One of the most brilliant writers of the 20th century changed the course of television history on an October night in 1959.
Syracuse, New York, native and World War II combat veteran Rod Serling had been working as a freelance scriptwriter in radio and television for years, scoring his big breakthrough in 1955 with "Patterns," broadcast live on Kraft Television Theatre. That led to more work and a string of acclaimed teleplays, such as "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1956), "The Comedian" (1957), and "A Town Has Turned to Dust" (1958).
But Serling, an activist at heart who dealt with many of his social and political concerns in his writing, had been increasingly frustrated with corporate censorship by small screen sponsors that continually forced him to change his scripts. He reckoned that a series in which he could hide commentary on the contemporary world inside science fiction and fantasy tales would get the censors off his back.
CBS gave Serling the green light to move forward with his idea for a half-hour science fiction anthology series, which he dubbed The Twilight Zone, after the success of "The Time Element," a sci-fi script he sold to CBS for The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1958. "The Time Element" was originally conceived as a pilot script for the program.
The show's eventual pilot was written by Serling (who penned 92 of the show's 156 episodes) and directed by Robert Stevens. Titled "Where Is Everybody?", it starred Earl Holliman as a man who finds himself utterly alone in what appears to be an abandoned town. There are signs of recent or even current habitation — a running faucet, a ringing phone — but he can't find any other human beings.
As Holliman's character finally breaks down from loneliness and fear, it's revealed that he's an astronaut in training who's been confined to an isolation chamber for the exact length of a trip to the Moon in order to see if he could withstand the strain of being alone in a small space for that amount of time. The town is all in his mind — a hallucination that serves as an escape for him.
(Watch an on-camera pitch by Serling to the show's sponsors, along with the beginning of "Where Is Everybody?" — note the original narration was not done by Serling, but by announcer Westbrook Van Hoorhis.)
The show established several elements that would become trademarks of the original series over its five-year run: Serling's opening and closing narration (delivered via voiceover in the first season, then on camera after that); a focus on human feelings and emotional or psychological stress; a mystery steeped in the science fictional or fantastical; and finally, a twist ending that usually made a moral or thematic point.
The series premiered on CBS on October 2, 1959, to a strong critical response but less than stellar ratings. In fact, although The Twilight Zone is considered seminal TV now, it struggled in the ratings for its entire run (like another iconic series, Star Trek) and was nearly canceled twice, despite critics and audiences who did watch it remaining unwavering in their support.
Although there had been sci-fi stories and even short-lived sci-fi anthologies on TV before it (e.g., Tales of Tomorrow from 1951 to 1953), The Twilight Zone elevated the genre as never before, with Serling bringing a deeply humanist, sophisticated, and moral viewpoint to the tales of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy that he and his stable of writers cooked up. Later episodes would address subjects such as racism, bigotry, war, and McCarthyism, with Serling achieving his goal of bypassing the network censors because, after all, these were just kiddie sci-fi yarns, right?
Wrong. The Twilight Zone melded genre stories with adult drama in a way that had almost never been seen before, paving the way for The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and scores of other ethically laden TV shows to come. The original show ended up being so significant that it spawned a movie and two revivals, with a third possibly on the way. And it all began on October 2, 1959, with "Where Is Everybody?" The fact is that everybody was out there, waiting in front of their TVs, to be taken on a ride unlike any other ... into the Twilight Zone.