The Stephanie Meyers of the world may come and go, but as fans of classic television will happily remind you, only one franchise will ever be truly deserving of the word “Twilight.” I refer, of course, to “The Twilight Zone,” that timeless anthology of the supernatural that premiered in 1959 and remained on the air for five seasons (156 episodes) before CBS unceremoniously yanked the plug. During that time, “The Twilight Zone” transformed television by dramatically increasing the quality of writing associated with the science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres. Led by Rod Serling – who, along with writing more than half of the show’s scripts, delivered the iconic deadpan narrations that accompanied each episode – the series provided an outlet for premiere writing talents of the time, including Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Montgomery Pittman, and Earl Hamner, Jr.
“The Twilight Zone” is also notable for managing to inject insightful political and social commentary into many of its stories. As producer Dick Berg later explained, one of the main reasons science fiction had such an appeal for Serling was that “he had much on his mind politically and in terms of social condition, and science fiction – and ‘Twilight Zone’ specifically – gave him as much flexibility in developing those themes as he might have had anywhere else at that time.” Although suppressed substantive political discussion was discouraged in most genres, televised science fiction was disregarded by censors as frivolous, enabling Serling to “do anything he wanted. He could do a story about Nazis, about racism in general, about economic plight, about whatever, and fit in within the [science fiction] framework.”
A lot of those stories hold up surprisingly well today. That is why, in honor of the SyFy Channel’s Fourth of July “Twilight Zone” marathon, I have listed what I believe to be the 10 best episodes for political and social commentary.
10. The Brain Center at Whipple’s (Season Five, May 15, 1964; Directed by Richard Donner, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Richard Deacon and Paul Newlan)
Helmed by Richard Donner – who, along with directing six “Twilight Zone” episodes (including the legendary “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner saw a gremlin on the wing of his airplane), would later go on to direct The Omen, Superman, and the Lethal Weapon movies – “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” takes aim at the human toll of excessive industrialization. It tells the story of Wallace Whipple, a smug business executive who proudly introduces new technologies to his factory that lay off thousands of workers in the name of the proverbial bottom line. An obvious commentary on the impact of automation on blue collar professionals throughout America, “Whipple” works mainly because it doesn’t succumb to the temptation to preach a downright Luddite point-of-view (something that always strikes me as disingenuous when coming from electronic media, which after all are only possible as a result of technological advances). Instead, it focuses on the need to make sure that technological innovations don’t place such an emphasis on profitability and efficiency that they sacrifice the dignity and welfare of human beings in the process. In light of the recent renaissance of interest in the works of Ayn Rand, this pro-working class message is more urgently required today than ever. Science fiction nerds will also appreciate an amusing cameo from Robby the Robot, of “Forbidden Planet” fame, at the end of the episode.
9. The Shelter (Season Three, September 29, 1961; Directed by Lamont Johnson, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Larry Gates and Jack Albertson)
In “The Shelter,” a boisterous birthday party for a beloved town doctor is suddenly interrupted by a radio announcement that informs the partygoers of an unidentified object heading toward their area and urges them to retreat as soon as possible to their bomb shelters. Because only the doctor had the foresight to actually build a shelter in advance, his neighbors naturally demand to be allowed inside so they can survive, ignoring his repeated assertions that his shelter was only built to sustain three people (himself, his wife, and his son) and violently disregarding their friendships both with him and each other in their mindless desire to protect themselves and their families. This episode contains Serling’s writing at its most unrelentingly cynical, bearing with it the unmistakable message that people who seem to care for each other on the surface can quickly disregard the bonds of loyalty and friendship once the impetus to remain civilized is stripped away. What makes the episode work so well is that Serling’s characterizations are so frighteningly convincing. It is easy to imagine people who are scared not only for their lives, but for the lives of their spouses and children behaving pretty much as depicted here. What’s worse, it is hard to imagine what we ourselves would do if confronted with the similar certainty of our impending demise. While we’d like to believe that we’d handle the situation at least a little better than the characters in “The Shelter,” it’s impossible to know for certain until we actually face their predicament. Our best bet, of course, is to simply hope that we never have to find out.
8. The Big Tall Wish (Season One, April 8, 1960; Directed by Ron Winston, Written
by Rod Serling, Starring Ivan Dixon and Steven Perry)
While the other episodes on this list are politically and/or socially conscious because of their stories, “The Big Tall Wish” is distinguished not by what it says, but by what it does. The tale itself is straightforward fantasy material – a little boy attempts to use magic to win a boxing match for an over-the-hill fighter he idolizes, but in order for his “big tall wish” to work, his hero also needs to believe in it. What makes this episode groundbreaking, however, is that Serling insisted on casting African Americans for all of the major parts, something that was practically unheard of for a dramatic show that didn’t deal explicitly with racial issues. As he explained at the time, “television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of a sin of omission … it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor.” This gesture would have made this episode special even if it had only been mediocre, but fortunately Ivan Dixon (as the boxer), Steven Perry (as the little boy), and Kim Hamilton (as the little boy’s mother) are absolutely wonderful in their roles, elevating an already strong script in the process. If you combined the story of “Rocky” with the childlike wonder of a Spielberg opus, it’s hard to imagine that you wouldn’t wind up with something an awful lot like “The Big Tall Wish.” That, combined with the historic decision to cast African American actors in roles that ignored their racial background instead of being defined by it, earns “The Big Tall Wish” a spot on this list.
7. He’s Alive (Season Four, January 24, 1963; Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Dennis Hopper and Curt Conway)
At first glance, “He’s Alive” seems like the godchild of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui,” a 1941 play that identified the fundamental thuggishness of Nazism by using the rise of a Chicago gangster as an analogy for the ascent of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich regime. To accomplish a similar goal, “He’s Alive” tells the story of an up-and-coming neo-Nazi in an unidentified American city, one who is greeted with contempt and widespread rejection until a mysterious admirer starts offering him pointers on the art of demagoguery (no prizes if you can guess the twist ending here). Unlike “Arturo Ui,” however, “He’s Alive” directly confronts the bigotry inherent in extreme right-wing ideology, a feat it accomplished so skillfully that it wound up on the receiving end of thousands of angry letters. “Serling and company were addressed as ‘commie bastards’ by some, while other literary wits characterized the Twilight Zone people as ‘kike lovers’ and ‘nigger lovers,'” an article in “The Twilight Zone Magazine” explains. “An organization called ‘Geo Politics’ offered the novel suggestion that ‘Jews should be put in gas ovens and niggers shipped back to Africa.'” It is easy to see why this episode provoked such rage – along with skewering direct racism, the episode bravely drew attention to the tendency of extreme right-wingers in America to win converts both by red-baiting and by conflating the idea of “liberty” with the vilification of specific ethnic minorities. Considering that it aired on the same day as George Wallace’s infamous “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech, “He’s Alive” couldn’t have been more timely.
6. The Obsolete Man (Season Two, June 2, 1961; Directed by Elliot Silverstein, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Burgess Meredith and Fritz Weaver)
Starring the inimitable Burgess Meredith, “The Obsolete Man” is a gripping dystopian nailbiter about a fascist state in which those whose professions have been deemed “obsolete” are systematically executed, often during live televised broadcasts. Serling incorporates elements of both the Hitler and Stalin varieties of tyranny into his fictional authoritarian nation, then extends their attributes to logical extremes. This episode is also notable for its distinctive aesthetic, which emphasized sharp corners, dramatic contrasts in shadowing, and Spartan set design similar to the German expressionist films of the twenties. What makes it really work, however, is the clever plotting. Serling throws not one but two major twists into his story, even while keeping his eye squarely planted on the main drama involving the effort of Meredith’s protagonist – a librarian who has been sentenced to death – to strike a symbolic blow for individual dignity and liberty against the overwhelming might of the state, as represented by Weaver’s bombastic Chancellor. All of this results in an exceptionally moving story. Television history buffs, meanwhile, might take note of the episode’s unique role in the development of that institution. After director Elliot Silverstein found himself in the midst of an unwanted power struggle with his editor over how to cut a climactic scene – one in which he, as the less powerful man within the network hierarchy, was ultimately forced to make significant compromises – he galvanized other writers and directors to “form a committee to assist the Guild to start taking positions with Management” that protected their rights as artists. Their efforts still help filmmakers maintain necessary creative control to this day.
5. Deaths-Head Revisited (Season Three, November 10, 1961; Directed by Don Medford, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Joseph Schildkraut and Oscar Beregi)
When “Deaths-Head Revisited” was first aired in the autumn of 1961, Holocaust awareness was beginning to increase in earnest throughout America. Although history textbooks still chose to either skim over the subject or ignore it completely, movies like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Exodus,” and “Judgment at Nuremberg” had been garnering critical acclaim and Academy Awards over the previous couple of years. “Deaths-Head Revisited” was part of this larger wave, using veteran actors Oscar Beregi and Joseph Schildkraut (who starred in “The Diary of Anne Frank” as the father of the titular character) to tell the story of a sadistic Nazi who returns to the Dachau concentration camp to reminisce about the good ol’ days, only to be haunted by his victims when he does so. What really stands out about this episode is the writing; although Serling, who was Jewish, was well-known to be passionate about this issue, the anger in his prose is quiet and mournful instead of explosive. During its memorable condemnation of the antagonist, it simply lists the atrocities to which he contributed: “Ten million human beings were tortured to death in camps like this. Men. Women. Children. Infants. Tired old men. You burned them in furances. You tore up their bodies in rage. And now you come back to your scenes of horror, and you wonder that the misery that you planted has lived after you?” While those who died during the Holocaust may not have been able to hold their oppressors to account, “Deaths-Head Revisited” contributed in its own small but important way to making sure that the memory of the injustice they suffered would never be forgotten.
4. Two (Season Three, September 15, 1961; Directed by Montgomery Pittman, Written by Montgomery Pittman, Starring Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery)
Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which a global war has wiped out most of humanity, “Two” tells the story of a man and a woman, neither of them ever named, who wander through the streets of a devastated city seeking the means of survival. Although they represent different sides in the erstwhile armed conflict (while the man is American and the woman is Russian, one senses they could represent any pair of warring nationalities), they find themselves as starved for companionship as they are for sustenance, forcing them to either learn how to trust each other or else continue their nations’ rivalries long after any rational cause for animosity has ceased. Told with minimal dialogue, the story here works exceptionally well because of the phenomenal performances by Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, the latter of whom played against type by appearing disheveled and brooding instead of glamorous and bubbly (although writer and director Montgomery Pittman was worried that she’d be unwilling to break her image, she was so dedicated to her craft that he ultimately had to discourage her from making herself too ugly in her part). Although obviously political with its message about the Cold War, “Two” is also something deeper. In the end, as it roots for our two protagonists to overcome their differences and establish a friendship (the possibility of romance, though hinted at, is wisely avoided), “Two” becomes less about geopolitics and more about the basic importance of empathy. More than anything else, this is a story about understanding how the other person feels.
3. Number Twelve Looks Just Like You (Season Five, January 24, 1964; Directed by Charles Beaumont, Written by Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin, Based on the short story “The Beautiful People” by Charles Beaumont, Starring Collin Wilcox and Suzy Parker)
In “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” a cerebral teenager named Marilyn Cuberle finds herself riddled with apprehension as she prepares to undergo her “transformation.” According to this future as conceived by Charles Beaumont, each person’s consciousness is transplanted into a “beautiful” body at the age of nineteen, ones that make them especially attractive, energetic, healthy … and disturbingly similar to everyone else around them. As Marilyn rebels against what she perceives as a loss of her individuality and identity (she is repeatedly reassured that the procedure is voluntary but intuits that this isn’t really the case), “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” makes several astute observations about American social trends that exist as prevalently today as they did in 1964, if not more so. Most prominent among them is the increasing objectification of human beings, with more and more of our perceived self-worth being tied into our physical appearance. Beneath that, however, there coils a sobering insight into the implications of our obsession not only with beauty, but with conformity on all levels. When Marilyn begins to buck the system, her depression and anxiety are viewed not as indicators of genuine discontent, but rather as signs of mental illness, to be treated with psychiatric help or a cup of Instant Smile. Likewise, when she suggests that she might prefer her “plain” features over beautiful ones because at least the former are uniquely her own, the paternalistic state laughs and assures her that it knows what’s in her own best interest – that she needs to undergo the procedure immediately because she can’t receive the surgery after the age of nineteen and, while she may be happy with her current body now, the state needs to make sure she doesn’t box herself in should she change her mind later. The message of “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” has only grown more relevant with the passage of time.
2. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street (Season One, March 4, 1960; Directed by Ron Winston, Written by Rod Serling, Starring Claude Akins and Jack Weston)
“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is similar to “The Shelter” in that both stories center around suburbanites who transform into a violent mob after an unidentified flying object is spotted over their community. Whereas the UFO in “The Shelter” was believed to be some sort of missile and the degeneration of the neighborhood occurred rapidly, however, the process of de-civilizing is much more gradual in “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” The inhabitants of Maple Street are at first merely curious about the UFO; it isn’t until their technology starts failing and they find themselves cut off from the rest of the world that their emotions become fearful, then panicked. More significant, however, is the fact that they are never entirely sure of what is attacking them. This volatile combination of uncertainty and anxiety breeds paranoid accusations, especially after a child unhelpfully suggests that the UFO might have been an alien spaceship and that one of the Maple Streeters could be an extraterrestrial disguised as a human. Soon everyone has a reason to suspect everyone else, with each neighbor’s past idiosyncrasies being used to raise eyebrows and recriminations piling upon recriminations.
If this seems like an allegory for McCarthyism, that’s because that’s exactly what “Maple Street”‘s creators intended. As Serling explains in his closing narration, “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout of its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn.” At a time when the Tea Party and other radical libertarian/right-wing groups are hysterically discovering sinister socialist designs in a thousand places, the final words of this episode remain as prescient as ever – i.e., that “the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
1. On Thursday We Leave For Home (Season Four, May 2, 1963; Directed by Buzz Kulik, Written by Rod Serling, Starring James Whitmore and Tim O’Conner)
Although one of the more obscure episodes in the franchise, “On Thursday We Leave For Home” contains not only some of the best writing in “The Twilight Zone,” but also some of the most profound political commentary ever aired on television. It tells the story of a colony of space explorers who have been stranded for thirty years on a desert planet with two suns, where life is grim, conditions are bleak, and the only thing keeping people from devolving into savagery or perishing altogether is the strong and wise leadership of Captain William Benteen. He is shown making sure that everyone pulls their weight, offering comfort during crises by waxing poetic about the beauty of earth, and inspiring hope by reiterating as often as necessary that a rescue ship must be on its way. When that ship does arrive, however, and Benteen’s leadership role is gradually diminished, he begins to feel that his very sense of purpose in life is under attack, ultimately responding in ways that threaten both his own welfare and that of his former wards.
What makes this episode work so well is the nuanced approach it takes toward the issue of political power. While it would have been easy to depict Benteen’s early leadership as flawed or his later corruption as somehow justifiable, Serling does neither of these things; his script makes it brutally clear that the survivors would have either died or been reduced to animals without Benteen’s guidance, and just as recognizable that the power which Benteen used to save them has morphed into an evil in its own right. It doesn’t offer the audience any convenient “lessons” from its story, but instead functions primarily as a character study that happens to be fraught with political meaning. James Whitmore’s performance is key here, as he seamlessly transitions from benevolent ruler to Machiavellian power-seeker, making it easy for the audience to perceive how quickly one can become the other. If you can only see one “Twilight Zone” in your lifetime, make sure it is this one.
There were plenty of episodes that I would have liked to have included on this list but which, for one reason or another, didn’t make the cut. Some weren’t explicitly political enough for me to feel they qualified (“In Praise of Pip” was the first televised program to criticize the Vietnam War, but only did so casually and not in a manner central to the plot); a few had their messages
marred by the racism of the time (such as the caricatures of Hispanics in “The Mirror” and “The Gift” or a reference to anti-Japanese Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories in “The Encounter”); and some, though very good, just didn’t quite stand out enough for me to feel they ranked among the top ten (including “A Quality of Mercy,” “Four O’Clock,” “I Am The Night – Color Me Black,” “The Little People,” and “The Old Man and the Cave”). Nevertheless, even the lesser “Twilight Zone” episodes leave enough of an impact to make one acutely appreciate the legacy of that program. By intelligently weaving political messages within fantastical genres, it paved the way for everything from the “Star Trek” series to the work of Joss Whedon. They are must-see viewing for anyone who likes good television … as well as for anyone who appreciates entertainment that has a social conscience.
Sources used for this article include “All the Little Hitlers,” a piece written by Hal Erikson for “The Twilight Zone Magazine” (October 1986), and “The Twilight Zone Companion: Second Edition” by Marc Scott Zicree.