Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame is one of my all-time favorite writers. I can immediately pick out his turn of phrase and razor-sharp diction from all the other writers in the world, and it’s what has made this show some of my favorite TV ever. He touched on so many universal themes in his tiny morality tales. Even though the show will be 62 years-old this year, it’s still as timely today as it was then, which is quite a feat in our world where news changes minute by minute and technology keeps a similar pace.
The Twilight Zone has inspired many great reboots of itself as well as other shows like Black Mirror, so I thought it might be worthwhile to look at some of my favorite episodes of the Zone to try and find out what made them so powerful.
“It’s a Good Life” This great little episode was based on a story originally written by Jerome Bixby. It’s the story of a monstrous little boy with the power to do anything he wants with his mind. When he doesn’t get his way, horrible things happen. You may know of Bixby’s work from Star Trek: The Original Series – he’s the man we have to thank for the mirror universe! Serling wrote the teleplay based on Bixby’s story. While it has an unconventional introduction, I’ve always found it incredibly compelling, mostly due to the fear of the parents and fellow community members of Peaksville when dealing with Anthony. While it’s not full of blood and gore, the threat and menace of a whole community held hostage by a child is compelling. The story is just as good if not even more frightening.
“A Stop at Willoughby” Rod Serling himself wrote this tale of an overworked, overstressed executive named Gart Williams. Williams has been pushed to his limit when he tells off his boss and walks to his office. His secretary asks if he needs anything, and he says he needs a “sharp razor and a chart of human anatomy showing where all the arteries are.” Classic Rod Serling line. If you’ve ever worked a stressful job, you might know the feeling of William’s desperation. The pressure and strain of Williams’ life lead him to falling asleep on the train home and dreaming of a provincial 1888 town called Willoughby. He wakes up back in his anxiety-ridden life and the threads of his hope are stretched thin by dealing with his shrewish wife who criticizes his dream of a more serene life. At a moment of desperation, she turns her back on him, and he’s only left with one fateful choice. I don’t want to give away the ending, but like many TZ’s it’s got a fabulous twist.
“Walking Distance” This is the fifth episode of the Twilight Zone and another Serling story. Martin Sloan is another overworked executive who is looking to escape his stressful present, a repeated theme of Serling’s. Stranded when his car breaks down, Sloan walks back to his hometown and realizes it’s not his hometown of the present – it’s his hometown of the past. As he walks the streets until late evening, Sloan decides “to put a claim in on his past.” Like Gart Williams, he’s desperate to find some shred of peace. His father, however, tells him he has to go back: there’s only one summer to a customer and this is young Martin’s. Something about the father’s speech there, twists me up inside every time I watch it. Go-check it out for yourself. Unlike Gart Williams, Sloan finds his happiness by looking ahead instead of looking behind him. All in all it’s a wistful, hopeful episode that has become one of my favorites as I get older.
“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” This one is one of the more lighthearted Rod Serling written TZ’s, and like many of my favorites, there’s a twist at the end. Six passengers on a bus stop at a roadside café about the same time reports of an alien spaceship crash come in. Police investigate and find out there are seven people in the café, not six. One is an alien; the challenge is to figure out who it is before the time runs out. This one is just plain fun and keeps you guessing, from the crazy old man at the counter to the voluptuous but aging dancer that catches the bus driver’s eye. Rewatches are fun too because you look for the subtle hints dropped to clue you into the identity of the alien visitor.
“I Am the Night, Color Me Black” This is probably the most serious episode of the bunch. A man named Jagger is to be hanged in a small unnamed midwestern town for a self-defense killing of a racist man. He is convicted due to a corrupt system and good people not taking a stand. The pitch-black sky above the town makes a silent comment on the day’s execution; the sun refuses to shine in the village. The execution continues anyway, and it is heard that places all over the world – from Vietnam to Dallas – are being smothered by the same darkness of hate.
This is a very special episode when you know the context. Rod Serling wrote this just a few months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Some have criticized this episode as being heavy-handed with its themes, but that’s far from the case. This is a man telling a story that tries to grapple with the hate in the world. Vietnam, Dallas, Birmingham and all the other places mentioned were hot spots of the time period; places where hate seemed to be winning. It’s just amazing to me how this issue is just as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago, and it’s a great example of why this enduring show is still so loved today.
So there they are, my five favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone. Of course, they’re subject to change at any time because I love them all dearly. Let me know which ones are your favorites below!