Authors: Marc Scott Zicree
In the introduction to his 1957 collection of television plays, Patterns, Serling related a series of events which occurred during the production of The Arena, a show for Studio One dealing with the United States Senate. As usual, absurd demands were made. … I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem. To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited. So, on television in April of 1956, several million viewers got treated to an incredible display on the floor of the United States Senate of groups of Senators shouting, gesticulating and talking in hieroglyphics about make-believe issues, using invented terminology, in a kind of prolonged, unbelievable double-talk.
In general, Serlings experiences on The Arena were little different from those hed had on Noon on Doomsday or A Town Has Turned to Dust. What was different was his conclusion: In retrospect, I probably would have had a much more adult play had I made it science fiction, put it in the year 2057, and peopled the Senate with robots. This would probably have been more reasonable and no less dramatically incisive. To go from this reasoning to The Twilight Zone took no great mental leap. It was an option Serling greeted with relief.
I dont think it far-fetched that he should have been as impressed as he was by science fiction, says producer Dick Berg, particularly because he had much on his mind politically and in terms of social condition, and science fictionand Twilight Zone specificallygave him as much flexibility in developing those themes as he might have had anywhere else at that time. Within the parameters of his own store, such as he enjoyed on Twilight Zone, he could do anything he wanted. He could do a story about Nazis, about racism in general, about economic plight, about whatever, and fit it within the framework. So it became a natural habitat for him creatively.
Other factors contributed to Serlings decision to enter into series television. By the late 1950s, live television was a dying art form. The basic economic reality was inescapable: a live show could be aired only once while a show on film could be shown again and again. Dick Berg: I think its important to understand that in the life of one of the more significant guys of the mid-twentieth century, this science-fiction series was a kind of life raft, an escape hatch. It was an arena for self-expression such as he was no longer able to enjoy with the demise of the live anthology shows on television. And when eight of them went off the air in a twelve-or eighteen-month period, Twilight Zone provided Rod with the most satisfying replacement possible for that anthology market.
So, on a day in 1957, Serling went to his file cabinet and pulled out a half-hour script he had written shortly after graduating college. It was The Time Element, an imaginative time-travel fantasy that had been aired on The Storm in Cincinnati. He expanded the script to an hour and had his secretary type these words on the front page:
THE TWILIGHT ZONE
THE TIME ELEMENT BY
ROD SERLING Then he submitted it to CBS.II / ENTERING THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Lets not kid ourselves about Twilight Zone. A lot of luck was involved in selling that to anyone. It was a show no one wanted to buy.
To say that CBS greeted The Time Element with less than open arms would be an understatement. They did buy the script, but then promptly shelved it. And it would undoubtedly have remained on the shelf to this day, gathering dust like so many other worthy projects, had it not been for the efforts of a man named Bert Granet.
Even today, Granet seems a tough, hard-nosed realist who fights hard for the things he wants. In 1958, he was producing Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, a series featuring pedestrian dramas three weeks out of four and situation comedies starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz every fourth week. In years past he had encountered his share of difficulties while producing motion pictures such as Berlin Express, directed by Jacques Tourneur, and The Marrying Kind, directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Holliday, but on Desilu Playhouse he faced a new problem: how to lend prestige to a television show that had absolutely no pretensions to great art.
Granet went about solving his problem in two ways: first, by securing big-name film actors to star and, secondly, by buying up scripts from top television writers. Rod Serling was definitely a name he wanted on the credits of his show.
Through a mutual friend, television and film director Robert Parrish (who later directed One for the Angels, A Stop at Willoughby, Mr. Bevis, and part of The Mighty Casey for The Twilight Zone), Granet was introduced to Serling. Rod remembered that he had once sold something to CBS, and CBS wasnt doing anything with it, Granet recalls. So, using great persuasion, I found out what it was, got to CBS, and bought it for what was a lot of money at that timeten thousand dollars.
The Time Element was put on the production schedule of Desilu Playhouse for the 1958-59 season. As with every other script of the series, McCann-Erickson, the advertising agency representing Westinghouse, the shows sponsor, had script approval. Granet recalls their reaction. I got a call from New York: Absolutely, flatly no. They didnt want any unfinished stories. They wanted neat bows at the end where each story wrapped up, unlike Twilight Zone stories which gave you many outs, many possibilities of using the imagination.
So I said, Well, I want to do it. And with that, they flew out about four important vice-presidents to tell me why not. And I must say, at this point all it would have meant was swallowing ten thousand dollars in not doing it. But [Desi] Arnaz backed me up.
Reluctantly, McCann-Erickson relented, but not before setting up a few conditions. They said if we did it I had to make a blood promise that I would never do that kind of a story again. Then there was the matter of the script itself. In Serlings original draft, the main character tries unsuccessfully to warn the Army of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor. But Westinghouse had a number of government contracts; they couldnt risk offending the Pentagon. The character would not try to warn the Army.
Once past this point, the production moved ahead smoothly. Granet hired director Allen Reisner, a talented man who had worked with Serling material before. Together, they assembled a cast of strong professionals, with William Bendix in the lead, supported by Martin Balsam, Darryl Hickman, and Jesse White. The budget was approximately $135,000.
On November 24, 1958, The Time Element was aired on CBS. The story, as finally presented, was an intriguing one. Pete Jenson (Bendix), a part-time unsuccessful bookie, card dealer and bartender, seeks out the aid of Dr. Gillespie (Balsam), a psychiatrist. He explains that hes been having a recurring dream in which he finds himself in Honolulu on December 6, 1941the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his dream, he tries to warn a number of people of the attack, including a young naval ensign (Hickman) and his bride (Carol Kearney), and a newspaper editor (Bartlett Robinson). Predictably, no one takes him seriously.
Dr. Gillespie understands perfectly how this could be a most unpleasant dream, but he is astounded when Jenson reveals that he believes these events are real, that he is in fact going back in time! The doctor tries to explain to Jenson the plain impossibility of time travel, but Jenson counters with:
Ive never been in Honolulu in my whole life before, except during that dream. So after the first couple of times I dreamed this I decided Id put it to a test. I knew the ensigns last name. It was an odd one: Janosky. He told me that he and his girl had come from a little town called White Oak, Wisconsin. I placed a call there. There was only one Janosky in the book. A woman answered the phone. She told me she was his mother. I told her that I was an old friend of his from Honolulu and I asked was he there … And then she told me that her son and his wife were killed in Honolulu on December seventh, 1941.
On the psychiatrists couch, Jenson falls asleep. His dream picks up where it last left off, on the morning of December 7, 1941. Through the French doors of his hotel room he sees a number of Japanese planes coming in for a bombing run. Jenson cries out, I told you! Why wouldnt anybody listen to me? His only answer comes with the sound of an explosion, as the panes of the French doors shatter and the room comes down on top of him.
In his office, Dr. Gillespie lifts his head with a start. He is alone. Vaguely, he knows something is amiss, but what? He checks his appointment book; no appointments today. To steady himself, he goes into a bar down the street and orders a drink. On the wall behind the bar, he notices a picture of Pete Jenson. For some reason he cant quite put his finger on, he feels a sense of disquiet.
Whos the guy in the picture? he asks the bartender (Paul Bryer).
Oh, thats Pete Jenson, the bartender answers. He used to tend bar here. Know him?
No. Gillespie shrugs. Just looked familiar, thats all. Where is he now?
Hes dead, the bartender replies. He was killed at Pearl Harbor. But the episode doesnt end there. Apparently, the sponsor was still extremely nervous about the ambiguous ending, and so at the end of the show Desi Arnaz stepped out and offered his rational explanation of the events: We wonder if Pete Jenson did go back in time or if he ever existed. My personal answer is that the doctor has seen Jensons picture at the bar sometime before and had a dream. Any of you out there have any other answers? Let me know. This prompted one irate journalist to write, GO HOME, DESI!
Compared with Twilight Zone episodes to come, The Time Element stands as no great masterpiece of television. The direction is competent but not brilliant. The acting, though sincere, is unconvincing. And although Nick Musuraca (Cat People, Curse of the Cat People, The Spiral Staircase) was director of photography, the episode looks flat and featureless, typical television drab. The importance of The Time Element lay not in what it was, but rather in what it did.
The Time Element received more mail than any other episode of Desilu Playhouse that year, and the newspaper reviews were universally good. This was enough to convince CBS that it had made an error in shelving Serlings script. It was decided that a pilot of The Twilight Zone would be made.
William Dozier, vice-president in charge of West Coast Programming for CBS, assigned William Self, a recent recruit to the CBS corporate hierarchy, to oversee the project. It was a good choice; just prior to joining CBS, Self had spent four years as producer of Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, a successful half-hour anthology series.
In order to make a pilot, the first thing Self needed was a script. Serling had written The Time Element intending it to be the pilot, but since it had just been done as a Desilu Playhouse it was no longer available. So Serling wrote a new script entitled The Happy Place. An hour in length, this script dealt with a totalitarian society of the future in which people who reach the age of sixty are routinely escorted to concentration camps, euphemistically referred to as The Happy Place, and exterminated.
The main characters of the piece are Dr. Harris, a fifty-eight-year-old surgeon who remembers the good old days of freedom and justice for all; his son Steven, director of one of the camps (which, by the way, appear in every way to be ideal retirement communitiesexcept that the old folks go into elevators and never emerge); and his grandson Paul, a Hitler Youth type, thoroughly propagandized. Because of his outspokenness against the
State, Dr. Harriss records are changed so that his age is listed as sixty. The order goes out to have him brought in for execution. Although Steven is unwilling to resign from his post in order to save his father, he is sympathetic to the point where he is willing to bring clothing, food, and a gun to his fathers hiding place. But just as father and son meet, the police burst in and fatally shoot the elder man.
In the final scene of the script, we learn that it was Paul who, as a good citizen of the State, informed the police of his grandfathers whereabouts. In closing, Paul tells his father the extermination age is too high; it should be fifty. Nervously, Steven replies, Now youre getting close to my age, Paul. To which Paul, the hope of the future, replies, I know!
William Dozier gave the script to Bill Self and asked for an opinion. It was, I thought, very downbeat and depressing, Self recalls. An interesting episode, but it would never sell as a series. I reported this to Dozier, who said, Oh Jesus, what are we going to do with Serling? He loves it! I said, Well, I dont know Serling, but why dont we have a meeting?
So we had a meeting, and I told Rod that I didnt like it and why I didnt like it, and rather than being belligerent about it, which Dozier had anticipated he might be, he said, Okay, then Ill go write another one. And he went away and he wrote a completely new script.
The new script Serling turned in bore the title Where Is Everybody? and it proved an ideal selection. Its plot was utterly straightforward, dealing with an amnesiac who is unable to locate any other human beings in a small town. Ultimately, it is revealed that the entire sequence of events has been hallucinated by the main character, whose mind has snapped during an isolation experiment. Where Is Everybody? was a thoroughly rational story draped in the trappings of science fiction. If anything would allay the fears of science-fiction-leery network and advertising executives, this would.
Robert Stevens, a friend of William Doziers and veteran director of numerous episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was hired to direct the pilot. Earl Holliman was cast as Mike Ferris. It was vital that the look and sound of the show match the peculiar mood of the writing, so special care was taken in the selection of a director of photography and a composer. Cinematographer Joseph La Shelle (Laura, Marty, The Apartment, and The Chase) was elected to capture The Tivilight Zone on film and composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and North by Northwest just scratch the surface of his credits) was chosen to give music to The Twilight Zone. (Herrmanns original theme music for the showa subtle and lovely piece scored for strings, harp, flute and brasssurvived through most of the first season, then was replaced by the more familiar rythmic theme by French avant-garde composer Marius Constant.) Because they offered the numerous backlot sets needed for the