Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is one of the most influential and iconic science fiction series ever created. It played a huge part in paving the way for our modern-day anthology series such as Black Mirror, Two Sentence Horror Stories, and the upcoming Hulu show Into the Dark. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of the original Twilight Zone, you’ve probably seen other shows and movies make reference to it such as Futurama.
Despite this legendary status only a handful of the original 156 episodes from the series five-year run from 1959 to 1964 seem to get any major recognition in the form of shirts, action figures, toys, and other geek inspired merchandise in 2020. Series staples such as To Serve Man, Eye of the Beholder, Time Enough at Last, and The Monsters are Due on Maple Street often end up topping various “best of” lists and remain at the forefront of debate and discussion online, while many other episodes worthy of similar praise get pushed out of the limelight and are left collecting dust in the land of cultural obscurity.
That’s why today I’ll be taking a look at five episodes of the original Twilight Zone you may have overlooked or have possibly never seen. PLEASE NOTE: I will try my best not to spoil the twist of each episode but it may be possible to interpret clues from my descriptions, so viewer discretion is advised. (Although personally I think the statute of spoiler limitations for a show from the 50s is very much past due, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
1. The Howling Man (S2 Episode 5, 1960)
Plot Synopsis: Shortly after the events of WW1, a man named David Ellington is caught out in a storm while on vacation in Europe. He finds refuge in a remote castle inhabited by men in cloaks lead by a man named Brother Jerome. After being welcomed inside, Ellington begins hearing strange yells emanating throughout the castle, which the cloaked men don’t seem to hear. Shortly after he discovers that the source of the yelling is a man trapped in a prison cell who claims that Jerome and his men are holding him hostage, and he begs to be released. After threatening to report this to the police, Jerome informs Ellington that the prisoner isn’t a normal man, but the devil himself. Now Ellington must decide whether or not to believe Jerome or to give in to temptation and release the would-be Satan.
Why You Should Watch: This is a rare Twilight Zone episode that is rooted more heavily in faith and superstition juxtaposed to the usual coldness of space and the fear of advanced technology the series is usually known for. The ethical tug of war that Ellington undergoes between Brother Gerome and the howling man is extremely tense. The gothic setting of the castle and the loud stormy night adds to the already chilling premise. The implications of the ending alone more than justify giving this episode a watch.
2. People Are Alike All Over (S1 Episode 25, 1960)
Plot Synopsis: A space crew sets off on an expedition for Mars, but upon making a crash landing, only two men, Marcusson and Conrad are left alive. Marcusson is a positive thinker that believes that “People are alike all over” even in space, while Conrad is more cynical and self-centered. Conrad is hesitant to open the door of the wrecked spaceship because he’s afraid of what he might find out on the surface of the red planet, but Marcusson insists that if anyone is outside, they will be nothing but helpful. Marcusson dies shortly afterward, leaving Conrad alone. Upon opening the door, Conrad is met with a party of human-looking martins eager to help him. They welcome Conrad with open arms. They offer him food, protection, and even create a replica Earth home for him to live in. Is this too good to be true, or is something more sinister afoot?
Why You Should Watch: This is an episode that really jabs the knife in during the last five minutes and leaves you with one hell of a lasting impression. Themes of universal morality are the heart of what his episode tries to tackle. Are humans from different cultures, time periods, or even races fundamentally all that different from one another when it comes to the same basic wants, needs, and the desire for dominance/control? You be the judge.
3. Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? (Season 2 Episode 28, 1961)
Plot Synopsis: In the small town of Hooks Landing two police officers investigate a reported UFO which was seen crash landing in the ice of the nearby pond. They find a set of footprints across the highway leading into a nearby diner. The officers perform an initial investigation and decide to quarantine everyone in the diner from the customers to the cook for questioning. Once the officers reveal the true purpose of the investigation, everyone in the Highway Cafe becomes a suspect for alien espionage. Strange occurrences from flickering lights, exploding salt shakers, and a rogue jukebox playing on its own only increase tensions between the patrons and policemen. Will the investigation bear fruit, or will a martian in disguise walk away Scott-Free?
Why You Should Watch: This episode is the Twilight Zone’s take on a “who done it” mystery, but with more aliens, and because of that it’s a glorious sight to behold. The major inspirations of this episode came from the fear and anxiety that was present during the era of the Red Scare and the fear that America had communist sleeper agents that walked and talked like normal people among them. Watching the patrons of this small-town diner devolve into a hodgepodge of unease and distrust is an absolute delight because it seems like anyone could be the alien. Even if you think you’ve got the ending figured out, the eleventh-hour twist may surprise you.
4. The Obsolete Man (Season 2 Episode 29, 1961)
Plot Synopsis: In a distant authoritarian future, Romney Wordsworth is put on trial for the crime of being a librarian under the iron fist of “The State”. In this future, logic and reason have discarded for complete and absolute control of the masses. Wordsworth is deemed “Obsolete” by the council and is sentenced to be executed in 48 hours on a live televised broadcast. He’s given the opportunity to choose the way in which he will be “liquidated” by the state. He requests simply to be killed by an assassin in his room, and that only he and Wordsworth will know the means in which he is to die. Will “The State” be able to crush the spirit of this preacher of books, opinions, and language, or will the obsolete librarian be the one to have the last laugh?
Why You Should Watch: In an increasingly high-tech world, the written word as we know has become a dying art. Stories like this one provide a grim reminder of the possible outcome of a complete authoritarian state. When we start judging others solely on the merits of function and efficiency towards a community, we begin to dehumanize them and treat them like machines rather than people. The message of this episode is to show how easily we can slip into a state of mind where the idea of “The State” is normalized and seems like a good idea and the horrifying implications that carries with it.
5. Five Characters in Search of an Exit (Season 3 Episode 14, 1961)
Plot Synopsis: Five people: An Army Major, a Scotsmen, a Clown, a Ballerina, and a Hobo all wake up in an odd circular room with no idea of who they or how they even got there in the first place. None of them seem to know where or even when they are. As the Ballerina says: “We’re nameless things with no memory. No knowledge of what went before, no understanding of what is now. No knowledge of what will be.” All they can do is make blind assumptions on the nature of their situation. Are they in hell? Purgatory? Are they in space? On a spaceship heading towards mars? Or even a slide under a microscope?
Why You Should Watch: This is seriously one of the most underrated 25 minutes in all of television. The mystery of who these people are and why they’ve been brought to this strange room still leaves my awestruck despite already knowing the twist years later. It all comes down to the perfect execution. This episode has fantastic character dialogue, amazing camera work, and an ending all but certain to catch you off-guard. It has to be experienced blindly to be fully appreciated. It’s difficult to adequately describe why it’s so incredible without spoiling the ending, but needless to say, I’d highly recommend checking it out.
And that’s my list. What did you guys think? Did I not mention your favorite underrated episode? Leave a comment below with your favorite Twilight Zone Episode