In The Zone.
The hardest part about revisiting Rod Serling’s classic series, “The Twilight Zone”, was deciding where to start. There have been books (see:
Marc Zicree’s brilliant ) and videos (as well as DVD/blu-ray bonus features) chronicling how “The Twilight Zone Companion”, now in its 5th edition, which I’ll cover in part 2 Rod Serling (1924-1975), the scrappy, imaginative, 5’4” chain-smoking World War 2 veteran from Ohio, went on to write for various live drama anthology shows (“Kraft Theatre”, “Playhouse 90,” etc) in the 1950s, and was offered a lucrative contract to write for feature films following the critical success of his TV production of “Requiem For A Heavyweight”… which he forsook in favor of creating his own weekly anthology series. Thus began “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964), which was not only the very first ‘non-kiddie’ TV series I ever fell in love with as a kid, but also one of the finest television series ever produced in the medium…. a fact I recognized then and now.
Rod Serling, filming one of the hosting segments of his beloved “Twilight Zone”; he would even host previews of the following week’s stories, and even random promotional segments. This series was his baby, and he was very particular about the level of quality as well as promotion. He wrote nearly 2/3rds of all stories for the series as well. Not too many showrunners are quite so hands-on these days…
“The Twilight Zone” was as diverse as its creator’s fertile imagination, with genres ranging from ghost stories, science fiction, fantasy, supernatural comedies, alternate realities and just about everything in-between. The one unifying factor was that they were all morality plays. They weren’t about futuristic technology, monsters or jump-scares. They were
dramas that connected with a person, or group of people, and with a moral to be delivered by the episode’s end. They were Aesop’s Fables, but with a “Mad Men”-era slant.
Rod Serling braves fake snow and hot studio lights to host another segment of his beloved “Twilight Zone” (note: cigarettes being smoked on TV was no big deal back in those days…).
Serling not only wrote
92 of the original 156 episodes (!), but he also hosted each of them as well, appearing on camera no matter the episode’s setting or subject (often with requisite cigarette in hand). It was his personal pride in this series that radiates from each installment. Over the course of five seasons, this series dealt with war, racism, religion, McCarthyism (only a few years post de facto), and even the Holocaust. Gene Roddenberry didn’t pioneer taboo subjects hidden within allegorical television… Rod Serling was years ahead of him. Even the lesser episodes of TZ (and yes, there were a few clunkers) are still watchable in some camp or dated way, much like certain episodes of the original “Star Trek” or “Lost in Space.”
For the purpose of brevity (and reader patience), I won’t analyze every single episode,
and I will split this article in two parts; with the first part covering seasons 1-3, and with the second covering seasons 4-5, with a few extras. I won’t cover the 1983 film, or the 1985, 2002 and 2019 revivals of “The Twilight Zone” in any depth because this is all about the classic series.
The episodes of the classic series that I plan to touch upon are of personal interest, but aren’t necessarily my
only favorites (“The Twilight Zone” is an embarrassment of riches). I realize this subjective spotlight of mine will omit many reader favorites (and a few of mine as well), so I’m apologizing in advance. Of course, I welcome any reader notes, observations or personal favorites posted below in the comments section.
Without further ado, let’s get ‘into the zone’, shall we?
*****60 YEAR OLD SPOILERS!!*****
Season One (1959-1960).
The series was in a half-hour long format for four of its five seasons. Season One was also characterized by a more somber harps-and-strings opening theme by the legendary
Bernard Herrmann (“Psycho”) than the theme more commonly associated with the series, by avant-garde composer Marius Constant. Minority opinion here, but I actually prefer the eerie subtlety of Hermmann’s music than Marius’ more iconic “doo-dee-doo-doo” theme. The pilot episode of the series was titled “Where Is Everybody?” and featured Earl Holliman (“Forbidden Planet” “Police Woman”) as a ‘last man on Earth’ who is revealed to be an astronaut training in a sensory depravation chamber as a study for space flight solitude (he fails). It’s an interesting episode, and certainly establishes the tone for the series, but is it not necessarily one of my personal favorites.
Personal selections from season one:
“The Lonely”, starring Jack Warden (“12 Angry Men”) and Jean Marsh (“Upstairs, Downstairs”). Warden plays a convict named Corey who is sentenced to spend his life on a deserted asteroid in solitude. A compassionate resupply captain manages to smuggle a ‘gift’ for the lonely prisoner; a lifelike humanoid robot in female form named “Alicia.” Rather than anything salacious (insert blowup doll jokes here), the episode focuses on the bond between man and machine and how that line is blurred when Corey discovers that Alicia is both sentient and feeling.
Many months later, Corey learns he is being pardoned, with a ship returning to take him home. The only problem is that the ship’s return trajectory to Earth allows for an absolute minimum of cargo. Corey refuses to leave the ‘excess baggage’ of Alicia behind. The resupply captain is forced to shoot the robot in the face to prove to Corey that his anthropomorphizing of her was an illusion. They dying Alicia, her mechanics exposed, cries out for Corey with slowing vocal tracks…
Alicia lives!! My own photo of actress Jean Marsh (“Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Doctor Who,” “Return to Oz,” “Willow”), taken at a convention back in 2014. She is a lovely, personable lady who fondly remembered her time on “Twilight Zone”. I remember her saying something along the line of “Ah yes, the one where I was a robot! That was fun.” I told her she broke my heart in that episode, which gave her a laugh. Getting the opportunity to meet her was a real pleasure.
“Time Enough At Last” stars Burgess Meredith as a nearsighted book geek ( an obsession with which I sympathize) named Henry Bemis whose obsessive reading habit spills over into his banking job, as well as his relationship with his unsympathetic wife. While reading in the bank’s vault during his lunch break, a nuclear war leaves Bemis the sole survivor of his town and possibly the entire world. Contemplating suicide, the initially despondent Bemis later discovers that the town library survived the blast, and is his for the taking! An overjoyed Bemis categorizes his month-to-month reading selections on the steps of the library, until a previously unseen selection catches his eye. As he reaches to grab it, his thick glasses fall off of his face and shatter. A lifetime of reading awaits…and the blurry-visioned bookworm is left to stammer to himself, It’s a classic for a reason. “That’s not fair…that’s not fair at all! There was time now…”
“What You Need” is a fantasy tale of a kindly, mystical old peddler named Pedott (Ernest Truex), who has a knack for giving customers exactly what they need before they realize that they need it; for example, he gives an out-of-work baseball player a ticket to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he then learns a job offer awaits him. After giving a variety of seemingly unimportant items to a number of grateful customers who come to realize their value, a bullying opportunist named Renard (Steve Cochran) wants to use the old man’s psychic knack all for himself. Renard roughs up and exploits Pedott’s humble gift to aid his own sorry lot in life. Tired of being in Renard’s ungrateful servitude, Pedott glances down at a pair of shoes in his magical bag of wares. Renard immediately assumes the shoes are meant to lead him to some reward. Without asking, he slips into them, runs across the street, and is killed by a speeding car. The shoes, it turns out, were what Pedott needed, not Renard.
“Third From The Sun” sees a pair of nervous defense contract workers named Sturka and Riden (Fritz Weaver, Joe Moross), who are conspiring to flee from an imminent nuclear war along with their families using an advanced space vehicle that their company is building in secret. Their carefully formulated plan is discovered by their immediate superior, an annoying busybody named Carling (Edward Andrews) who tries to stop the men from appropriating government technology. After a deadly confrontation at the gate leading to the spaceship, the contractors and their loved ones escape with the ship, and set a course for their new home…a planet third in orbit from its parent star, a planet called Earth. This episode predates Glen Larson’s similar-themed (though very differently executed) “Battlestar Galactica” by a good 18 years. Lots of odd names, slight differences in technology, dutch camera angles, and unusual music give the viewer subtle clues that this isn’t Earth, but those clues are largely ignored until the reveal at the end of the episode. Based on a short story by famed author and Twilight Zone collaborator Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend”).
“I Shot An Arrow Into The Air” is another sci-fi story which sees the crew of spaceship Arrow One seemingly crashing on an unknown asteroid ( an asteroid with both gravity and atmosphere, but that’s never questioned). One of the four crewman dies shortly after the crash, leaving the older skipper Col. Donlan (Edward Binns, right), Pierson (Ted Otis, left) and hotheaded Corey (Dewey Martin, center). Right off, Corey demonstrates a selfishness in not sharing his water rations with a dying crewman, which sets him at odds with his surviving shipmates, including his commanding officer. As the men scout the asteroid for water and resources, crewman Pierson is found near death, unable to speak… and Corey is the prime suspect. Eventually Corey does kill his remaining shipmates for his own selfish desire to survive and take their water. Before his death, Pierson sketches what appears to be an enigmatic symbol of a double crossed ’T’. Sole survivor Corey walks just over the ridge where Pierson lies, and sees a telephone pole ( the double-crossed ’T’)…and signs indicating that they’ve crashed in the Nevada desert. Yes, the space science in this episode is utterly preposterous, but the BIG reveal at the end, as well as the acting of Martin and costar Binns, gives the story a They were on Earth the entire time. gravitas that sells it in spite of its ridiculous premise. It’s sort of an accidental version of Peter Hyams’ “Capricorn One” (1978).
“The Hitch-Hiker” sees 27 year old Nan Adams (Inger Stevens, costar of 1959’s “The World, The Flesh and the Devil”) driving cross country from New York to visit her mother in California. Along the way, Nan is stalked by a creepy, enigmatic hitchhiker who asks her for a lift. His presence sends her into a near-panic, as he appears to be goading her on…including an appearance shortly before a near-collision with a train ( a very realistic sequence that still terrifies today). Picking up a sailor en route to San Diego for company, Nan is desperate not to be alone, for fear of seeing her hitchhiker again…which she does. Irrationally, she steers her car into the hitchhiker, nearly killing him, but her sailor passenger didn’t see anyone. Nan’s near-murderous act spooks the sailor, who demands to be let out. Once alone, Nan pulls over to a payphone to call her mother to hear a comforting voice… but she learns through a third party that her mother is unable to come to the phone following the tragic death of her daughter. Nan goes numb, and accepts that she is a ghost. The ‘hitchhiker’ was her grim reaper. Getting back into her car, see then sees the hitcher in her rearview mirror. He then says, “I believe you’re going…my way?” Inger Stevens (who tragically committed suicide in 1970) sells the hell out of this episode, which is exceptionally well-directed by Alvin Ganzer. The prototype for a hitchhiker-themed horror movies to follow, including 1986’s “The Hitcher”, starring Rutger Hauer (“Blade Runner”).
“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is a near-flawless deconstruction of Red Scare McCarthyism that permeated the 1950s, with a fear of invading aliens substituting for Communists (these days, it could just as easily be a fear of terrorists). A series of random, intermittent power failures and strange sounds spook a seemingly peaceful suburban neighborhood into a dangerous hunt for suspected alien sleeper agents. The hysteria soon escalates, turning the block into a bloody, deadly riot zone. Overlooking the city, a pair of actual aliens oversee the chaos their simple power outages caused, confident that, with a minimum of effort on their part, the human population of Earth will turn on each other…easily paving the way for their invasion. Claude Akins (“Inherit The Wind”) and Jack Weston (“The Cincinnati Kid”) costar as two neighbors and former friends who are caught up in the hysteria. Both Akins and Weston would appear in other episodes as well. Having seen this one very recently, I was surprised at the pure timeliness of its message; with America arguably more tribal and divided today than it was in the 1950s. This is one for the ages.
“Long Live Walter Jameson”, written by Charles Beaumont, sees Kevin McCarthy (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers”) as the titular history professor who is set to marry the post-grad daughter of an elderly colleague named Sam (Edgar Stehli). Sam is suspicious of the middle-aged Walter possibly being ‘too old’ for his young daughter. The tenacious Sam does a bit of digging into Walter’s backstory, and it seems to coincide with a Civil War officer whose diary is in Walter’s possession. A photograph in an encyclopedia ( this was how we looked up stuff before Google) reveals that the officer is a dead ringer for Walter. Turns out, Jameson is that man… and many other men. Upon further prodding, Walter reveals to Sam that an alchemist gave him immortality some 2,000 years ago, using a long forgotten secret method. Sam is adamant; he won’t allow Walter to use his daughter as yet another brief distraction on his vast journey through time. Walter tells Sam that it’s too late… his daughter would never believe this story. Walter then returns to his residence across the street, where he’s met by a pistol-packing old woman named Laurette (Estelle Winwood), who calls him “Tommy”… the name of her ex-husband. Laurette is one in a long line of abandoned ex-wives, but she isn’t giving up so easily. She shoots Walter, who begins to rapidly age (using a clever color wheel makeup effect that registers very subtly on black & white film). Laurette quickly leaves. Sam hears the shot and runs across the street, only to find his ‘old’ friend aging decades right before his eyes. are Walter’s final words. In seconds, Jameson is nothing more than dust in clothing, laying on the carpet. The long journey of Walter Jameson has ended. “Nothing lasts forever… thank God,”
“People Are Alike All Over” sees astronauts Sam Conrad (“Planet of the Apes” star Roddy McDowall) and Warren Marcusson (Paul Comi) readying for a trip to Mars. Marcusson muses to his terrified shipmate that if Mars is populated, those beings might be just like us (hence the title). Later, the rocket ship crashes on Mars, and a terrified Conrad hears noises outside the sealed vessel. An injured Marcusson urges Sam to open the hatch and let him see what he’s dying for. Following Marcusson’s death, the hatch is opened, and Conrad is astonished to find a group of very-human looking, Greco/Roman-styled “Martians” awaiting him.. Using Martian telepathy, they are able to overcome the language barrier as well. These Martians, including a sensitive young woman named Teenya (future “Star Trek” pilot costar Susan Oliver), offer Conrad a facsimile of his apartment on Earth and anything he needs. There’s only one catch… he is locked in. Conrad is panicking as an entire wall of the place opens, revealing a barricade of iron bars facing a crowd of curious spectators. Conrad then realizes exactly where he is… his ‘apartment’ is an exhibit in a Martian zoo, and he is in the habitat for a creature from Earth. His late friend Marcusson was right… people are alike all over. Conrad’s stare at his ‘visitors’ is heartbreaking ( ) as it’s exactly what you’d imagine an animal in a cage feels when people gawk at it. There is also a certain “Why are you looking at me like that?” pre-irony of casting Roddy McDowall as an astronaut mistaken for a lowly beast. It foreshadows McDowall’s own role in the “Planet of the Apes” movies, where he played simian scientist “Cornelius”, who is sympathetic to the plight of stranded human astronaut Charlton Heston (“Taylor”) in the original 1968 film. McDowall would go on to play several roles in the “Apes” movies and TV series, including his character’s own son Caesar. In TZ, McDowall is the lone human captured as a specimen to be gawked over. Teleplay writer Rod Serling would also have a hand in the 1968 “Planet of the Apes” screenplay. The unforgettable final scene of “Planet of the Apes” showcases Serling’s knack for twist endings.
“The Big Tall Wish” is another rare gem in 1950s television, as it features a nearly all-black cast in a story of a down-and-out boxer named Bolie Jackson (“Hogan’s Heroes” costar Ivan Dixon). Bolie is idolized by his girlfriend’s young son Henry (Stephen Perry). Henry promises that he’ll make a special ‘big tall wish’ for Bolie to win his prize fight. During the fight, Bolie is knocked out, and is lying on the ring. As Henry and his mother (Kim Hamilton) watch the fight on TV, young Henry presses against the screen, desperate for his hero to win his losing fight by trading places with the victor. The wish works, and a confused Bolie is now standing over his opponent, not sure what just happened. While the audience remembers Bolie winning, he doesn’t. Bolie later questions Henry about that ‘big tall wish’ he made, and Henry warns him that if Bolie doesn’t believe, the wish will undo itself. Bolie’s pride doesn’t like the idea of winning by trickery, and in an instant, he is back on the mat, being counted out. He loses the fight, just as he was supposed to. Later on, Bolie realizes that the key to any wish coming true is to believe in it, just as Henry believes. The mostly black cast was remarkable for its day, but smartly doesn’t call undue attention to itself when seen today. It’s not so much about making a statement as it is about telling a good story with fine actors. Rod Serling would write teleplays for a few other boxing stories during his run on TZ. This is not surprising, given his earlier Peabody Award-winning work on “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (starring a young Jack Palance, and later remade into a feature film starring Anthony Quinn).
“The After Hours” stars Anne Francis (“Forbidden Planet” “Honey West”) as Marsha White, a young woman who goes to a department store looking for a gold thimble as a gift for her mother. The elevator operator ( yes, we had elevator ) sends Marsha to a nearly operators in those days deserted ninth floor, where she finds a severe-looking saleswoman (Elizabeth Allen) who seems to know a lot about her, leaving Marsha deeply uncomfortable. Complaining to the store’s management, she tells of the rude clerk on the ninth floor and is immediately disbelieved; the store doesn’t even have a ninth floor. Marsha then sees the back of the saleswoman who waited on her, only to discover that the ’saleswoman’ is a mannequin. Feeling dizzy, Marsha lies down, awakening to realize she’s been locked in the store after closing. Finding her way back to the ‘ninth floor’ she sees a group of mannequins who slowly come to life…but rather than fear them, she soon begins to realize that she is one of them. Each mannequin is given a month to live in the ‘outside’ world, and Marsha has overstayed her leave by two days, leaving the ‘saleswoman’ late for hers. Marsha muses about how ‘real’ the outside world felt, and how easy it was to forget her own reality while among humans. Her limbs stiffening, Marsha slowly assumes her fixed bodily position until her next sojourn into the real world. The next morning, incredulous department manager (James Millhollin) does a comedic double-take as he sees a mannequin looking exactly like former ‘customer’ Marsha White. “The After Hours” begins as a horror only to offer a sympathetic light on the subjects of its fears. It was later remade with “Deep Space Nine” star Terry Farrell for the 1980s “Twilight Zone” revival (the first of three such revivals). “The After Hours” also predates the lowbrow 1980s “Mannequin” comedies as well, which took a more juvenile approach to the subject.
Season Two (1960-1961).
Season two opens with Marius Constant’s more familiar theme now in place, and offers a delightful mix of stories as well. Here are some of my favorites of that year…
“Eye of the Beholder” has, like many other episodes of this series, become a classic…as much for its message as for William Tuttle’s brilliant makeup. The story opens with a heavily bandaged Janet Tyler (Maxine Stewart) undergoing experimental treatments and surgeries to correct a hideous deformity that leaves her unable to show her face in public without ridicule or fear from others. We hear stories of her pained years growing up as a ‘freak’, where she was shunned and tormented. She just wants to live in daylight, without bandages on her face. Shadowy cinematography keeps the unmasked denizens of the hospital hidden for most of the time, until the big reveal when Janet Tyler’s bandages are removed and there is “no change” to her appearance…which turns out to be that of a beautiful young woman (body-acted by Donna Dixon). Meanwhile, the nurses and doctors at the hospital are revealed to be distorted, pig-faced people in an inverse world of beauty that is ugly on the inside as well (we hear a fascistic leader on TV endlessly calling for conformity). A solution finally presents itself as the ‘compassionate’ doctor offers Tyler the option of exile to a colony of people born similar ‘birth defects.’ There, she can live in daylight among ‘her kind.’ This story has been spoofed and referenced many times in pop culture, but the original still packs a powerful punch.
Richard Matheson’s “Nick of Time” stars future Captain Kirk William Shatner (in one of two classic TZ appearances) as rising office rat Don Taylor, on honeymoon with his new bride Pat (Patricia Breslin). The newlyweds are temporarily stranded in a small town, pending replacement of their car’s fuel pump. They duck into a local diner for lunch, and Don becomes entranced by a cheap fortune-telling machine which answers YES/NO questions for a penny apiece. Don is anxious about a pending promotion, and soon comes to rely on the machine for each decision of his life, moment to moment. Don is established as vaguely superstitious early on ( he keeps a rabbit’s foot keychain), but we see it carried to an extreme as he forsakes his free will to the silly gimmick box. The message of choosing free will (even the illusion of free will) over superstition is made more powerful by an older couple who take the place at Don and Pat’s vacated booth, feverishly feeding pennies to the plastic soothsayer, unable to make even the simplest decisions for themselves. Bit of foreshadowing as Shatner is shown relying on the sage advice of an entity with pointy ears and upswept eyebrows….
“Night of the Meek” was Twilight Zone’s Christmas story, and it’s a doozy. Art Carney (“Honeymooners” “Harry and Tonto”) stars as a disheveled, drunken department store Santa Claus named Henry Corwin. Corwin is really a sensitive man who needs to drown his pain at the local bar over the poverty and despair he sees in the world around him. After being fired for drunkenness by store manager Mr. Dundee (John Fiedler), Corwin stumbles across a sack of goods which seems to produce whatever gift the recipient wishes. Corwin takes the bag and fulfills a dream of his own; to play Santa Claus… giving gifts to homeless men eating at a local mission, and to children whose parents are out of work. News of Corwin’s good deeds reach Mr. Dundee, who contacts the police, assuming the goods were lifted from his store. Upon Corwin’s arrest, the bag is revealed to have only tin cans and an errant cat, so Corwin is released. Later, Corwin walks into an isolated alley, where he discovers an elf in a sleigh who offers him his own fondest wish…to be Santa for the world. Flying off in his sleigh (off-camera, of course), Dundee and the cop catch a fleeting glimpse of Corwin’s sleigh, which they attribute to a little too much Christmas ‘cheer.’ Dundee and his newfound cop buddy decide, in the Christmas spirit, to share a coffee together (with a nip of brandy, courtesy of Corwin’s bag). Taking a radical departure from the goofy character of Honeymooner “Ed Norton,” Art Carney’s soulful performance makes what could’ve been a kiddie fantasy into a heartfelt Christmas classic on a par with “Miracle On 34th Street.” This was one of several episodes during the second season that were shot on videotape in order to save money. The experiment was mercifully short-lived, as the taped episodes looked glaringly cheap when compared to those that were shot on silvery, fine-grain film stock. It’s especially noticeable in the remastered versions of the episodes currently available on DVD and Blu Ray.
“Back There” is one of two unrelated time travel stories starring “Gilligan’s Island” Russell Johnson (“The Professor”). Johnson plays Peter Corrigan, a young engineer who is a member of a Washington D.C. gentleman’s club (no, not a strip bar). In a nod to H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”, Corrigan is engaged in a lively debate about the possibilities of time travel. Most of his peers only see using it to advance their wealth, and little else. As Corrigan leaves for the evening, he accidentally bumps into William, the club attendant. William notices that Corrigan seems a bit dizzy, but he assures the attendant he’s okay. Walking outside, the scene has changed dramatically; there are suddenly gas lamps, and the sounds of horses in the street. Predictably, Corrigan has walked back in time to the exact night that President Abraham Lincoln is to be assassinated, which will occur in a matter of hours. Corrigan tries in vain to warn the local police, but to no avail; he’s assumed to be a lunatic. An anonymous gentleman professing to be a student of the mind (this was pre– psychiatry) offers to take Corrigan home and care for the obviously ’sick’ man. The gentleman slips Corrigan a roofie, revealing himself to be actor John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and he doesn’t want Corrigan fouling up his dastardly plan. Returning to the present, Corrigan was unable to change history… or was he? Former attendant William is now a wealthy member of the club where he used to work. His wealth came from an ancestor policeman who tried valiantly to warn locals of Lincoln’s assassination, based on the word of an inside source. The policeman became something of a local hero, and fell into wealth.
Johnson was cast in two separate time travel stories within the series, the first being the arguably superior “The Execution” (from season one) which saw Johnson playing an inventor who creates a time machine which accidentally pulls a violent criminal from the 19th century Old West into 20th century Manhattan. That episode was greatly aided by an unusually strong and realistic performance by Albert Salmi. With his unglamorous looks and surly, uncouth dialect, Salmi (above, left) feels like the genuine article, not a Hollywood actor.
Richard Matheson’s “The Invaders” sees Anges Moorehead (“Bewitched”) as a woman living in a rustic cabin in the middle of nowhere, who is suddenly bedeviled by strange sounds and toy-sized attackers who fire weapons at her that singe her skin. The woman tries to destroy the attackers by throwing one of them in her fireplace. She eventually tracks down the source of the tiny invasion; a flying saucer in her attic that she chops at with a hatchet. The saucer has an insignia bearing the markings of the United States Air Force, and we hear a radio distress call from the ship reporting that it’s landed on a planet of hostile ‘ .’ Moorehead gives an entire performance in pantomime, never uttering a word (save for screams and grunts of aggression), so we’re never tipped off that the story giants isn’t set on Earth. It’s the kind of show that only Twilight Zone could’ve done.
In the first of several appearances on the show, future “Lost in Space” costar Billy Mumy plays a young boy (also named Billy, conveniently) given a toy telephone by his ailing, doting grandmother (Lili Darvas) in “Long Distance Call.” The grandmother, who has a deeply unhealthy relationship with Billy, later dies on the boy’s birthday. In a genuinely eerie twist, she calls the boy on the toy telephone after her death, which Billy’s mother (Patricia Abbott) overhears (!). Grandma’s spirit coaxes her beloved grandson into drowning himself in the garden pool so that he may join her in the afterlife. Later, we hear the very realistic sounds of an iron lung as medics work feverishly to save the boy. The boy’s father Chris (Philip Abbot), who wasn’t as close to his late mother, picks up the toy telephone and tearfully pleads with the dead woman to spare his son, and allow Billy to move on from her passing. Billy pulls through and is out of the woods. A creepy ghost story with a ‘happy’ ending, “Long Distance Call” was also one of those Season Two episodes that was shot on videotape, and doesn’t look quite as good 60 years later… but the eerie story still holds up.
“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” features Oscar Beregi (a star of several TZ episodes) as a genius named Farwell, who puts together a team of thieves to rob a shipment of gold bars. Farwell’s plan is for he and his motley crew to hide out in an inhospitable desert in a remote desert cave, placing themselves in suspended animation for 100 years until they’re no longer sought by authorities. The suspended animation works, though one member of the gang is killed when a random rock shatters the glass of his hibernation chamber. Upon full revival, the gang’s ruthless demolitions expert, De Cruz (Simon Oakland) begins to get ideas of maximizing his share by killing other superfluous members of his crew (and incidentally destroying their escape vehicle in the process). Eventually, it’s down to De Cruz and Farwell, who trek across the desert together as cozily as a rabbit and a rattle snake. Farwell forgets his canteen and is forced to pay De Cruz in his own share of the gold for singular sips from his water supply. Tired of being taken advantage of, the nearly-mad Farwell beans De Cruz to death with a gold brick in an unguarded second. Alone and suffering from extreme heat exhaustion, Farwell carries only those heavy bars of gold that he can before he collapses. A passing driver sees him and tries to help. The delusional Farwell offers the stranger a bar of gold for water before he succumbs. The motorist shakes his head, and returns to wife in their futuristic car (a prop from 1956 “Forbidden Planet”). Before contacting the authorities, the man casually tosses the gold bar aside… noting that it’s worthless now that it can be mass manufactured. The scenes between Beregi and the sadistic Simon Oakland (“Psycho” “Night Stalker”) crackle with energy, and the story has much imagination, even if the foolproof plan is a complete and utter disaster from its inception. They could’ve simply opened a savings account and accrued a century of interest, or something else a lot easier than carrying gold bricks across an inhospitable desert. It’s also interesting that the vehicle’s rubber tires and other semi-organic elements (such as the motor oil) didn’t rot over time, but this episode is a study in greed, not the finer points of foolproof robberies.
“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” sees a group of passengers (and driver) from a Boston-bound bus seeking refuge in a diner as the only bridge out of town is snowed in. The group are met by a pair of highway patrolmen who are investigating reports of an alleged UFO. The UFO apparently went down in a nearby lake, and the officers track its occupant’s footsteps to the diner, where all the passengers appear to be simple, garden-variety humans. We see a young married couple (Jill Ellis, Ron Kipling), an elderly married couple (Gertrude Flynn, Bill Erwin), a professional dancer (Jean Wills), a crazy-eyed old man (Jack Elam) and an ill-tempered businessman named Ross (John Hoyt). The driver (William Kendis) personally counted six heads on his bus, though there now seems to be seven people in the diner. The diner’s lone cook Haley (Barney Philips), insists that all of the passengers came in from the snow together. One of the passengers may not be whom they appear to be. Soon, each of the passengers begin to suspect the other. Even married couples are worrying that their spouses might be alien shapeshifters of some kind. Their paranoia grows palpable as lights and music begin to turn off and off at random, as well as exploding sugar dispensers on tables! As the crazy old man jokes, “It’s a regular Ray Bradbury!”
Eventually the bridge is declared safe for passage, and the bus is cleared to go. Unable to hold anyone on suspicion of ‘being a Martian,’ the police are forced to let everyone go. Later on, we see the lone figure of Ross returning to the empty diner. The bridge wasn’t safe, and the bus fell into the river. Everyone was killed…except for him. Haley the cook notices that Ross “isn’t even wet.” Ross replies, “What’s ‘wet’?” Ross was the Martian all long… a fact made obvious as his third arm pulls out from his coat and casually lights a cigarette. Turns out Ross is an advance scout from Mars awaiting a colonizing force from his planet. Haley tells Ross that it might be a long wait. The colony ship from Mars has been intercepted… by a rival force from the planet Venus. Ross is aghast as Venusian cook Haley pulls up his cap to reveal a third eye. This is one of the series’ all-time best, in my opinion; it combines the right levels of paranoia, tension and humor, ending with a dual twist. The story could’ve easily ended with Ross alone being the ‘big reveal’…but it goes a step further, and gives us Haley the Venusian as well. When I think of the series as a whole, this is invariably one of the first episodes that comes to mind.
“The Obsolete Man” is an unsubtle though effective meditation on the dangers of a totalitarian state, where books and the people who cherish them are obsolete and therefore executed by ‘the state.’ The Chancellor (a returning Fritz Weaver) condemns a librarian fittingly named “Mr. Wordsworth” (a returning Burgess Meredith). Librarian Woodsworth is to be executed for his ‘crime’ of clinging to obsolete ideologies and his stubborn belief in the Divine. He is allowed to choose a secret execution method of his own choosing (the story’s major weak spot), and he agrees, but he asks if the state might broadcast his execution for the masses. He also asks if the Chancellor himself would do the honor of sitting with him in his final moments. The requests are granted, and the Chancellor turns up at the recluse’s book-filled apartment, which he learns has been rigged with explosives. Woodsworth wants to die surrounded by his books ( think I might do the same, to be honest). The Chancellor also learns that after he entered the room, it was locked (!). Wordsworth calmly begins reading the 23rd Psalm as the godless Chancellor begins to panic; faith and composure over primal fear. As the Chancellor begs to be let out “in the name of God,” Wordsworth unlocks the door for him on those terms. After Wordsworth’s execution, which was seen on live TV nationally, the Chancellor himself is declared ‘obsolete’ for breaking down and imploring God for mercy. His own subordinates turn on him, collectively giving off an inhuman droning noise, like a swarm of angry bees. This story could easily be adapted to take place in the same universe as Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and almost feels like a loose sequel. While not as good as the Bradbury classic novel, “The Obsolete Man” still manages to make a few grand statements about the dangers of losing one’s individuality to a fascist state. Written from the perspective of World War II veteran Rod Serling, this arguably ham-fisted sermon against the dangers of totalitarianism deserves special mention, even if it’s not a ‘best of the best’ episode by any stretch. It also has special relevance today, given the insidious rise of fascism in the United States, Brazil and the United Kingdom.
Season Three (1961-1962).
Continuing the high quality of the previous seasons, the third season, like others to come, saw the release of a few more episodes that have since gone on to become classics. Ray Bradbury wrote a single episode of the series this year (“I Sing The Body Electric”) but that remained his sole contribution due to a falling out with Rod Serling. Season three produced many iconic episodes which have come to serve as a shorthand for the series as a whole, including the legendary “To Serve Man.”
Here are my personal selections from season three:
“The Shelter” is less sci-fi or fantasy, and more of a genuine Cold War scare. The real-life Cuban Missile Crisis would come only a year later. A jovial birthday party for Dr. Bill Stockton (Larry Gates) turns deadly serious as a Civil Defense warning is broadcast; an incoming nuclear attack seems imminent. The good doctor, much to the earlier ribbing of his friends, has built a bomb shelter in his basement, with just enough provisions for he and his family, no more. His ‘friends’ soon become a violent mob, each making their case for survival over the other, invoking racial, economic, and other ‘reasons’ why they each deserve spaces in Bill’s shelter. In their mindless panic, they bare their full ugliness towards one another. Abruptly, the Civil Defense alert is called off. The incoming objects were merely harmless satellites falling back to Earth… but the damage is done. Will they ever be the same?
Written and directed by Montgomery Pittman, “The Grave”, starring Lee Marvin ( yes, ) as bounty hunter Conny Miller, is possibly the most subtle ghost story ever told in TZ. The story begins with eight of the locals shooting one of their own; a renegade outlaw named Pinto Sykes. Pinto was the scourge of the town for many years, and the local hired bounty hunter Miller to stop him, but with little success, so they took matters into their own hands. Miller rides into town on a very windy night, only to learn that he’s too late; Pinto’s dead, and Miller was robbed of his prize. He enters the local bar to learn what happened. The locals in the bar are a colorful group of actors, including Lee Van Cleef (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”), Stafford Repp (“Batman”), Strother Martin (“Cool Hand Luke”) and comical character actor James Best (a multiple TZ returnee, as well as costar of “The Dukes Of Hazzard”). The nervous townsfolk are ‘celebrating’ Pinto’s death with all the enthusiasm of a funeral dirge. With his dying breath, Pinto warned them that if Miller ever had the guts to visit his grave, he’d reach up and the Lee Marvin grab him. Believing Pinto’s dying words, the superstitious locals begin to passively/aggressively insinuate that Miller didn’t catch Pinto because he was afraid of him. Pinto’s sister Ione (Elen Willard) enters the bar and orders a bottle of booze for herself. She also accuses Miller of not visiting Pinto’s grave because he lacks the courage to face a dead adversary. Miller is incensed at the accusation of cowardice, and vows to punch a knife in Pinto’s grave to prove it. Miller goes to the cemetery at midnight, fighting howling winds. From a low angle we see him hover, knife in hand, over Pinto’s grave. He then punches it into the earth, tries to get up, and is jerked down to the ground. The next morning, the townsfolk notice that Miller’s horse is still at the bar. They go to the gravesite, only to see Miller dead on the ground. The local gambler wagers that Miller stabbed his own coat in the dark, got up to leave, felt the tug, and thought it was Pinto reaching up from the grave. In Miller’s state of mind, his heart gave out and he died. Easy peasy. But Ione Sykes notices that Miller’s coat is pulled over the grave in the opposite direction of the wind… This used to be a ‘so-so’ episode for me when I was a kid, but as an adult I love its atmosphere, mood, and cadre of eccentric characters. “The Grave” is a ghost story with juuust enough doubt for the skeptic to appreciate as well. Lee Marvin would later star in the Richard Matheson-scripted robot boxing episode “Steel.” The music during the middle act is nothing but incidental strumming of a guitar by James Best, which serves to accent tension but without the bombast of a regular score. A near-constant howl of the wind throughout the episode echoes the spectral wrath of a murdered Pinto Sykes (a character we come to know mainly through others’ dialogue, but he’s as rich as any seen onscreen). Writer Montgomery Pittman’s direction is subtlety incarnate. Makes for a great Halloween watch.
“It’s a Good Life” is written by Serling and based on the short story by writer Jerome Bixby (Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror”). It’s the story of a little boy named Anthony Fremont (returning Billy Mumy) who has absolute power over the few remaining people left in the town of Peaksville, Ohio. Anthony can read thoughts, wish people away into a cornfield, turn animals into monsters, and alter the weather…merely with his mind. The locals are terrified of the boy, but do their best to hide their true feelings; if Anthony detects any ‘bad thoughts’, his wrath is immediately felt. Even Anthony’s parents (John Larch, Cloris Leachman) are utterly powerless to reign in the boy. One tense evening, during a birthday party for Fremont family friend Dan Hollis (Don Keefer), Dan gets a little too much liquor in him, and he begins to stand up to the “dirty little monster.” Urging someone to come up from behind and brain the little bastard, he realizes his life is at an end…Anthony turns him into a human jack in the box, and (at his father’s urging) Anthony wishes the monstrous contraption into the cornfield, along with all of Anthony’s horrible hybrid experiments gone wrong. The party’s over. Mr. Fremont then notices that it’s snowing outside. Realizing the snow will destroy the few remaining crops, he approaches his diabolical son with a firm tone, almost forgetting the boy’s power…before he stops himself, adding, “But it’s good that you’re making it snow, Anthony. It’s real good. And tomorrow… tomorrow is going to be a real good day. ” The horror of a child’s appetites without restraint are fully realized in this episode. Similar territory would later be explored in Star Trek’s “Charlie X” (which saw an omnipotent teenager). The 2002 Twilight Zone revival would produce a sequel (also starring Cloris Leachman & Bill Mumy) called “It’s Still a Good Life”, where a middle-aged Anthony is confronted by his own equally powerful daughter. Even the most recent Twilight Zone (from CBS-All Access) produced a quasi-remake of the episode called “Wunderkind”, which is more a parody of the reckless Trump administration ( like it really ) than a genuine remake. The original is still the best. needs a parody, right?
The real life horrors of the Holocaust are examined in the powerful story, “Deaths-Head Revisited.” The episode opens in Dachau, Germany. A small inn receives a familiar visitor calling himself “Schmidt” (returnee Oscar Beregi) who claims to be on holiday, visiting the town for the first time. In reality, Schmidt is a Nazi war criminal named Captain Gunther Lutze, now living in South America, who has returned to the scene of his crimes against humanity for ‘old time’s sake.’ Arriving at the dilapidated former concentration camp, Lutze begins to relive the “good old days” when he brutally tortured men, women and children. Unexpectedly he sees a familiar face; a former prisoner of the camp named Becker (Joseph Schildkraut, in a moving performance). Becker identities himself as the “caretaker” of the Dachau camp, speaking for those whose souls still trapped here. He immediately knows Lutze’s true identity, and their pretense with each other quickly wears thin. Becker tells Lutze that he is to be tried at the camp for crimes he committed against the innocent. The arrogant Lutze attempts to leave the camp, but finds that he can’t; the doors and gates are locked, and the trial begins. In a near-panic, Lutze tries to rationalize and defend his past brutalities, but he is unable to do so. Sentence is soon pronounced, and Lutze is, by order of ‘the court,’ to be rendered permanently insane. Before he descends into madness, Becker quietly reminds the former SS captain, “Captain Lutze, if you can still reason, if there’s still any portion of your mind that can still function, take this thought with you. This is not hatred, this is retribution. This is not revenge, this is justice. But this is only the beginning, captain. Only the beginning. Your final judgment will come from god. ” Few TV shows (if any) were dealing with the then-recent horror of the Holocaust at that time, and certainly not as bravely as this tale (“Hogan’s Heroes” this isn’t , thank goodness). Rod Serling and director Don Medford tackle a real-life horror with a sober light and truthful performances, especially the pained, dignified voice of Schildkraut, and the animalistic bombast of Beregi. This is a two-man show, and both actors pull it off with great power. Utterly unforgettable.
“Midnight Sun” is an ecological nightmare ( almost a foreshadowing of the current climate change crisis) in which two women, a young artist named Norma (Lois Nettleton) and her landlady Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde) live an abandoned New York apartment building, fighting insane heat as the Earth’s orbit begins to slowly spiral inward towards the sun. Temperatures rise to unbearable levels. Electricity is reduced. Water is rationed. Mrs. Bronson becomes delusional, and Lois continues to paint. A prowler enters the building through an unsecure roof hatch and breaks into the apartment, looking for water. He drinks from their supply, and in a surprising twist, breaks down in tears. He insists he’s not a bad man, but a very desperate one. His wife and child have both succumbed to the heat, and he’s losing his mind with grief. He leaves the two women alone. Mrs. Bronson then begs Norma to “paint something cool.” Norma paints a cool mountain lake and waterfall. Mrs Bronson begins hallucinating, saying that she can ‘feel’ the cool, and that she wants to swim in the painting… right before she dies of heatstroke. Norma looks at the thermometer, as it reaches over 130 degrees fahrenheit and shatters. She screams, and then collapses. We then see the freezing apartment, with the thermometer reading -10 degrees. Norma is in her bed, suffering from a high fever. Mrs. Bronson and a doctor assure her that her fever’s broken. Turns out that the Earth’s collapsing orbit around the sun was nothing more than Norma’s fever dream. In reality, the Earth’s orbit has been pulled away from the sun…and the temperatures are plummeting fast. The sense of heat in this episode is so palpable that you’ll find yourself not wanting to watch it on a hot day. I remember seeing it in my old apartment ( which used to be a ) and I would have to turn it off and take a cold shower, because it felt like the episode was literally adding to the heat in my old living room! furnace in summer
“Five Characters In Search of an Exit” is the ‘Christmas episode’ for 1961. The story sees an army major (William Windom), a ballerina (Susan Harrison), a hobo (Kelton Garwood), a bagpiper (Clark Allen) and a twisted clown (Murray Matheson) trapped in a tall, darkened cylinder with an open exit that is at least 20 or so feet out of reach. None of them remembers how they got there, and none of them knows why they’re there. The major is the most recent arrival, and he quickly takes charge; resolving to reach the open top of the mysterious cylinder and get help. The clown ridicules the major’s efforts ( because all clowns are ) and only reluctantly agrees to help later on. They try various methods to reach the top, but are thwarted by the intermittent clanging of a loud bell that shakes the cylinder, toppling their attempts. The major concludes that the five of them are in hell. With one final escape plan, the group creates a makeshift grappling hook out of the major’s saber, and rope from material in their outfits. They then climb onto each other’s shoulders, with the major reaching the top and launching himself outside the cylinder. The remaining characters are dismayed, as they assume the major fell to his death. We then cut to a sidewalk scene where a little girl picks up a fallen doll of an army major and tosses it back into a charity collection bin ( d!cks, right? the cylinder). It turns out that the ‘five characters’ are discarded dolls being collected for children of the poor at Christmas time. Like a Stanley Kubrick version of Disney’s “Toy Story.” Utterly surreal.
Written by sci-fi author George Clayton Johnson, “Nothing in the Dark” sees an old shut-in named Wanda (Gladys Cooper) living in her condemned building, terrified of going outside or of letting anyone in. As a young woman, she once saw “Death” stalking her, and has been wise to him ever since, claiming to know him in whatever form he takes in his ongoing efforts to trick her. Her building is due to be demolished, but the old woman refuses to leave. She then hears a gunshot, and a cop named Harold Beldon (a very young Robert Redford) is wounded. He’s just outside her door and begs to be let in, fearing that he’ll die without immediate medical aid. Very reluctantly, she lets the vulnerable, handsome young policeman in and tries her best to tend to his needs, but she refuses to call for help. As she comes to trust the young man, a blustery demolition foreman bursts into her door, saying “I’ve got my orders!” Wanda faints in a panic. When she comes around, the sympathetic construction foreman apologizes for her scare, but insists the building has to be destroyed in one hour. He tells her he’ll have to call the police, if necessary. Wanda turns to Harold, whom the foreman can’t see. After the foreman leaves, Wanda realizes that Harold was death all along! He tricked her, yes, but he tries to assure Wanda that he’s not going to harm her, insisting that “What you feared would be an explosion was only a whisper.” He reaches a hand to the old woman, calling her ‘mother.’ She smiles, then turns to see her own body (!), lying peacefully on the floor. She’s already passed on. No pain, no suffering. Wanda then takes Harold’s arm and he escorts her out the door…
Writer George Clayton Johnson’s “Kick the Can” is one of those iconic episodes that merited a remake in the 1983 TZ movie, and was directed with an extra layer of schmaltz by Steven Spielberg (still in the afterglow of “E.T.”), and starred Scatman Crothers (a wise choice). But the original story sees one Charles Whitley (returning TZ veteran Ernest Truex) visiting a rest home and introducing the childhood game of “kick the can” to its tired old residents, who, at first, seem more content just waiting for the end. The game not only revives their joie de vivre, but it literally makes them kids again. It’s a very simple timeless story as old as the fountain of youth, but there’s a reason cliches are cliches, right? And while the idea of going back to childhood is one I don’t find personally appealing (adolescence was hell), Lamont Johnson’s schmaltz-free direction makes it work.
If you had to pick a handful of TZ episodes to stick in a bomb-proof vault, “To Serve Man” would have to make the cut. The story, told in flashback by lead character Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) sees giant alien “Kanamits” landing in countries all over the world, with a representative (future Bond villain Richard Kiel) making an appearance at the United Nations. They say, as all conquerors do, that they come in peace, and only want to benefit the human race with their advanced technology. In a relatively short time, their forcefield tech makes wars obsolete, their agriculture increases yields and turns deserts into rich farmland. It’s a new ‘golden age’ of humanity, though some in the US government are still skeptical. Chief among them are US government cryptographer ( narrator) Chambers, and his assistant Patty (Susan Cummings). The Kanamits left a book behind at UN HQ. After months of translation, Patty cracks the title, “To Serve Man.” Sounds very altruistic, right? Soon, the Kanamits are taking Earth people to their planet as interplanetary tourists. The final scenes of the episode see the less-skeptical Chambers boarding a ship for his own tour of the Kanamit home planet, when Patty rushes the gates to the spaceship boarding ramp, screaming, Other shoe drops! We then cut to where the story began, with Chambers in spartan quarters aboard the alien saucer, on route to being an ingredient in some exotic Kanamit soup (to quote Serling’s end narration). “Mr. Chambers! Don’t go on that ship! “To Serve Man”… it’s a COOKBOOK!”
^ My own pic of the late Richard Kiel (1939-2014), taken when he signed an autograph for my sister back in 2004. A soft-spoken gentleman. Hardly the villainous type he usually played onscreen in the Bond films, or other TV shows. Kiel played ALL of the Kanamits seen onscreen in “To Serve Man”, through editing and clever use of optical split-screen. The popularity of this episode is not undeserved, as it truly ranks among the series’ all-time best. It’s been parodied (“The Simpsons” very first “Treehouse of Terror” Halloween episode), and also reiterated. Kenneth Johnson’s “V” had a similar story about Trojan Horse aliens who come to Earth with a secret intention of chowing down on humanity. Johnson’s miniseries (which spawned sequels and two TV series) also included a rich and powerful subtext about fascism creeping into modern America…something all-too timely today, sadly. Author Damon Knight, whose original story was adapted by Serling for the episode, wrote it during a particularly bad weekend; his wife was out on a date with another man (ouch!). As a result, the story has a stark nihilism that became something of a staple in late 1960s and early 1970s sci-fi films (“Planet of the Apes” “The Omega Man” “Soylent Green”). The Kanamits, in the original, were supposed to be piglike creatures, but Serling’s change into giant overlords with bulbous heads and enigmatic expressions is far more subtly menacing. Richard L. Bare’s direction sets the perfect tone; both sparse and slightly surreal. There’s a reason this episode is a classic. In fact, as I type this, the popularity of this episode is inescapable; I have a Twilight Zone collectible lunchbox on my desk with Richard Kiel’s Kanamit face staring back at me (!). After all these years, “To Serve Man” is still good eatin.’
“The Little People” is essentially a two-man show, with two TZ veterans returning in a scientifically preposterous but intriguing morality tale about two astronauts who land on a planetoid with a humanoid population living on a microscopic scale (an idea featured in the 1961 space opera “The Phantom Planet”, though far less effectively done as it was in TZ). Copilot Peter Craig (Joe Maross) discovers a colony of the tiny people living along a trickle of water (a lake to them) in a dusty desert canyon. His commanding officer William Fletcher (Claude Akins) just wants to repair the ship and be on their way, leaving the little people alone. Craig has other plans; he soon becomes drunk with power, forcing the little beings to worship him as a god. He randomly crushes them on a whim to hammer home his point and even asks for tribute in the form of a life-size statue. Fletcher tries his best to apologize to the tiny beings, and is unable to persuade the power-crazed Craig to return with him to the ship. A regretful Fletcher takes off. As Craig draws up his plans for his new ‘subjects’, he hears a thunderous booming… which is revealed to be two giant humanoids, who see Craig on the same scale as he sees his own “little people.” One of the giants lifts the ant-sized Craig, and then casually drops him…leaving with his partner to repair their vessel ( one can only imagine how big their ship is… !). Totally ignoring the Square-Cube law, which states that as an object’s height is squared, its mass is cubed; thus making it physically impossible for mega-giants to exist on a planet with Earth-type gravity without their own weight crushing them. But enough with the mass-plaining. Twilight Zone is all about morality, not science. Accepting it on that basis is perfectly fine, as it also gives the stories a timeless Aesop’s Fable quality that is hard to reproduce in our too-literal age. It’s probably one of the reasons it’s been so difficult for others to remake the series… something about putting it in bold color with 1080p HD resolution takes away from the black & white original’s more ephemeral, fairy tale quality. It’s like trying to capture a mirage.
“The Dummy” is the first of two TZ ventriloquist stories (the second being season five’s “Caesar and Me”, starring the same puppet). The episode also sees the return of the late actor Cliff Robertson (future Oscar-winner for 1968’s “Charly”) who’d previously played a luckless 19th century pioneer thrown out of his time in “100 Yards Over the Rim.” In this story, Robertson plays ventriloquist Jerry Etherson, whose evil dummy “Willie” not only has its own personality, but wants control over their act. He tries out a more benign dummy named “Goofy” (don’t sue, Disney!), but jealous Willie goes to town on Goofy, effectively ripping it to shreds. Robertson’s voiceover of Willie’s terrifying, cackling laughter is genuine nightmare fuel. In the episode’s effective twist ending, dummy Willie switches places with his ventriloquist, and we see actor George Murdock playing a flesh-and-blood Willie, with a Cliff Robertson dummy on his knee. This episode predated 1978’s “Magic” (starring Anthony Hopkins as another ventriloquist being driven mad by his dummy) by a good 16 years, and tells its story far more economically and arguably more effectively. “The Dummy” also reinforces a long-held belief of mine that all ventriloquist’s dummies, much like circus clowns, are evil, because… well, they just are, that’s why.
“The Changing of the Guard” sees retiring Professor Ellis Fowler (future “Halloween” star Donald Pleasance, prematurely aged via William Tuttle’s makeup) questioning the worth of his lifelong career of teaching English literature at a boys’ prep school in Vermont. His lack of self-worth gives him random suicidal thoughts, as he sees retirement as a final nail in his coffin. With the campus vacated for the Christmas holiday, Fowler takes one last visit to his classroom and in Dickensian fashion, is visited by the ghosts of former students. The spectral students begin to speak in turn, telling stories of courage and honor learned from the words Fowler imparted to them. One of the students saved a dozen men at Pearl Harbor. Another died from radiation exposure doing research on cancer. After hearing their moving testimonials, Fowler decides that his life of teaching literature to seemingly uninterested youth hasn’t been a waste, and he goes into retirement with a renewed appreciation for his own legacy. Rod Serling’s story lets the sentiment flow in this wonderful mashup of “Goodby Mr. Chips” and “A Christmas Carol.” Despite the threadbare veils covering the obvious inspirations, I really love “The Changing of the Guard”. I’ve always cherished this episode for the sad, quiet dignity of Pleasance’s performance; you see an almost literal transformation in his features as he is touched by the testimonials of his dead boys (one of whom is future 1970s movie star Ryan O’Neal). I’m not crying, you’re crying…
Coming up in Part Two:
Selections from Seasons Four and Five (the final season), as well as a look at author/screenwriter/producer Marc Scott Zicree and his book, “The Twilight Zone Companion”….