[Oct. 3, 1959] Entering the Twilight Zone (Twilight Zone’s first episode)

It never ceases to amaze me how far technology can progress in such a short time. 

Think about it: a thousand years ago, the pace of history was pretty placid.  Sure, there was plenty of turbulence in the span of a life, from war to plague to famine, but the background of civilization (or lack thereof) was fairly constant. 

Over the last few hundred years, the pace of change has accelerated exponentially.  There are people alive today who clearly remember a time before automobiles, before air travel, before the telephone, before electricity, before atomic energy, before computers.  So much of our values and coping mechanisms are rooted in our childhood and upbringing; how do people adjust to living in a world so wildly different from that of their youth?

It seems inevitable that change is going to become so rapid that we just won’t be able to deal with it.  Perhaps science fiction is the lubricant that keeps it all from being too overwhelming.  After all, if we’ve already gotten a sneak preview of the future, it can’t surprise us as much.

What brought this all home to me was the debut of a new science fiction/fantasy anthology on television called The Twilight Zone, hosted by screenwriter and producer, Rod Serling.  It debuted yesterday, October 2, 1959.  And here’s why it is so significant, to me.

Twenty years ago, “hard science fiction” was just beginning, led by Astounding and Campbell’s brood.  Ten years ago, print science fiction exploded and produced a profusion of genre magazines.  Many have died, but I think the science fiction novel may fill that gap.  And, in the last decade, the science fiction movie (and it’s bastard step-child, the science fiction B-movie) has come into its own.

Now we’re getting science fiction delivered to every home in the country courtesy of the little glass-screened box in the living room.  We truly are living in the future. 

If this first episode of The Twilight Zone, entitled “Where is Everybody?” is any indication, the future is bright, indeed.  For the show is produced with movie-level sophistication, including technically innovative cinematography and excellent musical scoring.  Production values would be meaningless without a good story, however.  So how did TZ do on its first outing?

The episode opens up with a jumpsuited youngish man walking down an empty road.  He arrives at a cafe where music is blaring from a jukebox, steam is rising from a coffee pot, pies are in the oven… but there’s no one in sight.  Moreover, the man doesn’t remember who he is or where he came from.

Walking into town, he hears the reassuring bells from a church marking the passage of time, and there are hints that life is going on: a lit cigar, a phone ringing in a booth, but still no people at all.  Our protagonist stumbles upon a movie theater, which springs to life as the sun sets, and he realizes he is a member of the Air Force (which explains the jumpsuit). 

At this point, my daughter cleverly guessed that the man had flown an experimental plane so fast that he’d broken some kind of time barrier.  This was after I had guessed that the man was somehow in the same time as everyone else but out of phase.

It turns out that both of us were wrong.  The man is actually an Air Force sergeant enduring three weeks in an isolation chamber so as to get used to one aspect of a solo lunar trip: enforced solitude.  The sergeant has cracked up by the end of it, though he recovers after being let out.

For me, the ending was a bit of a let down.  I thought our explanation was more interesting.  Moreover, I just don’t believe all this hype about the dangers of space travel.  I don’t think weightlessness will be a problem, or loneliness, or radiation, or meteors.  Lack of air, pressure, the cost of rockets, the ability to lift off and land safely, those are real issues.  These other factors are melodramatic boogeymen.

That said, I think the show has a lot of potential.  It’s smartly done and very atmospheric.  My daughter loved it and can’t wait to watch next week’s episode, apparently involving an aged salesman and a Mr. Death.  We’ll tune in, for certain.

We should all rejoice.  Science fiction has entered yet another medium.  Truly, the Golden Age endures.

P.S. Galactic Journey is now a proud member of a constellation of interesting columns.  While you’re waiting for me to publish my next article, why not give one of them a read!

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