TV Review – The Best of The Twilight Zone Part 1

The Twilight Zone was not the first anthology of the fantastic, but it has gone down as the most memorable and best-written one. That writing was due in part to Rod Serling setting the standard. Rod Serling looked pretty “square,” but he was a political radical, virulently anti-war and firmly in support of racial equality. He made sure that his anthology told stories relevant to what was happening in the society around his viewers. Serling’s wife, Carol, remarked that he would often say, “the ultimate obscenity is not caring, not doing something about what you feel, not feeling! Just drawing back and drawing in, becoming narcissistic”. So you can see that Serling felt compelled to not just entertain but educate whether audiences wanted it or not. 

Where is Everybody? (Season One, Episode One)
Original airdate: October 5th, 1959
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Robert Stevens

The opening episode of The Twilight Zone immediately sets the tone for this whole teleplay venture. A man in a U.S. Airforce jumpsuit wanders down a lonely rural backroad. He doesn’t remember who he is or how he got here. The man comes across a diner but finds it wholly unoccupied and makes himself some food while becoming more perplexed. This leads to him finding a nearby town that is similarly unpopulated. The loneliness begins to wear on him, leading towards a complete breakdown and revealing his actual circumstances.

The problem with watching old Twilight Zone episodes for the first time is that so much of the series as soaked into the zeitgeist that you often see multiple films & tv series that were influenced by this show. Therefore, you already know the twist before it happens. I think I had glimpsed one of the pivotal moments of this one while watching a Fox special on science fiction on television in the 1990s and so it didn’t jolt me.

This isn’t so much heavy science fiction rather than a light psychological horror story. Even Serling was a little disappointed that the episode didn’t have more of an edge, but he still liked it. It was decided by CBS executives this would be a better way to start the show than a darker episode Serling was gunning for. While I don’t usually agree with executives, it is better to lure people in with something a little exciting before you genuinely blow their minds.

Walking Distance (Season One, Episode Five)
Original airdate: October 30th, 1959
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Robert Stevens

A remarkable fact about this episode is that Serling commissioned an original score while other episodes just used stock music. Composer Bernard Hermann put together a 10 piece orchestra to perform the melancholy, wistful score used in this intimate story about longing for your past. 

Martin Sloan is a 36-year-old ad executive from New York City who has returned to his hometown of Homewood. Martin’s car is broken down, and he leaves it with a mechanic while walking into town. Strangely everything seems unchanged, and Martin soon realizes he has somehow stepped back into the past, able to meet his younger self. Instead of recapturing the feelings of his youth, Martin begins to realize that he cannot recapture those memories anymore.

Serling posits a critique of nostalgia, something has only become more dangerously potent as the decades have passed. To allow yourself to be consumed with the imagined ideal of a better past only steals those memories from your past self. Think of times you’ve revisited something you loved as a kid and found it disappointing. Serling points out that becoming an adult leads to disillusionment as life is more complex and complicated than we realize. However, we should seek to make our present as beautiful as possible as our past remains in our memories. Walking Distance remains one of the most acclaimed episodes, a masterclass in fantasy that explores incredibly human themes.

Time Enough at Last (Season One, Episode Eight)
Original airdate: November 20th, 1959
Written by Lynn Venable
Directed by John Brahm

This was an episode I definitely saw as a child because one of its lines of dialogue became a refrain among my siblings. Burgess Meredith’s lament that “It’s not fair. It’s not fair t’ all.” There’s a silliness to this episode despite the story being incredibly sad little tale. 

Henry Bemis is a banker who just can’t get enough books. It becomes a distraction at his job, but as he explains to his manager that Henry’s wife simply won’t let him read at home. His boss warns him to cut it out, and Henry returns home only to have his wife destroy one of his favorite books of poetry. The next day, Henry goes down to the vault to read his novel only to be protected by nuclear annihilation on the surface. Now there is finally time enough at last to read all the books. Or is there?

Serling uses this story to touch on his feelings about anti-intellectualism in America. The reactions of people to Henry’s reading are incredibly exaggerated, but they highlight how ignorant the population was towards the delight of reading, simply appreciating the written word without having some utilitarian purpose set. We are intended to correlate the people’s opinions with the destruction of the world, and the one man who loves the ideas of man survives. However, the conclusion reminds us that existence without companionship is also not desirable. 

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Season One, Episode Twenty-Two)
Original airdate: March 4th, 1960
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Ron Winston

Damn, this was a great episode! It’s a pleasant Saturday morning in Maple Street’s suburb when a comet passes overhead with a roar and flash of light. The power has gone off down the whole street, and even vehicles won’t work. One of the residents, Peter, volunteers to visit the next block over to see if they are experiencing the same thing. The others who stay begin to grow in paranoia about what is really going on, spurred by young Tommy, who relates the similarities of this incident to a story he read in one of his comic books. Little events take place that shifts suspicions between neighbors until everything devolves into all-out violence and murder.

The central theme of this episode is that humanity lives on the verge of turning on each other. For years, people who have been friends & neighbors can turn on each other at the slightest deviation from normalcy. Serling posits that we are always in such fervor to blame the closest person rather than using logic & reason to understand what is truly going on. This leads to the mob mentality of things like the McCarthy Hearings and blacklisting of Serling’s era. This is one of those seminal episodes highlighting how Serling weaves his personal beliefs into the stories.

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