Tag Archives: Rod Serling

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

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Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.

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In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

Romney Wordsworth

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The Twilight Zone, one of my favorite fallbacks when I’m alone, doesn’t shy away from religion. I remember watching some of these moody tales in my childhood, already in reruns by the time I was old enough to appreciate them, and occasionally having my young mind shaken as a result. The frisson of having reality not being as it appeared kept me wanting to see more of Rod Serling’s universe, evaluating, re-evaluating, speculating. Often heavy with psychological realism, despite the obviously outlandish premises, these half-hour plays in black-and-white still have a strange power to alter a mood. I recently viewed the episode “The Obsolete Man,” which closed season two. Having been declared obsolete myself, more than once, I found this story particularly chilling. A totalitarian state declares what worthwhile occupations might be, and Romney Wordsworth, as a librarian, doesn’t hold one of them. With shades of both Orwell and Bradbury, Wordsworth is sentenced to death.

In startlingly strong language, Serling has Wordsworth declare that, despite the decision of the state, there is a God. He wants his death televised, to which the Chancellor is happy to acquiesce. Locking the Chancellor into his room where, Wordsworth reveals, a bomb is about to go off, he tests the steel of the state by accepting his fate. Wordsworth spends his last hour reading the Bible. The Chancellor sweats and chain smokes himself frantic, finally calling out, “In the name of God let me go!” Wordsworth, of course, does. Rod Serling was not known as a particularly religious man. Many of his characters are hard-bitten, tough-talking caricatures whose bravado masks a profound uncertainty about life. The writing may not be stellar, but the ideas are beyond the stars. Religion is very human.

Many of these Twilight Zone episodes I have never seen. Still, they do reveal a world of imagination that had a tremendous impact on Cold War America. Bomb shelters, revolutionaries, and invaders haunt the minds of not just those born in the fifties, but of every generation since. The state that protects us is the very one that breaks open our luggage to look at our unmentionables when we want to fly. To keep us safe from ourselves. A decade before Serling’s series, George Orwell was looking a quarter century ahead, calculating the trajectory. The good guys, it turns out, have the wherewithal to decide who is obsolete and what is subversive. And if you don’t see things their way, they’ll start talking impeachment or perhaps worse. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Forbidden Zones

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I grew up with talking apes. Well, I was actually about six when Planet of the Apes was released, but it quickly became one of my favorite movies. With a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling, and that very unorthodox conceit of evolution playing visibly on the surface, it was the forbidden fruit. Since, according to our fundamentalist doctrine 1) animals can’t speak, 2) evolution never occurred, and 3) the world was going to end long before 3978, we were not prevented from watching what was obviously fiction. And watch I did. There were spin-off cartoons, not to mention the following movie and television series. An unsuccessful reboot by Tim Burton was followed by Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent, if somewhat sentimental version. And I’ve seen them all. Finances being what they are, and, since my family does not share my enthusiasm for the apes, I’ll probably have to wait for the home-viewing release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy the latest offering.

In the meanwhile in a nearly glowing review in this week’s Time magazine, Richard Corliss has indeed whetted my appetite. The original series of Planet of the Apes movies had, like many films of the late sixties and early seventies, a strong, underlying social critique. Yes, one can see only so much of Charlton Heston’s bare chest, but there was something more going on here—something to which we needed to pay attention. The Burton version went for a parsimonious special effects extravaganza, but the storyline was devoid of much underlying reflection. Good ape, bad ape, all the way. Now, as we are moving into the third major incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s dark vision of our distant future, we see that the apes are maybe the real humans here. Maybe they were from the very beginning.

Perhaps because of its ability to slip beneath the Moral Majority radar in the guise of science fiction, the talking apes have been part of American culture for almost my entire life. The original movie introduced the idea of the Forbidden Zone, that region where the truth lay buried, waiting to be discovered. There was a not-so-subtle jab here at a world where politics was continually being revealed as just another human bid for power, and a Cold War was threatening our very existence. We survived and continued to evolve. Still, we find a kind of social catharsis in the apes, and I worry just a little bit at Corliss’s use of the word apocalypse. The apes have always been remarkably prescient. For some of us, they were more than mere entertainment. And so I’ll patiently wait until I can watch the apes alone in the privacy of my home, to learn what the future might hold.

Twilight Zones

It was twilight last night when I drove into Binghamton. My thoughts naturally turned to The Twilight Zone since one of my childhood heroes, Rod Serling, had grown up here. Binghamton University was also the professional home of novelist John Gardner, of Grendel fame. Seeing the colorful leaves fading to the gray of a falling evening, I thought of how evocative a word “twilight” is. We are creatures with an in-born fear of the dark and twilight is our last hope of light before the night settles in. Maybe it was having just so recently read Grendel, but twilight and gods together brought “the twilight of the gods” to mind (it might have helped that a sudden thunderstorm broke out at the moment). When I first saw the word Götterdämmerung, in junior high school, I thought it must be a potent swear word, what with all those doubled letters and umlauts. My German teacher calmly explained that it was the fourth and final cycle of Richard Wagner’s opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen and it translated to Twilight of the Gods. It is itself a translation of the Norse word Ragnarök, with its single umlaut. Even though it wasn’t swearing, the concept sent a shiver through me anyhow.

I’ve never sat through a performance of The Ring, but I have heard the music with its famous Ride of the Valkyries. Based on Norse and Germanic mythologies, The Ring has deep roots in a pagan mythology where night plays a prominent role. Although J. R. R. Tolkien denied having been inspired by Wagner’s work (there was a certain political incorrectness to it, along about the early-to-mid-1940s), both four-part cycles draw on the Norse mythology that continues to fascinate us with movies like Thor and The Avengers. What impacted my young mind the most, however, was the very concept that the gods could be defeated. How was such a thing even possible? We were raised to believe good conquers evil. How can the gods—even pagan ones—lose? It was a world-distorting concept for someone yet to face high school.

Last night I was literally in the twilight zone. Having driven through the Endless Mountains region where autumn’s reds and yellows inspired me with just how colorful death can be (a European friend once confessed to me that driving along a wooded road in Pennsylvania his first autumn here he had to pull over and weep for the beauty), twilight was already on my mind. October fades into the twilight of the year. The mythologies of the northern races, the Norse and the Celts, seem almost obsessed with the ominous, growing darkness. There is a beauty to it, but also an abiding fear. Are the gods powerful enough? It was a question first raised when my eye fell on that striking word Götterdämmerung that somehow became a part of me.

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Just Binghamton

I seem to find myself in Binghamton again. The town, while clearly economically depressed, still retains a bit of its 19th-Century charm with some beautifully restored downtown buildings and a sense of history. While too many store-fronts are still vacant and too little money exists to improve the area sufficiently, I happened upon a warm and cheerful independent bookstore—River Read—and that always gives me hope in such circumstances. Bookstores such as this are like seeing the first crocuses after a long, harsh winter. There is some life in this seemingly dead planet yet. Outside the bookstore stands a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., backed by a sluggish river and yet more vacant windows. I think of justice and all that it means.

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My own hometown (not Binghamton) is virtually a ghost town. It is a feeling difficult to describe, visiting a place that served as your first secure setting in the world only to find it crumbling under an economy with so much wealth with so little reach. Where is the justice in that? Binghamton, near the founding location of IBM, ironically began suffering at the decline of the Cold War. Manufacturing has gone for pastures of a different kind of green, leaving a sometimes sad and forlorn city in its wake. Binghamton sheltered a young Rod Serling, a man who would give the world the Twilight Zone and its endless spinoffs. It is home to a first-rate university. And a wonderful bookstore.

While in River Read we heard some locals talking, in almost Springsteenian fashion, of local civic traditions that had disappeared. Times have changed. Cities like Binghamton don’t draw in the curious or those with liberal purse-strings. Endicott Johnson, the shoe manufacturer, developed a strong sense of welfare capitalism in the city last century—capitalism with a heart seems to have gone extinct these days. The idea that those with the means to create jobs and livelihoods should care for their employees would seem to be a matter of common sense. Instead, common cents have come to rule. Binghamton University is investing in the town, and a sense of cautious optimism dares to suggest itself. Justice is a matter of distribution rather than entitlement. And that’s why I’m standing out here under gray September skies, staring at the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sterling Serling

“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.” The words are those of Rod Serling, native of Syracuse and Binghamton, and creator of The Twilight Zone. When I travel to a new place, I like to honor the writers and creators of the region. Yes, there always have been many creators. By my age, Rod Serling was dead, but he had, before that time, created a cultural phenomenon that would stay with the world forever after. It would be difficult to quantify the effect The Twilight Zone had upon me as a child. That opening took ahold of my young mind and convinced me that there was more to life than what appeared on the surface. It is the power of creation.

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Serling was a fighter. “The angry young man of Hollywood” who used his fiction to protest war and racism, Serling took on many issues in The Twilight Zone that would have been censored had they been presented as fact. Fiction is the vehicle in which truth rides. The bizarre world Serling envisioned captured the imagination to such a point that if I write, “do-do-DO-do, do-do-DO-do” many of you will be able to conjure the theme of The Twilight Zone in your heads. We all know that this is a sign that something strange is about to happen.

There is something about place. I’ve written about sacred geography before, and it is one of the more fascinating aspects of human subconscious life. Something about Syracuse-Binghamton still says “Rod Serling.” Maybe it’s in the low, glowering clouds or the ancient Native American names and traditions that can still be found in this region. Although I’ve never lived in New York, my ancestors did, in the region just east of here. A lifelong wanderer, I sometimes wonder what it is to belong to a place. I have often felt the persistent call of upstate New York, the salmon wisdom whispering me home, perhaps. I’ve never lived here, but maybe I belong here. New York is now proud to claim Rod Serling, and I drive from Syracuse to Binghamton delving deeply into the sacred geography of the region and ponder how such a mind came to be. Even creators, it turns out, have to be created.