Hands down, Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone is the best science fiction series ever run on American television, possibly the best television run on American television. Serling's anthology series didn't just poach writers from the best genre short story mags of the time, authors like Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Ambrose Bierce, Jerome Bixby, Damon Knight, just to name a few, it featured original teleplays written by Serling himself, already renowned for his complex TV drama writing. Twilight Zone ran on UHF TV at midnight when I was a kid and teenager and once introduced via the episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" I was hooked and before my 20th birthday I'd watched every episode, and memorized damn near half of them.
A little trivia for our readers; back when Head Cheeze and I were just little elementary school-aged science fiction sprouts we'd alternate years of sleepovers on December 23rd, and every year for like 4 years we'd watch, at midnight, the Twilight Zone episode "Night of the Meek" where Art Carney plays the drunken Santa Claus. That's still my all time favorite episode.
Season 3, 1961-1962, is where Twilight Zone hit its stride, and it's often from this season that most of the holiday TZ marathons on SyFy Channel gets their episodes. We get evil Billy Mumy wishing people into the cornfield, a robot grandmother who can't seem to bond with her oldest granddaughter, a TV cowboy forced into a shootout with Jesse James, a former concentration camp commandant captured and tortured by the ghosts of the thousands he sent to their deaths, a pool shark risking it all against the ghost of the best pool player who ever lived, and that's just a few of the gems here (Full episode list below). Serling wasn't tired of fighting with the network over shows yet and his commitment to compelling storytelling is evidenced in season 3.
Season 3 holds a few of my very favorite episodes too:
The Shelter (written by Rod Serling) when atomic war comes only one man has a shelter for his family and everyone in the neighborhood wants in. This is probably the best episode ever of Twilight Zone and completely captures the horror and zeitgeist of the cold war atmosphere on the ground in terrified America.
The Midnight Sun (written by Rod Serling) where Earth is spiraling towards the sun and there's no hope for humanity whose imminent death is witnessed through the point of view of a lonely artist.
Two (written by Montgomery Pitman) where the last two opposing soldiers (Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery) of a catastrophic war find one another in the desolate ruins of a bombed city.
Nothing in the Dark (George Clayton Johnson) where a gut-shot policeman (Robert Redford) is the only person allowed inside the small dark apartment of a woman who hides there from Death.
To Serve Man (written by Rod Serling based on a short by Damon Knight) where a race of extremely friendly aliens arrive to give humankind a life of leisure.
Five Characters in Search of an Exit (written by Rod Serling based on a short story by Marvin Petal) a clown, a soldier, a hobo, a ballet dancer, and a bagpiper find themselves locked together in a room with no door. – Yeah, this is pretty much exactly the same play as "No Exit" by John Paul Sartre only with a neato-twist at the end of it, but I have a really soft spot for this as it introduced me obliquely to existentialism and has always provided a cornerstone for my others readings in this genre.
And finally, the episode that both Head Cheeze and I will eventually describe to some future therapist as part of the explanation for our hatred of puppets – The Dummy (written by Rod Serling) where a ventriloquist is dominated and controlled by is dummy. There is absolutely no reason that this episode should be scary, and yet it is absolutely terrifying. Go figure.
This season contains a couple of dogs too, One More Pallbearer (a convoluted revenge story with two annoying twist ending), Still Valley (a deal with the devil story), and I Sing the Body Electric (robot grandma wins hearts of real grandkids... what it lacks in storytelling drama it also lacks in plot development). But when Twilight Zone fails the results are often still better than anything else on TV, and even the lesser eps are worth a good couple of views.
Twilight Zone has always been a collectible set of shows, from the earlier VHS box sets that came with their own wheelbarrow, to DVD collections, and now finally Blu Ray. Presented in original 1:33/1 ratio, the episodes look and sound absolutely amazing, but the real kicker here are the smorgasbord of special features including:
- 19 New Audio Commentaries!
- Interview with actor Edson Stroll
- Original Laugh Track for Cavender Is Coming
- Vintage Audio Interview with director of photography George T. Clemens
- 19 Radio Dramas featuring Don Johnson, Blair Underwood, Ernie Hudson, Morgan Brittany, Adam West, Ed Begley, Jr., Jason Alexander, Shelley Berman, Michael York, Bruno Kirby and more
- Isolated Scores for all 37 episodes featuring the legendary Bernard Herrmann, Van Cleave, Fred Steiner and others
- Clip from the 1989 remake of A Game of Pool, featuring George Clayton Johnson’s original ending
- Clip from the 1985 remake of Dead Man’s Shoes, featuring Helen Mirren in Dead Woman’s Shoes
- Vintage Audio Recollections with Buzz Kulik, Buck Houghton, Richard L. Bare, Lamont Johnson and Earl Hamner
- Rare Rod Serling appearances as a guest on The Garry Moore Show and Tell It to Groucho and as host of the popular game show Liar’s Club..and more!
The episodes for Season 3 are Two, The Arrival , The Shelter, The Passerby, A Game of Pool, The Mirror, The Grave, It's a Good Life, Death's Head Revisited , The Midnight Sun, Still Valley, The Jungle, Once Upon a Time, Five Characters in Search of an Exit, A Quality of Mercy, Nothing in the Dark, One More Pallbearer, Dead Man's Shoes, The Hunt , Showdown with Rance McGrew, Kick the Can, A Piano in the House, The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank, To Serve Man, The Fugitive, Little Girl Lost, Person or Persons Unknown, The Little People, Four O'Clock , Hocus-Pocus and Frisby, The Trade-ins, The Gift, The Dummy, Young Man's Fancy, I Sing the Body Electric, Cavender Is Coming, and The Changing of the Guard.