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8 Bizarre Facts About Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone

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Though it’s been more than 50 years since it left the air, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone continues to be a benchmark for all the science fiction and fantasy series that have followed. Shows like Lost, The Leftovers, and Under the Dome often draw comparison to Serling’s densely-populated fifth dimension of moral quandaries and supernatural occurrences. Naturally, the show’s history has a few curious footnotes. We’ve unlocked the door to some of the most intriguing.

1. Serling vs. Bradbury

Though Serling was contracted to write most of the scripts for Zone during its five-year run from 1959 to 1964, it was impossible to tackle every single episode. At first, the multiple-time Emmy winner wanted to give new writers a chance to break into the business. But when the show received over 14,000 submissions—most of them either unread or deemed unsuitable—he learned to depend on authors like Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and George Clayton Johnson for story springboards or full scripts.

Serling also sought out the talents of sci-fi giants like Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. Clarke was unavailable, but Bradbury wrote several scripts, only one of which made it to air: an adaptation of his short story “I Sing the Body Electric.” Serling would go on to say that Bradbury’s work “seems to lend itself to the printed page, rather than spoken language.” Bradbury, possibly nursing a bruised ego, accused Serling of the capital crime of writing: plagiarizing stories. An offended Serling told interviewers he admired Bradbury immensely, but it’s unknown if the two ever reconciled before Serling’s death in 1975.

2. The Episode That Won an Oscar

When Serling’s budget for the series tightened in the fifth and final season, he decided on an unusual cost-cutting measure: the writer paid $10,000 (by some accounts, $25,000) for the rights to broadcast An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a French short based on the Ambrose Bierce story about a Confederate sympathizer who escapes the hangman’s noose at the end of the Civil War. No dubbing was needed: the short was virtually silent, and its haunting cinematography was a perfect fit for the show. The year prior, it had won an Oscar for Best Short Subject. Bierce’s story was also adapted into an episode of the other popular anthology of the day, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, marking the only time the two series used the same source material.

3. Tossing Shatner off the Plane

Director Richard Donner still had his feature career in front of him (Lethal Weapon, Superman: The Movie) when he worked on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” about a man (William Shatner) getting on a plane after recovering from a nervous breakdown. Inevitably, Shatner wigs out when he sees a gremlin on the wing tearing the guts out of the engine, and is unable to convince his wife or attendants of the danger.

The episode was shot in an empty water tank, with the plane roughly thirty feet off the ground. Produced in the show’s typical hurried pace of three days, Shatner and actor Edd Byrnes decided to add to Donner’s stress by staging a mock fight on the wing. As Donner looked on, the two grappled before throwing a Shatner-sized dummy that crashed to the concrete below. The director was horrified, but later joked his first thought was that they’d have to reshoot with another actor. (Serling himself didn’t fare as well with another “Nightmare”-related prank. He once stuck a picture of the monster on writer Richard Matheson’s window seat; the propellers blew it off before Matheson could see it.)

4. Six Dimensions

When Serling recorded his famous opening narration for the pilot episode in 1959, he began by intoning that there was “a sixth dimension” to explore. A CBS executive heard it and asked the writer why he had skipped a fifth dimension—weren’t there only four? Serling, puzzled, hadn’t really considered it. “Oh,” he said. “Aren’t there five?” The narration was re-recorded before any angry letters from physicists poured in.

5. J.J. Abrams’ Felicity Homage

Countless Zone parodies and tributes have aired over the decades, but writer/director J.J. Abrams wanted something bolder than a bad Serling imitation. For a 2000 installment of his twentysomething drama Felicity, Abrams filmed an episode that put the cast in a dreamscape of paranormal events. To mimic Zone’s trademark black and white visuals, Abrams hired one of the show’s original directors, 77-year-old Lamont Johnson. Critics praised the effort. (Abrams, an admitted Serling fan, bought the writer’s last script, The Stops Along the Way, in 2013, with an eye on producing it as a limited series.)

6. Your Host, Desi Arnaz

While CBS deliberated over Serling’s pitch for a primetime fantasy anthology series in the late 1950s, producers of the network’s Desilu Playhouse had pulled his original pilot script, “The Time Element,” from storage. In it, a man sees a psychiatrist with recurring nightmares where he tries to warn others of an impending attack on Pearl Harbor; at the climax, he disappears, with the doctor being told he died during the attack some 15 years prior.

After the hourlong drama unfolded, Arnaz came out to address the audience directly, offering his take on the ambiguous ending. “We wonder if Pete Jenson did go back in time,” Arnaz pondered. “Any of you have any answers? Let me know.” Arnaz’s clumsy wrap-up would later make Serling’s deft touch look stellar in comparison.

7. Humoring Producers

Though prolific and cutting in his veiled social commentary, Serling’s one weakness as a writer may have been trying to wring comedy out of his erudite characterizations. In “Cavender is Coming,” an angel is sent to Earth to help Carol Burnett find happiness. (The moral: Even in a humdrum existence, she had it all along.) CBS thought this would make a fine pilot for a sitcom, and so for the first and only time in Zone’s run, producers added a laugh track. Viewers did not embrace the social enforcement: “Cavender” never made it as a series, and the canned laughter was removed for syndication and home video release.

8. God Complex

Though he spoke fondly of Serling through his entire career, Zone teleplay writer Richard Matheson (“Steel,” “The Invaders”) found one mandate puzzling: According to Matheson, only Serling could use the word “God” in his teleplays. It was off-limits to the rest of the writing team. “I used to get ticked off at Rod because he could put ‘God’ in all his scripts,” Matheson said. “If I did it, they’d cross it out.” Matheson never asked, and was never told, the reason behind the rule. Chalk it up to a mystery worthy of The Twilight Zone.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Just Answered the Game of Thrones Question That Everyone's Asking
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Serial debunker of movies and TV Neil deGrasse Tyson took on Game of Thrones on Sunday evening, analyzing everything from the chains the army of the dead used to pull up dead dragon Viserion (wrong angle) to the dragons themselves (good wing span, though experts we spoke with say they're still too heavy to fly). And then he dropped an intriguing tweet that just might explain Ice Viserion's blue fire, which easily cut through the Wall:

Inverse's Yasmin Tayag took a deep dive into the physics of dragon fire after the season finale and concluded that, according to science, blue flames are the hottest of them all. Typical Game of Thrones dragon fire—the red, yellow, and orange kind—is the result of incomplete combustion. The color is caused by the fuel in the dragon's gut (likely carbon) releasing chemicals as gas in a process known as pyrolysis. Blue flames, though, mean complete combustion, which, according to Tayag, "can only occur when there’s plenty of oxygen available to allow a flame to get super hot, and the fuel being burned doesn’t release too many additional chemicals during pyrolysis that might lead to a different colored flame."

In August, Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield—perhaps in an attempt to answer viewers’ nagging question about whether Viserion was blowing fire or ice—told Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson that, “He’s just going at it and slicing with this. It's kind of like liquid nitrogen. It’s so, so cold. So imagine if that’s what it was, but it’s so cold it’s hot. That kind of thing.”

This could have big consequences if Ice Viserion and Drogon face off. "If the HBO series decides to follow these particular laws of thermal physics (and why should it when Thrones so flagrantly disregarded chain physics?!?), then Viserion will surely be at an advantage if and when he ever goes talon-to-talon with his brother Drogon," wrote Robinson in response to deGrasse Tyson’s tweet.

Game of Thrones's final season won't debut until late 2018 or 2019, so we have a long time to wait before we see which dragon's fire comes out on top. 

[h/t: Vanity Fair]

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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