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10 Nearly Unknown Episodes of The Twilight Zone
Long ago, The Twilight Zone became a cultural institution. Rod Serling’s original series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, still ranks highly on lists of the greatest TV shows of all time, even in today’s era of peak prestige TV. Serling oversaw 156 episodes over five seasons, writing a whopping 92 of them himself. But if you tune in to an episode today, it seems like it’s one of a handful of old standbys: Burgess Meredith breaking his glasses in “Time Enough at Last,” a beautiful young woman being treated by pig-faced doctors in “Eye of the Beholder,” or an overworked businessman making “A Stop at Willoughby.”
However, a large number of worthy episodes are all but unknown, except to the most dedicated of fans. Whether these episodes were withheld from syndication, hidden away due to controversy, or simply lost to time, they have been unjustly forgotten. Today, we take a look at ten of the best Twilight Zone episodes that are nearly unknown.
10 Episode Hidden Away for 52 Years
Before he became Sulu on Star Trek, George Takei starred in what is perhaps the most controversial episode of The Twilight Zone. “The Encounter” first aired on May 1, 1964, and then promptly disappeared until the SyFy channel included it as part of a Twilight Zone marathon on January 3, 2016. Although the episode has always been included on DVD and Blu-ray releases of Season 5, its absence from broadcast TV lasted for 52 years. And that’s because it was a very controversial episode from the start.
Takei plays Arthur, a young Japanese-American man sharing a beer with World War II veteran Fenton (Neville Brand). Fenton wants to show Arthur the samurai sword he took from a Japanese soldier he killed in the war. Unfortunately, this leads to some uncomfortably racist conversation, Fenton’s PTSD played for laughs, and the sword supernaturally influencing Arthur to kill Fenton. In the end, Arthur plays into Japanese stereotypes and commits suicide by jumping out a window.
Even in a time before America had passed civil rights legislation, viewers found the episode insensitive and deeply offensive. CBS responded by pulling the episode from summer re-runs and later from the syndication package. Viewed through modern eyes, it’s clear “The Encounter” was trying to make a statement about the horrors of war and racism but indulged in too many stereotypes instead. Still, it’s fascinating to see a long-hidden episode of an iconic series make a return to TVs.
9 Winner at the Cannes Film Festival and the Oscars
Like “The Encounter,” the episode “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was from the tail-end of the original Twilight Zone’s run, coming late in the final season. Even the most dedicated fans tend to agree that Serling and company were running out of gas a bit at this point. But who could blame them? The show averaged over 30 episodes per season, which is almost unheard of today. Serling not only wrote so many of the episodes but also acted as producer, showrunner, and the show’s only recurring star as the on-screen narrator. So it’s not surprising that near the end, Serling looked to outsource an episode.
This was accomplished by buying the rights to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a 1961 French short film based on the classic short story by Ambrose Bierce. Set during the American Civil War, it’s a surreal story about the last moments of a civilian who is to be hanged by Union troops. The film is silent, other than background bird noises and the occasional military order. The haunting film won the Best Short Subject award at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival and the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film at the 1963 Academy Awards.
At a time when the average Twilight Zone episode cost $65,000 to make, the producers of the show were able to secure the rights for An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge for $20,000. An additional $5,000 was spent shooting Serling’s introduction and editing him in. This turned a fine film into a cost-effective episode. But when it came time for syndication, the episode was withheld, presumably because the original purchase didn’t cover unlimited rights. It’s now available on home video box sets and occasionally airs on TV as part of marathons, but mostly it’s become another rarely seen episode of The Twilight Zone.
8 The Pre-Twilight Zone Pilot Episode
In 1955, Rod Serling shot to fame with his teleplay for Patterns. An episode of NBC’s live Kraft Television Theatre, Patterns was an immediate critical and commercial hit. Essentially a boardroom drama, Serling’s script for Patterns examined the plight of the working man in corporate America. It struck a chord with audiences, and suddenly Serling was a star. With the networks ready to give him his own show, Serling came up with the idea for an anthology show that would deal with the controversial issues of our time—but do so in the sci-fi genre in the hopes of avoiding network censors.
CBS purchased Serling’s first script for his new idea, called “The Time Element,” and promptly shelved the project. The network execs just didn’t see the potential in the idea. “The Time Element” might have gone nowhere if it weren’t for Desi Arnaz. He was looking to add some prestige to his anthology series, the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. When he found out CBS had an unused Serling script sitting in the vaults, he put it into production, and “The Time Element” debuted on the Playhouse on November 24, 1958.
The overwhelmingly positive reaction to “The Time Element” persuaded CBS to buy Serling’s show idea, and The Twilight Zone premiered in the fall of 1959. “The Time Element” was mostly forgotten, but with its sci-fi/fantasy theme, opening and closing narration, and a twist ending, it’s essentially an early pilot for The Twilight Zone. It went unseen for years until TV Land included it among its first broadcasts in 1996. In 2010, “The Time Element” was finally included on the Blu-ray edition of Season 1 of The Twilight Zone.
7 Early Starring Role for Robert Duvall
When it comes to long-unseen episodes of The Twilight Zone that languished in the vaults for years, the discussion will inevitably lead to Season 4. This season was an experiment designed to breathe new life into the series. Despite strong critical notices and a rabidly devoted fanbase, CBS was unhappy with the show’s ratings and put production on an indefinite hiatus at the end of Season 3. When the TV season started in the fall of 1962, The Twilight Zone was nowhere to be found. Serling successfully pitched expanding the show from 30 minutes to an hour as a way to revive interest. The re-tooled Twilight Zone premiered as a mid-season replacement on January 3, 1963.
In the end, the hour-long episodes didn’t perform any better in the ratings, and Season 4 was written off as a failed experiment. When the show returned for Season 5 in the fall of 1963, the running time was back to 30 minutes. Given that the 18 episodes of Season 4 all run twice as long as the rest of the show, they were not included in syndication. It wouldn’t be until DVD releases of the show that Season 4 was finally made widely available. Today, most streaming services that carry the show don’t have Season 4 due to this history of it being excluded from syndication.
So while nearly all of Season 4 could be highlighted on a list of rare episodes, one of the best is “Miniature,” the eighth episode of the season. Acting legend Robert Duvall gives a great early performance as a man who sees a figure come to life in a museum dollhouse. As he falls in love with the figure, Duvall’s family naturally thinks he is crazy and has him committed to a psychiatric hospital. But true love in The Twilight Zone will surely lead to a twist ending that won’t be spoiled here.
Duvall’s performance is reminiscent of his then-recent turn as Boo Radley in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s quiet and sullen but still evokes great empathy, making “Miniature” a standout in the hour-long episodes of The Twilight Zone.
6 Weird End of The Twilight Zone
Speaking of To Kill a Mockingbird, Duvall’s co-star in the film, Mary Badham, appeared in the final episode of The Twilight Zone, “The Bewitchin’ Pool.” In the film, Badham played Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, and in “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” she plays a character named Sport. In the film, Scout’s brother is named Jem, and in this episode, Scout’s brother is named Jeb. It seems highly unlikely that writer Earl Hamner Jr. (later the creator of The Waltons) wasn’t referencing the To Kill a Mockingbird characters in this episode, but it’s safe to say the tone is entirely different.
Hamner’s script was inspired by what he saw as a rise in divorce rates and its effect on children. Sport and Jeb’s parents are fighting their way through an ugly divorce, and the kids respond by spending a lot of time in their swimming pool. One day, the pair find a secret portal in the pool that takes them to the home of a kindly woman known as Aunt T.
By the end, the message of the story seems to be that kids should just run away if their parents can’t behave themselves. It’s a very unsettling episode and a weird way for the show to go out. Like a lot of Season 5 episodes, “The Bewitchin’ Pool” is seen as evidence of the show losing its touch at the end. It’s among a handful of Season 5 episodes rarely seen in syndication.
5 Litigation Keeps an Episode out of Circulation
Yet another Season 5 episode oddity, “Sounds and Silences,” concerns Roswell G. Flemington, a man who prefers his environment to be as noisy as possible. After his wife has had enough, he starts to hear everything as crushingly loud… then he can hear nothing. Lacking a clear moral or message, it’s a weird one, but still worthy of the new things Serling was trying with the show near the end of its run.
The episode is perhaps better remembered as the subject of a lawsuit. In 1961, a screenwriter submitted a script called “The Sound of Silence,” which was rejected. After “Sounds and Silence” aired in 1964, the author felt like his work had been plagiarized. Since the lawsuit was ongoing at the time the syndication package was put together, “Sounds and Silence” went unseen for decades. Although it’s readily available now, it still rarely pops up on TV.
4 National Tragedy Bumps an Episode
November 22, 1963, is considered one of the most tragic days in American history, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. As one would expect, regular television programming was interrupted that day—and for several days afterward, as Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and then assassinated himself days later. The Twilight Zone has been scheduled to air an episode called “Night Call” on November 22, but unsurprisingly the show did not air that night.
“Night Call” was eventually broadcast on February 7, 1964. Considering the episode’s content—an elderly woman gets anonymous phone calls that are eventually traced to a ghost calling from a cemetery—it would have been absolutely inappropriate if it had aired anywhere near the Kennedy assassination. Since 1964, “Night Call” hasn’t exactly been rare, but it’s still broadcast less often than other episodes from the initial three seasons.
7 Missing Because of Music Rights or Because It’s Bad?
Returning to the curios that haunt the final days of The Twilight Zone, we come to “Come Wander With Me,” the Season 5 episode that has the distinction of being the last episode produced for the show. Although “The Bewitchin’ Pool” was the last to air (due to voice dubbing work delaying its premiere), “Come Wander With Me” was the last to be filmed. The story concerns a Bob Dylan-esque folk singer named Floyd, who writes a new song during a fateful visit to a small town. The song reflects the plot and ultimately ends up predicting Floyd’s fate.
The song “Come Wander With Me” was written for the episode and was later used in a couple of movies. Perhaps music rights issues might explain why this episode has rarely been since its 1964 debut. While there’s nothing that says it was ever withheld from syndication, it’s also an episode that you just don’t see pop up on TV. On the other hand, it has a reputation as a not-very-good episode. Author Marc Scott Zicree’s book The Twilight Zone Companion called it “virtually incoherent.” Considering that Zicree’s book is seen as the bible for Twilight Zone fans, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
2 Another One in Legal Limbo
The episode “A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain” first aired on December 13, 1963, and then disappeared. Along with “The Encounter,” “Miniature,” and “Sounds and Silences,” it was one of four “lost episodes” that were officially withdrawn from circulation until the DVD release of the entire series. It’s assumed that this was also due to plagiarism claims. But if a lawsuit was filed over this particular episode, the details have been lost to time.
As it stands, “A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain” is a fine episode. It concerns a May-December marriage, with the older man resorting to desperate measures to keep up with his much younger wife. He gets his brother, a research scientist, to develop a youth serum. As expected in The Twilight Zone, there’s an ironic twist to getting what you want.
1 One That Perhaps Didn’t Age Too Well
“Black Leather Jackets” first aired in early 1964. Aliens from another planet invade Earth, disguised as human bikers in leather jackets. Calling themselves Fred, Steve, and Scott, they move into the suburbs to study average Americans.
The youngest alien, Scott, falls in love with the teenage girl next door, Ellen. Once he reveals the truth to Ellen, she naturally thinks he’s insane, and Ellen’s father tries to have him committed. Scott tries to stop an interplanetary war by convincing his world’s leader that overall, humans are a peaceful race.
While The Twilight Zone was usually able to spin a good metaphor for big issues, “Black Leather Jackets” ham-fistedly addresses the generation gap by making the alien invaders swoon-worthy guys in leather jackets. And just like the emerging 1960s counterculture they are meant to represent, the youth among these aliens are all about peace and love, man!
While “Black Leather Jackets” has never been considered lost or withheld, it’s still one you rarely see broadcast. And perhaps that’s because the fear of leather-clad bikers that the episode plays off of is a long-ago concern, making it seem dated, unlike most classic Twilight Zone episodes. Whatever the reason for its obscurity, it’s still a fun and charming episode worth seeking out.