Ranking the Twilight Zone

I’m engaged in a noble project with my twelve-year old daughter: watching every single Twilight Zone episode and ranking them. We watch and run them through a rubric to give them a score from 0 to 7. The episodes are graded in three categories: Concept/Plot/Characters (4 points), Tone (1 point), and The Twist (2 points). As before, we’re going to run them through a rubric to give them a score. I think this time out, we will also add a notation to each episode to place it in a “theme” category. By this, I mean Twilight Zone episodes tend to fall into one of a number of themes (aliens, dolls, airplanes, etc.), and we’ll begin tracking those here.

The episodes this time were from Volume 11 and 39 of the DVD collection.

On Thursday We Leave For Home (Season Four, 1963)
I’ve never seen any of the one-hour episodes from Season Four, but have read that they tend to be fairly boring–feeling for the most part like a half-hour episode stretched out to cover the extra running time. But I didn’t find that to be true in this case. The episode is about a colony of 130 or so people who set out on a mission to settle a new world, but instead crash landed on a barren planet with two suns that is barely habitable. Led by Captain Benteen, whose unquestioned leadership has kept them alive for thirty years in the harsh environment, a rescue ship is finally coming to retrieve them. But when the ship arrives, giving them three days to pack their belongings, Captain Benteen finds his people no longer need him.
Concept/Plot/Characters—The Captain Benteen character is perfectly written and played as a multi-dimensional man who has for decades led a group of desperate people with both discipline and compassion, only to find that his role is no longer necessary, and is unable to adjust to his lowered status. Colonel Sloan, the commander of the rescue ship, also comes across as a full character, treating Benteen with respect when he first arrives, but confronting him when Benteen tries to tell his people they must either stay together once they arrive back on Earth, or remain on the barren planet. Might have been nice to develop some of the colonists more fully. Great script, nicely plotted. (3.5 points)
The tone is bittersweet. Nice contrast in the hopefulness of the colonists who are about to get their long-dreamed of rescue and the confused bitterness of Captain Benteen, who’s losing the thing that gave his life meaning. (1 point)
The Twist–
I don’t think anybody watching this will be surprised by the twist, but sometimes there’s pleasure in simply watching the inevitable unfold. (1 point)
Distant Outpost
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

Living Doll (Season Five, 1963)
Ooh, here’s a real classic. Telly Savalas plays Erich Streator, a man with a strained relationship with his wife, Annabelle, and his step-daughter, Christie, whom he resents because he and Annabelle can’t have children of their own. Annabelle brings home a new doll for Christie, Talky Tina, who says an inane little phrase when you wind her up–“My name is Talky Tina and I love you very much.” Upset because the doll was really expensive, Erich and Annabelle have an argument, and she and Christie flee the room. Alone with the doll, Erich lifts the doll and winds it up several times on a whim. Each time, the doll says alarming variations of its normal phrase–“My name is Talky Tina and I don’t like you,” and similar. Erich soon becomes obsessed with the doll, thinking at first Annabelle and Christie are playing a trick on him, but later believing the doll really hates him and wants to kill him. Of course, Annabelle thinks her husband has gone crazy, but he’s willing to go to almost any length to get rid of the doll, which keeps showing up no matter what he does to get rid of it.
Concept/Plot/Characters—I’ve seen this episode a number of times but what struck me on this viewing is how psychological it is. I mean, the episode goes out of its way to show the doll is real and not just part of Erich’s imagination, but it’s obviously his mean attitude towards his stepdaughter that’s fueling the doll in some way. The tension in the Streator household is well-developed, as is the growing horror of Erich over the doll. A beautifully twisted concept (“My name is Talky Tina and I’m going to kill you!”), great script, great acting. (4 points)
The tone the episode is aiming for is black humor, and it achieves it perfectly. (1 point)
The Twist–
The twist here is something you can see coming, but there’s fun in seeing just how it plays out. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)

Fever (Season One, 1960)
Franklin and Flora Gibbs, an elderly couple from a small town, have won a free three-day trip to Las Vegas. The glitz, the glamour! But as Franklin keeps reminding his wife every time she tries to have fun, the immorality and the waste of money! Then a man at a slot machine is called away by his wife, and insists Franklin spend his last silver dollar in the machine. With only one pull, Franklin is hooked, and by the next day he hasn’t left the slot machine, except to write checks for batch after batch of silver dollars. Whenever he steps away, the machine calls to him (literally, it calls out his name in a weird mechanical voice) to come back. He has the fever, and won’t leave the slot machine until the fever breaks.
Concept/Plot/Characters—There’s not a whole lot to this episode. Franklin is unlikable, his wife long-suffering, and I guess the idea is that Franklin is getting what he deserves. Mostly though, he seemed to sense he would have a weakness for gambling, and he was right. Not sure what the point is. Gambling is bad? But maybe only if you have a weakness for it? Or maybe the message is you should be nice to your wife on vacation. In any case, scene after scene of watching him pull the lever on the machine gets a little old. The actors do a good job with the script they’re given, so I’ll give a point for that. (1 point)
I think the tone here is supposed to be a kind of over-heated claustrophobia on the gaming floor of a casino, but it doesn’t hit the mark. (0 points)
The Twist–
The twist here is really dumb. (0 points)
Total=1 point (Avoid)

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