TV Guide ranked it as the fourth greatest drama television series of all time- as well as the second greatest sci-fi series and the fifth greatest series of all time. The Writers Guild of America selected it as the third best-written television series ever. The series has served as earth-shaking inspiration to generations of socially aware filmmakers and writers as well as creative horror and sci-fi minds for the last sixty years. Simply put, The Twilight Zone is one of the most important television series of all time. Today, we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of its pilot episode.
Rod Serling was one of the “angry young men of Hollywood”, an infinitely talented writer and creator who refused to cave in to censorship. Serling had no problem digging his heels in and pressing television executives on their stances when it came to racism, politics and bigotry. He refused to turn his back on these social issues and demanded that his work shine a light on these topics without being stifled by television policies. He wanted to create something more than the typical cardboard cut-out series that had clogged the television airwaves at that point. He found that opportunity in 1969 with his seminal series, The Twilight Zone.
The series was loaded with iconic episodes, many so exceptional that they are deeply woven into pop culture to this day. The show has inspired countless horror films and series after it, including the world’s most notorious evil doll, Chucky, and Jordan Peele’s Us, which plays like a feature-length Zone episode.
The show had everything- top notch writing, excellent casting, and a man behind it all that knew creating a simple suspense series just wouldn’t do. Serling had more to say than that and he used the fear of the unknown to weave tales of very familiar uncertainties and phobias. In an era where CGI was not an option, the production team focused on atmosphere and set design that borrowed a bit from the German Expressionism movement to create a living, breathing nightmare universe. It was the perfect recipe for success as a half-hour black-and-white series.
Ask a dozen fans of the show what their favorite episodes are and you’re bound to get a dozen different answers. The glorious thing about this exercise is that there are no wrong answers. You didn’t think you’d get through this piece with me rattling off ten of my favorite episodes, did you?
I refrained from making this a ‘greatest hits’ list, although I very well could have. You’ll notice there is no nod to The Howling Man, It’s A Good Life or Night of the Meek and that’s not because they aren’t incredible episodes. This list of mine probably shifts and changes every few days but you caught me on a dreary Wednesday morning, so here is my current list.
The Living Doll– Talky Tina became instant nightmare fuel for generations of people who had never seen something so creepy on TV before. What makes this episode so much fun (and creepy) is that you can’t help but root for the doll as it torments the real villain in the episode, the stepfather played by Telly Savalas.
The Hitch-Hiker– I am a huge fan of the film Carnival of Souls and this episode is that film’s older sibling by about three years. A mysterious man thumbing a ride across the country begins to tear at a young woman’s sanity when he shows up in different places far too quickly.
The Thirty-Fathom Grave– the fourth season of The Twilight Zone wasn’t the series’ best but it gave us one of my personal favorites in the form of this Naval fright that borrows from Poe for sure. This episode provides one of the most unnerving endings of the show’s run.
To Serve Man– words mean things, and that isn’t any more true than it is in this third season’s installment. When a race of aliens land on Earth, they are assumed to have obedient and submissive intentions. This one could have made either list in this article, but I put it in the Most Chilling as the ending really does pack quite a gut punch.
The Dummy– the second animate inanimate on this list and for good reason. If the entire episode doesn’t get you, the unsettling ending will. I still get Willie’s laugh stuck in my head from time to time.
The Monsters are Due on Maple Street– one of the scariest things in the world is the unknown. But the scariest thing are people who are so prejudiced to the unknown that they’d do anything to keep the unknown away, regardless of the unknown’s intentions. A crystal clear metaphor for bigotry and racism, this episode belongs on everyone’s list of best episodes.
Eye of the Beholder– everything about this episode is fantastic, including the big plot twist at the end, of course. But it’s the things that lead up to the finale that really makes this a worthwhile episode for this list- the dictator-like leader of the ‘free world’ pounding on his desk, demanding that everyone look and act the same, the uncomfortable insistence on conformity, the odd fact that we don’t get to see the protagonist’s face until the very end. This one has it all.
The Masks– talk about metaphorical story-telling! A group of terrible, ugly people are forced to wear equally ugly masks as they await news on the inheritance from their rich family patriarch. The masks, of course, represent the hideous traits each person has within them until the clock strikes midnight and things get really upsetting.
Time Enough at Last– imagine surviving an apocalyptic explosion only to be left with your beloved books. No longer forced to live in a world reliant on technology or among those who deem reading to be a waste of time, you are afforded the opportunity to read all the books you want. Only you are incredibly blind without your glasses and… well, check out the episode to get the full effect of this classic episode.
People Are Alike All Over – this Season One episode is regularly looked over when it comes to creating lists like this and I often wonder why. Astronauts land on Mars with very different opinions as to how to handle their mission. Sam Conrad, played by Roddy McDowall, provides poignant last words – “Every species tries to find a way to dominate the others”.
There will never be another Twilight Zone.
Try as he might, and I love the man and his work, but Jordan Peele’s revival of the series will likely be the closest thing to the Serling-led creation that we’ll ever see, and even that will fall several notches below the bar that the original series set all those years ago.
It’s been sixty years since the world caught its first glimpse into another dimension. There are still so many lessons and talking points that can be gleaned from the laundry list of legendary episodes. There is so much social commentary that is still relevant to this day. The plot twists still carry a formidable punch and the production value remains second to none for the budget and era the series was working within.
Simply put, The Twilight Zone will forever be etched on the creative fabric of just about any medium you can think of. For all of that, we have one Mr. Rod Serling to thank.
To wrap up this celebration, please take a few minutes to enjoy this wonderful interview with Mr. Serling below.