Twilight Zone Day – Are we living it?

Who ever thought we’d be living out a multi-episode Twilight Zone-like drama?

I’ve been a fan of the early 1960s series in reruns since I was old enough to watch it and understand what was going on. This coming Monday, May 11 is Twilight Zone Day, and given the bizarre times we’re living out in reality right now, it seems a perfect time to celebrate the ground-breaking series.

The show’s creator, Rod Serling, was a fan of pulp fiction, imaginative stories found in inexpensive printed magazines in the early days of mass-published science fiction. While these stories were often lurid and sensational, with equally lurid covers featuring scantily-clad women to catch readers’ attentions, some really well-known heroes emerged, including The Shadow and Flash Gordon.

The first pulp magazine was published in 1896, printed on cheap wood pulp paper produced from wood chips  and bits of other plant fibres. Over the years very famous writers had stories published in the pulps – H. Rider Haggard (this movie version of his most famous story, She, is still one of my favourite old adventure movies!) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who brought Tarzan to life.

During the Great Depression the ‘pulps’ were a popular form of cheap entertainment for people with little money. Characters like The Shadow went on to become famous in various forms of media, including the old radio shows and later in movie depictions. My hubby and I often listen to the old radio dramas on long road trips – they have great atmosphere, especially at night when the darkness frees up your mind’s eye, and you can stream them here.

All of the pulp writers let their imagination run freely, and it was this spirit that Serling homed in on when he started to work on a weekly anthology series with a science-fiction theme for television. The weekly stories were thought-provoking in their speculation about how ordinary people might handle unexpected situations.

A cult classic, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, features a very young William Shatner on an airplane who spots a hairy gremlin-like creature outside of the aircraft destroying one of the wings, and his attempts to get someone to believe him.

One of my other personal favourites is Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? The story follows two state troopers face who, after investigating a tip about an unidentified flying object, find footprints at a mysterious crash site that lead to a nearby café. When they enter, all the people inside look human, but one of them may be something else.

My own early attempts at writing stories were heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone. I think I still have my copy of a story I wrote when I would have been 9 or 10 years old, handwritten on lined, 3-holed binder paper, about a girl playing with a toy sailboat on a small pond in her back yard. She’s upset with her parents and wishes that she could just shrink and live on her nice little boat – which, of course, is exactly what happens. The story ends with her mother coming out the back door to call the girl in for dinner.

Science fiction writers get to indulge in imagining the what-ifs. Often over the decades their creative results have turned from fiction into fact – many of the future technologies imagined in the original Star Trek television series ended up being developed in subsequent decades – the flip-open communicators became flip-open cell phones, insertable computer disks on the show presaged floppy disks and all the portable storage plugins we have today.

But it’s the fun of the writers’ vision that entertains us, especially if there’s a great story that we can relate to in some way, that resonates even while it’s beyond our realm of experience. Serling himself said that “If you can’t believe the unbelievability, then there’s something wrong in the writing.” Too far-fetched and the writer loses the audience, but extrapolated from real life in some way and the writer has us hooked, wondering how we might react in the same situation.

Serling was a master of the genre, encouraging us to place ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes. I often smile when my hubby and I fly somewhere, imagining that hairy gremlin out on the plane’s wing tearing up the wiring. On the last leg of our honeymoon flight, from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, on our tiny island-hopper plane the door to the cockpit was shaped like a coffin, and when I looked out the window I could see loose bolts on the wing housing rattling in the wind. Gremlin on the wingtip? Hah! Try surviving a flight on old Prinair!

Old Twilight Zone episodes still air on television. Find some for May 11 and lose yourself in the eerie imaginings of Rod Serling and his writers. You may get some inspiration for dealing with the topsy-turvy reality we’re in right now, or at least be able to wryly laugh at it a little bit.

And if you’re so minded, please let me know which episodes have become your favourite.