As we’ve seen in previous Wednesday Plays, anthology and play strands have often resulted in spin-off series: The Play For Today gave us shows including Gangsters; Armchair Theatre gave us Callan, The Sweeney et al; Dramarama gave us Dodger, Bonzo and The Rest; and so on. But oddly enough, anthology series could spin-off from other anthology series, too – sometimes even the most famous ones.
In 1958, the mouthful-tastic Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse was just starting out. Between 1951 and 1957, husband and wife team Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had been the stars of TV in I Love Lucy, but they were looking to expand their Desilu production company’s output with an anthology series of drama, comedy and music. They convinced CBS to buy their show and managed to get Westinghouse to switch its sponsorship away from Westinghouse Studio One in the process, resulting in CBS cancelling that show.
Looking for some prestigious material with which to christen the new show, producer Bert Granet started trawling through CBS’s vaults, where he found a buried script called The Time Element, written by one Rod Serling. Serling had become a popular and critically respected TV playwright in the 1950s, but CBS had been unwilling to produce the script so had shelved it. However, Granet thought the script would boost his show and put it into production.
The play, set years after the end of World War II, features a man named Peter Jenson (William Bendix) who visits a psychoanalyst, Dr Gillespie (Martin Balsam). Jenson tells him about a recurring dream in which he tries to warn people about the “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor before it happens, but the warnings are disregarded. Jenson believes the events of the dream are real and each night he travels back to 1941.
Suffice it to say, there’s a twist ending.
The Time Element, which was introduced by Desi Arnaz, debuted on November 24 1958 to an ‘overwhelmingly delighted’ audience of television viewers and critics alike. “The humor and sincerity of Mr Serling’s dialogue made The Time Element consistently entertaining,” offered Jack Gould of The New York Times. Over 6,000 letters of praise flooded Granet’s offices.
Convinced that a series based on such stories could succeed, CBS again began talks with Serling about the possibilities of producing a similar anthology series, one bookended by a narrator, full of fantasy and science-fiction stories, often with twists in their tails, and to be called… The Twilight Zone. Where Is Everybody? was accepted as the pilot episode and the project was officially announced to the public in early 1959. The rest is history.
The Time Element was not aired on television again until it was shown as part of a 1996 all-night sneak preview of the then-new cable channel TVLand. Thankfully, it’s this week’s Wednesday Play (on Tuesday) and you can watch it below.