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).
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve done a new set of ratings, but now my daughter’s returned from camp and we’re back to rating! The episodes this time were from Volumes 21 and 41 of the DVD collection.
The Mighty Casey (Season One, 1960)
The Hoboken Zephyrs are in last place in the National League, and the latest round of tryouts has only produced a crop of second-raters. But things start looking up for manager Mouth McGarry when an inventor, Dr. Stillman, stops by to introduce Casey, a robot he’s built. Casey can pitch like no human ever has before, and with him on the team, the Zephyrs are sure to start winning. McGarry makes Dr. Stillman promise to tell no one Casey is a robot rather than a human, and signs him to a contract. What could go wrong?
Concept/Plot/Characters—It’s not a bad idea, and the plot’s okay, I guess. There’s just not a whole lot of drama to it. Casey, a robot who’s only been around three weeks, doesn’t have much personality, and Mouth McGarry and Dr. Stillman are no more than stereotypes of a crusty baseball manager and a disinterested scientist. (1.5 points)
Tone–I think the tone’s supposed to be light-hearted with perhaps a touch of nostalgia for the old days of baseball, but it mostly comes across as overly sentimental. I’ll give half credit. (.5 points)
The Twist-–The twist is really mild here. Not shocking or really all that surprising, kind of just something that happens next. (.5 points)
Total=2.5 points (Okay)
My daughter and I agreed this one is Okay. It’s a fun idea, but the episode doesn’t do a lot with it.
Changing of the Guard (Season Three, 1962)
Oddly, this was the final episode of Season Three, airing in June 1962, though it is set at Christmas and would be a perfect Christmas episode, superior to Season Two’s Night of the Meek.
Professor Ellis Fowler (played by Donald Pleasance) teaches English poetry at an all boys’ school in Vermont. He’s taught for fifty-one years and just before the start of the Christmas break, the headmaster calls him in to his office to tell Professor Fowler that the board has decided he must retire. Professor Fowler returns home in despair, telling his housekeeper he’s done nothing important during his career, and that nothing he’s taught has made a bit of difference. Later, the housekeeper is alarmed to find Professor Fowler has taken the pistol from his desk and gone out into the snowy evening.
On the school grounds, Professor Fowler hears the bells of the school tolling. How can that be, since it’s night, and all the students have gone home for the holiday? He heads towards the school, surprised to find that the lights in his classroom are on. What can be going on?
Concept/Plot/Characters—One of Rod Serling’s more sentimental scripts, but a totally successful one. Donald Pleasance is superb as the aged Professor Fowler, who holds a true affection for both poetry and his students, and who remembers the names of boys he’s taught even decades after they’ve graduated. All the other parts are small yet still well-scripted and played–the boys in Professor Fowler’s class, the sympathetic headmaster who bears bad news, and Mrs. Landers, the professor’s dedicated and worried housekeeper. (3.5 points)
Tone–This one’s a bit of a tear-jerker, successfully maintaining a tone of quiet despair in the first half, only to gently turn it around in the second half. (1 point)
The Twist-–I don’t think the twist here is going to surprise anybody, but it’s a fitting conclusion to the episode. (1 point)
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)
My daughter and I agreed this one is Pretty Good. Have your tissue box ready!
Five Characters in Search of an Exit (Season Three, 1961)
I’m going to do my best, but I simply can’t talk about this one at all without at least hinting at the ending, so don’t read any further if you want to keep the ending a mystery. And it’s a good twist, too!
An army major wakes up with no memory of his name or past. He’s in a sort of large prison, with round walls and the open sky far above. At first almost panicked, he comes across a sardonic clown who calms him down. Soon he also meets a ballerina, a bagpiper, and a hobo, all with no memory of their pasts. They’ve all been there much longer than he has, and have given up hope of escape, or of understanding how they got there, or why a loud gonging bell rings at irregular intervals. Not the major though–after breaking his sword against the metal walls of the prison, he devises a plan for them to climb to the edge far above. Each climbs on the other’s shoulders, and the ballerina at the top is to go for help when she gets over to the other side. But what does she see when gets to the top?
Concept/Plot/Characters—The premise is so simple–five characters trying to escape a sort of prison with no features and no clues as to what it means. You would think this one might get boring, but that’s not the case at all. The viewer is as curious as the participants to see what’s outside the walls, and really identifies with the major as he tries to figure out where they how and how to escape. The characters are oddly affecting, especially the major, the clown, and the ballerina, and show a lot of personality for having no memories or even names. (3.0 points)
Tone–This episode keeps an atmosphere of frustrated bewilderment throughout that creates as much curiosity in the viewer to see what’s outside as in the characters. (1 point)
The Twist–I hadn’t seen this episode since I was nine or ten years old, but I remembered the twist well. My daughter didn’t see it coming, and this one does a great job of being unpredictable but so obvious once it’s shown to you. Not shocking exactly, but a fully satisfying explanation of the characters’ predicament. One of the great Twilight Zone twists. (2 points)
Total=6.0 points (Pretty Good)
My daughter and I both agreed this one was Pretty Good. Not quite one of the Excellent episodes, but definitely worth watching.