Whenever the question is asked “Which is the best TV show ever made?”, modern viewers are quick to turn to such great series as Breaking Bad or The Wire or The Sopranos. Older heads might throw in a quick vote for such shows as E.R., M.A.S.H, All In the Family or I Love Lucy, depending on which is their favorite. For me, the question has but one answer: The Twilight Zone. The 156-episode show ran from 1959 through 1964 and it is regarded as one of the most influential shows ever made. Everyone from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to Stephen King, David Lynch and Takashi Miike has been influenced by the show and its themes. Creator/writer/producer/host Rod Serling and his team of writers – Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury and George Clayton Johnson – crafted a masterpiece. Picking a favorite may, in fact, be difficult for some.
I’ll admit that “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” isn’t as well known as “Time Enough At Last” or “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. And yet, it is often one of those listed in the “Top 10” or “Top 25” episodes list that permeate the Internet. It’s one of those episodes that works by slowly bringing you into its plot and then dropping a ten-ton anvil at the end. Standard fare for Rod Serling and his writers.
The episode starts with two state troopers responding to a phone call about a crash out in the New England woods. As they investigate, they discover footprints leading out of a frozen pond, back across a highway and towards a small diner. There they find the diner’s cook, a bus driver and the six passengers who he is driving to Boston; who’ve been forced to pull over and wait for the nearby bridge to be declared passable by authorities before continuing. And there’s one more person. One who wasn’t on the bus. The one who made the footprints.
Problem is that all of the persons in the diner are adamant that they were on the bus. All seven of them. The driver, desperate to get going and never paying attention to who he was ferrying, cannot recognize the odd person out. So who is the outsider? Is it one of the two couples? Or is it the attractive blonde? Could it be the pain-in-the-ass dandy? Or what about the old, kooky guy who spouts that it’s all like a Ray Bradbury tale?
It’s important to remember that Serling and his team were working during the height of the Cold War. Sputnik had been launched just two years before the show began airing. Senator McCarthy’s hearings were a recent memory. The Cuban Missile Crisis would happen while the show was on the air. To create the kind of sociopolitical commentary that the show is so famous for, it could only be done under the guise of genre material like science-fiction, fantasy and horror. Using genre tropes, however, gave Serling free reign to say what he wanted.
Few lessons in The Twilight Zone are as repeated as the threat that the people around you could pose. It’s in “The Shelter” and “The Monsters are due in Maple Street”. The idea that the greatest threat to your well-being and your way of life was present not in the foreigner/the alien/the outsider, but in the person who looked, talked and acted like you. That it’s the paranoia and apprehension that we carry that lead to pain and destruction. This lesson is foremost in “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”
As the state troopers try to find out who the real outsider is, strange things begin to happen. A jukebox turns itself on and begins to play music. The payphone begins to ring. Everyone turns to one another, unsure of who could be this strange outsider. As the tempers rise and the suspicions grow, the phone rings. A trooper picks it up to hear that the bridge has been declared fit to travel by state authorities. Everyone decides that the mystery can be put aside and comfortably walks back to the bus – certain that the story is over.
Not soon after, one of the seven walks back into the diner and orders coffee. And…well…why tell when I can show?
Isn’t that awesome?!
Serling was a master of the double-fake. You think you’re seeing one story and not until the end will you realize that there was something else going on all along. In this case, the idea that we have been so worried about the one person who didn’t belong on the bus acts as a blinder to the fact that there could be multiple, competing aliens in the room. Yes, in the end, we find out who the real Martian is, but it’s no longer that relevant. Not with the Venusians coming.
That’s what makes this one of my favorite episodes. At its best, The Twilight Zone is able to pull out the rug from under your feet, even when you’re expecting that it’s going to happen. This episode calmly explains the situation to you, leads you down the expected path of weirdness and then, just when you think you’ve figured it out, you get hit upside the head with something unexpected – but equally valid. It’s a rare trick to pull off and only the best can do it. Rod Serling did it effortlessly.
And there’s so many more just like this great episode, that now you can tell why I think this is the best TV show ever made.