45 Years Later, Serling’s ‘Signposts’ Still Unheeded

A pop culture curio with more than meets the eye, The Twilight Zone reveals a "signpost up ahead," which after 45 years is still ignored by Americans whose guts tell them to avoid the wretchedness of war but who find themselves in it again and again.

Submitted for your approval: the embittered woman who desperately tries to warn her younger self not to marry the wrong man in the episode "Spur of the Moment." She does anyway, and history repeats itself in a vicious and ignorant loop of time.

So it couldn’t be more fitting that the Sci-Fi Channel hosted again its annual Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon – more than 60 episodes of Rod Serling’s playful and creepy, enigmatic and ultimately moralistic vignettes of the postwar zeitgeist, which first aired on CBS from 1959 through 1964. As Americans, we struggle valiantly, spill blood, and sacrifice our children for noble causes. As human beings, we forget lessons, ignore warnings, and repeat our mistakes.

No doubt that is what Serling – a World War II paratrooper and demolitions specialist who earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in the Pacific operations – was trying (often charmingly ham-handedly) to convey, perhaps in hopes of breaking the cycle. His fleeting attempts reflected a growing fatigue with foreign military entanglements: nearly 450,000 American killed in World War II and Korea. Add anxiety over the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its proxies and, consequently, Uncle Sam’s new addiction to nuclear brinkmanship, and you have a witch’s brew of mass neurosis, thinly masked by old-fashioned American mettle and 1950s conformity.

Rod Serling
Rod Serling in 1960

"I have so much fear inside me, I can’t give it words," says Eve Sturka, the wife of a military scientist who is about to escape the planet with his family to avoid a nuclear holocaust in season one’s "Third From the Sun." "Something is in the air – everyone is afraid."

There is the final conflict. The button is pushed and there is an epiphany: no one can possibly win. "We wiped them out, they wiped us out," says the command center general on the doomed planet to the lonely astronaut crash-landed millions of miles away in "Probe 7 Over and Out."

"The only question now is the matter of death, very quick or very slow," the general laments. "Silence or cries – that’s the sound from our world, silence or cries. Over and out."

Then – the end, regret, and depending on the episode, grinding despair or a shard of hope. Apocalypse and its aftermath were the prevailing, most relentless themes throughout the show’s five-season run, and they are key to understanding the emerging social climate of the early 1960s. One could say Serling and his fellow writers – particularly Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont – deftly plumbed America’s bipolar years. The eye-popping, never-stopping JFK-inspired "New Frontier" meets the Bay of Pigs, homemade bomb shelters, and "The Old Man in the Cave."

"What you’re looking at is a legacy that man left to himself. A decade previous he pushed his buttons and, a nightmarish moment later, woke up to find that he had set the clock back a thousand years," goes the narration in 1963’s "Old Man," aired one year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and three years after a U.S. spy plane was shot down by the Soviets, escalating the Cold War. Here, "suicide" is man’s last chapter, as survivors lose faith and ultimately bend to an ignorant thug who, quite like the men who destroyed civilization in the first place, takes them all over the precipice a second and final time.

There is the frantic loneliness of a world devoid of life ("Where is Everybody?"), resigning oneself to its coming ("The Midnight Sun"), and even the folly of embracing it ("Time Enough at Last"). There is the beauty in starting over, as when a frightened female (obviously Russian) soldier sheds the uniform and the baggage of her warrior ethos, for a war-fatigued male (American) soldier with similar baggage, in "Two."

Meanwhile, Serling’s combat service informed a handful of episodes that were probably considered irreverent – even heretical – given their proximity to the Great War. "A Quality of Mercy" finds young, gung-ho Lt. Katell – on the last day of the war – forcing a platoon of American infantry, "whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end," into a cave to kill a host of injured Japanese.

"What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?" demands Sgt. Causarano. "How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?"

Responds Katell: "Off hand, all of them. No matter who they are or where they are. If they’re the enemy, they get it. First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it."

Suddenly, he is still in the Philippines – but three years earlier as a Japanese lieutenant. He is being ordered to send his soldiers into a cave to kill wounded Americans. He predictably crumbles under the pressure and comes back to his own time humbled, with a different take.

"The Encounter," first aired during the last season on May 1, 1964, has been banned from the Twilight Zone‘s syndicated broadcasts, according to its Wikipedia entry. A tale of an American World War II veteran and his Japanese counterpart squaring off 20 years later in a suburban attic, it ends in the deaths of both men, "their common bond and their common enemy: guilt. A disease all too prevalent among men, both in and out of the Twilight Zone."

That it drew such a firestorm is a testament not only to the sensitivity of the subject matter, but to the show’s yen to topple a few idols and put America’s sacred cows to the test. This required adroit handling – and most of the time it succeeded – to hit the mark without sending the all-necessary sponsors to the exits.

This is important, because if the true zeitgeist of the period was cloaked fear and paranoia, it was not only due to geopolitical unrest and a proliferating military-industrial complex, but also to the postwar conformity binding much of middle America at the time. When people began asking questions, society rushed to the establishment’s defense. See the Twilight Zone‘s more memorable odes to George Orwell, like the not-so-subtle but riveting "Eye of the Beholder" (1960), "Number Twelve Looks Just Like You" (1964), and the heartbreaking "Miniature" (1963).

It’s when this paranoia meets the apocalyptic that the writing is the most effective and salient. The only hope for the planet is us, and what a pathetic bunch we are.

Witness: Dr. Stockton, local physician and favorite neighbor, has been up nights fashioning a family fallout shelter, despite much chiding from his pals on the street. In the glow of after-dinner drinks and birthday cake, they pledge fidelity through jokes and testimonials, that is, before the first crackles of panic come over the radio. Then everyone wants into "The Shelter," and there just isn’t any room.

"The Shelter"

A mangled steel door and several destroyed friendships later, a radio update brings news of a false alarm. Awkward attempts to "forget the whole thing" lead to this famous Serlingan castigation:

"Oh, we’ll pay for all the damages, Bill," says the neighbor.

Stockton: "Damages? I wonder… if any of us has any idea what those ‘damages’ really are. Maybe one of them was finding out what we’re really like when we’re ‘normal.’ The kind of people we are, just underneath the skin – and I mean all of us – a lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their own neighbors to death just for the privilege! We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder… if we weren’t destroyed even without it."

Similarly, in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," fine specimens of the suburban sublime turn into an angry mob at the suggestion that one of them may not be who they think he is. Divide and conquer was never so easy, say the two Martians manipulating the scene from beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

"Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines, and radios, and telephones, and lawnmowers, throw them into darkness for a few hours, and then sit back and watch the pattern," says Alien #1.

Alien #2: "And this pattern is always the same?"

Alien #1: "With few variations. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find. And it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch."

Whether The Twilight Zone – apart from pure aesthetics and quaint cultural cues – mirrored the way most Americans were feeling about war and social politics is debatable. Despite moments of brilliant dialogue delivered with searing pathos by actors who looked like real people (unlike today’s prettified zombies), the country went to war with zeal in Vietnam a year after Serling’s show was canceled.

Serling, who was brought up in a strict Jewish household and converted to Unitarian Universalism after the war, was probably considered a Hollywood liberal with a minority view. But the fact that his insistent needling of our vanities and weaknesses, our fears and prejudices, found its audience at least receptive, if not reflective, for five years (ratings held fairly steady for more than 100 episodes) has to say something.

This was an era when the rest of the prime-time canon included The Ed Sullivan Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Rawhide. Who could say whether Serling and Co. helped seed a resistance that ultimately ended the Vietnam War a decade – and 58,000 American deaths – later, or whether their signposts went unheeded, overshadowed by more hegemonic messages and demands?

To be sure, today’s network television fare offers no such ambiguities. Even with the infinite number of cable and satellite options, most people have taken George Bush’s advice and merely go about "their business" while the Long War continues. They indulge in demotic diversions disguised as "reality TV" and narcissistic forensic crime and hospital dramas – the top network shows today.

Hollywood is no better. Right-wing talkers like to laugh about the commercial failure of so-called antiwar movies, and they’re right. Ham-fisted and cringe-inducing schlockers like Rendition or morally schizophrenic flicks like Lord of War, in which Nicholas Cage spends so much time fondling guns and suitcases of cash we don’t know whether to despise his job or run out and get one ourselves (see Johnny Depp in Blow), only reinforce Hollywood’s long decline as a political and social avatar.

In 2003, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, the top network shows were American Idol, Joe Millionaire, Friends, and Survivor. If that at all reflects where the American mind was at – and where it is now – we’re in deeper trouble than our 1960s counterparts. No time for exploring "a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity … the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition … between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge," or merely "the signpost up ahead."

Thank goodness for the annual syndicated Twilight Zone marathons; perhaps we’ll heed their warning yet.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.