A Middle Ground Between Light and Shadow Part 1

Go to the profile of John Stephen Walsh

Television series are about consistency. The viewer returns each week to see the new adventures of characters they know as fictional pals, to catch up on this one’s love life or that one’s career. In the past episodes were stand-alone films that had little connection to last week’s developments — Keith Partridge’s latest date, the focus of last week’s show, never appears again; Columbo doesn’t even visit the police station; Gilligan never changes his clothes or gets depressed — but since the eighties the soap opera/continuing story design rules. Viewers care about canon and internal consistency. A television series needs a hook to retain viewers week after week, the thing that keeps them coming back: characters we like and want to follow, a situation (life on a spaceship, or an island, or in a troubled marriage).

For all the benefits of this approach, one major drawback of the television series is the restrictions of the hook. A main character cannot change as significantly as she might in a novel. Your hero cannot have a life-altering event that actually causes him to leave his wife, quit his job, move away from everyone he knows. This limits the issues, the reactions, the choices a character can make. What if our heroine suddenly decides she wants to become a nun, or an astronaut?

Yes, of course, there are exceptions. But how a continuing show handles radical changes in format, whether decided by cast changes or rebooting of a show’s direction, determines if its audience will stay consistent, grow or fade.

An anthology show by its nature has none of these issues. The audience isn’t hooked by ongoing characters or locations or situations, but the voice of the show, its point of view as expressed in choice of stories to tell. This is, of course, what all shows have, but in an anthology it’s pretty much all there is to keep an audience: what the show is saying about life.

Rod Serling’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE is a show so closely tied to its creator that it can never be remade in any meaningful way. It has been remade more than once, but its appeal simply is not portable. That’s what happens with any work of art that has a strong individual voice.

TZ was very much one man’s vision. Serling wrote (dictated) an incredible 92 out of 156 episodes, and had his hand in most of the others. This is why the show was what it was, and why it is recalled, even by people who’ve never even seen it.

What those who talk about or try to redo the show often seem fixated on are its surface aspects. Judging by its impression in the pop culture consciousness, the most popular episode has to be “To Serve Man,” based on a story by Damon Knight. The episode is about aliens who come to Earth and help improve life for all as part of a cultural exchange, and our main character is part of a flight to the alien world. In the climax, the title of the aliens’ book is translated, and the big reveal is shouted to our hero as he is about to depart:

“IT’S A COOK BOOK!”

“It’s a cookbook!” is a catchphrase as popular as “Soylent Green is people!” It makes people laugh, or smile. But it’s just a dumb joke. It’s not about anything more astonishing than that old cliche about aliens who come to Earth to kill us all. And it’s got nothing to do with what the show was really about. If that were the case, the subsequent sci-fi anthology shows would have no problem copying the “Shock!!!” endings.

The show was actually about the themes, but how Serling specifically addressed these themes. Among the most prominent of these were racism, the pros and cons of being stuck in one’s past, and karma.

Serling was a liberal who was really, really outraged about racism. (Notice I didn’t say “democrat.”) Serling hated McCarthyism, too, but he never made episodes about party politics. He wasn’t afraid of such, but he lived in a time where bigotry truly had no specific political party in his country. He went past all that, showing little interest in pointing fingers at The Other Side. He was a white male liberal American who wrote multiple episodes about bigotry. Typically, he rarely wrote stories about black men and women dealing with racism, but in the context of fantasy, that was not a fatal flaw.

In fantasy, you can skip past the defensiveness and viewers’ existing biases by assigning different symbols to known ideas. In 1956, Serling wrote a script called “Noon on Doomsday.” Serling told Mike Wallace: “I wrote the script using black and white skinned characters initially, then the black was changed to suggest ‘an unnamed foreigner,’ the locale was moved from the South to New England.”

The full story about “Noon on Doomsday” can be found here: https://www.rodserling.com/beyond_the_zone/noon_on_doomsday.htm

Subsequently, Serling created THE TWILIGHT ZONE as a place to write about issues from the side, not head-on, so to speak. There are few episodes of the show which really address racial issues, but you can find them. “Dust,” for example, is fairly explicitly about the attempted hanging of a non-Anglo suspect.

Serling isn’t the only person who can write about race or social issues in a fantasy context. Any piece of fantastic genre writing is about something beyond monsters and magic, if it hopes to be anything more than disposable junk.

But looking at much of the socially-conscious writing in today’s SF and fantasy, I find a whole lot of the same social justice thinking. Pick up a stack of fantasy books critics claim for their awareness, and you’ll find the exact same positions on gender, race, justice. The writing styles differ, but the ideas come straight from The Front Office — the people Serling wrote around, not for.

That Serling’s individual voice was so clearly heard makes him the star who brought viewers back to THE TWILIGHT ZONE week after week, making him one of the few TV writing celebrities.

Next: You Can Go Home Again, But You’d Better Not

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