Number 10: The Twilight Zone
The original run of ‘The Twilight Zone’ lasted five years, five seasons, and a total of 156 episodes. Despite each episode telling a different story, many were linked by themes such as revenge, the supernatural, or the unexplained. There was a heavy emphasis on karmic justice too; many of the show’s protagonists suffered a grisly fate as a result of their own poor choices, actions or avarice. The different tales were linked not only by theme but, in a device very much borrowed by ‘Tales from the Crypt’ amongst others, also by a seemingly omniscient host.
Writer Rod Serling, who appears on each episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ as the narrator, had already achieved some success with getting his work picked up for television. He was, however, disillusioned with the whole process, having seen his work adapted, edited and amended sometimes unrecognisably; he was a man who harboured ideas that were controversial for the time. He saw the a rapidly expanding public market for science fiction stories; in much the way Shakespeare disguised his political ideas as simple entertainment, so would Sterling hide his within populist stories of robots, aliens and the future. His first foray into this world was a script about a time traveller who went back in order to stop the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbour but, predictably and perhaps understandably, there was little interest and the script was shelved. When it was dusted off and used for an episode of an obscure series called ‘Desilu Playhouse’, its success allowed Serling to finally get the ball rolling on his own series, and ‘The Twilight Zone’ was born.
Like many of the shows on this list, the cast altered on an episode by episode basis; the show’s humble origins and limited running time of twenty five minutes – although Season Four extended this to fifty – often limiting Serling to small number of characters. Whilst there were some appearances by recognisable contemporary stars, superstar of the silent era Buster Keaton among them, it is the list of, at the time, unknown actors who appeared in very early roles that is more of interest to the modern eye. Action legend Charles Bronson, ‘Columbo’ Peter Falk, Oscar-winning director and ‘Happy Days’ alumnus Ron Howard, go-to movie psycho Dennis Hopper, Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds all appeared; interestingly, three members from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise appear too, with ‘Star Trek’ icons William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and George Takei also cropping up. The star of the show was undoubtedly Serling himself whose grave voiceover and portentous tone set the air of mystery and suspense before the episode even began.
‘The Twilight Zone’ covered a huge range of themes and many of them, despite the show’s science fiction trappings, clearly cross over into the realm of horror. Rather than describe these in detail I submit, in no particular order, the three best episodes for the uninitiated genre fan to check out:
1) Night Call – Episode 19, Season 5: Air Date 7th February 1964
One of the later entrants in the pantheon of ‘The Twilight Zone’ this episode follows a familiar path for horror fans; during a thunderstorm, an elderly woman receives repeated phone calls that play only static. When the noise is replaced by a voice on the other end of the line, the mystery starts to deepen. As with most episodes it is impossible to explain the plot without hitting spoilers; suffice to say that, even to a modern audience, ‘Night Call’ remains one of the most simply terrifying ones, one that has lost none of its power to shock in the last fifty years. Worthy of note is the fact that this episode was written Richard Matheson who was also responsible for one of the series’ most iconic and well-loved stories – ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’.
2) Time Enough At Last – Episode 8, Season 1: Air Date 20th November 1959
Despite being one of the very earliest episodes ‘Time Enough At Last’ remains possibly the best. Starring Burgess Meredith as a man seeking solitude in the world of books, and tackling issues of loneliness, technophobia, and intellectualism, it is without doubt one of the most affecting and bleak stories ever broadcast. Powerful, shocking, and with a denouement that, even today, is stunningly elegant, if you see only one episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ make it this one. Rod Serling himself declared this one of his favourites and it is easy to see why.
3) The Eye of the Beholder – Episode 6, Season 2: Air Date 11th November 1960
This episode is unusual in the context of ‘The Twilight Zone’ as, for once, the ending is comparatively rather uplifting. Lead character Janet Tyler is played by two different women; Maxine Stuart recorded the voice for the character, who spends a large portion of the episode with her head completely wrapped in bandages following unsuccessful surgery, and Donna Douglas played the body and revealed version. The Eye of the Beholder is one of the most influential episodes of the show; a masterclass in delivering the expected twist in an entirely unexpected way.
When the show was cancelled after the end of Season 5 Serling was once again disillusioned and, wishing to cut all ties to the science fiction and fantasy genres, sold his share of the franchise back to CBS. He later went on to create the more horror focussed, creepy, yet short lived ‘Night Gallery’ – a far more inconsistent affair – and was rebuffed in his attempts to return to ‘The Twilight Zone’ some years later. However, with science fiction cool again in the 1980s and following on from Spielberg’s feeble homage ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ in 1983, CBS gave the green light to more episodes of the show. It ran for a further three seasons from 1985 to 1989 before being cancelled yet again, despite reasonable ratings; most of this iteration’s most interesting and entertaining episodes were simple retooling of Serling’s original tales however.
In 2002, yet another series of ‘The Twilight Zone’ hit screens, this time going back to Serling’s original blueprint of tackling serious contemporary issues. Like its forefather, it attracted a large amount of young and upcoming talent including Xander Berkeley, Linda Cardellini, Portia de Rossi, Jaime Pressly, and Robin Tunney; unlike its predecessors however, it was both a ratings and critical failure and was cancelled after only one season. Worthy of note are a bizarre episode in which Katherine Heigl goes back in time to kill Hitler, an episode in which Death tries to quit his job, and a sequel to original series standout episode ‘It’s A Good Life’ entitled, somewhat predictably, ‘It’s Still A Good Life’.
‘The Twilight Zone’ is rightfully iconic and respected. It took interesting, diverse and unconventional ideas and put them on screen at a time when there was little else catering to genre fans. Whilst not purely sitting within the horror genre, there is a lengthy list of episodes that do, and it thusly earns its place here. Despite its age, many of these episodes are as fascinating and as shocking as they were when originally released; ‘The Twilight Zone’ stands as a shining example of the fact that good storytelling transcends age. If, somehow, you have yet to catch it in any of its forms, do so at your earliest convenience; start with the original and, undoubtedly, the best.