Every New Year’s eve, day, and sometimes through all the way to January third, SyFy runs a marathon of the original Twilight Zone series. The show is regarded today as a classic, having spawned three reboots, a film, comic book series, and countless parodies.
The series consists of unrelated episodes that are known for their twist endings, sometimes meant to scare or surprise the viewer, say something about the human condition or the contemporary social climate, or celebrate the human soul. No matter what the message, Rod Serling always wanted his viewers to think.
In October, we ran a list of a few episodes that would be great as a start for your own Halloween Twilight Zone marathon because they have more of a horror bent. Although these episodes are fantastic and they’re worth watching as well, we thought we’d put together a list of ten episodes of varied themes that are also worth making time for during the new year’s Twilight Zone marathon.
“The After Hours” (1960)
Marsha White, shopping for a specific gift for her mother, goes to the ninth floor of a Macy’s-style department store. It’s mostly abandoned, but Marsha purchases the item from a saleslady who seems to know her already, addressing Marsha by her first name. When she tries to return the item due to damage, she is told the ninth floor doesn’t exist. She starts recognizing mannequins as the shop clerk and the elevator operator. She faints and gets locked in the store after hours, then thinks she hears people talking to her. Trapped in the store, she is forced to confront the strange events that are unfolding all around her.
This episode is a fan favorite, and one of the most lauded episodes of the original series. It’s had second and third lives, remade for the 1986 Twilight Zone series and as a 2008 graphic novel. The remake plays up the suspense in a more modern shopping setting (a mall), and the graphic novel takes care of the one huge plot hole in the original episode (Marsha can’t possibly have a mother if the twist is to be believed).
If you catch this episode on television, you may also notice that it looks a little different from other episodes. “The After Hours” was shot on videotape, which is cheaper to use, and allowed more funds for this episode’s expensive props.
“The Midnight Sun” (1961)
In this episode of The Twilight Zone, Earth’s orbit was disturbed, and it’s moving closer and closer to the sun, ever closer to being consumed. Much of New York City’s populace is heading further north, but a few stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves.
This is another unforgettable episode with a great twist. The climactic moment of the episode is shocking as well; an oil painting begins melting in the extreme heat. This episode was also made into a radio drama years later.
Charley Parkes, something of a lonely man, visits the local museum one day and discovers a miniature drama in an antique dollhouse that only he seems to be privy to. He becomes infatuated with a young woman in the house, then becomes so dedicated to his seeming delusions that his family carts him off to an asylum. Parkes plays it cool and is deemed fit enough to go back home… And then heads right back to his mysterious dollhouse at first chance.
This episode of The Twilight Zone was written by Charles Beaumont, who wrote many other classic episodes of the show, such as “Printer’s Devil” and “The Howling Man,” two episodes discussed in our Halloween Twilight Zone article. “Miniature” was superficially similar to a script that had been submitted to the show by another author and rejected. A lawsuit hung over this episode, so it only aired once during the show’s original run, and only entered syndication in the eighties.
“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960)
On Maple Street, anywhere USA, a strange shadow passes over the town and all power goes off. It’s not your average power outage; even cars and lawnmowers stop working. As the quintessential fifties neighborhood comes together, one boy suggests that aliens posing as a human family have done this to isolate them and pick them off, as he has seen in countless sci-fi books. Tensions mount as the families begin turning on each other, citing things like insomnia and an interest in HAM radios as possible “clues” as to who is an alien.
Rod Serling wrote this episode as a comment on McCarthyism, a Cold War train of thought that encouraged citizens to “call out” neighbors if they seemed to have ties with communism, no matter how circumstantial the supposed evidence was—really, Serling’s message can apply to most “witch hunt” scenarios. If you were in middle school in the mid-2000s, your Language Arts textbook may have had the script for this episode, so it’s possible you read it, and were maybe even lucky enough to watch it back then. It’s also a common choice for Social Studies and History teachers trying to illustrate the effects of McCarthyism.
This episode was remade in the early 2000s iteration of The Twilight Zone, with Maple Street residents fearful of terrorists rather than aliens. The original story has also been adapted as a radio drama and a graphic novel.
“Mr. Bevis” (1960)
Mr. James Bevis is an eccentric fellow who can’t seem to get a break: he can’t keep his job, his car is forty years out of date, and he can’t keep his apartment. His guardian angel steps in and smooths things out: he’s an overwhelming success at work, his car is a brand-new, perfect model, and his rent has been paid. Great, but Bevis must give up his eccentricities for this life to continue. Bevis has noticed that his life without his eccentricities has changed his life fundamentally, in what is arguably a more important way, and accepts the bad with the good when he chooses to return to his old life.
This episode is of the touching variety, Rod Serling’s nod at a human with what is most important: humanity. It’s a feel-good sort of story, and ends with the assertion that good things can happen to good people, even when the challenges ahead of them feel insurmountable.
“The Obsolete Man” (1961)
In the spirit of books like George Orwell’s 1984 and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the viewer is taken to a totalitarian world where certain channels of thought are punishable by death. Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) is charged with being obsolete, as he was a librarian. He also believes in God, another punishable offense. Wordsworth can choose his assassin and manner of death, and even requests that his death be televised. His requests are fulfilled, and the final hour of his life challenges the State and its power much more than the frailty of a single, obsolete man.
This is another exceptionally powerful episode that still seems pertinent today, maybe even more than it would have had a decade or two ago. Burgess Meredith, as always, gives a powerful performance, and his opposite as the State’s Chancellor/Wordsworth’s assassin (Fritz Weaver) is convincing as well. Rod Serling created a convincing totalitarian state that will cannibalize itself eternally until there’s absolutely no-one left: an obsolete state, indeed.
“Third From the Sun” (1960)
During this time in American history, just about everyone was thinking about the possibility of nuclear war. The same is true of the scientists and civilians in “Third From the Sun”; in fact, they’ve got a space ship all set up and a target in mind for when the stakes get too high, and the stakes have just about gotten there.
Admittedly, the ending is a little more predictable than those of other episodes. But it’s enjoyable and an easy watch, so long as you can suspend your disbelief. This episode was based on a story of the same name by Richard Matheson, who wrote many of the “horror” and more overtly sci-fi episodes of The Twilight Zone. Matheson is probably best known today for his novel I am Legend.
“Time Enough at Last” (1959)
Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) is a nice man trapped in a world that won’t let him do the thing he loves most: read. He can’t do it at work, as he is a bank teller, and his wife scribbles on the pages in his books at home. It seems as though his luck turns around when an atomic blast leaves him, food (nuclear radiation was relatively unknown at this point), and his beloved books untouched. It seems as though his luck has turned around.
This is probably the role that defines Burgess Meredith for many, despite his other Twilight Zone appearances and film roles, with good reason. Poor Bemis can’t catch a break, and the ending feels unfairly tragic for a man that only wanted one small thing. When you watch this episode, you’ll probably guess at the end, unless if you’ve been living under rock. By the end, you’ll probably think of a hundred videogames, film, comic books, and TV shows that have had a similar situation as this episode’s end. Just remember that this was the thing that started all of those trends.
Rod Serling cited “Time Enough at Last” as one of his favorite episodes of the series (he spoils the twist too, so click with caution) along with “The Invaders.”
This episode was based on a short story of the same name by Lynn Venable, which can be read on Project Gutenberg.
“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (1961)
During a snowstorm, a bus driver and his passengers take refuge in a small diner. At the same time, a UFO has crashed, but there seem to be no survivors—no remains, either. Investigating state troopers find there is one extra passenger in the diner and nobody is fessing up. Tensions mount as strange things start happening with no explanation, until the extra passenger returns to the diner later.
This episode was written by Rod Serling, and he masterfully produces red herrings and redirections that make it almost impossible for a first-time viewer to guess who the titular “real Martian” is. This is the episode I always recommend to people who have never seen the show before, and, for the sake of being totally candid, my favorite episode of the series.
“Young Man’s Fancy” (1962)
As Norman Bates would say: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” This episode is sort of the G-rated version of Psycho, but Serling and John Brahm (the director) make the unhealthy mother-son relationship their own, rather than a pale Psycho imitator.
This is another episode by Richard Matheson. It was also made into a radio drama in the 2000s.
As was mentioned in October, this is just a list of ten episodes out of 156 altogether, and these definitely aren’t the only ones worth watching. It was incredibly difficult to narrow this list down to ten episodes only, so don’t be afraid to sit down for an episode that didn’t get cited. If you do watch the show you will probably find your own personal favorites, or some you appreciate more than others. So let us know how you feel about these episodes–and which episodes you think deserve a place on this list, as well!