Ranking the Twilight Zone

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.

Time Enough at Last (Season One, 1959)
I’ll admit up front, this is my favorite Twilight Zone episode, so I may not be totally free of bias. But even an objective opinion has to put this episode near the top, I think. It was the eighth episode to air in Season One, so already, only a few weeks into the show, they had a true classic.

Henry Bemis (played by Burgess Meredith) is an older, bookish man with thick spectacles who loves to read. He reads behind the counter at the bank where he works as a teller, much to the annoyance of his boss and the customers. He reads at home when he should be getting ready to go to the neighbors’ to play cards, much to the annoyance of his wife. Basically, he finds Charles Dickens and the English Romantics to be much more interesting than the people in his bland, everyday life.

One day he goes down to the bank vault on his lunch break so he can read in peace. While he’s down there, an earthquake or explosion rocks the vault. Henry hesitantly opens the vault door and climbs the stairs to the bank lobby. On the surface, everything is rubble. There has been a nuclear war, and the city is leveled, if not the whole world. Henry wanders around, searching for survivors, but finds no one. He comes across a grocery store where there are enough canned goods to last for years. Then he stumbles on the town library, where he discovers most of the books are still intact. It slowly dawns on him: all the books he could want to read, and there’s nobody around to bother him. It’s like paradise…isn’t it?
Concept/Plot/Characters—The concept is ingenious and the plot plays out perfectly. Henry Bemis is a sympathetic character while his understandably exasperated boss and wife are expertly sketched in their brief time on screen. (4 points)
It entirely captures the spirit of put-upon whimsy that characterizes Henry Bemis’s days. (1 point)
The Twist-
One of the finest twists of the series, the twist in this case being the twist of a cruelly ironic knife in the gut of the viewer. (2 points)
All Alone, Nuclear War
Total=7 points (Excellent)

Spoiler alert: My daughter and I agreed this is Excellent, and it becomes one of only three episodes we’ve reviewed to receive a perfect score (so far?). I’ve seen this episode numerous times, and I used to think the final moment, when Henry steps on his glasses and crushes them, was simply cruel fate. The last couple times I’ve seen this one, though, it strikes me that he’s earned his ending. He’s not just a kindly old man who wants some extra time to read–he positively uses his reading to block out those around him. No wonder his boss and wife are so irritated with him. He’s used books for his whole life as an excuse not to engage with real people. In that light, the final twist, where there’s no one to help him when he really needs it, seems much more deserved.

The Encounter (Season Five, 1964)
This is an interesting one. Not entirely successful, but interesting. Due to the racial content of the episode, it wasn’t included in syndication packages, so after its initial airing as one of the very last episodes of the show’s final season, nobody saw it again until Twilight Zone episodes starting getting released on videotape in 1987.

It starts with a man named Fenton, who’s cleaning out his garage attic and drinking beer. He finds an old samurai sword and tosses it aside. Just then, Arthur Takamori, a Japanese-American (played by a young George Takei!) comes in the garage with an offer to maintain Fenton’s lawn. Fenton invites him to come up and have a beer and offers to pay Arthur if he’ll help him clean out the attic.

Soon, though, Fenton is recalling his World War II days when he fought the Japanese, and implying that Arthur isn’t fully American. Arthur vehemently objects to this, and eventually the discussion becomes so heated that Arthur picks up the samurai sword and brandishes it. It turns out that Fenton has a secret he admits to when Arthur threatens him, although it may be that Arthur has a secret of his own. Can they work out their differences, or are they fated to relive the conflict of the 1940s?
Concept/Plot/Characters—Great character work, and you hardly notice the entire thing is set in an attic. The script gets too heavy-handed at times, though. The racial issues this brings up require a perfectly deft touch or it devolves into melodrama. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite reach what it’s aiming for. (3 points)
The tension between Fenton and Arthur has moments of real power, but also at a couple points is just too much. (.5 points)
The Twist–
Well, there were really only two ways it could end, and this was one of them. Appropriate, but not terribly surprising. (1 point)
Total=4.5 points (Watchable)

An ambitious episode that doesn’t quite hit its target. Still, my daughter and I agreed that it’s far from terrible and interesting to watch. Also, you could put this on one evening along with the two William Shatner episodes and have a TZ-Star Trek crossover evening.

No Time Like the Past (Season Four, 1963)
Season Four of the TZ is different in that the hours are an hour long, as opposed to the half hour of the other seasons. The story is that CBS announced the hour-long format to Rod Serling not long before the season’s episodes were to begin filming, and he had to scramble to come up with appropriate scripts. That’s why many Season Four episodes are said to feel either padded, or as if two scripts have been sewn together. The latter case is so clearly what happened with “No Time Like the Past” that you can practically see the stitches, and yet I found the result rather pleasing.

Paul Driscoll is a physicist in the late twentieth century, a post-nuclear war world where the air and water have been poisoned with radiation. He and his partner have invented a time machine, and Paul has decided on three critical moments in history that could change the trajectory of human history for the better, if only they could be altered. He visits Hiroshima in August 1945 to try to evacuate the city before the atomic bomb falls, Berlin in 1939 to try to assassinate Hitler, and the RMS Lusitania in 1915, to try to get the captain to change course and save the ship from being torpedoed. In each case, he’s thwarted by circumstances.

So that’s the first half of the episode. In the second half, Paul has concluded trying to change the past is futile. Instead, he decides to move to an idyllic period in history and escape the nightmarish present. He settles on a small town in Indiana in 1881. At his boarding house, he meets a young schoolteacher, Abigail Sloan, and though they seem poised to fall in love, Paul is so haunted by the knowledge of the world’s fate that he cannot to another person. Will he be able to get over that knowledge, or is he fated to forever be a man out of time?
The hour-long format allow for a more involved plot than usual, and lets us get to know Paul and Abigail well. A point off for the somewhat Frankenstein stitching of the two plot halves, and for a thematically confused ending. (3.0 points)
Effectively conveys Paul Driscoll’s urgency in trying to change history, followed by his resignation at being unable to achieve it. (1 point)
The Twist–
Unfortunately, a strong episode ends with a twist that somehow manages to be both predictable and to not quite make sense. (If Paul already knows he can’t change history, why is he trying again?). (1.0 points)
Time Travel
Total=5.0 points (Watchable)

The fourth season episodes have a bad reputation. Well, I’ve watched three of them so far during the course of this project, and none of them has been terrible. In fact, this one was fairly entertaining. It reminded me a lot of Back There from Season Two in its theme of trying to change a terrible event in the past. This one is not quite as good, but well worth watching.

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