Friday, August 9, 2013

Serling's Challenge

A column I wrote for the site The Tracking Board, on a person whose work I admire: Rod Serling.
"I think the destiny of all men is not to sit in the rubble of their own making but to reach out for an ultimate perfection which is to be had. At the moment, it is a dream. But as of the moment we clasp hands with our neighbor, we build the first span to bridge the gap between the young and the old. At this hour, it’s a wish. But we have it within our power to make it a reality. If you want to prove that God is not dead, first prove that man is alive."
– Rod Serling, Moorpark College, 1968

He was the showrunner, creator, and executive producer of “The Twilight Zone”. Out of 156 episodes, he wrote 92 scripts himself, over 5 seasons. He was an acclaimed writer of teleplays that addressed the horrors of war, racism, human suffering. He was a humanist, a visionary, an American original. He was a hero of WW2 who made it through the Pacific theater and who was plagued by nightmares for the rest of his life. He was a military boxer whose nose was broken in both his first and last matches. He was also a cynic who saw our society’s potential for pettiness and self-destruction. Who can forget his 1959 script of Lyn Venable’s “Time Enough At Last”? A self-absorbed bank teller (Burgess Meredith, a favorite of Serling’s) refuses to acknowledge his lousy marriage and the problems of the world. Instead, he hides in the bank vault reading books, and lamenting the lack of time to do so. While he is in the vault, one day, the looming Cold War specter of the H-bomb is unleashed and the rest of the world gets nuked. He exits the vault in an apocalyptic wasteland, and is saved from the brink of despair, when he finds the remains of a library. He sits down to read…and his glasses fall from his face, smashing against the craggy earth. Serling is not saying one can spend too much time reading – he is suggesting that one cannot ignore the problems of the world entirely – they might just come and blow up in our face. It is worth noting that it was Serling who came up with iconic ending to “Planet of the Apes”, with Lady Liberty’s husk overwhelming a sandy beach in the middle of nowhere.

Serling’s – at times dark – view of humanity extends to the cruelty we inflict on each other for superficial reasons, like physical appearance. Serling’s script for “The Eye of the Beholder”, where a beautiful woman is an outcast in a society grotesques, makes the suggestion that the real ugliness is our penchant for callousness, cruelty, indifference, or worse. “Worse”, being our capacity for self-destruction and hate.

"All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all their conscience."

The above line is from Serling’s script for “Deaths-Head Revisited”, about a former SS Captain who returns to a concentration camp to reminisce, only to be driven mad by the ghosts of those he murdered. “The Twilight Zone”, while occasionally cruel, could often work for the forces of good. This was certainly true in Serling’s “A Quality of Mercy”, a WW2 episode about a green Captain (Dean Stockwell), who, during the final days of the Pacific Theater, orders his men to make a suicidal raid on a cave full of wounded and sick Japanese soldiers. Through the power of “The Twilight Zone”, the Captain finds himself part of a Japanese platoon, which is ordered to kill wounded American soldiers in a cave. In the end, things revert to normal, and the raid is called off, on account of the A-bomb being dropped. For Serling, a man who saw the Japanese kill many friends in combat, to say, “Hey, those guys on the other side are the same sorry sons of bitches” is a testament to his character not just as a writer, but as a human being.

But, in the end, it is not darkness that lurks at the heart of Serling’s work on “The Twilight Zone”. No, it is a genuine love of humanity, a poignant understanding of the wants that make us human: the desire to be beautiful, the desire to be young again, the desire to be loved, the desire to return to a simpler time.

In Serling’s “Walking Distance”, a traveling ad executive (Gig Young) stops at the small town he was raised in, only to find it exactly as it was. All those who were dead are alive. Scared at first, he finds himself in awe of the things he once loved (soda fountain, carousel). He even runs into his own self as a young boy and even his father, who, after seeing his identification and strange money, comes to believe the exec is who he says he is. Dad advises him to look forward and not back because happiness might be found in the places he has yet to look. There is a gentle sweetness in Serling’s depiction of small town life and the fantasy of returning the memory of an idyllic place called home.

Years before he was chasing Michael Myers, Donald Pleasance was in the Serling-penned episode “The Changing of the Guard”. In it, he portrays a depressed teacher who is forced into retirement and feels like he hasn’t made an impact with his lessons. He returns to the school, planning to kill himself on Christmas Eve. But the ghosts of his former students intervene and tell him how he made them better people. Finding purpose in his life, he reads on a statue’s plith the motto of Antioch College, Rod Serling’s alma mater: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

In the end, that is Rod Serling’s legacy and his challenge to us as human beings: that unless we challenge ourselves to help make this world a better place (perhaps even by a simple act of kindness), then we have learned nothing from this vast mystery we call life. Serling learned this lesson, as did we, in a place beyond imagination, a place where we can see ourselves at our best and worst…

….a place called “The Twilight Zone”.

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