“It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction, the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable. What would you have if you put these two different things together?” — Rod Serling’s opening narration for the Twilight Zone episode “The Fugitive”
When I was growing up I would make a point, no matter what I was doing during the long warm summer days, to be inside between twelve and one with the television tuned to KTLA channel five. The reason I would stop whatever I was doing to be there was that two episodes of The Twilight Zone would be on. The immediately recognizable theme song would come on; a melody that sounds exactly like the sixties and also evokes the weird feeling of the unexplainable. So much so that just the first few notes being sung by someone still means “wow, that was …WEEEEEIRD…(doo dee doo, doo dee doo doo…)”
I watched them until I could tell either from the title or within the first ten seconds which episode it was. This skill never ceased to amaze some of my friends, who would sit there just to see if I could do it. And they were never disappointed when I would immediately say “okay, this is a really good one. This is the one where…”
Recently, (which means quite a few years later, maybe even some tens of years,) I had a younger friend stay with us for a visit who told me that she had never seen the show. Since I had to work some of the days she was going to be there, and she wanted to just have a relaxing rest before starting a new job, I showed her some of my many DVDs, some of which were sets of old Twilight Zones. This caused her to admit that she had never seen the show. Although those words put together in that order were confusing to me, I eventually realized that she meant that she had never seen the show. So, after doing a mild sales job, I put on one of the episodes. It was a really good one, the one where Anne Francis plays a woman who goes to a department store and encounters an odd woman on an otherwise empty and dark ninth floor containing only one item, which just happened to be what she had come in to find. But then after she leaves, she finds that it is damaged and tries to take it back and is told that there is no ninth floor. It eventually is revealed that she is actually a mannequin who left the store on her turn to masquerade as a real person a month ago and she came back because it was someone else’s turn, and she had to go back to being immobile in the store.
So she was hooked and watched all the rest of them over the next couple of days. One of the things she said about them is that she was wondering about the science fiction and fantasy tropes that were in some of the episodes until she realized that this is where those tropes originated. The Twilight Zone was a groundbreaking show, with stories that later formed a basis for many of the conventions of later examples of the genre. Many of the episodes were written by Rod Serling, who also introduced and provided an epilogue to every episode. But there were many other very talented writers who contributed to the show, and several of the teleplays were adapted from short stories by several others. The show was also known to attract very talented actors as well because the writing was known to be some of the best on TV at the time.
The episodes hold up remarkably well, even today; they are a mix of relatable situations and the way the fifties viewed the future with a curious mix of optimism and fear of the danger of the advances and changes that science was making to life as they knew it. There were many stories about technology run amok, or how contact with the unknown out in space would either be disastrous or just the same as the problems and prejudices that bedeviled us on our own planet.
In addition to addressing issues such as racism, fear of the other, nuclear proliferation, the horrors of war, and the tendency of humanity to be a suspicious and vengeful group, the show also employed twist endings, clever dialogue, and characterization, and became one of the must-see shows of the early sixties.
Among the best episodes of the show included:
- “The Invaders” – An older woman, living alone in a remote wilderness is terrorized by tiny aliens who are first just heard, then seen, then as she fights back from their attacks, revealed to actually be from Earth and somehow trying to survive on a planet of giants, before the woman destroys them and their ship.
- “It’s a Good Life” — The episode focuses on an otherwise normal town called Peaksville that exists some kind of void. The people are artificially happy, because they have to; they cannot be sad, and live in fear of provoking a powerful and vicious monster that happens to be a small boy. He has the ability to read minds, make people disappear or mutate, and he has the judgment, emotional maturity, and temper of a six-year-old, which results in a horrible and torturous existence for the entire town.
- “The Hitch-Hiker”– A beautiful young woman travels alone across the country from New York to California. She gets a flat tire after a minor accident when she sees a creepy hitch-hiker for the first time. She sees him again at a repair shop, but when she points him out to the repairman, he disappears. She continues to see the hitchhiker everywhere, but nobody else seems to notice him. He appears everywhere Nan stops, causing her to descend into paranoid hysteria. Finally, she calls her mother and a nurse tells her that her mother has not been doing well since her daughter died in a car accident while traveling across the country. She then realizes who the hitch-hiker is.
- “Time Enough at Last”—Henry Bemis is passionate about reading. He wears thick glasses, and works as a bank teller and pays little attention to his job. His boss and wife are cruel to him, and often say belligerent things to him and play mean pranks on him. One day, he decides to take his lunch break in one of the bank vaults so his reading will not be disturbed. An enormous nuclear explosion happens, and he is knocked out. When he awakens, he realizes that the bomb has completely wiped out the Earth. Initially devastated and contemplating suicide, he sees the remains of the library in the distance. Henry realizes that he finally has all the time in the world to read without being bullied. But since it is The Twilight Zone, he drops his glasses, and can no longer see to read.
Those are just a few of the episodes that spring to mind as my favorites, but there are many more for which I don’t have the space to recount. Feel free to comment on the ones that are your favorites, and look out for the marathon during which the SyFy channel plays all one hundred and fifty-six episodes over the New Year’s Day holiday period.