There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone
While tv was still quite new, a TV series came out that has stood the test of time. It originally aired between 1959 and 1965. It has been replayed countless time, and is available on streaming and on DVD. It has been revived twice (with mixed results) and is set for yet another revival shortly. It was an anthology series called “The Twilight Zone”.
This series has become so well known over the last sixty years that many aspects of it have entered into popular culture. Even if you have never watched an episode, you may still understand when someone refers to having entered ‘the twilight zone’, meaning something is being strange or inexplicable. But what is it about?
It was an anthology series. Its presenter, Rod Serling, introduced a different story each episode, and the stories were wildly different. If they had a thread, it was usually that something would happen that was odd, unexplained, beyond usual experience. These stories ranged from science fiction, supernatural, alternative realities and parallel universes. Sometimes they would border on horror. They could be creepy, or funny, or thought-provoking. Often the stories had a moral point, making them morality tales of a sort. Sometimes you’d be waiting for the main character to get his comeuppance, while other times you would hope he or she would escape the dangerous situation they were in. The series ran for five seasons, and was endlessly fascinating.
Watching the original “Twilight Zone” is also interesting in a ‘spot the star’ kind of way. There are many familiar faces, some from before they were stars, others already well-known at the time, as well as faces you might not put a name to, but you recognize them. So I want to discuss some of my favourite episodes. I immediately discovered I have an awful lot of favourite episodes, which is why this is only part one, with episodes from Season 1. (I’m not sure how many parts there will be.) I make no claim to any episodes I mention being the best, only that they are ones I particularly like.
There may be spoilers.
“Time enough at last”
This episode starred Burgess Meredith in one of four appearances he would make on “The Twilght Zone”. The episode was adapted by Rod Serling from a short story by writer Lynn Venable. Meredith plays Mr Bemis, a man who loves books and will happily spend all day reading them. Unfortunately he is surrounded by people who constantly stop him from following his passion. I have some sympathy for Mr Bemis’ employer. After all, he has a book under the desk while talking to clients which doesn’t make for accurate work. (It also reminded me of how I used to do the same thing at school.) Mr Bemis’ wife, however, is constantly snatching books from his hands and telling him that reading is a waste of time. She doesn’t come across as an intelligent person (no surprises there.) Mr Bemis sneaks into the vault of the bank where he works to read, and as such manages to survive a nuclear bomb. Picking his way through the rubble, he comes to the library, and suddenly realises he has time to read all the books now. (I could certainly relate to this – so many books, so little time!)The closing moments of this episode are ironic and frankly heart-breaking.
This is an episode where I felt the protagonist did not deserve what happened. Meredith’s performance as a man hen-pecked and bullied by everyone around him when all he wants out of life is to read, is thoroughly convincing. He was an excellent actor and a pleasure to watch in this and the other episodes he appeared in.
The episode explored themes that would repeat many times on “The Twilight Zone”, on loneliness as opposed to solitude. Mr Beamis is quite horrified to be the only person left, and even thinks about suicide. Only when he comes across the library does he consider it a dream come true. It also explores our over-reliance on technology, and how lost we can be without it, as is made clear by the episode’s final twist. The reaction of the people around the protagonist to his reading is a stab at anti-intellectualism. This is a timeless and very relevant episode.
Nehemiah Persoff starred in this episode, where a man stands on board a British ship in 1942, who is a German. He is confused about who he is and what he is doing there. In conversations with the people on board he exhibits a great deal of knowledge about how German U-boats operate, to the extent that the captain of the ship thinks he might be a spy. He finds a German officer’s cap with his own name, Carl Lanser, on it among his luggage, and becomes convinced the ship will be sunk at 115. He runs through the ship trying to raise the alarm, to find the passengers staring at him silently. A U-boat, commanded by Captain Carl Lanser, torpedoes the ship, which sinks, killing everyone. Captain Lanser’s second wonders if they are all damned by God for their actions. Captain Mueller scoffs. He then materialises onbard the British boat, and it starts again.
An excellent depiction of eternal punishment, this episode is very creepy but also somewhat satisfying. As the episode begins we feel some sympathy for the confusion of Lanser, but ultimately we understand that he is condemned to hell by eternally reliving the last moments of his victims. He is not a good man, as can be seen when his subordinate feels a sense of guilt. It is apparent in that short exchange that he has no questions about what he is being asked to do. One could argue that a soldier in war cannot have the same responsibility as a person who kills in civilian life, however I think that is not really the argument being pursued in this episode. It is not that he is killing as a soldier, it is that he enjoys it.
Persoff is excellent in this, as he plays something of a dual role. He is lost, confused, given a foreknowledge of events to come without knowing how he knows. He is subjected to the helplessness of his victims and the impending doom he is helpless to stop. His other persona, as the unrepentant man responsible for these events, is quite a different character and quite chilling. He is very convincing.
Look for a young Patrick Macnee in a minor role.
This episode stayed with me because of its creeping sense of dread and its depiction of damnation. Hell is eternally being the victim of your own crime.
I would describe this episode as psychological horror. Vera Miles stars as a woman waiting at a bus terminal. Odd things start to happen – when she asks the attendant how long it will be before the bus arrives he complains that she has asked before. She denies this, and then notices a bag among the luggage which looks like her own. She quieries this and is told it is her bag which she checked in. She looks back to where she left her bag next to her seat, to find it no longer there. When she goes into the washroom, the attendant there says she has been in there before. She denies this, but notices in the mirror’s reflection not only her bag back by her seat outside but someone who looks exactly like her sitting in her seat. She encounters a man in the terminal waiting for the same bus, and tells him her story. When the bus arrives she sees her own mirror image already on the bus, prompting her to run screaming back into the terminal and fainting. The man waits with her, but when she starts to rave about a doppelganger taking over her life he calls the police. After the woman is taken away, the man sees another man dressed identically to himself running out of the door. He runs after him, only to find he is chasing an exact replica of himself.
It’s a simple setting, with no fancy effects to achieve its goal. The story was one of Serling’s originals, and a highly effective example of a ‘what if’ scenario taken to its extreme. People joke about having a double all the time. So what if we really do have doppelgangers, and they want to replace us? The very concept is enough to drive the protagonist into a breakdown just contemplating it, doubting the evidence of her own senses because of the sheer impossibility. The recent film ‘Us’ was inspired by this story. I love it because it’s suspenseful, spooky, scary. What if, indeed.
“A world of his own”
This episode is definitely funny, in a black way. A playwright is observed having a tete-a-tete with an attractive young woman, who is not his wife, as she arrives home and sees them through the window. The man, realising they are about to be discovered, removes some tape from a tape recorder and throws it on the fire. When the wife enters, the girlfriend is nowhere to be seen. After an argument, the man eventually explains that he has the ability to create anything, or anyone, he wants by describing them into his tape recorder. He can remove them by burning the tape. The girlfriend is not real, and disappeared when he burned her tape. The wife naturally believes him to be crazy, so he gives her a demonstration. She still says she will have him committed.
I won’t continue with the description, because this is one I think is best enjoyed without knowing the punchline. It is distinctive as the only episode in the entire series where Rod Serling interacts with the characters in a metafictional and extremely funny scene. There’s no real moral to this story, and in fact the playwright is a very self-absorbed character with few apparent scruples, hence the episode title. Serling’s closing remarks left me laughing:
Leaving Mr. Gregory West—Still shy, quiet, very happy… and apparently in complete control of The Twilight Zone.
This episode is one of my favourites simply because it’s weird and very funny.
“The Monsters are due on Maple Street”
You may find this episode in ‘best of’ lists, because it is truly excellent. It involves the residents of Maple Street, who observe a UFO and then lose power in their street. What happens next is a classic example of mob mentality and scapegoating as a result of fear and panic. A man is shot, others are accused and attacked, and the entire neighbourhood descends into a riot, all because they’ve decided that aliens are invading and are accusing each other of being aliens. The punchline is that the UFO from the start was an alien ship. The aliens are watching the street while they manipulate the power, musing that it is easy to persuade the humans to turn on each other.
The moral is obvious, and Serling states it at the end of the episode. The events of the story may take place in the ‘twilight zone’ but the attitudes are real and all around. Nothing has changed in the sixty years since this episode aired. Human nature is prone to the negative, it seems, and like the lone voice of reason in the episode, rational discourse is drowned out by anger, hatred and fear.
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.
So these are five episodes of the many I have enjoyed from this timeless and excellent program. It is philosophical and thought-provoking, and always entertaining. It’s definitely worth viewing.