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.
A Penny for Your Thoughts (Season Two, 1961)
This was an interesting one. Hector Poole (played by Dick York, who would later play Darrin on Bewitched), is a young bank clerk who tosses a coin into a newspaper vendor’s cashbox, where it lands on its edge. The newspaper vendor is so impressed by this unlikely event he swears he won’t touch the coin until it falls on its own. Soon afterwards, Hector notices that the people around him are saying their innermost feelings out loud. But he quickly realizes that actually, he’s hearing their thoughts.
When Hector gets to work at the bank, he learns all his co-workers secrets throughout the day. His boss is planning to go on a weekend trip with his mistress, but will tell his wife he’s away on business. The secretary has a secret crush on Hector and wishes he’d ask her out. The security guard is worried about the Dodgers’ pitching. And old Smithers, who’s worked for the bank thirty years, is planning to go in the vault at the end of the day and stuff his briefcase with cash, and afterwards buy a one-way ticket to Bermuda. What should Hector do with all this information he’s learned?
Concept/Plot/Characters—The pacing is quick, the dialogue is sharp, Hector is sympathetic as a bright but somewhat hapless bank clerk, and his dilemma is interesting. I liked that even when you can read another person’s thoughts, you still can’t always predict how they’ll act. The stakes are somewhat more befitting of a sitcom then a Twilight Zone episode, though. (3.5 points)
Tone–The episode maintains a nice whimsical tone throughout. (1 point)
The Twist–Decent twist, although somewhat predictable. (1 point)
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)
Overall a fun episode, if a little lightweight. Definitely the prize of the episodes I’m reviewing today.
The Lonely (Season One, 1959)
Corry is a convict, serving a life sentence of solitary confinement on a barren asteroid for a murder back on Earth. Corry lives by himself, but Captain Allenby stops by every three months in his spacecraft to drop off supplies. Allenby believes Corry’s assertion that he only killed in self-defense and feels sorry for the lonely man. This trip, Allenby drops off something special–a robot in the form of a female human, named Alicia and programmed to think and feel emotions. At first, Corry rejects Alicia as an ersatz person, but gradually he comes to understand she is just as capable of genuine feeling as he is. She relieves his loneliness and they fall in love with each other. The next time Allenby arrives, he brings good news–Corry has been pardoned. Unfortunately, he’s running low on fuel, and Corry can’t bring any extra weight on board. That means he has to leave the robot on the asteroid. But can Corry really leave Alicia behind?
Concept/Plot/Characters—One problem with these episodes set on distant, barren worlds where people have nothing to do is that it’s kind of boring to watch them do nothing. On Thursday We Leave For Home found a way to keep the viewer’s interest engaged for a whole hour, while the Probe 7 episode I review below fails at this task for even a half hour. The Lonely is somewhere in between, dragging a bit but not completely stultifying. (2 points)
Tone–We definitely feel Corry’s loneliness and isolation and sympathize with his need for human contact on a sterile, lifeless world. (1 point)
The Twist–I’m torn on the twist to this episode. I cannot deny the ending is truly shocking and unexpected! But the episode has gone to some trouble to set up a moral conundrum for Corry, only to take the decision out of his hands at the last minute. (1 point)
Theme–Robots, Distant Outpost (Note: The premise of this episode would seem to qualify it for the All Alone category, except that nearly every scene has Corry with Allenby or Alicia.)
Total=4 points (Okay)
I think I liked this episode more than my daughter did, but in the end it’s still only Okay. It could’ve ranked as Pretty Good if it’d really nailed the ending. It’s not enough for the twist to be dramatic, it also has to fulfill what’s come before in some way, and this ending feels more like a cheat.
Probe 7, Over and Out (Season Five, 1963)
Astronaut Cook has crash-landed on a distant planet and his ship is nearly destroyed, although the radio still works. He manages to get in contact with his home, where they are sympathetic to his situation but unable to send a craft to pick him up because war has broken out. Cook goes out to explore, finding that the atmosphere and gravity are similar to his home planet. At first he thinks there is no intelligent life, but then he encounters a woman who has herself crash-landed from her own planet some time before, though they must communicate through gestures and drawings in the dirt. A final transmission from his planet informs Cook that the war has completely destroyed civilization and life on their planet is nearing its final hour. Knowing there really is no chance of rescue now, Cook sets out with the strange woman to forge a new life together on this alien world.
Concept/Plot/Characters—The concept is promising enough, but this episode really belabors Astronaut Cook being marooned on a distant planet. It seems like there are long minutes of him just wandering around in a strange forest in the dark, or fruitlessly trying to fix the equipment on his spacecraft. Oh, and the moralizing speeches from his home planet, going on and on about how maybe Cook can do better on his new world than they did on theirs. This is tough to sit through. (1 point)
Tone–Okay, we get it, Astronaut Cook is in dire straits and no one is coming to help him. (.5 points)
The Twist–Now I’ve seen this episode multiple times, so the twist was nothing new to me, but it was eye-opening to see it through my daughter’s eyes as it dawned on her what the final scene meant. In fact, the twist is nearly good enough to redeem what until that point is a fairly tedious episode. Probe 7 is kind of the opposite of The Lonely, reviewed above, where a sub-par ending sinks an otherwise decent episode. Here we have a boring episode that goes out on a high note. (2 points)
Total=3.5 points (Okay)
Rod Serling had a good concept and a killer idea for the twist, but he really needed to work on the script’s middle some more. As my daughter put it, this episode would go into the “Skip” category if not for that ending. I don’t think I would seek this one out specially, but if you find yourself watching, you might as well watch through to the end.