The 10 Best Episodes of the 1980s Twilight Zone TV Series

By Kevin Guhl in Daily Lists, TV
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 8:05 am
5) The Call

Brief Synopsis: A lonely man hits it off with a woman when he accidentally dials her number, but she is hiding an interesting secret...

Spoilery Version:: William Sanderson portrays Norman, a lonely bachelor whose typical night involves eating frozen dinners and impulse shopping while watching informercials. While engaged in the latter, he misdials and contacts Mary Ann, a woman with whom he seems to hit it off. Despite baring their souls over the phone lines, Mary Ann refuses to meet him. A desperate Norman has the call traced and follows it to an art museum phone that sits near a life-size sculpture of a woman. And not just any woman; it's the self-portrait of an artist named Mary Ann who committed suicide. Norman is justifiably freaked out when Mary Ann calls him later to say she saw him in the museum, and how dark and lonely it is there at night. But then she says they can't talk anymore and hangs up. Despite this, Norman heads back to the museum to talk to the silent, immobile sculpture, and tells her how much he loves and wants to be with her. He actually goes in for a kiss before a security guard catches him and meekly asks Norman to please not touch the statues. So, it's basically "My Romance with a Weeping Angel." Mary Ann calls him back later and asks him to return if he really wants to be with her forever, and Norman breaks into the museum. The security guard hears him and enters the room where Mary Ann's sculpture is displayed... only to find her hand-in-hand with a new, male statue...

4) The Cold Equations

Brief Synopsis: A young woman makes a horrible mistake when she stows away on a supply ship delivering vaccinations to a plague-ridden planet.

Spoilery Version: One of the reasons people love The Twilight Zone is its twist endings, and one of the reasons people love fiction in general is that it can compress life into a sensible story where the heroes often find a way to beat the odds and save the day at the end. This story offers neither. Marilyn stows away on a spaceship delivering medical supplies in the hope of seeing her brother, who is stationed on the destination world. Not only is she unaware of the plague, but she also doesn't realize that supply ship flights are plotted out to the last ounce, provided with just enough fuel to safely reach their destination. Any extra weight dangerously throws off the whole flight plan. The ship's lone pilot, Thomas, is ordered to make the only logical choice if the ship is to reach the plague victims on time - jettison Marilyn into the cold depths of space. Alas, ignorance is not always bliss. Thomas tries everything he can to help her, such as desperately removing and ejecting every excess part of the ship's interior he can find. You keep expecting he'll find some way, some ingenious solution, to save this girl. But nothing they do compensates enough for her weight, and both Marilyn and the audience slowly realize the true horror of the situation. She gets a chance to contact her brother and say goodbye, and then grimly accepts her fate and steps into the ship's airlock. Left with no other choice, Thomas opens the outer door and ejects her to an almost instant death, her life cut short by one thoughtless, well-meaning mistake. Struck by the brutal, cold tragedy of it all, Thomas breaks down into tears. It's a horrible incident to watch unfold over 20-plus minutes on screen and will leave you with a feeling of dread, but that's what makes it one of the best. Good TV should occasionally make you want to hang yourself.

3) Her Pilgrim Soul

Brief Synopsis: Two scientists are shocked when a woman is reincarnated inside their holographic projector.

Spoilery Version: It's funny. The least renowned episodes of the original Twilight Zone are the hour-long episodes that made up its fourth season. They're rarely shown in repeats, even during holiday marathons, and generally seem to be dismissed for not adhering to the tighter, major twist-based half-hour episodes of the rest of the series. But in the '80s Twilight Zone revival, the longer episodes are among the best, giving stories a chance to breathe and characters an opportunity to shine. Such is the case in "Her Pilgrim Soul," in which scientist Kevin Dayton and assistant Daniel (played by a young Gary Cole, who looks more Jeff Spicoli than Lumbergh here) suddenly find a young girl, Nola, has come to life in their experimental holographic generator and is playing with a toy ball. The girl ages at a rate of years per day (at one point played by Danica "Winnie" McKellar of The Wonder Years) and Kevin gets to know and fall in love with her as she becomes a woman. We're not still talking about The Wonder Years, by the way. The pair bond over authors like Yeats, and Nola remembers parts of her life in the early 20th century, burdened with a father who discouraged her education and suffering a painful miscarriage. Meanwhile, Kevin's already deteriorating relationship with his wife becomes worse as he spends more time at the lab with another woman. Daniel does some digging and finds out that Nola actually existed, and died during the miscarriage. Although she continues to age as a hologram, her early death in real life resulted in her husband dying from a broken heart. It turns out that Nola's husband was reincarnated as Kevin, and Nola came back in another way to help him get over the loss he was still feeling a lifetime later. Nola calls Kevin's wife to come to lab, and the couple have an emotional reunion as a now elderly Nola fades away. But the holographic ball goes bouncing across the lab and lands in the hands of Kevin's wife, suggesting - possibly - that the couple might have a little girl in their future with an innate love of Yeats. I challenge even the crustiest-souled readers among you not to watch this episode and feel a tug at you shriveled, dark hearts.

2) A Little Peace and Quiet

Brief Synopsis: A harried housewife discovers the amazing ability to stop the world around her by telling everyone to SHUT THE HELL UP.

Spoilery Version: The star of this episode is Melinda Dillon, who looks almost exactly like she did when she played the mother in A Christmas Story. Her role here is also kind of similar, and you can certainly see her using the magic stopwatch she finds in this episode to make the Old Man, Ralphie and Randy freeze in place around the Christmas tree for a few hours while she sits back, relaxes and enjoys her eggnog. Having the ability to stop time is one of those special powers most of us have fantasized about at one time or another. The possibilities for convenience and unbridled perversion are just unimaginable. In this episode, the stopwatch give the mother the ability to stop time all over the world by yelling "SHUT UP!," which she discovers during a very frustrating moment with her husband and kids. She can then unfreeze everyone by telling them to start talking. What follows is pure wish fulfillment, as she uses her newfound ability to go shopping in an eerily but peacefully still world without any hassles and totally freak out two nosy door-to-door peace activists by freezing them and moving them elsewhere. The problem is that, in her bliss, the woman has been ignoring news reports of a tension build-up between the USA and Soviet Union. When the TV news anchors begin screaming about impeding war and the sirens start blaring, the woman yells at it all to shut up. Then she wanders out into town to find everyone staring upward... at a nuclear missile just seconds from hitting the ground. If she restarts time, everyone dies; she is otherwise stuck until the end of her days in a frozen world on the brink of hell. HOLY F@CK!N' SH#T is that a gut-punching twist! The threat of nuclear annihilation was an unsettling, underlying fear throughout much of the '80s, and this episode does what The Twilight Zone does so well - capturing the anxieties of its era.

1) A Message from Charity

Brief Synopsis: Future Star Trek: Voyager star (although we won't hold that against him) Robert Duncan McNeill plays Peter, a 1980s teenager who becomes telepathically attached to a teenage Puritan girl named Charity (Kerry Noonan) from Colonial America after the two become afflicted with the same fever.

Spoilery Version: There is a purely interesting fantasy at the heart of this episode, in which a pair of teens separated by nearly two centuries obtain the ability to mentally communicate with each other and see their respective worlds through each other's eyes. The appearance of a jetliner in the sky is a pretty ho-hum event for Peter, but the episode captures the utter disbelief and amazement experienced by Charity as she sees it through Peter's eyes. The premise does bring about some curious questions that the episode doesn't address - like do they see each other when they go to the bathroom or take a shower? - but this is The Twilight Zone, not a late night Skinemax movie, so those types of queries go unaddressed. Instead, we get a hauntingly beautiful tale about two teenagers who find the friendship they both needed, even if they had to reach out across time to do so. The odd connection comes to a head when Charity's knowledge of the future causes her to be branded a witch and Peter has to rush to the library to find historical records with blackmail material on her accuser in order to save Charity's life. Charity decides to end the connection for both of their sakes and Peter goes on to make friends in his own time, but a year later Charity contacts him with one last message - to go to the woods and find a rock on which she carved a timeless proclamation of her love for him. It's a tangible, silent artifact of a relationship tragically restricted by the wide chasm of time.
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