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 8 and 43 of the DVD collection, and were a nice mix.
A World of His Own (Season One, 1960)
This episode is quite amusing. Playwright Gregory West dictates his lines into a handheld recorder for a secretary to type out later. He’s discovered that when he describes a character in particularly fine detail, that character appears right in front of him. But if he tires of the character, he can get rid of him or her simply by clipping the corresponding bit of tape from his recorder and tossing it in the fireplace.
His wife, Victoria, comes home one day to see through the window of Gregory’s study that he his with a beautiful woman. When she charges in, though, she finds the woman is gone. As she ransacks the study, trying to find where the woman is hidden, Gregory tries in vain to explain about the tape recorder. His explanation is so crazy that Victoria tries to leave on a mission to commit him to a mental institute, but he describes an elephant and it appears in the hallway outside. She returns to the study and he demonstrates how he can bring characters to life and then pop them out of existence–women, animals, even Rod Serling (!).
Still, Victoria is not quite convinced, thinking he is still somehow trying to justify an affair with another woman. What can Gregory possibly do to convince her he’s telling the truth?
Concept/Plot/Characters—This is a fun idea, and done well. Gregory and Victoria come across as a real married couple (ironically? but I say too much…), and even the characters that pop into existence show real feelings and unique characteristics. That Gregory has to describe them in enough detail for them to appear helps a lot with the script. (3 points)
Tone–A light, jaunty sort of tone is just right for this episode. (1 point)
The Twist–Not totally unexpected, but a satisfying and appropriate twist nonetheless. (1.5 points)
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)
A fun episode all-around. Both my daughter and I thought it was Pretty Good. It was the final episode of Season One.
To Serve Man (Season Three, 1962)
I know this is everybody’s favorite episode, or at least near the top of most people’s lists, and I understand why. I mean, I like the episode too. But if you think about the twist for more than three seconds, you’ll realize it doesn’t really make sense.
Let me see if I can describe why in a way that doesn’t give the ending away. An alien race called the Kanamits have come to Earth. The Kanamits are eight feet tall with huge foreheads (played by Richard Kiel, later the villain Jaws in the James Bond movies). They communicate telepathically and claim to be here on a mission of peace. On the very first day of their arrival, at the United Nations, they introduce a new type of nitrate fertilizer that will increase crop yields and end hunger, and soon their various other technologies have improved life on earth immeasurably. They also begin a service to take humans on space ships to see the wonders of their home planet.
Michael Chambers, head of a cryptography unit at the United Nations, is given a book one of the Kanamits happened to leave behind on a visit to the UN. He and his staff set to work on translating it, and when they finally do, it puts the intentions of the Kanamits in a very different light than they are presenting themselves. Only, here’s the problem: the title of the book, on which the twist is based, relies on the double meaning of a particular English phrase. But there’s no reason to think this phrase would have the same double meaning in the Kanamit language as it does in English! I mean, the phrase doesn’t even have the same double meaning in Spanish or French or German. How could it in a completely alien language? This simple bit of logic renders the entire twist specious.
Concept/Plot/Characters—It’s a great episode up until the final minute–an interesting idea, a fast-moving plot. We don’t learn a lot about Michael Chambers and his cryptographic staff, the heroes of the episode, but this one is plot-driven, and the characters aren’t really the point. (3 points)
Tone–Really gets across the optimism of Earth’s population as the Kanamits change everything for the better. I especially like the line of people waiting to board the Kanamit space craft, speculating about what life on the Kanamit planet will be like. (1 point)
The Twist–It’s certainly shocking at first, apparently one of the great Twilight Zone twists. Unfortunately, as I said, it simply doesn’t hold up if you think about it. I’m sorry, I cannot give a high score in this category. (.5 points)
Total=4.5 points (Watchable)
A lot of people are going to think I rated this too low (including my daughter!), but I don’t think so. I recognize it’s a fun episode, but to me it’s brought down to merely Watchable by a twist that simply doesn’t hold up to consideration.
The Shelter (Season Three, 1961)
Dr. Stockton is enjoying a birthday party in his honor at his home with all his neighbors. The guests have a lot of affection for Dr. Stockton, despite the fact that he spends early weekend mornings loudly banging around, building his bomb shelter. During the party, an emergency news bulletin comes on the radio announcing that possible nuclear missiles are approaching the United States. Everybody runs back to their homes. Dr. Stockton and his wife and twelve-year old son gather important things around the house and fill containers of water to take down to their shelter.
Only, one set of neighbors comes back. Their basement is unfinished, they can’t possibly stay there. Couldn’t they come in the bomb shelter with Dr. Stockton’s family? He refuses, because there’s only room for three. Once in the shelter, there’s a beating on the door. Another family from down the street, this one with a newborn baby. Surely Dr. Stockton will let them in? Again, Dr. Stockton refuses. Soon, all the neighbors from the party are in the Stocktons’ house. None of them has prepared for the inevitable, and want in to Dr. Stockton’s shelter. When he refuses to open the door to let them in, the men find a huge steel pipe and start ramming the door.
Concept/Plot/Characters—A straightforward idea, nicely executed. This episode does a good job of making the neighbors into real people, each family with its own problems. Great acting, it could have been just angry yelling but adds up to a lot more. One thing I liked is its ambiguity–is Dr. Stockton the sympathetic ant who prepared for winter against the grasshoppers who played all day? Or is he a selfish man, refusing to help those in need? The situation is presented with no bias–it’s up to you to decide. (3.5 points)
Tone–Nicely captures the desperation of people who believe their lives are in danger, and the self-righteous refusal of the one who prepared when others didn’t. (1 point)
The Twist–There are a couple different directions the episode could have gone, but the one it chose isn’t totally unexpected. Still, a satisfying twist, if only the slightest bit preachy. (1.5 points)
Theme–Nuclear War, Suburbia
Total=6 points (Pretty Good)
My daughter and I agreed on this one, a Pretty Good episode.