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Serling’s The Twilight Zone and metafiction
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-64) ran for 5 seasons, comprising in total a Pilot plus 155 episodes, and with its mixture of playfulness and seriousness, and of different genres, remains a significant early contribution to telefantasy. This article will concern an area of study in relation to The Twilight Zone, which has hitherto been neglected, that of metafiction, which was both playful and serious and reflected on the programme as a whole. This builds on work by Marc Scott Zicree (1982), Peter Wolfe (1997), Don Presnell and Marty McGee (1998), and Douglas Brode and Carol Serling (2009).
Seeing metafiction as reflecting on the programme as a whole may seem a difficult feat in a programme which is impossible to pin down. As William Boddy notes, as an anthology series featuring self-contained characters and plots in each episode, The Twilight Zone has more in common with the single plays of the early and mid 1950s than with the episodic series (1984: 107). The programme is based on the written science fiction anthology form and indeed many of its narratives are adaptations of short stories taken from diverse sources. As an anthology series, The Twilight Zone featured diverse genres in each episode which differs from Jacques Derrida’s (1980) view of a single text containing signifiers of multiple genres. Stephen King highlights this point when he writes that
Of all the dramatic programs which have ever run on American TV, [The Twilight Zone] is the one which comes close to defying any overall analysis. It was not a western or a cop show (although some of the stories had western formats or featured cops ‘n’ robbers); it was not…a sitcom (although some of the episodes were funny); not really occult (although it did occult stories frequently…), not really supernatural. It was its own thing (quoted in Presnell and McGee 1998: 6).
Presnell and McGee agree with King’s summation stating that
The Twilight Zone is hard to pin down and paste with labels…The Twilight Zone is, in varying degrees, all of these – science fiction, fantasy, horror, western, comedy, crime/detective, drama (historical, domestic, or any other “type”)…at the level of aesthetic and genre appeal, it is clear that The Twilight Zone endures because it doesn’t slavishly adhere to one concept, principle, or plot (1998: 5-6)
What makes all the narratives ‘telefantasy’ is that when genres such as the Western and the detective narrative are introduced they all contain a non-verisimilitudinous element. In all cases, the strange was introduced into normality.
This can be seen by examining the title sequences which are of particular importance to this programme since they mark a boundary between the forms of the single play, with its differing content, and the series, with its titles. Therefore, nowhere better than here is emphasised the title sequences’ unifying function. This is characterised by repetition at the start of numerous episodes, binding together many self-contained narratives, with separate groups of characters, within the overall programme. Even though seasons had different title sequences, the visuals and voice-overs were often similar.
For instance, The Twilight Zone’s opening music conjures up notions of the strange (Presnell and McGee 1998: 5). Visually, the title sequences also connote telefantasy, and sequences included swirling concentric circles. But such coding is nowhere better illustrated than by the unaccredited Herbert Hirschman’s visual sequence (narrated by Rod Serling) for the fourth season which contains a number of visual ‘symbols’, to use his word, for telefantasy (Presnell and McGee 1998: 5). These icons, which are visually interesting, appear on a starry background coded as the strange of telefantasy. They include a door turning on the screen until it is fully visible and pushing open by itself with the actual door disappearing and its left and right frame moving horizontally past the left and right of the screen (connoting crossing into a generic dimension, a meaning anchored by Serling‘s voice-over), a window (connoting looking through a boundary), and an eye moving diagonally across the screen in different directions (connoting visions of other worlds), an equation (connoting science), and a clock (connoting time). The title sequences also involved a direct relationship between the programme and television viewer and represented a shift from the genres of previous programmes with Serling’s voice over often beginning ‘You’re travelling through another dimension’ with him as porter.
But the sequences also pointed to the fact that the programme’s generic boundaries were not firm and that there was generic multiplicity since telefantasy is such a broad term. In all of Serling’s title sequence voice-overs, which varied from season to season, the idea of the imagination was highlighted. There was again a direct relationship between the programme and the television viewer embedded in the sequences. In a couple of title sequence voice-overs, Serling reveals that the television viewer is making ‘a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination’. No sentence could be more paradoxical since the imagination generally has no boundaries, but this statement is a metaphor for the fact that the programme can soar in a multitude of directions. This idea of the programme soaring in different directions again surfaces in Serling’s other title sequence voice-overs, where he states that there the television viewer is entering ‘a dimension of the imagination’, ‘as vast as space and timeless as infinity’, which signifies that the generic dimensions of the programme are not solid but occupy many spaces and times. Even in the voice-over to the fourth season it is the imagination which leads to another dimension. The title sequences did not indicate which other genres were present, instead emphasising the blending generally.
The narrator figure is also important to The Twilight Zone, in binding the self-contained narratives together within a series, and his presence also draws our attention to the fact that these are a collection of short stories. In various anthology series, such as Science Fiction Theatre (1955-57), The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery (1970-73), which feature self-contained narratives in each episode, the narrator serves a similar function to the title sequence, unifying the programme which can be otherwise diverse and include generic multiplicity. In these programmes, the narration is directly for the television viewer. The anthology host, for example, is often a third person narrator separated from, as well as connected to, the world of the narrative. While the first person narrator is a character in a narrative, the third person narrator stands outside the fiction. His role is to introduce and close narratives, as did newsman Truman Bradley in Science Fiction Theatre. This is the case with The Twilight Zone where the anthology host Serling is commonly separated from the narrative world and introduces the unusual. For example, in the first season, the narrations were voice-overs. Following this season, Serling was seen in front of the camera. Just as Sarah Kozloff notes that voice-overs generally come ‘from another time and space’, in later seasons there was a pan from the main playing space to Serling, separating him from the narrative, as well as connecting him to it. Also in the fourth season Serling was seen against a grey background since his schedule, teaching media at Antioch, dictated that the openings needed to be filmed together, three or four at a time (Zicree 1982: 297-99). Serling informed the television viewer of what that night’s narrative was about in numerous beginnings and endings, also suggesting that each night‘s narrative concerned something different. In much the same way as the short-lived American police programme Naked City (1958-59) began with a narrator stating that there were a million narratives in the Naked City and that one of them is being presented, this was Serling’s role in The Twilight Zone. Therefore, the anthology series hosts did not only serve the function outlined by Kozloff of lending ‘their charm…and their mere humanness to the amorphous television narrating agency’ (1992: 79), although this was a function which Serling also fulfilled admirably.
Let us now turn to some examples of metafiction in specific episodes. The Twilight Zone narrative ‘Time Enough At Last’ (1959) concerns the bank clerk Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) being prevented from reading at work (by his boss) and at home (by his wife) but, after going to read in the bank vault on his lunch break and surviving a nuclear explosion, seemingly having the time to do so. In keeping with many narratives of the programme, there is a blending of small town drama and science fiction to highlight the move from the ordinary to the unusual. As noted, The Twilight Zone involved, as various of the title sequences suggest, a flight of the imagination, and, as Zicree notes, ‘average’, and well-drawn out, characters involved in ‘some…tangent from the reality of the ordinary routine’ (1982: 1).
Plot and techniques of television mark a border between Bemis in the small town drama genre and in science fiction. At first, there is a shot of people going about their business in the bank. The opening score is of instrumental pedestrian music, connoting the everyday. Later, there is a horizontal panning shot, from Bemis’s surveying perspective, of the devastated landscape. There is a piccato score where strings are plucked, followed by deep repetitious notes conveying (at first) solemnity. However, optimism follows. Contrasting with the earlier scene in which Bemis picked up pages from a book which his wife had torn onto the floor in an act of marital warfare, after coming across the remains of the Public Library, Bemis is portrayed in an overjoyed state, picking entire books off the ground which he will now be able to read since warfare has not damaged them. Additionally, whereas Bemis had earlier hidden a text in his jacket pocket from his wife, in addition to sneaking into the bank vault at work to read which became a metaphoric storage of a wealth of knowledge, here he takes on the duty of librarian, sorting books into piles openly. Furthermore, just as in the first part of the narrative, stress was laid upon the idea of following a timetable and being paid accordingly, Bemis later constructs his new life according to his own timetable, building the piles of books and then assigning a new schedule of months of the year and different years in which he plans to read them. With no society to impose a schedule on the individual, Bemis has, as the title of the narrative suggests, ‘Time Enough At Last’ to read and appears elated. Towards the end of the narrative, on the library steps, Bemis reaches out to a big broken clock, as though reaching out to grasp time, and then rests his hands on this clock. The narrative, however, ends on a pessimistic note, where Bemis’s glasses fall and shatter, accompanied by sombre music, meaning that he will not be able to read in his land of books where things are blurred, a point stressed by Serling’s concluding voice over, while the camera zooms out depicting Bemis as small and vulnerable.
‘Time Enough At Last’ is playfully metafictional in places. It is both a narrative and reflects on its construction. The generic threshold is represented explicitly by the playful image of a book opening in close-up approximately half-way through the narrative when Bemis is in the bank vault reading, with the sound of its leaves turning, reflecting on the narrative’s construction. The image shows how the narrative fits in with Patricia Waugh’s (1984) and Mark Currie’s (1995) description of metafictions which are illusion-breaking as to their own status as fictions. In this case that is achieved through the language of television in a way that was not captured in Lynn Venable’s narrative upon which The Twilight Zone episode is based, although there the situation is likened to a fiction by other means:
Then the concrete floor was rising up at him and the ceiling came slanting down toward him, and for a fleeting second Henry thought of a story he had started to read once called “The Pit and the Pendulum.” He regretted in that insane moment that he had never had time to finish that story to see how it came out. Then all was darkness and quiet and unconsciousness (1985: 55)
The image in the televised version is presented immediately prior to the nuclear explosion which shakes the bank vault where Bemis has gone to read in peace. Bemis enters the vault from the small town ordinary bank. However, after the book has opened and following the explosion, from which Bemis has been protected by the vault, he exits through the door into a scenario of a world left as rubble by the nuclear bomb, described above. This is clearly coded as science fiction (through the nuclear bomb) and unusual. The book flipping open, then, on the one hand, represents a process of generic division where there is a split between the small town drama and science fiction.
However, at the same time, the metafictional image of the book flipping open, unifies the genres. This is because one must be aware of one side of the boundary, the small town drama and the ordinary, to understand the other, science fiction and the unusual. Similarly, Joanna Russ (1973) and Darko Suvin (1979) argue that there is always a boundary between our knowledge of actuality and the science fiction world. Therefore, the small town drama genre is not randomly placed by science fiction’s side but rather through the mixing a type of science fiction is presented where the unordinary is read in relation to the ordinary. Concern is not with scientific plausibility, however, since Bemis walks around outdoors without any protective clothing and eats food without ill-effects.
‘Time Enough At Last’ is presided over by a narrating agency. This idea of there being a boundary between the small town drama and science fiction overseen by an authorial figure manifests itself in Serling’s voice-overs which occur in every narrative of The Twilight Zone. Serling states that Bemis, a lover of the printed page who finds little time to read because of his boss and wife dictating his life at work and home, will be brought into an unusual world without anyone. But when the metafictional image of the book flipping open appears, the presence of an author is also felt, although an author-like character is not presented. The techniques of television make it appear as though the book flips open of its own accord. However, the book opening, which represents the unfolding of the narrative, has been opened by the force governing the narrative and driving it forward. Such an image also reflects on the fictitious nature of episodes of The Twilight Zone generally where telefantasy comes into the everyday.
In ‘Time Enough At Last’ the protagonist Henry Bemis is presented as a reader not only of books but also of a mysterious landscape. Following the metafictional image of the book flipping open in close-up reflecting on the fictitiousness of the narrative, in what Waugh would call an illusion-breaking moment (1984: 14), Bemis stumbles his way forward to open the bank vault. His glasses are hanging off his ears with the lens over his chin. A shot is provided from Bemis’s point of view of blurred surroundings, since he cannot see properly without his glasses. Once he raises his glasses, he can focus on the scene of rubble in front of him. So the narrative reflects on the fact that a fictitious landscape is being read and fits in with those other narratives of The Twilight Zone where characters view strange landscapes and features. The narrative stands for telefantasy’s preoccupation with characters seeing the mysterious.
This scene also concerns its reception by the television viewer. As with other narratives of The Twilight Zone, and indeed much telefantasy, we read a strange world, but one which has been signposted as fictitious. There is a shot where Bemis is not seen but where only the frame of his glasses raises swiftly from the bottom to the top of the television frame with the scene in front of him coming into focus. The reading glasses are a type of screen which the wearer looks through just as the television screen is one upon which images are shown for the viewer. Through this shot, and the way in which the lenses of the glasses and the television screen become one, Bemis’s position and the television viewer’s position are merged. The point of view shot is not characteristic of the post-holocaust scenes in this narrative. But this shot merges Bemis and the television viewer as observers.
Venable’s original short story does not have this effect. In the original short story, the reader is told that:
Henry gingerly got to his feet, moving arms and legs experimentally. Assured that nothing was broken, he tenderly raised a hand to his eyes. His precious glasses were intact, thank God! He would never have been able to find his way out of the shattered vault without them…Henry removed the heavy glasses from his face. Instantly the room dissolved into a neutral blur…Henry…carefully dusted the lenses. As he replaced the glasses, they slipped down on the bridge of his nose a little (1985: 55-6)
The literary narrative does not have the ability to eschew the boundaries between the fictional narrative and the reception of the narrative by the reader in the same fashion.
The episode ‘A World of His Own’ (1960), meanwhile, concluded the first season of The Twilight Zone. Its premise is that a playwright can make the characters he describes into a tape-recorder materialize before his eyes. Here, Gregory West creates an attractive blonde mistress Mary with his wife spying on the action, and though he interacts with these characters, and though Serling ends the episode by saying that the events are of course fictional, it is tempting to read the episode, on one level, as a commentary on the way in which writers’ characters come to life through the media of television. Gregory West can make the characters he creates disappear by throwing the tape with their name on into the fire. Ironically, at the end of the episode, it is not Rod Serling (making his first on-screen appearance) who makes the character of Gregory West disappear but rather (as a playful joke) vice versa after Serling has claimed this is all nonsense where Gregory West throws the tape with Serling’s name on it into the fire.
The idea of The Twilight Zone as a drama with characters would again surface in the 1961 episode ‘Five Characters in Search of an Exit’ (the title indebted to Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author). Serling’s closing narration would both say of the five figures turning out to be toys trapped in a cylinder that they are ‘counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth’ within the narrative diegetic world and also that they are ‘Tonight’s cast of players on the odd stage known as the Twilight Zone’.
The Twilight Zone, moreover, concerned the ideological nature of broadcasts. Serling was very interested in exploring what the television media might mean. Although Serling (b. 1924) began his career in radio, it was in television that he would make his mark. However, his success was not born overnight. Serling gained experience by writing for anthology dramas like Kraft Television Theater, Appointment with Adventure, and Hallmark Hall of Fame (Contemporary Authors Online 2010), and it was his script ‘Patterns’ for Kraft Television Theater that gained him widespread acclaim and saw him inundated with permanent job offers and requests for scripts (Rosenbaum 1987). His next success was the 1956 ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ for the Playhouse 90 series but that, like other scripts, was censored by sponsors. The Twilight Zone was born out of Serling’s desire to avoid his scripts becoming victim to such censorship (Contemporary Authors Online 2010); he saw telefantasy as a way of veiling (sometimes) controversial social messages (including, for the time, progressive views on gender and racial equality which would become the focus of the 1960s American civil rights movements), although, at times, this veil could be extremely thin. As Lincoln Geraghty puts it, ‘Unable to discuss politics directly, The Twilight Zone used futuristic settings and the alien body as metaphors through which to participate in current debates’ (2009: 29). Geraghty, for example, reveals that the series questions the conformist values of post-war surburbia as well as the paranoia of Cold War confrontation (2009: 29). So, for Geraghty, episodes such as ‘The Monsters are Due on Maple Street’ (1960) and ‘Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?’ (1961) are allegorical of fear and prejudice of ‘the other’. Serling, of Jewish decent, had in his youth written scathing political pieces for his school newspaper that displayed the liberalism that would be found in The Twilight Zone (Sander 1992: 19), and, immediately after leaving high school, had enlisted in the U.S. Army where he was confronted on a daily basis by the harsh realities of war (Rosenbaum 1987).
‘The Eye of the Beholder’ (1960) thematises the way in which broadcasts are ideological and the ways in which viewers may absorb these ideologies. The narrative concerns the character Janet Tyler, whose abnormal face has made her an outcast, undergoing plastic surgery. During the narrative, Janet Tyler’s face remains bandaged and the doctors treating her are obscured from our vision. As the doctors operate on Janet Tyler, shots of their hands are presented while their faces are obscured. At the end of the narrative, it turns out that Janet Tyler appears, in our view, ‘normal’ while the other members of the State appear like pigs with big noses and big nostrils. The narrative is therefore structured according to the binaries of ‘like’ and ‘unlike’ and ‘dominant’ and ‘non-dominant’, with the ‘dominant’ species putting forth an ideology where all must be assimilated or be outcast from the city in a use of geographical and symbolic space. Present then is the issue of doubling where there is an autocratic attempt to sever off the unlike and be left with a pure ‘one’. Importantly, during the narrative, we see televisions throughout the hospital upon which the Leader of the State speaks of ‘glorious conformity’, fitting in with Marx’s view of ideology as being the beliefs of the dominant class in society which has acquired political power. The fact that viewers in this society absorb this Nazi-like ideology of conformity is highlighted through the fact that Janet Tyler – on, significantly, her eleventh hospital visit – determines to assume the identity of those around her as opposed to being individuated. Since, for most of the narrative, we are invited to assume Janet Tyler to be, by our standards, physically deformed and the doctors not, the narrative questions our idea of normality and the way many of us try to conform in our society. The narrative is hence about perception: how our view is not dissimilar to those within the fiction who may absorb ideologies from the screens.
Furthermore, The Twilight Zone narrative ‘The Obsolete Man’ (1961) is an example of dystopian speculative fiction where an oppressive Nazi-like State of the future is presented ‘not…that will be, but…that might be’ and ‘not a new world’ but ‘simply an extension of what began in the old one’ (as expressed by Serling’s opening narration). Speculative fiction is a type of telefantasy involving imaginative visions of the future, but which, unlike science fiction, does not need a premise based around science. Serling’s opening narration to ‘The Obsolete Man’ reveals that the narrative is microcosmic of autocratic tendencies existing in the television viewer’s world. The overall narrative, though, attacks these tendencies and reinforces the dominant ideology of twentieth century Western culture against fascism, invoking a set of binary oppositions to negate one side of the structure and affirm the other (indeed Hitler and Stalin are referenced). At the same time, the episode can be seen as critiquing any type of conformism.
‘The Obsolete Man’ is more clearly an example of a metafiction, fitting in with Waugh’s (1984) and Currie’s (1995) definition of metafictions that reflect on their construction, with our being able to see parallels between the narrative and The Twilight Zone more generally. The opening narration makes clear that the world presented in the narrative is not a world that ‘will be’ but one that ‘might be’. The narrative also revolves around how media, in this case ‘reality broadcasts’, are ideological. So, viewer figures in the fictional world watch ‘reality broadcasts’ and either absorb or reject ideologies while the real television viewer rejects ideologies from what has been revealed to be a broadcast in a fictional programme.
The narrative can be read in light of Karl Marx’s view of ideology as being the beliefs of the dominant class in society which has acquired economic, and therefore political, power. As seen, according to Marx, society is organized into an economic base – its mode of production – and class identities are established according to who owns, controls and profits from this base. This, in turn, determines the superstructure (political and legal systems, culture, ideology). In this narrative it is revealed that the protagonist Romney Wordsworth has previously laboured at the economic base of the society as a carpenter. This was seen as a useful trade, benefiting the society as a whole.
The narrative can furthermore be read alongside Frederich Engels’ notion of ideology as ‘false consciousness’. However, the narrative proceeds to illustrate that members of the populace see through and challenge this ideology in accordance with Antonio Gramsci’s model of there being dominant and subaltern groups in society. For example, in the narrative the rulers of the society circulate the view that there is no God, since they want only themselves to be recognized and worshipped. In the narrative, the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver) yells into his microphone, ‘The State has proven that there is no God’. Engels saw that members of social groups other than the dominant class will come to endorse a successful ideology, even if doing so is not in their best interests but did not explain why people come to beliefs that are damaging to them. In ‘The Obsolete Man’, however, Wordsworth (coincidentally played once again by Burgess Meredith) replies, ‘You cannot erase God with an edict’ and his previous role as carpenter suggests his links with Christ (Brode and Serling 2009: 197). The State’s ideology is far from successful since a ‘police state’ has to be run where broadcasts reveal the fate of those who do not comply.
At the beginning of the narrative, the State, which has banned reading and religion, seeing itself as the only God, deems the individual librarian Romney Wordsworth obsolete, and sentences him to death, meaning that from the outset binaries are established between the State and the Individual, and between oppression and freedom. The representation of the State as oppressive through the filming of the narrative has been largely concentrated upon by Zicree, who quotes director Silverstein saying ‘It was vaguely reminiscent of some of the German films of the twenties, and there was a certain amount of expressionism in the style of the performance and the sets’ (1982: 209). Expressionism presents un-realistic uses of space, shapes, lighting, and sound to convey mood. For instance, a barren feeling is provided by the room of the State in which Wordsworth is judged. As Zicree notes, ‘The walls are completely covered with black velvet. There is a single, long, narrow table. At the end of it is an immensely tall, narrow table, behind which the Chancellor stands elevated and apart. The only other feature of the room is the door, which…is long and narrow’ (1982: 209). ‘The lighting’, writes Zicree, is also ‘harsh, casting long, narrow shadows’ (1982: 209). Similarly, the people of the State are, ‘Starkly uniformed’, standing ‘at attention on either side of the table, arms at their sides, their shapes mirroring the shapes of the table, the lectern and the door’ with the Chancellor speaking in a ‘harsh monotone’ which suggests lack of emotion (Zicree 1982: 209).
A narrative about ideological television broadcasts is presented. For the narrative is about narrative power. It not only begins with the State having power over language with the declaration ‘Wordsworth. Romney. Obsolescence’, but also concerns the use of broadcasts to enforce ideology. The State’s broadcasts are directed to a mass audience. But the narrative ultimately thematises the use of a broadcast to attack the ideology of the State and affirms the ideology of democracy, using television to do this. Different positions (totalitarian versus individualist) are battling it out, with characters each wanting the other to consent to their view of life in a Gramscian fashion. Even though Wordsworth cannot escape with his life since he is one against many, the narrative proves that he has won in symbolic terms.
For in this narrative, there is not a straightforward binary between the State and individual corresponding to that of the Controller of Broadcast and the Subject of Broadcast, but in fact these binaries are reversed. Romney Wordsworth is given three choices by the State of how he wishes to die. He decides that firstly, only his assassin know the method of his death, secondly that he die at midnight the next day, and, very importantly, thirdly that he have an audience. The Chancellor is especially pleased with the latter request since a broadcast can be used to enforce the ideology of the State, showing what befalls those who do not fit into the system. The Chancellor therefore sees himself and the State as assuming a parental role and the subjects as children needing to be taught.
But, Wordsworth the subject, becomes the controller and manipulator of the transmission, who has seized narrative control by requesting a broadcast, and who makes the Chancellor of the State the subject. Wordsworth invites the Chancellor into the locked living quarter so that the Chancellor will share the death by a bomb to detonate in the room. While Wordsworth sits gaining reassurance from reading his Bible out loud, the Chancellor sits nervously and ultimately begs to be released from the room ‘in the name of God’. As a result, the broadcast has the function not of enforcing the ideology of the might of the State but of emphasising the weakness of the system and the might of the individual, who is therefore a formidable presence and not reduced to obsolescence. Once Wordsworth has literally lived up to his name, and emphasised the worth of his words (rather than being akin to the Romantic poet William Wordsworth), he lets the Chancellor escape. While the narrative begins with the State in control of words, Wordsworth takes narrative control.
In ‘The Obsolete Man’ not only is a narrative presented but it also reflects on its construction as a fictional narrative of The Twilight Zone. Every narrative of The Twilight Zone presents narration by Serling, often at the end directing the viewer to read the narrative ideologically. There are parallels between Wordsworth and Serling, who are authorial doubles and heroes with Wordsworth using a broadcast in the narrative and Serling using the broadcast of what is revealed to be the fictional programme of The Twilight Zone. These doubles are therefore the type where there is a relationship between figures. Through seizing narrative control, Wordsworth is like Serling and this points to the construction of this narrative and epitomizes The Twilight Zone generally since Serling also believes in the worth of words. Just as Wordsworth has pointed to the Chancellor’s being obsolete through the medium and words, Serling states that the Chancellor became ‘obsolete, but so was the State, the entity he worshipped’ for ‘Any State, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognise the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that State is obsolete’.
just as the populace would be the recipients of this live broadcast and
this ideology, so is the real television viewer watching what has been
revealed to be a fictional narrative of The Twilight Zone. This
makes the narrative about how it is constructed and may be received by
television viewer and techniques of television merge us with the unseen
viewers within the narrative world. The filming of the scene in
Wordsworth’s dwelling for the television viewer reinforces the fact that
Wordsworth has taken over authorship of the broadcast, and invites the
television viewer to make a resistant reading to that intended by the
Chancellor. The Chancellor tells Wordsworth to look at the camera but
ironically it is the Chancellor who becomes the subject of the
broadcast. The Chancellor, as subject, rather than controller, of the
broadcast is seen on screen in close-up for long periods of time, and at
one point, there is a gradual zoom-in for the television viewer, a
technique suggesting observation, contrasting with static shots of
Wordsworth. Moreover, there is a shot of the camera lenses on the wall
of Wordsworth’s dwelling, followed by a clock rolling across the screen,
followed by a shot, not of Wordsworth, but rather of the Chancellor in
the large circular lens for a considerable eight seconds, as the unseen
fictional audience would view him. The Chancellor’s actions also code
him as not in control but rather a nervous subject of the broadcast. For
upon first sitting down, the Chancellor folds his arms and looks up,
obviously in a worried state, and, very tellingly, soon lights a
cigarette, smoking being coded in culture as an activity resulting from
nervousness. The images of the clocks and idea of time are very
important to this scene inviting anticipation since a bomb is going to
detonate in the room. However, this anticipation is not of the
television viewer wondering what will happen to Wordsworth, who is in
control both of the narrative and himself, but is rather of the
television viewer contemplating how long it will take the Chancellor to
break down. The digital clock occupying the bottom centre of the screen
first appears over a shot of the Chancellor, and at points in the scene
the clock becomes bigger on the screen, giving the effect that it is
moving nearer to the television viewer. This is highly orchestrated. The
use of incidental music, often having emotional resonances, is also
instrumental in creating anticipation, again as to how long the nervous
Chancellor will be able to cope. It is composed of beats, resembling the
sound which a clock makes when ticking away. As the digital clock which
appears on the screen moves forward, the pace of these beats increases.
The clock imagery and the incidental music cease as the Chancellor
breaks down, begging for release. The broadcast within the narrative is
therefore not only for the unseen audience in the fiction but for the
television viewers. The narrative therefore reflects on television’s
ideological function. By the end of the narrative, the role reversal
between the Chancellor and Wordsworth is made clear where in a mirroring
shot of the opening of the episode the Chancellor now enters through the
long, narrow door and is judged obsolete, with a chorus of people
standing on either side of the Chancellor making deep-throated sounds,
and then surrounding him, preventing his escape, and sliding him onto
As we have
seen, then, a telefantasy programme as early as The Twilight Zone
features different types of metafiction. The Twilight Zone may be
an anthology series containing diverse types of narrative, but
metafictional devices in individual episodes are able to reflect on the
programme as a whole. For example, in ‘Time Enough at Last’, the image
of the book flipping open in close-up signals not only the episode’s
move into an imaginative science fiction realm, but also stands for the
way in which all episodes of The Twilight Zone take the
television viewer into a sphere of the imagination. As The Twilight
Zone was a highly imaginative and, in places, playful programme, an
image such as a book flipping open in close-up does not appear out of
place. We further saw that the episode ‘The Obsolete Man’ reflects on
the way in which television broadcasts of The Twilight Zone
feature Rod Serling’s liberal ideologies, positioned in relation to
wider American culture. This ideological use of broadcasts would be
picked up in the Star Trek episode ‘Patterns of Force’ (1968),
and, much later, in the Doctor Who narratives ‘Carnival of
Monsters’ (1973) and ‘Vengeance on Varos’ (1985) we see how television
can be used for entertainment or politically.
Boddy, William (1984), ‘Entering The Twilight Zone’, Screen 25, 98-108.
Brode, Douglas, and Carol Serling (2009), Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone: The 50th Anniversary Tribute, Fort Lee, Barricade Books.
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Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.
This page was first published to the internet Saturday 18th June 2011. Updated Saturday 2nd July 2011.