"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone..."
This month marked the 56th anniversary of the first airing of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. The classic philosophical sci-fi (I want to coin the name for this genre as "philo-sci-fi") anthology show came into being on October 2nd, 1959 and ran for five series until 1964. Even if you've never seen it, you'll recognize the iconic theme music.
It was later revived for three more series from 1985 - 1989 and yet again for a single series in 2002. It hasn't been revived since then, though one can see it's DNA in the excellent Black Mirror.
Each episode of The Twilight Zone was an unrelated, self-contained story, frequently they would contain a moral message or an unexpected twist ending. It blurred genres too; as well as sci-fi the show dabbled in elements of horror and suspenseful thriller (part of the reason Serling made a sci-fi show was because it meant he could get episodes about controversial or taboo subjects past the censors).
Creator and frequent writer and director Rod Serling would often appear on camera as a fourth wall breaking narrator, his clipped delivery and unusual word choice inviting us to consider - and re-consider - what we've just seen, or are about to see.
I love the Twilight Zone, and dusted off my box set for a 56th anniversary re-viewing. In words that Rod Serling himself may have chosen: presented for your approval - my top 10 Twilight Zone episodes.
Warning: 50 year old spoilers ahead!
10. Nick Of Time
Second series episode "Nick Of Time" features a young William Shatner (mercifully before he began to overact wildly every time he was on camera) as newlywed Don S. Carter, stuck with his wife in a small Ohio town while they are waiting for their broken down car to be fixed.
Told they will have to wait for hours, they step into a local diner for some lunch. Their booth contains a napkin holder that doubles as a novelty fortune telling machine, offering the answer to yes or no questions for a penny a time. Don asks what he calls "the seer" a few questions, jokingly at first but once the machine confirms his promotion at work, the naturally superstitious accountant becomes more and more obsessed with having his future told.
Don infers from the seer's answers that they should not leave the diner before 3pm. When they do so, his wife narrowly avoids being hit by a speeding car. Convinced of the penny machine's clairvoyance, Don takes his wife back to the diner to ask more yes and no questions about the couple's future. He gets to the point of using it to try and pinpoint where they will live, when his wife tearfully informs him that he's letting the machine decide his future, not predict it. She convinces him to leave but in true Twilight Zone style, the story has a final sting in the tale. As Don and his wife leave another couple enter, looking obviously disheveled and down on their luck. Wearily, the ask the machine if they are allowed to leave town today...
It's a brilliantly told tale of the power of superstition and how it can rule your life (if you let it).
9. It's A Good Life
The third series episode "It's A Good Life" is one of the (many) Twilight Zone episodes that you probably feel as though you've seen even if you haven't. It's well known, and one of numerous Twilight Zone storylines parodied by The Simpsons in their Treehouse Of Horror Halloween episodes.
The episode tells the story of a small town named Peaksville "in what used to be Ohio". Rod Serling's typically ominous voiceover tells us that the town has been cast back into the dark ages by a monster that lives there. The monster has isolated the town from the rest of the world using only the power of his mind. The monster's mind can read thoughts and bend the world to his will.
The monster is also a six-year-old boy named Anthony Fremont. Due to his godlike powers and unending wrath, the town's residents are forced to wear fixed smiles and constantly say and think "it's a good life", lest they meet with a fate worse than death.
It's A Good Life is an exploration of what would happen if that mean, bratty, unreasonable, spoiled child we've all seen - or perhaps once were! - was in control, and able to do whatever they wanted. It's enough to make you thankful for strict parents!
8. Death's Head Revisited
"Death's Head Revisited" is one of the darkest episodes of The Twilight Zone. It concerns Gunther Lutz, a former Nazi S.S. officer living under the post-war pseudonym of Mr. Schmidt.
Lutz returns to the Dachau concentration camp to ghoulishly reminisce about his time as commandant there. While there he sees Alfred Becker, one of the camp's former inmates who reminds Lutz of the inhumanity of his crimes. Lutz is unmoved, stating he was "just following orders". Becker and several other ex-inmates put Lutz on trial for crimes against humanity and find him guilty.
The ghosts - because if you haven't guessed yet, that's what Becker and the others are - condemn Lutz to suffer through the same horrors he put them through. He is not physically harmed but driven insane through the pain he experiences in his mind. Lutz is found and taken to a mental institution. As the doctor takes Lutz away, he laments: "Dachau. Why does it still stand? Why do we keep in standing?"
In response, Serling gives one of his most poignant, impassioned monologues, and no further response is needed: "There is an answer to the doctor's question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes - all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God's Earth."
In movingly and poignantly tackling one of history's most difficult subjects, The Twlight Zone provide that sci-fi and fantasy can - and should - have something to say about how we live.
7. Five Characters In Search Of An Exit
One of the more philosophical yet at the same time playful episodes of The Twilight Zone, "Five Characters in Search Of An Exit" spends most of its runtime posing questions before providing the answer via a classic last scene twist.
The episode opens with one of five nameless characters, an army Major, awakening in a metallic, cylindrical prison. He has no memory of how he got there or indeed, no idea who he is. The same goes for his companions: a clown, a hobo, a bagpiper and a ballerina. All of them are unaware of their identities, their pasts, and why they are together.
Various theories are proposed - is it a group hallucination, is it prison, is it hell? The other four characters seem to have nihilistically accepted their fate, but the Major doesn't give in, and cajoles the other others into forming a human pyramid, to allow one of them to leap over the side. The Major does so, and that's when we find out...
...The Major is nothing but a doll. So are the other four. They aren't people, they're children's toys, dumped into a charity donation bin. It's the kind of twist The Twilight Zone became famous for, and deservedly so.
6. The Eye Of The Beholder
"The Eye Of The Beholder" is another "twist" style episode, but employs clever camerawork and tricks with light and shadow to keep its final reveal hidden. We first meet protagonist Janet Tyler in a hospital bed, her head heavily bandaged, obscuring her face.
It's unclear what fate has befallen Janet, but her doctors and nurses describe her as "not normal". Her doctor tells her this the eleventh treatment (the maximum allowed by law) to make her look like everyone else. Should the eleventh attempt fail, she will be removed to go and live with her "own kind" in a separate, segregated community.
For a long time, we don't see the faces of the nurses or doctors. They are obscured, either by one another, by shadow, or unusual camera angles. It's all done to service the big twist. As Janet's facial bandages are removed, to mounting tension, we see that Janet, far from disfigured, is a beautiful woman.
The reactions of the medics, though, are disappointment and horror. To her, she isn't normal, because she doesn't look like them. In this world, "ugliness" is beauty, beauty is ugliness.
In the end, Janet is carted off to go and live with her own kind. It's a smart, visually arresting episode, slightly lower down in my list than others because of a moment near the end where it gets a bit heavy handed with shots of the society's dictator in television, preaching conformity. We already had enough hints about the strict society from the snatches of dialogue, there was no real need to hammer it home. Despite that, though, the rest of the episode is on a high enough quality to give it a deserved spot on this list.
5. Nightmare At 20,000 Feet
This was William Shatner's second appearance on The Twilight Zone, and his second on this list. Clearly, he knows how to pick his scripts! "Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" is one of the show's iconic episodes, and it still holds up.
Shatner plays Robert Wilson, a man about to step aboard a plane for a night flight. He's a man in recovery from a nervous breakdown six months previously. Aboard the plane, he looks out of the window and to his astonishment sees a nightmarish gremlin sabotaging the wing. He tries to point this out to his wife and the stewards, but every time someone looked the gremlin would hide. Everyone believes that Robert is suffering another mental breakdown.
In the end Robert risks his life to shoot the gremlin with a pilfered revolver. When the plane finally lands, Robert is taken away in a straightjacket and no one believes his crazy claims. Unseen by the engineers on the ground, though, is unexplained damage to the wing...
4. The Hitch-Hiker
"The Hitch-Hiker" was the first episode of The Twilight Zone I can remember seeing. I knew of The Twilight Zone of course, and felt like I had absorbed the most famous episodes through some kind of cultural osmosis. But I had not actually watched a full episode until one day in my late teens. I was flicking through the channels late one night when I spotted that one of the digital backwater channels was showing this episode.
I tuned in and wasn't entirely sure what to expect. The Hitch-Hiker wasn't an episode I had ever heard of. I was soon sucked in by the mounting tension. The story is a simple one - a woman is on a cross-country road trip when a flat tyre causes a car accident. She emerges unscathed - or so she thinks - and after having her car fixed, continues on her way.
It is then she sees a man hitch-hiking at the side of the road. The odd thing is that she keeps seeing him the further she goes. It makes her paranoid and she becomes convinced that this man is out to harm her. Terrified, she stops to call her mother for reassurance, only to find her mother has been committed to hospital following her daughter's death in a car accident. That's right, the woman was dead all along. It's like The Sixth Sense, only pulled off in less than half the time.
The hitch-hiker, we realise, is none other than a manifestation of the Grim Reaper. After learning the truth, the woman returns to her car to find the hitch-hiker inside, and he utters the immortal line: "I believe you're going my way?"
3. Walking Distance
I believe that "Walking Distance" is a criminally underrated Twilight Zone episode. There's no twist ending or any shocks, it's a just a simple story wonderfully told.
"Walking Distance"'s protagonist is an unremarkable man in his mid 30s named Martin Sloane. He is walking back to his home town after leaving his car to be serviced at a nearby garage. As he gets to the town he realises that it looks exactly as it did when he was a child in the 1930s. Walking past the local park, Martin is shocked to see his younger self there. Trying to find out what's going on he follows the boy home - to his childhood house - and sees his parents. They are much younger, looking how he remembered them as a child. He tries in vain to explain who he is but unsurprisingly they don't believe him and turn him away.
Later he sees his younger self again, on a carousel, and tries to tell the boy to enjoy his childhood while he can. The stranger's advances scare young Martin who falls from the carousel, injuring his leg. Older Martin is then confronted by his own father, who finally believes his story, having seen documents with future dates on them in his wallet. His father tells him that he shouldn't dwell in the past, and as delightful as his childhood memories may be, his present and future as an adult have delights all of their own.
Martin makes his way back to the garage to recover his car and notes that it's once again present day 1950s and he now has a limp, from the carousel accident he had as a boy, caused by his future self. Now content with the circumstances of his life, he drives home.
Walking Distance is a wonderful tale, an elegy to lost youth but also a reminder that our best days aren't behind us; there's always more to come.
2. Time Enough At Last
Arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode of all, Time Enough At Last is probably the episode to watch as an introduction to what the show is all about.
The episode was adapted from a science fiction short story, and introduces us to Henry Bemis, a solitude-seeking bookworm who would like nothing more than to be left alone to read, but who finds that distractions - his job at a bank and literature hating wife - get in the way.
One fateful day he retires to the bank vault to read undisturbed. An explosion from outside causes the building to shake and Bemis to be knocked unconscious. Upon his return to consciousness he recovers his thick glasses and emerges from the bank vault to discover the bank has been demolished by the explosion and everyone but him is dead. He soon discovers the whole town has been destroyed by a H-bomb explosion, as he is the only one left alive.
Totally alone, Bemis finds a revolver and considers suicide before spotting the remains of the public library. Upon inspection he discovers many of the books are somehow intact. All the books he could ever want to read are available to him, and he has all the time in the world in which to read them.
In classic Twilight Zone fashion though, that's not the end of it. As he reaches down to pick up a book from the floor, he stumbles, falls, and the thick glasses he needs to be able to see shatter on the ground. Now surrounded by books but virtually blind, he knows he will never be able to do the one thing he wanted to do - read without interruption - and bursts into tears.
1. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street
This might a bit of a controversial inclusion in the #1 spot. "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" is certainly well regarded but I hardly ever see it the top of anyone's list of the best Twilight Zone episodes. Usually that spot is reserved for "The Eye Of The Beholder", "Five Characters In Search Of An Exit", "Time Enough At Last" or "Living Doll" (the latter of which hasn't even made my top ten! Sorry. If I could have an eleventh that would definitely be it).
For me though, this is the best episode of The Twilight Zone's original run. Cutting social commentary was always part of the show's remit, and in this episode - written by creator Rod Serling - an alien invasion is used an allegory about America's paranoid fear of the Communist threat, and the destructive power of prejudice.
Maple Street is presented as an average suburban American neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone. One night there is a strange roar, and a flash of light, and suddenly the power and radio signals are out. Panic slowly grips the residents of Maple Street, not helped by a local boy Tommy, who escalates this by saying he has a read a story about an alien invasion that begins with a power outage, and that the aliens pose as ordinary humans.
Soon a witch hunt begins to search for the "aliens", neighbours begin throwing wild accusations at one another with little or no evidence to back them up. After one resident, Charlie, shoots another, believing him to be a "monster" from a distance, the situation devolves into an all-out riot, with many Maple Street residents arming themselves and firing at anyone nearby.
This being The Twilight Zone, the idea of an alien invasion isn't just random paranoia. At the end of the episode we learn there are aliens, watching the events on Maple Street from atop a nearby hill. They remark on how easy it was to ramp up the paranoia by simply turning off the electricity, and note that all they need to do to take over the planet is to simply let humanity destroy itself, just like the community of Maple Street did.
Those are my ten favourite episodes. It was really hard to narrow it down to ten, and even harder to pick the order. I'm sure there are plenty of great episodes I've missed - but that's the thing with The Twilight Zone; it's so smart, imaginative and diverse that you could make a decent argument for any ten episodes picked at random. If you've never seen it before, I highly recommend checking it out as soon as possible.
Do you agree with my top ten? Disagree? Have I missed any classics? Let me know in the comments below, what are your favourites, and why?