Few shows have the staying power of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's classic sci-fi anthology series, soon to return for an all-new revival under Jordan Peele, has left its mark on everything from Black Mirror to Star Trek to Peele's Get Out. But even if its template is now familiar and some of its its biggest twists have been spoiled by word of mouth, the series hasn't lost its impact.
At its best, The Twilight Zone nailed a hard-to-duplicate formula, wrapping provocative social commentary in an entertaining package. Its themes were timely — the original series, which aired from 1959 to 1964, was preoccupied with the space race, nuclear panic, and post-World War II reckoning — but the core idea of the show was timeless. What The Twilight Zone was really trying to unpack was human nature.
In anticipation of the iconic sci-fi franchise's return, TV Guide sifted through the original series to find the episodes that aged the best — whether they're newly relevant again or they never went out of style in the first place.
15. "The Masks" (Season 5, Episode 25)
A dying patriarch promises his toxic relatives their inheritance on one condition: They wear hideous masks until the stroke of midnight. It's not hard to predict where this Mardi Gras fable goes from there, but the characters are so perfectly, realistically grating that the end will have you cheering anyway.
14. "Nothing in the Dark" (Season 3, Episode 16)
This isn't the only episode on this list about a woman being stalked by death, nor is it the most gripping. But it is the most poignant. "Nothing in the Dark" is a quiet tale about an agoraphobic old woman with an injured soldier (played by Robert Redford) on her doorstep, and it morphs into a sweet consideration of what people really fear about dying.
13. "A Game of Pool" (Season 3, Episode 5)
A man angling to be the best pool player in the world makes a life-or-death deal with a pool-playing legend, only to learn too late that being the best isn't all it's cracked up to be. "A Game of Pool" is a talk-heavy story, but it manages not to drag thanks to commanding performances from a world-weary Jonathan Winters and a fitful Jack Klugman. The episode neatly sums up The Twilight Zone's disdain for men who prize winning at all costs.
12. "The Obsolete Man" (Season 2, Episode 29)
"The Obsolete Man" is essentially Serling's Brave New World: the story of a man who rebels against a totalitarian state with an impassioned argument for the value of religion and books. In this case, that man is a librarian named Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) who concocts a scheme to use his public execution to undermine the government's authority. The episode's most heavy-handed elements are balanced out by a smash-bang conclusion that really ramps up the tension.
11. "Deaths-Head Revisited" (Season 3, Episode 9)
Serling's anger seeps through "Deaths-Head Revisited," a searing commentary on the lingering impact of the Holocaust. Written in response to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the episode follows a former SS leader who returns to Dachau and is haunted to insanity by the ghosts of the people he tortured. The pull-no-punches script remains unfortunately relevant, but its writer saw that coming: The ending makes clear how well Serling understood that even the most shameful chapter of history can repeat itself.
10. "Walking Distance" (Season 1, Episode 5)
This early Twilight Zone episode strands a New York ad executive outside his hometown — but when he gets there, he finds that he's traveled back in time to the days of his youth. "Walking Distance" is a thoughtful tale about the limits of nostalgia; even when we're face to face with our childhoods, we can never really go home again.
9. "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" (Season 3, Episode 14)
"Five Characters in Search of an Exit" is a surreal existential parable unlike anything else The Twilight Zone has ever done. The story seems simple on the surface — five amnesiac characters in a circular room try to find their way out — but it's layered with unanswerable questions about identity, meaning, and purpose. Even the sappy ending is just a bandage over the rest of the episode's despair.
8. "The Eye of the Beholder" (Season 2, Episode 6)
A woman with a bandaged face frets over whether her latest surgery has finally made her presentable — but when the bandages come off, she's a classic beauty in a world where everyone else looks grotesque by modern standards. Knowing this episode's famous twist should lessen its impact, but it doesn't, thanks to some shadowy noir camera work and a smart script that plays up the sadness of feeling out of place. "The Eye of the Beholder" rejects conformity in all its forms, exposing the (literal) ugliness of a society that stamps out differences.
7. "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" (Season 2, Episode 28)
A classic mystery premise gets an out-of-this-world update in this episode, which strands bus passengers at a diner and then ramps up suspicion that one of them is an alien. Like a lot of Twilight Zone episodes, "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?" is interested in how little it takes to erode people's trust in one another, but the whodunnit (or, more accurately, who-is-it) angle injects the story with a dash of fun. A deliciously cartoonish ending doesn't hurt either.
6. "The Hitch-Hiker" (Season 1, Episode 16)
Mortality looms over a woman who keeps driving past the same hitchhiker on the road. This episode's big twist — that the hitchhiker is death and the woman has already died — isn't hard to see coming, but knowing it only makes the story more unsettling. "The Hitch-Hiker" is the nightmare of every woman who's ever traveled on her own, and it gets good mileage out of a classic horror-movie premise: No matter how fast you are, you can never outrun an enemy who's standing still.
5. "The Invaders" (Season 2, Episode 15)
There's an almost lyrical quality to "The Invaders," one of the only episodes of The Twilight Zone to be nearly dialogue free. It takes a tight focus on a rural woman (an expressive Agnes Moorehead) whose home is attacked by tiny but persistent beings from another planet — who turn out to be humans on a scouting mission from Earth. The twist makes the point that heroism is a matter of perspective, but even before the final minutes, "The Invaders" is a triumph of wordless storytelling.
4. "To Serve Man" (Season 3, Episode 24)
The big twist in "To Serve Man" (it's a cookbook!) is the stuff of pop culture legend, but the episode's big lesson — that humankind will be undone by how easily we adjust to a new normal — is as terrifyingly relevant as ever. When an alien race promising peace and prosperity arrives on Earth with a manifesto about "serving" mankind, everyone walks willingly aboard their spaceships like lambs to slaughter. Which they are, because, you know, it's a cookbook.
3. "Time Enough at Last" (Season 1, Episode 8)
"Time Enough at Last" is The Twilight Zone's ultimate "be careful what you wish for" story: A bookish man (Meredith) with no time to read is the only person to survive a nuclear blast, but as soon as he finds a library full of books in the ruins of his hometown, he breaks his glasses. The unflinchingly dark episode boils down to a dreary message: Life isn't fair.
2. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (Season 5, Episode 3)
Sometimes all you need from The Twilight Zone is a crackling good story. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" is one of the show's most purely entertaining episodes, starring William Shatner as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who sees a creature on the wing of his plane. There's no real twist here — just his own tenuous faith in his sanity, which becomes a matter of life or death not only for him, but for every other passenger on his flight. The idea of opening a window on a plane is even more inconceivable now than it was in the '60s, but on every other level, this story holds up, especially for anyone with a healthy fear of flying.
1. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" (Season 1, Episode 22)
The gold standard of Twilight Zone episodes, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" tells a story the series returned to again and again — a community breaks down when people allow themselves to be ruled by fear — but there's just no match for this script's blunt force. There are real, deadly consequences here, as neighbors on an idyllic suburban street tear each other apart at the first suggestion that one of them could be an alien. The conclusion (all the real aliens have to do is flip a few power switches and watch humanity self-destruct) is driven home by Rod Serling's chilling epilogue, a reminder that prejudice isn't confined to the Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone premieres April 1 on CBS All Access.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)