I’m engaged in a project with my twelve-year old daughter to watch every single Twilight Zone episode and rank 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 33 of the DVD collection.
A Hundred Yards Over the Rim (Season Two, 1961)
The year is 1847, and Chris Horn is leading a wagon train from Ohio to California. The expedition is going badly. They’re crossing the New Mexico territory, and have gone days without food or water. Chris’s son has a fever and is close to death, and if they don’t reach water soon, surely they’ll all die. The others in the wagon train want to turn back, but Chris believes they’ve already gone more than halfway across the desert and it’ll be faster if they keep going. There’s a ridge up ahead, and Chris says he’ll walk up it and see what’s coming, and if he doesn’t spot anything promising, they can turn back.
Hot and dehydrated, Chris nearly faints at the top of the ridge, but when he opens his eyes and descends on the far side, he comes across a paved road and power lines. Investigating these strange things, he’s nearly hit by a freight truck. Frightened, he runs down the highway and comes across a diner, where he gets food and water and discovers the year is 1961. He can hardly believe it, except for all the miraculous technology surrounding him. For their part, Joe and Mary Lou, the owners of the diner, can hardly believe he’s a nineteenth-century pioneer, except he’s carrying an antique rifle that’s like new, and dressed in pioneer garb.
When Chris discovers that Mary Lou, who works as a nurse at the local hospital, has something called penicillin that can cure diseases, he knows he has to get back to his his wagon train and give the medicine to his sick son. But how can he make it back to 1847?
Concept/Plot/Characters—The idea here is fine, but it doesn’t go anywhere. I mean, it just feels very basic, like the episode is setting up for something interesting, but then that interesting thing never happens. The characters are stock characters–Old West pioneer, diner owner, sheriff. Nobody’s an actual individual. There’s no development, conflict, or anything to overcome. Chris needs medicine, he goes to the future and gets it, and goes back. It’s not badly done–it’s entertaining enough while it lasts, there’s just no complication or payoff. Probably this episode could have benefited from the one-hour format of the fourth season, when Rod Serling could have developed the idea a bit more. (2.5 points)
Tone–It captures the confusion of a nineteenth-century man dislocated in a twentieth-century world of technology well enough. (1 point)
The Twist-–There’s a stab at some irony in the final scene, but it hardly amounts to a twist at all. (.5 points)
Theme–Time Travel, Western
Total=4 points (Watchable)
This one isn’t bad, exactly. I mean, I wish it was longer. It just sets things up, and then runs out of time and has to wrap it up without any conflict.
Odyssey of Flight 33 (Season Two, 1961)
Global Airlines Flight 33 is about an hour out from Idlewood Airport in New York (now JFK) when it encounters a strange tailwind. The pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and comms man (there are so many people in the cockpit!) basically lose control of the plane, their speed accelerating way past the sound barrier. They can’t get in contact with ground control, no matter whether they try to reach Idlewood, Boston, or any other airport in the vicinity. After a few minutes, the tailwind ceases, but they are still unable to make radio contact.
They decide to fly below the clouds to make visual contact with the ground. They do and recognize where they are–Manhattan is almost directly below them. Only, there are no buildings! In fact, when the fly even lower, they can see dinosaurs. Somehow, they’ve gone back in time. The stewardesses are having trouble calming the panicked passengers down and the flight crew doesn’t know what to do. They certainly can’t land. So they decide to fly back up and catch that mysterious tailwind again. They manage to do so, but are they able to make it back to their own time in 1961?
Concept/Plot/Characters—The characters are stock roles and the plot is basic, but the pacing is fast and the idea is entertaining. (2.5 points)
Tone–Rod Serling knows he doesn’t have the deepest episode here so he wisely keeps the tone breezy. (1 point)
The Twist– Pays off with a pretty decent twist. (1.5 points)
Theme–Airplanes, Time Travel
Total=4.5 points (Watchable)
There’s not a whole lot to this one, but the episode keeps things moving and shows you dinosaurs outside the airplane window. Hey, there are worse ways to spend half an hour. My daughter and I both agreed this is a fun, perfectly watchable episode.
The Little People (Season Three, 1962)
Captain William Fletcher and Navigator Peter Craig are astronauts who’ve crash landed in a canyon on an arid planet. Craig resents Fletcher being in command, and treats him as a bit of an idiot, though it’s Fletcher who does all the work to fix the ship while Craig sits around moping. After several days, Fletcher nearly has the ship ready to go, and goes off in search of Craig, who’s been disappearing for longer and longer periods of time. Craig acts cagey about where he’s been, and can’t explain why he hasn’t drunk any water from his daily allotment.
It turns out that Craig has discovered a stream farther up the canyon, and next to the stream, a civilization of tiny people who worship him as a god and bring him anything he wants. The ship will be ready to take off the next day, but Craig decides to stay behind so he can be worshiped. The day of the launch, the little people have even built a life-sized statue of Craig. Fletcher tries to convince him of how foolish he’s being and to come back to Earth, but Craig insists on staying and is left behind when Fletcher blasts off. But not long after, he discovers that maybe staying behind wasn’t such a great idea….
Concept/Plot/Characters—An intriguing idea, well-drawn characters who really come across as individuals, and a personality clash that leads to an inevitable conflict. One flaw, though, is the special effects. Normally I find the Twilight Zone’s primitive effects endearing, and I admire how it gets the point across in its more fantastical episodes despite the limited effects budget. But this one really could have used a better depiction of the tiny world Craig has discovered, maybe even a glimpse of the tiny people themselves. Still, it’s a minor problem. (3.5 points)
Tone–This episode takes the point of view of Captain Fletcher, and his exasperation and disappointment at Craig’s megalomania leading him to make a pig-headed, foolish, and irreversible decision. (1 point)
The Twist– An appropriate and even slightly humorous twist gives Craig exactly what he deserves in a way my daughter and I did not predict. (1.5 points)
Theme–Aliens, Distant Outpost
Total=6.0 points (Pretty Good)
My daughter and I agreed this episode was Pretty Good. In my opinion, with just a bit more budget and effort in the effects department, it could have been Excellent, but even without that it’s well worth watching.