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).
The episodes this time were from Volumes 5 and 29 of the DVD collection. I didn’t mean to have a theme this week, but I guess all the episodes seem to be about children in danger or trouble.
Long Distance Call (Season Two, 1961)
Billy (played by the series go-to for creepy kids, Billy Mumy, and who we’ll see again in Season 3’s It’s a Good Life), gets a visit from his grandmother on his fifth birthday. She dominates the birthday proceedings with her excessive affection for her grandson, and is eager for him to open her gift to him, a toy telephone. But Grandma is in ill health, and has a heart attack during the celebration. She dies later that evening.
Billy seems nonplussed by her death, but in the following days takes to talking on the toy telephone for hours every day. When a babysitter comes, he runs away and darts into the street when a car is coming. When questioned about his behavior, he says someone told him to do it, but won’t explain who. Could his behavior be connected somehow to the toy telephone?
Concept/Plot/Characters—You can easily see that writer Charles Beaumont probably came up with the premise from watching his own children play–what if a kid talking on his toy telephone really had somebody on the other end of the line?–and simply took it to its ultimate conclusion. Good dialogue and the plot is perfectly paced. Billy Mumy was a great child actor (and the adults are pretty good too). (3.5 points)
Tone–Pitch-perfect as we see the helplessness of the parents, worried about the safety of their child but unable to protect him. (1 point)
The Twist–Okay, so you can see the twist coming from a mile away. Sometimes that’s fine, if the twist is shocking and delivered with perfect timing, as it is here. (2 points)
Theme–Creepy Kids, Children in Danger, Telephones
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)
My daughter thought this one was Okay, but I disagree. I found it a truly eerie and Excellent episode, with more great acting from child actor Billy Mumy, who manages to be both a Creepy Kid and a Child in Danger simultaneously.
I Sing the Body Electric (Season Three, 1962)
This one was written by Ray Bradbury. The idea’s pretty simple. A visiting aunt is leaving a household headed by a single father of a son and two daughters, and tells him his three young children are sad and lonely and need a woman’s presence in the house. The father knows this is true, but can’t do much about it…until he spots an ad in a magazine for “I Sing the Body Electric,” a company that makes robotic guardians. He takes the children to their local outlet, where they custom design their own guardian, whom they decide should be like a grandmother. They pick out her hair, her face, even her eye color. In a few days, she comes to stay with them. The oldest girl, Anne, thinks their father is trying to use the robot to replace their late mother, and refuses to accept her. Grandma is patient and is always there with cookies or to hear about the school day, but Anne simply won’t interact with her. Can Grandma win Anne over and help this troubled family?
Concept/Plot/Characters—A fun episode in parts. I especially like how the kids put their new grandma together. Still, there’s not much to this one. The only character we really explore in any depth is Anne. The other two children are basically ciphers, as is the father, and of course Grandma is merely a robot. I know they’re supposed to be everyday people living in a quiet suburb or small town, but the family just comes across as generic suburban. There’s not a whole lot of action in this one, and I didn’t feel enough connection with the characters to really care about their emotional development. (2.5 points)
Tone–A sweet family portrait, but not much more, and bordering on saccharine. (.5 points)
The Twist–The twist is more of a psychological epiphany this time out, and it is a natural culmination of what came before. But it’s not really surprising in the way of the best episodes. (1.5 points)
Total=4.5 points (Watchable)
Fun in parts, but a bit of a dud, especially if you were expecting something really excellent from Ray Bradbury’s script. I feel like the twist should hit more emotionally, but we just don’t have enough invested in the characters to make that happen. Might have benefited from being one of Season Four’s hour-long episodes. It’s a perfectly Watchable episode, though.
Little Girl Lost (Season Three, 1962)
I’d never seen this but wanted to for a long time, because I’d heard that is was probably an inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist (reviewed here). Well, having seen it, I can say forget “inspiration”–I hope Spielberg is sending royalty checks to Rod Serling’s estate. There are scenes here that are obviously and directly, let’s say, homaged in Poltergeist.
Chris and Ruth Miller are awakened in the middle of the night by the crying of their daughter, Tina, but when they go to her room, she’s nowhere to be found. Oh, they can hear her alright. Her voice seems to be coming from the walls, the ceiling, maybe the air around them. But they can’t see her. The dog, Mack, is going crazy in the yard, and when Chris lets him in, he runs straight to the bedroom and disappears as well, almost as if he could sense something wrong. Chris knows they need help, so they call Bill, a physicist Chris is friends with (not the police!?). Bill arrives and recognizes that a portal to another dimension has opened in Tina’s room. In fact he can stick his arm right in the wall and it seems to disappear. It’s important to find Tina and get her back as soon as possible, because the portal could close at any time and Tina lost forever.
Concept/Plot/Characters—I can see why this would have made an impression on Spielberg as a kid–this episode’s pretty intense. A lot of tension, with actress Sarah Marshall as Ruth Miller almost, but not quite, going over the top as a mother whose daughter is in danger. Seems like alternate dimensions must have been a new idea on TV at the time, as the script really belabors the physicist’s (nonsensical) explanation of how such a thing would work. Still, great work building up the suspense, with the audience truly not sure if the adults will be able to rescue Tina. (3.0 points)
Tone–Definitely captures the desperation of parents trying to find a lost child. Reminded me of how parents act at, say, a county fair when a child goes missing. (1 point)
The Twist–After an intense episode, unfortunately the twist simply can’t match what came before. (1 point)
Theme–Children in Danger
Truly suspenseful, but script could be a little sharper and the twist doesn’t quite stick the landing. Still, all in all, a strong Watchable episode.