As an anthology show, The Twilight Zone offered all kinds of different stories: science fiction, horror, fantasy and even satire. Although it’s known most for dramatic plot twists, some of the best episodes are more subtle, including the following.
- Nick of Time
Don and Pat Carter, on their way to a honeymoon, stop at a local diner. The car needs repairs so they have time on their hands. Each table has a coin operated fortune-telling machine. This creepy prop has a bobbing devil’s head with one eye closed in a grotesque wink.
When Don (played by William Shatner) starts playing with the machine, two predictions quickly come true: it foretells good luck, and Don finds out by phone that he’s up for a promotion. Then it warns them of danger, and upon leaving the diner they almost gets run over by a reckless driver.
Don insists that they return to their table so he can ask more questions. Pat sensibly tries to convince him there’s nothing supernatural about the fortune teller. She points out how generic its answers are and calls the near-accident a coincidence. But after a third prediction is borne out, Pat becomes exasperated. She feeds it her own pennies with trick questions, finally blurting, “You’re just a stupid piece of junk, aren’t you?”
The situation raises questions of individual will versus fate. Don believes the future is already determined, but Pat argues that they create their own destiny. She criticizes him for using the machine as a crutch. It’s never spelled out if the machine has real power to foretell the future. But either way, Don gives it real power over him until Pat brings him back to reality.
As they leave the diner, another couple rushes in. The man frantically asks the machine questions, reminding us that belief in luck can be seductive.
- Long Distance Call
We all know stories where a living person mourns someone’s death. But in this story, a dead person mourns someone’s life. It has an unlikely villain: a lonely old woman separated from her beloved grandson Billy (Billy Mumy).
On Billy’s birthday, his sickly grandmother gives him a toy phone and tells him to call her whenever he wants to talk. After her death, Billy continues to talk to her on the phone. The parents’ concern turns to alarm when Billy tries to get hit by a car, hoping to reunite with his grandma. He says “someone” told him to do it. Soon, the mother finds out that Billy’s phone calls are not one-sided: grabbing the receiver, she hears breathing on the other end.
When Billy tries to drown himself in a nearby pond, his parents are beside themselves with worry. Desperate, the father goes upstairs to have his own talk with Grandma. The scene where he pleads for his son’s life is poignant, albeit a touch absurd: he is talking into a little toy telephone, after all. Still, he convinces his dead mother to let go of Billy. The boy begins to recover.
In other stories, The Twilight Zone dealt with death. But having a 5-year-old character attempt suicide twice is original, to put it mildly. The episode is disturbing but you’re sure to remember it.
- The Lateness of the Hour
If you had to choose between living in luxury or having human relationships, which would you pick? An elderly couple named the Lorens opts for luxury, and they don’t miss their social life one bit.
The brilliant Dr. Loren created their home as a closed environment where lifelike robots meet their every need. But their adult daughter, Jana, becomes lonely and restless. At Jana’s pleading, Dr. Loren shuts down the robot servants. Yet when she talks about her desire to marry and begin a family, her parents act uncomfortable.
Jana flips through a picture album and sure enough, there are no photos from her childhood. With horror Jana realizes that she too is a robot. A soulless machine, she’s incapable of giving or receiving real love. Jana is devastated. The Lorens feel they must do something but are unwilling to destroy her. In the eerie last scene, we see their solution: Jana is reprogrammed as a maid!
The parents are the bad guys here, shown as lazy and hedonistic. The ending is sad as their new “maid” stares blankly into space. Although inhuman, Jana understood more about the meaning of life than her creators did.
These 3 episodes are nowhere near as famous as entries like “The Masks,” “Time Enough At Last” or “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” But they’re profound and memorable in their own way. Surprisingly, some nearly forgotten episodes are among the best in the series.