Science fiction

Rod Serling On Speculative Fiction And Censorship


Mike Wallace – “You’ve come a long way since those early days, and perhaps more than any other writer your name is figured in the classic battle — that is television writer — the battle of the writer to be his own man. What happens when a writer like yourself writes something that he really believes in, for television?”

. . .

RS – “Well, depending of course on the thematic treatment you’re using, if you have the temerity to try to dramatize a theme that involves any particular social controversy currently extent, you’re in deep trouble.”

MW – “For instance?”

RS – “Um, a racial theme, for example. My case in point, I think, a show I did for the Steel Hour some years ago, three years ago, called Noon On Doomesday, which was a story which purported to tell what was the aftermath of the alleged kidnapping in Mississippi of the Till boy, the young Chicago negro. And I wrote the script using “black” and “white,” uh, initially. Then it was changed, uh, to suggest an unnamed foreigner. Then the locale was moved from the South to New England, and I’m convinced they’d have gone up to Alaska or the North Pole [using] Eskimos as a possible minority, except I suppose the costume problem was of sufficient severity not to attempt it. But it became a lukewarm, vitiated, emasculated kind of show.”

MW – “You went along with it?”

RS – “All the way. I protested, I went down fighting as most television writers do, thinking, in a strange, oblique, philosophical way that ‘better say something than nothing.’ In this particular show, though, by the time they had finished taking Coca-Cola bottles off the set because the sponser claimed this had southern connotations, suggesting to what depth they went to make this a clean, antisepticly, rigidly, ah, acceptable show. Ah, why, it bore no relationship at all to what we had purported to say initially.”

MW – “Paddy Chayefsky has talked about the insidious influence of what he called ‘pre-censorship.’ How does that work?”

RS – “Pre-censorship is a practice, I think, of most television writers. I can’t speak for all of them. This is the prior knowledge of the writer of those areas which are difficult to try to get through and so a writer will shy away from writing those things which he knows he’s going to have trouble with on a sponsorial or an agency level. We practice it all the time. We just do not write those themes which we know are going to get into trouble.”

MW – “Who’s the culprit? Is it the network? The sponsor? It sure is not the FCC.”

RS – “No, it’s certainly not the FCC, ideally speaking, of course. It’s a combination of culprits in this case, Mike. It’s partly network. It’s principally agency and sponsor. In many ways I think it’s the audience themselves.”

MW – “How do you mean?”

RS – “Well, I’ll give you an example. About a year ago, roughly eleven or twelve months ago, on the Lassie show — this is a story usually told by Sheldon Leonard who was then associated with the show — Lassie was having puppies. And I have two little girls, then aged five and three, who are greatly enamored with this beautiful Collie and they watched the show with great interest. And Lassie gave birth to puppies, and Mike, it was probably one of the most tasteful and delightful and warm things depicting what is this wondrous thing that is birth. And after this show, I think they were many congratulations all around because it was a lovely show, the sort of thing I’d love my kids to watch to show them what is the birth process and how marvelous it is. They got many, many cards and letters. Sample card, from the deep South this was: ‘if I wanted my kids to watch sex shows, I wouldn’t have them turn on that. I could take them to burlesque shows.’ And as a result of the influx of mail, many of the cards, incidentally, as Sheldon tells it, were postmarked at identical moments all in the same handwriting, but each was counted as a singular piece of mail. And as a result, the directive went down that there would be no shows having anything to do with puppies, that is in the actual birth process. Well, obviously, it is this wild lunatic fringe of letter-writers that greatly affect what the sponsor has in mind.”

MW – “You can understand the position of the sponsor, can’t you?”

RS – “In many ways I suppose I can. He’s there to push a product.”

MW – “He has a considerable stake, thus, in what goes on the air.”

RS – “Most assuredly, and in those cases where there is a problem of public taste, in which there is a concern for eliciting negative response from a large mass of people, I can understand why the guys are frightened. I don’t understand, Mike, for example, other evidences and instances of intrusion by sponsors. For example, on Playhouse 90, not a year ago, a lovely show called ‘Judgment At Nuremberg,’I think probably one of the most competently done and artistically done pieces that 90’s done all year. In it, as you recall, mention was made of gas chambers and the line was deleted, cut off the soundtrack. And it mattered little to these guys that the gas involved in concentration camps was cyanide, which bore no resemblance, physical or otherwise, to the gas used in stoves. They cut the line.

MW – “Because the sponsor was…”

RS – “Did not want that awful association made between what was the horror and the misery of Nazi Germany with the nice chrome wonderfully, antiseptically clean beautiful kitchen appliances that they were selling. Now this is an example of sponsor interference which is so beyond logic and which is so beyond taste — this I rebel against.”

MW – “You’ve got a new series coming up called ‘The Twilight Zone.’ You are writing, as well as acting executive producer on this one. Who controls the final product, you or the sponsor?”

RS – “We have what I think, at least theoretically, anyway, because it hasn’t really been put into practice yet, a good working relationship, where in questions of taste and questions of the art form itself and questions of drama, I’m the judge, because this is my medium and I understand it. I’m a dramatist for television. This is the area I know. I’ve been trained for it. I’ve worked for it for twelve years, and the sponsor knows his product but he doesn’t know mine. So when it comes to the commercials, I leave that up to him. When it comes to the story content, he leaves it up to me.”

MW – “Has nothing been changed in the…”

RS – “We changed, in eighteen scripts, Mike, we have had one line changed, which, again, was a little ludicrous but of insufficient basic concern within the context of the story, not to put up a fight. On a bridge of a British ship, a sailor calls down to the galley and asks in my script for a pot of tea, because I believe that it’s constitutionally acceptable in the British Navy to drink tea. One of my sponsors happens to sell instant coffee, and he took great umbrage, or at least minor umbrage anyway, with the idea of saying tea. Well, we had a couple of swings back and forth, nothing serious, and we decided we’d ask for a tray to be sent up to the bridge. But in eighteen scripts, that’s the only conflict we’ve had.”

—–

MW – “Is pre-censorship, though, involved? Are you simply writing easy?”

RS – “In this particular area, no, because we’re dealing with a half hour show which cannot probe like a 90, which doesn’t use scripts as vehicles of social criticism. These are strictly for entertainment.”

MW – “These are potboilers.”

RS – “Oh, no. Un-uh. I wouldn’t call them potboilers at all. No, these are very adult, I think, high-quality half hour, extremely polished films. But because they deal in the areas of fantasy and imagination and science-fiction and all of those things, there’s no opportunity to cop a plea or chop an axe or anything.”

MW – “Well, you’re not gonna be able to cop a plea or chop an axe because you’re going to be obviously working so hard on ‘The Twilight Zone’ that in essence, for the time being and for the foreseeable future, you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

RS – “Yeah. Well, again, this is a semantic thing — ‘important for television.’ I don’t know. If by important you mean I’m not going to try to delve into current social problems dramatically, you’re quite right. I’m not.”

– Excerpts from Mike Wallace interviewing Rod Serling on The Mike Wallace Interview in anticipation of Serling’s new series, The Twilight Zone, 1959.

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Whether Serling realized it or not in the midst of this smoke clouded interview, he would find his most memorable avenues for social commentary through the less “important for television” resource of speculative fiction. He would also continue to bump heads with McCarthy-Era censorship, having episodes banned from the air for racial and war themes raised among other ethical and philosophical questions.

While this interview remains cordial, it is hard not to recognized a self-censoring vehemence from Serling. Having been in the television industry for about a decade by this point, he is one of the most lauded and heavily censored figures on the stage as he prepares to create The Twilight Zone. Although I can’t say for certain, I would argue that this interview was a very intentional opportunity for Serling to make a public statement that defends his position while promising to toe the line with the censors. On the latter point, I am happy to say he would go on to fail tremendously, creating some of the most immortal and poignant sci-fi television ever made.

I would highly suggest that you watch his previously award-winning tv film “Patterns.” It is probably impossible to find on DVD, but it should be easy to find via YouTube or the like. It’s one of the best films I have ever seen, a commentary on corporate life and ethics that seems prophetic in the current age.

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Recommended Reading

C.S. Lewis and Kingsley Amis On The Value Of Science Fiction

Kurt Vonnegut’s Pessimistic Social Commentary

Frankenstien And Human Nature

55 Classics Review #8 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Slaughterhouse-Five is turmoil turned ’round on itself, ad infinitum. So it goes.

Before I started reading Slaughterhouse I knew that I liked Vonnegut. I listened to Welcome To The Monkey House on audio book a few years ago and I found his speculative fiction fascinating and his writing style thoroughly comforting. Vonnegut is equally enjoyable read as he was read aloud.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book of war. It tells you from the beginning that it has always been, even years before Vonnegut knew how to write it, a story of the Dresden fire-bombing of WWII. This bombing was the single most horrifying assault of the Second World War, targetting civilian populations and killing about twice as many as the atom bomb did in Hiroshima. The entire city of Dresden was razed to the ground and even after his widely acclaimed book it is little remembered. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden at the time and one of a very small number of survivors. Like many war veterans, Vonnegut didn’t know how to deal with what he has experienced, but as a writer he couldn’t let something so definitive to his worldview be left untouched. Thus, Slaughterhouse-Five.

The book feels like a mad rambling. It begins and ends with a lot of Vonnegut personally talkings about how and why he is writing this book so many years later, and it doesn’t always make complete sense. When he finally gets along to the story he means to tell, it is also disjointed. It makes sense that it is disjointed, because his world is ultimately disjointed.

Even though I was familiar with some of his science fiction, I was completely caught off guard to find it here. The book follows Billy Pilgrim, Dresden POW, alien zoo experiment, and man disloged from time. Feeling like a series of end-of-life flashbacks, we are actually supposed to be traveling through time over and over, re-experiencing aspects of Pilgrim’s life at all its various stages. As a man who no longer thinks about his history linearly, Pilgrim has found infinite peace in being able to detatch himself from being effected by the horrors around him.

Vonnegut’s goal is not simply to tell horror stories of war. He excercises great restraint in sharing the details of Dresden. A considerably small percentage of the text actually covers the war. Much of it is spent in subsequent life and on an alien planet. It would be easy to interpret Pilgrim’s later alien adventures and time-traveling as Vonnegut’s attempt to point out how the insanity of war drives men to a truer insanity, but I think we lose something in explaining the book under strictly realistic experiences. We are meant to believe in Pilgrim’s aliens and travels. They mean something if they are real which they do not if they are hallucinations.

You can easily see that Vonnegut associated organized religion very closely with politicking and war-making. He uses the aliens and time traveling as an opportunity to predicts a philosophical loophole. Religions of the world can be damned, but there is probably something else out there, some better way to live and view our existing that puts all of human history in a catagory of foolishness beyond comprehension. Vonnegut is sold on the idea that this ideal exists, but he doesn’t write hoping of it. Pilgrim proclaims it but humanity is incapable of joining in his new bliss.

I think that the juxtaposition of Vonnegut’s style against his attitudes adds a huge element of what draws people to his work. He writes straightforward and comical persons and scenes. When he describes a man, we invision a dopy, cartoon character that feels foolishly and warmly human. Then this character commits historically-accurate crimes against humanity. Or he stands by and becomes numb to his hurts, is mocked as a fool for being totally shaken, and lives on to inflict lesser hurts on his home in its future peace. Vonnegut warms us up and then gently affirms that existence is a train of horrors at the hands of humanity.

I think that Slaughterhouse-Five is valuable, important even. It displays just how enjoyable a book can been even in describing utter evil, which is a confusing and concerning reality. It points to every man as an open book with a broken spine. There is no good or bad man, there is only mankind, and it is gross and predicatable.

The books thesis, repeated over and over when referring flippantly to death and distruction, is, simply, “So It Goes.”

55 Classics Review #5 – Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley


As I was finishing Frankenstein I happened upon the cover of a children’s science magazine that said, “Should we bring extinct species back to life?” It is troubling to me that the imaginary science of Frankenstein is so dangerously close to what we find modern science capable of today and the moral obligations are still as foreign to those who practice now as they were to Frankenstein himself.

There was so much I loved and some I hated in these pages, but before I get into what I have to say I must state that there is probably no work of fiction more greatly abused by film adaptations than Frankenstein.

There is no groaning ghoul, there are no pitchfork-welding villagers, there is no accidental murder, and no animalistic fear of fire. The film adaptations of this story are literally their own works of fiction entirely. Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein is about as close to the text as any other film I’ve yet happened upon.

This actually made Frankenstein a delightful read. The sheer foreignness of the story kept me on the edge of my seat. The original text is surprisingly readable even though it was published in 1818 and it reminded me a lot of the writing style Bram Stoker put into Dracula nearly a century later. Shelley employs a series of letters and story-within-story retelling to add depth and believability to her tale. While the characters can become a little wordy in their impassioned monologues, I was ultimately very pleased with the writing style.

The great thing that I never knew about Frankenstein is the complexity of implied and directly addressed questions of the brokenness and disconnections of humanity. Both Frankenstein and his creation are constantly reflecting on their own powers for good, enjoyment of natural beauty, and horrifying capabilities toward evils.

The story is told through the interactions of a fearless young explorer who encounters Frankenstein, and it would be easy to take the story as a treatise against morally questionable science practices if the main characters weren’t constantly oscillating between cursing Frankenstein’s blind science power trip and priding themselves in their own capabilities as fearless leaders. Frankenstein, his monster, and the narrator quickly fall back and forth between horror at the careless evil he committed and confidence in the powers of men to overcome the world.

Here we come to the part I didn’t like about the story. From a purely narrative perspective, I have always been easily annoyed by characters who see miscommunication happening and do nothing to rectify it. Perhaps I’m a bit of an over communicator, but I hate stories where nothing is done to clear up simple and tragic misunderstands. Frankenstein himself spends the majority of his life after the creation of the monster watching in silent horror as the repercussions of his creation play out, doing nothing or far too little too late. He refuses to confess his action to all those closest to him, despite the increasing toll it takes. The only time he decides to take any really decisive action is when he desires to kill the monster. The monster is similar, originally eager to see beauty, family, and community. When he can’t get these, he rages and eagerly pursues the greatest opposing horrors.

This aspect of the story does not ruin the story by any means, but it does provide a defeatist tone. It is full of terror, but maybe the greatest tragedy is how little any character is actually willing to pursue the good, beauty, and truth which they so eagerly live for, but each is more than happy to act on every violent impulse which provokes them.

As I read the story I began to feel strongly that Frankenstein is a grandfather text to both surrealist and science fiction genres. The story is classic science fiction and the character’s monologues feel like a precursory stepping stone to what Kafka would write a century later.

The book does a wonderful job of exploring the philosophical questions surrounding moral obligations in science, what it is to be human, the beauty and evils of mankind, and the terror of total ostracism from relationship. The violent and self-destructive tone does not destroy the power of the story, but it does leave us without a real protagonist, with ultimately confused and powerfully nihilistic characters.