Today is officially the first day of 2018. If you’re a normal person that means you probably spent last night partying with family and friends and you’re now nursing a wicked hangover. If you’re a geek like me, however, you spent last night the same way you did the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that: watching the annual New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone marathon on TV.
Just in time for this decidedly antisocial tradition is the release of a new anthology, Test Patterns, packed to the gills with original weird fiction inspired by classic horror/sci-fi/fantasy shows like The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, and, of course, The Twilight Zone.
Now available in both paperback and ebook from Amazon.com (hint, hint), Test Patterns features my new story “I Am Become Death.” It’s about a WWII army photographer haunted by the destruction he documented at Hiroshima… as well as by the shadowy thing he unknowingly brought home with him. This story is my attempt to filter some of TZ creator Rod Serling’s themes of paranoia, nuclear devastation, and the horrors of war through the lens of my own imagination.
Writing this story and then watching last night’s marathon got me thinking about how much Serling’s work has influenced me and about how much I love the original Twilight Zone. In that spirit I thought I’d share some of my favorite episodes. These aren’t necessarily the “best” Zones ever made, just my own personal favorites, the ones I could watch over and over again and never get tired of.
Hoping to shine a light on some of the less frequently touted episodes, I specifically tried to avoid including too many of the really famous ones. Listen, I love “Time Enough at Last,” “To Serve Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Ft.,” “It’s a Good Life,” and “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” as much as the next Zone junkie (and if you’re thinking that I’m rattling these titles off now as a cheap way of including them in my list without technically including them in my list, well, yeah, you’re totally right) but do we really need to sing their praises yet again?
Even still, I had a hard time narrowing this list down to 10, so I decided to do the same thing I did with my previous ranking of favorite vampire movies and add just one more. Going forward, I think I’m going to make this my default. In this case, at least, it’s fitting; nothing is as it seems in The Twilight Zone, not even the number 10.
Oh, one last thing: there are definitely going to be spoilers here. Sorry, but this show is almost 60 years old. If you haven’t seen these episodes yet, that’s on you.
Submitted for your approval, these are, in no particular order, My Top 10 Favorite Twilight Zone Episodes (+1)…
The Obsolete Man
Aside from Rod Serling himself, arguably no person is more popularly associated with The Twilight Zone than Burgess Meredith. The inimitable actor starred in four episodes throughout the series’ original run, including the iconic “Time Enough at Last,” and even took Serling’s place as narrator in the TZ movie. It is this Zone, however, which may well be his finest hour. In a dystopian future Meredith plays a librarian and a Christian, two things decreed “obsolete” by the authoritarian state, which has long since banned all books and outlawed all religion. The punishment for the crime of obsolescence is death, and in this cold, callous society, the only mercy left is in allowing the condemned a choice in their method of execution.
Not one to be underestimated, the librarian uses his sole remaining right to turn the tables on his oppressors, exposing the entire system as, itself, obsolete. Meredith’s performance is utterly captivating and the jagged expressionist shadows throughout give this Zone a stark Orwellian style. Despite all the talk of god and faith, “The Obsolete Man” should not be misinterpreted as proselytizing for any one particular faith. Instead, it’s a passionate endorsement of religious liberty in general, as well as a confrontational rebuke against government and conformity.
Little Girl Lost
If this Zone wasn’t an influence on the movie Poltergeist, man, I’ll eat my hat. See if this rings a bell: A suburban couple wakes one night to the sound of their young daughter’s voice, but the child is nowhere to be found. It’s as if she’s simply vanished, except they can still hear her, calling to them as if from far away. After seeking help from a friend, they realize a section of wall in the house seems strangely immaterial; their hands pass right through its surface as if it were an open window. But a window to where?
Rather than being a portal into Stephen Spielberg’s computer-generated afterlife, this one turns out to lead somewhere far more astounding: fourth-dimensional space. The idea of higher spatial dimensions beyond the paltry three we humans can perceive—i.e. height, width, and depth—makes for mind-bending material to this day. Putting something this high-concept on mainstream television in 1962, the same time as such programs as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, is ample evidence of how far ahead of its time TZ really was. Brainy as this Zone is, however, it also has heart. When the girl’s father finally enters the fourth dimension (complete with trippy alien geometry) the terror any parent would feel at the thought of losing a child proves just as moving as the fortitude said parent displays in risking everything to save that child.
Come Wander with Me
There’s a long tradition in folk and blues music of “murder ballads,” stories in song form which unspool lurid yarns of love, death, and vengeance. Usually mournful in tone, many are based on true crimes or long-held pieces of regional folklore, and I personally count them among my favorite genres of music. It should be no surprise, then, that the criminally overlooked “Come Wander with Me” would strike a chord with me. Pun intended.
In this exceptionally eerie and dreamlike Zone, a fast-talking rockabilly musician encounters a young woman (played by future counterculture mama-bear Bonnie Beecher) singing to herself in the middle of backwoods nowhere. The song—about a woman who falls in love with a wanderer even though she is betrothed to another—is hauntingly beautiful. Recognizing a surefire radio hit, the rockabilly kid offers to buy the rights but the woman resists his advances. This song, she says, was meant for someone else. Pressuring her to teach it to him anyway, he discovers the rest of the lyrics are about the aforementioned wanderer killing his lover’s fiancé, only to be hunted down and killed in kind by the man’s brothers. When the rockabilly kid subsequently finds himself pursued by a pair of gun-toting hillbillies, it becomes clear that by trying to make the song “his,” the story behind it has become his as well.
Long before Chucky and Annabelle, there was Talky Tina. One of the earliest examples of the “killer toy” trope in television and film, “Living Doll” is a fairly straightforward episode, wherein a sweet little girl receives an expensive new doll as a gift from her mother, only for her brutish stepfather to rage that it’s a waste of money. The doll doesn’t take too kindly to the man’s verbal abuse of his family and, when no one else is around, taunts him with threats of murder.
At first the man thinks his wife or stepdaughter is somehow playing a kind of twisted prank on him. So he tries to throw the doll away. But it comes back. So he tries to destroy it. But he can’t even make a dent. Then one night, as he’s drifting off to sleep, he hears faint sounds in the dark, something like the whirring of tiny gears… or maybe the soft steps of tiny feet. While this all feels fairly formulaic now, “Living Doll” is still damned effective thanks to its ominous atmosphere, methodic pacing, and creeptastic imagery, not to mention June Foray’s chilling line readings as the voice of Talky Tina. Besides, I’m a sucker for evil doll stories, so this Zone was never not going to make my list.
I Am the Night—Color Me Black
Killer toys, dimensional portals, and ethereal sirens are all well and good, but one of the things that always made The Twilight Zone special, and which still sets it apart from its many imitators and successors, was its social conscience. Rod Serling believed deeply in the power of stories to explore real-world issues and to inspire audiences to think in new ways. TZ got a lot of hard-hitting material past fidgety network censors by dressing it up in the fanciful clothes of science fiction and fantasy, but rarely did it attack any subject with such unapologetic head-on aggression as it did in this episode.
Here, a white man known for helping the local black community is set to be executed for murdering a cross-burning bigot. There’s evidence that the murder may have been done in self-defense, but the white townspeople want blood and the sheriff just wants peace and quiet. On the day the man is to hang the sky turns black over town. To some, this is confirmation that the man deserves to die. To others, it’s a sign that it was the bigot who deserved to die and that his killer should go free. Who is right? Who is wrong? Serling lets us squirm beneath the weight of sobering silences and ambiguous non-answers. By episode’s end the sky is still black… and the darkness is spreading. The only thing made clear is the fact that nothing is clear. No one is right. We’re all wrong.
Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?
This one is probably right up there with “Living Doll” in terms of being among the more popular Zones on this list, although it’s nowhere near as fondly remembered as equally classic episodes like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” or “To Serve Man.” And yet it is cut from very similar cloth as those two. Set almost entirely in a single location, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” sees a pair of UFO-investigating police officers holed up in a small snowed-in greasy-spoon, along with the diner’s proprietor and his customers, i.e. the six occupants of a broken-down bus, as well as its driver.
Wait, did I say six? Because there seem to be seven people here, not counting the cook, the driver, and the cops. With no one else around for miles, could that mean one among them is the pilot of that UFO? Repeating many of the same beats as the more po-faced “Maple Street,” this episode is a coy study in how paranoia can drive people to turn on one other. But then it throws into the mix the same campy humor that made “To Serve Man” such a blast. From bug-eyed Jack Elam’s cackling, wisecracking performance as a man loathe to take any of this flying-saucer business seriously, to a final twist which is more zany punchline than shocking revelation—yes, one of the bus riders is a Martian scout, but it turns out Earth has already being colonized by Venusians!—it’s hard to find a Zone that’s as just plain fun as this one.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is an extraordinary episode of The Twilight Zone for a number of reasons. For one, it is almost completely devoid of dialogue; the story is told primarily through its visuals. For another, this is the one and only Zone that’s not actually a Zone. It is, in fact, an award-winning French short film which received honors from both the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars. It so impressed one of the TZ producers that he purchased the film for inclusion in the show’s final season (a move which also saved a boatload of money, natch), and it’s not hard to see why. It had much the same effect on me when my teacher screened it during English class in high school.
Based on a story by legendary author Ambrose Bierce, the film is about a Civil War prisoner facing execution by a group of soldiers. When the rope around his neck snaps, he escapes and begins a long journey home, evading his would-be executioners while suddenly finding new appreciation for the myriad wonders of life all around him. Like all the best Zones, of course, there’s a twist at the end, and this one really punches you in the gut. I know I said I wouldn’t shy away from spoilers, but if you don’t already know how “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” ends, I’m not saying a word. You need to experience this story yourself.
A Game of Pool
Now here’s a Zone I was initially hesitant to spotlight because I figured it’s such a classic that surely it’s on most folks’ top 10 lists already, right? Then I Googled some other people’s top 10 lists and you know what? I think I saw it pop up maybe once. Once! How is that even possible?!? This brilliant gem of an episode takes something as minor and (if you ask me) boring as billiards and creates a riveting life-or-death conflict from of it, one where you’re constantly unsure which side to root for.
TZ regular Jack Klugman plays a pool shark who’s dedicated his life to the game. He can beat anyone, but the only player worth the effort died years ago. Because this is The Twilight Zone, the legend obligingly returns from the grave (played by the great Jonathan Winters) and agrees to the titular game, but only if his opponent is willing to bet his life. What follows is a tense back-and-forth contest accompanied by a thoughtful discussion of what it truly means to be “the greatest.” When the final ball is pocketed a new king is crowned; our up-and-comer’s life is safe for now. Alas, he’s unknowingly condemned himself in a different way, because once he does die, he must spend the rest of eternity just like his idol. That is, constantly being summoned to play other wanna-bes looking to prove themselves by beating a legend.
And When the Sky Was Opened
Have you ever put an item down for a second, then come back for it only to find it’s not there anymore? You know you put it there, but now it’s gone. Wouldn’t it be worse if everyone around you said you were wrong and that the thing in question was never there to begin with it? And wouldn’t it be even worse still if that thing wasn’t a thing at all, but one of your closest friends? That’s the situation faced by three recently returned astronauts in “And When the Sky was Opened.” Or is it two astronauts? Or maybe just one? Or… wait… what astronauts?
Someone or something is erasing these men from existence. The world is forgetting them. A newspaper headline about the three of them is about only two the next day, then one. Their own parents are forgetting them. When one of them calls his mother, she claims to have never had a son. Worst yet, the astronauts are forgetting each other. When the first one vanishes completely, the second pleads with the third to remember their missing companion, only to be told time and again that no such person ever existed. What begins as an exercise in psychological dissolution—are these astronauts just going crazy, remembering people who were never there?—quickly spirals into existential panic. As each astronaut gradually disappears from reality, those left behind are stuck with the awful certainty that the same fate awaits them as well.
Earlier I mentioned my weakness for “evil doll” stories. That weakness carries over to “evil ventriloquist dummy” stories too. The inherent horror in both these tropes, I think, stems from the Uncanny Valley, from the discomfort that arises when one encounters something that superficially resembles a human being, but which is nonetheless patently inhuman. Part of that is probably rooted in a fear of being replaced, as well as in a sense of being mocked. These horrors are especially palpable when you’re dealing with dummies because there’s so much in ventriloquism that is akin to madness. It’s the act of fabricating an alternate personality for yourself and pretending that it is separate from the rest of you, exacerbated even more by the fact that you’re giving it part of your voice and, by extension, your soul.
Who’s the real dummy, dummy? When TZ introduces us to an alcoholic ventriloquist beleaguered by a failing career and a growing suspicion that his dummy has a mind of its own, we already know the answer. Most “evil dummy” stories play out essentially the same way; what sets one apart from another is the quality of the execution and the strength of the ending. This one’s a doozy on both counts, boasting oodles of heart-stopping suspense, snappy dialogue, skewed camera angles, and one grotesquely surreal final twist that sees our sad-sack protagonist finally achieving career success, just not as the one pulling the strings.
I mentioned all the way back near the tippy-top of this list that my latest published story, “I Am Become Death,” (COUGH read it now in the anthology Test Patterns, available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.com COUGH) was inspired by one of the most frequently revisited of TZ’s pet themes, namely the horrors of war. Rod Serling was a WWII veteran who found a positive use for all the psychological baggage he brought home through dedicating himself to creation rather than destruction. Through the Zone, Serling and his close-knit circle of writers appealed directly to millions of viewers, imploring them to condemn those ugly impulses which turn brother against brother and to beware the apocalyptic perils of nuclear armaments.
Of all the depravities and degradations war is capable of, the worst of all might be the way it dehumanizes those involved, turning soldiers into killing machines, as well as machines to be killed. Enter “Two,” which features a before-they-were-famous double-header, with Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery playing the sole survivors of a war that may or may not have wiped out the rest of society. The problem? They both hail from opposite sides of the conflict. Despite having no reason to continue fighting now, breaking free of the conditioning which war has ingrained in them is no easy task. Like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” this episode is almost completely free of dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s clear as day what kind of war these characters are fighting, not just against each other but within themselves as well. And while the ending leaves civilization’s future decidedly unclear, it’s apparent that Serling & Co.’s faith in the better angels of human nature may be bent but is never broken.