Lately I’ve been finally working my way through the original TZ episodes, having bought the complete box set about 20 years ago. It’s mostly a nostalgia thing for me. Back in the mid-eighties as a young university student, I would often cycle over to my parents’ house on a Friday night for tea. That’s where I think I first fell in love with the old black and white episodes on a late night weekly re-run.
I have subsequently seen all the other versions, from the eighties through to Jordan Peele’s recent iterations, but for me, there’s nothing like the nostalgia kick of these old episodes. Always introduced by Rod Serling with his trademark cigarette in hand (not knowing that his three pack-a-day habit would contribute to him dropping dead at just 50 years old). I love the lost world these old episodes portray. The hats, the baggy suits, the giant cars, the constant chain smoking, the mores and the clichéd characters. It’s edifying when you realise that almost every actor in these episodes is no longer with us. There’s a lot of famous faces too; William Shatner, Charles Bronson, Elizabeth Montgomery, Agnes Moorhead, Billy Mumy, a very young Dennis Hopper talking to Hitler about Trumpism, Burgess Meredith …that guy who played Larry in Bewitched…
Sure, some episodes seem to descend into self-parody with the passing of time. I’m reminded of a Seinfeld bit:
Jerry: I’m not buying this. This is like that Twilight Zone Episode, where the guy wakes up and he’s the same, but everyone else is different.
Kramer: Ooh which one was that?
Jerry: AAH THEY WERE ALL LIKE THAT!
A lot of the stories haven’t aged well. I know I’ve grown more cynical with age , but I had to really look to pick out the gems which I thought had stood the test of time. The first three seasons’ episodes ran for just 30 minutes, and I think it’s difficult to convey a lot of emotion in such a short space. A different problem emerged from season four, when the time slot stretched out to an hour. They had to work extra hard to keep the audience’s interest piqued before the payoff, and it didn’t always work. Occasionally, they really nailed it with these little morality tales, for that’s what most of them were. They employed some great writers too, like Charles Beaumont and Ray Bradbury.
My favourite episodes are the ones that present a meditation on loss, regret, grief, aging or longing, a nostalgic sense of lost youth and lost worlds. Stories like “Kick the Can”, and “Walking Distance”, which has some beautiful dialogue – an understanding father telling his returning adult son that he cannot remain in the childhood of his own past (Maybe there’s only one summer to every customer), “A Stop at Willoughby”, “All the Time in the World,” and my all-time favourite, “Death Ship”, penned by Richard Matheson. The title gives it away, but it’s a classic take on one man’s stubborn refusal to accept the inevitability of death, even when confronted with his own remains. I loved this episode when I was young, and I still love it today.
As an addendum to this trip down memory lane, I penned a little Twilight Zone intro of my own to leave you with.
Picture a man thrown backwards in time, into a mash up of every Twilight Zone episode from 1959 to 1965.
What the… where am I? Who are you people, and why am I in black and white?
No, I don’t want a cigarette. Will you please stop asking?
You can’t light up in here… this is a public building.
All of you, stop it… stop smoking!
Didn’t you see the warnings?
…the health warnings… why… you must have seen them.
Stop it! Stop smoking… STOP IT!!!”
The Twilight Zone is currently streaming on Network Ten, Prime Video, and Paramount Plus.