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20 Years of the Twilight Zone New Year's Marathon and 20 things you didn't know about the show

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Dec 31, 2014, 6:41 PM EST

Submitted for your approval: New Year’s Eve, 2014. The revelries have begun; sparkling party hats, and glasses awkwardly framed around the numbers 2, 0, 1, 5 are already being donned across the world. For some, champagne corks and fireworks will be the soundtrack of the night. For others, the entrance of the new year will be accompanied by a familiar arrangement of guitars and bongo drums that evoke mystery, fear, love -- and maybe even madness …

Tune in to the Syfy channel (disclosure: Blastr is owned by Syfy) any time today through 6 a.m. on Jan. 2 and you will find yourself traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, for the 20th year in a row, is Syfy’s Twilight Zone New Year's Marathon.

Although the original 1959 series concluded its five-season run 50 years ago, The Twilight Zone has remained a landmark destination since Syfy began its annual marathon on Dec. 31, 1995. Since then, while there are several holiday marathons out there (The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, Futurama), none match the iconic status of Zone for those who prefer seeing creator/host/television genius Rod Serling in their living rooms to Ryan Seacrest. 

Beyond the theme song, what leaps to mind when someone mentions the Zone is Serling, wearing a black suit with a cigarette in hand, introducing the tale about to unfold in a sober, yet inviting, fashion. And the stories themselves were, and remain, some of the best that sci-fi and horror could offer. Twilight Zone elevated the genre to a respectable art form with intellectual plots with a frequently creepy atmosphere. Written by Serling, or exceptional writers such as Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Jerry Sohl, and -- once -- Ray Bradbury, the episodes contained political messages and moral lessons while also scaring you.

And even though they, at times, look a little frayed, production-wise, the stories hold up and are amazing to binge on. In fact, even Breaking Bad honcho Vince Gilligan gets into the marathon. In an interview with the Kansas City Star last May, Gilligan -- a zoney instrumental to The X-Files success – called the marathon a “bit of a holiday tradition.” 

“I wind up consuming one right after the other, like potato chips, for hours on end,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to matter that I already own every episode, uncut and commercial-free, on pristine Blu-ray and can watch them anytime I like.”

If you also plan on consuming episodes like chips this holiday, as I do, then you need a little additional seasoning for the 20th anniversary of the Syfy Twilight Zone marathon -- and Doug Brode, Ph.D., is just the man to add the spice.

A journalist, academic, screenwriter, novelist and historian, Brode knows Twilight Zone and Rod Serling better than just about anyone. While a young professor at a community college in upstate New York, Brode approached Rod in 1971 for an interview, which led to the two men remaining close friends until the latter’s death in ’75. Brode remains friends with the family, and he and Serling’s widow, Carol, collaborated on Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone: The Official 50th Anniversary Tribute in 2009.

Brode -- who currently teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio and has a two-volume anthology on Star Trek arriving in 2015 -- joined me to provide insight on The Twilight Zone and the mastermind behind it. To celebrate Syfy's 20 years of the holiday spent in the fifth dimension, check out these 20 things you didn't know about the Zone.

20. Serling hated Hollywood

While Rod Serling did spend a lot of time out west and was one of the best writers working in the business, the Syracuse, N.Y., native hated it out there. “He refused to live there because he thought it was so phony,” said Brode. Rod and Carol did actually live out there for a short time before Zone took off, and in the early days of the show, but got out fast to avoid becoming an L.A. “pod person.” Until his death, his best friends remained those from his Army days, and he and Carol socialized near their home in Interlaken, N.Y.

19. He was a “suburban beatnik”

Rod always wore a suit, and he enjoyed living in a nice home with his wife, kids and dog, “but inside he was Kerouac,” said Brode. “He didn’t live in Greenwich Village or do drugs or drink, but there was an inner, angry young man trying to write serious stuff.” 

18. Serling’s favorite episodes aren’t the most popular

While scary Twilight Zone episodes such as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “To Serve Man” and “Eye of the Beholder” are among the most iconic, Serling preferred smaller stories such as “A Stop at Willoughby” and “Walking Distance.” Instead of being the most spectacular, these intimate stories -- about successful middle-aged men in suits who feel they’ve sold out and go back in time -- were Serling’s most personal. These also connected to the writer’s upbringing. “He was such a political liberal -- against racism or the war in Vietnam,” said Brode. “But there was a closet conservatism to Rod with a nostalgia for the past.”

17. That anti-Serling episode

Written by Reginald Rose, the season-four episode "The Incredible World of Horace Ford" features Pat Hingle as a toy designer who longs to return to his blissful childhood. When he gets his wish, he realizes that things weren’t so great, after all, and he was a target for bullies. The notion conflicted with Serling’s nostalgia for how things once were. Ironically, even Serling’s idealized past in Ithaca was in reality marred by anti-Semitism when he we was devastated to be rejected by a fraternity he wanted to join.

16. The Star Trek connection

William Shatner starred in two beloved Zone episodes -- “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” –- but other Enterprise crew members also traveled to the fifth dimension. Leonard Nimoy appeared in the season three’s “A Quality of Mercy,” and George Takei took center stage in the racially charged season five episode “The Encounter.” Additionally, Gene Roddenberry read the eulogy at Serling’s funeral when his friend died at age 50.

15. Serling wanted to be Arthur Miller

“Rod didn’t want to be remembered as a writer of science fiction,” said Brode. He referred to his work as “imaginative fantasy” and didn’t like the sci-fi characterization. Brode added that Serling wanted to write something of importance, such as Miller’s realistic plays or Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Brode said Serling, while “incredibly appreciative” of his success, felt bound by his genre work. 

14. He thought Zone would be forgotten

Rod Serling died completely unaware of the show’s legacy, said Brode. He died in 1975 -- following a heart attack and open-heart surgery -- believing he'd be “entirely forgotten.” Brode added Serling was surprised the show continued to air for 10 years following its cancellation and that it’d only run for a couple more years in re-runs. “He thought his work was minor and would be forgotten because it wasn’t realistic.”

13. Planet of the Apes is a two-hour Zone episode

Although debate continues how much of the final 1968 film he wrote, the Statue of Liberty ending was all Rod Serling. There were other writers on the film, but other scenes in the film are signature Serling (such as the See No Evil/Hear No Evil/Speak No Evil orangutans). He also enjoyed the movie, though Brode said it wasn’t what he envisioned and wanted the ape world to be more futuristic. “In his script, everything was Tomorrowland, not this primitive thing,” but budgets were cut after the expensive disaster of 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra

12. The mediocre Zone

Serling said the reputation of Twilight Zone rested on 25 episodes. Of the 156 episodes, he said most were mediocre, with 10 really bad ones but about 25 great installments. Serling himself was responsible for writing 94 episodes. Also, to save money, CBS shot six episodes on videotape instead of film. Brode said Serling thought those were the least successful from the show’s run and lacked the spontaneity of film. 

11. JFK’s assassination hurt the show

The fifth season of Twilight Zone contained multiple stories that seemed recycled, and Brode said Serling had lost some of his enthusiasm for life by that point. “There is an optimism to early Twilight Zone, and I think to a large degree that optimism got kicked out on Nov. 22, 1963.” He added, “It took the bottom out of a lot of people of that generation, and Rod was one of them ... he was a different person and writer after that.”

10. Serling loved Mickey Rooney

“You mention Mickey Rooney and Rod’s eyes would light up,” said Brode. “He’d almost forget where he was.” Serling admired Rooney’s performances so much that he wrote the one-man season five episode “The Last Night of a Jockey” specifically for the actor, who died last April. Brode added that Serling overall admired actors -- who had one take to get it right on the show -- and would listen to suggestions they had.

9. The Ray Bradbury feud 

Rod Serling was a big fan of Ray Bradbury’s work, and the author’s story “I Sing The Body Electric” was the 100th episode of the series. However, Brode claimed that Bradbury was “extremely bitter” and thought he should be the one hosting a show, not Serling. The author also claimed Serling was not a “real” science fiction writer (though Serling didn’t intend to be; see #15 on this list). “This got back to Rod and he felt betrayed and hurt, and there was no more Ray Bradbury on the show,” said Brode. But Serling’s official reason for not having additional Bradbury episodes? As brilliant as his stories were, Serling said Zone was having trouble making them work for TV and that they didn’t film particularly well. “Which is absolute bullsh-t,” said Brode. “He was being a gentleman.”

8. Serling was the first showrunner

Serling was unique at the time for creating, producing and writing for his own show. Like Vince Gilligan above, Serling was a showrunner before the term was even invented. As such, he also wanted to give more exposure to writers during the golden age of television. Richard Matheson was already established when he first worked on the show, but Zone certainly furthered his career. And Earl Hamner Jr., who went on to create The Waltons, got his big Hollywood break on the show with the episode “The Hunt” (featuring very Walton-esque characters). But instead of mentoring unpublished writers, he viewed the ones he hired as underappreciated equals.

7. Prof. Serling

During the fourth season of the show, Serling needed a break from the show and taught at Antioch College in Ohio (where he was an alum) as a writer in residence. He also went on to teach at Ithaca College in the late 1960s until his death. Brode said Carol Serling revealed Rod was unappreciated at Antioch because students viewed his TV writing as inferior. 

6. Serling was a paratrooper, boxer and parachute/ejection seat tester

Before he worked in show business, Serling was an Army paratrooper during World War II in the Pacific Theater -- and was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his service. During his time in the army, he enjoyed some success as a flyweight boxer. To pay for college after being discharged, Serling also tested parachutes and a jet ejection seat. His writing was influenced heavily by his time in the Army; the teleplay “Requiem for a Heavyweight” was initially titled “Requiem for a Lightweight” and based on his own experiences.

5. The Forbidden Zone

The Twilight Zone was filmed in the same MGM studios in Culver City as 1956’s Forbidden Planet, which ended has having a major impact on the show. The props from the movie were re-used on Zone, including the C-57D saucer (seen in “To Serve Man,” "Third From the Sun," "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," "Hocus-Pocus and Frisby," "The Invaders" and "Death Ship"). Marc Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion, said every prop from the film was eventually re-used on the show and that Serling even drew inspiration for stories by visiting the prop room.

4. The Simpsons are big zoneys

Out of all the pop-culture references to Twilight Zone, The Simpsons may be the series that has shown the most love to it. It has paid homage to the show no less than 10 times in its annual "Treehouse of Horror" specials. The very first "Treehouse" episode introduced the Rigel VII aliens Kang and Kodos in the “To Serve Man”-inspired story, “Hungry Are the Damned.”

3. Twilight Zone: The Ride

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida -- which opened 19 years after Serling's death -- is supposed to be based on a “lost” episode hosted by Serling. In reality, part of his intro from the episode “It’s a Good Life” is modified with an original script and read by voice actor Mark Silverman. The ride also takes passengers through the season-four opening sequence of the show.

2. Child of the Zone

Actor Bill “Billy” Mumy appeared in three episodes of the original series before becoming known as Will Robinson on Lost In Space. In “Long Distance Call,” Mumy plays a boy communicating with his dead grandmother via a toy telephone. The episode is notable for being one of only 16 ghost stories on Zone. Instead of teaching a life lesson, this ghost has a darker agenda: She wants little Billy to die so he can be with her for eternity. Mumy also played psychic tyke Anthony in the episode “It’s A Good Life” -- a role he reprised in the second revival of the show when he portrayed the father to his real-life daughter, Liliana. 

1. Living in Twilight

Though he didn’t think he’d be taken seriously, Serling’s creation has been adapted to theater, radio plays, comic books, novelizations, games, theme park rides and a movie. The show has had two revivals, and Leonardo DiCaprio continues to pursue a film adaptation of the show (which will not be associated with the 1983 movie). Serling himself has appeared on a United States Postal Service stamp, and his high school alma mater in Binghamton holds an annual video festival dedicated to him. TV Guide ranked Serling as number one of greatest sci-fi legends in 2004; he was the only real-life person on the list otherwise comprised of fictional characters.

Are you tuning in to the Twilight Zone marathon? Which episodes are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!