The First Twilight Zone Episode I Ever Saw Hooked Me For Life. Here’s Why.
Can you name the first Twilight Zone episode you ever saw?
I’m a fan of many classic shows. I grew up watching reruns of I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, Perry Mason, Mission: Impossible … the list goes on. I still watch many of them today, in fact, either on disc or on a streaming service. But I couldn’t name the first episode I saw of any of those shows.
And yet I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that I do recall my first Twilight Zone. Oh, yes. It was “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”.
It made quite an impression on my kid mind, as you can tell. (I was about eight, I think.) Here was a series that didn’t look or sound like anything else on television. TZ is utterly unique.
Even if you don’t recall your first TZ, you know what I mean, I’m sure. Just ask Fox Mulder. In Season 11’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” the X-Files agent is flummoxed when someone claims that the episode Mulder recalls as his first TZ doesn’t exist. He searches feverishly through his books and VCR tapes for confirmation. Scully, as usual, doesn’t understand what the big deal is.
Scully: “It can’t be that good of an episode.”
Mulder: “It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.”
You might assume that “Five Characters” is my all-time favorite TZ, or at least in my top 5. It isn’t. Episodes such as “Eye of the Beholder”, “Walking Distance”, and “The After-Hours” are, for me, among the crème de la crème of Rod Serling’s brainchild. But I still feel a lot of affection for “Five Characters” and rate it quite highly to this day.
Not all fans agree, though. Some consider it a real misfire, particularly if they don’t like clowns.
I can respect that. We all have different tastes, and one of the best things about TZ is that you get to enjoy so many different stories. And take it from me, every last one of the show’s 156 episodes has its staunch defenders and critics. I’ll tweet a quote or fact from an episode, and there will be fans sitting side by side in my notifications saying how much they love or hate it.
So why does “Five Characters” work for me? Part of it, I’m sure, is the fact that it was my stepping-on point for the fifth dimension. But it’s more than mere nostalgia. I’ve watched it numerous times since that first viewing, and I did so again before starting this post, so I could judge it as objectively as possible. (If you want to check it out before perusing my spoiler-laden observations below, try Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, or get it on DVD/Blu-ray.)
For one thing, it’s a good mystery. We meet an Army major as he awakens in a mysterious place. We don’t know where he is or why — and neither does he. He’s in some sort of a cylindrical enclosure, but that’s all we can tell. There are no windows or doors, no obvious entrances or exits. There’s just a big opening at the top. Every now and then, without warning, a very loud bell clangs.
Making matters even stranger, he’s incarcerated with four other random individuals: a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, and a bag-piper. And they don’t know the answers any more than he does.
We don’t get a definitive answer until the very end, and in the best TZ tradition, it’s a jaw-dropper. It turns out they’re all dolls in a toy barrel, collected during a Christmas gift drive by a lady who appears to be working for the Salvation Army. The clanging we heard earlier is a hand-bell she rings as she urges passersby to “open their hearts” and donate toys for needy children.
As we view them lying in a heap at the end — motionless and now truly doll-like, though with tears glistening in the eyes of the ballerina — it’s easy to see why some fans call this episode the inspiration for Pixar’s first feature film, “Toy Story”.
To solve the mystery, of course, we have to investigate, and that’s where the episode becomes particularly entertaining. The group trots out every imaginable theory. Perhaps they’re in prison. Maybe they’re on another planet, or on a spaceship en route to said planet. Or they could all be insane, or at the very least, experiencing some odd illusion.
“We’re dead,” the hobo says, “and this is limbo.”
“We don’t really exist,” the bag-piper interjects. “We’re dream figures from somebody else’s existence.”
“Or we’re each of us having a dream,” the clown says, “and everyone else is part of the other person’s dream.”
It isn’t long before the major floats the most damning scenario: “We are in Hell.”
Round and round it goes. After all, if there’s one thing they have plenty of in this strangely Spartan cell, it’s “possibilities — an infinite number of possibilities,” the clown adds.
It’s interesting to note that this episode could only occur after The Twilight Zone had been on the air for a while. It comes, in fact, nearly halfway through Season 3. I say this because only then does all this speculation make sense. Many of the answers that the dolls provide had already been seen on the show. There had been, for example, visits to other planets, and stories in which what we assume to be the real world is in fact someone’s nightmare.
So the regular Zone viewer at this point would already be pondering these possibilities. It’s clever, then, to have the characters actually bring them all up. It’s a bit of a tease and a wink from Serling, and it certainly makes for a thought-provoking discussion.
The major, however, doesn’t have much patience for all this guesswork. His cellmates have been there longer than he has, and although they claim to have searched high and low for a way out, they seem more or less resigned to their situation. The clown is especially blasé about their fate, irritating the major with endless quips and peals of laughter.
I realize that those who have a hatred or fear of clowns probably won’t agree with me (I’m largely indifferent to them myself), but I enjoy the dynamic between him and the major. In many ways, it’s the heart of the episode, and the two actors are very well cast. Murray Matheson brings a genuine sense of joie de vivre to the clown, while William Windom is note-perfect as the frustrated, sputtering Army man.
I can’t help feeling too that their attempts to figure everything out bear more than a passing resemblance to the efforts of most human beings to decode their own existence. I’m not suggesting that this was Serling’s intention, and I may be reading too much into what is meant to be simply an entertaining tale, but I always get a sense that I’m watching our world in microcosm.
I mean, isn’t this the way many people perceive the world? They don’t know how they got here, or why, or how long it’ll last. They struggle for answers. They go from theory to theory (usually over a number of years, not minutes, but still). Some, like the major, are desperate to discover the truth. Others, like the bag-piper, hobo, or ballerina, have ideas, but they’re less manic about making sure they’re right.
And others? Like the clown, they go through life with an almost cheerful agnosticism. Whatever will be, will be.
Since we’re in the you-know-what Zone, it’s an open question as to whether we’ll get a firm answer. Some episodes leave things very much up in the air. But this one doesn’t. We follow the major up to and over the top of the barrel … and down into the snow. And then back into the barrel (after being picked up by Zone producer Buck Houghton’s daughter, incidentally), where the ballerina is crying.
So is it a sad ending? Sometimes that is what you get in the fifth dimension. But not this time. In the beginning Serling warns that he won’t “end the nightmare” — he’d only “explain it.” True enough, but that’s another thing I like about this episode: He not only gives us a great twist ending, but he concludes it with this:
Just a barrel, a dark depository where are kept the counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth, wrought in a distorted image of human life. But this added hopeful note: perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children, there can be nothing but love. A clown, a tramp, a bagpipe player, a ballet dancer, and a Major. Tonight’s cast of players on the odd stage known as … the Twilight Zone.
The word “depository” is apt, as Serling based his script on a short story called “The Depository” by author Marvin Petal. Serling’s replacement title, by the way, is an apparent take-off on a 1921 play by Italian writer Luigi Pirandello called “Six Characters in Search of an Author”.
Since Petal’s story is unpublished, I don’t know for sure how much Serling retained and how much he invented. That “hopeful note”, though, is pure Serling. For me, it’s the cherry on top of one of my favorite Zone episodes.
The major may want out, but once the credits roll, I think most fans are right where they want to be.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!