SHOCK’s Kalyn Corrigan picks her favorite episodes from Rod Serling’s landmark TV series THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
Created in 1959 by Emmy award winning writer Rod Serling, THE TWILIGHT ZONE is one of the most famous and influential T.V. shows of all time. In a period when people shied away from horror and dark fantasy, Serling dove head first into the abyss of the unknown, and put his fears on display through the manifestation of an alternate universe where time is relative and the strange and unusual has come to be defined as the norm. Through his various recounts of odd stories and everyday people caught up in ghastly situations, Serling both brought to life a sanctuary for those viewers who had trouble relating to mainstream television, and also elicited metaphors to help push through real life traumas and trepidation that were otherwise difficult to face. There have been various imitations and homages paid to the iconic series, but none have come close to the impact and brilliance that these unique little stories generated; small slices of life revealed through Serling’s poignant monologues and lessons of morality that reached out and touched audiences across the nation, and over time, across the globe.
For this writer, personally, some of my very first experiences with horror and science fiction came from this show, and even now, when I revisit the episodes that aired well over fifty years ago, I can still find comfort, inspiration, and self-actualization through the timeless messages played out in black and white images. THE TWILIGHT ZONE isn’t just one of the most recognizable shows to ever hit the air, it’s also one of the most important, not only for its prestige, but also, for its entertainment, and for its invaluable teachings that extend far beyond its time zone.
Below, Ive listed ten of my favorite TZ episodes, just in time for Halloween, but perfect for any time of the year. Please, feel free to leave a comment and tell me which ones are your favorites, too!
1. “Living Doll” S5E6
Annabelle has just bought her daughter a lifelike doll named Talky Tina that can actually recite a few lines to her owner. However, when Annabelle’s new husband, Erich, picks up the doll, Talky Tina tells him she hates him, a use of dialogue that most likely wasn’t programmed by the manufacturers at the toy company. Hostile to begin with, but now moved to the realm of ticked off, Erich decides to destroy the doll, but finds it completely indestructible, even to the force of a blow torch. Taunting him as he attempts to melt her immortal plastic skin, Tina laughs and tosses out threats; a tiny, pretty plaything getting the best of a raging grown man. In a very unique way, this episode manages to be both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. Set around the idea of a killer doll, influences of this episode can be spotted in countless television shows, literary material, and popular films like CHILD’S PLAY, DOLLS and DEAD SILENCE. Although many different forms of media have mimicked this tale, it remains special for its unusual approach to a murderous toy in the way that it depicts Tina’s devious deeds as frightening, but overall, righteous and necessary for a single mom and her daughter who struggle to stick up for themselves in the face of an emotionally abusive lover’s eruptions.
2. “Eye of the Beholder” S2E6
A woman whose face is hidden by bandages resides morose in a hospital room, waiting to be beautiful. Ever since she was a little girl, people have turned away from her on the street. But no more. Not now. Now, they’ll smile when they see her because she’ll finally fit in with society’s idea of “normal”. The only trick is — society’s standards of beauty in THE TWILIGHT ZONE include faces that more closely resemble that of a pig than a person. Warped smiles with large, swine-like noses are what walks the street here, and no matter how much the doctors try to operate on this poor, sweet girl, her perfectly symmetrical features have doomed her to a life where she is characterized as hideous, in this backwards world. In this commentary on beauty and how it is defined in our culture, the tables are turned, offering a fresh, interesting perspective on what we find attractive, and an amusing and somewhat comforting proposition of a plane of existence where what most consider the norm is for once labeled as odd, and those that look “different” are perceived as beautiful.
3. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” S1E22
At precisely 6:43 P.M. on a lighthearted Saturday afternoon, all the electricity suddenly and inexplicably shuts off on Maple Street. At first, all is dark, but then, without warning, random rooms in selective houses begin to light up. Cars come on, electrical items power on in certain people’s houses, but not others, and before long, the growing paranoia and suspicion begin to emerge. That’s when the monsters come. The monsters toss around wild accusations and demonstrate crazed mob mentality, growling at one another in the street, picking out victims and cornering them into fearful submission. Although, in truth, there are aliens watching from above, controlling the electricity and flipping the lights on and off, they are not the ones to be feared. The real monsters are the people who occupy this street. In the midst of all of their finger pointing, the citizens of this sweet, naive little neighborhood quickly evolved into the snarling ghouls, and the aliens watching from above need only tamper with a few switches to bring out the evil that existed long before they landed on earth’s shifting soil.
4. “Time Enough At Last” S1E8
Imagine the horror of a world without books. A world where reading is frowned upon, newspapers are seen as irrelevant, and finding a quiet corner to turn page is virtually impossible. Novels gain dust on a shelf as people grow less fond of print and more and more dependent on technology. Every moment is filled with crowded noise and meaningless conversation and no one seeks to grow any wiser or imaginative. It’s probably not too hard to picture nowadays, in a fast-paced modern society where excitement is defined by the newest technological gadgets and the hottest celebrity gossip, but in the 1960s, it was a frightening notion. For many today, it still is. Through this nightmarish depiction of a society without an appreciation for the written word, Rod Serling provides viewers with a quick peek into his brain, and shows us what terrors plague him in the dark of the night.
5. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up” S2E28
Clearly inspired by the 1951 sci-fi classic THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD), this episode starts off with two policemen arriving at the scene where a landing of an unidentified flying object has just crash landed to earth and left tracks in the snow. While investigating, they’re lead to a nearby diner, where seven passengers have just tumbled off a bus, when there should only be six. Filled with side-eyeing, suspicious glances, and hostile doubts, this episode toys with the idea that our worst fears are hidden within the stranger seated next to us, waiting until the pretense of a kind face for a vulnerable moment when it can pounce. Also, the twist within a twist during the final moments make this story not only priceless in its influence on future filmmakers, but also, just downright entertaining.
6. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” S5E3
A man who recently suffered a nervous breakdown faces his greatest challenge yet when he has to re-enter society, specifically, in the same place where he experienced his mental collapse: an airplane. At first, Bob is getting along rather swimmingly, as he elicits a calm, logical composure, overriding his fears with rational thought. However, just when it seems that Bob is no longer suffering the torment of his demons, life, as it often does, plays a cruel trick on him, and tosses a terrifying gremlin onto the wing of the plane, one which only he can see. A petrifying creature slicked wet with rain, the creature begins tearing at the wiring, causing the innards of the aircraft to begin malfunctioning. Bob tries to alert the other passengers to the large critter roaming the outside of the vessel, but the more he shrieks and hollers, the crazier Bob appears, and the more his loving wife fears that she may have released him from the mental ward he resided in far too soon. Starring William Shatner as Bob, the only man capable of saving the aircraft, unable to save his peers without identifying himself as mentally unstable, this was the first episode of the famous show that this writer ever watched, at about the age of five. Needless to say, my next ride on a plane (in the rain, I might add) featured me constantly looking out of my window, expecting to see a disfigured man on the wing, pulling at cords in the hopes of destroying us all.
7. “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” S5E17
Our vanity will ruin us all, and eventually turn us into submissive airheads is the message in this Brave New World-esque universe where people are only allowed to look one way: beautiful. There are a few different body types to choose from, so everyone wears name tags in order to differentiate between the same sea of perfectly symmetrical faces. There’s even happy pills readily available that people are encouraged to take to ensure that their mood never dips below blissful. Short, rotund, emotional, inquisitive, restless — these are things of the past; character traits that might lead to independent thought, and personal identity, which are two things that any supreme ruler wouldn’t want his submissive nation to exhibit. Even though they may not always seem desirable, as this episode brilliantly points out, flaws are what make us unique, and our pain is what teaches us wisdom, and without the aspects of ourselves that we’re not as fond of, we are not fully whole, and therefore, cease to truly exist.
8. “The Midnight Sun” S3E10
Norma and her landlord Mrs. Bronson are doing their best to keep each other company on what seems to be their final days. Tortured by sweltering temperatures as the earth slowly inches closer to the sun, the two women are the last occupants of their apartment building, and cling to one another as they fight for survival in the relentless heat. Night time no longer exists, there is no safe haven from the sun’s piercing rays, and most people have either died from heat exhaustion, or gone mad with hysterics. All day long, Norma paints pictures of the sun endlessly shining over the horizon, because in this life, where there is no shade and no coolness, it is the only thing that occupies her thoughts, and she and her talents waste away, melting in this endless drought. Lucky for her, this place is only a dream. The end of the episode reveals that Norma is merely dreaming, and in actuality, the earth is moving farther away from the sun, not closer to it, and soon, everyone will freeze to death. In a wicked turn of events that demonstrates both extremes feared by those who know the dangers of dramatic climate change, this episode asks the daunting question of ‘Which way would you prefer to go?’ and offers no solace for either route of destruction.
9. “Walking Distance” S1E5
Fed up with life and feeling nostalgic, thirty-six-year-old Martin Sloan decides to take advantage of the fact that the gas station he’s pulled into happens to be within walking distance of his old home town. It’s been decades since Martin felt the simple joys of etching his name into the park jungle gym, scurrying to catch the last drops of an ice cream cone before it melts in the summer heat, or a ride on the carousel, but upon his return to his old beloved Homewood, Martin finds that nothing has changed — literally. The year is 1934, and Martin can actually see his pre-teen self sitting alone at the park, unfazed by the burdens of adulthood that he has not yet faced. From that point on, Martin chases his younger self around town, attempting to tell him to appreciate these precious moments, and tries to get his parents to recognize him, but his pleas of regaining his youth fall on deaf ears. Like many adults, Martin feels that if he could just wipe his slate clean, and start over, his jaded life would somehow be better. He thinks that the answer to happiness in his future lies in connecting to his past, but as he learns in this story, his current discomfort stems from lingering on what has already happened, instead of appreciating the delights of his present.
10. “To Serve Man” S3E24
Humans have gown complacent with the fact that we’re at the top of the food chain, unshakeable in our reign as the ultimate rules of the earth, and of life itself. But what if that weren’t true? What if life exists outside of our humble planet, and that life exceeds our technology, our fragile bodies, and our knowledge? What if in reality, we are nothing but tiny specs in an infinite universe, just waiting to be eaten? Based on the short story by Damon Knight, “To Serve Man” is a clever episode, told from the point of view of Michael Chambers, a decoding specialist who works for the United States government. Slightly ahead of its time, this episode features a character breaking the fourth wall to ask the audience “How about you? You still on earth, or on the ship with me?” Using this trick from the director’s toolbox allows the story to not only play on humans’ fear of their small size in the grand scale of stars and infinite space, but actually reaches out and confronts the viewers with the cold, hard fact that they’re probably not alone, and our first encounter with extraterrestrial life will probably be about domination, not unification.