The 10 Best Episodes of the 1980s Twilight Zone TV Series
In the mid-1980s, CBS dug up and reanimated The Twilight Zone, hoping to recreate the magic of the iconic Rod Serling series from the ’50s and ’60s. For the most part they failed, as by and large the series is devoid of the inspiration and magic of the original series. It’s hard to pinpoint why this is. Maybe it’s the lack of the late Serling himself as showrunner, writer and onscreen narrator. He had a penchant for morality tales that explored humanity with equal doses of hope, cynicism, caution and humor. The ’80s show has a less consistent tone. Or maybe it is the lack of the black-and-white format of the first series, which did its part in creating a stark, eerie ambiance that seems even more distant and strange as the years go by.
Whatever the case, it was not for lack of talent. Regular contributors to the revival included Wes Craven, Harlan Ellison, George R. R Martin (!!), Rockne S. O’Bannon (creator of Farscape) and J. Michael Straczynski. The second version of The Twilight Zone did have one major thing going for it – an opening sequence so creepy that it feels like the actual, videotaped recording of a nightmare, complete with a rendition of the classic Twilight Zone theme by The Grateful Dead. As for the episodes, there are some real gems among the many duds, even ones that can stand up with the originals as classics. Let this list serve as a guide as you step into a strange televised dimension beyond which is known to many men. Avoid wading through all the mediocrity as you journey into an area we call… the 1980s Twilight Zone. Here are what we feel are the 10 best episodes.
Spoilery Version: Just like the ghosts of World War II made for some of the original Twilight Zone‘s most haunting and thought-provoking episodes, the lasting pain of the Vietnam War was a powerful theme in some of the revived series’ best stories. This includes episodes like “The Road Less Traveled” (which fell just short of making this list) and “Nightcrawlers,” a truly disturbing piece with a dark and cinematic vibe that makes it feel like a cut segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie. The episodes starts with a small town cop with a bit of a tact problem strolling into the local diner and casually telling everyone while snarfing down his dinner that a nearby motel was shot up and burned to the ground, killing many of the occupants. Officer Friendly he is not. Soon after, a sullen Vietnam vet stops by for a cup of coffee and is repeatedly questioned by the cop about his time in the war, despite the vet’s obvious desire not to discuss it. The veteran displays a small talent for making his wishes turn into reality, like a beer and a steak, but this ability gets out of control when the cop begins to suspect his involvement in the motel shootout, tries to arrest the vet, and then bashes him over the head when he tries to escape. Left unchecked as he sinks into unconsciousness, the veteran’s ability to conjure his dreams into reality brings his PTSD into the present. The warzone is suddenly brought back to America, with the diner finding itself right in the middle of a battle fought by phantom soldiers. The small establishment is besieged with gunfire and explosions, and the dead platoon the vet left behind finally catches up to and kills him. As the chaos ends and the ambulances arrive, the shellshocked diner owner recalls with horror that the vet said there were others like him that display this terrible ability…
9) The Crossing
Spoilery Version: Father Mark, a beloved parish priest, is hard at work securing funding for a new hospital children’s wing. But before the episode turns into Boys Town, Father Mark begins witnessing the repeated vision of a beautiful girl in a station wagon which drives past him, crashes and explodes. As the horrible event keeps replaying itself without anyone else seeing it or Father Mark being able to stop it, he comes to terms with what’s going on. Long before he became a priest, Father Mark witnessed his friend Kelly crash her station wagon and was too cowardly to rush in and save her before the car burst into flames and killed her. Despite all the good he had done as a priest, it had never been enough to wash away the guilt. The next time Father Mark sees the station wagon, he gets in the passenger side and drives off with Kelly, finally having a chance to relive the moment and do it differently. The episode then cuts to the church congregation mourning Father Mark at his funeral, since he was killed when the accident occurred this time around. But Kelly, finally saved, arrives and places a rose on his coffin. The episode is a brutal, eerie, reality-bending reminder that some failings can never be atoned for, at least not in one’s own conscience.
8) Something in the Walls
Spoilery Version: Have you ever sat on your couch staring at the wallpaper, or stood in the shower gazing at the tile, and started to notice what appeared to be faces staring out from the patterns? That was just a momentary, meaningless observation – a case of apophenia – and nothing more, right? Well, after watching this Twilight Zone episode, you might find yourself crapping yourself in sheer terror every time you take a wayward glance at the wall… or that the wall glances at you. Dr. Craig takes a new post at a sanitarium and is immediately interested in learning more about a patient named Sharon, who is seemingly sane but nonetheless freaks out if she’s delivered blankets that have patterns on them. The walls of her room are painted white, and she’ll only wear solid colors. The doctor earns her confidence, and Sharon eventually admits that she’s in the hospital because while at home, she saw people trying to get to her through the walls of her bedroom. This is revealed is an incredibly disturbing flashback that shows amorphous faces pressing through the wallpaper and screaming incoherently, with arms trying to grab Sharon as she runs away. What exactly the beings want is a bit of a mystery. For a 1980’s primetime television show, the special effects are incredibly well done and frightening. We have to assume this episode is the cause of deep-set hysteria in many a thirtysomething today! Then one night, Sharon’s room at the sanitarium begins to leak during a storm and she’s relocated, by the nurses, screaming, to a room with patterned wallpaper. Doctor Craig arrives the next morning to find a calm Sharon checking herself out of the sanitarium. But a glance back at the room reveals the real Sharon, now one of the nondescript faces in the walls, pleading for help. Yup, the people in the wallpaper are here to replace us!
Spoilery Version: This episodes starts out a little bit sappy, but then goes off in a whole other mindfuck direction in the last few minutes that makes it awesome. Toby is a boy who has inherited a love of movie monsters from his father, the pair swapping trivia and excitedly plopping down in front of the TV to catch late evening B-movies. Toby soon meets his new neighbor, an older man named Emile who reveals he’s a vampire upon discerning Toby’s love of monsters. Toby is skeptical until he catches Emile lifting a car off the ground and sees bags of blood stored in his basement. Emile laughs when Toby whips out a cross and decides to take the boy under his, erm, wing, teaching him that real vampires aren’t exactly the creatures of lore that fear garlic (which is illustrated through the two enjoying an Italian dinner). Emile take Toby to a cemetery to show him a field full of 10 million fireflies, and Toby can’t believe his eyes. Emile tells Toby it’s a good moment he can always remember during bad times; he also reveals that he’s come back to the town he grew up in to live his last days. Then things get really weird. Toby begins to get sick, and his parents and other people in the community begin having allergic reactions that stem from the presence of a vampire. It culminates with all the adults (but not Toby) SUDDENLY MORPHING INTO WEREWOLVES AND BEATING EMILE TO DEATH. It turns out that humans have a genetic defense against vampires which they don’t remember after the transformation, and it normally results in vampires having to constantly be on the move to survive. Emile had just grown tired of running. In the end, Toby misses his friend and takes his father to see the fireflies. But then his father starts sneezing AROUND TOBY, meaning the poor kid is a secret vampire who will soon have to run away if he doesn’t want his own parents to turn into howling beasts and bludgeon him to death. It’s a sadistic twist, and it’s awesome.
6) To See the Invisible Man
Spoilery Version: This episode depicts a near-future society where the mere transgression of being a self-involved, cynical jerk is punishable by law. That means pretty much all us here would be handcuffed and dragged away for our Internet snarkiness. The web could actually be a pleasant place! Maybe the Orwellian society in this episode ain’t so bad. Cotter Smith, who is almost impossible to watch without thinking he’s Paul Rudd, plays Mitchell Chaplin, sentenced to a year of punishment for not being a sunny, happy person who bothers to take an active interest in anyone else. He is forced to wear a volcano-like protrusion on his forehead that marks him as a convict, and everyone he meets has to pretend he doesn’t exist. Flying mechanical orbs follow him around to enforce the rules. The episode deals with the implications of this punishment in many interesting ways. Mitchell can’t be served at restaurants, so he has to jump behind the counter and help himself. He can freely walk into the women’s locker-room and leer at the naked bathers, until realizing what a creep he’s being. If he gets injured, doctors cannot help him, which is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the situation. Micthell meets other people undergoing the same punishment and begs them to talk with him, but they are not allowed to interact either. In the end, Mitchell serves his year and becomes a much more caring person, realizing how much he needs others. But then he runs into a woman still undergoing the punishment, who he had previously begged to talk with him. She pleads for him to acknowledge her existence and he resists for awhile, but then gives in, embraces her and tells her that she’s not alone. As the droids swirl around to arrest Mitchell again, he goes off to serve another year, but this time proudly, as the punishment to turn him into a caring person worked a bit too well.
5) The Call
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
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
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
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 [email protected]!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
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.