When we discuss Twilight Zone episodes, we’re usually talking about our favourites — “The Howling Man“. Or the most famous — “Time Enough At Last”. Or the worst — “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby”. But recently I was watching “The Obsolete Man” (an episode that didn’t even make my Top 25 list) and it got me thinking: What are the best episodes of The Twilight Zone?
Then I went over my list of favourites and I realized that in a few cases, I couldn’t actually explain why they were my favourites. “Black Leather Jackets”? This episode falls into most people’s worst episodes category. Yet it’s one that I can’t get enough of. There’s no stand-out acting in it. It doesn’t have some eye-popping twist. The story itself isn’t particularly remarkable.
Contrast that with season 2’s “The Obsolete Man”. I’ve never “liked” Burgess Meredith (except as The Penguin), but I happily admit that he’s an incredibly talented actor, and one that most people love. The story is suspenseful, meaningful, and out of the norm. There’s a powerful message being delivered, and the episode runs us through a full gamut of emotions — from fear and anger, to ultimately satisfaction.
So how did the admittedly mediocre “Black Leather Jackets” make my list of favourites and “The Obsolete Man” didn’t?
This honestly intrigued me — realizing that my personal favourites weren’t necessarily what I thought was the best Twilight Zone had to offer.
And that got me thinking… well, if my favourites aren’t the best, then what episodes are?
You know what? It wasn’t hard to make this list — Not my favourites; not the quintessentially Twilight Zone-ish eps; not the most popular — but what I feel are the five best episodes of the series. The crème de la crème of the Cinquième Dimension.
When making my choices, I carefully considered script, acting, execution, overall message, and impact. And to me, these five are simply the most perfect combination of those important features, making them the very best that Twilight Zone has to offer.
Submitted for your perusal…
#1: The Obsolete Man
Can a man be considered “obsolete”? Librarian Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) found out that according to a totalitarian State, yes, a man can.
“The Obsolete Man” is, in my estimation, THE best episode of The Twilight Zone.
As quiet, demure Mr. Wordsworth, Burgess Meredith represents all of us, the “little men”, in as Serling calls it, “The future; not a future that will be, but one that might be.” The episode itself is also rather quiet and demure, its powerful message speaking volumes without the aid of car chases, flash bangs, or other sensory stimulants.
Contrasting the stoic Romney Wordsworth is the Chancellor, played beautifully by Fritz Weaver. As the current voice of “the State”, the Chancellor challenges Wordsworth at every turn. He’s cruel and demeaning, and relishes telling Wordsworth just how worthless his existence has become.
But Wordsworth is unfazed. He won’t be goaded into submitting to the State’s ideals. He stands there, firm in his faith, maintaining his composure, and takes the proverbial blows. Watching the first half of this episode, paying special attention to staging and tone, I’ve always found it rather reminiscent of how I imagine the scene between Christ and Caiaphas when Jesus was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin; how they taunted Him, shouted at Him, challenged Him, and He stood there calmly and in complete control of His emotions. I wonder if this similarity is something Serling intended or is just a happy byproduct of my imagination?
The dialogue in this episode is pure magic, a poignant morsel penned by Serling himself.
Chancellor: Since there are no more books, Mr. Wordsworth, there are no more libraries. And, of course, as it follows, there is very little call for the services of a librarian. Case in point: A minister. A minister would tell us that his function is that of preaching the word of God. And of course it follows that since The State has proven that there is no God, that would make the function of a minister somewhat academic as well…
Wordsworth: There IS a God!
Chancellor: You are in error, Mr. Wordsworth. There is NO GOD! The STATE HAS PROVEN THAT THERE IS NO GOD!
Wordsworth: You cannot erase God with an edict!
Chancellor: You are obsolete, Mr. Wordsworth!
Wordsworth: A lie, no man is obsolete!
Chancellor: You have no function, Mr. Wordsworth. You’re an anachronism, like a ghost from another time…
Wordsworth: I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages!
Chancellor: You’re a bug, Mr. Wordsworth. A crawling insect. An ugly, misinformed, little creature, who has no purpose here, no meaning!
Wordsworth: I am a human being…
Chancellor: You’re a librarian, Mr. Wordsworth. You’re a dealer in books and two-cent fines and pamphlets in closed stacks in the musty insides of a language factory that spews out meaningless words on an assembly line. WORDS, Mr. WORDSworth. That have no substance, and no dimension. Like air, like the wind. Like a vacuum, that you make believe has an existence, by scribbling index numbers on little cards.
Wordsworth: I don’t care. I tell you: I don’t care. I’m a human being, I exist… and if I speak one thought aloud, that thought lives, even after I’m shoveled into my grave.
Chancellor: Delusions, Mr. Wordsworth, DELUSIONS! That you inject into your veins with printer’s ink, the narcotics that you call literature: The Bible, poetry, essays of all kinds, all of it are opiate to make you think you have a strength, when you have no strength at all! You have nothing but spindly limbs and a dream, and The State has no use for your kind!
It’s a sad fact, but Mr. Romney Wordsworth is going to die. That’s a given. Why he dies and how he dies are moot points. What’s important in “The Obsolete Man” is what he has to teach the Chancellor (and every single person watching the episode) in the moments leading up to his death.
The two of them, trapped in a room with a bomb that’s about to go off, Wordsworth strips away all of the Chancellor’s bravado, the circumstances reducing him to nothing more than a sniveling child. We can almost smell his fear through the TV screen as he paces around the room, becoming more and more panicked at the thought of his impending demise. All the while Mr. Romney Wordsworth sits reading aloud the 23rd Psalm from his Bible, finding comfort and solace in his hour of need.
In the end, Wordsworth spares the Chancellor’s life, having accomplished what he set out to do — reveal the Chancellor for what he is: A man, just like every other man. A human being who feels anger and pain and fear. A lesson designed to show that life DOES have value even beyond a specific function.
And when the Chancellor finds himself standing before the State, as it now declares him obsolete, as his own people tear him apart, we are left with Serling’s words of wisdom and warning: “Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man, that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under “M” for Mankind – in The Twilight Zone.”
#2: Eye of the Beholder
Another stellar offering from The Twilight Zone’s second season, “Eye of the Beholder” makes it onto many people’s list of favourite episodes — mine included. I love the way that Serling keeps us all (literally) in the dark until the denouement, eliminating all prejudice on behalf of the viewer, and allowing the story to make the necessary impression on them.
What is beauty? That’s just one of the questions this legendary episode begs an answer to. What is beauty, and is there value in something that’s not beautiful? If you break the episode down to bare essentials, in a way, its echoing the theme of our previously mentioned episode, “The Obsolete Man”. How you look and what you can/can’t do doesn’t determine the value or worth of your life. This theme manifests itself in all walks of life, and that’s likely why it’s a recurring theme on The Twilight Zone. It’s an important one that affects each and every one of us, often in our day-to-day lives.
This is an episode that not only has a great message, but also delivers a fabulous twist. Watching this for the first time on November 11, 1960, “Eye of the Beholder” surely must have given viewers a genuine, bona fide, jaw-dropping whhhhhaaaattttt? moment of shock when Janet Tyler’s bandages are removed and it’s the beautiful Donna Douglas underneath them.
B-b-but we were expecting someone ugly under there! These grotesque pig-faced creatures are trying to say that Elly May Clampett is UGLY? What planet is THIS??
Ah, see, that’s exactly the question that Rod Serling was trying to elicit from us. His closing narration sums up the whole point of the episode: “Now the questions that come to mind. Where is this place, and when is it? What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm? You want an answer? The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference. Because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty *is* in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life, perhaps out amongst the stars. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned… in The Twilight Zone.”
“Eye of the Beholder” is a fantastic little sci-fi adventure, but it’s not JUST that. It has substance and is quite possibly the most important lesson ever taught on The Twilight Zone. And like so many of Serling’s masterpieces, it contains yet another lesson/warning that isn’t directly addressed but is strongly suggested if you take a moment to digest what you just watched. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” — that’s the main message. But look at how these people treated Ms. Tyler. They sent her off to live in the fringes, away from general population. They made her feel that she was inadequate, not worthy of life. People were afraid of her, hated her, simply because of how her face looked. Yes, take the primary message to heart, but also heed the warning — don’t be like these people! Treat others the way that you want to be treated. How a person looks, whether they are ugly or beautiful, regardless of the colour of their skin, no matter their gender… what makes a person bad or good is their character and their behaviour, NOT what they look like.
Whether we’re in our current reality where Donna Douglas and Marilyn Monroe are deemed the epitome of beauty, or we’re in Serling’s contrived “Eye of the Beholder” universe where they are considered deformed, the message remains the same: Beauty is subjective and doesn’t define who you are, and always do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
#3: The Shelter
Besides physical appearance and language, how are we different from the animals? As human beings, we have the ability to use logic and emotion. Animals live by instinct. We have the capability to reason. But that’s a choice we have to consciously make every day — to fight the urge to rely on instinct and instead observe, rationalize, and consider before we do or say anything.
“The Shelter” is one of The Twilight Zone’s darker episodes, one that I talked about in-depth a few years ago in the post “Are We Really Civilized?“. The message isn’t delivered in the guise of hope. Much to the contrary, here, Serling shows us the very darkest corner of humanity, and it’s from that bleakness that the point is made: Don’t let this happen. Don’t let this be you.
“The Shelter” is a story about a few things: Being prepared. Being responsible. And being in control — of your choices and yourself.
Bill Stockton built a bomb shelter for his family… just in case. Unfortunately, he was the only one on the block who did. When a state of emergency is declared, Bill, his wife Grace, and their son, Paul, find out what happens when men revert into beasts of instinct. When confronted with the threat of demise — due to their own negligence — their friends and neighbours turn into remorseless, snarling cowards who are suddenly of the mindset: “If we don’t have shelter, then neither will you.”
Serling is trying to make a point here, so in the end, as the neighbours bust down the door of Bill’s shelter in a hysterical frenzy, we find out that it was just a false alarm. There are no invading aliens, no bombs, the world isn’t ending. Bill’s former “friends” try to just shrug the ghastly incident off as a momentary lapse of judgement. And since everything is fine, no harm, no foul. But they’re not getting off that easily. Serling makes his point through Bill’s dialogue: “I wonder if any one of us has any idea what those damages really are. Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal — the kind of people we are just underneath the skin. I mean all of us. A lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbours to death just for the privilege. We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder. I wonder if we weren’t destroyed even without it.” A dark moment for humanity, indeed.
“No moral, no message, no prophetic tract. Just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.”
A very simple ending narration from Serling that leaves nothing to the imagination and nothing open to interpretation. And this episode is also the quintessential example of why the current series “Black Mirror” will NEVER be the next Twilight Zone. For all the darkness “The Shelter” uncovers in the hearts of men, Serling STILL leaves us with the opportunity to change, to do better, to try again. There is hope in Serling’s end narration, he hasn’t condemned us to a hopeless, non-existent future where people just roll over and die because they can’t do any better. No, in the Twilight Zone, there is always the urging for redemption, an encouraging appeal to mankind — something that Black Mirror is devoid of entirely.
“The Shelter” made my list today not just because of the urgent message it brings to us and all of humanity. It made the list because of how Serling chose to deliver the message. It’s sharp and poignant. Serling pulls no punches here. He strips us right down bare and then stands back and says, “Look. Look at yourselves. You should be ashamed. Don’t let this happen. It can happen, but it doesn’t have to. You can stop it.”
And it’s when we’re faced with that mortality, when we’re confronted with the deep, dark reality of just how flawed we really are, that’s when we sit up and pay attention. In Psalms it says, “Let a righteous man strike me – it is a kindness; let him rebuke me – it is oil on my head.” Every time I watch “The Shelter”, I see it as a bit of a slap from Serling, and every time, I thank him dearly for it.
#4: Deaths-Head Revisited
If we’re not looking for redemption, we’re longing for justice. There’s no question that the Holocaust of WWII is a blight on the very soul of humanity. So when former SS captain Gunther Lutze (Oscar Beregi, Jr.) walks into the Dachau concentration camp to relive his glory days in the once again Serling-penned “Deaths-Head Revisited”, a tightness creeps into your chest at the anticipation of a terrible wrong about to be righted in some small way.
“Deaths-Head Revisited” is for me, the single greatest example of extraordinary acting on The Twilight Zone.
Austrian-born Jewish actor Joseph Schildkraut’s subdued performance as “caretaker” and former prisoner of the camp, Becker, will absolutely haunt you. Anguish and pain are etched into his face as he creates a tormenting juxtaposition next to the condescending swagger of Beregi’s Captain Lutze.
It takes some time before Lutze remembers that he himself killed Becker many years before, and we suddenly find ourselves bearing witness to the ghosts of a man’s own conscience eating him alive. Becker and the other ghostly inmates continue to torment Lutze as he experiences the phantom pain of the horrors and atrocities he inflicted on them, his mind and by extension his body, absolutely wracked, ultimately to the point of insanity.
As Lutze lies crumpled on the ground, the victim of a hell he himself created, Becker says, “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 judgement will come from God.”
When Lutze is found, the doctor looks around at the camp. “Dachau. Why does it still stand? Why do we keep it standing?” And the episode ends with my #1 favourite end narration.
“There is an answer to the doctor’s question. All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers. Something to dwell on and to remember, not only in the Twilight Zone but wherever men walk God’s Earth.” To me, that is one of the most powerful bits of literature that’s ever been written.
One of the reasons this episode made my list of best episodes is how I feel at the end. I would be lying if I said that there was no satisfaction in seeing justice delivered for Becker and the others. And yet… I take no pleasure in Lutze’s suffering. How can that be? I can imagine this same story written in a manner that would leave me cheering at the end. Mentally high-fiving Becker and reveling in Lutze’s punishment.
But I don’t.
At all. Not even a bit.
There is a peace that comes with justice, but I think it’s a testament to the kind of man that Serling was that he wrote such a powerful story without turning us into the same kind of monster that Lutze was. There is nothing normal or good in taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, no matter how well deserved it may be. As Becker said, the final judgement comes from God. Not us. And so I’m … relieved, I guess is the word, that even though justice was served, I still feel that gut-deep discomfort at seeing the suffering of another. NOT saying I feel bad for Lutze. He deserved exactly what he got — and more! But for me to look at that miserable, pathetic shell of a worm and think “GOOD”, taking any sort of enjoyment from that would be akin to me forgetting. And as Serling said, the moment we forget, we become the gravediggers.
#5: The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
I did have a bit of trouble deciding on my #5 spot. It was a toss-up between the classic “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and the sentimental, too-oft overlooked “The Changing of the Guard”.
In the end, I went with Monsters because it has a little more substance, and is told in a more impactful, relatable way.
This episode harkens back to my #3 pick, “The Shelter”. Again, we’re faced with the degradation of human behaviour. But this time, it’s not just about how quickly we’re willing to turn on each other when we perceive a threat, but it’s also about the blame-game and how desperate people are for a scape goat when things go south. And how dangerously fast superstitious nonsense can spread.
Maple Street is your typical suburban family neighbourhood. Men are out barbequing and washing their cars, kids are running around eating ice cream; life is wonderful and everyone is so blissfully unaware. Suddenly, they hear a strange noise overhead, and see flashing lights in the sky! The neighbours speculate it was meteor and for the moment, seem to forget that it even happened.
But then they realize the power is off. And the phone line is dead. No radio. Then one of the neighbourhood boys, Tommy, starts talking about aliens. The adults immediately laugh it off as a child’s silly comic book nonsense, but the idiot kid won’t let it go. He keeps babbling about how human-looking aliens infiltrate areas they want to invade in preparation for a landing. It’s a bit harder for the adults to shrug it off this time, and actually, it’s already too late. The seeds of dissention have been sown and are already starting to take root. Suspicion is being born as we watch.
And did I mention that no one’s car will start… well, except Les’s. At first it won’t turn over, but then it fires up all on its own. And then it starts: Les never did come out to see that thing that flew over head, and he always was an oddball. Him and his whole family. Real oddballs. Why didn’t he come out to look?
The situation rapidly spirals out of control, with the neighbours all pointing their accusing fingers at one another, condemning each in his or her turn because of some idiosyncrasy or unusual habit.
The neighbours turn on each other, one by one. And by nightfall, they are so consumed with suspicion that in a moment of panic, Charlie shoots fellow neighbour, Pete, right down dead in the street, thinking him to be the ‘monster’.
“I didn’t know who he was. I most certainly didn’t know who he was. Well, he came out of the darkness. How was I supposed to know who he was? Steve? You know why I shot him. How was I supposed to know he wasn’t a monster or something? I was only trying to protect my home! I didn’t know it was somebody we knew. I didn’t know!”
Then the lights go on in Charlie’s house, and the others haven’t learned a damn thing from killing Pete. They turn on Charlie, surmising that maybe HE is the alien. And when the others pelt him with rocks, he throws Tommy under the bus and accuses him. Then the lights start going on in other people’s houses and the crowd works itself up into an absolute frenzy of fearful accusations.
And with guns and bricks and a hammer, the residence of this once quiet street destroy it — and each other — just like a pack of wild animals.
It turns out that it was, in fact, aliens who set the neighbourhood up in a little experiment. “Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines, their radios and telephones and lawn mowers… throw them into darkness for a few hours, and then sit back and watch the pattern. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch. Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we’ll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other… one to the other… one to the other—”
We all know the saying that you can’t fight an enemy you can’t see. But “see” doesn’t have to mean “with your eyes”. You can “see” an intangible something by being aware of it and knowing how to recognize it. Then you can fight it. From Serling’s end narration, I think that this was the message he was trying to convey with the episode.
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is – that these things cannot be confined – to the Twilight Zone.”
Many people initially think that the “monsters” the title refers to are the aliens who are pulling the strings. But the truth is, the monsters it’s speaking of are the very people who live on Maple Street. And therein lies the irony — the monsters were there all along.
Since everyone is different and people have varying values, I’m sure that my choices might not jive perfectly with yours. If that’s the case, please leave a comment below and tell me what you think are the best episodes of The Twilight Zone!