Well I’m amped for the annual New Year’s SyFy marathon of the classic television series The Twilight Zone. For those of you who grew up, ironically, in the Twilight Zone and are unaware of this show it is a classic series of science fiction one-offs with an ever changing cast by the prolific writer/creator/and host of the show Rod Serling. The show ran originally from 1959 to 1964 on CBS and pushed the envelope of science fiction and social commentary in the medium. To this day the episodes are relevant in their core themes based in humanity’s trappings and the ways of the world. Even though the series is mostly available in other media, especially Netflix, the marathon on SyFy is is a treat as the mind bending and difficult moral questions posed by the show are a lovely addition to any day as they play on autopilot. The iconic introduction, and Rod Serling’s trademark suit are beyond pop culture and have entered pop consciousness, become something much larger than “a show from over 50 years ago”. The show spawned movies and numerous attempts at restarts, but none could ever capture the brilliance of Serling and almost always fall short because of it. So…submitted for your approval, a list of three of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. (I won’t worry about spoiling the episodes as they are over 50 years old and I think the statute of limitations has passed…but do consider yourself forewarned).
Eye of the Beholder
Everything about this episode is magic. In my creative writing course I show this episode as a segue into what good science fiction can do. Eye of the Beholder is a beautiful blend of cinema and camera angles, brilliant understanding of the human condition, and an off putting world where the utopia proves the dystopia. Set around the story of a horribly disfigured young woman and the struggle of the doctors to make her look more socially acceptable, the story unravels into a tale of conformity, communism, and the importance of individuality. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this episode is that you don’t notice that nobody’s face is actually shown until sometime into the episode–and once you realize it you don’t know why, or what is so off putting. In the end beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder as the “disfigured” woman is quite beautiful by the viewer’s standards but not by the pig faced inhabitants of the world. While many episodes are famous in their own right, this episode is undeniably one of, if not my absolute, favorite of the series because of the marriage of the writing and the medium.
Time Enough at Last
Another fantastically famous episode starring Burgess Merideth (who was in many many episodes). This installment in the 5th dimension follows Mr. Bemis, a banker who would much rather be reading. So much so that it becomes a hindrance to his daily life–he is suffering in his work due to his reading and his wife becomes cruel to him. Asking that he read to her from a poetry book, he eagerly obliges on to find each page redacted and blacked out. One day, Bemis takes his daily break to read in the bank vault to find the world destroyed to his delight. He is the world’s only survivor, now with plenty of time to read—that is until his glasses break. The episode draws no clear moral victory on either the side of social activity or intellectualism (or really anti-intellectualism, though it certainly doesn’t favor that) as Bemis’ desire to read isn’t vilified…but also in the end his need for others is clearly drawn. I did always wonder why he didn’t just fumble around to find an optometrists’ office after his glasses broke, though I suppose he might’ve after the credits; the episode’s ending stands as a highly parodied moment which even I cannot separate from Milhouse Van Houten weeping “My glasses…”
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
This episode starring William Shatner (and John Lithgow in the movie remake) is another episode that is part of popular consciousness–which is a mark of the immense impact the show had on American culture. Bob Wilson, as played by Shatner, is an airline passenger who is tortured as being the only one who can see a horrifying gremlin on the wing of the aircraft (actually the costume is ridiculous and the face makeup resembles that of the faces in Eye of the Beholder). The gremlin slowly drives the crew and other passengers to think Wilson has gone mad. This is further complicated as it is revealed that he had a major breakdown on a plane just six months earlier. He tries to convince himself that the horror he is seeing–the eventual demise of everyone on board the airplane–eventually going so far as to try and kill the creature by opening the window with a revolver. Eventually Wilson is carted off in a straight jacket but the viewer is informed that he is in fact a hero as the gremlin has left damage on the wing that would have surely killed all aboard.
There we have it. Essentially all the episodes are classics and some push the envelope in ways that might not even be possible today. Certainly no writer would have the level of creative control the Serling was afforded in today’s world–nor might any show be successful without a staple cast. I even wonder if we’d be able to watch a show without a storyline today…but one can only hope that someday an iteration of this show might be made that captures the spirit and quality of the original without rehashing the mid-twentieth century storylines. Originality required has always been the downfall of the remakes.