Even if you’ve never watched it, you know at least a bit about it. From its iconic theme music, to a title that has become shorthand for the unusual or extraordinary, The Twilight Zone is one of television’s most influential series. Driven by creative mastermind Rod Serling, the series ran from 1959 for 156 episodes, 92 of which were written by Serling himself, incorporated actors either before or during their trip to Hollywood stardom, and stands today as a landmark achievement in science fiction.
Start with: “Time Enough At Last”
Such is the strength of The Twilight Zone that arguably its best episode comes from its first season, a time when most shows are still finding their feet. “Time Enough At Last” sees bookish Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) wanting nothing more than a quiet moment to read a book. Then, when he’s the last man on earth following an atomic bomb… no, just watch it. And even if you know what cruel twist of fate awaits Mr Bemis, watch it again. The show’s deft hand on issues such as the decline of literature, technology, and solitude versus isolation, is on full show here, and all in the space of twenty minutes.
Then watch: The Simpsons references
Being an anthology series, jumping into any episode of The Twilight Zone will give you a standalone story, no prior knowledge required. But in the interests of demonstrating the show’s influence and providing episodes accessible to a modern audience, go with material that provided The Simpsons with its share of sly references.
We’re talking about “It’s a Good Life”, also known as “The one with the kid who can read minds”. About “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, also known as “The one where Captain Kirk sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane”. About “The Little People”, also known as “The one with, uhh, a civilisation of little people.” These episodes, and others, have entered the territories of pop culture and parody for a reason: they’re iconic tales, still standing their ground today, and The Twilight Zone is their home.
But the must-see stories don’t begin and end with animated homage — episodes such as…
“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “Long Distance Call” are great examples of the dark territory the show never shies away from covering. “Maple Street” takes an idyllic slice of suburban America and peels back its ugly side, showing how easily, and willingly, humanity can tear itself apart. “Long Distance Call”, meanwhile… well, you want to see a dead woman’s spirit tell her grandson to kill himself on his fifth birthday? Here’s your chance.
View more than a few episodes throughout the series and common themes begin to emerge: specifically, shows concerning boxing, military life, and aircraft (parts of Serling’s background), but broadly, space exploration, the perils of misusing technology, and the ever-present threat of “the other”. Remember, this is a show made during an era when the US/USSR Space Race was ramping up, and the threat of the Reds and the fear of communism were gripping the public. So those human-looking aliens wasn’t due to a skint budget, (at $65,000 per episode, it was one of the most expensive series of its time), but are just one example of the deeper readings that episodes of The Twilight Zone provide.
Once you’re indoctrinated: The Twilight Zone: The Movie
It’s not strictly part of the classic series, but it sure as Serling was influenced by it. Released in 1983, it’s a movie of four parts — three remakes of previous Twilight Zone episodes, one a new story — and comes via four directors: John Landis, George Miller, Joe Dante, and Steven Spielberg. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s Spielberg’s episode (a remake of “Kick The Can”) that serves as the movie’s weakest link, but it’s more than made up for with Dante’s trippy version of “It’s a Good Life” and Miller’s interpretation of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”.
It’s also a movie that has earned a curious place in The Twilight Zone history: its production actually caused the death of one of its main stars. “Time Out” actor Vic Morrow, along with two child extras, were killed when a helicopter stunt went wrong, causing legal action that stretched throughout Hollywood for almost a decade, and resulted in an overhaul of child labour laws and stunt safety, both of which were skirted around by members of the crew. A morbid footnote, certainly, and an incident that has lent its own bizarre twist to a universe that provided more than its share, influencing a generation and genre alike.