I’ve been meaning to talk about The Twilight Zone. I never expected it to stay popular for so long. As a Gen-Xer, I’d grown used to the idea that it was a dusty old black-and-white series that would fade from pubic memory as soon as they got tired of syndicating the reruns. Until it got renewed in 1985, of all times, and has subsequently had fits-and-starts revivals up until the modern CBS All-Access series helmed by Jordan Peele making it into the second season so far. Even if this run gets canceled, I’ve learned to just say “See yah next time, TZ!”
In between, it’s been extended into comic books, pinball games, and even amusement park rides.
Meanwhile my current favorite candidate for a worthy successor – and many of you agree – is Black Mirror, which I highlighted over at my 123ish gig. But even at that point, the essay was more about how Black Mirror relates to anthology series of yore, without much chance to focus on Twilight Zone itself. I have pointed out that I recognize TZ as a groundbreaking, daring, and pioneering series which was progressive enough to say things no one else at the time dared. I’ve also pointed out that even as the highlights of the series were spectacular, the low points also hit hard with many dud episodes.
Just to settle this point: As progressive as Rod Serling was, a lot of his original episodes were mawkish, sentimental, saccharine, and downright leaden. Paste magazine’s episode ranking shows them in worst-to-best order by their standards, which goes to show, most fans agree there were some misses. Rod Serling was right about a lot of things and the 1959 audience might have needed some extra-heavy convincing, I guess. But for every “Time Enough at Last” or “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” there were a dozen or so episodes repeating the same tired formula:
Old person pines for the past
Person visits the past through any magical or scientific contrivance
Person ends up…
Trapped in the past and unhappy
Trapped in the past and ironically happy
Turns out it was all just a dream and they were dead / ghosts / robots / whatever
That’s the pocket synopsis of “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville,” “No Time Like The Past,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” “Young Man’s Fancy,” “A Stop at Willoughby,” “Static,” “Walking Distance,” and “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” off the top. I get it. Serling was trying to penetrate conservative skulls with the message that social change in the early ’60s was here to stay and we’d better all get used to Civil Rights, but sheesh, guy, lighten up already!
With that off my chest, I’d damn well better pay proper due to the best Twilight Zone episodes, the ones we cherish for the landmarks in speculative fiction that they are. While I’m at it, I’ll list the best associated merchandise for you fans to go pillage. Ready?
Twilight Zone Eye of the Beholder Doctor Mask
Just in time for Halloween, these face masks (not the COVID-19 kind, but go very well with one!) are a timeless classic from the episode “Eye of the Beholder.” What sets this episode apart was being one of the few Serling-penned stories to not focus on characters afflicted with nostalgia, and the unforgettable make-up effects that make this episode’s twist ending hit like a bat out of hell. Beyond the faces, the chase through the hallways reveals this expressionist vision of a dystopian hell with a Hitler-like pig-faced leader ranting on TV screens.
This episode also has the alternate title “The Private World Of Darkness,” because at the time there was another project named “Eye of the Beholder” which was suing for the title rights. Which one you see in the credits depends on which print from which studio you chance upon. No matter the title, these masks bring that creepy chill right out of season two into the present day – and pose the same socially-relevant question they did back then!
It warms my heart to see the infamous devil-headed fortune telling machine join the ranks of memed Twilight Zone props, because I always considered “Nick of Time” to be one of the most underrated episodes. First off, it has The Shat, giving an on-the-nose performance. It’s written by Richard Matheson, master fantasy author who gave us some of the best midcentury film and TV, with a characteristically original plot. For once, we also have an ambiguous story. Maybe it’s a cheap dime-store amusement, or maybe it’s got magic powers, it’s left for us to decide. Can it tell the future? Is it sentient and trying to scare its users into becoming enslaved?
There’s not even a twist this time, just a fascinating philosophical debate that ends with Shatner’s wife pouring her heart out in a heroic speech that brings him to tears and gets him to leave the damn machine behind. It raises a deep question about what we would do if we had a minor oracle at our disposal. Would we ever make a move again without consulting it? Should we? On top of this, we have the wacky art-deco design of this pop culture treasure, reproduced here in this wall art.
Twilight Zone People Are Alike All Over Earth Creature Sign
“Earth Creature in his Native Habitat,” warns this authentically weathered sign, from the episode “People Are Alike All Over.” This time, I have to admit, the “earthlings end up in an alien zoo” routine was already a shopworn cliché before Twilight Zone even came out. What makes this special is the dryly sarcastic prop, perfect for your office or home. You’re more likely to be using it at home these days with COVID-19 making us all work and learn remotely. Starting to feel like a zoo exhibit already, aren’t you?
The episode itself skirts a plot hole. Is Conrad their first specimen? Then it isn’t much of a zoo, is it? If he isn’t, then how have they managed to obtain other specimens while neglecting the teeming population evident on their closest neighbor? Are they just sitting there patiently waiting for every sapient species in the galaxy to drop by so they can preserve a specimen? Never mind, it’s still a decent episode with the legendary actor Roddy McDowall as a centerpiece.
Ah yes, the intergalactic gourmet species, the Kanamit, from the ultimate fan-favorite episode “To Serve Man.” This episode represents The Twilight Zone in its peak form: A script based on a sci-fi story by golden age master Damon Knight, a plot that seems straightforward enough, a brisk pace, and a reveal that is both a cosmic pun and impossible to see coming. Notable in the cast is Richard Kiel as our benevolent alien host who will later play Jaws in the James Bond series.
“To Serve Man” has a cultural influence that permeates from parodies on The Simpsons and Futurama, to being referenced on a US Air Force Black Ops patch for Area 51. And rightly so, because beneath the misanthropic black comedy lies one of the very possible scenarios behind any future first contact we might make with a space-faring species. As I point out in my anti-UFO rant, we’re not cut out for this meeting-aliens stuff.
And finally, if you can’t choose which Twilight Zone episode to honor with your holiday splurging, why not get them all in one stop? This eye-popping poster has a reference to every episode of the original Twilight Zone, all 156 of them! Between the characters, props, or shapes embedded in the sky and landscape, you’ll be hunting through this poster trying to place every relic for a long time. Behold, all of Rod Serling’s imagination scattered out like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
This is a fitting tribute to this series and the massive cultural influence it wields today. While Twilight Zone was not the first sci-fi anthology, it was done here grander and with more panache than it has been anywhere else. Even with his few flaws, Rod Serling earned legendary status as a visionary whose imagination still inspires over six decades later.