For the morning and afternoon of October 2, SyFy (the former Sci Fi Channel) ran a day-long marathon of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, one of television’s true acknowledged masterpieces and one of the few TV series that are considered genuine literature. (Don’t believe me? The Twilight Zone is taught in schools in the “Cable in the Classroom” program, and there are more than a few colleges where it’s taught as well.) The SyFy marathon commemorated the 50th anniversary of The Zone’s premiere on CBS. If you really know your history, you’re aware that The Zone, like Star Trek, owes its existence to Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. The de facto initial pilot episode of the series was “The Time Element,” a play by Rod Serling that was presented on The Desilu Playhouse. It’s true; I’ve looked up “The Time Element” at The Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan and watched it. This was the program that interested CBS in Rod’s concept for a fantasy anthology program. (And this was what enabled Rod to overcome his aggravating problem with network censors and sponsors leaching everything that Rod found meaningful out of his stories so that they wouldn’t distract the audience from the toilet-paper and cigarette commercials. By telling his stories of the human condition as fantasies or light science-fiction stories, Rod got to say everything he wanted to say under the radar.) The rest, as the cliche goes, is history.
So this was my first Friday in October (and Friday has always been the traditional day for this show). As I’ve done so many times and will do so many times more in the future, because this show never wears out its welcome, I viewed “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, “Death’s Head Revisited”, “Nothing in the Dark”, “To Serve Man”, “Hocus Pocus and Frisby”, and “The Changing of the Guard”. They and the other classics of The Twilight Zone never get old. That’s what a classic is.
Sometimes I go out onto the Web, just to kill some time, and do a random surf. I pick a topic and just see where on the Internet it takes me. One afternoon this past spring, I did a surf to see what’s out there about the second Twilight Zone, the Zone of the 1980s, another truly literate and artistic series that people should know as well as they do Rod’s original show. I came to a Blog called Postcards from the Zone (http://postcardsfromthezone.blogspot.com), which is devoted to the 1980s show, and had a look around to see what they had to say about the episodes. And when I came to their coverage of one of my favorite episodes, “Dead Run,” I discovered something that I found as shocking and horrifying as anything that any character in the Twilight Zone has ever experienced. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It just couldn’t be! Could it...?
By way of preface, “Dead Run” is based on a short story by science fiction writer Greg Bear. Greg is the author of one of my favorite books, The Forge of God (which I discovered when it was excerpted and previewed in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine!) I ran into him a couple of times at San Diego Comic Conventions. He’s a very nice guy; he shared with me that Forge had been optioned as a motion picture. That was some years ago and I’ve never heard anything about the Forge of God movie since then. I assume the picture is in what Hollywood calls Development Hell, a state of eternal pre-production that may well be likened to purgatory. Anyway, “Dead Run” stars Steve Railsback as a down-on-his-luck truck driver who takes a new job for the trucking company of the Afterlife, whose business is the shipping of the “souls” of the damned to Hell as toxic freight. (The Twilight Zone was made for metaphors like that; you’ve got to love it.) But what he discovers is that this company is run by what I in my less charitable moments call the Religious Reich or the Christian Taliban (and I only wish I had coined those expressions), people who decide who goes to Hell by their own oppressively pious, Bible-thumping standards. The company’s cargo is full of draft dodgers, librarians who stood up for banned books, and (gasp!) homosexuals. (You also have to love it that the CEO is played by John DeLancie, who was later just as judgemental when he played the omnipotent Q in Star Trek; and that one of the unjustly damned is Brent Spiner, the future Data.) Anyway, our young trucker sees the wrongness of what the company is doing, and our story ends with him secretly starting to winnow out the people who shouldn’t be going to Hell (like that gay guy) and sending them up “the high road.”
It was in the Blog’s commentary on “Dead Run” that the horror struck. I felt like Lloyd Bochner learning that To Serve Man was a cookbook when I read:
“It's probably also worth mentioning that Rod Serling would likely hate this episode - according to the folks in the know from the TZ Café forums, Rod was an old-school homophobe.”
No, that couldn’t be right. Rod Serling--a homophobe? How? It wasn’t possible. My mind reeled with shock and disbelief. I felt stricken and sick in my heart. The world itself seemed to be slipping out from under me as it did Richard Long in “Person or Persons Unknown”. It just couldn’t be true. Not Rod! Please--not Rod Serling!
You have to understand what this revelation meant to me personally. Rod Serling is one of the great personal heroes of my life. He is one of the people who taught me who I wanted to be, a master storyteller who spun forth characters and worlds for the entertainment and pleasure and inspiration of millions. As a boy, I thought there could be nothing cooler in the universe than to be the one who created The Twilight Zone--and later Night Gallery--and wrote them, and got to introduce them on the air. Rod Serling was practically God. And later in life, as I got to know Rod’s work much more intimately through not just casually watching but studying it, I realized that The Twilight Zone was filled with stories about the evils of prejudice and hatred and greed and persecution, and the dignity and worth of the individual. And I loved it that much more. I watched The Twilight Zone until I knew it backwards and forwards. Like its cousin, The Outer Limits, it was far more than just something on television.
How could the man who wrote “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “The Eye of the Beholder” and “Death’s Head Revisited” not understand that gays are part of the human race, with their own integrity, their own dignity, and the same business in the world as everyone else? To me, this was like Luke Skywalker learning that Darth Vader was his father. I felt sick with anguish at the thought that I had spent my life hero-worshipping a homophobe!
On pulling myself together--slightly--I made a point to go over to the Twilight Zone Cafe Listserv (http://twilightzonewor.9.forumer.com) that Postcards from the Zone had mentioned and put a shout out to its members. I asked them if they could corroborate--or, I hoped, refute--what Postcards had said. I was ready to grasp at any straw I could get.
The Moderator of the Cafe was forthcoming. As he told me in response: “In one of the biographies of Serling, it's reported that Serling used anti-gay epithets to describe at least two actors who were allegedly gay. According to the same source, one of his old paratrooper buddies ended a letter to Serling by signing "Love, (name of old paratrooper buddy)." Serling reportedly wrote back to say how unhealthy he thought that was, and that his old paratrooper buddy should get psychiatric help. I think this all comes from Joel Engel's biography, but I'd need to check. Both biographies of Serling (by Engel and Gordon Sander) have been criticized as being more unreliable than they should be. Even if Serling was anti-gay in the 1950s and '60s, it's very conceivable that his views would have changed over time.”
Well, that didn’t make me feel any better. Nor did this response from another member of the Cafe: “It was definitely in one or both of those biographies, that Rod used the three-letter "f" word to describe gay men. . . “ Wonderful: He was given to throwing around the gay equivalent of the “N” word for African-Americans! Rod, I thought, how could you...?
Further discussion of Rod’s anti-gayness with people at the Zone Cafe, and other people I knew, brought me around to the basic fact of Rod Serling’s place in the continuum of history. Rod was a man born in the 1920s, who died in the 1970s. He lived at a time when the closet for gays was much vaster and deeper and more inescapable than it’s become since Stonewall; a time when gays lived in a self-loathing almost as cruel as the loathing that the rest of the world felt for them, when gayness itself was classified as a pathological disorder. He was like Thomas Jefferson, who believed in the equality of men but couldn’t apply the principle to the African descendants he kept as slaves. His progressive thinking was circumscribed by his times. He was as enlightened as his place in history allowed him to be. Rod Serling’s homophobia, in short...was real, but it wasn’t his fault. It was still a bitter pill to swallow, but understanding that made it go down a little more easily.
In these past few months I’ve made my peace with Rod’s unenlightenment, even as the little aliens who died from the supernova made peace with their fate in “The Star” (1980s Zone Christmas special). In fact, I’ve taken to thinking of it in terms of Gene Roddenberry’s experience. I read in Gene’s biography, Star Trek Creator, that Gene, a former Los Angeles Police Officer, either had borderline-homophobic tendencies of his own, or tolerated them in others. And then, during the 1960s Star Trek and The Next Generation, he became friends with William Ware Theiss, the costumer who created the original Starfleet uniforms. Mr. Theiss died of AIDS, but in his friendship with Gene, he put a human face on gayness for the man who envisioned a future that affirmed all humanity in all its differences and diversity. And Gene learned better. I’d like to think that Rod Serling, had he lived long enough, could have learned better. Rod died of heart disease from his heavy smoking in 1975. If he’d been with us longer, if he could have seen the AIDS epidemic and the courage with which people faced it, and the strides that gay America has taken in its wake, he, like his colleague Gene Roddenberry, might well have broadened his own perception of humanity. Rod could have learned that it is no more right to ostracize gays than it was for “The State” to ostracize a beautiful woman for not being ugly (“The Eye of the Beholder”). Rod could have “gotten it,” just as Gene did. I really like to believe he could.
So, on the occasion of this 50th anniversary, I still love to visit The Twilight Zone. And in the posts ahead, so will you--because I’ve planned a very special celebration. Starting next time, we’re going to pay tribute to Rod Serling’s masterpiece--in song! I’ve been creating a special suite of musical parodies based on episodes of The Zone. We’ll be singing tunes from everywhere from Broadway to Motown, by people from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel to Madonna, all with lyrics harking back to some of the best stories this series has to offer. This is going to be fun. Till then, I leave you with these words:
There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call...THE TWILIGHT ZONE.