Did Rod Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone’ Use Sci-Fi to Push Politics Past Network Censors?
Jordan Peele’s “Twilight Zone” reboot led to claims that it was either “newly political” or upholding Serling’s legacy.
The beginning of April 2019 also marked the premiere of the third television iteration of The Twilight Zone. This time, Rod Serling’s mid-century television classic series was rebooted with producer Jordan Peele at the helm.
On the day the first two episodes were released — “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” a remake of the classic William Shatner episode, and “The Comedian” — actor Kumail Nanjiani, who stars in the latter episode, tweeted:
“I hope they don’t ruin The Twilight Zone reboot by making sociopolitical arguments.” – a true Twilight Zone fan
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) April 1, 2019
A commenter responded to this with a claim that Serling’s original Twilight Zone was in fact a vehicle to surreptitiously use science fiction as social commentary on what was at the time censorship-happy network television:
For the kids: Rod Serling literally created THE TWILIGHT ZONE because he was tired of network execs trying to censor his sociopolitical statements, so he dressed those statements up in science fiction. https://t.co/lKkZbn3cPg
— Phil Nobile Jr. (@PhilNobileJr) April 2, 2019
In an April 1 2019 Newsbusters article, “2019 Politics and Profanity Enter ‘The Twilight Zone’ Revival,” the author describes the original as “probably one of the most impactful and thought-provoking shows of all time”:
Second, the people behind the project have been far too eager to politicize it. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, executive producer Simon Kinberg commented, “The world we live in 2019 is clamoring socially, politically, morally for a new Twilight Zone. Our politics are so upside down, and because the divisions are getting wider, it’s time for a show that can be entertaining but also provide moral and social parables.” Honestly, the last thing anyone should want nowadays is more politics. Not when algorithms can be considered racist nowadays.
Finally, the new revival also features Jordan Peele as both producer and narrator. The filmmaker behind Get Out and Us has hardly been shy about his liberal outlook. Just recently, he stated that he “doesn’t see himself” casting a white man as a lead in the future because he’s “seen that movie.” In literally any other context, judging someone by their skin color is the definition of racism. Peele may have the right to hire whomever he wants for his movies, but I have the right to criticize his reasons.
So far, Peele’s racial preferences don’t seem to be affecting the series too badly since at least one of its episodes has a white male lead. However, some upcoming episode descriptions, such as one involving a racist cop who shoots a black teenager, still promise some foray into racism. For now, we just have to focus on other ways the revival undermines the original.
Many people seemed to be shocked to discover that sociopolitical commentary was part of science fiction:
Are they just rehashing the traditional stories of the Twilight Zone and just going full SJW with it? Basically a STD flare up on another franchise?
— A man with a cross (@dan_depot) April 2, 2019
so, I’m a huge fan of the original #TheTwilightZone and was down on this new reboot because no Rod, no Twilight Zone. this new reboot’s first episode was a yawn until it came to the unnecessary political humor, lewd humor, and bad language. the original was good without needing
— lo douleur exquise (@esparzanash911) April 2, 2019
Holy shit get ratioed.
(Also, massive LMAO to anyone thinking The Twilight Zone has never been political). pic.twitter.com/C6vIiPkHPW
— PokyGem (The VVitch stan account) (@PokyGem023) April 2, 2019
But social commentary has always been part of science fiction, and The Twilight Zone was never any different. A February 2018 The New York Review of Books assessment of The Twilight Zone Encyclopedia observes that the “show’s subversive credentials … is one of the secret threads running through” the book, quoting one passage:
Though networks of the period avoided tackling uncomfortable topics like the Holocaust in traditional television dramas, Serling often exploited his show’s fantasy milieu and allegorical approach to storytelling to evade the kind of censorship that constrained more realistic programs. CBS network programming head James Aubrey might complain that sponsors avoid such material like the plague — after all, how do you explore the Holocaust and then sell toilet paper or underarm deodorant? — but Serling always stuck to his guns.
A subsequent portion of the review goes over Serling’s difficulties with network censorship:
Besides the other wartime fables like “A Quality of Mercy,” “King Nine Will Not Return” and “Deaths-Head Revisited,” in which an ex-Nazi is driven insane by the ghosts of Dachau, Serling demonstrated his intolerance for discrimination and right-wing ideologies in the all-black cast of “The Big Tall Wish,” the lynching story “I Am the Night—Color Me Black,” written in the immediate aftermath of JFK’s assassination, and “He’s Alive,” starring Dennis Hopper as an American Nazi, who, “like some goose-stepping predecessors… searches for something to explain his hunger, and to rationalize why a world passes him by without saluting.” The Encyclopedia’s entries on virtually all of these explicitly progressive episodes give an account of the political interference Serling faced from the network. In “handsome, arrogant, egotistical” station executive James Aubrey, he found his most tenacious adversary, who consistently shortchanged The Twilight Zone, which was never a sure thing in the ratings, for the likes of Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies. Serling also weathered significant public outcry: an editorial partially reprinted in the Encyclopedia accused the show of Communist sympathies and criticized “He’s Alive” by observing that “the speech of the young Nazi, in the purely political aspects, sounded a great deal more like Barry Goldwater, a man of Jewish lineage, than it did like Hitler.” Serling, who was born Jewish and converted to Unitarianism, responded with characteristically biting candor that:
[The far right seems] to feel that racism, bigotry and hatred should be of little consequence to us in view of the fact that communists are trying to take over our government, invade our schools, and subvert our institutions… But I submit that we have other enemies no less real, no less constant, and no less damaging to the fabric of a democracy. It’s when we hear denials that these people exist, and that their poison is being disseminated, and that any comment to the effect is irrelevant—I wonder if The Twilight Zone isn’t something more than a television idea.
… Serling recalled in his last interview, before dying during heart surgery in 1975 the age of fifty, that he was motivated by his disgust at postwar bias and prejudice, which he railed against so virulently that he confessed “to creating daydreams about how I could… bump off some of these pricks.” But writing ultimately covers more ground, and Serling confined his daydreams to television and film (he famously co-wrote Planet of the Apes, another buffet of Cold War anxieties served up as an alternate-reality blockbuster).
A May 2011 editorial in the Guardian printed well before Peele’s Twilight Zone said that after having “almost all the contemporary political references excised from an early drama about a crooked senator, [Serling] hit upon the idea of using science fiction and fantasy to smuggle in more controversial elements, in plain sight of the moneymen.” A November 2016 analysis by St. Mary’s University History in Media project describes a pivotal instance of censorship in Serling’s career after he tried to represent the lynching of Emmett Till in a script in the late 1950s:
However, it was Serling’s “A Town Has Turned to Dust” that would be his most controversial moment… “A Town Has Turned to Dust” followed the story of Emmett Till, the young black boy brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. CBS decided to censor Serling’s script by making the black boy that was supposed to represent Till into a Mexican boy; they also made it seem as though it was the boy’s fault by depicting him as “getting out of line.”
The network’s censorship removed many of the painful truths regarding the prejudices in America during this time. Serling would turn to the avenue of science fiction in order to escape this kind of censorship; in the words of Serling, “You know, you can put these words into the mouth of a Martian and get away with it.” Serling’s desire to get away from censored forms of media led to the creation of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), a science fiction series that showcased people’s greatest fears ranging from alien invasion, death, ghosts, and even the effects of the Cold War on American society.
A 2002 NPR Morning Edition retrospective and interview with Serling’s widow Carolyn Serling reiterated his frustration with political censorship:
“He had said, ‘You know, you can put these words into the mouth of a Martian and get away with it,'” remembers Carolyn Serling. “If it was a Republican or Democrat they couldn’t say it. I mean, he wanted to deal with the issues of the day. We’re looking at bigotry, racism, prejudice, nuclear war, ethics, witch-hunts, loneliness. All of these things were verboten.”
A clip features Serling himself describing the Till reference being censored in 1959, and he addresses the general difficulty in working with networks at the time:
In the same interview (available here), Serling denied he intended to use The Twilight Zone a vehicle to discuss “social evils.” Starting at around 11:40, Serling described himself as a “tired non-conformist,” but claimed he would not use his scripts as “vehicles of social criticism.”
However, in April 2019, Smithsonian pointed once again to Serling’s attempts to dramatize the Till murder as a flashpoint for the series:
After haranguing from CBS executives, Serling had to move the story back 100 years, erase any direct allusion to Till, as well any black and white racial dynamics in the script … as Serling himself later put it, “If you want to do a piece about prejudice against [black people], you go instead with Mexicans and set it in 1890 instead of 1959.”
Serling had also learned his lesson from his earlier dust-up with the Daily Variety. In his interview with Wallace, he demurred about whether or not his new show would explore controversial themes. “…[W]e’re dealing with a half-hour show which cannot probe like a [Playhouse 90 production], which doesn’t use scripts as vehicles of social criticism. These are strictly for entertainment,” he claimed. After Wallace followed up, accusing him of giving up “on writing anything important for television,” Serling easily agreed. “If by important you mean I’m not going to try to delve into current social problems dramatically, you’re quite right. I’m not,” he said.
Of course, that couldn’t have been further from the case. His missteps with adapting the Till tragedy for television forced him to realize that to confront issues of race, prejudice, war, politics and human nature on television he had to do so through a filter.
Many histories of Serling and his creation touched on its subversive and covert themes —which were indeed designed to foil censorship attempts by network censors when it came to the political issues of the day. In the clip above, Serling expresses disgust at censorship he faced in his attempt to depict the lynching of Emmett Till in the lead-up to the show’s debut.