With the 50th Anniversary 25 Best Twilight Zone Episodes survey concluded, and the annual Twilight Zone New Year’s Day marathon on the SyFy Channel upon us, it’s a suitable time to take a moment for reflection.
The Twilight Zone’s enduring impact has been appropriately noted during this series of articles commemorating one of the most intelligent, esteemed, and bold series in the history of television. Its continued emergence in the consciousness of new generations is evidence enough of its timelessness. Leonardo DiCaprio’s interest in developing another Twilight Zone film underscores its immortality.
We are thankful for this sustained popularity for it is recognition of the groundbreaking efforts of Rod Serling and all who delivered such compelling work during the program’s five-year course. It is not incongruous to ask whether we’ll still be revisiting the Kanamit’s space ship 50 years from now, or the gremlin on the wing, or the airplane that might still be seeking a portal back in time. We can fret over the diminishing broadcast appearances of The Twilight Zone on the SyFy Channel, as they re-focus on younger viewers, or we can rely on its availability over the internet and through DVD packages…and eventually on one of the ever-increasing number of television stations one can find through cable and satellite systems, should SyFy jettison it altogether.
For now, though, we have a 45- hour New Year’s marathon to watch, we have the DVR for weekly SyFy Monday morning 5:00 to 6:00 am presentations, and we look forward to the various other special blocks of Twilight Zone programming throughout the year. Until then and beyond, we have the final survey review of the best 25 Twilight Zone episodes of all time, and the indelible memories of Rod Serling submitting cerebral and thought-provoking stories for our approval.
Night Call – Deftly written by Richard Matheson, “Night Call” is one of Twilight Zone’s more chilling episodes. Static-filled telephone calls become more frequent as the program moves forward until we learn they emanate from the cemetery where the storms played havoc, knocking telephone lines to the ground, including the fateful one lying on the grave of Elva Keane’s fiancé.
Third From The Sun – Amidst palpable tension, Fritz Weaver and Joe Maross are poised to get out of Dodge, as it were, because they are privy to a pending holocaust by virtue of their work at the nuclear plant. Their goal is to hijack the experimental spaceship they helped design, and spirit away from the madness to a world not unlike their own. They encounter intervention along the way, but eventually succeed in lifting off. The irony, of course, is their destination, which is Earth.
Back There – A discussion about time travel at the club…a sudden dizzy spell…the realization that he, Peter Corrigan, has been transplanted to 1865 on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. He cannot have any influence on the actual assassination event. That would be preposterous, of course. Think of the ramifications going forward. But an 1865 D.C. policeman believes his frantic warning of the apocalyptic event, and rides his “foresight” to great fame and fortune, a fact that is revealed to Corrigan when his spell abates and he returns the present day club. There, only one change is noticeable…the club waiter is now a wealthy member, great-grandson of that D.C. policeman.
Living Doll – Even with a menacing Telly Savalas in the cast, make no mistake, the star is Talky Tina. The atmosphere is tense with parental conflict, and then little Christie receives a doll playmate from mom, and things get downright edgy. Too much money, claims Savalas’ character, Erich. Talky Tina is a doll with an agenda, though, as she immediately understands that Erich is self-absorbed and abusive. The denouement is the last scene, in which Erich investigates a noise in the middle of the night, steps on a deftly-positioned Tina, and loses his balance, falling down the stairs to his death. Advantage, Tina!
Little Girl Lost – Richard Matheson pens this suspenseful and thought-provoking exercise in other-worldly circumstances. A little girl inadvertently falls from bed and slips through the wall into a fourth dimension. With the help of the instincts of the family dog and the determination of the father who steps into this other world to further the search, the girl wonders back to her bedroom just before the portal to this dimension closes.
Person or Persons Unknown – David Gurney handles his identity loss as anyone might with a frantic, yet confident, searching-for-truth demeanor. But even his most rational attempts to prove his identity are foiled. The picture of he and his wife is quite suddenly a picture of….just him! His mother doesn’t recognize his voice. He eventually finds himself back in his own bed. Wow, just a horrendous life-like nightmare, he believes…until his wife appears from off-screen to reveal the nightmare has simply taken a slightly different path. She recognizes him fine, but this time he doesn’t know her.
Stopover in a Quiet Town – A married couple wakes up after a raucous night of drinking at a party in the northern suburbs of New York. They are clueless, however, on their exact whereabouts. Millie remembers only faintly a giant shadow looming over the car as they passed through Riverdale. As it turns out, Bob and Millie have been ripped from this Earth to serve as playthings for a child on another planet. This upwardly mobile couple with the world seemingly in the palms of their hands, find themselves in the palm of somebody else’s hand…in some other world.
The Invaders – Authored by gifted writer Richard Matheson, the episode is completely devoid of dialogue and renders you as isolated as the heroic Agnes Moorehead. Vulnerable to this “attack” from beyond by tiny, laser weapon-carrying astronauts, she fights, kills, and tosses them about. Then she climbs to the roof where she locates the tiny saucer that brought them and hacks it to pieces. One of the astronauts describes this “land of giants” to a person on the other end of a communications device. In quite a reversal of expectation, the astronauts are from Earth as their U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1 sign indicates.
Five Characters in Search of an Exit – William Windom plays the star role of the major and is joined by four other eclectic people who are imprisoned in a circular room with no way out. They occasionally hear a deafening bell, their only connection to anything they recognize. The major develops a plan of escape, a human tower, reaches his destination atop this circular jail, and is knocked off by the vibration of the bell. A little girl notices the inanimate major lying outside the Salvation toy bin whence he came. The bell? From the Salvation Army volunteer seeking donations. She places him back inside, and the viewer gets the distinct impression that’s how this all started…a doll’s life indeed.
And When The Sky Was Opened – Colonel Forbes wrestles with an enigma. He visits Major Gart in the hospital room from which he was discharged insisting he left with Colonel Harrington, a 15-year friend and associate who accompanied them on their aborted space flight. Gart doesn’t know a Colonel Harrington, who disappears in a chilling bar scene. The newspaper heralding their return, now speaks of two astronauts, not three. Eventually Forbes is also whisked away, leaving only Gart and a newspaper with one astronaut…and then so goes Gart. Perhaps they weren’t meant to return at all.
Shadow Play – Adam Grant, played brilliantly by Dennis Weaver experiences the same nightmare each night, and relives the same harrowing march toward the electric chair each time, regardless of his efforts to convince all around him that they are merely characters in his bizarre dream. Each night the players shift roles. Grant is successful in remotely moving one character to doubt, and that advocate influences the district attorney to consider a stay of execution which maddeningly occurs a moment too late. You are then immediately returned to the courtroom scene in the beginning. It is here that Grant will be sentenced again for murder, but by a different judge, of course – his cellmate in last night’s nightmare.
Mirror Image – Millicent Barnes, played by Vera Miles, encounters her equal, another Millicent from a parallel universe trying to crowbar her way into this one. She even observes two of her from her position in front of the mirror in the ladies’ room…one standing right there, and the Millicent sitting in the waiting room behind her. Deftly handled by writer Serling, it’s one of Twilight Zone’s creepier episodes.
Deaths-Head Revisited – Captain Lutze returns to Dachau to reminisce, to recall the glory days of murder and torment. He is greeted by the ghost of Becker who takes him on a brief but substantive tour of the misery Lutze inflicted before informing him that his trial was about to begin. It is not until the second half of the episode that Lutze recalls he had killed Becker, who reminds him it occurred immediately before the allied forces liberated the camp. The trial proceeds at the hands of those Lutze had tortured, maimed, and/or killed. He is found guilty and forced to absorb the very same inhuman treatment he meted out.
Judgment Night – Serling again offers justice for those who conducted themselves inhumanely during World War II. This is the story of the fictional Carl Lanser, a German U-boat commander who somehow finds himself a passenger on board the British freighter, the S.S. Queen of Glasgow, in 1942 at the height of World War II. He doesn’t understand how, but we are informed he mercilessly sank the Glasgow without warning, killing civilians, and is now doomed to relive this horror every night as a passenger of the ship he scuttled.
The Eye of the Beholder – For most of the episode, Janet Tyler lies prone in a hospital bed in a stark room. She pleads with the surgeons to remove the bandages that will reveal whether she has been rendered “beautiful” by a procedure she has undergone with failed results multiple times. The tension builds theatrically as they unwrap the bandages. The doctor, horrified, exclaims, “No change!” Ultimately, of course, the operation is unsuccessful again by the standards of this portrayed society in which the people are uniformly grotesque.
Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? – This is a creepy, unsettling one-set stage teleplay that invites feelings of isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty. Footsteps lead to a diner from a pond where a UFO landed. One extra patron is in the establishment than had disembarked from a bus forced to wait out a snowstorm because of an impassable bridge up ahead. Officers fruitlessly conduct a passive investigation. Nobody remembers for sure who was on the bus, so almost everyone can be…the Martian.
Walking Distance – Like many Serling-penned efforts, this episode captures so eloquently and precisely the human condition. Gig Young’s character, Martin Sloan, is a relentlessly-driven burned-out advertising executive. Waiting for his car to be fixed near his hometown, he revisits it only to witness and observe his OWN youth. His father instructs him that it is not his time. He must go back. He knows things that have already happened. Some are sure to be painful. “Maybe when you go back, Martin, you’ll find that there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are,” his father says. “Maybe you haven’t been looking in the right place. You’ve been looking behind you, Martin. Try looking ahead.”
The Obsolete Man – The State has denounced literacy and declared there is no God, so Mr. Wordsworth, Burgess Meredith, has no chance. After all, he is a God-fearing librarian. The chancellor, Fritz Weaver, bellows, “The State has no use for your kind…you waste our time, Mr. Wordsworth, and you’re not worth the waste.” Citing he has been granted a choice of death, Mr. Wordsworth selects to die with an audience. He invites the chancellor to visit him just before death, then watches him squirm after locking him in.
The Changing of the Guard – Professor Ellis Fowler, played by Donald Pleasance, is about to experience the end of a multi-generation tenure at a prestigious boys school. Forced into retirement, he contemplates suicide until he is visited by the ghosts of former students who re-affirm his value and honor his impact on young lives. It is an unlikely Twilight Zone episode brilliantly featuring sentimentality and compassion.
On Thursday We Leave for Home – The only hour-long episode on this list, James Whitmore plays William Benteen as the self-appointed leader of a group of people who left Earth to escape the growing potential of nuclear war and colonize a new world. Thirty years later, they are finally rescued, but Benteen refuses to relinquish his role and is ultimately left behind.
Long Live Walter Jameson – Walter Jameson has cheated death, but now regrets it. He was given the gift of eternal life, but has watched all he has loved grown old and die. Now, for the umpteenth time, he has fallen in love and plans to marry. However, a very old flame has other ideas, and ends his 2,000 year life with one bullet.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – One of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes, William Shatner is recently released from a sanitarium after a nervous breakdown. He now must face his demons aboard a plane without any clinical help. He doesn’t expect to see them on the wing, though. He eventually shoots the grotesque being he believed to be tampering with the engine…an unlikely scenario that we come to understand as the truth.
A Stop at Willoughby – We are reminded by the conductor that Willoughbyis a “peaceful, restful place, where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.” Gart Williams is ready for Willoughby, his dream-manufactured respite from an overbearing boss, a job he despises, and a shrill, unsupportive wife. We eventually discover he was stepping off a moving train, not one stopped at this paradise, and his lifeless body is whisked away in a hearse owned by…Willoughby Funeral Home.
The Odyssey of Flight 33 – Mysteriously, a jet accelerates to unnatural speed, slips through a time/space portal and spends the rest of the episode, and well beyond, attempting to return to the exact time and place they abandoned. As Serling tell us…”So if some moment, any moment, you hear the sound of jet engines flying atop the overcast skies, engines that sound searching and lost; engines that sound hungry for fuel, shoot up a flare or do something. That would be Global 33 trying to get home, from the Twilight Zone.”
To Serve Man – The quintessential Twilight Zone episode, it features a “narrative within a narrative” technique as Mr. Chambers, played by Lloyd Bochner, recounts the story of the Kanamit’s visit to Earth, our willingness to believe their intentions, and the ultimate denouement, our collective standing as an entrée on their menu. “Mr. Chambers! Don’t get on that ship! The rest of the book, ‘To Serve Man,’ it’s… it’s a cookbook!”
Earlier this year, we began to chronicle and commemorate this television institution and its creator, Rod Serling, through an unscientific poll of 250 people in the New York metropolitan area. The result was the best 25 Twilight Zone episodes of all time based on, in order of importance, writing, performance, and compelling subject matter. Survey participants included college students at Ramapo University in New Jersey and Fordham University in New York, corporate professionals from Westchester, Bergen, Putnam and Orange Counties, and others.
We thank Rod Serling for escorting us through this dimension of imagination…the area which he called the Twilight Zone.