“Wintry February night, the present. Order of events: a phone call from a frightened woman notating the arrival of an unidentified flying object, and the check-out you’ve just witnessed with two state troopers verifying the event, but with nothing more enlightening to add beyond evidence of some tracks leading across the highway to a diner. You’ve heard of trying to find a needle in a haystack? Well, stay with us now and you’ll be a part of an investigating team whose mission is not to find that proverbial needle- no, their task is even harder. They’ve got to find a Martian in a diner, and in just a moment, you’ll search with them, because you’ve just landed in the Twilight Zone.”
And so begins the journey which eases us into the top ten Twilight Zone episodes. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling’s masterpiece anthology series, we have been chronicling the 25 best Twilight Zone episodes based on writing, performance, and compelling subject matter as judged by a group of 250 people in the New York metropolitan area.
“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” checks in at number 10, a creepy, unsettling one-set stage teleplay that invites feelings of isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty. The viewer is compelled towards those states of mind and emotions because the characters, held captive by a snowstorm and a stranger in their midst, are called upon to manage them as well. The Serling-scripted “Martian” mirrors other classic Twilight Zone episodes in several distinctive ways. It presents a situation that, at first, seems illogical and inconceivable, and then inserts credible characters played by wonderful actors into the fray. One cannot help but identify with the characters and the performances, and therefore becomes immersed in the situation. In “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” the situation is a dilemma framed by an environment that evokes fear.
The isolation that Serling conjures is perhaps more palpable here than in any other Twilight Zone episode…and there were many in which “stranded” was the operative backdrop. It is worth noting that viewing this episode with the lights muted and a storm brewing outdoors enhances the tingle in the spine considerably. The set-up is typically uncomplicated. Footsteps lead from the pond where the UFO landed to the diner. One extra patron is in the establishment than had disembarked from a bus forced to wait out a snowstorm because the bridge up ahead is impassable. The officers fruitlessly conduct a passive investigation. Nobody remembers for sure who was on the bus, so almost everyone can be the Martian.
There is the old curmudgeon at the counter who is the most likely suspect, except he answers all the perfunctory baseball questions with the fluency of an earthling. There are the couples. They can’t be the impostors, correct? There was only one set of footprints in the snow. The businessman is way too cranky and well, business-like, to be anything but an aggressive American industrialist. Perhaps this is all a mistake…until the lights dim, the jukebox starts playing without the benefit of a quarter, and the sugar bowls explode in three separate hair-raising incidents.
The climax is delightfully absurd with a hint of melancholy. The phone rings, and we’re told the bridge has been cleared for traffic. Everyone leaves and moments later, we see the businessman re-enter the diner alone. We soon discover he has a third arm and is the scout for a Martian convoy on the way to colonize the earth. He is trumped, however, by the man behind the counter who reveals a third eye from under his cap and a plan to colonize the planet that preceded the Martians’ elaborate scheme. You see, he’s from Venus and the Martian convoy has been intercepted.
On first viewing, the identity of the Martian was a big surprise. Few suspected the businessman. It is diminished moments later when we discover there were two aliens, not one, in this lonely out-of-the way eatery in the desolate countryside. The melancholy? Well, during the conversation between aliens, we learn the phone call was a Martian-induced hoax. The bridge wasn’t ready, after all, and those with whom we had spent an anxiety-filled half hour had perished. Hence, the brilliance of a Rod Serling script…to encourage you to care about fictional characters after only a brief visit with them.
“Incident on a small island, to be believed or disbelieved,” concludes Serling. “However, if a sour-faced dandy named Ross or a big, good-natured counterman who handles a spatula as if he’d been born with one in his mouth, if either of these two entities walks onto your premises, you’d better hold their hands – all three of them – or check the color of their eyes – all three of them. The gentlemen in question might try to pull you into… the Twilight Zone.”