The newest iteration of the classic series The Twilight Zone premiered yesterday on CBS All-Access and in honor of the classic Rod Serling series that it’s based on, I have compiled my list of the top ten episodes of the original series.
10. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Season 1, Episode 22)
Originally aired in March 1960, this first season episode features a suburban street where all of the neighbors begin to experience strange power failures and fluctuations. After a flash of light in the sky that the neighbors believe to be a meteor, their paranoia grows as some houses on the block get their power back on and others don’t. As it starts to get dark, the neighbors turn on each other violently as each accuses the other of being aliens sent to conquer the world.
As goofy as the premise sounds, Maple Street is the perfect example of how paranoia and fear can erode the facade of civility we live under. Even the twist at the end proves that we are our own worst enemies in the right circumstances.
9. Deaths-Head Revisited (Season 2, Episode 9)
Many of the episodes dealt with wish-fulfillment in the form of delayed justice and Deaths-Head was no different. Serling served in World War II in the Pacific and his experiences in combat and the war itself influenced his writing. Airing in November os 1961, Deaths-Head is about former SS officer Gunther Lutze. After surviving the war and changing his identity, he decides to return to where he served, Dachau. Revelling in, what he considers, the best time of his career, Lutze gets a rude awakening when he discovers that the ghosts of his past have not stayed buried.
As a commentary on World War II, this episode works exceedingly well. Especially as a catharsis for those would not see justice for those atrocities in their lifetime.
8. It’s A Good Life (Season 3, Episode 8)
Anthony Fremont is a cute, smiling 6-year-old boy living in Peaksville, Ohio. Anthony Fremont is also a monster. Six year old Anthony has the power to alter and shape reality however he pleases. He also has the ability to read the minds of everyone in the town. With a single thought, he wiped out the entire world except for Peaksville. He shut off all the cars, electricity, and machines. Why? Because they displeased him. Everyone left in the town knows that they need to be happy with anything and everything Anthony does because the moment he senses that people aren’t happy. he either turns them into something grotesque or wishes them into the cornfield where they’re never seen again.
This is one of the most straightforward episode of the series. You know what’s happened and there is no mystery about who is to blame. The question only becomes can someone stop it and what happens when Anthony finds out you’re not happy.
7. Time Enough At Last (Season 1, Episode 8)
Henry Bemis is a simple man. He works at a bank, is married and loves only one other thing in the world, reading. He is an avid reader. Unfortunately for both his marriage and career, his constant reading is becoming a problem. When the people in his life decide to confront him about his reading, he takes his lunch break to hide in the bank’s safe and read. When a nuclear war traps him in the safe, he emerges to find that everyone is gone and he is alone in the world with two things, food and his books. As he revels in his luck, a simple slip will change all of his fortunes.
This episode falls into the “be careful what you wish for” category and its simple premise makes the episode and its conclusion more compelling.
6. Eye of the Beholder (Season 2, Episode 6)
Janet Tyler is in distress. She has just undergone the eleventh surgery on her face to make her appear normal. As she lies in a hospital bed with her face covered in bandages, the doctors and nurses talk openly and are empathetic about her condition and the horrible disfigurement she’s had to live with. Desperate to find out if the operation was successful, Janet pleads with the doctor to remove her bandages, but the face she finally sees in the mirror fills her with horror.
This episode has one of the best twists in the history of the series and the fact that all of the characters remain hidden in shadow until the very end makes that twist more compelling.
5. The Obsolete Man (Season 2, Episode 29)
Romney Wordsworth is a problem. He’s not a criminal. He’s not a violent monster. In a totalitarian future where the state is in control of everything, where fear of the state drives all actions, where any literature that is not approved by the state is destroyed. In that world, Rodney Wordsworth is a problem because of what he is; a librarian. Romney is brought into the state tribunal and put on trial because he has been deemed ‘obsolete’ by the state. He realizes that a state that doesn’t believe in God will certainly find him and his faith obsolete and sentence him to death. He accepts his fate, but makes the execution plans himself.
When the Chancellor who passed his sentence arrives, wanting Romney to plead for mercy from the state in front of the cameras witnessing and broadcasting his slow execution, Romney has something else in mind. He has the room locked and sealed with a bomb ticking away the time of his execution. Now both the condemned and the Chancellor are locked in a battle of wills over how the state will react when one of its own is in peril.
Totalitarian regimes are a favorite target of Serling and this clever and revealing jab at the limits of its power in the face of death. Burgess Meredith makes his second appearance (First appearance in the season one episode “Time Enough at Last”) in the series in another episode that deals with books and literature.
4. To Serve Man (Season 3, Episode 24)
It’s man’s first contact with an alien species and that species are the Kanamits. Standing over 9 feet tall and all looking exactly the same, the Kanamits travel to Earth on a mission of humanitarian aid. Wary at first, the humans begin to accept the Kanamits help when they bring technology that ends hunger, war and provide unlimited energy. A cryptographer named Michael Chambers is enlisted to decipher the book they left to learn more about them and their culture. When the title is revealed to be “To Serve Man”, everyone gets excited and the world solidifies its relationship to the aliens. Unfortunately, when the full translation of the title is revealed, it’s too late.
This is an episode that has been parodied many times over the years because its themes are universal. It’s perfectly paced and plotted and the twist is both entertaining and amusing at the same time.
3. On Thursday We Leave for Home (Season 4, Episode 16)
A colony ship crashes on a harsh desert planet. It is a desert planet covered in rocks, prone to meteor showers and sweltering under the heat of two suns. One of the survivors, William Benteen, becomes the leader of the colony by keeping everyone together and making tough decisions that kept them alive for over 30 years. He leads the group with a stern hand like a benevolent father figure who tells them all stories about the Earth that was. When a rescue ship from Earth arrives with plans to take them all home, Benteen finds that the power he has been wielding over his power is starting to wane. Especially when his plans to have them all relocated to another colony together are thwarted by the people’s desire to spread out and explore the world he’s told them all about.
Serling sums up Benteen’s character perfectly with the prophetic close that says about Benteen that his need for control “became a habit, then a pattern and finally a necessity. William Benteen, once a god, now a population of one”.
2. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Season 5, Episode 3)
Robert Wilson has recently been released from a sanitarium after suffering a nervous breakdown. What is meant to be a quiet, routine flight back home with his wife turns into a nightmare when Robert looks out the window of the plane and sees a creature on the wing. A creature messing with the engines. No one is willing to believe him, not even his wife because the breakdown that caused him to be put away the first time also occurred on a plane. With no one willing to believe him and a gremlin wreaking havoc with the plane itself, Robert has to take matters into his own hands to stop the creature from causing a plane crash.
Simple, straightforward storytelling helps to make this episode a classic. Beyond the creature itself, the episode is a study in paranoia and the stigma of being a person with mental health issues. It’s a great character study lead by the incomparable William Shatner.
1. Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? (Season 2, Episode 28)
At an isolated late-night diner, a group of travelers gathers to get out of the cold when a snow storm hits the area. Two police officers hear the sound of something crash into a local lake and discover foot prints leading away from the water and towards the diner. When the officers arrive, they find a group of passengers, the bus driver and the diner’s owner/cook. In order to find out who might be the alien among them, the officer interrogates the passengers to figure out who was on the bus and who wasn’t. The questioning even has people traveling together, including a married couple, questioning themselves. It doesn’t help that strange electrical incidents are happening in the diner as well. In the end, the passengers all leave and an accident occurs on the local bridge bringing one passenger back to the diner where the owner has a secret of his own.
This episode perfectly encompasses many of the themes Rod Serling tackled with the series including paranoia and confrontations with authority. It includes elements of both suspense and humor as the viewer must decide what he or she is actually seeing.
These are just my top 10 episodes of the iconic series. I want to know which ones are your favorite. Do you agree with this list or do you think I missed one? Let me know in the comments below.