The Twilight Zone: The Complete Season One Review
There are many shows in the annals of television history that have been described as seminal, but The Twilight Zone is one of the very few that truly deserves the accolade. Since its first episode was broadcast on 2nd October 1959 it has entered the cultural lexicon, its very name a synonym for describing someone's feelings after going through a particularly strange experience. Even those who have never seen an episode are able to start doo-doo-dooing the theme tune, while its more memorable episodes – such as Nightmare at 20,000 Feet - are regarded as classics on a par with any of the great genre literature or movies from the same era. It created an entire genre and lives on itself via spasmodic revivals, modern incarnations, and even the movie, all showing just how significant it was then and still is now.
Its creator Rod Serling became an icon too, one of the father figures of the whole genre. He had started his career as a television writer after serving in the Pacific during WWII, spending the 1950s slowly rising through the ranks of his chosen craft. The big breakthrough coming with the broadcast of his play Patterns in 1956, a story about corporate power that proved so popular it was repeated the following week, an unprecedented move at a time when second showings were practically non-existent. His reputation swiftly grew after this until by the decade’s end he was one of the most highly-regarded scripters in the still fairly nascent business, hailed for his social commentary and keen imagination. However, despite his success, he was becoming exasperated by the excessive censoring of his scripts – any hints of political opinion were being removed, as well as matters dealing with ethnic identities and even, in one extreme case, the Chrysler Building in a show sponsored by Ford. He decided to go it alone and make his own show, where he would be free of such things and able to say exactly what he wanted how he wanted.
The format he chose, the half-hour anthology, had been television’s prevailing format for the whole of the Fifties. Although by the time The Twilight Zone first aired it was in its decline, it was still fairly popular and many writers, including Serling himself, had cut their teeth working to the tight confines a half-hour script demanded. But The Twilight Zone was very different to anything that had been seen before. Each week, audiences were invited into worlds very much like the ones they themselves would be familiar and with people very like themselves but with one crucial difference: something extraordinary, unusual, dare one say mystical? happens in them. It might be something as simple as a soldier being able to predict who is going to die in forthcoming battles, or something complicated like becoming a prisoner on an alien world. While an episode might begin in a drab-looking office, there was no guarantee it wouldn’t end five billion light years away in a distant galaxy: the whole of time and space was Serling’s canvas, and literally anything could happen within it. Each story has a different lead character to whom bizarre things happens, sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrible, but always surprising and thrilling.
Of course, it wasn't the first series to have outlandish ideas in it, but while there had been plenty of science-fiction and fantasy tales before, both on the screen and also on radio, there was a key difference as to how these tales were now being told. These just weren’t stories about astronauts landing on far-off worlds and being chased around by bug-eyed-monsters or Ming the Merciless, these were more about the human condition, how we respond to the unknown. All the leading protagonists are resolutely average Joes, no different to the vast majority of those who were watching, and by presenting them with characters like themselves Serling was inviting his viewers to literally place themselves in the frame and imagine themselves going through those same experiences, making the series a much more visceral experience than just watching men in space suits chatting to robots. The fact that the world in which they live might be as unpredictable as the one they saw on screen was no doubt a pleasantly unsettling one, and a world away from watching Flash Gordon's latest romps.
Open your eyes, awaken your imagination, look around yourself, and anything is possible is the literal message Serling is sending out. Don’t be an office drone all your life, think outside the box and embrace life. This is something that he, himself, did through his writing, Mrs Serling’s boy certainly having what some used to describe as “an over-active imagination.” Although there are stories by other people, including luminaries such as Richard Matheson, Serling did the lion’s share of the writing himself, a veritable spring of intriguing concepts and amusing what-ifs? Hollywood could live off the high-concept hooks of these episodes for decades and you can almost hear Serling chuckling as he thought them up: What would happen if someone called Cut! and you found your life was just a television play? What about a history teacher who has lived for thousands of years? What if you could literally go back and relive your childhood? Many of the episodes you’ll see here are now almost clichés, the concepts behind them so familiar, but this is the series from which the majority of them came. For a series with so many episodes – there are thirty-six episodes in this first season alone – there is also little repetition, the only idea that crops up several times being that of a character making a Faustian pact with the devil (often called something like Mr Fate or Mr Demon). Other than those, each story is totally fresh, with very similarity between them.
That said, there is a common ideology that runs right through the series, and initially it seems a slightly paradoxical one, given the series is also a celebration of free-thinking. Those characters who make deals with the various agents of fate to change something about themselves without exception find it coming back and smacking them in the face when they least expect it. A hypochondriac who makes a deal to become immortal swiftly discovers that eternal life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, another who tries to cheat death discovers that there is a deadly price to pay, while another finds that unconditional love has its drawbacks. The most archetypical episode in this regard is Mr Bevis, in which a gentle eccentric tries out what life would have been like it he had been a hard-nosed business-man rather than the kindly recluse he is, and finds it not to his liking. While this particular episode is a heart-warming affirmation that greed isn’t good, in general this assumption that dreams can turn into nightmares is a curiously conservative point-of-view for a man who had battled the censors for the better part of a decade and was now creating a series that literally lived off imagination and wondered what lies for us the day after tomorrow. Of course, the other moral is never bargain with Satan, but still it's strange. As surprising are the several cautionary tales about going into space, not one of which ends well for the astronauts, but perhaps all these ideas are just in keeping with the fears of the times in which it was made, although there are definitely mixed messages – one of the most famous episodes of the season, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, is about the self-destructive nature of paranoia. Perhaps the overriding message to be drawn is: never close your mind to new ideas but be careful which ones you let in. Either way, the very fact one can debate the series to such a degree is a testament to the intelligence and variety of writing that lies behind it.
And it’s not just the scripts that have a monopoly on variety either, the very look of the thing changing according to the stories’ moods and settings. It is of course crucial for an anthology series to vary the locales that each week’s episode takes place in (otherwise, what would be the point of making it an anthology series at all?) and The Twilight Zone succeeds admirably in this regard. While many conform to the middle-town America in which nearly all the scripts are set, there is enough variation here that every individual’s house, place of work, local streets and so on are convincingly different, and not evidently filmed in the same places. While it’s inevitable you will notice a couple of redressed sets throughout the year, the large majority of episodes look brand-spanking new, and add conviction to the sense we really are peering into a new life each week: Serling evidently never gave a damn about such trivial considerations as budget or set limitations. If he wanted to set a story in the old West or the middle of a bustling department store he did so, leaving the designers to sort something out, a challenge it’s fortunate they were up to meeting.
This is helped by the large number of outdoors locations used. It’s one of the basic tenets of film history that Hollywood became the heart of American film-making because of the large variety of different environments that could be used surrounding it, but it’s in this series that it becomes apparent just how versatile the country is. We follow a heroine on a cross-country road trip, we see a man returning to a small town where he grew up, we have entire episodes set in the desert. It's helped by the large number of standing sets from other productions that are used too, enabling the various cityscapes to look good. These many locations underline the show’s central premise that anything is possible in The Twilight Zone - it seems the show has the whole cosmos to play with. We even get to see multiple rocket launchings and ships in space and, even if the effects inevitably look old-fashioned these days, shots such as characters standing in front of rocket launch pads still impress.
The visuals are brought to life by the at-times very stylised direction. This is a show with kinetic camera-work, the camera another tool at the story-teller’s disposal. Although all the techniques used – point-of-view, mirror images, sudden zoom-ins, freeze-frames, and deceptively simple panning shots – are familiar to us, their use makes a world of difference and the show comes alive as a result. Cinematographer George T Clemens, who won an Emmy for his work on the show during its second year, pulls off what must have seemed near miracles with his work on the show, especially considering the time restraints they were under – a typical show took just three days to film.
It’s also fun to play spot-the-future-celebrity. Inevitably for a series filmed at such a time in television history the episodes are full of faces that would one day become household names. In this first season alone we get Martin Landau, Ron Howard, Burgess Meredith, Doug McClure, Roddy McDowell and Anne Francis amongst others I’ve no doubt missed – hell, even Quincy himself, Jack Klugman, pops up at one point. There’s also a delightful bit of casting when Ida Lupino plays a washed-up movie star who spends her days watching her old movies, the Twilight Zone’s equivalent of Gloria Swansen in Sunset Boulevard. In general the acting is of a decent rather than wonderful standard, some actors occasionally prone to hysterics and others giving mannered performances. Tellingly, though, the central protagonist of each episode usually gives a far more naturalistic performance than those around them – one could speculate that they are the only real people in an otherwise dream-like world populated by people painted in broader strokes, but that’s reading too much into it: instead, it’s just a sign of canny casting. The Twilight Zone quickly became one of those chic shows that every actor in LA wanted a part in, and the series benefits from having a larger pool of actors to select the leads from.
The Twilight Zone was fearless in its ambition to tell the most innovative stories it could. It weaves its twist-in-the-tale format around such diverse genres as Western, science-fiction, domestic drama, romantic comedy and psychological thriller, somehow creating an entirely new thing in the process, making all those disparate styles seem part of a coherent whole. While a couple of the episodes with stings in their tale are sussed early on, making them slightly less interesting to follow to the end, in the majority these are delightfully surprising, interesting, witty, engaging stories told by a master of his at. This first season is a fine collection of episodes with very few duds – personal taste means I could have done with a couple less devil stories or the more broad comedies – but in general the episodes are of an amazingly high standard and it’s easy to see why it was an instant hit – there really was nothing else quite like it on air at the time. My own picks for favourite episodes are entirely subjective but among those I rank highest include Time Enough At Last, What You Need, Mr Bevis, Third From the Sun and the final episode of the season A World of His Own, but that’s just because I enjoyed the subject matter of those more than others. This first season sets the standard for what followed, and what a high standard it was. Television gold.
All thirty-six episodes of the show's first season are presented on six dual-layered single-sided disks. Each disk holds six episodes. Each disk's main menu has two options: Play All and Episode Select, which leads to a submenu with the six episodes listed across two pages. The only extras on the first five disks are the optional commentaries, and these are selected from the Episode Select Menu itself, all other extras being located on the final disk with their own submenu.
Astoundingly neither the episodes themselves nor the extras are subtitled, a glaring omission in an otherwise faultless presentation of the series.
The new transfers on these disks are superb. Looking as though they could have been filmed yesterday, the episodes have a clarity about them entirely at odds with the fact they are nearly fifty years old. A few episodes have some grain which prohibits the prints getting top score, but with no sign of digital artefacting and only the very rare tiny little white blip, these are immaculate.
The audio has been remastered from the original magnetic tapes, and the dialogue is always clear and audible. That said, there is still a bit of general muffling at times as well as the typical hiss from something this old. Still very good, but not as impressive as the video.
Besides the episodes themselves, the highlight of these disks are the inclusion of lectures Serling gave at Sherwood Oakes College in 1975. Overlaid on the episodes he was discussing to work as commentaries (namely Walking Distance, And When the Sky Was Opened and The Mighty Casey) these are fascinating insights into the man and how he worked. Although officially called lectures, the events sound as though they were much more a Question-and-Answer session and the audience fully participates in the discussions of the show. Serling comes across as a warm, receptive man who, not surprisingly, has an almost instinctual knowledge of narrative, and is a pleasure to listen to. He criticises elements of shows that he feels doesn't work (often to cries of protestation from the fans) and engages in debate about the story-telling devices he used, as well as answering questions from the floor.
Almost as good are recordings of interviews Marc Scott Zicree conducted in the writing of his book The Twilight Zone Companion in 1978-9. Burgess Meredith, Anne Francis and Buck Houghton are the actors who share their memories of working on the show with the author, as well as directors Douglas Heyes and Richard L Bare. The most valuable, though, is the one with Richard Matheson. Each interview, which obviously was never intended to be used in such a way as is here, is overlaid the participant's relevant episodes (or, in the case of Heyes, split up over three) and work well. The sound is a little muffled belaying the conditions they were recorded in but still perfectly audible and if Zicree says "Mmm-hmm" too much, he can't be blamed as these were never meant for public consumption. They don't usually cover an entire episode, but once again these are a great addition to the disks. Six episodes come with these archival commentaries.
And then there are commentaries recorded especially for this set. These turn out to be the weakest, mainly because the actors involved can be a bit rambly at times, but there's still some good trivia to be gleamed from them. Earl Holliman, Martin Landau, Kevin McCarthy, Martin Millner and Rod Taylor are the contributors.
All-in-all, thirteen of the episodes come with commentary with one, And the Sky Was Opened, having three, and are almost worth the price of admission on their own. The use of archive material is the sort of thing more television show releases should be using more often (Lost in Space, I'm looking at you) and makes a great extra here.
The Liars' Club
The Liar's Club was a quiz game in America vaguely similar to the UK's Call My Bluff in which four celebrities suggested uses for mystery objects and two contestants had to guess which one was correct. Rod Serling hosted the first incarnation of the series in 1969 and this is an example episode. It's all very jolly, if not as amusing as everyone seems to think it is, and I am thoroughly annoyed I didn't guess a single one correctly.
Serling won the Emmy for drama writing for the first two seasons The Twilight Zone was on the air (he was nominated the third year too, but lost to Reginald Ross for his work on The Defenders). We see both Serling's wins here including one presented by Fred Astaire, who manfully struggles with an old-fashioned prop to read out the nominees' names. There's also a very brief clip of George Clemens winning one for his cinematography for the second season.
A complete scan of an edition of The Twilight Zone comic is included as a .pdf file, readable only via a PC. It's beautifully scanned, down to the very grain of the paper and all in vivid colours. There are three main stories, a couple of text pieces and also some educational pages. It's not as exciting as its progenitor but a very nice inclusion nonetheless.
Regarding the episodes themselves, these disks do a near-perfect job of presenting them, with only the lazy omission of subtitles (why does that still happen in this day and age?) losing marks. Normally the extras would be looking pretty good too, especially the commentaries. But there's a whole raft of additional material from the Region One edition missing - isolated scores, radio versions of episodes, the original version of the pilot complete with Serling's pitch for the series, original promos, and a Rod Serling blooper - omissions doubly disappointing when one considers we were originally promised the exact same set as the R1. As it is, these missing extras, and the lack of subtitles, let the side down somewhat and make the package feel almost half-hearted.