When The Twilight Zone arrived on October 2, 1959, Gunsmoke was the most-watched series in primetime, and three of the top five shows were westerns. The Danny Thomas Show led the sitcom category, The Red Skelton Show topped variety, The Price is Right was a game show favorite, and Raymond Burr as legal eagle Perry Mason was busy winning cases.
In other words, there was nothing like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone ever before … or ever since.
The lasting appeal of the series has led to a feature film in 1983, literature, games, toys, a magazine, a theme park attraction, a radio show, stage productions, and three revival series to date (among other things). The latest reboot comes from Jordan Peele and has been renewed for a second season on streamer CBS All Access.
Of course, nothing can top the original, and choosing your favorite installment of the classic anthology series is no easy feat. There were 156 episodes in its original five-season run on CBS from 1959 to 1964, all beginning with those classic words spoken by creator and writer Rod Serling: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
With those words in mind, the following is a ranking of my 10 favorite episodes, beginning with No. 10 and working my way up to No. 1. Did your favorite make the list? Please visit the Considerable Facebook page to chime in with your picks.
There are major spoilers here. If you haven’t watched the show but plan to, you might want to bookmark this and come back after your Twilight Zone binge is complete.
10. “The After Hours” (original airdate: June 10, 1960)
Opening narration by Rod Serling:
“Express elevator to the ninth floor of a department store, carrying Miss Marsha White on a most prosaic, ordinary, run-of-the-mill errand. Miss Marsha White on the ninth floor, specialties department, looking for a gold thimble. The odds are that she’ll find it — but there are even better odds that she’ll find something else, because this isn’t just a department store. This happens to be The Twilight Zone.”
Browsing for a gift for her mother, Marsha White (Anne Francis) decides on a gold thimble. After getting in the elevator, she arrives on the ninth floor, which is odd because the elevator’s floor indicator only shows eight floors. There she finds an empty floor and a saleslady who guides her to the only item on sale: a gold thimble.
Returning to the main floor, she notices the thimble is scratched. But when she goes to complain she is told there is no ninth floor. Spotting the saleswoman who sold her the thimble, Marsha is horrified to learn that the figure is a mannequin. Visibly upset, she is taken to a private office where she falls asleep.
Upon awakening, she learns that the store is closed and she can’t get out. As she wanders in the dark, she hears voices talking to her, which seem to be a room filled with mannequins. One by one they come to life, including the saleslady, as she suddenly remembers that she too is a mannequin.
Apparently, each mannequin is allowed a month-long temporary stay with humans, but Marsha forgot her true identity.
Closing narration by Rod Serling:
“Marsha White, in her normal and natural state, a wooden lady with a painted face who, one month out of the year, takes on the characteristics of someone as normal and as flesh and blood as you and I. But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it, just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street? A rather good question to ask . . . particularly in the Twilight Zone.”
Anne Francis starred in ABC crime drama Honey West in the 1965-66 TV season, which was the first TV series with a female detective character’s name in the title.
9. “Little Girl Lost” (March 16, 1962)
“Missing: one frightened little girl. Name: Bettina Miller. Description: six years of age, average height and build, light brown hair, quite pretty. Last seen being tucked in bed by her mother a few hours ago. Last heard: ‘ay, there’s the rub,’ as Hamlet put it. For Bettina Miller can be heard quite clearly, despite the rather curious fact that she can’t be seen at all. Present location? Let’s say for the moment… in the Twilight Zone.”
When Chris Miller (Robert Sampson) discovers his daughter is missing, he summons the help of his friend Bill (Charles Aidman), a physicist. Ultimately, the family dog also goes missing and Bill suspects they have fallen through a portal into another dimension after he puts his hand through what should have been a solid wall.
When Chris reaches through the wall hoping to grab Tina (Tracy Stratford), he ultimately moves forward halfway through the hole and finds himself in the fourth dimension, which is an abstract, crystalline landscape that seems distorted, and constantly turning upside down and sideways (reminiscent of the “Upside Down” on Netflix’s Stranger Things).
Despite Chris’ perception that he was standing on his own in this new dimension, Bill was holding onto Chris the entire time. Bill tells Chris to hurry because the portal is closing. “Another few seconds, and half of you would have been here, and the other half…,” he says.
Ultimately, Chris saves his daughter and the family dog. But this “fourth dimension” remains one of the many unsolved mysteries in The Twilight Zone.
“The other half where? The fourth dimension? The fifth? Perhaps. They never found the answer. Despite a battery of research physicists equipped with every device known to man, electronic and otherwise, no result was ever achieved, except perhaps a little more respect for and uncertainty about the mechanisms of the Twilight Zone.”
Tracy Stratford also appeared in the episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Living Doll.” See ranking No. 4 below.
8. “A Stop at Willoughby” (May 6, 1960)
“This is Gart Williams, age 38, a man protected by a suit of armor all held together by one bolt. Just a moment ago, someone removed the bolt, and Mr. Williams’ protection fell away from him, and left him a naked target. He’s been cannonaded this afternoon by all the enemies of his life. His insecurity has shelled him, his sensitivity has straddled him with humiliation, his deep-rooted disquiet about his own worth has zeroed in on him, landed on target, and blown him apart. Mr. Gart Williams, ad agency exec, who in just a moment, will move into the Twilight Zone — in a desperate search for survival.”
Riding home on the train after a difficult day at work, Gart Williams (James Daly) has a dream that he is on a very different train to a happy little town called Willoughby in July 1880. According to the conductor, “Willoughby is a place where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.” When he tells his wife (Patricia Donahue), she ridicules him, declaring her marriage a “miserable tragic error.”
The next week, Williams, feeling particularly pressured, dozes off on the train and returns to Willoughby. But the commuter train has come to a full stop. The conductor of the 1960 train explains to the engineer that Williams “shouted something about Willoughby” before jumping off the train. He was killed instantly. Williams’ body is loaded into a hearse, which on the back door reveals the name of the funeral home as Willoughby & Son.
“Willoughby? Maybe it’s wishful thinking nestled in a hidden part of a man’s mind, or maybe it’s the last stop in the vast design of things — or perhaps, for a man like Mr. Gart Williams, who climbed on a world that went by too fast, it’s a place around the bend where he could jump off. Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity, and is a part of The Twilight Zone.”
James Daly played Dr. Paul Lochner on 1969 to 1976 CBS medical drama Medical Center. His children, Tyne Daly and Tim Daly, are also actors, of course.
7. “The Hitch-Hiker” (Jan. 22, 1960)
“Her name is Nan Adams. She’s 27 years old. Her occupation: buyer at a New York department store. At present on vacation, driving cross-country to Los Angeles, California from Manhattan…Minor incident on Highway 11 in Pennsylvania. Perhaps, to be filed away under ‘accidents you walk away from.’ But from this moment on, Nan Adams’ companion on a trip to California will be terror. Her route: fear. Her destination: quite unknown.”
On a trip from New York to Los Angeles, a woman named Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) keeps seeing the same mysterious man thumbing for a ride. Frightened by him, Nan tries to run him over but is told by a sailor to whom she has given a lift that there is no hitch-hiker. When she calls home, she finds out that her mother has had a nervous breakdown following the death of her daughter six days earlier in an automobile accident in Pennsylvania. Strangely unaffected, Nan returns to her car where she sees the hitch-hiker (Mr. Death) again and now understands why he is there.
“Nan Adams, age 27. She was driving to California; to Los Angeles. She didn’t make it. There was a detour… through the Twilight Zone.”
“The Hitch-Hiker” was the only episode of The Twilight Zone to be adapted from a radio play. In 1941, Rod Serling heard the original broadcast of “The Hitch-Hiker” on The Mercury Theater on the Air with Orson Welles in the lead, which is the basis of this episode.
6. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (October 11, 1963)
“Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, 37, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home — the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.”
Three seasons before debuting as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, William Shatner guest-starred in this episode of The Twilight Zone as Bob Wilson, who while on an airplane sees a bulky, furry creature land on the wing of the plane. The creature is a gremlin and it is trying to sabotage one of the engines. Unfortunately, the gremlin flies out of sight when Wilson summons his wife or the flight attendant. Wilson realizes he must act alone and removes a pistol from a sleeping police office on the plane. He opens the emergency door and shoots the gremlin.
After landing, Wilson is taken away on a gurney in a straitjacket. But the final scene reveals damage to the exterior of one of the aircraft’s engines, confirming that he was right all along about the gremlin.
“The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer… though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.”
William Shatner won two Emmy Awards as Supporting Actor in a Drama Series as the same character, Denny Crane, on two different series. The first was drama The Practice in 2004, followed by spin-off Boston Legal in 2005.
5. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (March 4, 1960)
“Maple Street, U.S.A., late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice cream vendor. At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 P.M. on Maple Street…This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street in the last calm and reflective moment — before the monsters came.”
When the lights go out on Maple Street, a local boy named Tommy suggests that human-looking aliens have invaded their normally happy street. Naturally, the reaction to that theory is immediate disbelief. But when one of the resident’s cars inexplicably starts up, suspicion suddenly falls on him.
Before long, the residents of Maple Street have turned on each other, pointing fingers and accusing people they’ve known for years of being traitors. Suddenly, when a shadowy figure carrying a hammer is seen walking toward them, another neighbor grabs a shotgun and kills the man, thinking it is the alien. Instead, it is another neighbor and panic ensues as the lights on various houses begin to flash on and off.
From nearby, it is revealed the shadow that flew overhead is, indeed, an alien spaceship. One alien explains to the other that manipulating electricity is an easy way to turn these neighbors against each other. They also discuss their intention to use this strategy to conquer Earth, one neighborhood at a time.
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, and prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
Claude Akins, who played neighbor Steve Brand, is remembered for his regularly scheduled roles on three NBC series: Sonny Pruitt on Movin’ On from 1974 to 1976, and Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo on both B.J. and the Bear from 1978 to 1979 and spin-off The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo from 1979 to 1981.
4. “Living Doll” (Nov. 1, 1963)
“Talky Tina, a doll that does everything, a lifelike creation of plastic and springs and painted smile. To Erich Streator, she is the most unwelcome addition to his household — but without her, he’d never enter the Twilight Zone.”
Ten years before his signature role, Lt. Theo Kojak on CBS crime drama Kojak, Telly Savalas played Erich Streator on The Twilight Zone, a man tormented by his stepdaughter’s doll, Talky Tina. When the doll makes murderous intentions only to Erich when he is alone (including threats like “I hate you” and “I am going to kill you”), Erich attempts to destroy the doll. But the doll ultimately wins out in the end, as Erich sustains fatal injuries after tripping over Talky Tina and falling down the stairs.
When Erich’s wife Annabelle (Mary LA Roche) picks up the toy, the doll opens her eyes and says, “My name is Talky Tina…and you’d better be nice to me!” Annabelle drops the doll in horror, now realizing that her husband had been telling the truth.
“Of course, we all know dolls can’t really talk, and they certainly can’t commit murder. But to a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian. Especially a doll like Talky Tina, who did talk and did commit murder — in the misty region of the Twilight Zone.”
The voice supplied for Talky Tina was June Foray, who was also the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel.
3. “The Invaders” (January 27, 1961)
“This is one of the out-of-the-way places, the unvisited places, bleak, wasted, dying. This is a farmhouse, handmade, crude, a house without electricity or gas, a house untouched by progress. This is the woman who lives in the house, a woman who’s been alone for many years, a strong, simple woman whose only problem up until this moment has been that of acquiring enough food to eat, a woman about to face terror, which is even now coming at her from — The Twilight Zone.”
Three years before beginning her classic role as Endora on sitcom Bewitched, Agnes Moorehead appeared on The Twilight Zone as an impoverished elderly woman living in a cabin who spots what she thinks is a flying saucer on her roof. Two tiny figures, who she believes are aliens, emerge and attack the woman with pistol-like weapons. Eventually she catches one of the intruders and destroys him.
Ultimately, we hear the surviving intruder explain that is partner his dead and that the planet is inhabited by a “race of giants” that cannot be defeated. When the camera pans to the side of the so-called flying saucer, it reads U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1. The twist: These “invaders” were regular sized human beings who stumbled upon this woman who happens to belong to a race of giant humanoids from another planet.
As the episode concludes, the woman finishes destroying the ship and then climbs back down from the roof into the house.
“These are the invaders, the tiny beings from the tiny place called Earth, who would take the giant step across the sky to the question marks that sparkle and beckon from the vastness of the universe only to be imagined. The invaders…who found out that a one-way ticket to the stars beyond has the ultimate price tag…and we have just seen it entered in a ledger that covers all the transactions in the universe…a bill stamped ‘Paid in Full’ and to be found on file in the Twilight Zone.”
Agnes Moorehead had the distinction of appearing in five Best Picture Oscar nominees: Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Since You Went Away (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) and How the West Was Won (1962).
2. “Eye of the Beholder” (Nov. 11, 1960)
“Suspended in time and space for a moment, your introduction to Miss Janet Tyler, who lives in a very private world of darkness, a universe whose dimensions are the size, thickness, length of a swatch of bandages that cover her face. In a moment we’ll go back into this room and also in a moment we’ll look under those bandages, keeping in mind, of course, that we’re not to be surprised by what we see because this isn’t just a hospital, and patient 307 is not just a woman. This happens to be The Twilight Zone, and Miss Tyler, with you, is about to enter it.”
Prior to debuting as Elly May Clampett on CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, Donna Douglas guest-starred on The Twilight Zone as Janet Tyler, a woman initially hidden behind bandages who has just undergone her 11th — and final — treatment to look normal.
Described by the nurses and a doctor (who are hidden in the shadows or off-camera) as a “pitiful twisted lump of flesh,” we don’t actually see Janet’s face until the bandages are removed.
When Janet’s face is finally revealed, the procedure has “failed.” Her beautiful face is a stark comparison to the others in the hospital known for their sunken eyes, thick eyebrows swollen and twisted lips, and wrinkled noses with extremely large nostrils. Distraught by the failure of the procedure, Janet runs through the hospital until a traditionally handsome man named Walter Smith (Edson Stroll) arrives to take her to a village of her “own kind,” where her “ugliness” will not trouble the State.
“Now the questions that come to mind: ‘Where is this place and when is it?’ ‘What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?’ You want an answer? The answer is it doesn’t make any difference, because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life — perhaps out amongst the stars — beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone.”
Donna Douglas recreated her classic role of Elly May Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies in an episode of CBS sitcom The Nanny in 1999.
1. “Time Enough at Last” (Nov. 20, 1959)
“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself, without anyone at all.”
Seven years before his debut as villain The Penguin on 1960s camp classic Batman, Burgess Meredith made an equally relevant impact in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Meredith played Henry Bemis, a henpecked little nebbish who loves to read but is constantly badgered about it. When he suddenly finds himself as the only survivor of a nuclear war, Henry now has all the time in world to read as much as he wants. But just as he bends down to pick up a book at the local library, he stumbles, and his glasses fall off and shatter.
“That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was — was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” He screams and screams, surrounded by books he now can never read.
“The best laid plans of mice and men… and Henry Bemis… the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis… in the Twilight Zone.”
Burgess Meredith was the second choice for the role of the Penguin on Batman. The first was Spencer Tracy.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order)
“The Dummy” (May 4, 1962), “A Game of Pool” (October 13, 1961), “It’s a Good Life” (November 3, 1961), “Long Distance Call” (March 31, 1961), “The Midnight Sun” (November 17, 1961), “To Serve Man” (March 2, 1962), “Walking Distance” (October 30, 1959), “Where is Everybody?” (October 2, 1959), “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (May 26, 1961).
Marc Berman is the founder and Editor-in-Chief for Programming Insider. He also covers the broadcasting landscape, at present, for Forbes.com, Watch!, Newspro and C21 Media in London. His prior pieces have appeared in Campaign US, The New York Daily News, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The Los Angeles Times and Emmy Magazine, among other outlets.