As the 50th anniversary year of “The Twilight Zone” continues on, and the bi-annual Twilight Zone marathon approaches on July 4 weekend on the Sci-Fi (soon to be SyFy) Channel, it is appropriate to provide a mid-survey review of the groundbreaking program’s 25 best episodes.
Several months ago, we began to chronicle and commemorate this television institution and its creator, Rod Serling, through an unscientific poll of 250 people in the New York metropolitan area. The result was the best 25 Twilight Zone episodes of all time based on, in order of importance, writing, performance, and compelling subject matter. Survey participants included college students at Ramapo University in New Jersey and Fordham University in New York, corporate professionals from Westchester, Bergen, Putnam and Orange Counties, and others.
Beyond the 25 best episodes, also chronicled were five episodes which comprised an honorary mention category…too good to ignore, but just short of top 25 status. Before beginning the top 15 episodes, reviewed here are episodes 30 through 16, essentially the “middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.”
“A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” – Cliff Robertson takes the star turn in this time travel installment written by Serling. Robertson’s character is traveling as part of an 1847 wagon train. His eight year old son is sick, and he ventures over a rim in search of water only to find 1961, helpful people, penicillin, and encyclopedic information about the achievements of the son he’s about to save with this futuristic medicine.
“Time Enough At Last” – This episode is penned by Rod Serling and stars Twilight Zone regular Burgess Meredith. As with many other Twilight Zone episodes, the specter of nuclear holocaust-based fear hangs heavily over the proceedings with Mr. Meredith surviving the blast in a bank vault. He ultimately breaks his reading glasses, though, before he has a chance to settle down with his long sought-after dream, the interruption-less task of scouring beloved volumes of literature, found fortuitously among the rubble that was the nearby library.
“I Shot An Arrow Into The Air” – Written by Rod Serling, this episode is derived from the uncertainty and mystery surrounding the early days of space travel. Here, the ultimate irony takes place as an American space ship launches destined for worlds unknown and crashes in barren territory mistaken for another planet. The result is turmoil among men as all seems lost and skirmishes claim all but one astronaut, who discovers too late they have crashed only miles from their take-off site…on Earth.
“Kick the Can” – Written by George Clayton Johnson, “Kick the Can” explores the wistful nature in many of us who long for the more innocent, playful, and less responsible days of youth. This is a particularly poignant story, because it is presented from the vantage point of the elderly, whose days are short and discomforts more tangible every day. Dreams of revisiting youth and starting gleefully over come true in this episode, with the notable exception of one elderly gentleman who doesn’t believe and is left behind…proving there is no room for non-believers in the Twilight Zone.
“The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms” – Another installment in the time warp, time travel package of Twilight Zone efforts, this episode sends three present-day National Guardsmen on war-game maneuvers into General Custer’s plight. Fascinating in its historical summarization of the events of that fateful day leading to the ultimate ambush, writer Serling ensures there’s a payoff in the last scene when a Guardsman finds the three soldiers’ names commemorated in stone honoring their roles at Little Big Horn.
“Night Call” – Deftly written by Richard Matheson and acted by Gladys Cooper, “Night Call” is one of Twilight Zone’s more chilling episodes…the threatening storm, the dark of night, the unnerving isolation, the absence of any sound other than the thunder and the telephone ring, the emptiness at the other end of the line. Static-filled telephone calls become more frequent as the program moves forward until we learn they emanate from the cemetery where the storms played havoc, knocking telephone lines to the ground, including the fateful one lying on the grave of Elva Keane’s fiancé.
“Third From The Sun” – Amidst palpable tension, the episode is dominated by the acting of Fritz Weaver and Joe Maross, who are poised to get out of Dodge, as it were, because they are privy, by virtue of their work at the nuclear plant, to a pending holocaust. Thirty million casualties, we are told. Their goal is to hijack the experimental spaceship they helped design, and spirit away from the madness to a world not unlike their own. They encounter government intervention along the way, but eventually succeed in lifting off. The irony, of course, is their destination, which is Earth.
“Back There” – A man finds himself in Washington D.C. on the night Lincoln was assassinated. But, in order for this excursion to be taken seriously, Peter Corrigan, played by Russell Johnson, cannot have any influence on the actual assassination event. That would be preposterous, of course. Think of the ramifications going forward. Instead, Corrigan’s time travel only has influence on an 1865 D.C. policeman who believes this frantic man warning of the apocalyptic event. When he recovers from the dizzy spell that served as the launch back in time, he is returned to the present at the club where the original time travel issue had been debated with friends. He discovers one person in his group of cronies had changed…a club waiter then, a member in good standing now. The man reveals that he inherited his wealth from his great-grandfather, a policeman who had been the only person to believe the anonymous Corrigan, and who had tried to motivate others to action prior to the shooting. Ultimately, he rode that fame to great fortune.
“Living Doll” – Even with a menacing Telly Savalas in the cast, make no mistake, the star is Talky Tina. The atmosphere is tense with parental conflict, and then little Christie receives a doll playmate from mom, and things get downright edgy. Too much money, claims Savalas’ character, Erich. Talky Tina is a doll with an agenda, though, as she immediately understands that Erich is self-absorbed and abusive. The denouement is the last scene, in which Tina somehow is deftly positioned (or positions herself) at the top of the stairs in direct path of Erich as he investigates a noise in the middle of the night. Stepping on Tina, he loses his balance and falls down the stairs to his death. Advantage, Tina!
“Little Girl Lost” – Richard Matheson pens this suspenseful and thought-provoking exercise in other-worldly circumstances which perfectly mirrors the mission of the Twilight Zone series. Here, we are literally travelling to another dimension, when a little girl inadvertently falls from bed and slips into a fourth dimension, through the wall behind the bed. With the help of the instincts of the family dog and the determination of the father who steps into this other world to further the search, the girl wonders back to her bedroom just before the portal to this dimension closes.
“Person or Persons Unknown” – David Gurney sells his identity loss as anyone might with a frantic, yet confident, searching-for-truth demeanor. How could nobody know him? Even his most rational attempts to prove his identity are foiled. The picture of he and his wife is quite suddenly a picture of….just him! His mother doesn’t recognize his voice. He eventually finds himself back in his own bed. Wow, just a horrendous life-like nightmare, he believes…until his wife appears from off-screen to reveal the nightmare has simply taken a slightly different path. She recognizes him fine, but this time he do
esn’t know her.
“Stopover in a Quiet Town” – This is a wonderful Twilight Zone example of the effects of isolation…the original confusion, the denial, the optimism, the gradual realization, the ultimate reality. A married couple wakes up after a raucous night of drinking at a party in the northern suburbs of New York. They are clueless, however, on their exact whereabouts. Millie remembers only faintly a giant shadow looming over the car as they passed through Riverdale. As it turns out, Bob and Millie have been ripped from this Earth to serve as playthings for a child on another planet. This upwardly mobile couple with the world seemingly in the palms of their hands, find themselves in the palm of somebody else’s hand…in some other world.
“The Invaders” – It is one of the iconic Twilight Zone episodes, authored again by gifted writer Richard Matheson, and featuring a truly heroic performance by Agnes Moorehead. Completely devoid of dialogue, the episode renders you as isolated as Ms. Moorehead, vulnerable to this “attack” from beyond by these tiny, laser weapon-carrying astronauts. They meander about the cabin, entering from various portals. She fights them, kills them, and tosses them about. Then she climbs to the roof of her house where she locates the tiny saucer that brought the invaders and hacks it to pieces as the voice of one of the astronauts describes this “land of giants” to a person on the other end of a communications device. Yes, in quite a reversal of expectation, the astronauts are from Earth as their U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1 sign indicates.
“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” – William Windom plays the star role of the major and is joined by four other eclectic people who seem to be imprisoned in a circular room with absolutely no way out. They occasionally hear a deafening bell, their only connection to anything they recognize. The major develops a plan of escape, a human tower, and reaches his destination atop this circular jail, but the vibration of the cacophonous bell compels him to fall off the edge. We are then introduced to the denouement, as a little girl notices the inanimate major lying outside the Salvation toy bin whence he came. The bell? From the Salvation Army volunteer seeking donations. She places him back inside, and the viewer gets the distinct impression that’s how this all started…a doll’s life indeed.
“And When The Sky Was Opened” – We are introduced to Colonel Forbes as he wrestles with an enigma. He visits Major Gart in the hospital room from which he was discharged insisting he left with Colonel Harrington, a 15-year friend and associate who accompanied them on their aborted space flight. Gart doesn’t know a Colonel Harrington, who disappears in a chilling bar scene. The newspaper heralding their return, now speaks of two astronauts, not three. Eventually Forbes is also whisked away, leaving only Gart and a newspaper with one astronaut…and then so goes Gart. Perhaps they weren’t meant to return at all.
These are the remarkable television programs that precede the remainder of the top 25 Twilight Zone list, numbers 15 through one. Characteristic among them all is superior writing and performances that remind us of intimate stage plays. Standing tall above them all is Rod Serling who helped us experience a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, and a dimension of mind in a land of both shadow and substance…The Twilight Zone.