With Disneyland’s “Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror” reskinned as “Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout,” I fear that today’s kids will have less exposure than ever to the classic 1959-1964 Twilight Zone TV series. We parents, we adults, must step in!
My parents introduced me to the classic TZ episodes when I was a kid, so when I had a son I was determined to do the same.
When my son turned nine, he was ready.
But there are 156 classic TZ episodes, some of them an hour long. Which ones to choose?
In general the best episodes come from the first two seasons and were written by Serling himself or by Richard Matheson. But several of the best episodes, like “Trouble with Templeton” or “Perchance to Dream,” work well only for adults.
This also goes for the famous “Kick the Can” or “Walking Distance,” two episodes which involve or include kids but are clearly aimed at nostalgic adults.
I wanted episodes that moved at a quick pace (this immediately excludes all the hour-long episodes). I wanted episodes with simple yet surprising stories. I wanted episodes that treated themes kids would understand, including fears of powerlessness or isolation.
To give a sense of the series, I also wanted a mix of moods with some scary episodes, some funny ones, and some sweet ones.
I came up with 16 episodes that should work well for today’s kids aged 8-12. My son enjoyed all 16, and I’ll mention his three favorites below. I’ll also mention what about these episodes should appeal to kids who watch.
Here are the episodes as they were originally broadcast chronologically:
“Where is Everybody?” (October 2, 1959)
The very first episode in the series remains one of its most haunting. It depicts a “last man” wandering through a town that seems intact yet deserted. He faces “the barrier of loneliness.” But what does it all mean?
Even young kids will empathize with this confused, unshaven protagonist with no one to comfort him, no one to talk to. Several Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes follow this episode’s pattern.
“Time Enough at Last” (November 20, 1959)
Here’s the famous episode with Burgess Meredith playing a nerdy bookworm with Coke-bottle glasses harassed by his boss and wife.
Though he’s (purposefully) annoying, he can’t help but evoke sympathy from misfit kids who feel harassed by parents or teachers. I always thought the post-nuke coda was sad, but my son thought it was funny.
“And When the Sky Was Opened” (December 11, 1959)
Possibly the scariest of all TZ episodes, and possibly the best. It depicts a desperate panicking Rod Taylor (of The Birds and The Time Machine) after returning from an experimental space flight.
Little by little, evidence of his companions and himself begins to vanish, and it seems all three men will vanish from the Earth with no reason or explanation. The storytelling from longtime TV writer-producer-director Douglas Hayes is immaculate.
Just be sure your kid can handle fear, since this one can really be the stuff of nightmares. This is the first of my son’s three favorite episodes.
“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (March 4, 1960)
A UFO passes over a suburban street… and little by little neighbors start suspecting each other of being aliens in disguise. Soon, people even falsely accuse others to protect themselves.
Claude Akins (best known to most of us as Sheriff Lobo) is one of the hapless citizens. The concluding camera pull is a classic of 1960s television.
As in many TZ episodes, you sense worries about communism but also worries about Red Scare hysteria. Kids will simply enjoy – and be spooked by – the crescendo storyline.
“A Stop at Willoughby” (May 6, 1960)
Many TZ episodes depicted weary or overworked middle-aged protagonists wanting an escape from a tough life. Can kids empathize with them? They can certainly empathize with a protagonist wanting to escape into a world of dreams.
But dreams are not always what they seem. The “Willoughby” double-meanings are ingenious, like a puzzle that remains puzzling even when solved. This episode routinely appears on fans’ lists of favorites.
“The After Hours” (June 10, 1960)
What kid hasn’t felt lost in a department store?
No wonder kids get so interested in this confused young lady looking to buy a simple gift but finding herself alone on an elevator to “the 9th floor” which appears deserted and dark.
When she returns to a lower floor, she is told that the 9th floor doesn’t even exist! It’s scary as you watch, yet oddly comforting at the conclusion, and it’s one of the few great episodes with a female protagonist.
“A Thing About Machines” (October 28, 1960)
Remember when you used to imagine your toys came alive by themselves? Maybe they came to life when you were sleeping but returned to their exact positions right before you awoke.
But what if other things came to life – big things, powerful things. Kids will love to hate this episode’s snotty rich anti-hero who hates machines… and finds that the feeling is mutual. A simple episode but very fun.
“Nick of Time” (November 18, 1960)
Both of William Shatner’s TZ episodes make our list. Shatner here plays a young man on a honeymoon who, with his wife, finds a fortune-telling machine in a small town café. The machine ought to be a novelty, but its fortunes seem to be coming true for real.
Though the episode’s ultimate moral is murky, the storytelling – and Shatner – are excellent. I wasn’t sure if my son would like the episode, but like it he did, especially the little devil head that seems to give the machine a sinister motive.
“The Invaders” (January 27, 1961)
EC Comics aficionados will guess the surprise, but even so, the strange atmosphere – which combines sci-fi spaceships with farmhouse Gothic – and the surprisingly hard-hitting action, will keep you glued to your set.
When the old woman fights the diminutive extraterrestrial invaders, it’s hard to tell who is the aggressor. It’s also a silent episode, adding to its eeriness. This is the second of my son’s three favorites.
“Mr. Dingle the Strong” (March 3, 1961)
Being relatively small and weak, kids tend to romanticize physical power. So what kid wouldn’t enjoy seeing this timid vacuum salesman suddenly gifted with the strength of 300 men?
It’s Burgess Meredith again, and it features young Don Rickles as a hot-headed baseball fan. The only hitch, for kid viewers, is that the aliens who give Mr. Dingle his strength are very bizarre looking, possibly scary, though probably intended to be funny at the time.
“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (May 26, 1961)
With “Mr. Dingle” (above), here’s another lighthearted episode involving aliens. A UFO lands in the snowy mountains and an “extra” person appears on a bus and in a diner, so someone must be an alien in disguise. But everyone appears to be human.
Fun for adults as well as kids, since you’re constantly trying to guess the alien as you watch. It makes a nice comparison to “Maple Street” (above) since both episodes depict people suspicious of each other, but here the atmosphere is jokey rather than tense.
“It’s a Good Life” (November 3, 1961)
Here’s another of the most famous – and most frightening – episodes. It might have the bleakest ending of them all. But kids will yet have some sympathy for Bill Mumy (only seven years old during filming), the boy with unlimited powers to manipulate reality, even transforming or killing adults who won’t obey.
It’s the ultimate turning of the tables, as the young command the old. He can even read minds! The episode was adapted by Joe Dante for the 1983 Twilight Zone feature film, with more sympathy for the boy.
“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (December 22, 1961)
A purposefully simple episode with five character archetypes: Soldier, Clown, Musician, Hobo, and Dancer trapped in a metal room, not knowing who they are or how they got there.
Are they on a spaceship? Under a giant microscope? In a dream? In Hell? As in “The After Hours” (above), the explanation isn’t as frightening as we feared along the way. The title came from the 1920s surrealist play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” but there’s a method to the madness in this episode.
This is the third of my son’s three favorites, and probably the one he has watched more times than any other.
“To Serve Man” (March 2, 1962)
As in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), tall and vaguely sinister aliens gift us humans with fantastic technologies and a means to world peace… but just what is their ultimate goal?
Even if you already know the trick ending, you should see this one again if only to appreciate the storytelling. It’s all told in flashback, for example, and it requires the cracking of an alien code. My son thought the ending was funny.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (October 11, 1963)
Here’s the most famous Shatner episode, and one of the greatest TZ episodes of all.
Most kids don’t fear flying, so they might not understand why our protagonist is worried to begin with. But all kids know what it’s like to see something strange, to tell others, and to be scolded as if they were lying or wrong. They’ll easily empathize with Shatner and might even exclaim “he told you so!” when the conclusion confirms that the monster he saw on the airplane wing – and the damage it caused – was real.
The episode was later adapted skillfully into the 1983 Twilight Zone feature film, with John Lithgow as the nervous passenger.
“Living Doll” (November 1, 1963)
With “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (see above), this is one of the few great episodes beyond the first few seasons. Telly Savalas plays a crabby stepdad angry that his stepdaughter has a Talky Tina doll (based on Chatty Cathy which was popular at the time).
But as in “A Thing About Machines” (see above), the doll takes on a life of its own and starts getting personal with its antagonist. The story is centered around Savalas rather than the stepdaughter, but kids won’t mind: they know what it’s like to have an angry, crabby parent around the house.
Despite the surprising violence, it’s almost funny at the end.