This month marks the 50th anniversary since the end of The Twilight Zone’s fifth and final season (“The Bewitchin’ Pool”, the last new episode, aired on June 19th, 1964, though the series remained in reruns throughout that summer). So how to celebrate this lamentable occasion? A roundup of favorite titles like “The Howling Man”, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” could be in order. But that seems a bit too predictable for a show renowned for its twists, doesn’t it? Instead, let’s explore ten of the most underrated episodes from the horror/sci-fi series that changed television forever.
Why It’s Probably Overlooked: The controversy inspired by the episode—complaints poured in over its reference to a treasonous Japanese immigrant at Pearl Harbor—caused the network to pull it shortly after broadcast, and the episode never went into syndication.
Why It Should Be Remembered: Well, the inimitable George Takei for one. Pre-Sulu, he starred in this episode as a Japanese-American gardener who faces off with a lonely former soldier who fought in the Pacific. Both men harbor secrets about the war, and naturally, by the time it’s over, they’ve divulged every despondent detail. At the center of the episode is the supernatural sword that inspires them to turn on each other, even if they don’t want to. “The Encounter” explores the perils of xenophobia and cowing to authority, issues just as salient today as they were after World War II. A taut tale from opening shot to Banzai final scene, this is not the “happily ever after” variety of The Twilight Zone, but it’s a story worth trekking through (see what I did there?).
Why It’s Probably Overlooked: Who’s up for spending twenty-five minutes with an unrepentant Nazi general? Anyone? Anyone?
Why It Should Be Remembered: Serling was always on top of his game when the episodes contained overt political tones, and these post-World War II themes were still very recent memories for many in the early 1960s. When German General Gunther Lutze—with a name like that, you know he’s going to be evil—returns to Dachau concentration camp to reminisce, he meets Becker, one of the Jewish men he used to torture (and as it turns out, killed). So begins Lutz’s descent into purgatory, a place the audience figures he will reside for a long, long time. Atmospheric and unrelenting, this is a dark tale of revenge, but one that leaves the viewer as satisfied as anything so closely based in macabre realism possibly could.
Come Wander with Me
Why It’s Probably Overlooked: The surreal style, dated slang, and nonsensical plot might be somewhat off-putting for modern viewers.
Why It Should Be Remembered: Two words: Bonnie Beecher.
As naïve country girl Mary Rachel, the stunning Beecher dominates every scene with such an ethereal vibe you can almost believe she dropped out of the sky from an alternate dimension. Add to the mix the fact she can sing a folk song like a pro—which makes perfect sense when you realize she hung out with frickin’ Bob Dylan before he was famous, and she even served as the inspiration for his tune, “Girl From the North Country”. Her music cred cuts so deep that she can lay claim to being involved with the original Woodstock, mostly due to her longtime marriage to famed folk oddball Wavy Gravy. This girl was involved in everything during the 1960s—she even costarred in an episode of Star Trek—and chances are you’ve never even heard her name before this article.
Still, you don’t need her sterling credentials to become completely enchanted with her small screen persona. In “Come Wander with Me”, Bing Crosby’s no-name son plays the so-called hero Floyd Burney, a cad of extraordinary proportions, and though his performance is passable, he pales in the presence of Beecher. Directed by Richard Donner, this episode is difficult to wrap your head around, and parts of it make downright no sense, but that’s okay. If nothing else, it’s the only entry in The Twilight Zone canon that boasts an eponymous song you’ll be whistling long after the credits roll. Haunting indeed.
Spur of the Moment
Why It’s Probably Overlooked: The soap operatic love triangle and morose tone from start to finish blight an otherwise fascinating exploration of regret and time travel, two motifs that dovetail far better than you’d think.
Why It Should Be Remembered: The final season of The Twilight Zone is sometimes regarded as more hit-or-miss than the first three seasons (due to a format change, the fourth was just an overlong, hot mess). But that doesn’t mean the series didn’t pull out all the stops for its big finish. Richard Matheson penned this story of equestrian Anne Henderson who takes her horse for a ride around her family’s illustrious property, only to be chased by a seemingly malevolent figure in black. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear this harbinger was trying to warn the young woman not to marry the wrong man. As you can guess, she doesn’t recognize the admonition and condemns herself to repeat the moment over and over again.
On closer examination, “Spur of the Moment” makes a perfect companion piece to “Come Wander with Me”. Mostly forgotten, both episodes deal with time-as-a-mobius-strip themes and spotlight fascinating female characters who are doomed endlessly to relive their tragedies. Assuming the dual roles of Anne, at both 18 and 43, Diana Hyland demonstrated her acting prowess with aplomb, even if it is obvious she enjoys the darker version of her character better. Perhaps most heartrending, in real-life, Hyland didn’t live as long as her character, succumbing to breast cancer at age forty-one. A tragic end to a young life and promising career.
Why It’s Probably Overlooked: Contrived and maudlin, the performances and the dialogue are far below the series’ standard, and the “poor Mexican village” stock setting feels dated and insensitive in retrospect.
Why It Should Be Remembered: Mawkish (and offensive) moments aside, this allegorical tale does have some marginal appeal. Fear of the “Other” is on full display as a Christ-like alien arrives to offer humanity a gift but finds himself attacked from every angle by the terrified villagers. Things don’t get better from there. But it’s the contents of a metal case—the titular offering—that leaves the torch-toting mob crestfallen and ashamed for their actions. Another episode written by Serling himself, “The Gift” moves slowly, sometimes sluggishly, but this is a rare example of the series exploring religious themes without reducing them to a punch line (remember the episode where the two leads turn out to be Adam and Eve? Yeah, that was sad.) However, truth be told, when I re-watched this episode recently, I realized I enjoyed it much more when I was a kid. Serling endeavors to say that small town small mindedness is the same everywhere—whether it’s in America or another country—but his success here is certainly up for interpretation. If you haven’t seen the episode, watch and decide for yourself.
What are your favorite episodes?