Eye of the Beholder (Season Two, Episode Six)
Original airdate: November 11th, 1960
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Douglas Heyes
Janet Tyler lays in a hospital bed, her face covered in bandages. When a nurse comes to check on her, the patient laments about her hideous visage, the problem that brought her here. The doctors have done plastic surgery, but everyone is worried that Janet’s disfigurement is so severe there is not much they can do. This is one of those episodes that you’ll likely know the twist for if you are pop-culture savvy, but it doesn’t diminish the impact of the story.
The aspect of this episode that often gets left out is the worldbuilding that establishes a conformist authoritarian regime rising to power. There is an address from an unnamed supreme leader broadcast on television midway through that hammer home the theme of the show. Serling adds elements of the fantastic, yet once again communicates a message that was all too relevant coming out of the 1950s and is still a reality for people across the nation. From birth, you are told to conform to cultural standards, and even if you are born differently, you are not given a pass.
There’s a kneejerk reaction to think of this as a very universally themed episode, but I can’t get away from how all of this is pointedly speaking to how gay & lesbian Americans were treated. Janet Tyler’s reaction to how she was born doesn’t come across as something based on race. So much of the dialogue sounds like the “pray the gay away” crowd. Janet is told she’s going to be moved to a community far from the city with “people like her.” This nods to the concentration camps that have popped up throughout history, but I still feel this is an episode about LGBTQ people at its heart.
The Invaders (Season Two, Episode Fifteen)
Original airdate: January 27th, 1961
Written by Richard Matheson
Directed by Douglas Heyes
What a brilliant piece of television! This twenty-five-minute episode is told with almost zero dialogue and a single cast member. An old woman (Agnes Moorehead) is making food in her rickety old cabin. There’s a strange clamor on her roof. The woman goes up to investigate and finds a small flying saucer sitting there. She’s naturally confused and examines it before a door opens on the bottom, and a tiny armored figure emerges. What follows is a real-time horror story of this poor woman being terrorized by these little alien visitors. She hit with a radioactive ray that causes boils on her skin and gets stabbed with one of her knives that is stolen by an invader.
You’ll likely crack the secret of what is happening in this story early on, but as with all these episodes of The Twilight Zone, the well-crafted stories still have an impact. The Invaders is a story about the endless destructive force of colonialism. With advanced weapons & technology, one society reaches the shores of another and imposes their will on the natives, uninterested in what they have to say. The old woman is voiceless because that is what happens to indigenous people, they don’t get to tell their stories. The only voice we hear in the final moments of the episode are the invaders.
The Twilight Zone has to be one of the most radically Left television programs aired in America, and I love it! This is some of the most pointed science fiction I’ve ever seen, slightly campy but beautifully earnest in its creator and writers’ sentiments. Not only are the themes of The Invaders aggressively pushing for a reexamination of history, but the structure with its limited dialogue and masterful use of shadows is also gorgeous and moving. Agnes Moorehead gives a completely uninhibited performance going places few actresses were brave enough to do. If you watch only one entry in the series, I would recommend this one.
Long Distance Call (Season Two, Episode Twenty-Two)
Original airdate: March 31st, 1961
Written by Bill Idelson
Directed by James Sheldon
By November 1960, CBS informed Rod Serling that production costs for The Twilight Zone were too much, and he needed to look into cost-saving measures. One of the things he tried was to shoot six of the episodes on videotape at CBS studios, and the result are some ugly looking stories. The visual quality is on par with a soap opera, and it doesn’t help elevate the material in the way it deserves. Thankfully, Long Distance Call was the last episode shot like this, and it manages to be good despite the technical flaws.
Billy’s grandmother comes to visit for his birthday party and gifts him a toy phone. The old woman seems to have a sense that her death is coming soon. She passes away shortly after this, and the family mourns. One day, Billy is caught talking to his grandmother on the toy phone, which his parents see as his way of coping. Then Billy’s mother claims she hears the old woman’s voice on the phone, and the child begins behaving in dangerous ways, claiming his grandmother wants him to come and be with her.
Because the episodes are short, we don’t get much character development for grandma, which I think would have helped the story a bit. What we do get is an incredibly dark tale that is borderline as bleak as Hereditary. The implication is that grandma is lonely in the void of death and wants to pull Billy down there with her, so she has company. Of course, the episode doesn’t play this as severe as it could. We do get some background that grandma lost children in her past, and so she becomes obsessed with Billy.