Thursday, August 12, 2010
In my recent Twilight Zone post, I mentioned that I intended to read Noël Carroll and Lester Hunt’s Philosophy in the Twilight Zone. I’ve since read some of it and there is indeed some interesting stuff there. Hunt himself provides a fine essay on Rod Serling’s career as a writer, and the story of that career teaches an important philosophical lesson.
Serling was an established television scriptwriter before The Twilight Zone came along, and was well-known for his interest in writing serious and “socially relevant” dramas. He had a series of frustrating experiences with the television censors of the 1950s, who were concerned above all with avoiding controversy that might put off sponsors. Their objections could often be quite silly. To take an example of Hunt’s:
[I]n the original, Playhouse 90 version of “Judgment at Nuremburg,” one of the sponsors, a consortium of gas companies, had every mention of “gassing” and “gas ovens” expunged, evidently for fear that the viewers would unconsciously associate their product with Nazi genocide. (p. 9)
As a consequence, scripts written to reflect and comment upon matters of current controversy were sometimes reduced to bland ineffectiveness by the time the censors got done with them. Serling’s “Noon on Doomsday,” which aired in 1956 for the United States Steel Hour, was inspired by the Emmett Till case. So as not to offend southern viewers, however, the setting of the story was changed to New England, and the victim was made into a nondescript European “foreigner” rather than a black man. Use of the word “lynch” was forbidden, and bottles of Coca Cola were removed from the set, apparently lest viewers associate the action with the state of Georgia, where the Coca Cola Company has its headquarters. The end result had so abstracted the story from the real world events that it lacked all punch. While racial strife certainly existed in American society in the 1950s, serious antagonism between native born Americans and European immigrants did not. Hence the drama, which aimed for “social relevance,” in fact came across as totally irrelevant.
As Hunt recounts, Serling later attempted to rewrite “Noon on Doomsday” as a stage play, and the result, interestingly enough, was a failure in the opposite direction. This time Serling stuck very closely to the actual facts of the Till case, but in such a way that the story lacked universal application, and would not convince anyone of the truth of Serling’s message other than those who already agreed with him. In particular, no one who was not already appalled by the Emmett Till case would have had his mind changed by a story which, more or less, merely dramatized the case.
When Serling finally moved on to do The Twilight Zone, he thought that he was leaving behind serious and “socially relevant” drama, or so he said at the time, anyway. As the series’ viewers know, that is by no means the case, and Serling no doubt realized this, at least eventually. For one of the advantages of the science-fiction and fantasy genres is that they allow for the “middle distance” approach that evaded Serling in the two versions of “Noon on Doomsday” just described. On the one hand, an otherworldly setting allows one to avoid too direct and ham-fisted a reference to contemporary persons and events, which might strip the story of timeless application and put off the very people one is trying to convince. On the other hand, one can at the same time put enough detail into such a setting that the application to current controversies is clear enough for those who know how to look.
The result is that with The Twilight Zone, Serling and his fellow writers were able consistently to produce material of lasting moral and philosophical interest. And Serling was also able thereby to accomplish what he set out to do as a writer – ironically, precisely by abandoning his goal of “seriousness” (or seemingly abandoning it, or pretending to abandon it, anyway, depending on how one interprets Serling’s words at the time). Few remember Serling’s television dramas of the early and mid 1950s. Everyone remembers The Twilight Zone.
Sometimes we get what we want precisely when we stop trying so hard to get it. Everyone knows that the last thing you want to do if you’ve got insomnia is to worry yourself over how you are going to get to sleep. Market economists never tire of reminding us that the best way to generate wealth for all is to let the market take its course, for the most part, anyway, rather than to interfere with it constantly so as to redistribute wealth or otherwise “correct” its outcomes. Rod Serling attained lasting fame and “relevance” precisely when he thought (or said he thought, in an interview with Mike Wallace) that he was (as Wallace put it) “giv[ing] up on writing anything important for television.” There’s a twist ending worthy of The Twilight Zone.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, submitted for your approval, another twist ending, courtesy of the opening sequence from Twilight Zone: The Movie: