[2 September 2011]
For most, The Twilight Zone needs no introduction to fans of classic television and speculative fiction. For the rest of you, The Twilight Zone was an American television anthology series created by Rod Serling which ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964 and is still regarded as an outstanding example of a commercially successful series which also incorporated consideration of serious contemporary issues (intolerance, the threat of nuclear warfare). The show’s format was self-contained weekly episodes, mostly written in well-known genre styles such as science fiction, the Western, and horror. Although The Twilight Zone was noted for its social conscience, not all the episodes dealt with political or social issues: many explored aspects of human psychology or experimented with the consequences of classic science fiction ideas.
The original run of The Twilight Zone included 156 episodes. Not surprisingly, not all of them are masterpieces. The pressure of producing a new show every week, without the assistance of recurring characters or continuing story arcs, must have been tremendous as each episode had to create its own world and deliver a satisfying story in the 30 minutes, minus commercial time, allotted to it (season 4 used hour-long episodes with imperfect results, and season 5 returned to the half-hour format). In retrospect it’s remarkable how many of the episodes are truly memorable, with the best of them ranking among the finest television ever produced.
Even in the less successful episodes there’s often something to enjoy, perhaps a mediocre script enlivened by the performance of a veteran actor or a young up-and-comer. A glance at the on-camera talent in season 5 reveals many in both categories including Jack Klugman, Bill Mumy, Lee Marvin, William Shatner, Mickey Rooney, Telly Savalas, James Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Ford, Richard Basehart, Gladys Cooper, Ann Blyth, Joan Blondell, Jackie Cooper, George Takei, and Mary Badham. The writers and directors for this season are equally distinguished: writers include Serling, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Earl Hamner, Jr., while directors include Don Siegel, Richard Donner, Don Weis, Joseph M. Newman, Abner Biberman (one of the Hollywood Ten), Ida Lupino and Jacques Tourneur.
There are many ways to view episodes of The Twilight Zone, from broadcast to DVD to instant view (this in itself is evidence of the series’ staying power) but the Cadillac among them is the Blu-Ray series issued by Image Entertainment. Image has done a splendid job with these discs: the images are sharp and clear, the soundtracks are available in original or remastered versions, and every episode is supplied with multiple extras which include audio commentaries, interviews, isolated movie soundtracks, promotional materials, and radio versions of the programs. There are also a few free-standing extras in the set including a Serling interview with Mike Wallace, an interview with veteran cinematographer George T. Clemens, and videos of several talks Serling gave to college students.
It’s impossible to talk about all 36 episodes of season 5 so I’ll concentrate on one of my favorites, “In Praise of Pip”, directed by Joseph M. Newman from a script by Serling. Like many Twilight Zone episodes it incorporates contemporary political concerns and a touch of the supernatural into what is at bottom a very human story about guilt and redemption. The centerpiece is a multilayered performance by Klugman as Max Phillips, a small-time criminal who receives a telegram informing him that his serviceman son is near death “in a place called South Vietnam” and who in his grief is able to contact his son as a child (Bill Mumy) in a carnival hall of mirrors.
Besides Klugman’s performance, the episode is notable for the inclusion of what is believed to be the first scene on American television set in Vietnam as well as for Max’s observation that “there isn’t even supposed to be a war going on there but my son is dying.” Extras for this episode include an interview with Bill Mumy, two commentary tracks (one by Mumy and one by Neil Gaiman and Marc Scott Zicree, the latter the author of The Twilight Zone Companion), the isolated score by Rene Garriguenc, and sponsor billboards (for Lilt and Crest).
The Twilight Zone is an example of television done right and not just because of the important ideas incorporated into the programs. The episodes are also case studies in efficient storytelling and seeing them in high definition gives you added appreciation for the care taken with the production values. Each episode is like a little movie with all the attention to cinematic detail which that implies, and many feature soundtracks with music composed specifically for that episode by studio professionals like Bernard Herrmann and Nathan Van Cleave.
The Image Blu-Ray set is a must-have for fans of the series and scholars of science fiction and the history of television. There’s no better way to watch this series and the extras included on the discs will provide many additional hours of viewing for fans as well as important research materials for scholars.