Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Viewer’s Guide to a Twilight Zone Christmas

Essential episodes of The Twilight Zone for the winter season, in order of original air date.

1.) "What You Need," season one, episode 12 (12/25/59)

           -This episode, which aired on Christmas, concerns a fantastic form of gift-giving. A meek old man who helps people by giving them things they need for the future falls prey to a villain who attempts to use the old man's talent for his own gain. Adapted by Rod Serling from a story by Henry Kuttner and C.L Moore, the episode eschews the original story's science fiction flavor for the feeling of a film noir. It is an effective treatment of the theme that no man should know too much about his own destiny.  

Here's Our Look at "What You Need."
                                          

2.) "A Passage for Trumpet," season one, episode 32 (05/20/60)

          -This episode marks the first of four appearances by veteran actor Jack Klugman on the series and is essentially Rod Serling’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life, the classic Christmas fantasy film from 1946. Though “A Passage for Trumpet” is essentially a retelling of Philip Van Doren Stern’s 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift,” which formed the basis of It’s a Wonderful Life. In that story, a man contemplating suicide is shown what life without him would be like and decides to backtrack on his attempt to take his own life (life being the greatest gift of the title). Joey Crown, from “A Passage for Trumpet,” likewise is shown the ugly side of the afterlife after a suicide attempt and decides to remain in the land of the living. Despite its derivative nature, the episode is an uplifting fable (featuring a classic example of Serling’s “lovable loser”-type character) and features strong performances from Zone regulars Klugman and John Anderson (Anderson assumes the role of guardian angel Gabriel, the horn-playing herald who shows Joey Crown the error of his ways).

Read our commentary on “A Passage for Trumpet.” 


3.) “The After Hours,” season one, episode 34 (6/10/160)

          -Nothing says Christmas like the rush of department store shopping, and Rod Serling puts a truly unique spin on the tradition in this exceptionally creepy episode starring Anne Francis. Francis portrays a young woman seeking the perfect gift who instead discovers a shocking secret about the nature of department store mannequins. The journey to a secret level of the store is a particularly disturbing highlight. Francis gives an underrated performance and the unsettling atmosphere in the episode is second to none on the series. It comes highly recommended.

Read our thoughts on “The After Hours.” 

4.) “The Night of the Meek,” season two, episode 47 (12/23/60)

          -This most overtly Christmas episode of the series certainly has its flaws but remains one of the more uplifting episodes of the series due to a strong performance by Art Carney as another of Rod Serling’s “lovable losers.” This time the loser is an alcoholic department store Santa Claus that gets a chance at redemption when he discovers Santa’s magical bag of toys and uses it to spread Christmas cheer throughout the city. “Night of the Meek” is essential Christmas viewing for Zone fans and remains a fan favorite, despite the hideous videotape appearance of the episode.

Read all about “The Night of the Meek.” 

5.) “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” season two, episode 64 (5/26/61)

          -Two state policemen and a group of bus passengers face off against harsh winter weather and a hidden adversary at a roadside cafe in this highly entertaining episode. Another atmospheric gem from Rod Serling heralds the arrival of director Montgomery Pittman to showcase perhaps the finest group of Serling characters created for the series, especially in the form of John Hoyt as a grouchy businessman and Jack Elam as a boisterous eccentric. The twisting narrative and whacky makeup effects make this one a sure-fire crowd-pleaser certain to delight those in search of macabre fun.

Find out more on “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” 

5.) “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” season three, episode 79 (12/15/61)

          -Another Christmas tradition is the ringing of donation bells and Rod Serling again delivers an imaginative twist on the tradition. Jumpstarted by a story idea from journalist Marvin Petal, Serling draws on his exceptional skill at characterization to craft one of the more unusual and haunting offerings from the series. The playful title clues the viewer in on the existential nature of the play and fine performances enhance the strange fantasy. The final twist is perhaps overly-familiar now but remains one of the more memorable created for the series. Highly recommended.

Explore the secrets of “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” 

6.) “Nothing in the Dark,” season three, episode 81 (1/5/62)

          -Bundle up for this frosty bit of dark fantasy. This episode is arguably the finest work from three of the most talented creators on the series, writer George Clayton Johnson, director Lamont Johnson, and actress Gladys Cooper. Cooper gives an outstanding performance as a woman who has shut herself away from the world in fear of meeting “Mr. Death.” The fable-like story has a strong winter atmosphere and features some of the finest camera work of the series. It comes highly recommended.

Here's our review of “Nothing in the Dark.” 

7.) “The Changing of the Guard,” season three, episode 102 (6/1/62)

          -Veteran actor Donald Pleasance gives an emotionally powerful performance in this Christmas episode. It is simultaneously a melancholy and uplifting episode in which an aging professor forced into retirement is confronted by Christmas spirits in order to remind him of his value as an instructor to generations of young men. This one has a uniquely haunting quality and again approaches the subject of depression and suicide during the Christmas season, a time of reflection and contemplation. It remains a strongly affecting episode from Rod Serling. 

8.)  “Living Doll,” season five, episode 126 (11/1/63)

         -What says Christmas more than children and their toys? When little Christie brings home Talky Tina, mean ole Stepdaddy will pay the price. Telly Savalas is excellent in this creepy classic as a temperamental stepfather who meets his match in an indestructible killer doll. This episode served as the basis of or inspiration for numerous subsequent tales of killer dolls and remains an all-time classic from the series. Highly recommended.

Here's our thoughts on “Living Doll.” 

-JP

3 comments:

  1. I love Christmas episodes and had never thought about how many TZs fit the bill. Of course, we watch "Night of the Meek" every year, along with "Scrooge Gets an Oscar" and "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." Merry Christmas!

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    1. The surprising thing about putting this list together is how many Christmas/winter episodes were originally aired in the late spring and summer. Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas!

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  2. Me-TV just aired "Changing of the Guard" Friday night. I'd never thought of it as a Christmas show, since it aired as the Season 3 finale at the beginning of June 1962, but it was very much a Christmas show. The scene with the professor's late students brought tears to my eyes.

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