Everyone knows that Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone television series, running five seasons on CBS from 1959 to 1964, was the greatest television show ever created. At least, it’s hoped they know that. Such was the cultural impact of the show (Serling introducing episodes in a dark suit, cigarette firmly planted between his fingers, the spooky theme music, the trademark TZ twist ending), that it has been revisited twice with separate revival series: one that ran for two seasons on CBS starting in 1985 and then in syndication for a further year, and another on UPN that ran for one season starting in 2002.
Both series have their ups and downs, but the 1985 run is the stronger of the two. It was created during a resurgence of anthology TV shows, such as Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, and a redo of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. No less than Harlan Ellison was involved as creative consultant, wanting the new Twilight Zone to be writer-driven like the original. Writers for the show included George R.R. Martin, David Gerold, J. Michael Straczynski, George Clayton Johnson and others. It also drew in a lot of directing talent, from the likes of Wes Craven, William Friedkin, Tommy Lee Wallace, John Milius, Martha Coolidge, Atom Egoyan and more. The 2002 series didn’t have as good a pedigree… but it did have Forest Whitaker delivering the opening and closing narrations, digitally inserted into the scenes.
So, submitted for your approval: 20 of the best episodes from the other Zones.
#10 – Button, Button (1986)
Whenever I used to think back to the 80’s Twilight Zone, this episode would invariably be the first to come to mind. It is such an off-kilter production, but not in the way it is shot or the script, which is a pretty straight-forward scenario, written by Richard Matheson, where a poor couple is given a box with a button on top. If they push it, someone they don’t know will die, and they get $200,000, tax-free.
No, the reason why this one lingers in the mind is due mostly because of the entirely weird performances of the two leads. Brad Davis as Arthur Lewis is a milquetoast who stutters incessantly, and Mare Winningham gives such a sneering performance as his wife Norma, you’d be forgiven for thinking that she mistakenly believed they were still in rehearsals when the camera was rolling. Pitch-perfect in his role, though, is Basil Hoffman as the mysterious Mr. Steward. The whole show rides on his final line, and he executes it with perfect ominousness.
#9 – The Shadow Man (1985)
The atmosphere is perfectly spooky in this one, as the Shadow Man slides up with oily menace from under young Danny Hayes’ bed, complete with raspy breathing and a laboured whisper. Every night he slinks out the window to do his nefarious deeds, but don’t worry: he promises Danny, “I’ll never harm the person, under whose bed I live”.
The whole endeavour is wonderfully realized, under the assured direction of genre darling Joe Dante. This wasn’t Dante’s first kick at the can with Twilight Zone; he also directed the It’s a Good Life segment in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. Sure, you might see the ending to The Shadow Man stalking up Broadway, but it’s still a twist worthy of the best Serling grim morality tales.
#8 – The Pool Guy (2002)
Lou Diamond Phillips plays the title role, a guy who keeps having dreams where he is shot by the same man, and then wakes up in terror. I have to admit that I have a soft spot for strange stories about dreams, and this one unfurls nicely without unravelling. It owes a lot to the disquieting scripts of original TZ writer Charles Beaumont, with a little Phillip K. Dick thrown in for good measure. One of the joys of The Twilight Zone is watching an actor really sink their teeth into the situation, and Lou Diamond Phillips goes for broke here.
#7 – Dead Run (1986)
A man in tough straits looks to an acquaintance for work. Turns out the job is trucking the damned to Hell.
Dead Run has a simple premise. As the episode rolls on, however, its philosophies about the nature of death and sin become more and more penetrating. Again, this is a story that uses the cover of the fantastic to make some incredibly pointed social commentary, especially towards the end. It’s also interesting to spot not one, but two future Star Trek: The Next Generation alum: John de Lancie (Q) as the manager of Hell, and Brent Spiner (Lt. Cmdr. Data) as a “sinner” being hauled to his fate. Include Barry Corbin’s uncomfortable resemblance to a latter-day Jonathan Frakes, and you have a Trek threesome.
The show loses its footing at the end a bit when it comes to deciding who deserves Hell and who is saved, but that doesn’t dilute its ultimate condemnation of those that would judge based on all-to-human prejudices.
#6 – Little Boy Lost (1985)
Going just by the title, you might think this is another reboot of an original TZ episode. It must be a retelling of Richard Matheson’s Little Girl Lost from Serling’s original run, only with a boy trapped in another dimension instead of a girl, right? Wrong. This is much more than that, although when you think about it… this episode kind of is a retelling of that story, from a different angle.
A photographer at a crossroads in her life meets a young boy supposedly on an assignment, who turns out to have a very special meaning for her. This production is firing on all cylinders: great performances from the two leads, a strong narrative about choices made and possibilities lost, powerful intro/outro narration, and a beautiful musical score. Two things that don’t quite work: the boyfriend comes off as a selfish jerk that no career woman would want to settle down with, and one can’t shake the feeling that women are being guilt-tripped over their choices in life. Of course, the fact that a TV show in 1985 addresses the issue of a woman’s right to choose, even in an oblique way, is something pretty special.
#5 – One Night at Mercy (2002)
Here’s an interesting casting choice: Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander as Death, who is just fed up with all the dying. He’s a joy to watch here, giving his portrayal of the Grim Reaper just a bit of snark paired with world-weary resignation. The whole thing has a feeling of inevitability, as sure as death and taxes, but mostly death. The episode also drives home its point with a harrowing demonstration of how necessary Death is in the natural order of things.
#4 – The Toys of Caliban (1986)
This episode has been referred to as the sequel to the original TZ episode It’s a Good Life, but it’s really not. They actually did that for real in the 2002 revival series as It’s Still a Good Life… and its omission from this list should be noted.
The Toys of Caliban is about a mentally challenged young man who can summon objects by looking at a picture of them, and the struggle of his aging parents to protect him from the world… and the world from him. I might say that this is my favourite episode from the 80’s TZ, but favourite isn’t the right word. The George R. R. Martin-penned teleplay is fairly brutal to watch, at times both terrifying and soul-crushingly sad. Richard Mulligan and Anne Haney play the parents, and you can see desperation oozing from their very pores. It’s grim and unrelenting, but also fascinating to contemplate.
#3 – Upgrade (2002)
Another high-concept story: a woman moves into a new house, and members of her family start being replaced and no one else notices the difference. Dripping with the same creeping paranoia you’ll find in some original TZ episodes, Upgrade deftly explores the notion of elements of your life being suddenly replaced, and contains the smoothest, neatest Serling-esque twist out of the 2002 series. One might even think they threw in a bit of Night Gallery as well, Rod Serling’s 70’s follow-up to his first series.
#2 – Nightcrawlers (1985)
This is as unflinching a portrayal of the horrors of the Vietnam war that you were likely to get on 80’s television. Under the direction of William Friedkin, of The French Connection and The Exorcist fame, the intensity builds masterfully as a Vietnam veteran stops at a roadside diner, and appears to have brought an unusual ability back from the war. Based on a short story by Robert R. McCammon, the violence that explodes at the end of the episode helps punctuate the force of this worthy entry in the anti-war Twilight Zone canon.
#1 – Her Pilgrim Soul (1985)
Another one helmed by Wes Craven, this episode presents the tale of two scientists who discover a human fetus floating in the field of their revolutionary holographic projector. Becoming a little girl, she grows at an accelerated rate, aging 10 years every day. Investigating her background, the scientists discover she was a real woman who lived in the 1920’s, and that she has a particular relationship with one of them, Dr. Drayton.
I’ve spent a lot of time on this list professing my love of the unsettling premise, the ominous tone, the creeping paranoia, the twist ending. But what we have here is a straight-up ghost story, married with a science-fiction theme. Usually, you’d use atmospheric locales to tell such a story, maybe a creaky old house on a remote moor. Here, everything mostly plays out in the bright lights of a laboratory. It’s up to the actors to create the atmosphere, and the wonder and pain shine through in their performances. Intricately crafted, Her Pilgrim Soul holds its cards close to its chest until the ending, which surprises but also feels completely natural. It is perhaps Twilight Zone‘s most human episode.
These are the best of what TV had to offer in The Twilight Zone, outside of Serling’s classic original. Some honourable mentions, which are all worth watching for various reasons: Memphis (2003), Shades of Guilt (2002), Need to Know (1986), The Call (1988), Shelter Skelter (1987), I of Newton (1985), A Message from Charity (1985), Monsters! (1986), Dead Woman’s Shoes (1985), The Once and Future King (1986), Wordplay (1985), Take My Life…Please! (1986), and Evergreen (2002).
Ken Levine of the Bioshock video games will be teaming up with Interlude to create an interactive film based on The Twilight Zone. But TZ also deserves another, big-budgeted TV revival that can attract high-octane talent and do things right by the legacy of Rod Serling, to deal with the pressing societal problems of today. Considering the rocky roads of the previous revival series, such a herculean task might only be possible… in the Twilight Zone.