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In its final season, the beloved anthology TV series The Twilight Zone seems to be skating on thin ice. Although the show's overall quality was never compromised, rough relations with the network were not an encouraging factor. After five years battling the front office, originator, main writer and host Rod Serling continued to write more episodes than his contributing writers put together, but he couldn't quite keep up with the weekly demands for innovation and surprise. More shows repeat elements and even basic ideas from earlier seasons. Serling's noted and praised social consciousness wore thin in his more preachy episodes, although his good efforts remained as good as ever. Richard Matheson continued to contribute excellent material, but other writers did less than memorable work. Earl Hamner Jr.'s teleplays seemed designed for radio: characters tended to describe all the action, as if providing a service for blind Twilight Zone fans. What never lets the show down are the fine actors, some destined for film stardom, that grace every episode. More often than not, the actors' efforts provide the extra oomph to make a middling concept into exceptional entertainment.
Some accounts say that with Rod Serling's time split between writing and his other job as a college teacher, season five suffered under producer William Froug. Scripts from both Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont were rejected in favor of work by other writers. In any case, even Serling's on-camera introductions don't seem as personally involved as they once were.
TZ addicts won't need an excuse to indulge in this final season Blu-ray box. The disc producers have transferred The Twilight Zone: Season 5 in dazzlingly beautiful HD transfers and remastered soundtracks and packed them with enough extras for months of rapt viewing and auditing.
The finest episodes in Season 5 are as good as any made. Serling led off the Fall 1963 season with three winners. The emotional In Praise of Pip seems a bit like a pre-echo of Bob Clark's Vietnam parable Deathdream. Jack Klugman & Billy Mumy are excellent. Steel is a clever Richard Matheson story beautifully directed by Don Weis, with strong performances by Lee Marvin and Joe Mantell as losers in the robot fight game. The most famous episode in Season five is Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, which may represent William Shatner's best job of acting. Tense direction (Richard Donner) and a superior Richard Matheson teleplay make this "gremlin" tale one of the series' most frightening. The terrific gimmick of A Kind of Stopwatch fired the imaginations of a million schoolkids. A boring guy discovers that he can literally stop the world for his own amusement and profit. Living Doll is a creepy story of bad parenting (a recurring Zone theme), with Telly Savalas not getting along at all with a talking toy; it has an impressive horror-flavored music score by Bernard Herrmann. The Seventh is Made Up of Phantoms should be awful, as it's very close in concept to an earlier episode with Cliff Robertson. But director Alan Crosland, Jr. and a tank crew led by Warren Oates do right by this tale of a time-slip from the present back to the Little Big Horn. The amusing A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain sees a bitchy wife turned into a maternal caregiver when her husband reverts to infancy. It's just funny enough to make the oddball idea work.
Another fondly remembered classic is Number 12 Looks Just Like You, an intriguing spin on the top episode "Eye of the Beholder" that defines conformism slightly differently. Suzy Parker is forced to choose between several 'approved' faces, to fit in to a world intolerant of variety. It's long reminded me of the shrinking list of children's names these days: Sean, Chloe, Zoe, Jessica. Given great direction by Jacques Tourneur, Night Call is basically "Sorry, Wrong Number" with ghosts, namely phone lines dangling too close to a certain gravestone. Great atmosphere; with Gladys Cooper.
The superlative An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a French short film cut down to fit the Twilight Zone format. Superior filmmaking in every sense, it's a detour into art filmmaking and one of the most expressive TV presentations of the 1960s. Serling probably licensed the film because of budgetary shortcomings. Although the 'big surprise' in The Masks is patently obvious, the episode comes off as a classic anyway. Several unworthy heirs gather at Mardi Gras and are forced to wear masks at the reading of the will. Director Ida Lupino keeps this ensemble show at a high level of interest. The Brain Center at Whipples distills the truth about automation, as a laid-off foreman drunkenly argues with a factory owner who has replaced over a hundred employees with a cost-saving computer. That debate was on people's minds as a future concern in 1963.
The Twilight Zone was occasionally accused of pretension, and / or liberal sermonizing. By this last season, Rod Serling's ironic preachments against capital punishment and social intolerance had begun to wear thin. Instead of enlivening a tale with a social conscience, these politically-minded episodes seemed to be wagging a finger at the audience. The Old Man in a Cave pits John Anderson against James Coburn in a post-apocalyptic fable that's well acted but comes off as an "Aesop's Futuristic Fable": militaristic authority BAD, obedience to local wisdom GOOD. The lazy Probe 7 - Over and Out re-starts the human race in an Eden on a new Planet, an idea done to death in innumberable Sci-Fi stories. You Drive, a "Tell Tale Heart" idea about a hit-and-run driver getting his just desserts, so torments its villain that we'd like to see him get off the hook. John Brahm directs it stylishly, however. I Am the Night -- Color Me Black is a ridiculous, pandering plea for tolerance. A town of rednecks is eager to hang an unjustly convicted man and is unconcerned that the sun hasn't risen. We eventually learn that various other places -- Communist capitals, Southern anti-integration cities -- are also plunged into darkness. It's pretty thick baloney, even with good acting from Ivan Dixon and Michael Constantine. The show's offensive implication is that intolerant hatred is an exceptional human state. By the rules demonstrated here, all of the Earth should have been locked in darkness for thousands of years, whereever more than ten people lived in a group. Perhaps the only Zone episode with a truly off-putting message, The Encounter opposes ex-Marine Neville Brand and Japanese gardener George Takei in a mutually destructive talk-a-thon about racial hatred. Martin Goldsmith's script decides that these men are too guilty to live; the show ends in a pretentious muddle.
I've yet to see a Twilight Zone episode without some point of interest. Last Night of a Jockey has Mickey Rooney acting up a storm, and Uncle Simon marks the first of two Season 5 appearances by Robby the Robot. Ninety Years Without Slumbering sees Ed Wynn in a story that might have been suggested by a desperate writer (George Clayton Johnson) watching The Lawrence Welk Show. Good acting by Robert Lansing and Mariette Hartley saves The Long Morrow, which chatters on so long about relativity time-displacement that a deaf hamster would guess the trick ending. The ending was used, by the way, used in a 1940s French musical comedy called Croisiéres Sidereales. Motorcycle thugs in the somewhat misguided Black Leather Jackets are actually invaders charged with poisoning the world. Interesting TV stars Shelley Fabares and Michael Conrad enliven the proceedings. An ignorant problem-causer learns a lesson in Ring-a-Ding Girl, starring Maggie McNamara., an Ambrose Bierce concept combined with a time-slip idea. The Self Improvement of Salvadore Ross has perhaps too many clever ideas. Don Gordon buys and sells years of life and character traits from people, to win over his sweetheart Gail Kobe. The episode is disjointed, and the Gordon character also seems cheated, so the "moral" doesn't stand up. It's another Don Siegel show in his TV years before bouncing back with Clint Eastwood. To Agnes with Love doesn't use Wally Cox very creatively. He's an impossibly nerdy lover given terrible advice by an amorous computer. Spur of the Moment stars Diana Hyland and Marsha Hunt as two versions of the same woman separated in time. Richard Matheson's story seems halfway original but doesn't come together as it should.
Queen of the Nile lets Ann Blythe play an apparently ageless movie star famous for Egyptian roles; when she ensnares a writer in her romantic spell, viewers familiar with The Leech Woman are already ten minutes ahead of the story. What's In the Box? is another unorginal tale of a hellish relationship, partially redeemed by actors Joan Blondell and William Demarest. Writer Martin Goldsmith wrote Detour and the story for Narrow Margin. Sounds and Silences is only a so-so episode, with John McGiver annoying his wife with his obsession with ship models and ship sounds. Excess leads directly to an ironic end, as in too many Serling scripts. The Jeopardy Room is a pat 'ironic justice' show from Serling, given good acting by Martin Landau and John Van Dreelen. A Russian defector employs a complicated scheme to turn the tables on a pair of KGB executioners. Caesar and Me stars Jackie Cooper as yet another ventriloquist given bad advice by his own stage dummy. Cooper is excellent but the show has a feeling of desperation about it; even in 1964 this was an old, old story. Stopover in a Quiet Town is well produced, but is one of those "stinger ending" shows that's predictable from the 4-minute mark forward. Barry Nelson and Nancy Malone find themselves trapped in a small town where everything seems artificial. Please save us from shows about people stuck in empty towns, trying to figure out what fantasy clichés are in force.
Mr. Garrity and the Graves sees a stranger come into town, offering to bring back the dead for money -- he also takes money from people who want the dead to stay dead. A quirky tale in a western town, this one is original and creepy fun. Come Wander with Me has an annoying rockabilly singer (Gary Crosby) enter a supernatural hollow. Everything that happens plays like padding, with a haunting song or two sung by Bonnie Beecher. It's the least interesting show in the season. The Fear recycles another space invasion by miniature aliens (a TC fetish) with diminishing returns. A surprisingly pulpy sci-fi finish doesn't compensate for some bad "psychological" writing between snobby fashion designer Hazel Court and State Trooper Mark Richman; there's essentially 7 minutes of real show and the rest is padding. The concept of The Bewitchin' Pool is a variation on "Through the Looking Glass". We can imagine writer Earl Hamner Jr. staring at his backyard pool, looking for inspiration. A swimming pool serves as a portal to a Huck Finn-style Never-Neverland for an unhappy brother and sister. The mean parents aren't convincing but the lady playing the 'good witch' in the magic world doesn't seem a bargain either, even if she bakes nice cakes. We keep expecting the lady to throw the two kids in an oven. Mary Badham of To Kill a Mockingbird stars, but her voice seems to be overdubbed.
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray box of The Twilight Zone: Season 5 is the expected visual dazzler, with perfect HD transfers from pristine 35mm elements. We wish that every show we love could have been preserved this well. 1 We can scrutinize every production detail and special effect, many of which are of excellent quality. These are impeccably filmed shows.
The wealth of commentaries includes authors, experts, directors, writers and actors: Jim Benson, June Foray, Neal Gaiman, Gary Gerani, Martin Grams Jr., Mariette Hartley, Martin Landau, Billy Mumy, Michael Nankin, Ted Post, Peter Mark Richman, Mickey Rooney, Scott Skelton, Alan Sues, George Takei, Bill Warren, and Marc Scott Zicree. Special interviewees include Terry Becker, June Foray, Michael Forest, Earl Hamner, George Clayton Johnson, Carolyn Kearney and Richard Matheson, and of course Rod Serling, in archived interviews.
The 5th season continues the practice of including isolated score tracks and radio adaptations (22 of them) when possible. Special extras include a Mike Wallace interview from 1959, Various series promos, sales pitches and Billboard credits, an Alfred Hitchcock promo and home movies from George Clayton Johnson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Twilight Zone: Season 5 Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.