Fictional Rock Spring School has quite a rigorous academic calendar, considering its classes remain in schedule through Christmas Eve. Sadly, Prof. Ellis Fowler last class of the term might be his last day ever, or perhaps not. When it comes to Christmas episodes of uncanny anthology series, everyone usually focuses on The Twilight Zone’s “Night of the Meek,” because of the Santa suit, but for pure seasonal sentiment it is tough to beat “The Changing of the Guard,” another foray into the Zone written by the great Rod Serling himself.
Fowler presents himself like a Prof. Kingsfield, but deep down, he is a real softy. That is why his students really love him, even though they jokingly refer to him as “Weird Beard.” Unfortunately, the prep school administration does not appreciate him as much. Since he has long declined to retire, despite having well passed the qualifying age, they have decided to make the decision for him. After all, he insists on teaching dead white male writers like John Donne and A.E. Housman. Now they can finally bring in a Third World Studies specialist to replace him (at least that is what would happen if the episode were set in contemporary times).
Believing himself a failure, the despondent Fowler returns to campus intending to commit suicide in his classroom. However, is shocked to find there an assembly of his former students, who died young in service to their country. What starts as Goodbye Mr. Chips turns into It’s a Wonderful Life, ironically just when Fowler takes his detour into The Twilight Zone.
This episode offers up all kinds of heartstring tugging and moral uplift, but it also should be conclusively cement Donald Pleasence’s standing as a genre legend. Years after his death, his forceful performance as Dr. Sam Loomis continues to loom over and drive the Halloween franchise. He was a Bond villain and appeared with Peter Cushing in films like the The Devil’s Men and From Beyond the Grave, yet he is often unfairly overlooked for his significant Twilight Zone appearance that is much more akin to his classic supporting performance in The Great Escape.
Halloween films, except with more hair. Regardless, he is terrific as Fowler, covering a wide emotional gamut, but with great subtlety and restraint. Likewise, Robert Ellis Miller (who is probably now best remembered for directing the Oscar nominated film Reuben, Reuben) helmed the episode with tremendous sensitivity.
It is also vintage Serling in all respects. His screenplay is highly literate, humanistic and also celebrates military service. Plus, it is one of those episodes wherein the camera pans to suddenly reveal him in the classroom, thereby supplying the full Twilight Zone effect. Very highly recommended for Christmas viewing, “The Changing of the Guard” streams on Hulu and airs Sunday morning (1/2) as part of Decades TV’s annual New Year’s Twilight Zone binge. Merry Christmas.