The Twilight Zone, the classic TV sci-fi/fantasy series, remains one of the most revered and respected programs in history.
Created, executive-produced, and hosted by Rod Serling (who also wrote several episodes), The Twilight Zone originally aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964. The anthology show has been rebooted several since, for the big screen as well as the small. And other similar programs have attempted to replicate the essence of the series. But those facsimiles have never been able to match the quality and execution of the original show.
Besides the fact that Serling (a heavy smoker who succumbed to cancer in 1975) was a prolific genius in the literary field, he also had an uncanny (no Zone pun intended) eye and instinct for the composition of success. And by that I mean, certainly, he was a terrific writer, but he was also wise enough to select intelligent writers to work on the series.
Also, too, he was smart enough to adapt previously published short stories, magazine articles, or novels, and apply that material to episodes of The Twilight Zone, or to hire other writers to adapt that material for segments of the show. That’s an important element of writing for television, film, or even the stage. It’s important to have solid source material from which to draw when penning a script for either of those mediums. It’s why so many episodes of The Twilight Zone worked so well, and it’s why so many episodes of other TV shows and films from any era or genre do not work so well.
Beyond a small number of episodes that do not measure up in quality, the majority of The Twilight Zone segments are stand-out productions. And the best of those episodes center around a “zone” of some sort, as an actual physical strange “place” or “realm” in which people suddenly find themselves; as opposed to a “situation.” Some prime examples of this are "Walking Distance" (10-30-59), "A Stop at Willoughby" (5-6-60), and "Little Girl Lost" (3-16-62).
In "Distance," a man, played by Gig Young, seemingly travels back to a simpler time where he meets his younger self. In "Willoughby," another man, this time portrayed by Jack Daly, also finds himself, seemingly, traveling back to a simpler time. In "Lost," a young married couple (Robert Sampson and Sarah Marshall) “lose” their daughter (Tracy Stratford, and the voice of Rhoda Williams) to a realm…and there’s that word again…that exists “somewhere”…in some kind of “other dimension” that co-exists in their home.
The characters in each of these episodes are confronted with a journey to some intangible, yet tangible location, as opposed to an episode like "Time Enough at Last" (11-20-59), in which a librarian (Burgess Meredith) who loves to read in a very real world is the lone survivor of a very real earthquake in that world. The twist here is that the librarian breaks his glasses, and is consequently incapable of reading any of the countless books to which he now has access, albeit amidst the rubble of concrete and destruction resulting from the earthquake. There is a tragic irony in a potentially very real situation, whereas the characters of "Distance," "Willoughby" and "Lost," find themselves dealing with or being confronted by very “unreal” realities, however pleasant or unpleasant those may be.
There's also the episode, titled, "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" (10-23-59) starring the legendary actress Ida Lupino (also, a director, who later helmed Twilight's "The Masks" episode (3-20-64).
In "Shrine," Lupino plays an aging actress obsessed with her past screen stardom; so much so, that she escapes, literally, on-screen, into the world of her movies, combining her real-life environment with the youthful co-stars of her past. (Please do feel free to make any reference or correlation here to the 1998 Twilight Zone-esque feature film Pleasantville.)
Another great "past" episode is the "Young Man's Fancy" (5-11-62), in which a man (played by Alex Nicole) struggles to move on with his life because he frequently compares it to the life he lived as a child with his mother (Helen Brown). Needless to say, this particular obsession does not sit well with the man's current fiance (Phyllis Thaxter).
Another key example of characters existing in a surreal place is "A World of Difference" (3-11-60), in which a man (portrayed by Howard Duff, who as it turned out, was once married to Ida Lupino in real life) isn’t sure if he’s an actor or the character he’s playing in a movie. Now somewhere in between all of those episodes, there are segments like "People Are Alike All Over" (3-25-60), in which a very real astronaut (Roddy McDowell) finds himself on a very real excursion to Mars, where he is ultimately placed “on display” in his own “habitat”…an environment of his Earth-like home. By the episode’s end, we learn he was placed in a zoo-like cage, where he is observed by Martians, who resemble human appearance, if only via illusion and their mind control of the astronaut.
Besides this story being a standout “middle-ground” episode of The Twilight Zone that combines the best of all elements of the show, "People" still doesn’t categorize itself as the ultimate Zone episode for me because it is essentially based in reality, or at least potential reality. And forget that sometime later the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage" (which was subsequently reworked as a two-part Trek episode called "The Menagerie") seems to have lifted so much from "People," with regard to premise and story. While, also, too, "Cage"/"Menagerie," and "Lost" all featuring actress Susan Oliver as a guest star. So, I guess that’s being in The Twilight Zone on a whole other level.
In either case, again, the “surreal” episodes of The Twilight Zone, as opposed to the more reality-based episodes, are superior. And even though the majority of the Zone segments are enjoyable, less so is the case with the “ambiguous-ending” episodes in which the audience is left to decide for themselves if the characters are truly experiencing what we are seeing, or if it is “all in their mind.”
For example, "Where Is Everybody?" (10-2-59), in which we are left to wonder if a man (Earl Holliman) is either really lost or if he’s lost his mind.
It’s a tie between "Walking Distance" and "A Stop at Willoughby." Even though Rod Serling had eventually admitted that he wasn’t that crazy about "Distance" (a few logistics within the il-logistics of the story didn’t suit him), that episode remains a favorite.
As does "Willoughby."
Both episodes fully represent what The Twilight Zone is all about, while also harkening back to a simpler time. There is a tremendous amount of nostalgia associated with both of those episodes.
For Serling himself, those episodes were special to him, as both ultimately sprang from his longing to return to his own simpler time…and place…his childhood home of Binghamton, New York.
Both "Distance" and "Willoughby," among other episodes, were inspired by Serling’s solemn walks on the empty streets of the MGM studio back lot when it wasn’t in use.
A real-life Twilight Zone, I guess one could say.
[Note: The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree, and IMDM.com, were utilized as reference guides for some dates and information presented in this article.]