Studio: Image Entertainment
Writer: Rod Serling, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Jerry Sohl
Producer: Buck Houghton, Bert Granet, William Froug
Stars: William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Claude Akins, Agnes Moorhead, Fritz Weaver, Bill Mumy, Cloris Leachman, Richard Kiel, Telly Savalas, June Foray, Ron Howard
Seventeen classic episodes of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” include “Time Enough at Last,” “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
Posting, publishing, or otherwise communicating any list claiming to be “definitive,” “ultimate,” or “essential” when it comes to selecting the cream of a pop culture crop is asking for outrage from fandom at large. Trolls, troublemakers, and Average Joes alike lace up their gloves and prepare for a fight before fully considering the contents of any “Best of” collection. “What about (fill in the blank)?” they mutter with disappointment. “How can any list that doesn’t include (such-and-such) be considered perfect?” they angrily ask. “You chose (this) over (that)?” they exclaim with feigned confusion.
Apply this concept to something as lauded as “The Twilight Zone” and you can practically hear the nerd rage boiling. Ask 100 different fans to select the 17 greatest episodes and you will receive 100 different lists. Every single one of those lists will exclude someone’s favorite, include at least one eyebrow-raiser, and invite spirited argument over just how spot on or crazy it really is.
So when a two-disc 55th anniversary collection of “The Twilight Zone” purports to have assembled only “Essential Episodes,” it is natural for fans to poke up their heads like Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day and say, “I’ll be the judge of that.” This is especially true when considering that there already exist multiple compilations whose contents call their titles into question. “Fan Favorites?” “Treasures of the Twilight Zone?” Do those collections live up to their monikers? Who needs another seemingly random assortment of various “Twilight Zone” episodes anyway?
The back of the box for “The Twilight Zone: Essential Episodes” touts it as “the ultimate must-have collection for any Twilight Zone fan.” Having reviewed the episodes, I wholeheartedly agree. This collection gets it right. These are the 17 episodes included:
Time Enough at Last
The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
A Stop at Willoughby
The After Hours
The Howling Man
The Eye of the Beholder
Nick of Time
The Obsolete Man
It’s a Good Life
The Midnight Sun
To Serve Man
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
And this is why these episodes constitute a terrific assemblage that can genuinely be regarded as “essential episodes” of “The Twilight Zone:”
For starters, this set accurately represents the show’s thematic diversity. Subject matter touches upon political allegory (“The Obsolete Man”), nostalgic melancholy (“Walking Distance”), psychological terror (“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), cautionary fable (“The Masks”), social commentary (“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”), and virtually every subset imaginable of the science-fiction, horror, thriller, and suspense genres.
Break down this collection statistically and its quantitative value is even harder to dispute. Of the 17 episodes, 12 were written by creator Rod Serling, three by Richard Matheson, and two by Charles Beaumont (although one of those was technically ghostwritten by Jerry Sohl). That is a proper proportion of the undisputed “Big Three,” whose collective work on the show classically defines its spirit and imagination. More than half of the inclusions also favor the first two of the five seasons, widely regarded as “The Twilight Zone” heyday. This collection has given very careful thought to where the bulk of the show’s quality resides and from where to cull the best contents.
“The Twilight Zone: Essential Episodes” is also notable for what it does not include. For instance, none of the six shot-on-videotape episodes from season two make an appearance and the entire fourth season of one-hour installments produced by Herbert Hirschman is completely excluded. Episodes that had previously earned distinction for one reason or another, such as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “The Encounter,” and “Where is Everybody?” are also absent.
And rightly so, given the purpose of this particular set. As important as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” might be in “Twilight Zone” history for being the series’ final episode and for winning the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1963, it was produced outside the scope of the show and folded into the series mainly as a cost-saving tactic. Something like “The Encounter” is memorable more for its controversial content than for its actually quality. And “The Twilight Zone: Essential Episodes” is not trying to represent the complete spectrum of “Twilight Zone” canon. It is staying laser-focused on that keyword of legitimately “essential.”
Only three of the selections can have their “essential” status disputed. “A Stop at Willoughby” is so similar to “Walking Distance” that even though it is a quality episode in its own right, its inclusion as part of a package deal renders it redundant. “The Obsolete Man” and “The Midnight Sun” have their hooks and their fervent supporters, but receive such scattered mentions in TZ-related discussions that more universally memorable episodes might have been more appropriate. An argument can be made that a George Clayton Johnson-penned script such as “A Game of Pool” or “A Penny for Your Thoughts” would have been a better fit, but a counterargument can then simply point back to the first paragraph of this review.
Still, none of those three can be labeled as mediocre lowlights or outright duds like some of the selections in previous “greatest hits” compilations. And having noted that trio of possible exceptions, the other 14 episodes should all occupy reserved spots in a “Top 20” list from any discerning “Twilight Zone” devotee. From Burgess Meredith’s cracked eyeglasses to William Shatner shouting at a gremlin through an airplane window, all of the show’s most iconic imagery is enshrined somewhere in these 425 minutes.
The hardcore “Twilight Zone” diehard already has the complete series on DVD, Blu-ray, or both. But for casual fans lacking the shelf space or the pocket change to purchase the definitive set, yet who want “The Twilight Zone” represented in their home video library, this is the two-disc set to own.
Put too few episodes together and you only create an unsatisfying brief taste. Compile too many and the prospect of sitting through every offering is too daunting an endeavor to ever start. But paring “The Twilight Zone” down to 17 core half-hours that authentically represent the series’ best aspects is a fitting tribute to an all-time classic and the perfect way to relive truly timeless television.
Review Score: 95