November 24 in Twilight Zone History: Celebrating the 1958 debut of Rod Serling's 'The Time Element'

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Nov 24, 2017

On this day, November 24, This Day in Twilight Zone History toasts the 1958 premiere of Westingthouse Desilu Playhouse's one-hour drama The Time Element. Among fans and scholars alike, this drama is considered the unofficial pilot for The Twilight Zone.

William Bendix, that wonderful comic actor of The Life of Riley and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, plays it strictly dramatic here, portraying a New York bartender named Peter Jenson who goes to sleep at night and repeatedly dreams he's in Honolulu on December 6, 1941, and can't convince anyone that a Japanese sneak attack is coming tomorrow morning. It's such a traumatizing recurring dream that it sends him to a psychiatrist (Martin Balsam) for help.

Martin Balsam, fresh off playing the foreman in 12 Angry Men, takes on the role of Peter Jenson's (William Bendix) psychiatrist in The Time Element. 

Given that prime-time television drama avoided the concept of science fiction like the plague in the 1950s, Rod Serling was taking a chance on submitting such an outlandish premise. However, he was exonerated when the fan mail started pouring in to CBS – a reaction so positive from the public that Serling was encouraged to pitch the Zone to CBS, which, as history has recorded, bought it and ran with it.

For traumatized bartender/time traveler Peter Jenson, the concept of "fake news" doesn't register in Rod Serling's tense drama The Time Element. 

Although Bendix didn't return to the series itself, Balsam starred in the one-hour episode "The New Exhibit" and co-starred opposite Ida Lupino in "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine." His Time Element co-star Jesse White later appeared as an appliance repairman in the wonderfully comic Buster Keaton episode "Once Upon a Time" and starred as Harmon Cavender, Carol Burnett’s guardian angel, in "Cavender Is Coming."

Here's to The Time Element and the good timing for everyone involved (except Peter Jenson).