Everyone knows and loves The Twilight Zone.
Well, everyone knows The Twilight Zone. There are those who don’t love it. I’m thinking of that handful of Outer Limits nerds who think they know everything or those few Alfred Hitchcock Presents snobs who just don’t get it. Everyone else loves The Twilight Zone.
I love The Twilight Zone.
In my opinion, The Twilight Zone is the gold standard of television anthology series. So many great writers, so many great episodes; “Time Enough at Last,” “The After Hours,” “The Invaders,” “It’s A Good Life,” “Night Call,” “To Serve Man”. I’m just scratching the surface here. The show’s influence on popular culture is undeniable.
But The Twilight Zone was not always great or even always good and occasionally it was really bad. The trouble with an anthology series is that every episode starts anew with no familiar characters or plot lines. Each episode is an isolated story. Sometimes those stories soar and sometimes they just lay flat. Several Twilight Zone episodes just lay flat. With 300+ over the run of the series, that’s to be expected. They can’t all be gems.
I’m not saying these are the worst. I just think they’re bad.
The usual spoiler alerts apply.
Geek note: I’m not including episodes from the fourth season when the show expanded to an hour nor am I including the handful of 30-minute episodes that were not part of the original syndicated run. There are good and bad episodes scattered throughout that lot.
Here we go.
“The Odyssey of Flight 33“
This episode is not bad so much as it is entirely forgettable. A modern (early 60s) airplane on a routine flight begins accelerating for unknown reasons, passes through a strange cloud and is suddenly flying over the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The crew is confused and worried. After accelerating and passing through another strange cloud, they’re flying over primitively animated plastic dinosaurs.
The crew is confused and worried.
There’s some weird stuff going down here. They try to reassure the passengers. They speculate about what’s happening. Then they head into another strange cloud.
This entire episode attempts to wring drama out of several actors in a bad airplane set dealing with corny stock footage. It was probably a budgetary thing. In the end, nothing is resolved. There’s no explanation or reason why the plane is skipping through time. It just is.
A lazy outing all around.
“The Brain Center at Whipple’s”
Actor Richard Deacon (Mel on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”) is the heir to Whipple Industries. His father built the company from nothing and Whipple Jr. is determined to move it into the next century. Unfortunately, he is a heartless, inhuman butthole, the kind only Rod Serling could come up with.
Lacking an ounce of humanity, Whipple struts around his office, twirling his pocket watch by its chain and planning the complete automization of his plant. He begins by replacing swathes of Whipple employees with banks of bookcase-sized computers, complete with ultra-modern switches, flashing lights and reel-to-reel tapes.
Even the impassioned pleas of a laid off employee fail to move him. In a particularly overwrought scene the employee cries, “When you’re dead and buried, who will you get to mourn you?” Then the employee attacks one of the computer cabinets with an axe and Whipple shoots him…and gets away with it! Destruction of property or some such thing. And he feels no remorse.
Soon Whipple Jr. is the lone human at the factory, save for a computer technician assigned to continually check the computers for errors. Guess what? He has nothing to do. All the computers work perfectly. There are no problems.
Are you kidding me? If I spill a soda in the same room as my computer, it wipes out half of my hard drive.
Well usually it’s a beer, but you get the point.
The technician gets a dramatic scene with Whipple Jr. where he tries to explain the worth of humans, completely forgetting that Whipple Jr. is, as we’ve all come to learn, a butthole. Instead of shooting the technician, Whipple Jr. merely fires him.
In the end, Deus ex Machina style, the previously absent Board of Directors replaces Whipple Jr. with Robby the Robot who twirls a watch and talks of the automated future. Meanwhile, in the bar across the street from the factory where his former employees gather, Whipple Jr. repeats the words of the employee he shot and wounded in Act II, “It’s not fair.”
Oh the irony!
Rod Serling was a great writer, but I don’t think he had much faith in the human race. In an early Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” he suggests that aliens seeking to conquer Earth need only turn people’s car and porch lights on and off for twenty-three minutes to create homicidal panic in a typical American neighborhood.
I don’t think it would be quite that easy.
This episode, “The Shelter” is “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” on steroids.
Four couples are celebrating the birthday of their doctor, neighbor and friend, Dr. Birthday. Everything is jolly. In toasts, the neighbors rib Dr. Birthday for being so paranoid as to build a nuclear bomb shelter in his backyard. Everyone laughs. They’re friends. One couple is “mixed,” a Latino husband and an Anglo wife with a baby. Just like “I Love Lucy.” Not a problem.
Then Dr. Birthday’s son Little Johnny (yes, I’m making these names up) interrupts the birthday dinner with a broadcast on his transistor radio. The bombs are on their way. Doomsday is nigh.
Everyone goes berserk. They all want into the bomb shelter. With only room and provisions for three, Dr. Birthday tells the others to go home and prepare for the worst. Instead, the other couples turn into savages. They attack Dr. Birthday and his family and his shelter. They also turn on each other. The phrase “you people” rears its head in regard to the Latino husband.
In the end, at the very moment the neighbors have breached the steel door of the shelter, the radio reports a false alarm. Oops. The world isn’t going to disintegrate. The neighbors sheepishly apologize to one another, but they know (and we know) that things will never be the same.
My problem with this episode is its misanthropy, the notion that we’re all basically savages hiding under a thin veneer of civility. I don’t buy that. Fred (Mr.) Rogers said that in times of horrible tragedy, we should look to those who run in to help others. I think in Rod Serling’s world, the passengers of Flight 93 would have ignored the terrorists and killed each other.
“Cavender is Coming”
During the first season of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling wrote an episode that he hoped would serve as a pilot for a stand alone comedy series. The episode was called “Mr. Bevis” and starred Orson Bean as the title character, an eccentric young man who is visited by his guardian angel, character actor Henry Jones. Mr. Bevis likes kids and old cars and zither music. He’s a stock Serling eccentric. He drives a 1920 Maxwell. His landlady hates him because he’s behind in the rent. His boss hates him because, essentially, he’s a bad employee. Then his guardian angel swoops in and changes his life. Suddenly he’s successful with his boss and landlady and he drives a sports car. But the kids don’t like him anymore and there’s no zither music. Mr. Bevis eventually chooses to return to his old ways.
It’s not a great episode, but it’s not bad. The idea for the series was that each week, Jones’ angel character would intervene in a confused person’s life and set them straight.
CBS programmers, in a fit of sanity, turned the pilot down.
Undaunted, Serling basically re-made “Mr. Bevis” as this episode, “Cavender is Coming”. In this version, character actor Jesse White plays guardian angel Cavender. His charge is an eccentric young woman played by Carol Burnett. The kids love her, but her landlady and her boss do not. She’s behind on her rent and she’s a bad employee. She doesn’t love zither music but otherwise, the story is the same.
Cavender transforms her into a success, but she eventually chooses to return to her old ways, just like Mr. Bevis.
But wait! To make sure that the CBS executives knew that this was a comedy pilot, Serling added canned laughter, making this the only episode of The Twilight Zone with a laugh track.
It’s a mess. Burnett does her best, but the material is thin and the comedy bombastic. When Serling has her running headlong into a floor-to-ceiling mirror, it’s not so much funny as it is painful.
Wisely, CBS turned it down again.
Currently this episode runs on SyFy, MeTV and other channels with the laugh track removed.
It doesn’t help.
“Black Leather Jackets”
Alien invasion is a staple of science fiction. Infiltrate the human race, conquer the Earth. What could be simpler? This episode revolves around three alien scouts with world domination in mind. They’re from a distant and far advanced civilization, tasked with infiltrating Earth and ultimately paving the way for alien invasion. And how do they blend in? As black leather jacket wearing, motorcycle driving, no-account, juvenile delinquent types who buy a house in Hollywood back-lot suburbia.
That’s not going to attract attention.
In one room of the house, they install an array of giant computer cabinets complete with tubes, flashing lights and levers (not unlike Whipple Jr.’s). They talk to their leader, a single human eye projected on a futuristic cathode ray tube, also known as a television screen.
Eventually, the girl next door, Shelley Fabares and what appears to be the youngest alien fall in love and he learns through her that humans aren’t so “primitive” and need not be killed. Together they try to stop the nefarious plan whereby the aliens attempt to poison the neighborhood’s water supply. Or something like that. I don’t know. I think that Shelley and her new alien beau saved the day. Or not. Honestly, who cares?
This episode was written by Earl Hamner who went on to great fame and fortune as the creator of “The Waltons”. He wrote some terrific “Twilight Zone” episodes. This is not one of them.
The episode did feature a super groovy score by composer Van Cleave, so it wasn’t a total loss.
I await your comments.
P.S. Coming Soon: Five More Terrible Twilight Zone Episodes.