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).

The episodes this time were from Volumes 2 and 10 of the DVD collection.

The Trouble With Templeton (Season Two, 1960)
Booth Templeton is an aging actor, wealthy and successful, but annoyed by his younger wife and her male friends (it’s strongly hinted that’s she’s had a series of affairs–quite risque for the Twilight Zone!) and bored of the praise his roles invariably earn. Wandering through his mansion, he gets caught up in reminiscing about his first wife, who died not long after they were married, and the thrill of his earliest shows. He ends up arriving late to the theatre for the first rehearsal of his latest play, and the hot new Broadway director Authur Willis (played by a very young Sydney Pollack) upbraids him for his unpunctuality.

Angered and embarrassed, Booth flees the theatre, only to find that the streets look as they did in the 1920s. He realizes he’s back in his own past, in 1927 right after his first play hit it big. He heads to the speakeasy the cast always visited after the show. There he finds his first wife Laura, as beautiful as he remembers. He wants to take her someplace quiet and discuss with her all that’s happened in the years since she died, but she blows him off–she just wants to have a good time. When the director of the play, Barney Flueger, walks in the speakeasy, he laughs at Booth’s earnestness and encourages him to have some drinks and dance.

It seems the past is not as Booth remembered. He returns the way he came, and heads backstage at the theatre of his latest production. Inside, its back to the current day (that is, 1960). He finds a discarded script backstage and flips through it, discovering that his encounter with Laura and Barney is written in the script exactly as it happened. He informs the new director he’ll cooperate with him, so long as he gets the respect he deserves, showing a new enthusiasm for acting and the stage.
Concept/Plot/Characters—The concept isn’t bad, but the execution is lacking. The pacing is slow–Booth spends so much time reminiscing about what he’s lost that it feels like we’re halfway through the episode before things get going. And when it happens, Booth’s visit to the past feels perfunctory. He’s been reminiscing all this time about how great things were, and after about five minutes of being back in 1927, he’s had enough. We really should have spent more time in the past, seeing all the ways 1927 was not as he remembered. The time travel is the interesting part, not Booth moping around his house, but we get these in the exact wrong proportions. (2 points)
I believe this episode was going for nostalgia, but it spends too much time talking about it, and not much showing it. (.5 points)
The Twist-
Exactly what happened is a little vague. I guess the people from his past were ghosts performing a scene, trying to teach him a lesson? But I’m not sure how he drew the lesson he did–the past wasn’t as good as he remembered, so he should make the most of the present? (.5 points)
Time Travel
Total=3 points (So-So)

This one is too slow-paced, the set-up takes too long and the interesting part is shortchanged, and the twist is underwhelming.

The Last Flight (Season One, 1960)
Flight Lieutenant William Decker is a World War I flying ace in 1917 who is returning home from a bombing mission over Germany. He flies into a weird-looking white cloud, and when his plane emerges, he can’t find his position. He lands at an airfield, only to discover he’s landed at a US air base in France in 1959.

Of course Decker has trouble convincing the base personnel he’s really from 1917, and not a crackpot, or worse yet, a saboteur. In fact, they have reason to suspect the latter, since today they’re receiving an important visitor: Air Vice Marshal MacKaye, a high-ranking officer from the Royal Air Force. A Major Wilson, who was the one who first encountered Decker when he landed, does come to believe Decker is telling the truth.

Moreover, it turns out that Decker knew MacKaye back in 1917. In fact, the very mission he was flying back from when he got lost had been with MacKaye. And it may turn out that there’s a particular reason Decker, of all people, should have come into the future on this day. If only he can convince the Americans they need to let him go…
Concept/Plot/Characters—Not a fantastically original set-up, but interesting enough, and established within the first minute of the episode. The characters are plausible, with strong motivations. The dialogue is solid and the plot moves. (3.5 points)
Convincingly keeps up a tone of gradual realization on the parts of the characters, as they come to understand that there was a purpose for Decker’s time travel. (1 point)
The Twist–
I don’t think this twist is going to surprise many viewers who’ve seen a few Twilight Zone episodes, but it’s still satisfactory. (1 point)
Airplanes, Time Travel
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

This feels a lot like a better, faster-paced version of King Nine Will Not Return from Season Two. The plot is fairly “Twilight Zone-y,” in that if you were asked to come up with an idea for a TZ episode in five minutes you’d probably think of something along these lines. Still, my daughter and I both found it Pretty Good.

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (Season One, 1960)
Maple Street is a quiet neighborhood street, where the neighbors all know each other and everybody spends Saturday afternoon washing the car, mowing the lawn, or engaged on a hobby. Only this Saturday, a mysterious…something flies overhead. Some think it’s a ship, others a meteor. Not long after, all the power and telephone service in the neighborhood goes out, nor will any engines start. At first it’s an irritation, but soon the residents of Maple Street start to get worried. Especially after a kid relates a story he read in a book about aliens cutting off the power to keep a street’s residents from leaving. When two men decided to walk to the police station downtown to see if it’s a citywide problem, the kid mentions that in his story, the aliens who went undercover in the human populace were the only ones who could leave.

Slowly, slowly, the residents of Maple Street start to turn on each other. First, it’s the two men who tried to leave. Were they the aliens? But then, it’s a man whose car starts unexpectedly. How is it his car works when nobody else’s does? Then another family’s lights turn on briefly. What did they do to have that happen–maybe they’re the aliens, or in contact with them? By midnight, Maple Street has devolved into a mistrustful mob, turning on anybody the least bit suspicous.
This must have been a tough one to pull off–it easily could have come off as preachy. (Other Rod Serling morality plays did not always turn out so well.) Rod Serling’s script is subtle enough that we avoid that. Though only briefly drawn, the main characters come across as individuals who are gradually goaded into a mob mentality. The only flaw is that some of the acting teeters on the edge of over-emoting. (3.5 points)
The slowly building suspicion among previously friendly neighbors is subtly and excellently done. (1 point)
The Twist–
A very effective and appropriate twist. (2 points)
Aliens, Suburbia
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)

My daughter and I both agreed this is one of the better episodes of the series. The theme of friendly neighbors turning on one another will be explored again in Season Three’s The Shelter, also to good effect.

One Comment on “Ranking the Twilight Zone

  1. Pingback: Ranking the Twilight Zone – Nicholas Bruner

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