It’s been more than a week since the ball dropped, and I think I’ve finally heard the last of the muffled marching band that’s traipsed its way through my skull since Ryan Seacrest and a skin full of liquor ushered in the new year. In lieu of Tylenol and bottled water, I medicated myself with the annual cable TV marathon of The Twilight Zone, which didn’t allow me to get the rest that I needed because I was glued to those supernatural, suspenseful, and otherwise unsettling stories. And perhaps because of the new year, I’m reflecting on the first episode I’d ever seen of the classic television series: “Probe 7, Over and Out,” thinking about how it changed my understanding of Storytelling forever.
My first journey into the Twilight Zone was through the 1983 anthology film, but that particular venture – which I took too many times to count – was frequently in broad daylight. The movie frequently screened on cable in the middle of the day, when its frights couldn’t find me watching from the family room floor. But one Saturday night at the age of 10, I stayed up later than I should have, having been assured that I didn’t have to attend Sunday school the following morning. It was a rare treat. The Bible stories seemed both limited in quantity and endless in their telling, and a reprieve would be a relief. Without Sunday school to whisk me to bed early, that night would be special. The house was dark. Everyone had gone to bed for the night. As I flipped channels, the TV suddenly flickered with tones of black and white – that door performing somersaults in the cosmos, that house window inexplicably shattering, that slowly blinking staring eye. I’d been transported to a Twilight Zone the likes of which I’d never seen before, seduced by the show’s musical introduction and the inimitable voice of Rod Serling.
In comparison to many others, this episode isn’t the perfect representation of what the weekly TV could accomplish, but this particular installment tells the story of Adam Cook (Richard Basehart), an astronaut who crash lands on a lush alien planet. While he nurses his wounds, which include a broken arm and a bruised rib, radio transmissions alert him that his home planet will soon be destroyed by its two governing bodies, long entrenched in war. Without a home to return to and with a foreign land to call home, Cook discovers only one other living creature, a woman who calls herself Eve (Antoinette Bower). After some initial suspicion of one another, the two settle upon calling this otherworldly planet “Earth” and determine to build a life there together.
The religious subtext wasn’t lost on me, even if I didn’t come from a religious family. The irony that I was watching a creation story late on a Saturday night and that I would be absent from Sunday school the next morning, however, would take time for me to understand. And what made the program itself frightening was not its dramatic action. Aside from some moody atmosphere, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and a brief physical confrontation, “Probe 7, Over and Out” possesses little of the terror synonymous with The Twilight Zone.
What made the episode so compelling to me as a child was how it seemed to address the human condition on such a unique stage of science fiction and suspense. “He’s a frightened breed,” Cook tells himself of humanity, after the terrified Eve has fled the comfort of his company. “He’s a very frightened breed.” At that age, I understood the evil of racism and the terror of growing old and even more from the full color anthology film of the same name, but perhaps the more ancient black and white presentation of this television show made its messaging more disarming to me. Perhaps it was the absence of color on the screen and the absence of light in the family room. And it may have had everything to do with the program’s bravery in taking a story so hallowed on Sunday mornings and turning it into a contemporary narrative infused with trepidation, distrust, and fear, all of which the world felt daily in some measure. I didn’t understand at that age that stories could do something like that: so irreverent, so manipulative, so revolutionary. What would be next, I asked myself: beloved fairy tales infused with moral compasses? Famous children’s story characters entertaining dark urges? Origin stories that humanized the great villains of literature? Those questions were as invigorating to me as they were frightening, because their answers lie somewhere in the unknown.
But as a young viewer, I was a little more than intrigued by the potential future of storytelling after that night, not only because I was such a lover of storytelling but also because I suddenly saw my contribution to storytelling rather unleashed, unbridled – like Adam on a distant planet: born anew to create a story that no one’s quite heard like that before. And for a 10-year-old just then learning to understand the natural rules of narrative, The Twilight Zone represented a passport by which to bypass a number of the layovers that I would have felt obligated to make before venturing into this new world of story on my own.
And, of course, I’d see more episodes of The Twilight Zone that would be more terrifying than this one, certainly more inspirational to the young creator lurking within me.
And some of them wouldn’t let me get the rest that I needed.
And none of them were meant to.