It was 50 years ago on Friday, October 2, 1959, that The Twilight Zone premiered on national television. Even though it was never a top twenty show, The Twilight Zone was a jewel that captured a generation. However, it almost didn't happen. Its subject matter troubled television executives, and the fact that the episodes often left viewers hanging went against formula.
I was barely 13 when I saw the pilot episode, "Where Is Everybody?" It left me speechless and compelled me to watch the following 156 episodes (which aired from 1959 to 1964).
The fact that children were fascinated by the show caught television executives off-guard. As Zone producer Buck Houghton recalls, "The appeal to children was a complete surprise to us. We never thought of that. I don't think CBS did, either; it was on at ten o'clock. We got a lot of nasty notes from parents saying, 'You're keeping the kids up!'"
The Twilight Zone, however, was a natural transition from the science-fiction films of the 1950s. I saw virtually every sci-fi film that came to town, and the theater was crowded with popcorn-and-Coke-guzzling kids like me. So when sci-fi hit television in the guise of the Zone, we were ready.
Children quickly picked up on the most basic plot elements -- Martians, space or time travel, talking dummies or dolls, grotesque creatures and the like. Although young people initially enjoyed the stories on a superficial level, they are in many ways more intelligent than adults, more honest and eager to learn. "Maybe that's because kids are hungry for the full play of their imagination," Zone writer Charles Beaumont commented, "while the elders are inclined to fear it."
Most Zone episodes dealt with alienation, vulnerability and the conflict of emotions that make up the human condition. Besides great storytelling, Rod Serling, the show's creator, had something to say. His onscreen narration tied the show together, but it also gave him the chance to moralize. He often emphasized the moral of the story, just in case we had missed the point. And unlike most shows children watch today, Serling entertained us with substance and intelligent subject matter. Below are ten of my favorite episodes.
Time Enough at Last: Mild-mannered Henry Bemis, hen-pecked by his wife and brow-beaten by his boss, sneaks into a bank vault on his lunch hour to read. He is knocked unconscious by a shockwave that turns out to be a nuclear war. When Bemis regains consciousness, he realizes that he is the last person on earth.
I Shot an Arrow into the Air: Three of eight astronauts survive a crash after their craft disappears from the radar screen. They find themselves on what they believe to be a dry, lifeless asteroid; only five gallons of water separate them from joining the men who died in the crash.
The Howling Man: During a walking tour of Europe after World War I, David loses his way and comes to a remote monastery. He is turned away but passes out, and the monks take him in. He regains consciousness and hears a bizarre howling. He eventually finds a man in a cell who the monks say is the Devil himself, kept in the jail by the "staff of truth."
Eye of the Beholder: Janet lies in a hospital bed, her face wrapped in bandages, hiding the hideous face that has made her an outcast all her life. This is her eleventh hospital visit and the last allowed by the government. The faces of the doctors and nurses are also hidden by shadows and camera angles. Janet's bandages are finally removed, and the medical staff retreat in disgust.
The Invaders: A haggard woman hears a strange sound on the roof. She climbs up to see a miniature flying saucer and tiny spacemen who invade her home. Their small ray guns sting, but she fights back.
Shadow Play: Adam is on trial, and the judge gives him the electric chair. Adam chortles that it's all a joke, a recurring nightmare in which all the participants are bit players in a scripted play.
The Obsolete Man: Romney is a God-fearing librarian in a future state in which books and religion have been banned. Romney is judged obsolete by the government chancellor but is granted several requests before he dies. He chooses to have a television audience watch his execution and to have only the assassin know the method of his death. Forty-five minutes before he is to die, he invites the chancellor to his room and locks them both inside.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Robert has just been discharged from a mental hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. He looks out his window during an airplane flight and sees a weird creature on the wing. Alarmed, he alerts others. However, when they look out, the creature disappears. Robert eventually realizes that what he sees is a demon trying to dismantle the plane so it will crash.
Living Doll: Erich is angry at his wife for buying his stepdaughter an expensive doll. Erich has a nasty disposition and soon discovers that the doll dislikes him. In fact, it tells him so. Talky Tina says emphatically "I hate you" and "I'm going to kill you."
The Masks: On his deathbed, Jason Foster calls his four heirs to his side on a Mardi Gras evening. Each heir has a character flaw -- self-pity, avarice, vanity or cruelty. Foster demands that each wear a mask he has fashioned for them. If they refuse to keep the masks on until midnight, they will be disinherited. The masks are hideous, and the heirs do not want to don them. But out of greed, they slide them onto their faces.
All the episodes are now available on DVD. Take a chance and enjoy, in the words of Rod Serling, "a journey into the wondrous land where the boundaries are that of imagination--Next stop, the Twilight Zone!"