From 1959 to 1964, television viewers were glued to the horror and suspense of The Twilight Zone, creator Rod Serling’s classic sci-fi series that chronicled everything from fantasy to the macabre. The show ran for five seasons and made an impression on the collective consciousness of Americans that resounds til this day. It regularly ranks near the top of ‘best television series’ lists precisely because of the high quality of writing and development of drama executed throughout its 156 episodes.
Though it was tough to narrow it down, below are our 10 favorites.
“Eye of the Beholder”
(Season 2, Nov. 11, 1960)
Janet Tyler, her head completely bandaged, is waiting for the results of her surgery to help her “look normal.” Her doctors describe her as horribly disfigured, only to reveal once the bandages are removed, a beautiful young woman. The medical staff however are horrific looking monster-like creatures.
The moral of this one: “What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?”
(Season 2, Nov. 4, 1960)
Told in flashback form, American David Ellington recalls his trek through Europe seeking shelter from a storm in a castle inhabited by a religious order led by Brother Jerome. A chilling howling by a man claiming to be a prisoner of this insane religious order echoes. Brother Jerome explains that this man is the Devil himself, held in his cell only by a simple “Staff of Truth” in the door. Ignoring Brother Jerome’s warnings, Ellington releases the prisoner, at which point he’s incapacitated by a wave of his hand, and the Devil himself emerges, and disappears in a puff of smoke.
The ancient motto? “You can catch the Devil, but you can’t hold him long.”
(Season 5, Nov. 1, 1963)
Christie’s wind-up doll “Talky Tina” speaks sweetly to everyone except her father Erich, a frustrated, hostile man. She offers him phrases like “I don’t like you” and “You’d better be nice to me.” Doubting his own sanity, he attempts to destroy the doll but to no avail. While investigating noises in the middle of the night, Erich trips on the doll at the top of the stairs, falling to his death.
Christie’s mother retrieves the doll near her husband’s body where it says to her: “My name is Talky Tina, and you’d better be nice to me.”
“To Serve Man”
(Season 3, March 2, 1962)
The Kanamits, a nine-foot-tall alien race, visits Earth and addresses the United Nations via telepathy with a message of aiding humanity, leaving behind a book in their language. Cryptographer Michael Chambers works on decoding the book as people begin signing up for visits to the benevolent Kanamits’ home planet. The book’s title finally gets deciphered—“To Serve Man.”
When it’s time for Chambers to take his ride into space, his assistant cries out to him as he’s boarding the spacecraft “Mr. Chambers, don’t get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man, it’s… it’s a cookbook!”
(Season 2, Jan. 27, 1961)
An aging, shabbily dressed woman alone in her rustic cabin is hearing strange noises above her kitchen roof. Upon investigating, she spots a small flying saucer on her rooftop and is accosted by tiny robot-looking creatures. She destroys one, and proceeds to attack the craft with a hatchet.
As this episode ends, the only dialogue is heard—coming from the spacecraft—“Gresham is dead, the planet is inhabited by a race of giants, impossible to defeat” as the camera focuses on a U.S. Air Force logo on the craft.
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”
(Season 1, March 4, 1960)
Maple Street sees a shadow pass over their quiet neighborhood with a roar and a large flash of light. Residents gather as they discover all power has been cut off—electricity, cars, lawn mowers, everything. Young Tommy speaks of a story he’s read about aliens being placed in neighborhoods as scouts for an alien invasion. Paranoia ensues, people begin fighting, and in this dark chaos, someone is shot and killed—mistaken for an alien—but in fact is a fellow neighbor.
The camera cuts to a nearby hilltop, where an alien crew observes the riot on Maple Street, managing the device that controls the neighborhood’s power, stating how simple it will be to conquer the earth—one neighborhood at a time.
(Season 1, Nov. 20, 1959)
Farsighted bookworm Henry Bemis, henpecked and dealing with an angry boss at the bank, seeks refuge with his books on his lunch hour in the bank’s vault. After reading a newspaper headline “H-Bomb Capable of Total Destruction,” an explosion knocks him unconscious.
Regaining consciousness, he finds his thick eyeglasses which he requires to see, and emerges finding total destruction—a nuclear war destroyed Earth—and he was saved in the safety of the bank’s vault. Alone and shattered, he prepares to commit suicide, then he sees the ruins of the public library in the distance and realizes he now has all the time in the world to read without interruption. Bemis views all the books he’ll be able to read, and as he bends down to pick the first one up, his glasses fall to the ground and shatter.
Virtually blind, he cries, “That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I needed! That’s not fair!”
(Season 1, Nov. 13, 1959)
It’s 2046 and Corry is sentenced for murder, to solitary confinement for 50 years on a distant asteroid. He’s visited four times a year, for only 15 minutes each time due to fuel restraints and the asteroids’ orbit, by a crew bringing supplies. The crew’s captain is sympathetic to Corry’s self-defense claims and offers solace by leaving behind a feminine robot named Alicia, capable of emotions and memory and Corry begins to fall in love with her.
The ship arrives one day to tell Corry he’s been pardoned and they need to leave in 20 minutes, with room for only 15 pounds of luggage. Corry frantically tries to explain Alicia must go with him, that she’s not a robot but a real woman. With no time to spare, the captain shoots the robot and it falls to the ground in a heap of wires and circuits, repeating the word “Corry, Corry.”
“All of Mr. Corry’s machines, including the one made in his image, kept alive by love, but now obsolete—in The Twilight Zone.”
(Season 1, May 6, 1960)
NYC advertising executive Gart Williams, stressed by his boss and pressures of work, naps on a snowy train ride home. He awakens in a 19th-century railway car, and out the window he’s sees he’s in Willoughby, a quaint, peaceful-looking town. He asks the conductor about it, to which he replies, “There’s no Willoughby on this line.”
That night, yet another argument with his wife that ends in her calling their marriage a “miserable tragic error.” His naps continue to take him to the tranquility of Willoughby, but this time he steps off the train and is greeted warmly by name by everyone he meets.
The camera dissolves from the swinging pendulum of a station clock to the swinging of a conductor’s lantern standing over Williams’ body. Seems someone shouted something about Willoughby before jumping off the train to their death. His body is placed in a hearse and the back door closes to reveal the name of the funeral home…Willoughby & Son.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
(Season 5, Oct. 11, 1963)
Recently released from a sanitarium, salesman Robert Wilson travels by airplane. He believes he sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane outside his window. He tries to alert his wife and crew over and over, and each time the gremlin hides itself making Wilson appear crazy. To make matters worse, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown six months earlier on an airplane. He becomes more concerned now about the gremlin’s tinkering with the wiring in the engine compartment, endangering the flight. In an attempt to rid them of the gremlin, Wilson steals a sleeping policeman’s gun, straps himself into his seat and opens the emergency door to try and shoot the creature.
The plane finally lands, Wilson is taken away in a straight jacket, and the camera pulls back to reveal significant damage to the engine area on the wing near Wilson’s seat. Vindication.
Future Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner helmed this episode.