Movie: There are few people in my generation who've never seen the original Twilight Zone over the years, either in syndication or when it actually aired on television so many years ago. Hosted by writer Rod Serling, this weekly anthology of shows that always had an edge set the stage for a great many copycats over the decades since it aired and there's a reason for that; people like morality plays. Even from the times before Shakespeare, people enjoyed seeing those with ill intent or other character flaws get their comeuppance. The science fiction or fantasy edge of most episodes just allowed a number of themes get past the censors who were long more onerous then the folks upset over last year's Janet Jackson debacle. And while the show broke new ground in television, it was based in the rich traditions of the published work, particularly the pulp fiction so popular in the earlier part of the millennium (many of the show's best writers were well known in that medium too). Most of the episodes were filmed in 30 blocks for their time slot, except for a single season of hour long shows, and the reason they appealed to such a broad audience was not the fantasy elements so much as they way Rod and company would show people much like the rest of us put in fantastic circumstances, only to act like most of us would (essentially, in a greedy, immoral, or otherwise selfish manner).
Rod went onto to other things when the show stopped production, eventually hosting another, much darker, series called Night Gallery, where the same Universal rules of conduct applied but it wasn't the same show and it fell before producing too many shows of merit. A few years back, CBS tried to revitalize the show by installing Forest Whitaker in a series that had a few bright spots too, naming it after the beloved series of old but even this incarnation of the show, The Twilight Zone from 2002, failed to connect with a modern audience. Why, you ask? There's only one answer I can give you that makes sense; the writing.
For all the compromises of the original show, it was always about the writer's ideas making it to the silver screen. Sure, director's would take extreme liberties with the material back in the old days (heck, even advertisers would do so) but in a great many episodes, the basic themes were kept reasonably intact. The biggest problem the 2002 series had was the way so many episodes gave the appearance of being formulated by committee. This is a disastrous mistake and the network television suits have long failed to understand this (for examples where creative minds simply walked away from being mistreated, look at Fox's Faux Pas and TNT's Mistake but those were few and far between since the call of cash usually wins out). Anyway, The Twilight Zone did manage to have a brief revival twenty years ago back in the 1980's, with the subject of this review, The New Twilight Zone, that managed to instill some of the sense of wonder and mystery of the original show. Here's my take on the Season 1 Boxed Set.
Back in a time when television shows were very much of a different mindset compared to today, the new version of the Twilight Zone managed to pull off some of the best writing seen on TV in decades. With a number of brilliant writers lie Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Stephen King and others providing some great material and directors like Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Paul Lynch and others handling the technical ends of the material; it should be accepted that a treat was in store for audiences fed up with the slickly produced sitcoms and soap operas polluting the public airwaves. Stars like Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Elliot Gould, Danny Kaye, Martin Landau and hordes of other big names often worked for scale (well below what they would command today in most cases). But the big draw for true science fiction fans should be the writers as this was a show conceived with them in mind. Granted, there were some behind the scenes dramas that took place (Ellison nearly beating a director over changes to his script comes to mind), but by and large, Executive Producer Philip DeGuere, himself a renowned writer, empowered a great many writers far beyond their usual lot in life (at least for network television) and the results showed the difference over and over.
If you never saw this show when it originally aired on Friday nights, you weren't alone. That's the night of the week where people with real lives go out and have fun. After some initial rating successes, the show's darker material (and it had some very disturbing episodes early on that might've been too much for audiences to handle back then) took it's toll and changes were made. Harlan Ellison, probably the most talented writer of the show, was dropped late in the season from his creative consultant position and the shows began to falter more frequently. Later seasons still had a glimmer of brilliance but nothing compared to episodes like Paladin of the Lost Hour, Nightcrawlers, Shatterday or One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty. There were a number of remake episodes as well as homage's to past glories from the original series as well; Night of the Meek, A Small Talent For War, and Shadow Play being the most obvious.
One of the changes this version of the series made to the original formula (and it was a formula), was the length of the episodes themselves. Unlike most television of the time, and even since due to the financial issues involved with syndication, was that the writers weren't locked into a specific amount of time to tell their story. This one factor alone contributed greatly to their freedom from the dreaded clock that tends to harm such shows. An episode like Examination Day wouldn't have to drag on in order to fill the time slot, nor would the intricacies of Gramma have to be edited or padded in order to keep a network suit appeased.
The downside to the show was that it was still a network show and other than the limits of what could and could not be shown popping up, there were still the budget limitations and timeliness matters to contend with. Series have to churn out shows on a pretty regular basis or they close up shop. This limits the amount of time a director may have, the amount of time the actors have to learn more complex roles, and the writers have to convert their short stories into screenplays that will transcend the media and get their points across. Episodes like The Elevator or Quarantine looked far cheesier than they would had they been given more resources to work with but the special effects were never the focal point of the show and the limitations of mid-1980's CGI came be factored into the bigger picture.
One of the best things about this boxed set for me though was the amount of audio commentaries by the writers and crew of the show. In all, there were 22 commentaries with such notables as Harlan Ellison, Philip DeGuere, and Wes Craven to name a few, and they provided far more insight than the usual hack blabbing about nothing. I started getting greedy myself as I listened to them and hoped that each episode had one but some even had two! That said, the Twilight Zone: Season 1 Boxed Set really impressed me in terms of content and I'm glad that the original narrator, the late Charles Aidman, had his voiceover work restored for this set. The syndicated version of the episodes had it removed in favor of Robin Ward, who had replaced him in later seasons. I know it's a small point but since they did it right; I felt obligated to give them credit for it. I didn't notice any music replacements but I recall the original release having songs sung by cover bands so that shouldn't be a big issue here. Lastly, there were a number of episodes that aren't in rotation in the syndication schedule since the show had to be cut (edited) to fit specific time slots. That alone is reason enough to give this one a rating of Highly Recommended but the others factor it too.
Picture: The Twilight Zone was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color that it was shot in. This was one area where the DVD set faltered since the compression rate needed to fill those many episodes (nearly sixty of varying lengths) with all those commentaries made for a mixed blessing. I saw a lot of video noise and the pixelation that mark a DVD transfer of limited care. To be fair though, the original masters were reportedly damaged and the set producers did their best to save the day here. I've seen the original as well as the syndicated version and while this set fares well compared to either, it could've been better in my opinion. If the material wasn't so strong, so often, I'd fuss like a whiny little kid but the bigger picture has me accepting the reality of the situation. In short, they did the best they could for the limited budget provided and it isn't going to get better than this for a short-lived remake series.
Sound: The audio was kind of interesting for me since some episodes were presented in a limited 2.0 stereo while others were monaural. I know some of the original episodes were in stereo but I didn't think they'd transfer over all that well. Thankfully, I was wrong (again!). There was limited separation and dynamic range in many of the episodes but that's okay since they did appear to be cleaned up somewhat with the Dolby Digital process.
Extras: The extras impressed me a whole lot since this type of show really needed them to stand out from the crowd. With 22 audio commentaries by some of the best writers in the business, I found these to be more interesting than the entire 2002 remake series put together. Ellison's commentaries alone are wonderful in how he freely admits to his attitudes about how things went and his fans should consider this set a "must have" for those alone. His episodes stood out really nicely but others were just as good much of the time with Craven and DeGuere pointing out a lot of facts that I'd have otherwise missed. There was also a number of photogalleries and a short (~15 minute long) interview with Wes Craven but the commentaries were worth the price of the set for me all by themselves.
Final Thoughts: The New Twilight Zone Season 1 Boxed set is well worth the rating of Highly Recommended for the quality of the writing, the acting, and the extras. Unlike most television shows tossed onto DVD these days, particularly older shows, the extras were exceptionally solid and the versions of the episodes were far more complete than you'll ever see in syndication. If you're a fan of the original twilight Zone, this revival was the closest thing you'll ever see to the magic that made the original work (and, to be blunt about it, much of the writing here was better than the original by a wide margin).
Episode 1: September 27, 1985
Shatterday (c1-Wes Craven, Alan Brennert, Philip DeGuere, Bradford May;
A Little Peace and Quiet (c-Wes Craven, Philip DeGuere, Bradford May)
Episode 2: October 4, 1985
Wordplay (c-Wes Craven and Philip DeGuere)
Dreams For Sale
Chameleon (c-Wes Craven, James Crocker and Philip DeGuere)
Episode 3: October 11, 1985
Episode 4: October 18, 1985
Little Boy Lost
Nightcrawlers (c-Bradford May and Philip DeGuere)
Episode 5: October 25, 1985
If She Dies
Episode 6: November 1, 1985
Examination Day (c-Philip DeGuere)
A Message From Charity (c-Alan Brennert and Kerry Noonan)
Episode 7: November 8, 1985
Paladin of the Lost Hour (c-Harlan Ellison)
Episode 8: November 15, 1985
The Burning Man (c-J.D. Feigelson, James Crocker and Alan Brennert)
Dealer's Choice (c-Wes Craven and Philip DeGuere)
Episode 9: November 22, 1985
Dead Woman's Shoes
Wongs Lost and Found Emporium (c-Alan Brennert and William Wu)
Episode 10: November 29, 1985
The Shadow Man
The Uncle Devil Show
Episode 11: December 6, 1985
One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty (c-Harlan Ellison)
Episode 12: December 13, 1985
Her Pilgrim Soul (c-Wes Craven, James Crocker and Alan Brennert)
I of Newton (c-Alan Brennert)
Episode 13: December 20, 1985
Night of the Meek
But Can She Type?
The Star (c-Alan Brennert)
Episode 14: January 3, 1986
The Little People of Killany Woods (c-J.D. Feigelson, James Crocker and Alan
The Misfortune Cookie
Episode 15: January 24, 1986
A Small Talent For War
A Matter of Minutes
Episode 16: January 31, 1986
To See the Invisible Man
Tooth and Consequences
Episode 17: February 7, 1986
Welcome To Winfield
Quarantine (c-Philip DeGuere)
Episode 18: February 14, 1986
Gramma (c1-Philip DeGuere and Bradford May; c2-Harlan Ellison)
Episode 19: February 21, 1986
The Leprechaun Artist
Dead Run (c-Alan Brennert and Greg Bear)
Episode 20: March 7, 1986
Profile In Silver
Episode 21: March 21, 1986
Need To Know
Episode 22: March 28, 1986
Take My Life Please!
Episode 23: April 4, 1986
Episode 24: April 11, 1986
A Day in Beaumont
The Last Defender of Camelot