Another Dimension: The Ten Most Expensive Twilight Zone Episodes
Somewhere, there is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. And within that dimension, exists a television show that provides timeless moral lessons from a shadowy, smoking prophet.
The Twilight Zone is a series that has inspired countless viewers for decades through new interpretations and universal messages. Traditionally, the show served as a tour of nightmares and warnings from a dimension parallel to our own, where a cigarette-smoking host cloaked in mystery served as our Virgil as he guided us through the different circles of hell. These vignettes provided real-world issues disguised as sci-fi tropes that dealt with heavy themes ranging from racism to war to the loneliness of man, all presented in a stark contrast of black and white: True simplicity, with the impossibility of comprehension. The original run of the show withstood five seasons, all of which were inspired by the creator’s own tragedies and hardships.
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Rod Serling was a veteran who served in WWII, enlisting in the Army the day after his high school graduation. He was assigned to the 511th’s demolition platoon which received the ominous moniker of “The Death Squad.” While serving in the Philippines, Serling witnessed death on a daily basis, ranging from combat to an accidental catastrophes, including when a fellow private was decapitated by an incoming supply crate dropped on him by the heavens. During his military service, Serling was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. When he returned, he started working as a writer for the WLW radio station in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then in 1955, he started to venture into television, developing scripts for Kraft Television Theatre and his own program The Storm. Then in October of 1959, the Twilight Zone debuted on CBS. Serling created an avenue to develop and explore his own moral stances, philosophies, and qualms with society while reflecting on the military experience that permeated much of his work.
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When the series debuted, the average budget per episode was between $30,000-$50,000. For comparison, the film adaptation in 1983 had a budget of $10 million. While CBS Access has kept their production budgets under tight wraps for the 2019 adaptation, Black Mirror is expected to have a similar budget, with an estimated $2.3 million per episode.
In order to deliver quality content within the confines of a strict budget, Serling got creative and utilized innovative techniques, new technology, and an unpresented shooting schedule in order for the series to be made. This list highlights some of the most expensive 30-minute episodes from the series, but almost more impressive are the miniscule amounts required to produce some of the most groundbreaking and iconic moments in television.
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The fourth season of the Twilight Zone featured hour-long episodes with increased budgets to nearly $150,000 an episode. But the extended length hindered the series with Serling returning to the 30-minute format for his fifth and final season. When Jordan Peele rebooted the series (which was ultimately cancelled after two seasons) he, too, advocated for the hour-long format, resulting in a higher budget. But even with greater production values, modern innovations in technology, and a political and cultural climate that should have inspired endless hours of gothic madness, the series has been unable to capture the magic that occurred throughout the 50s and 60s. Excluding the hour-long shows, these are the most expensive episodes of the Twilight Zone from the show’s original run.
10 Mr. Denton on Doomsday, $63,197.84
Mr. Denton on Doomsday was the third episode of the first season of the Twilight Zone. It featured the iconic trope of a failed alcoholic, barely gripping onto reality by the tips of his fingers. A gunslinger with a past including fame and notoriety is offered a chance to redeem himself, courtesy of the aptly named Henry J. Fate.
Fate sells him a potion that promises to make him the fastest gun in the west. But in traditional Twilight Zone fashion, just as Mr. Denton enters his final duel, his challenger is seen with the same empty bottle of potion. Both injure themselves, succumbing to the sinister nature of fate. The shows compacted morals present themselves in a final speech from Mr. Denton where he identifies his rival as the true victor, for his lesson came much earlier in life than his own.
9 The Bewitchin’ Pool, $66,415.32
The Bewitchin’ Pool explores the parallel dimensions of reality that can be accessed by youth before adulthood has made them blind, ignorant, and trapped within the construct of a reality that they have created around themselves. It is the final episode of the Twilight Zone’s original run, which explains its pinpoint moral that pervades throughout the entire series.
A swimming pool provides a portal that allows Spot and Jeb to disappear from their chaotic home life and visit the encouraging Aunt T. But when the children return home, they are greeted by their parents divorce and the question no child wants to hear, whom would they prefer to live with?
The children manage to dive back in, escaping the fate of the real-world one last time, while their father anxiously searches for them at the bottom of an empty pool. The imposing current of reality is dodged one final time in a Peter-Pan style escape from having to grow up. Luckily for them, the door to the Twilight Zone had yet to close on youth.
8 Once Upon a Time, $67,250.76
The expensive budget behind this no-dialogue episode was in part due to the appearance of silent-film star Buster Keaton. The episode was written as an homage to some of Keaton’s most iconic performances and still retains the Twilight Zone’s iconic twist.
Centered around two men who are unhappy with their current existence, a time traveling helmet provides both a glimpse into how true satisfaction comes from acknowledging that the grass on the other side of the fence is not actually greener.
7 The Mighty Casey, $68,025.04
A reference to the baseball poem, Casey at the Bat, this Twilight Zone episode is one of the few that focused on the concept of Artificial Intelligence.
A robot pitcher is created to save a team from their losing streak, but it is quickly discovered by the competing team. In a desperate attempt to keep winning, Dr. Stillman provides the pitcher with a heart. But now, with emotion, integrity, and the compassion of a human being, Casey gives up pitching and pursues a career as a social worker. But coach McGarry has other plans. He sneaks the blueprints from Dr. Stillman and quite possibly creates his own team of super-players. Are they walking among us? Has the corporate greed of success resulted in the dehumanization of athletes in order to support the paychecks of wealthy managers and owners? The answers to these questions may only be found in the Twilight Zone.
6 I Sing the Body Electric, $70,374.18
This episode was the only collaborations with science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. When the episode was completed, Serling commented that the writer’s works “seemed to lend themself to the printed page rather than the spoken language.”
The comment caused a riff between Bradbury and Serling that was never solved. Bradbury accused Serling of plagiarizing his work including in the debut episode “Where is Everybody?” which was eerily similar to a story from Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. The two never made up before Serling’s death and a haunting quote from Bradbury still exists;
“Rod is a Johnny-Come-Lately, who will come and go and be forgotten in the s-f field; his greatest strength, and I wish he would realize it, lies in the sort of powerful realism he did for Playhouse 90. I wish he would go back to that and leave the s-f to us guys who know how to do it. . . meaning myself, Chuck Beaumont, Heinlein, and others.” Who?
5 In Praise of Pip, $71,354.72
The generational consequences and pain of war are reflected in this episode of the Twilight Zone. A crooked bookie named Max Phillips learns his son Pip has died in the Vietnam war, news that causes Max to snap, killing two partners, getting himself shot in the process. Bleeding out, he stumbles into a surreal carnival where he finds his son and confesses his regret as an absent father. When the apparition of his son disappears into a fun-house hall of mirrors, Max offers his own life as a sacrifice for his sons. Years later, Pip returns to the park and reflects on the life of his father whom he now calls his “best buddy.”
The episode went down in history as being the first television drama to mention the Vietnam War. It also featured two Twilight Zone regulars, Jack Klugman (Death Ship, A Game of Pool) and Billy Mumy (It’s a Good Life, Long Distance Call)
4 Walking Distance, $74,485.68
Often regarded as one of the most heartfelt episodes of the Twilight Zone, Walking Distance highlights the horrors of nostalgia and the eternal desire for all of us to return to a simpler time in our past, when life was still in front of us. The token of truth in the episode is a time travelling Carousel that allows Martin to return to happiness. But he is reminded by his father that everyone has their time, to look ahead instead of behind. The episode is summed up by Serling’s closing monologue that haunts the series as a whole:
“Matin proved successful in most things, but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again. And also like all men, perhaps there’ll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too, because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone.”
3 Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, $79,895.16
Arguably the most iconic episode of the Twilight Zone from all iterations of the series, this episode stars a possibly-mad, possibly self-aware William Shatner who confronts a monster destroying the wing of his plane. The episode is unintentionally humorous, equally terrifying, and timelessly effective at driving home its point.
Take the plane as a metaphor for our country, our society, our politics, anything that seems to magically prop us up 20,000 feet in the air. When we start to question and examine our surroundings like passenger Bob Wilson, we begin to see the horrors that others ignorantly avoid by refusing to look out their windows at the right times. Be it global warming, the injustices of democracy, the inherent flaws of capitalism, or the range of conspiracies surrounding the 21st century, the person who sees the injustice and can’t look away is deemed insane by the world sleeping around him. Is his madness justified? Is he the last sane man in a world that’s gone insane? The plane becomes a microcosm for reality, and Shatner, or Bob Wilson, becomes another helpless victim of awareness. It is knowledge combined with an inability to turn a blind eye to the evils of the world that causes pure insanity. If only the other passengers could look just beyond the line of sight at the horrors that linger out their windows.
2 Where Is Everybody? $89,525.73
Where is Everybody? was the first episode of the Twilight Zone that set the standard for the universe in which it all takes place. It features Mike Ferris, an isolated individual who wanders through a modern day ghost town, completely alone.
With the absence of characters, the most minimal of plot, and an eerie tone established through innovative shots including the mirror shatter featured above, the episode received positive acclaim including from the New York Times which observed “that science cannot foretell what may be the effect of total isolation on a human being.”
1 Cavender Is Coming, $93,865.33
Cavender is Coming is the most expensive 30-minute episode of the Twilight Zone. It is a loose adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life and was originally intended to be the pilot of a sister-series set within the Twilight Zone universe (which also explains why it was the only episode to be recorded with a laugh track).
A guardian angel named Cavender greets the clumsy Agnes Grep, portrayed by future comedy icon Carol Burnett. Cavender is determined to help her in order to receive his wings, and through a series of missteps, the characters find their place within their respective worlds of angels and elites. While both characters may at times seem out of place, their uniqueness is what brings happiness to those around them and to themselves. This acceptance of their flaws, both as human and as angel, is what leads to both souls elevating themselves within their respective worlds.
The episode is iconic not just for establishing the comedic role that Burnett would portray throughout her entire career, but because it created two worlds that seamlessly blended together: the celestial world and the earthly realm. The flaws in each world were the same, the insecurities, the trials and tribulations. It established what the “Twilight Zone” really referred to: a place between reality and the unknown, a place that blended omnisciences with subjective experience, a place that provided moral lessons in a secret code that could only be deciphered by their intended recipient. While the show has been recreated and revisited throughout the decades, only Serling’s creation seems to capture the magic of the moment that makes it a timeless work of art. The other iterations may have existed in the realm Rod Serling created, but only his version has established a permanent residence within the Twilight Zone.
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