Next Stop….”The Twilight Zone” (The Dozen Best Episodes)
It’s hard to believe The Twilight Zone, perhaps the greatest television series in history, went off the air 50 years ago. [SEE FOOTNOTE 1]
The weekly series on CBS lasted just five years. That’s a relatively short time for a television show which still enjoys quite an enduring legacy to this day. Aside from the outdated fashions of the early 1960s, any episode plucked from vast The Twilight Zone treasury could air on modern television today and would be just as interesting to many viewers. Perhaps that’s why this iconic series continues to run in syndication and has become such a popular on-demand option more than five decades after the final program was filmed.
Indeed, the cross-generational success of the show was sustained by the brilliant writing and shocking plot twists. No other television writer aside from the great Paddy Chayefsky penned more memorable stories that made audiences think than the show’s creator, director, and star — Rod Serling. Remarkably, he fought constantly with the network, censors, and even corporate sponsors while working on the show, finally surrendering to the typical frustrations which burden all great artists forced to compromise their vision for superficial commercial appeal.
Serling was a dogmatic a three-pack-a-day chain smoker who in 1959 came up with a novel idea for a new television show. After being rejected elsewhere, he pitched a television series to CBS that would examine controversial issues and would even become a vehicle for social criticism. Serling’s grand vision was to address the major events of the day, disguised as broadcast entertainment through the medium of science fiction. [SEE FOOTNOTE 2]
The Twilight Zone was born.
The show may have outwardly seemed to be about spaceships, other worlds, and fantasy. But the biting social commentary and frequent surprises the end of most shows very much represented Serling’s signature critique of both domestic and world events. Serling purposefully examined ailments which affect the human spirit — fear, ignorance, hypocrisy, and paranoia. He exposed racism and prejudice. He even took on the Cold War as a topic and wrote scripts with messaging which embraced a greater common understanding.
That meant trouble. Some corporate sponsors didn’t like the direction the show was heading and demanded to know the storylines in advance. Serling steadfastly refused. There were other problems which led to the show’s demise. Following the third season, CBS wanted to cancel the show, but agreed to renew it for another season at the last minute when a suitable replacement program couldn’t be found. However, CBS also demanded the show be expanded to one-hour (1962), which outraged Serling since all of his material was written specifically for a 30-minute format.
There were also instances of network censorship. Serling had to revise several scripts because they were considered too controversial. One such program was a story about racial injustice and civil rights (The Gift — 1962), which was drastically altered to feature Latinos fighting amongst each other in a small town, supposedly a metaphor of the terror many Blacks were facing in the American South at the time.
The list of famous actors who starred in The Twilight Zone reads like a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood. No other television show in history had as many future stars. Serling even gave some of his actors their very first starring roles. [SEE FOOTNOTE 3]
Here are my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. Counting down the top dozen: [WARNING: SPOLIER ALERT]
12. Where is Everybody?
This was the frightening debut show which aired in 1959, which set viewer expectations high from the very start. A man alone wakes up in a small town only to discover the shock of his life. He’s about to embark on a mystery he cannot solve. There’s not a single living person anywhere. He runs around the town begging for someone to appear. There are plenty of signs of life — including houses and cars — but no people. The man slowly goes insane. Surprise Twist — In the final scene, an astronaut is shown confined alone within a small capsule inside a military training center. He’s been trapped in the capsule for several weeks, without access to any human contact. The vision of being alone was all just a horrible dream. These conditions are intended to mimic long-term flight in outer space, which was a popular topic of the era. We learn that while space travel is indeed possible, mankind also needs human companionship just as much as air, food, and water.
11. The Old Man in the Cave
A few years after a nuclear war, a group of dusty townspeople are desperate and nearly starving. However, they are under strict orders never to touch any of the canned food that’s still in the village, which is presumed to be spoiled and deadly. This order comes from a mysterious old man in a cave, who speaks to one of the town elders. The townspeople revolt and go against the advice of the elder. They reject the Old Man in the Cave and embark upon a glorious feast of the canned goods. Surprise Twist — Everyone who eats the spoiled food dies, including the temptresses who persuaded everyone to abandon their faith. This episode has strong religious implications and elicits obvious comparisons to Old Testament teachings.
10. Odyssey of Flight 33
When this episode first aired in 1962, jet air travel had just begun a few years earlier and there was still some fear and excitement associated with this means of travel. In this story, a modern jet airliner is scheduled to land in New York. However, the crew looks out the window and discovers they have somehow gone back in time to a prehistoric era. Manhattan Island is a jungle inhabited by dinosaurs. The crew desperately tries to speed up the flight and race back to the present day. Just when it seems they made it and avoided the horror of trying to land a jet in 100,000 BC, they realize there was one slight miscalculation. Surprise Twist — The crew is relieved they’re back in 1962 it seems, but as they look out the window again the 1939 World’s Fair is seen down below. The crew made it back alright, but not quite far enough. Now, they’ll have to endure the horrors of World War II and all the events which happened over the previous 25 years all over again.
9. The Rip Van Winkle Caper
Some cowboy bandits steal a truckload of gold bullion and decide to hide in a dessert cave. It’s decided they will stash the gold away and suspend their lives for almost 50 years, like the old legend of Rip Van Winkle. Then, they wake up and will all be rich, since no one will be looking for them or the gold any longer. Surprise Twist — The men emerge from the cave and find a remote highway which by this time is traveled by futuristic-looking cars. One bandit cons the others out of their share of the gold. They all get into a gunfight and everyone is killed. A passerby stops to see what’s sitting out there on the side of the road. When it’s discovered to be solid gold bars, the driver moves on, expressing no interest whatsoever in hauling away the “treasure.” Only then do we find out that gold lost all its value when science somehow managed to create it years earlier, like other common metals. We learn that values and attitudes change with time and that science is capable of altering those perceptions.
8. The Obsolete Man
Thought-provoking expose of totalitarianism and what happens to individuals, who become crushed by the state. An old man is deemed by a high court to be “obsolete.” Accordingly, he is to be publicly executed on national television. A soldier of the state who served as prosecutor accompanies the guilty man to his home, where the two men await the death penalty to be delivered in the form of an explosion, designed to kill the obsolete man instantly. The episode is sure to be highly entertaining for those who are watching. However, the old man has a trick up his sleeve and announces that he’s locked all the doors and windows from which there is no escape. The soldier in the room suddenly fears his own death, begs for mercy, and runs out of the room just seconds before the explosion. Surprise Twist — Because he humiliated the totalitarian state publicly, the soldier is now deemed to be “an obsolete man.” His own fate is sealed.
7. The Midnight Sun
This is a terrifying episode of what might happen if the earth were to gradually swing out of orbit and begin moving closer to the sun. It gets hotter each day and people become desperate. The daily high becomes 120, then 130, then 140. At one point, the sun never sets. It’s daylight and 140 degrees all the time, and getting hotter. People go mad. This horror is shown through the eyes of two women, trapped inside a cramped apartment who are desperate to end the nightmare of “the Midnight Sun.” Surprise Twist — The nightmare was just a bad dream. But when the woman wakes up she discovers that the reverse had occurred. The earth is instead moving away from the sun and the planet is gradually freezing to death.
6. I Shot an Arrow into the Sky
Similar to the plot of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, three astronauts crash land upon a strange planet. The land is barren and seems to have no water or vegetation. Slowly, the food and water begin to run out. One man panics and murders the other two in order to survive on their rations. Surprise Twist — Right after he shots his last fellow crew member, the man hikes across a hill to discover, much to his shock, that they haven’t left the earth at all. The spaceship simply veered course and landed in the Nevada dessert. Now, he has two dead bodies to explain.
5. Time Enough at Last
Fabulous story about an avid reader who only wishes to be left alone with his books. He adores solitude and loves to read But he’s constantly bombarded with city noise and the distractions of other people, which he finds terribly annoying. The man desires to get away from all humanity and then finally gets his wish when a nuclear war takes place. The man somehow survives. Left all alone with his books, the man seems to have found his perfect bliss. Surprise Twist — The man visits a library and just as he’s gathering all the books he wants to read, he accidentally breaks his reading glasses which fall off his nose and are shattered. Now, he can barely see and seems destined to a life of total loneliness and complete alienation.
This episode was remarkably controversial. Just about the same time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has ever been to nuclear annihilation, Serling addressed the lingering madness and danger of the Cold War. Two survivors of a nuclear holocaust are shown several months after a blast — an American male (Charles Bronson) and a Russian female (Elizabeth Montgomery). The two former adversaries are completely mistrustful of each other. They can’t even communicate in the same language. However, there are no other survivors. They are alone. All they have for companionship is each other. Surprise Twist — Of course, male meets female and the inevitable harmony of the union is suggested in the final scene. The future Adam and Eve will be an American and a Russian.
3. A Nice Place to Visit
One of the best gambling parables that I’ve ever seen. But the ultimate lesson for viewers extends way beyond games of chance. A lowlife thief is killed in a back alley shooting. Incredibly, he wakes up and discovers that his life has been completely transformed. He now wears the finest clothes. He lives in the fanciest apartment in the city. He’s surrounded by attractive women. He can have absolutely anything he wants. The man loves to gamble and manages to win at every game he attempts. He cannot lose. The man is approached by a guardian angel and can’t believe his run of good fortune. He thinks there must be some mistake. He couldn’t have gone to heaven, could he? As time passes, this comfortable lifestyle and winning at everything gets boring. The man becomes furious. There’s no chance involved — no matter what he does, he always wins. Desperate to alter his fate and escape the boredom of a sure thing, the man summons the guardian angel. He begs the angel to stop letting him win all the time and enjoy all this luxury, which has become maddening. Surprise Twist — The thief insists there’s no possible way his misdeeds on earth could have merited going to heaven. When the man protests and asks why he’s here, he’s shocked to learn that this isn’t heaven at all. It’s hell.
2. To Serve Man
Brilliant script and a science fiction masterpiece. Aliens from another galaxy land on the earth. They’re friendly. They want to help humanity. Somehow, they manage to stop all the wars and make peace on earth. The aliens bring a book with them which is written in code. This book seems to layout the master plan for all mankind. The aliens start taking humans on their spaceship to their own galaxy. Everyone now wants to visit the new planet. However, no one can quite figure out why the aliens are so nice and also so eager to bring so many humans back to their civilization. Surprise Twist — One of the scientists finally figures out the translation. The title “To Serve Man” isn’t charitable at all. In fact, “To Serve Man” is an alien cookbook, with earthlings intended as soon-to-be culinary delicacies.
1. Eye of the Beholder
A woman thought to be terribly ugly undergoes one last surgery to try and make her look “normal.” This is her final hope. The woman’s face isn’t seen, since it’s wrapped in bandages after yet another operation. The doctors and nurses appear off only in the shadows. We hear their voices but do not see them. The woman is desperate to look like everyone else. The bandages are slowly removed, and the surgery appears to have worked — only there’s a shocking twist at the end. Surprise Twist — The woman wrapped in the bandages is beautiful. She screams when she learns she’s not like the others and she never will be. The doctors and nurses step away in horror but into the light where we finally see their grotesque faces and features. These are the “normal” people in this strange world. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
So, did I miss something? What’s your favorite episode of The Twilight Zone?
Footnote 1 — The final episode aired on June 19, 1964. Interestingly, the last show was an “Alice in Wonderland”-type of fantasy on the subject of child abuse. In that farewell episode, two small children escape the constant bickering of their parents by jumping into a backyard swimming pool and going to a happier, more peaceful place. One has to wonder if that last show was a reflection of Serling’s own troubles fighting with the network, preferring instead to “swim someplace else.” That’s my take, anyway.
Footnote 2 — It should be noted that sci-fi master Ray Bradbury also wrote several scripts. Serling also gave a number of young, new writers an opportunity and agreed to film quite a number of their stories.
Footnote 3 –– Some of the names of the then-mostly young actors who appeared on the program included — Charles Bronson, Carol Burnett, Art Carney, John Carradine, James Coburn, Jackie Cooper, Bob Crane, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, Dennis Hopper, Buster Keaton, Jack Klugman, Ted Knight, Martin Landau, Cloris Leachman, Lee Marvin, Paul Mazursky, Roddy McDowell, Burgess Meredith, Leonard Nimoy, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Don Rickles, Mickey Rooney, Cliff Robertson, Telly Savalas, William Shatner, Dean Stockwell, Jack Warden, Dennis Weaver, Fritz Weaver, Ed Wynn, Dick York, plus many more.
Footnote 4 — A more through history of The Twilight Zone television series can be read HERE.