Original Air Date: June 1, 1962
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Ellis Miller
“They all come and go like ghosts. Faces, names, smiles, the funny things they said or the sad things, or the poignant ones. I gave them nothing, I gave them nothing at all. Poetry that left their minds the minute they themselves left. Aged slogans that were out of date when I taught them. Quotations dear to me that were meaningless to them. I was a failure, Mrs. Landers, an abject, miserable failure. I walked from class to class an old relic, teaching by rot to unhearing ears, unwilling heads. I was an abject dismal failure –I moved nobody. I motivated nobody. I left no imprint on anybody.”
For the final episode of Season 3 in The Twilight Zone series, Rod Serling offers a warm, sentimental Christmas story which is as charming as it is fantastical. Directed Robert Ellis Miller (of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter repute) “Changing of the Guard” is about an aging academic who, when facing retirement, is forced to reflect upon his years of teaching students –has it all been for the sake of something? Have I made a difference? Am I leaving a legacy in the world? “Changing of the Guard” hearkens back to the classic Christmas ghost stories of yesteryear, perhaps most vividly memorialized in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as well as charming Christmas films like Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) or class films about a saintly schoolteacher a la Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). As with all Rod Serling scripts, there is an element of autobiography present in this episode. During his later life, Serling often confessed in interviews that he likely had not made much of a difference in his profession and that he would surely die a forgotten man (though history has proven him wrong, and his six Emmy awards for television writing remains the record to this day). “Changing of the Guard” offers us a second chance, a renewed perspective on life and its inherent value. It is a bittersweet and hopeful episode in the series that leaves the audience feeling sunny yet contemplative about the passing of time.
“Professor Ellis Fowler, a gentle, bookish guide to the young, who is about to discover that life still has certain surprises, and that the campus of the Rock Spring School for Boys lies on a direct path to another institution, commonly referred to as the Twilight Zone.”
Professor Ellis Fowler (Donald Pleasence, known for his roles in The Great Escape, as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, and George Lucas’s THX-1138) is a kindly old teacher of English at Vermont Rock Spring School for Boys. He has taught at the school for many years. After delivering a lecture on A.E. Housman, he bids farewell to this semester’s crop of boys. He is then called into the Dean’s office, apparently Professor Fowler has not opened his mail in recent weeks, and he learns the board is asking the aging Professor to resign.
In shock, Professor Fowler returns home and reminisces about his career by opening old yearbooks. However he quickly grows jaded believing himself to be a failure, having imparted nothing on tomorrow’s leaders. He is reminded of all the years he spent lecturing about poetry to rows of bored, listless faces. Professor Fowler confesses to his housekeeper that he is a fraud, and he decides to go out for a fateful walk while carrying his gun.
He wanders through the snowy night back to campus until he stands in front a statue of Horace Mann (American education pioneer and founder of Serling’s alma mater Antioch College, one of the nation’s first schools to reject religious control in academia; Mann was also an early advocate of universal publicly-funded education as well as a vocal proponent of inclusivity for women in higher education and a staunch opponent of American slavery). At any rate, Professor Fowler shakes his head at the statue plinth which reads “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” (the motto of Antioch College). Professor Fowler then dramatically raises the gun to his own head when suddenly the school bell rings. Now interrupted and curious, Professor Fowler walks over to his classroom to investigate. Suddenly inside his classroom the desks all fill with ghostly faces, Professor Fowler recognizes them as young men from years past –all of whom have now passed on. One by one, each former student describes how Professor Fowler touched his life in one way or another. As they conclude by reciting poetry, Professor Fowler beings to recognize his own worth and tears begin to well up in his eyes.
He returns home in better spirits and now speaks fondly to his housekeeper about his long life. He settles in for the night when he hears the sound of Christmas carolers outside his window. Professor Fowler opens the window and smiles at his students as they sing, and he finally acknowledges that he has lived a good life. He is now ready for retirement.
“Professor Ellis Fowler, teacher, who discovered rather belatedly something of his own value. A very small scholastic lesson, from the campus of the Twilight Zone.”
Following the release of this episode (and thus the conclusion of the third season) The Twilight Zone was once again stuck facing the threat of cancellation partially due to the departure of their lead sponsor Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company. In addition, Rod Serling was exhausted from years of being the sole creative driving force behind the show, and so he accepted a teaching position at Antioch College leaving much of the energy for the show’s forthcoming fourth season in the hands of a new incoming producer Hebert Hirschman (sadly, Buck Houghton somewhat reluctantly departed from the program after three extraordinary seasons as producer). Serling’s time as “writer in residence” at Antioch College was short-lived, however, lasting only from September 1962 to January 1963, but during this period he offered two courses: an undergraduate course on “Mass Media” and an evening course for graduate students entitled “Writing in the Dramatic Form” (apparently one student named Jeanne Marshall kept copious notes on this course and they are publicly available on the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation webpage, including numerous film and book recommendations from Mr. Serling). However, ever a man in motion, Rod Serling was called back to Hollywood when a fourth season of The Twilight Zone was green lit (sadly much of the production had resigned because of the apparent insecurity of the show’s survival) and thus the fourth season took on a notably different approach than the three prior seasons.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- At the time of filming Donald Pleasance was only 42 years old despite playing a much older man (thanks to William Tuttle’s make-up effects he looks pretty convincing).
- The quote Professor Fowler reads on the statue: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity” is the motto of Rod Serling’s alma mater Antioch College. Serling accepted a temporary teaching position at Antioch in Ohio shortly after completing this episode.
- This episode was later adapted into a short story by Rod Serling’s daughter Anne Serling.
- The poems cited in this episode are: A.E. Housman’s “Poem XIII” from his 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, Howard Arnold Walter’s poem “My Creed” (1906), and John Donne’s famous “No Man is an Island” poem first published in 1624 (“never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”). The latter two are recited by the ghosts of Professor Fowler’s former students, one of whom says he died during the attack on Pearl Harbor.