(Yes, this is from “The Invaders.” No, it did not make my list.)
My credentials for this countdown:
I started watching The Twilight Zone when I was six.
I’ve seen every episode at least twice and re-watched many of them before making this list.
(And, to be clear, we’re discussing the original 1959 – 1964 run.)
(10) Death Ship (Season 4, Episode 6)
Written by Richard Matheson, based on his short story of the same name.
Three astronauts touch down on a planet and find a crashed ship that looks exactly like their own… with bodies that look exactly like their own.
Season 4 of The Twilight Zone was put into an hour-long slot, doubling the length of a show that sometimes felt stretched when it was in a 30-minute slot. “Death Ship” suffers from that stretching but two of my favorite Twilight Zone actors save the day: Jack Klugman (also in “A Passage for Trumpet” and “In Praise of Pip”) and Ross Martin (also in “The Four of Us Are Dying”) are great as two of the three astronauts.
Matheson (one of the all-time greats in the short-story field. Read. His. Stuff.) writes some of the best dialogue on the show. These astronauts interact not as preachy archetypes but as three guys who are scared as hell and have no idea what’s going on.
And this story just stays with you, like the best of Matheson.
(9) The Fear (Season 5, Episode 35)
Written by Rod Serling.
A small-town police officer and rich city-woman are trapped in a cabin while something stalks them. Something that can throw cars and leave footprints larger than a bus.
The two leads (Peter Mark Richman and Hazel Court) have a marked chemistry between them and neither character is clearly “good” or “bad”, which is a nice change from the normal morality lines of the Twilight Zone.
The cheesy sixties sci-fi feel to this one is a lot of fun. The punchline is basically “The Invaders” inverted, but I can live with that.
(8) The Obsolete Man (Season 2, Episode 29)
Written by Rod Serling.
In the future a person is executed if they are deemed “obsolete.” When a librarian is sentenced to death, he invites the society’s Chancellor to visit him on the night of his execution.
Burgess Meredith and Fritz Weaver bring class to the heavy-handed message of this script. The look is high-school-production Fritz Lang, but it’s got atmosphere, some clever bits, and a great final image that may have made Romero sit up and take notice.
(7) Elegy (Season 1, Episode 20)
Written by Charles Beaumont, based on his short story of the same name.
Three astronauts are stranded on a planet very much like Earth. But the people they encounter are frozen in idyllic scenes. Are they statues? In stasis?
A creepy concept with a nasty end. It’s fun to watch the extras try their best to stay still while in frame and Cecil Kellaway (playing Wickwire) is delightful. He dances back and forth between friendly and sinister through every scene. And that chirpy, playful music over the final image is perfect.
(6) The Arrival (Season 3, Episode 2)
Written by Rod Serling.
A passenger plane lands with nothing inside. No crew, no passengers, no luggage.
This is a situation with only one wrong element. Nothing scary, no immediate peril, just a man trying to figure out how the hell he ended up with an empty plane.
The final reveal/twist is the least interesting part of “The Arrival.” This is a rare episode that changes our expectations and understanding of the situation with every beat. And there’s no final message here. It’s just bizarre.
(5) People Are Alike All Over (Season 1, Episode 25)
Teleplay by Rod Serling, based on the short story “Brothers Beyond the Void” by Paul W. Fairman.
Two astronauts head to Mars. The optimistic one assures his nervous scientist companion that, no matter what they find, things will work out all right because people “are the same all over.” Of course, since this is the Twilight Zone, the statement comes back to bite them.
The low budget shows all over this one but Roddy McDowall is a solid lead and the pacing is steady. It’s one of the more interesting and throught-provoking “message” episodes.
(4) The Masks (Season 5, Episode 25)
Written by Rod Serling.
A rich, dying man assembles his ungrateful relatives for Mardi Gras. They can inherit all of his wealth if they agree to wear horrific masks until midnight.
One of the nastier and bleaker episodes of the series, which is a surprising turn for Serling. The leads are despicable, down to the old man who is teaching the “lesson” to his relatives. (You get the feeling that his daughter didn’t end up this way totally on her own…)
The titular masks are the best props The Twilight Zone ever had. And the make-up when they come off is incredible.
This is the one you show to a kid to get them hooked (and scare the snot out of them).
(3) It’s a Good Life (Season 3, Episode 8)
Teleplay by Rod Serling from Jerome Bixby’s short story “It’s a Good Life.”
A six-year-old rules a small isolated town with his mind.
A classic for a reason. Bill Mumy gives the creepiest kid-actor performance on record and the quotes are gold:
“Be dead. You be dead.”
“It’s real good that you did that.”
“I wished them out into the cornfield.”
“You’re a bad man. You’re a very bad man.”
You can’t beat Serling’s end narration, either: “No comment here. No comment at all.”
(2) Miniature (Season 4, Episode 8)
Written by Charles Beaumont.
A socially awkward (but kind) loner becomes fascinated with a dollhouse when the figures inside come to life for him alone. He withdraws completely to spend more time in this miniature world.
The most successful of Season 4’s hour-long episodes. It almost feels wrong to place this so high on the list because for all intents and purposes this is not a Twilight Zone episode, it’s a short film. We have none of the usual tropes here.
Robert Duvall gives the single-best Twilight Zone performance as Charley Parkes, a sympathetic, nuanced character. Even his family members leave the expected stereotypical modes – his mother is clingy and oppressive but we see how she and Charley enable each other to continue the unhealthy pattern. Charley’s sister is truly trying to help him; her husband is a bit of a dunce but tries his best to be kind. No one wants to hurt Charley here, no one is evil or mean-spirited.
“Miniature” is also void of the creepy-goofy score present in most Twilight Zones. The scenes between Charley and his family are played in almost complete silence. The only music in this world comes from the dollhouse.
(1) Nick of Time (Season 2, Episode 7)
Written by Richard Matheson
A couple feeds pennies into a fortune-telling machine while their car is being repaired. The husband begins to believe the machine has powers. The wife doesn’t care; even if the machine knows the future it’s better to live one’s life than become a slave out of fear.
One of William Shatner’s two Twilight Zone appearances (the other being the ultra-popular “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”).
Shatner and Patricia Breslin give great performances as the young married couple (bonus points for Breslin being the hero of the piece instead of a shrew or helpless bystander).
The simple plot sits unusually close to reality. Nothing supernatural may be going on at all. We all know people who become wrapped up in superstition or pseudo-science; who plan and worry and fret about everything ahead. The message of this is to enjoy your happiness while you can and live each day as well as you can. And – forgive me for being sentimental – but that’s just kind of nice. So is the fact that the couple is allowed to escape. It’s an interesting shift from the doom, despair, and helplessness that trap so many characters in the Twilight Zone.