In this day and age, people are likely to study classic television and cinema in the same way that bygone generations would study classic literature as well as the respected letters of famous people. In you give it another generation, the same thing may very well be said about classic video games. In some circles, this is already true. Specifically, having seen or being able to intelligently discuss classic television is becoming increasingly essential cultural knowledge on the same level that works of literature such as Moby Dick already are.
One of the television series which have stood the test of time and can be thought of as intelligent discourse would certainly be Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. We also recognize that this is the age of the internet and you may not necessarily have time to watch every episode of The Twilight Zone. On that note, this series will help you be able to intelligently discuss The Twilight Zone (as well as eventually other classic television shows) without having to sit through several hours of watching the episodes (even though we sincerely suggest that you do.) For this we will start at the very beginning.
The Twilight Zone Episode Number 1: “Where is Everybody?” (Original Air Date: October 2nd, 1959)
The first episode ‘Where is Everybody?” starred Earl Holliman as Mike Ferris. Ferris wakes up in a world in which everyone in the world is seemingly gone. Holliman added a bit of gravitas to the series because science fiction fans were already familiar with him having appeared in 1956’s sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. ‘Where is Everybody?’ caught many of the elements which would later become staples of The Twilight Zone. The feeling was sci-fi because of the writing even though the entire premise was simply a man reacting to an empty environment around him. The episode also allowed the viewer to speculate on the myriad of science fiction related causes for the disappearance. Did aliens take every one away? Was Ferris the last man alive due to a nuclear holocaust?
No matter which way the episode was going to turn out, you felt confident that you would have at least thought of the reasoning. This is the moment where the Twilight Zone managed to surprise with the ‘twist ending.’ Ferris was actually in a sensory deprivation chamber to study life in space for astronauts. The empty environment was simply how Ferris’ mind dealt with the shock of being alone. Keep in mind, Yuri Gagarin did not actually go into space until nearly two years later. At this point, the Twilight Zone was not only discussing space travel but also its possible maddening effects.
The Twilight Zone Episode Number 2: “One For The Angels” (Original Air Date: October 9th, 1959)
The second episode of The Twilight Zone featured the legendary Ed Wynn. Ed Wynn is generally most famous to contemporary audiences for his work with the Walt Disney corporation. Wynn was the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney’s animated Alice In Wonderland. Wynn also played the uncle who laughed and rose to the ceiling in Mary Poppins. Walt Disney was of the opinion that if thee was a fire in a live action movie, he wanted Ed Wynn there as a fireman. “One For the Angels” gave Wynn a chance to harken back to his vaudevillian roots as street huckster Lew Bookman.
Bookman encounters Death and begs for more time because he has ‘unfinished business’ on Earth. The ‘unfinished business’ is to pitch a sale that even the angels would stand up and take notice. Bookman does not intend to do another pitch. However, Death announces that he will take a life in place of Bookman’s that night. The choice is a young girl who happens to be a friend of Bookman’s. Bookman pitches Death himself causing Death to miss his appointment. In the end, Lew Bookman distracted the Angel of Death. He had made a pitch which was truly ‘One For the Angels.’
The Twilight Zone Episode Number 3: “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” (Original Air Date: October 16th, 1959)
“Mr. Denton on Doomsday” featured one of the more interesting supporting casts in the history of The Twilight Zone. Notably, the female lead was played by Jeanne Cooper who would go on to star for decades in the Young and the Restless. The initial bully was played by Martin Landau who would go on to a legendary career in stage and screen. Dan Duryea played Mr. Denton. Duryea often played violent heavies on television as well as lot of tough guy characters. Denton was a town drunk who encountered a travelling salesman named Henry J. Fate. When Fate stepped into Denton’s life, Fate gave Denton a drink which would make Denton exceptionally fast and accurate with a gun for about one shot.
Denton’s life turns around after beating the local bullies. Denton sobers up, but his reputation as a gunslinger brings its own trouble. A young man who wants to prove himself challenges Denton. Fate supplies both of them with a drink. The two combatants shoot each others hand and neither can draw a gun ‘in anger’ again. Denton pronounces them to be ‘blessed.’ This is when ‘Fate’ steps out of Mr. Denton’s life. Denton was originally named ‘Dingle.’ The ‘Dingle’ name would later be used in the episode ‘Mr. Dingle The Strong’ starring Burgess Meredith. This was also the first episode that Rod Serling pitched when he was pitching the series.
The Twilight Zone Episode Number 4: “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” (Original Air Date: October 23rd, 1959)
“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” starred Ida Lupino as Barbara Jean Trenton. Lupino would later go on to direct the Twilight Zone episode “The Masks.” This would make Lupino special on two levels. First of all, she was the only person to ever star in and direct a Twilight Zone episode. Second, and even more important, Lupino was the only woman to ever direct and episode of the Twilight Zone. “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” centered around a relatively new phenomenon at the time. It focused on an aging Hollywood star. Trenton could not handle no longer being in the spotlight.
She spends all day watching her old movies. She is given the opportunity to continue her film career as long as she accepts an aging role. She also meets a former co-star who has moved on with his life (as a non-actor.) In the end, Trenton enters into her own motion picture world and leaves ours. The inability to handle the ‘real world’ in favor of a completely made up one would later be examined again at least twice in the Twilight Zone. It was studied in “A World Of Difference” (where an actor believes he is the character in a movie) as well as “The Miniature” (in which a man obsesses over a museum display until he becomes part of it.)
The Twilight Zone Episode Number 5: “Walking Distance” (Original Air Date: October 30th, 1959)
Of all the original Twilight Zone episodes, “Walking Distance” is perhaps the most personal one to Rod Serling. The story goes that Serling was walking around a movie lot and found a made up street that looked a lot like one from his childhood. Serling was a World War 2 veteran and (by all accounts) was deeply affected by what he saw in the Asian Theater. Childhood would have seemed like a world away to him. Serling went home and wrote “Walking Distance” about a disillusioned man in his thirties who stops at a gas station and then walks back in time to his childhood home.
The man’s name is Martin Sloan and he encounters his parents as well as his younger self. Ultimately, a carousel accident causes Sloan pain even in his present. Sloan walks back into his own time and drives off. It is the favorite Twilight Zone episode of film director J.J. Abrams. Think about that fact for a moment. The man who helmed the Star Trek series back to relevance and gets to work on Star Wars loves a Twilight Zone episode on the unresolved burden of adulthood more than any other in the canon. It just goes to show that some parts of the show truly are universal.