Japanese will be attacking the next day but unable to convince anyone he's telling the truth.
But CBS shelved the series after buying it because the studio didn't think there was much commercial value in science fiction. Bert Granet, producer of the weekly CBS anthology series “Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse,” stumbled on the script and wanted it. He bought it for $10,000.
The story aired on Nov. 24, 1958, and became the Westinghouse series' biggest hit, garnering more audience reaction than any previous episodes. CBS finally decided to take a chance on Serling's series.