Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Genre Guide to The Twilight Zone

"Third From the Sun"
  Excuse this brief interlude as we prepare to dive back into our Season Three episode guide shortly with writer Earl Hamner's debut on the program, "The Hunt," but it seems an opportune time to explore the role of genre in the series. The show had reached full maturity by this point in the third season and would thereafter work within the established story types developed and explored during the first three seasons. 

We take a decidedly literary approach to our subject here in the Vortex due to the fact that not only did we arrive at the series through literary channels (we encountered the printed works of Serling, Matheson, Beaumont, Bradbury, et al. from an early age) but also because, like many of the early genre television anthologies, The Twilight Zone is situated upon a firm literary foundation with deep roots to explore and wide ranging branches to discover. More than 40 of the show’s 156 episodes were directly based (credited or not) upon a published or unpublished story, or work of folklore. We recognize that storytelling was of overriding importance to the series and that series creator Rod Serling took particular care to recruit the finest genre writers to the series and to ensure that the vision these writers put forth was fully and capably realized during the filming process. The principle writers for the series uniformly remember their time working on The Twilight Zone (especially during the first three seasons under producer Buck Houghton) as some of their most satisfying experiences in the often brutal industry of television. Story was not only the all-important factor in the creation of the series but it remains the principle quality of the show remembered by those that have fondly viewed the series throughout its nearly sixty years of existence.

Here we attempt to extrapolate the various literary genres and influences within which the show's writers continued to work and explore. We have created the following genre guide to the series output. We think it offers a unique perspective on how versatile and ambitious was The Twilight Zone for a series often dismissed as a science fiction program and too seldom given proper credit for the frequently astounding quality of its writing. Not only did the show range widely over theme, setting, and form, but also approached nearly every story type found in the traditional genre forms of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery, often presenting ambitious and interesting variations on the theme while remaining universally accessible. A wonderful quality of an anthology series is that it need not be viewed in any sort of order and thus this genre guide is perhaps useful to both newcomers and seasoned fans of the series who desire the perspective accorded an exploration of the show through a thematic lens rather than the traditional manner of viewing the episodes in order of original air date.


A Genre Guide to The Twilight Zone

Note: The following list is not an attempt to definitively delineate the story types found in the series but rather to offer a starting point for conversation exploring the role that genre and story types integral to genre play in the storytelling process displayed by the series. In truth, the series output could potentially be organized in as little as three categories or as many as a hundred; and episodes do not always lend themselves to easy categorizations. The persistent aspect of the series (and one which, frankly, too often overshadows the other qualities of the series) is the use of irony in the form of the unexpected or twist ending* to subvert the expectations of the viewer and thus provoke shock and surprise. In some cases, the series accomplished this so well that many episodes are remembered solely for their twist endings rather than their cumulative effects, often masking inefficiencies or diverting from additional qualities+.

Category titles are self-explanatory and are merely our own idiosyncratic choices. Several episodes fit neatly into more than a single category. For example: "A Nice Place to Visit" concerns both "Death and the Afterlife" and "The Devil." So too does "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" concern both "Magical Abilities" and "Alien Encounters." "Long Distance Call" is both a "Ghosts" story and a story about an "Enchanted Object," etc. Some categories, such as "Death and the Afterlife," "Ghosts," and "Vengeance from Beyond" have inherent potential for crossover. Also, some categories can well be thought of as sub-categories, as the items under question in "Dolls, Dummies, and Effigies" are certainly a form of "Enchanted Objects." We have placed each episode under the heading with which we believe the episode is primarily concerned and noted each episode we believe could comfortably fit into another category. Overarching characteristics of theme and setting (War, Old West, Outer Space, The Future, etc.) are not considered.

If interested in a far broader series of categorizations of the show's episodes, the reader is directed to A Critical History of The Twilight Zone, 1959-1964 by Don Presnell and Marty McGee (McFarland, 1998), which provides an exhaustive genre guide as an appendix. 

*There is in fact a difference between an unexpected ending and a twist ending. Though the effects of both can be similar, an unexpected ending can be logically traced back through the story (making the unexpected ending easier to guess) whereas a twist ending defies logic to achieve its effects (thus making it more difficult to guess). For example, the ending of “The Hitch-Hiker” is an unexpected ending. The ending of “Third from the Sun” is a twist ending.

+Many viewers of the show seem to be lamentably reliant upon the endings of the episodes in order to pass critical judgment. One of the more regrettable responses I receive to my personal favorite episodes is that because the viewer can reasonably guess the ending (as in “The Howling Man” or “The Masks”) the episode is somehow less attractive than episodes with memorable yet completely illogical (and often cruel) endings (as in “Time Enough At Last” or “Stopover in a Quiet Town”).

Alien Encounters:
"The Invaders" (S2, E51)
"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" (S2, E64)
"To Serve Man" (S3, E89)
"The Fugitive" (S3, E90)
"The Little People" (S3, E93)
"The Invaders"
"Hocus Pocus and Frisby" (S3, E95)
"The Gift" (S3, E97)
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (S5, E123)
"Black Leather Jackets" (S5, E138)
"Stopover In a Quiet Town" (S5, E150) (Cruel Fates)
"The Fear" (S5, E155)

"A Passage for Trumpet" (S1, E32) (Death and the Afterlife)
"Mr. Bevis" (S1, E33)
"Cavender is Coming" (S3, E101)

Cruel Fates:
"I Shot an Arrow Into the Air" (S1, E15)
"Elegy" (S1, E20) (Alien Encounters)
"People Are Alike All Over" (S1, E25) (Alien Encounters)
"The Rip Van Winkle Caper" (S2, E60)
"The Silence" (S2, E61) (Deadly Encounters)
"The Grave" (S3, E72) (Deadly Encounters)
"Four O'Clock" (S3, E94) (Magical Abilities)
"On Thursday We Leave for Home" (S4, E118) (Doomsday and Paranoia)
"The Last Night of a Jockey" (S5, E125)
"The Self Improvement of Salvadore Ross" (S5, E136) (Magical Abilities)
"People are Alike All Over"
"Spur of the Moment" (S5, E141) (Timeslips, Time Machines, and Passages Beyond)
"Sounds and Silences" (S5, E147)
"Come Wander With Me" (S5, E154)

Deadly Encounters:
"The Jeopardy Room" (S5, E149)
"The Encounter" (S5, E151)

Death and the Afterlife:
"One for the Angels" (S1, E2)
"The Hitch-Hiker" (S1, E16) (Ghosts)
"A Nice Place to Visit" (S1, E28) (The Devil)
"The Passersby" (S3, E69) (Ghosts)
"Nothing in the Dark" (S3, E81)
"The Hunt" (S3, E84)
"One for the Angels"
"The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank" (S3, E88)
"Death Ship" (S4, E108)
"In Praise of Pip" (S5, E121)
"Ninety Years Without Slumbering" (S5, E132) (Enchanted Objects)
"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (S5, E142)

The Devil:
"Escape Clause" (S1, E6)
"The Howling Man" (S2, E41)
"Printer's Devil" (S4, E111)

Dolls, Dummies, and Effigies:
"The After Hours" (S1, E34) (Existential Crises)
"The Dummy" (S3, E98)
"Miniature" (S4, E110) (Timeslips, Time Machines, and Passages Beyond)
"The New Exhibit" (S4, E115)
"Living Doll" (S5, E126)
"Caesar and Me" (S5, E148)

Doomsday Paranoia:
"The Monsters are Due on Maple Street (S1, E22)
"The Shelter" (S3, E68)
"The Midnight Sun" (S3, E75)
"One More Pallbearer" (S3, E82) (Cruel Fates)
"I Am the Night-Color Me Black" (S5, E146)
"The Monsters are Due on Maple Street"

Dreams of Terror and Death:
"Perchance to Dream" (S1, E9) (Premonition)
"Shadow Play" (S2, E62)

Dystopian Societies:
"Third from the Sun" (S1, E14)
"Eye of the Beholder" (S2, E42) (Transformations)
"The Obsolete Man" (S2, E65)

Enchanted Objects:
"The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" (S1, E4) (Timeslips, Time Machines, and Passages Beyond)
"What You Need" (S1, E12)
"The Fever" (S1, E17)
"The Man in the Bottle" (S2, E38)
"Nick of Time" (S2, E43)
"A Most Unusual Camera" (S2, E46)
"The Night of the Meek" (S2, E47)
"Dust" (S2, E48)
"The Whole Truth" (S2, E50)
"Static" (S2, E56) (Timeslips, Time Machines, and Passages Beyond)
"The Mirror" (S3, E71)
"Kick the Can" (S3, E86)
"Nick of Time"
"A Piano in the House" (S3, E87)
"Valley of the Shadow" (S4, E105)
"I Dream of Genie" (S4, E114)
"A Kind of Stopwatch" (S5, E124) (Cruel Fates)
"You Drive" (S5, E134) (Vengeance From Beyond)
"What's In the Box" (S5, E144)
"The Bewitchin' Pool" (S5, E156)

Existential Crises:
"Where Is Everybody?" (S1, E1)
"And When the Sky Was Opened" (S1, E11)
"Mirror Image" (S1, E21)
"A World of Difference" (S1, E23)
"Nightmare as a Child" (S1, E29) (Ghosts)
"Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room" (S2, E39)
"The Arrival" (S3, E67) (Ghosts)
"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" (S3, E79) (Dolls, Dummies, and Effigies)
"Person or Persons Unknown" (S3, E92) (Dreams of Terror and Death)

"Long Distance Call" (S2, E58) (Enchanted Objects)
"A Game of Pool" (S3, E70) (Death and the Afterlife)
"Dead Man's Shoes" (S3, E83) (Enchanted Objects)
"Young Man's Fancy" (S3, E99)
"A Game of Pool"
"The Changing of the Guard" (S3, E102)
"The Thirty Fathom Grave" (S4, E104)
"He's Alive" (S4, E106)
"Night Call" (S5, E139)

"Long Live Walter Jameson" (S1, E24)
"Queen of the Nile" (S5, E143) (Enchanted Objects)

Magical Abilities:
"The Four of Us Are Dying" (S1, E13) (Cruel Fates)
"The Big Tall Wish" (S1, E27)
"A World of His Own" (S1, E36)
"A Penny for Your Thoughts" (S2, E52)
"Mr. Dingle, the Strong" (S2, E55) (Alien Encounters)
"The Prime Mover" (S2, E57)
"The Mind and the Matter" (S2, E63)
"It's a Good Life" (S3, E73)
"Still Valley" (S3, E76) (Deadly Encounters)
"Mute" (S4, E107)
"The Bard" (S4, E120)
"Mr. Garrity and the Graves" (S5, E152)

Magical Potions:
"Mr. Denton on Doomsday" (S1, E3)
"The Chaser" (S1, E31)
"A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain" (S5, E131)

Post Apocalypse:
"Time Enough at Last" (S1, E8) (Cruel Fates)
"Two" (S3, E66)
"The Old Man in the Cave" (S5, E127)

"The Purple Testament" (S1, E19)
"Twenty-Two" (S2, E53) (Dreams of Terror and Death)
"Ring-a-Ding Girl" (S5, E133) (Enchanted Objects)

Robots and Other Machines:
"The Lonely" (S1, E7)
"The Mighty Casey" (S1, E35)
"A Thing About Machines (S2, E40) (Vengeance From Beyond)
"The Lateness of the Hour" (S2, E44) (Existential Crises)
"I Sing the Body Electric" (S3, E100)
"In His Image" (S4, E103) (Existential Crises)
"Steel" (S5, E122)
"Uncle Simon" (S5, E128)
"From Agnes-With Love" (S5, E140)
"The Brain Center at Whipple's" (S5, E153)

Timeslips, Time Machines, and Passages Beyond:
"Walking Distance" (S1, E5)
"The Last Flight" (S1, E18)
"Execution" (S1, E26)
"A Stop at Willoughby" (S1, E30)
"King Nine Will Not Return"
"King Nine Will Not Return" (S2, E37)
"The Trouble with Templeton" (S2, E45)
"Back There" (S2, E49)
"The Odyssey of Flight 33" (S2, E54)
"A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (S2, E59)
"Once Upon a Time" (S3, E78)
"A Quality of Mercy" (S3, E80)
"Showdown with Rance McGrew" (S3, E85)
"Little Girl Lost" (S3, E91)
"No Time Like the Past" (S4, E112)
"The Parallel" (S4, E113)
"Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" (S4, E116)
"The Incredible World of Horace Ford" (S4, E117)
"Probe 7, Over and Out" (S5, E129)
"The 7th Is Made Up of Phantoms" (S5, E130)

"The Trade-Ins" (S3, E96)
"Jess-Belle" (S4, E109)
"The Long Morrow" (S5, E135)
"Number Twelve Looks Just Like You" (S5, E137)
"The Masks" (S5, E145) (Cruel Fates)

Vengeance from Beyond:
"Judgment Night" (S1, E10) (Ghosts)
"Deaths-head Revisited" (S3, E74) (Ghosts)
"The Jungle" (S3, E77)


  1. I completely agree with you that the writer was the main creative force behind these shows. The auteur theory of film that arose in the 1960s left us all thinking that the director was the key creative force behind a film and, while that may often be true in the world of movies, I think it was far less true in the case of early TV, especially in the anthology shows.

    1. Yeah, in film I suppose it's different (which may explain why so many current films have awful screenplays) and the Zone did have some really good directors. I really enjoy the work of Douglas Heyes, John Brahm, Lamont Johnson, James Sheldon, and Montgomery Pittman, but the writer was king on the show. Television is moving back in that direction these days, as well, with the importance of the writer to shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, the latter of which is directly based on a literary property.

      After I wrote this, I was thinking about how the Zone was almost always marketed from a literary angle, whether it be the Bantam paperbacks that Serling wrote or the Gold Key Comics that far outlived the series. Then you have Robert Bloch's novelization of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Later, with the first revival series, came anthologies such as Twilight Zone: the Original Stories and The New Twilight Zone, collecting the original stories that were adapted for both the original series and the first revival. J. Michael Straczynski also pulled a Serling and adapted his episodes from the '80s revival into short stories for Bantam Books. The '80s also saw the emergence of the uniformly excellent Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine and the Zone comics from NOW Comics. The second revival series also coincided with the development of the Twilight Zone Radio Dramas and later we had the Twilight Zone graphic novels from Walker. I believe Dynamite publications is still publishing new issues of a third Zone comic series. There's also been so many other books trading on the name of the series, from the Walter Gibson books to all the script books to the episode guides and more. There seems always to be a book or magazine or comic to go along with the show, reinforcing the idea that as good as the acting and directing on the show could be, it is a series remembered for its stories.