The Twilight Zone was such a groundbreaking series that it influenced our popular culture to a level many of us don’t even realize. From Rod Serling’s silky and smoke-filled introductions, to the inevitable twist ending, the Twilight Zone’s black and white years were doubtless its best. While many of the twists have become so well known in the ensuing years as to lost much of their sting, if you can imagine watching these broadcasts in the 60s on an old black and white set, you might just get a feel for how revolutionary it was. Here, in my humble opinion, are 14 of the best episodes of this series.
Oh, and spoiler alerts.
14. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Long before he was helming the Enterprise, Shatner was a legitimate actor. Not yet turned to King of ham-acting, he had two leads in Twilight Zone pieces, Nightmare and Nick of Time (discussed below). While Nick of Time was doubtlessly better, Nightmare is a far more iconic role for the actor â€” the man recovering from a mental breakdown, insisting he sees a gremlin on the wings of an airplane, which no-one else notices. It’s a segment that’s been parodied widely, by everyone from The Simpsons to SNL. It’s also hilarious to watch it and compare flying in the 60s to now â€” everyone wearing suits, smoking cigarettes, and in seats with ample legroom. Ah, a golden age!
13. The Invaders
There was some pretty seriously interesting film-making associated with the Twilight Zone, as you can see if you watch The Invaders. The entire sketch is shot almost without dialogue, with the only speech occurring in the closing minutes. There’s an old lady who lives in a sparse and poor country cabin, who is encounters two tiny aliens and a flying saucer. She manages to kill one and chases the other back to his spaceship. Just as she attacks it with an axe, we hear the alien broadcasting in American-English, warning of a planet inhabited by giants, who would be very difficult to defeat. As the ship is smashed by the giantess, we see the writing on its side: U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1.
12. The Midnight Sun
Okay, so the science might be a bit shoddy in TZ. Or maybe make that very shoddy…but let’s just go with it. The Earth is careening into the Sun, and the only two people left in an apartment building are Norma â€” a painter, and Mrs. Bronson â€” the landlady, everyone else has run for cooler climes. With looters roaming the streets, the power all but disconnected, water strictly rationed, and the heat ever increasing, the two ladies struggle with the mounting temperature. As it gets hotter and hotter, Mrs. Bronson collapses and dies from the heat, and Norma’s paintings explode. Just as things get get unbearable, the scene shifts to the apartment at night time, now bitterly cold. The thermometer sits at -10°, and Norma is in bed, with a fever dream, imagining her impending fiery doom. The Earth is in fact hurtling away from the Sun, promising an icy death to all its inhabitants. Waking up from her fever dreams, she asks Mrs Bronson “Isn’t it wonderful to have darkness, and coolness?” Mrs. Bronson replies with a sense of dread in her voice, “Yes, my dear, it’s….wonderful.”
11. To Serve Man
Okay, everyone knows how this one goes. Super smart aliens visit our planet, and fix everything. No more war, no more poverty, no more hunger. They just want what’s best for us! Government codebreakers frantically rush to translate a single piece of Kanamitian literature â€” a book called “To Serve Man”. Then, shock, horror! It’s a cookbook! They’re making us fat and complacent, and there ain’t jack shit we can do now! I’d just like to make two points at this juncture: we were doing fine on the fat and complacent field on our own, thank you very much; and doesn’t the whole twist here â€” the dual meaning of “serve” â€” seem to rely pretty heavily on the English language? That wouldn’t make any sense for an alien tongue! Regardless, it’s still a classic episode, and one of the few that breaks the fourth wall: at the very end of the story, the narrator turns to the camera and says, “how about you? Are you still on Earth, or on the ship with me? It really doesn’t make very much difference, because sooner or later, we’ll all be on the menu…all of us.”
10. Nick of Time
The second Shatner piece on here (who would have thought? He was once a good actor!), this time casting him as one half of a newly-wed couple, driving to New York City. Their car breaks down, and while waiting at a local diner, they find a small fortune telling machine that will dispense predictions for a penny. Of course, the predictions come true, and the pair must struggle with the lure of knowing the future, and the ironclad grasp it can have over their decisions. Shatner wants to ask the teller about every possibility of their actions, and his wife rails against relying on the seer. The two eventually leave, defying the will of the fortune teller, while another couple takes their place, stuck in its grasp for good.
9. Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up?
The paranoid imaginings of Cold War America was the perfect breeding ground for Twilight Zone’s distinctive brand of chills. Swapping Communists for aliens was a common twist, as demonstrated in Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up. A small diner is packed with a bus-full of people during a snow storm, waiting to hear if a bridge ahead is safe to cross. Two troopers come in, following the tracks from a nearby UFO citing. Someone in the diner is secretly from another planet, and the people swiftly turn on one another. Yet as soon as they’re told the bridge is safe, they all leave, even though they no longer trust each other. Soon after, a single straggler returns, saying the bridge collapsed under them, and that everyone but him drowned. The cook mentions the traveller isn’t even wet, at which point the traveller reveals a third arm, and his Martian origins, as well as the plans to start a colony on Earth. Laughing, the cook pulls of his hat, showing a third eye, marking him as a Venusian. Earth already is a colony, and the Mars fleet was shot down in transit.
8. Five Characters In Search Of An Exit
Five people awake in a giant metal cylinder, none of them able to remember how they got there. A soldier, ballet dancer, hobo, bagpiper and clown. No, it’s not a weird predecessor to cube, though it certainly seems like it. The five are stuck in this room, with no exits whatsoever, occasionally blasted by a huge noise, an enormous clanging that shakes them to the core. They need no food, no water, and have no feelings at all. The soldier is determined to escape, even though the others are despondent. Creating a tower, one one top of the other, the army major escapes, tumbling into the light of day. Where a small girl picks up a doll in army uniform, puts it back in the barrel, and a lady rings a bell asking for donations for an orphans’ home.
7. The Masks
A dying millionaire meets with his family on his death bed â€” and on the eve of Mardis Gras he forces them to done masks while they discuss his will. His daughter, her husband and their two children are all horrible people, and he makes each of them put on masks caricaturing their personality: a sniveling coward to his daughter Emily, a miserable miser to her husband Wilfred, a twisted buffoon to the grandson Wilfred Jr., and a self-obsessed narcissist to the granddaughter Paula. As the ailing Jason dons a skull mask, he charges them all to leave the masks on until midnight, or receive nothing of the substantial will. Suffering under the uncomfortable masks, they all plea to take them off as the night progresses, as their patriarch rails against their shortcomings, eventually exclaiming “without your masks, you’re caricatures!”, before dying. The four pull of the uncomfortable masks in relief, only to find their faces are now permanently stuck in that shape.
6. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
Another prime example of tapping into Cold War paranoia, about a street in a small town that turns on its own when the power goes out, and talk of an alien invasion starts to surface. This story became so iconic, that it was used in classrooms as a perfect example of insular paranoia and auto-cannibalizing mistrust. The neighborhood dissolves under its own hatred and inability to trust people they’ve known their entire lives, and an angry mob forms, swiftly turning to murder and rioting. So where’s the twist in this story of small town hatred? The power fluctuations and general spookiness were caused by aliens, who plan to spread paranoia in order to take over the planet “one Maple street at a time”
5. A Stop at Willoughby
A businessman, stressed by his work, hounded by his wife, and unable to deal with the pressure from his boss. His only respite occurs on his daily train ride home, where he wakes up one day with the carriage transformed into one from the 1800s, pulled up at Willoughby, “a peaceful, restful place, where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.” As things progressively worsen at home and at work, his stops become longer, tempting him to step off the train and into a more peaceful era. Eventually after having a breakdown at the office and being abandoned by his wife, he takes the final step, and climbs out of the train at Willoughby, dropping his briefcase and being embraced by the inhabitants. The scene then cuts to a train conductor standing over his body on the side of the rails, saying that he yelled something about Willoughby before jumping from the cart. With that, his body is loaded into a stretcher, and taken to Willoughby & Son Funeral Home.
4. Time Enough At Last
Another classic episode, so well known that people are likely to know the end scene without having ever seen the episode or knowing the context. Burgess Meredith stars as a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone to read in piece and quiet, a treat denied to him at every turn. During his lunch break at the bank where he works, he retires to a vault to read undisturbed, only to be knocked out by a massive tremor. He awakes to find himself the only living person on Earth, having being saved from an atomic bomb by the vault. Wandering the wasteland he contemplates suicide, until he stumbles across a library. Overjoyed at finally having “time enough at last” to read, he trips and falls and shatters his glasses. OH SNAP! This is one of the most parodied scenes in TZ history, and one almost universally recognized, and with good reason! It’s a fantastic episode, and while the twist is now ruined, it originally had an immense impact.
3. Walking Distance
An episode J.J. Abrams once claimed as his favorite episode of TZ, and it’s easy to see why â€” time travel, logical paradoxes, and oddly sedate compared to many other episodes. Walking Distance lacks the plot twist of most other TZ segments, instead laying out the general premise early on: a man traveling across the country finds himself in his childhood, and meets his younger self. There’s no real realization or concrete ending to the story either. He accidentally injures his younger self at one point, causing old him to walk with a limp. Eventually he returns to the present, not really any wiser, just with the understanding that we all have a limited time on this planet, and to enjoy it. It’s a far more introspective and thoughtful episode than most, and remembered for it.
2. The Eye of the Beholder
Another absolutely amazing episode now ruined because the twist is so widely known. Okay, sure, it’s a bit telegraphed by the fact that the entire episode you don’t see anyone’s face until the dramatic reveal, but it’s still pretty freaking shocking. In this story, a lady is in hospital after massive facial surgery to try and make her look like everyone else. For most of the episode she’s bandaged up like a bondage mummy, and all the other people in the hospital’s faces are kept in the shadows. By now, being the intelligent readers that you are, I’m sure you’ve guessed the twist…that’s right, she’s gorgeous, and everyone else is terrifying looking! To our perceptions anyway. And then she runs away to live on an island of ugly/beautiful people, and lives happily ever after. Yayz!
1. It’s a Good Life
You know what? Kids are fucking scary. That’s why Children of the Corn works. That’s why The Ring works. That’s why Poltergeist works. Kids are fucking freaky, yo. So what happens when you take a small town, and place it under the thumb of a child with the powers of a God? Holy crap, it’s a creepfest! Why do so many TZ episodes happen in small farm towns? Because isolations is creepy too. Now you have a tiny town, where the inhabitants don’t even know if the outside world still exists, or was destroyed by their young tyrant, perpetually terrified and doing everything they can to please him. A mindreader, they must all smile and think happy thoughts, lest they be murdered or transformed. Eventually, at a party, one of the townmembers breaks down and calls the kid out on his behavior, only to be turned into a horrific jack-in-the-box. As punishment, the boy causes it to start snowing, a move that will kill at least half the towns crops, prompting his father to say, through a terrified smile, …but it’s a real good thing you did. A real good thing. And tomorrow….tomorrow’s gonna be a… real good day!” Yeah, that’s damn scary!