The Time Element was the original pilot of The Twilight Zone.
"The Time Element" was a teleplay that premiered on November 24, 1958. It was Rod Serling's first science fiction story. It's a story that deals with time travel and the concept of illusion vs. reality. This teleplay also gave audiences a first glimpse of what was to become Serling's signature writing style: a plot twist. However, when CBS first looked at the script, they thought little of it and the script was shelved. But when Bert Granet, producer of The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, needed a script, he looked through CBS vaults and found "The Time Element." Desi Arnaz introduced the episode and it starred William Bendix, Martin Balsam, Darryl Hickman and Carol Kearney.
The story is a time travel fantasy of sorts, involving a man named Peter Jenson (William Bendix) visiting a psychoanalyst, Dr. Gillespie (Martin Balsam), with complaints of a recurring dream in which he imagines waking up in Honolulu just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"I wake up in a hotel room in Honolulu, and it's 1941, but I mean I really wake up and it's really 1941," he explains, concluding that these are not mere dreams; he actually is traveling through time. However, Dr. Gillespie insists that time travel is impossible given the nature of temporal paradoxes. During his dream, taking advantage of the situation, he bets on all the winning horses, all the right teams and, eventually, tries unsuccessfully to warn others — the newspaper, the military, anyone — that the Japanese are planning a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. His warnings are seen as crazed ravings and are either ignored or met with physical violence, as he is punched out by an engineer who works on the USS Arizona, after insisting that it will be sunk on December 7. Jenson's dream always ends as the Japanese bombers fly overhead on the morning of December 7, prompting him to yell out "I told you! Why wouldn't anybody listen to me?"
Jenson finally discloses to Dr. Gillespie that he was actually in Honolulu on December 7, 1941. While on the couch, Jenson falls asleep once again, only this time, Japanese planes flying overhead shoot inside the windows of his room and he is killed. When the camera cuts back to the doctor's office, the couch Jenson was lying on is now empty, and Dr. Gillespie looks around, confused. Although Jenson had smoked earlier, the ashtray is empty. He looks in his appointment book and finds he had no appointments scheduled for this day. Gillespie goes to a bar and finds Jenson's picture on the wall. The bartender said that Jenson tended bar there, but was killed in Pearl Harbor.
With this script, Serling drafted the fundamental elements that would distinguish the series still to come: a science-fiction/fantasy theme, opening and closing narration, and an ending with a twist. But what would prove popular with audiences and critics in 1959 did not meet network standards in 1957. "The Time Element" was purchased only to be shelved indefinitely and talks of making The Twilight Zone a television series ended.
This is where things stood when Bert Granet, the new producer for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, discovered "The Time Element" in CBS' vaults while searching for an original Serling script to add prestige to his show. "The Time Element" (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 six thousand 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 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 Time Element" is rarely aired on television and it was only available in an Italian DVD box set titled "Ai confini della realtà — I tesori perduti" until it was shown as part of an all night sneak preview of the new cable channel TVLand.