Original Air Date: December 4, 1959
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: John Brahm
“Judgment Night” is a classic episode of The Twilight Zone focused on that all-encompassing human struggle between war and peace. In the 1950s, the recent memory of German U-Boat attacks would have been fresh in the minds of television audiences, and the horrors of civilian casualties were well-known. Rod Serling, a Jewish-born World War II veteran, had personal reasons for placing Nazis into an unending hellish nightmare in The Twilight Zone.
“Her name is the S.S. Queen of Glasgow. Her registry: British. Gross tonnage: five thousand. Age: Interdeterminate. At this moment she’s one day out of Liverpool, her destination New York. Duly recorded on the ship’s log is the sailing time, course to destination, weather conditions, temperature, longitude and latitude. But what is never recorded in a log is the fear that washes over a deck like fog and ocean spray. Fear like the throbbing strokes of engine pistons, each like a heartbeat, parceling out of every hour into breathless minutes of watching, waiting and dreading.. For the year is 1942, and this particular ship has lost its convoy. It travels alone like an aged blind thing groping through the unfriendly dark, stalked by unseen periscopes of steel killers. Yes, the Queen of Glasgow is a frightened ship, and she carries with her a premonition of death.”
The year is 1942 (in the midst of World War II) and we meet a German-born man named Carl Lanser (played by Nehemiah Persoff who was born in 1919 and is still alive as of the time of this writing living in Cambria, CA). Lanser has found himself aboard a British freighter called the S.S. Queen of Glasgow as it crosses the Atlantic from Liverpool to New York. He has no memory of how he got there. He seems to have become afflicted with short-term amnesia but he vaguely recalls that something terrible is planned for the ship at 1:15am.
The tone is ominous, ghostly, and foggy as we await a terrifying conflict of some sort at 1:15am. Is Carl insane? Do we trust him? Is he a German spy who has been brainwashed? Has he been given some sort of chip implanted in his brain? Or was he deliberately sent by the enemy to deliver a vague warning?
Lanser goes mad scrambling through the ship while crew members grow suspicious of him (he appears nervous and possesses remarkably detailed knowledge about Germans and U-Boats). When 1:15am arrives he pulls out a pair of binoculars and gazes out from the ship to find a German U-Boat stalking the freighter. The big reveal comes when he spots none other than himself at the enemy helm. The U-Boat mercilessly attacks the British vessel killing all aboard -we watch as Lanser, too, slips beneath the waves.
In the end, we are given an epilogue. A German officer approaches Kapitan Carl Lanser aboard the German U-Boat. He expresses shame and he wonders whether or not damnation awaits them for killing so many civilians, but Lanser is remorseless. Moments later, we see Lanser again on the deck of the S.S. Queen of Glasgow without any idea of how he arrived there, and the whole situation begins anew. He is doomed to repeat his fate for all of eternity like Sisyphus pushing his great stone or the pirate myth of the Flying Dutchman, Lanser has become a hostage to his own cruelty.
“The S.S. Queen of Glasgow, heading for New York., and the time is 1942. For one man it is always 1942 – and this man will ride the ghost ship every night for eternity. This is what is meant by paying the fiddler. This is the comeeuppance awaiting every man when the ledger of his life is opened and examined, the tally made, and then the reward or the penalty paid. And in the case of Carl Lanser, former Kaptian Lieutenant, Navy of the Third Reich, this is the penalty. The is the justice meted out. This is judgement night in the Twilight Zone.”
In “Judgment Night” we cannot help but accept that the punishment fits the crime. With echoes of another classic episode in the series, Season 3’s “Deaths-Head Revisited,” this theme of cosmic retribution is a recurring theme throughout The Twilight Zone, particularly when it comes to unrepentant Nazis.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- This was the first episode (of the first eighteen episodes) which ran into issues with the censors. Rod Serling had originally written that the British soldiers called for tea, but one of the sponsors was Instant Coffee, so the language was changed to simply refer vaguely to a “tray” and other references to coffee rather than tea were included in the episode.
- In the 1960 issue of Broadcasting, Serling complained: “You can’t ‘ford’ a river if it’s sponsored by Chevy; you can’t offer someone a ‘match’ if it’s sponsored by Ronson lighters.” Marc Scott Zicree joked in The Twilight Zone Companion that it was a good thing the sponsor did not realize that people could drink water, or else the episode would have happened on dry land.
- Numerous sets from the Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston film The Wreck of the Mary Deare were used for this episode.