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Home video collectors that have previously purchased sets of the old Twilight Zone TV series on VHS, laserdisc and DVD have a new temptation in their path this year, namely beautifully remastered Blu-ray disc sets that for quality leave previous releases far behind. It's difficult to find fantasy fans that don't enjoy The Twilight Zone; holiday weekend marathons of TZ episodes are always popular. The newest generation of fans is now aware of the many talented writers behind the episodes other than the series creator, host and icon Rod Serling.
Let's first get the statistics over with. This The Twilight Zone Season 2 is a four-disc Blu-ray that contains all 29 half-hour episodes of the 1960-1961 season. Unlike many plain-wrap series collections Image Entertainment has packed the Blu-rays with extras, many recycled from older special editions and quite a few new to this release.
Season 2 contains a dud episode or two, quite a few amusing episodes and at least a score of classics. This is not bad for a production team that had to rush out so many shows in short period of time, all the while fending off CBS chief James Aubrey's attempts to chloroform the entire enterprise for lack of stratospheric ratings. Sure TZ may not have made the top ten very often but it was a classy prestige success at a time when critics were clobbering TV for a trend toward increasingly inane lowest-common-denominator fare. A "writer's show" The Twilight Zone isn't always Mensa-level brilliant, but it displays a consistent level of imagination and intelligence. The Curse Of Aubrey was felt in budget cuts that forced several episodes to be produced not on film but on videotape. Although Serling and his team found creative ways to minimize the cheaper production values, only a couple of these are considered classics. The video episodes are naturally less like film and more like a TV soap opera.
Viewers that don't like TZ express their frustration with the 'stinger' surprise endings. We called these Twist Endings when the show was new, and kids unfamiliar with more sophisticated forms of drama held the idea of "fooling the audience" in high esteem. But none of the shows boil down to establishing a premise, marking time with padding, and then socking us with a surprise. In fact, the dramatics of some episode are so strong that the lack of a strong twist has no effect. In A Hundred Yards Over the Rim Cliff Robertson's wonder at being transported from 1847 to 1961 is handled so well that the relatively tame finish is irrelevant. The only episode that to me seemed predictable in a negative way is the time-travel crime show The Rip Van Winkle Caper. Time travel figures in a number of episodes, and sometimes becomes sort of a weak gimmick. The Odyssey of Flight 33 paints its passenger jet crew into a tight corner, and really can't get it out, settling instead for a philosophical ending.
Following the example of Alfred Hitchcock, host Rod Serling appears at each end of the program to offer pithy remarks from a lofty vantage point outside the dramatic structure of each particular story. Some of Serling's pronouncements are profound and others seem rather ungenerous, even cruel. As the writer of an episode, he inflicts trouble on his dramatic puppets, watches them suffer, and then lays down a summary judgment. When a show's concept strikes home, however, Serling's final words can really be inspiring. I believe that socially conscious stories became more prominent later in the series; even when they were good, these host speeches often came off as the Wise Liberal reading us the riot act. Then again, for many children Serling's moral pronouncements inspired thinking about thorny social issues.
With writers like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont aboard, Twilight Zones were always a cut above earlier radio shows with similar Sci-Fi and fantasy material. I only saw one episode, Twenty-Two that struck me as a copycat. Barbara Nichols is haunted by a cryptic phrase that ends up saving her life ... a plot structured exactly like one of the stories in the 1945 horror omnibus Dead of Night. A credit refers to a collection of stories by Bennett Cerf -- perhaps both productions come from the same source story.
As high-toned literary critics are wont to say, on to the really good stuff. Charles Beaumont's The Howling Man is an old idea given a terrific telling. A traveler allowed to spend the night in a creepy monastery defies his hosts' warnings and frees a tormented prisoner. Rod Serling's The Eye of the Beholder is one of the top TZ episodes ever, a difficult job of direction pulled off with laudable finesse by Douglas Heyes. In a conformist future where any physical deformity is cause for expulsion from society, a girl given the last in a series of facial operations must wait to find out if her face is still a grotesque distortion of accepted norms. Helping out considerably in this episode is a score by Bernard Herrmann.
The Nick of Time is one of the most frequently shown TZ episodes, the one where newlywed William Shatner becomes addicted to the predictions of a "little devil" fortune telling machine in a diner. Richard Matheson's script is a perfect one-act shaped for TV; without preaching, it makes a solid case against superstition. The Invaders is the famous "wordless" sequence with a bravura performance by Agnes Moorehead. A woman in an isolated cabin must fight for her life when a flying saucer lands on her roof, and five-inch aliens with ray guns emerge to threaten her. It's another good showing by director Douglas Heyes; the composer this time around is Jerry Goldsmith.
I've mentioned A Hundred Yards Over the Rim, a Rod Serling episode directed by Buzz Kulik, with music by Fred Steiner. Also high on many lists is The Obsolete Man, a minimalist exercise with Burgess Meredith as a librarian whose individualism threatens the state, represented by the pompous inquisitor Fritz Weaver. This seems to me a typical Rod Serling message show kept on its feet by some good acting. Elsewhere in season 2, Burgess Meredith offers some really nice comedy turns, as with Mr. Dingle, The Strong. The outright comedies don't usually get singled out, but I'm partial to Serling's Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? A well-chosen ensemble (John Hoyt, Jean Willes, Jack Elam, Barney Phillips, John Archer, Morgan Jones) is stranded in a snowbound diner (roadside diners recur in TZ's universe) and debate what to do when it becomes evident that one of them must be an alien fresh from a crashed spacecraft. The surprises at the end of this one are very satisfying. 1
Other notable episodes have interesting performances by Luther Adler, Shelley Berman, Art Carney, Jack Carson, Bob Cummings, Buddy Ebsen, Thomas Gomez, Joe Mantell, Billy Mumy (a videotape show, unfortunately), Inger Stevens, Franchot Tone, Dick York and Dennis Weaver. Other name directors include Justis Addiss, John Brahm, John Rich and Jack Smight.
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of The Twilight Zone Season 2 is a good-news release in every respect. The episodes look fantastic: clear, sharp and photographically pristine. No original broadcasts could approach the level of detail or recreate the fine gradient in these 35mm B&W shows; a moody episode like The Invaders rewards us with detail hidden in shadows, and new textures in Agnes Moorehead's ray-gun blistered arms. The images are rock solid. We find ourselves wondering if the film unit working on A Hundred Yards Over the Rim at high noon, had already shot the roadway scenes for The Rip Van Winkle Caper early in the morning at the same location. We also get a really good look at props re-used from Forbidden Planet: a model saucer, Robby's land rover. Monster movie fans noting the brief glimpses of a stop-motion Brontosaurus (apologies, Donald Glut) in one episode will see the credit for Jack H. Harris, and realize that the dino is the same model as in Harris's infantile romp Dinosaurus!
I sampled about twenty of the episodes, skipping through ones I knew well. I wasn't aware that a few second season shows were on videotape; these look quite good but of course can't match the filmed shows. The pictures are lighter and less detailed, and the audio is nowwhere near as rich. I sampled fewer commentaries, but heard enough to know that TZ aficionados will have plenty to occupy their time. Some episodes have more than one commentary as well as radio drama versions. All of the shows have Rod Serling's promos for "next week's" story, and perhaps a quickie teaser for a forgotten TV offering, like a version of My Sister Eileen. No commercials are present but cards announcing sponsor ads and "alternate sponsor ads" are present. In the extras for some titles are "sponsor billboards", which are shots of products and other buffer material.
I've reproduced Image's copy for the extras just below. I'd think that the isolated music scores would be a big draw for fans of Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. I watched the bonus Suspense! episode by Rod Serling and liked it; it's a rather morbid piece about the maker of dummies for those fake houses to be blown up at bomb sites, and would seem to have a compromised ending. The variety of talent on the audio commentaries is impressive; I have to admit I checked in to hear what Don Rickles had to say. He's very positive on his Twilight Zone experience, and hard on the interviewer who has the gall to ask him if he auditioned for the show -- how dare he ask Rickles questions!
25 new audio commentaries, featuring The Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree, author/film historian Gary Gerani, author/music historian Steven C. Smith, author/film & TV historian, Martin Grams Jr., writer/music historian Jon Burlingame, writer Len Wein, writer/producer Joseph Dougherty, writer/producer Matthew Weiner, writer/director Michael Nankin, writer Marv Wolfman, authors/historians Scott Skelton and Jim Benson and writer George Clayton Johnson.
The set has a simple folding flyer with a list of what episode is on which disc, with a helpful guide to the extras to be found therein.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Twilight Zone Season 2 Blu-ray rates:
1. Now here's a legit gripe with Image's presentation -- the insert flyer shows a still from Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? that's a blatant giveaway of the finish. I hadn't seen this episode and the photo spoiled it completely.
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T'was Ever Thus.