Join Adam as he takes what you thought you knew about pop culture and entertainment, but actually…
Actually… All of Twilight Zone’s episodes are parts of a single story.
For this writer, television programming reached its summit on October 2nd 1959, when the first episode of the Rod Serling helmed Twilight Zone first aired. Since then this seminal black and white has been, if not the progenitor than at least the greatest champion, of countless pop culture troupes from evil talking dolls, deals with the devil, and, of course, twist endings. One of the main reasons Twilight Zone has remained so popular over the decades is in this same variety of subject matter.
Its serialized catalogue offers boutique plots and scenarios that ebb and flow with every passing episode. Don’t like the one about the boxing robot, try the one with the alien cookbook. Already watched sad Jack Klugman in “In Praise of Pip”? How about sad Jack Klugman in “Passage for a Trumpet”?
The fact that scribes like Serling and regulars like Richard Matheson could churn out weekly scripted, or at least adapted, dramas that were wholly unique and singular in their world building is a testament to their creativity and the template for other programs over the years like Tales from the Dark Side, Tales from the Crypt, Black Mirror, Are you Afraid of the Dark?, etc. Despite the spice of life that the show appeared episode to episode, actually… all of Twilight Zone’s episodes are all part of a single story.
There are a number of ways this could be happening. Let’s look at a few examples.
SCENARIO 1: THE LONELY SPACEMAN
All of the uncanny events that take place within the Twilight Zone, from the mundane to the most inexplicable, are all hallucinations derived from the mind of the astronaut training for his upcoming space mission while he is locked within a sensory deprivation tank. This is the plot as seen in the very first episode “Where is Everybody?”. In the episode, Earl Holliman, awakes in a small town with no memory, alone, and unable to find anyone. The isolation soon drives him mad until the twist ending reveals he’s actually been in the sensory deprivation tank the whole time and the deserted town was merely a hallucinatory dreamscape.
We open the episode to find Holliman already walking through the psychically-manifested town and are given intimations that he has been wandering likewise for some time already. We simply don’t know how many other visions and realities he could have dreamt for himself before the episode drops in on his odyssey in progress; perhaps many resembling the fanciful plots of subsequent episodes. This then results in five seasons of Holliman’s tragic, isolation derived hallucinations.
SCENARIO 2: A CHILD’S WHIM
Viewed from a more malevolent angle, the whole of Twilight Zone and all the capricious turns of fate held in store for our protagonists may be the subtle psychic machinations of a little ginger monster living in the farmlands of Ohio. The season 3 episode “It’s a Good Life” features a little boy whose every passing notion could be made manifest in reality. Through the episode he turns his uncle into a jack in the box, creates unspeakable abominations that he kills off under the cover of a corn field, etc. It is not a far stretch to imagine that each week the ordeals we are witness to are actually the further whims of a six year old wicked little boy with “It’s a Good Life” being the only episode that offers a glimpse into the actual events unfolding from a base reality.
Serling opens the episode stating “He has isolated his town of Peaksville, Ohio from the rest of the universe” and “He has blocked television signals and caused cars not to work. Everyone is under his rule.” Could little Anthony Fremont have willed his sleepy hometown out of actual reality and thus perverted it into the psychically-malleable horror show known informally as the Twilight Zone?
SCENARIO 3: THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY
This one’s an oldie but a goodie. Just like It’s a Wonderful Life’s guardian angel Clarence, much of the exploits seen in the Twilight Zone are only possible scenarios of what could be for the protagonist as showcased through a spectral guide. The twist here is that it is not always well-wishes and charitable futures but also cautionary tales and punitive consequences that stem from an immoral life as was the case in “A Nice Place to Visit” when a dead gangster found himself in what he thought was heaven only to find it to be a personal hell.
Every other episode could likewise be a glimpse into the protagonist’s personal penance from a life less lived. How else could Burgess Meredith have “All the Time in the World” for his personal obsession of book reading through the result of a global atomic genocide only for him to crush his only pair of eyeglasses? It’s such a specific fate, a cruel confluence of events that either celestial or demonic scribes must be detailing the life events of each episode’s protagonist. Likewise, the guardian angel to “Mr. Bevis” of the lesser-quality selfsame episode that shows him how his world would be if he ever shed his annoying Peter Pan syndrome could be the template for subsequent episodes focusing on other at-risk protagonists.
See also “A Passage for Trumpet” which saw the angel Gabriel redeem a main character or “Escape Clause” which saw the devil or a “Mr. Cadwallader” perform the typical Faustian pact of immortality vis-a-vis one soul for more of the same premise.
SCENARIO 4: THE POWER OF THE PEN
Admittedly, the episode “A World of his Own” isn’t one of the series stronger offerings but it does hold a potential answer for the entirety of the program; a very meta one. In it a playwright has the uncanny ability to have his musings manifest in corporeal reality from a new lover to a “red eyed elephant” to even Rod Serling himself. He merely dictates what he wants into existence and they appear. When he is done with them he tosses their section of record into the fire and with a poof they blink out of existence.
When Serling does appear, conjured wholly from the mind of the playwright, he immediately goes into his typical opening monologue patter as if his whole shtick was a subconscious prompt instilled within him rather than his own thoughts and words. This could very well mean that the Serling we see open every episode and the subsequent half of an hour of television could very well be nothing more than this episode’s writer’s half-hatched script. And while we’re speaking of our humble narrator…
SCENARIO 5: ROD SERLING IS UATU
One of the more obvious answers may be found in the very opening of every episode. What if Serling is something of a caretaker or guardian of a literal “Twilight Zone”? If he is some sort of celestial or otherworldly observer that seeks to better understand human existence it would follow that he presents and manufactures these fantastical events and scenarios in order to test people like William Shatner’s sense of self-determination when faced with a fortune telling napkin dispenser or a William Shatner’s ability to fire a revolver out the side of an in-flight airliner window. He may play a passive role in this What If? matrix much like Marvel comics character, Uatu the Watcher.
He may actually be molding and shaping the events we witness as just described in a manner more befitting a different omnipotent Marvel character, the Beyonder. In the comic storyline of Secret Wars, the Beyonder whisked multiple superheroes and villains to a pocket dimension/world so that they would battle for his amusement, all the while the Beyonder was able to bend all of perception and reality to his will; in a nutshell he put on his own Twilight Zone episodes with Spider-Man and Dr. Doom. Serling could very well be the other side of the same coin.