Why George Takei's Twilight Zone Episode Was Once Withheld From Syndication

In 1959, "The Twilight Zone" began a five-season run on CBS that was simply like nothing else on television. For more than 150 episodes, "The Twilight Zone" served up independently-framed short stories — sometimes set in an alternate fantastical universe — that often reflected and amplified the social and moral issues of the day. While some episodes addressed prejudice, nuclear war, or greed, others dished out chilling horror stories about living dolls and children with psychokinetic abilities. It was a toss-up which would come next, and the show's fame and cult following grew from its penchant for surprise (via Vulture).

Along the way, host Rod Serling interjected with brief monologues about the lessons and values of each tale (typically while smoking a cigarette). But while many of Serling's takes on contemporary American society still inspire discomfort in their accuracy, at least one episode missed the mark so severely that it was pulled from syndication entirely — and it featured eventual "Star Trek" star George Takei.

Takei stars in 'The Encounter'

In episode 151 of "The Twilight Zone," titled "The Encounter," George Takei plays a Japanese American gardener named Arthur who runs into a World War II veteran named Mr. Fenton, portrayed by Neville Brand. Throughout their interaction, Fenton's prejudice is on full display: He talks down to Arthur, rants about Japanese immigrants, and insinuates that Arthur's name and appearance don't match. Arthur stands up for himself, stating "I'm a full-grown man and I answer to Arthur" to deflect Fenton's derogatory remarks. But the two struggle to get along, highlighting the real discrimination faced by Asian Americans during and after World War II (via Off-Ramp).

While Takei's depiction as Arthur begins with some nuance, it eventually devolves into something explicitly racist. At the climax of the story, Arthur loses his temper with Fenton and confesses that his father fought on the Japanese side in World War II. The tension finally breaks, and Arthur cuts down Fenton with the veteran's war souvenir — a samurai sword. As if Arthur's violent rage wasn't enough of a stereotype, he ends the episode shouting, "Banzai!" as he leaps out of a window.

Backlash on the other side of the TV

In an interview about "The Encounter," George Takei recalled that members of Japanese American and Asian American advocacy and civil liberties organizations were frustrated and upset with the way the episode handled its Japanese American character. Their criticisms ultimately moved CBS to pull the episode from syndication.

"It has a unique distinction of being the only 'Twilight Zone' series [episode] that was aired only once," said Takei. "It's never been re-aired. It's never enjoyed a rerun. I missed out on my residuals on that one."

"The Encounter" wouldn't appear in the anthology of "Twilight Zone" episodes until the series was released on DVD and streaming services decades later. In a retrospective for Off-Ramp, writer Taylor Orci compared Takei's episode unfavorably to Jordan Peele's breakout thriller "Get Out," which also cast racism as the monster at the center of a suspense story. Orci placed "The Encounter" in its context: 1964, as the Vietnam War was ramping up. "Portraying Asian Americans as spies and traitors wasn't the kind of visibility they needed," wrote Orci. "What advocacy groups of the time were saying was, yes, even though this takes place in 'the twilight zone,' the audience is in the real world."