Why 'The Twilight Zone' Pilot Is the Most Influential in TV History
The year is 1959. The wars were cold; the families nuclear. The Earth found itself in a state of cultural change and scientific curiosity in what would be the final decade before man grazed the surface of the moon. It was during this time that our eyes were lifted toward the spheres of gas we know as stars. Screenwriter Rod Serling introduced a television program to this pale blue dot, the likes of which would influence the televised mediums for decades to come. The signpost is up ahead. Look out! Our next stop, The Twilight Zone.
With CBS rebooting the Twilight Zone (with Jordan Peele set to host), maybe soon we will experience another renaissance of original ideas like the one in the influential original pilot. Every piece of genre fiction that appeared on screen in the six decades after The Twilight Zone debuted was influenced by one or more of Serling’s stories.
Each of the 156 episodes of the original series introduced a number of important science-fiction, horror, and fantasy tropes that the world would come to know, love, and even hate in due time.
The pilot episode of the Twilight Zone is a prime example of a classic TV trope. In “Where Is Everybody?”, the audience follows an amnesiac who finds himself wandering through a deserted town. He begins to lose his mind from loneliness — and the feeling he’s being watched — before he ultimately cracks. It’s later revealed that all of the events of the episode were actually just hallucinations in a test to see how long an astronaut could survive alone in a small vessel. A simple enough story, but its effects are still felt today.
The most obvious trope this episode introduced to the world is the last man on Earth: any piece of fiction that involves a sole hero who finds themselves alone in a place where there should be a lot of people. Often, there are external dangers the protagonist is fighting, but ultimately, the most dangerous enemies are isolation and loneliness.
One of the most recognizable devices of this trope is the protagonist’s inevitable dialogue with an inanimate object. This is due, in part, to the visual medium. In a book, for example, the audience is exposed to the lonely hero’s internal thoughts. On screen, there needs to be a strategic way to get the character to talk out loud without cheesily monologuing to an empty room. Serling knew this, and though he himself is prone to monologues, he knew he had to give his character something better. In this episode, for instance, our hero approaches who he believes to be a woman and verbalizes all of the thoughts in his head before realizing that she is, in fact, a store mannequin. This one scene inspired countless films to follow suit.
I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic film based on the novel of the same name, follows a similar model. Scientist Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) tries to survive alone in a vampire-plagued New York City while also attempting to preserve his sanity. He famously talks to mannequins that he’s set up around town in order to communicate.
Similarly, the 1971 sci-fi adaptation, Omega Man, has Neville (Charlton Heston) do most of his dialoguing with a bust of Caesar. Even the survival film Cast Away relied on the volleyball Wilson to give Tom Hank’s character someone to talk to.
Another famous plot device of this episode is that the protagonist is a forgetful hero with no idea how he arrived at this empty hamlet. This trope has been used many times since in sci-fi/fantasy TV series to create an empathetic protagonist, because the audience learns about them at the same time as they do in the story. A few examples are Victoria Skillane in the Black Mirror episode “White Bear,” John Murdoch from Dark City, and the main character in The Outer Limits episode “Demon With a Glass Hand.”
It would be a stretch to claim this Twilight Zone episode coined “the dream sequence,” but TV shows or films that are presented as the truth, only to find out later it was the visual representation of a brain gone haywire — that idea originated in the Twilight Zone.
The psychotic hallucinations in American Psycho; the video game realities in the “Playtest” episode of Black Mirror Season 3; the entire plot of the psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder; Adam Sandler’s masterpiece Click; several episodes of Star Trek, including “The Inner Light,” “Frame of Mind,” and “Barge of the Dead” — all of these spawned from plot devices used in the Twilight Zone.
It also bears mentioning that the pilot episode is very unusual. By the end, it turns out to not be science fiction at all. All of the previous events of the episode are easily explained in the final four minutes: It wasn’t real. It was just his imagination.
There are 156 episodes of the original Twilight Zone, but the pilot is one of only four that doesn’t contain any supernatural elements. Looking back at it now, we can see how this episode breaks from the standard episodic structure of the Twilight Zone, which almost always contains some level of fantasy. But the pilot set up the expectation that every episode of the series was going to be like this: set in reality with sci-fi storylines that can always be explained away by the final reveal.
But the Twilight Zone isn’t the origin of all science fiction. Most cite Mary Shelley’s work, notably Frankenstein, as the first piece of science fiction, and plenty of films and TV shows portrayed similar ideas. For example, Tales of Tomorrow, another sci-fi anthology series, first premiered in 1951, eight years before Twilight Zone ever hit the air. Though it shared many similarities, there is one key difference: Tales of Tomorrow’s episodes are adaptations and dramatizations of classic sci-fi stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Unlike its contemporaries, The Twilight Zone premiered original stories, written specifically to be viewed on screen, which is ultimately what led Rod Serling to become the most influential writer of the 20th century.