Is the Outer Limits Better Than the Twilight Zone?

There I was, scrolling along social media, when a headline jumped out at me: “The Outer Limits Was Better Than The Twilight Zone”.

Whoa, now. Back up the space ship. What’s that again? Perhaps Talky Tina was pulling my leg.

But no. There was a picture of Robert Culp, in one of his OL appearances, adorning a Nerdist article that dared to assert a preposterous second-place finish for Serling’s brainchild. I was aghast.

Okay, I’m playing up my reaction a bit. I don’t really tie myself in knots when I read an opinion I disagree with. It’s a big world, and lots of people like different things. But I was naturally intrigued by writer Kyle Anderson’s claim, and as an Outer Limits fan myself, I had to find out: Does he make a compelling case?

No, he doesn’t. But before you assume that’s simply my natural bias speaking, let me explain why I think so. Anderson actually makes some interesting points. I just don’t think they prove his premise.

Mind you, Anderson doesn’t dislike TZ. “I would never be so foolish as to say The Twilight Zone wasn’t great television, nor that The Outer Limits‘ 49 episodes were better across the board than the 156 made for Twilight“, he writes, then adds:“The Twilight Zone formula, while groundbreaking, was always safe. That series looked like other black and white, studio-lot series of the time, and each episode featured an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, always with a twist ending. The Outer Limits was never that formulaic, and with a much less ample budget, it led to some visually and mentally disturbing images you’d never get anywhere else.”

Now, anyone who’s seen both shows can readily admit that, when it comes to the overall look of them, Anderson has a point. OL was indeed the place to go for more in-your-face sci-fi weirdness. And sure, although TZ had its share of visually gripping moments, it did have a more conventional look.

In terms of sheer optics, OL definitely took more chances. Its stories tended to be more “out there” and led to some unique takes on aliens, time travel, and just plain horror. So … game, set and match to OL?

For me, it’s just the opposite. Part of what makes TZ better is the fact that it wraps its clever tales and memorable twists in settings that, well, “looked like other black and white, studio-lot series of the time”. That, in fact, was its genius: it took the everyday world and dropped a dose of strangeness into it — strangeness that was often designed to provoke a moral reaction. And because it featured familiar-looking people, cars and houses, it made a greater impression.

Take one of many fan favorites, “Nick of Time”. You have an ordinary couple, spending time in a run-of-the-mill diner, innocently feeding pennies into a table-top fortune-telling machine … when you suddenly realize that things are taking an odd turn. Hold on, is this just a fun little device? Or something more sinister?

Or consider another Zone classic, “The Invaders”, with Agnes Moorehead battling a couple of small housebreakers. She’s just your average country woman, eking out an existence in a simple farmhouse, right? Whoops. No, she’s not.

How about “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”? We don’t see a single alien until the end (and they look remarkably human), but doesn’t the episode draw much of its power from the fact that the horror erupts on a street that looks like a million other streets?

That’s not to say The Outer Limits didn’t make a strong impression with its episodes — it did. But while its “out there” quality was definitely entertaining, I think it made the series a bit harder to relate to than TZ. As TZ scribe Richard Matheson once said, “To me, fantasy at its best [is] one drop of fantasy into a mixture which is otherwise completely realistic.”

Fortunately, in the end we don’t have to pick. We can enjoy the Beatles AND the Rolling Stones. And we can thrill to The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Especially now that we know which series really IS better. ;D

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 03/31/2018, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. IMO, comparing T-Zone science fantasy with the hard core science fiction of the Outer Limits is like equating Star Wars to Star Trek.

    Not quite apples and oranges, but close.

    • Agreed. They’re two different animals, really — the fact that they’re sci-fi anthologies are really all they have in common.

  2. It is a very hard choice, Paul. Growing up, I was able to watch Twilight Zone more often, I think due to the half-hour format. My mom couldn’t tolerate the hour-long Outer Limits, so my brother and I could only watch that when she was out.

    My favorite Outer Limits episode, “Demon with a Glass Hand,” is one that is similar to the Twilight Zone. In fact, I kept thinking it was one of the hour-long Twilight Zone episodes. I looked for it when I go the DVDs. I now have the OL DVDs, and it’s a toss up if I’m in the mood for a 60 minute shot. but it’s probably close to 190 times out of 205 that I’d choose the Zone.

    • You mean it’s a hard choice when you’re in the mood for a longer show, Dan?

      Length aside, I’ve never gotten the reflexive need many people have to rate and rank everything. Sure, TZ is my desert-island series, but I like a lot of different shows, and I enjoy being able to pick whatever suits me at the moment. Keeps everything fresh, IMHO. But since the gauntlet had been thrown down, I felt I had to respond, especially when his stated reason for OL’s alleged superiority actually felt more like it pointed in TZ’s favor.

      And you’re right, “Demon with a Glass Hand” is a true classic.

      • I agree Paul. There have been a lot of good shows through time. If I had to choose one, TZ by a bunch.

        Since getting the dvds, I’ve become quite fond of several episodes from Season 4.

      • Season 4 had its problems, but it’s definitely underrated. What are your favorites?

      • I’ve been watching them recently. I think I can even put them in order

        “Miniature” – #1 Favorite for sure
        “Passage on the Lady Anne” – A close 2nd

        “Printer’s Devil”
        “The Parallel”
        “No Time Like the Past”

        “On Thursday We Leave for Home”
        “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”
        “Thirty-Fathom Grave”
        “Death Ship”

        “In His Image” – only because it’s so possible

  3. For some reason I started reading this post thinking it was “One step beyond.” But that’s because I’d just seen some episodes last week. That show is in the TZ/OL vein but more ghostly supernatural. I always found Outer Limits had too many aliens and space stories for me. I prefer the more odd earthly tone of TZ. Although they made fantastic alien episodes too.

    • Exactly. I really do enjoy some OL from time to time, but I’ve always found TZ more relatable, largely because it isn’t quite as “out there” with the optics, etc.

  4. Paul, I could not possibly agree with you more. The fact is: these are two great, fantastic “out-of-the box-nonformulaic 60’s TV shows.”

    Why should there be a contest between the two?

    Answer: There shouldn’t be !

    Instead, there should be a reflective, and objective, appreciation and gratitude that us 1960’s TV viewers were provided two great innovative programs to watch.

    The Twilight Zone, in my personal opinion, is more favored personally by me. Okay. That subjective iteration, by no means whatsoever, diminishes my enjoyment, wonderment, and utmost appreciation for being lucky enough to be a 7-, 8- year old kid sitting in front of my parents’ Zenith console one night each week and watching, and thoroughly enjoying, the Outer Limits.

    Two different shows. Each uniquely innovative.

    • Exactly, Terry. There’s no need to make a comparison. I enjoy both series, and even though I prefer TZ by a country mile, have never felt the need to write an article explaining why it’s better than sci-fi anthology X. (I mean, yes, I did here, but that was solely to respond to the gauntlet that had already been thrown down.)

  5. TZ is definitely more accessible and has a higher re-watch value, I’d say. Both amazing, groundbreaking shows, of course. Now, if someone had claimed “one step beyond” was better than either of those I’d be like, “uhhh…”

    • Ha, exactly! Though I’ll give “One Step Beyond” credit for beating TZ and OL to the airwaves.

      • I should clarify that I DO like one step beyond, but it’s not even in the same league as the twilight zone. Certainly not as forward-thinking and insightful.

  6. Your comment about TZ being better because it’s more relatable reminds me of what Kenneth Burke said about rhetoric–basically, that you’re more likely to persuade someone of that person can identify with you in some way.

    By the way, when you wrote, “Agnes Moorehead … She’s just your average country woman, eking out an existence in a simple farmhouse, right? Whoops. No, she’s not,” it struck me that this actually does describe her just fine, except that she’s not on earth.

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