December 24, 2015

In “The Changing of the Guard,” The Twilight Zone explores the existential drama of Christmas


At first glance “The Changing of the Guard,” the final episode from The Twilight Zone’s third season, would appear an odd choice to include in a Christmas blogathon. The episode only tangentially touches on the season, being set on Christmas Eve for no special reason other than its significance as the end of a school term. It wasn’t even aired during the Christmas season, but on June 1, and its author, Rod Serling, was a secular Jew. But that, as I say, is simply from a first glance. In fact, the underlying themes of the episode have a great deal to do with Christmas, particularly from the existential and spiritual sides.

A description of the episode is straightforward enough, so much so that the single-paragraph summary from the always-reliable Wikipedia will suffice:

Professor Ellis Fowler [brilliantly portrayed by Donald Pleasence] is an elderly English literature teacher at a boys' prep school in Vermont, who is forced into retirement after teaching for more than 50 years at the school. Looking through his old yearbooks and reminiscing about his former students, he becomes convinced that all of his lessons have been in vain and that he has accomplished nothing with his life. Deeply depressed, he prepares to kill himself on the night of Christmas Eve next to a statue of the famous educator Horace Mann. Before he can commit suicide, however, he is called back to his classroom by a phantom bell, where he is visited by ghosts of several boys who were his students, all of whom are dead, some of whom died heroically. The boys each tell him that he inspired them to become better men. Deeply moved, Fowler accepts his retirement, content that his life is fuller for having enriched the lives of the boys.

There’s a temptation to play a story such as this as a sentimental tear-jerker, something that would fit in perfectly on The Hallmark Channel, and I’m sure there are many who’ve indeed shed a tear or two during the episode’s undeniably emotional close, in which Fowler realizes just how much he’s mattered to his students over the years. He is the best kind of hero (taking the word in its loosest definition) – an unassuming one, totally unaware of his impact, increasing his heroism in much the same way as a woman unaware of her natural beauty becomes even more beautiful, in a way that can’t be faked.

Read in this way, “The Changing of the Guard” certainly could be seen as Christmas fodder for today, seeing as how so many contemporary seasonal programs substitute sentiment for any real gravitas. (All that’s missing is a love interest, but then we’d be talking about Goodbye, Mr. Chips, wouldn’t we?) And yet, in the more sober world of The Twilight Zone, this is little more than a ruse, a façade for the true meaning of the story, lying just under the surface. For The Twilight Zone was one of the few television series that could do existentialism reasonably well, and the real impact from the story is an existential one, dealing with one of the most central questions of all: the meaning of life. And it is only within this context that one understands why we're watching it early on Christmas morning.

Existentialism and religion are anything but incompatible. In fact, the old Baltimore Catechism makes this one of its first, and most essential, questions. Why did God create you? It’s an existential question of the first order, one at the heart of us all, never far from the surface, and consciously or subconsciously we use it as a measuring stick when looking back on our accomplishments, from any point in our lives. As I mentioned in an earlier post, life is essentially a drama, not the concocted drama of a soap opera but the very real drama of man’s constant struggle for meaning in life, for the differentiation between good and evil, and the fulfillment of a destiny that is at once both human and supernatural. Certainly this is the case with Professor Fowler, who has looked at his lifetime balance sheet and found the deposits to be woefully low.

But Fowler is a melancholy figure, typical of so many of Serling’s protagonists, and while the Christmas season tends to exacerbate those kinds of thoughts, it’s reasonable to infer that Fowler is merely bringing to the surface a suspicion which has dwelt within him for years. He is, therefore, the individual representation of the “weary world” with its “sad and lonely plains” described in the lyrics to the carol “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” With this consideration, we’re now getting somewhere, closer to the reason why the setting of the episode is significant. Look at the third stanza of the carol, and see if you don’t agree that the words can be applied to Fowler:

          O ye beneath life's crushing load,
          Whose forms are bending low,
          Who toil along the climbing way
          With painful steps and slow;
          Look now, for glad and golden hours
          Come swiftly on the wing;
          Oh rest beside the weary road
          And hear the angels sing.

The message is clear: it is the song of the angels that will pull man from the “crushing load” of life. And is this not in fact what happens with Fowler, in the form of the visitation by the spirits of his former students? Each one of them comes bearing a message, one implicit in the lines of the Angel who greets the shepherds in the fields:  “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” And what are the good tidings which the Angel brings? “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

A visit from the spirits of the dead?
Rather than a fantasy, therefore, it’s not unreasonable to see in Serling’s script – and, keep in mind, Serling was a man sensitive not only to the imagery of Judeo-Christianity but one with a deep moral appreciation of those traditions, and the roles they played in then-contemporary culture – an allegorical representation of the Nativity story, one in which Fowler, as the weary world which awaits the birth of the Savior, is greeted by the supernatural appearance of his deceased students, to deliver the angelic message of hope.

Should this be dismissed as a mere science-fiction trope, the introduction of the fantastic which doesn't even attempt a rational explanation? I don’t see why – as someone once said in response to the question of whether or not a mysterious appearance might have been that of an angel, “Why not? Angels can do anything.” Well, perhaps not anything, but they’ve been known to assume various human guises, and since God desires nothing less than the salvation of all men*, it is wholly reasonable to assume this might have been some type of angelic intervention, meant to save the despairing Fowler from the mortal sin of suicide. At any rate, I’m content with that explanation, whether or not anyone else is.

*Again, from the Baltimore Catechism, the answer to the question of why God made us: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.

Christmas is, though many seem to have forgotten or chosen not to remember, a Christian holiday, one denoting the birth of a Savior Who was destined to die and rise again in order to redeem mankind from its sins.* Theologically, “The Changing of the Guard” fits perfectly into this, with its supernatural concept - God humbling Himself to become man, one of the most existential aspects of the Bible - that drives the context, which is why the episode more than justifies its appearance in our Christmas blogathon.

*If you think that a bit too grim to impinge on what is essentially The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, take a quick listen to the "Et incarnatus est" from Bach’s B Minor Mass. Translated from the Latin, "Et incarnatus est" comprises the first three words of the passage in the Creed which states, "and [Jesus] was incarnate by the Holy Ghost, of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,” It is, of course, a joyous statement - but Bach chooses to present this music from the point of view not of those who would be saved, but of their Savior, the newly-born Christ, Who even then knew He had been born not just to die, but to suffer a horrific death – over which He would ultimately triumph. It is a remarkable bit of theology which Bach has incorporated into this short section, demonstrating that the Cross hangs heavy even over the Manger. 

There are, I know, many who will this an inappropriate piece to offer in this blogathon. They'll suggest that I’m reading too much into this story, that Serling intended nothing more than a message of hope when the world seems to be getting you down. And, of course, you’re entitled to that opinion. But as I’ve often stated, at this blog and elsewhere, there are layers upon layers of meaning contained in every act and work of art, oftentimes without the awareness of the person responsible for it. I have no way of knowing what Rod Serling intended with “The Changing of the Guard,” nor does it ultimately matter. That Serling was intellectually capable of desiring such a meaning we do know, though ultimately that does not matter either. What does matter is that it is possible to derive such a meaning, one that neatly explains the story and renders it plausible above and beyond its existence as a fantasy, and explains exactly why the story had to occur at Christmas as opposed to any other time of the year. Amazing how that all tends to work out, isn’t it?

So let’s just leave it at that, and call it good. As in, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

MeTV will air "The Changing of the Guard" at 3:00am ET on Friday, December 25. This post is part of Me-TV's Very Merry Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. You can see the entire blog lineup here, and you can see MeTV's line-up of classic TV Christmas shows at its website. TV  


  1. Thanks for this thought provoking post. I'll be at Midnight Mass tonight so I'm on board with your interpretation. Seeking may have been Jewish but he often wove Christian themes into his scripts. Merry Christmas!

    1. Merry Christmas to you as well, Jack! Thanks for the kind words - you're right about Serling; in a sense, the characters in his stories never stopped seeking, and I wonder if he wasn't the same way. What an interesting man.

  2. A thought-provoking interpretation of a strong TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Rod Serling was one of television's greatest writers, so I have no doubt that the underlying theme of this episode is greater than what it first appears to be. And I agree that Donald Pleasance is fabulous, as he often was.

  3. A great read--as usual. Thanks for writing about this episode.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!