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Keeping to its promise of a speedy roll-out for its remastered Blu-ray editions of The Twilight Zone, Image Entertainment and CBS have followed up their Season 2 set with The Twilight Zone Season 3, an even fatter five-disc collection with all 37 episodes, which includes its fair share of the show's legendary "classic" stories.
The major buyer impetus for making the Blu-ray leap into the Zone is the same as before: the transfers and the extras. The viewing experience is transformed at full HD resolution, with the filmed show completely restored -- as it turns out, they were crafted to a fine-grain quality beyond what the old NTSC broadcast TV standard could reproduce. Secondly, the disc producers have gone all out to soak the episodes in a veritable bath of extras. With all but a few actors from the original shows now gone, the abundant commentaries are by writers, directors and film historians that have a special interest in the series. Directors of current movies are chosen not just because they work in fantasy and science fiction, but because they recognize The Twilight Zone as a foundation series -- perhaps the first successful effort to adapt written Sci-fi to the small screen.
What we learn from the core Twilight Zone historians is that the show was a battleground between network production chief James Aubrey and the creative team of writer-producer Rod Serling. Just as he later dismantled what was left of MGM, Aubrey ejected adult entertainment in favor of mindless filler, dumbing-down the airwaves and removing the last remaining traces of TV's Golden Age of drama and culture. Aubrey slashed Serling's budgets and forced him to shoot some episodes on videotape, an experiment in economizing that almost everyone felt was a disaster. Although The Twilight Zone is now a household word, when the shows were new they were middling performers that didn't impress the bean counters in the front office. Praise for the show's quality didn't translate into high ratings, and the audience demographics favored college students and young people not yet established as the big-spending consumer base that sponsors wished to court. For Rod Serling the show was an ongoing uphill battle, a struggle not helped when an occasional well-meaning interviewer asked him when he was going to apply his talent to something serious.
Anybody familiar with fantastic literature knows The Twilight Zone through its stellar roster of authors. Rod Serling personally wrote almost two-thirds of the episodes, a burden that, with his heavy smoking, probably shortened his life. But the show adapted stories and featured original work by the likes of Jerome Bixby, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson. Of course, not all of the shows are classics but good efforts outnumber the few mediocre ones. The show's recurring themes can be safely chalked up to the personal preferences of Rod Serling -- as limited by what the network and the sponsors would tolerate. TV critics celebrated the fantasy format's ability to broach subjects normally shunned by producers wishing to avoid controversy, or anything downbeat. The Twilight Zone has its own bugaboos -- particularly an eagerness to please a slightly hawkish political stance -- but its forte was always irony and thoughtful moralizing, not confronting society's big problems.
What, briefly, does the viewer get in Season Three? Guest stars include Peter Falk as a Castro clone, Lee Marvin as a gunfighter, Robert Redford, Joseph Schildkraut, Elizabeth Montgomery, Joseph Wiseman, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasance. Attempts at semi-comic episodes feature Buster Keaton and Carol Burnett.
We're accustomed to seeing the series introduce themes that have filtered down through subsequent generations of filmmakers, like the "enemy soldiers confronting one another on an apocalyptic battlefield" idea seen in the season opener, Two. Other atom war-themed episodes are One More Pallbearer and The Shelter. That last title is a surprisingly frank look at the breakdown of human values when survival is at stake.
A handful of the shows seem to be feeding off other works, however. A Game of Pool echoes Robert Rossen's The Hustler while The Dummy seems fairly identical to a chapter of the omnibus horror film Dead of Night. The whimsical Cavender is Coming nabs the guardian angel concept from It's a Wonderful Life and The Changing of the Guard has a major parallel with Goodbye, Mr.Chips. Perhaps some of these shows are adapted from common-source stories?
In addition to writing many of the episodes, Rod Serling influences many of the others, distilling their content down to basics not only for budgetary reasons but because Serling likes stories featuring tight little ironies, usually one homily per show. In run-of-the-mill shows (and a few exemplary ones) Serling tends to veer towards ghostly events (did it happen?) and confusions between appearances and reality (am I alive? Where did my family go?). "Haunted cycles" occur, as when the shoes of a murdered gangster are passed on to another unlucky owner. Serling is also big on obnoxious people getting their comeuppance or, when not so obnoxious, learning a needed lesson -- seeing things from the point of view of the other side, seeing one's own evil schemes boomerang in one's face.
Serling sometimes gets on his high horse when he goes political, as his chosen subjects are just too easy. WW2 provides a morally safe target. A story about a Nazi war criminal getting his just desserts is obvious and trite. An episode encouraging equal respect for a Japanese combat soldier would be impressive if it didn't follow ten years of government-approved films and TV P.R.for our ex-enemies turned new allies against Communism. And Serling leaps on the anti-Castro bandwagon, presenting a bearded lookalike as a cartoon despot ripe for overthrow. Right or wrong, it's not a very courageous episode.
There are probably more truly classic episodes in season three; these are the ones I remember.
Rod Serling adapted Jerome Bixby to fashion the original, sinister It's a Good Life, which features an excellent Billy Mumy performance in an understated, extremely creepy show about tyranny and a mind-reading adolescent. Firmly implanted notion: "wishing" somebody "into the cornfield".
Rod Serling's The Midnight Sun, starring Lois Nettleton & Betty Garde, is a marvelously atmospheric story about the lone holdouts in a Manhattan being baked by high temperatures. This one's just too well done (medium rare?) to be slammed as a rip-off of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, even though the basic concepts are identical.
Earl Hamner Jr. provides a charming vehicle for twang-voiced actor Arthur Hunnicut in The Hunt, that great whimsical episode about a good ol' boy who won't go to heaven because the gatekeepers won't let his old dog come with him.
Then there's the magic of George Clayton Johnson's Kick the Can, a charming old-folks-turn-into-kids fantasy that doesn't insult one's intelligence.
Rod Serling adapted Damon Knight to produce one of the best-rememered TZ episodes of them all, To Serve Man. It's a one-joke show so cleanly presented that it's also entered the collective unconscious.
And Richard Matheson chilled everybody out with Little Girl Lost, a concept that caught on so strongly that it ended up being lifted for Poltergeist, intentionally or un-. This episode is graced with a score by Bernard Herrmann, which can be heard isolated on an alternate audio track.
Ray Bradbury adapted his own I Sing the Body Electric, a classic short story which becomes an almost perfect half-hour drama. They had us read Bradbury's story in our high school creative writing class, and I didn't know it had been filmed until years later.
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray of The Twilight Zone Season 3 is quality-wise an unbroken continuation of the excellent transfers on Season 2, organized with the same agreeable format. besides full title sequences (new music, new graphics), each episode contains full credit sequences plus original broadcast teasers with Rod Serling priming us for next week's program.
The extras are too numerous to do more than list; I hope I didn't leave any out. Image includes a foldout flyer with episode descriptions and a partial list of extras specific to each show.
The audio commentaries number 19 and include tracks by new authors Marc Scott Zicree, Gary Gerani, Scott Skelton, Jim Benson; TZ writers Earl Hamner, George Clayton Johnson and John Tomerlin; writers William F. Nolan, Martin Grams, Jr., Marv Wolfman, Neil Gaiman, Jeff Vlaming, Mark Fergus and Len Wein. Additional Audio Commentaries on selected episodes are recorded with actors Bill Mumy, Lois Nettleton, William Windom, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Cornthwaite, Cliff Robertson and Jonathan Winters.
All 37 episodes carry Isolated Scores, showcasing the work of composers including Bernard Herrmann, Van Cleave, and Fred Steiner. Carol Burnett's show Cavender is Coming is provided with an alternate original laugh track. An interview with actor Edson Stroll accompanies The Trade-Ins. Director of Photography George T. Clemens appears in a separate interview.
Also present are 19 Radio Dramas starring Don Johnson, Blair Underwood, Ernie Hudson, Morgan Brittany, Adam West, Ed Begley, Jr., Jason Alexander, Shelley Berman, Michael York, and Bruno Kirby. Other extras include clips from remade episodes A Game of Pool and Dead Man's Shoes. Additional audio tracks feature recollections from original series contributors Buzz Kulik, Buck Houghton, Richard L. Bare, Lamont Johnson and Earl Hamner. Topping off this mountain of added value are three Rod Serling TV appearances: as a guest on The Garry Moore Show and Tell It to Groucho and as host of the popular game show Liar's Club.
What the Blu-ray set adds up to, I'm almost sad to say, is that this pricey but breathtaking HD Twilight Zone series is something that needs to be seen. Once you've seen a sample, those existing shelves of VHS tapes or DVDs just aren't going to hack it any more. Look at it this way, just this one season contains sixteen hours of vintage shows, and takes up a fraction of the shelf space of older releases. Yes, we collectors sometimes need to fixate on facts like that just to retain our dignity. Just ask yourself, "What would Rod say?" Unfortunately, no Twilight Zone episode I know of delivers a sober judgment on the sins of a fanatic collector.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Twilight Zone Season 3 Blu-ray rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.