This week marks the 54th anniversary of Rod Serling’s seminal sci-fi series that transported viewers into an unknown dimension, “between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” The Twilight Zone boasted dramatic writing, shocking plot twists, and oodles of Kafkaesque terror. We revisited ten of the series’ greatest episodes that haven’t been lost to a dimension “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” Feel free to mention your own favorites, below.
William “Captain Kirk” Shatner stars in what might be the most famous and revered of all Twilight Zone episodes. He plays a man traveling aboard a commercial flight with his wife. When he spots a “gremlin” on the wing, he tries to alert the crew and other passengers to the potential danger lurking just outside his window seat. However, our clever Gremlin makes sure to duck out of view every time someone else peers through the glass, leaving Shatner to look foolish and delusional (a fact compounded by the knowledge that his character had a severe nervous breakdown on a plane months earlier… ). In typical Twilight Zone fashion, the final shot is the stinger. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was revisited in Twilight Zone: The Movie, starring John Lithgow in the famous role.
In this episode, which debuted back in 1962, mankind has seemingly found a benevolent alien savior in the form of the Kanamits — a race of towering space travelers who are all too willing to help Earth eradicate the problems of hunger and war. Their personal manifesto, a book entitled To Serve Man, isn’t a guide for peace. It’s a cookbook with recipes to turn humans into a tasty main course.
The fantasy of every child — to have unlimited power against grown-ups — is made horrifyingly real in 1961’s “It’s a Good Life.” Bill Mumy plays six-year-old Anthony Freemont, a boy with incredible psychic powers who holds everyone around him hostage. It’s sort of like Game of Thrones, if little King Joffrey could simply think you out of existence for displeasing him. The adults tiptoe around the kid, but it never really matters, because he’s six, and six-year-olds aren’t particularly rational in the first place. That ever-present sense of menace exuded from the adorable face of Mumy is what makes things work. Like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the episode was remade for the Twilight Zone movie. It also got a sequel in the 2002 Twilight Zone revival series, entitled “It’s Still a Good Life,” wherein Anthony is now a grown-up and his daughter has inherited his abilities. Bill Mumy and Chloris Leachman reprise their original roles, and Mumy’s real-life daughter serves as the story’s new tyrant.
“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself… without anyone.”
And so begins what is perhaps the most beloved of all Twilight Zone episodes, 1959’s “Time Enough at Last.” In many ways, this first season ep is the epitome of everything The Twilight Zone stands for. A poor, put-upon man (Burgess Meredith, in his first of several appearances in the series) finds things finally going his way, only to watch the inherent cruelness of the universe twist everything in a terrible manner, usurping his moment of victory. Rod Serling sure loved to kick the audience in the gut, and this particular blow is one of the series’ most unforgettable.
Meredith stars as Henry Bemis — a man who just wants to get away from the everyday world and bury his nose in a good book. Henry gets his wish when the rest of humanity is wiped out in a nuclear attack. He discovers an untouched library — a place where he can read in peace for the rest of his existence. Thrilled with his discovery, Bemis settles in. As he gets ready to crack open his first book, he breaks his glasses. Virtually blind, Bemis is now stuck in a world with all the time and books he could ever want and no way to enjoy them. This unhappy twist ending would become a common feature during the show’s run, but this one always stood out as particularly cruel. Perhaps it’s because so many of us can relate to it.
Serling himself listed “Time Enough at Last” amongst his favorite episodes of the series.
Odds are, if you saw 1962’s “Eye of the Beholder” as a child (originally titled “The Private World of Darkness”), it terrified you for weeks. A young woman undergoes surgery to improve her appearance and look like everyone else. She spends most of the episode swathed in head bandages as shadowy doctors and nurses talk around her. When the wraps are removed, the doctors proclaim the procedure a complete failure — but the audience sees the lovely Donna Douglas and wonders how this can be. It all becomes clear when the doctors and nurses are revealed (one of the most memorable Twilight Zone reveals of all time).
Given that so many people find dolls unsettling and creepy, it’s a bit of a surprise that it took Twilight Zone five seasons to tell the story of “Living Doll.”
A pre-Kojack Telly Savalas isn’t a fan of his stepdaughter’s new “Talky Tina” doll, especially after she starts telling him she’s going to kill him. What follows is a twisted domestic drama powered by the machinations of an evil toy. It’s a trope that would be revisited in countless horror tales over the years — from Friday the 13th: The Series, to The X-Files, to the Child’s Play movies. Serling and company’s take on the material is still amongst the best.
The best episodes of Twilight Zone were often the ones that buried a moral or bit of social commentary in their sci-fi and horror narratives — and few were more poignant than 1960’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Much like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, this is another tale that asks the viewers to decide who the real monsters are: the alien invaders or their very own friends and neighbors?
“Monsters” features a smart script that finds the residents of the titular Maple Street in a panic when they conclude an alien invasion is afoot. Rather than team up to combat the terror from beyond the stars, they succumb to paranoia and vigilante-like behavior, leading their invaders to conclude that the best way to destroy mankind is to let us do the deed ourselves.
Rod Serling, who wrote the episode, summed it up best in the closing narration:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, and prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children… and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is… that these things cannot be confined… to the Twilight Zone.”
Season two episode “The Invaders” — which finds Agnes Moorehead in her pre-Bewitched days taking on tiny alien beings who accost her at her isolated farmhouse — may not be the deepest episode in the Twilight Zone canon, but it is another of those entries everyone remembers because of the twist ending. Twilight Zone was skilled at many things, but Serling and his team really were masters at finding a way to lull viewers into thinking they knew what was happening only to pull the rug out from under them in the last few minutes of the story.
People often think of The Twilight Zone as a show mostly interested in horror and sci-fi stories, but Rod Serling was not above telling a more grounded tale — one with a wistful tone tinged with nostalgia. “Walking Distance” is perhaps the greatest example of Serling’s ability to move beyond the confines of traditional genre fare.
A tale about a man revisiting his childhood (literally), “Walking Distance” is memorable for its melancholic tone and (somewhat) unsatisfying conclusion (some viewers are disappointed that there’s no twist or neat and tidy resolution at the end of the show — something that makes it seem for more powerful to us). It’s not the typical Twilight Zone story, but it still stands as one of the best tales in the series’ long run and one of Serling’s finest moments.
It sounds like the start of a bad joke: an army major wakes up in a metal cylinder and meets a hobo, a ballet dancer, a bagpiper, and a clown. Things are never quite as they seem in The Twilight Zone, and there aren’t a lot of laughs to be found in this premise.
Instead, these five characters trapped in a strange tube seek to not only escape, but also figure out where they are. The results are as surprising as you’d expect given the history of the show. This was season three’s Christmas episode, but hardly filled with mirth and good cheer. It did inspire Vincenzo Natali’s cult classic film Cube, and director Lamont Johnson revisited the story in, of all places, a season two episode of Felicity – something so bizarre it could have come directly from The Twilight Zone on its own.