This is the anomalous fourth (half-) season of early to mid-1963, the year Twilight Zone briefly switched from a 30-minute show to a 60-minute one, just as Alfred Hitchcock Presents had become The Alfred Hitchcock Hour a few months before. Both the network, CBS, and (as documented in Martin Grams, Jr.'s exhaustive book about the series) creator Rod Serling had for several years wanted to expand the critically acclaimed anthology, but when they did the results were disappointing for a variety of reasons.
Twilight Zone switched back to a half-hour form for its fifth and final season, with the hour shows tucked away in the closet like unwanted Christmas presents. In the decades that followed, watching syndicated episodes of The Twilight Zone really meant watching seasons one, two, and three, and most of season five. Some shows, mainly from the fifth season, had been pulled for legal reasons, while the hour episodes weren't shown at all, at least not in most major television markets. This was true even where local stations ran two half-hour shows back-to-back in a one-hour slot, a timeslot that could easily have accommodated the hour-long shows. In 1984 one of the hour-long episodes, "Miniature," turned up in a television special that also included several long-lost fifth season episodes heretofore pulled from syndication. A short time later the remaining season fourth season shows began turning up as well.
When fans of Twilight Zone too young to see these hour shows when they were new finally caught up with them, the initial reaction was almost universal disappointment. Serling had hoped the longer running time would be used to expand upon interesting ideas and flesh out characters. Instead, the writers and the new format tended to stretch a half-hour's worth of material into a gruelingly repetitive, frustrating hour. Moreover, the program seemed to stray from Twilight Zone's unique look and writing style, as if it were suddenly in hands unfamiliar with the show's strengths, which in fact was largely the case.
And yet, looking at it again, The Twilight Zone - Season Four has almost as many high points as low ones. There are several outstanding episodes as good as any produced before or since, and a few heretofore unjustly maligned episodes worth reappraisal.
As with The Twilight Zone - Season One, Season Two, and Season Three, the huge bump in picture quality - and to my eyes an even bigger bump here on Season Four - more than justifies the cost of upgrading from their already fine DVD versions. The detail is just incredible: you can count every single pore on Simon Oakland's face, while the mesh bordering Jack Klugman's hairpiece ("Klug's Rug?") is clearly visible. Conversely, the show's special visual effects hold up extremely well to high-def scrutiny.
The veritable mountain of older extra features has been ported over, which include radio dramas, video interviews, isolated scores for all 18 shows, even those consisting entirely of library music. All this is further supplemented with 13 terrific new audio commentaries (and a few new commentators, including sci-fi historian Bill Warren).
"In His Image"
Twilight Zone was ideally suited to the half-hour format, at least when a half-hour meant 25 1/2 minutes or so of show and just 4 1/2 minutes of commercial interruptions. Despite Serling's complaint that the half-hour format favored plot over characterization, leaving little time for anything else, in fact most Zones revolve around a small circle of characters, sometimes just two or three or even one, and viewers recalled these memorable characters as much as its fantastical tales. Of course, the half-hour version became famous for its twist endings, the stings in its tail, though that wasn't always true and some of the all-time best Zones, season one's "Walking Distance" for example, really don't have or need one.
Expanded to an hour the twist-ending thing just wasn't going to work because the writer would need to deliver a whopper of a surprise to satisfy audiences waiting anxiously for 50 minutes. At its best and sometimes its worst, the hour Twilight Zones took a slightly different approach. Shows like "In His Image" and "Valley of the Shadow" adjusted to the new format by piling on one surprise after another, while other shows like "Jess-Belle," "The Incredible World of Horace Ford," and "On Thursday We Leave for Home," downplayed or dispensed with the whole twist-ending idea, focusing their energies on the more richly-developed, character-driven drama Serling hoped to cultivate, a shift away from the breezy short story to the novella.
Beyond the format, Twilight Zone's other monumental fourth season change was the loss of producer Buck Houghton, who was as responsible for making Twilight Zone the great show it was as Serling himself. Houghton was exactly what the show needed: he understood and respected Serling's aims but also knew how to reign in his excesses, especially Serling's bad habit of spreading himself too thin.
Though Season Four's episodes were shot early enough in 1962 that it could have begun airing that September, CBS's delay in committing Twilight Zone to its primetime schedule prompted Houghton's departure and Serling's unwise decision to accept a teaching position at Antioch College (Serling's alma mater) in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Though he'd receive daily reports, as well as fly into Los Angeles occasionally to film blocks of his on-camera hosting segments, Serling was much less involved in Twilight Zone than before, and it shows.
That didn't stop him from complaining bitterly and often about its decline, most of which he attributed to the show's new producer, Herbert Hirschman, whom Serling felt never understood the show. On the other hand, with the exception of "On Thursday We Leave for Home," Serling's seven Season Four teleplays are pretty tepid, with most of the best shows coming from Charles Beaumont and Earl Hamner, Jr.
Season Four's Top Five
1. "In His Image" by Charles Beaumont - Season four's best episode was also the first to air: An ordinary man, Alan Talbot (George Grizzard), develops strange, murderous urges and with new girlfriend Jessica (Gail Kobe) finds that his hometown isn't quite as he had remembered it. This fine episode takes a sci-fi chestnut and infuses it with fresh ideas and an unusual approach as a tender love story. Jessica is a lonely, old-maid type who stands by her new beau even as he thinks he's going mad. An extremely intelligent show with many clever touches, especially the immensely satisfying and logical conclusion, "In His Image" is among Twilight Zone's finest. Grizzard and especially Kobe are excellent.
2. "On Thursday We Leave for Home" by Rod Serling - Positively epic episode about space settlers stranded for thirty years on V9-Gamma, a hostile and desolate planet continually bombarded with meteorites. If not for their totalitarian leader, Captain Benteen (James Whitmore), who regales those too young to remember anything about the green and wondrous Earth left behind, the expedition clearly would never have lasted this long. What happens next unfolds in disturbing and unexpected ways. While Serling's script is above average, the production itself is the real star. This was an expensive show and it looks it, crammed with incredible images that look even more spectacular in high definition.
3. "Jess-Belle" by Earl Hamner, Jr. - Val Lewton by way of Walton's Mountain. Backwoods free-spirit Jess-Belle (Anne Francis, unexpectedly alluring in a jet-black wig) unwisely bargains with local witch Granny Hart (Jeanette Nolan, who was to these sorts of parts what June Foray is to cartoons) to win the love of Billy-Ben Turner (James Best). But there's a catch to Granny's magic: Jess-Belle will get her man, alright, but from midnight until dawn she turns into a leopard.
4. "Printer's Devil" by Charles Beaumont - Wry variation of The Devil and Daniel Webster has suicidal newspaper publisher-editor Douglas Winter (Robert Sterling) ready to pack it in until one "Mr. Smith" (Burgess Meredith, in his fourth and final Twilight Zone appearance) comes to the rescue and then some. As the paper's new (and only) reporter and Linotype operator, Smith scoops the other papers with fantastic headlines that miraculously street minutes after the fact.
5. "Miniature" by Charles Beaumont - The final result doesn't quite live up to the original concept - but what a concept! Odd duck Charley Parkes (Robert Duvall) becomes fascinated with a female figure in a museum dollhouse that, eventually, becomes alive, albeit to his eyes alone. Beaumont's script - among the last he wrote before succumbing to a mysterious aging/Alzheimer's-like illness, possibly the result of aluminum poisoning from Bromo-Seltzer - is aided by Robert Duvall's almost too understated but nonetheless memorable performance.
"The Thirty-Fathom Grave" by Rod Serling - The crew of a U.S. Navy destroyer stumble upon an American submarine sunk in the early days of World War II. And yet a strange tapping sound implies that someone might just be alive down there. Meanwhile, a normally dedicated sailor (Mike Kellin) seems to be going crazy. Though most viewers find this episode padded and uninteresting, it tells a familiar story in unexpected ways (ghosts in broad daylight, a military setting) while sustaining its mystery and atmosphere for almost the entire episode. Kellin's breakdown is unusually convincing, and character actor stalwart Simon Oakland, as the destroyer's captain, is the story's anchor.
1. "Death Ship" by Richard Matheson - Reminiscent of both Ray Bradbury's Mars is Heaven! and an earlier Zone, Season One's "Elegy," "Death Ship" has space travelers Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Frederick Beir stumbling upon a crashed spaceship identical to their own - and which contains lifeless duplicates of themselves. The episode has an interesting concept - souls trapped in afterlife limbo because one in their party steadfastly refuses to accept the obvious - but Klugman, the go-to guy for urban working-class losers, is fatally miscast as the by-the-book commander of a spaceship. His performance, in turn, prompts Martin and Beir to chew the scenery even more than Klugman, resulting in an overacted mess of an episode.
Both penned, alas, by Serling himself. "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" is an awful (and yet another) pact-with-the-devil episode, this time featuring Albert Salmi as a boorish industrial tycoon and Julie Newmar as "Miss Devlin." Her sexiness in a part that's like a warm-up to her role as Catwoman on Batman redeems the show slightly, but like Klugman, Albert Salmi was best playing working-class stiffs. Here, coupled with outrageously awful make-up, he looks ridiculous, but it's Serling's preachy, heavy-handed dialogue that really does this show in. More preachiness also kills He's Alive, with neo-Nazi Dennis Hopper inspired by the puppet-mastering of Adolph Hitler's ghost, a big surprise that surprised no one. This pompous show has "important" written all over it, but is merely dull and obvious.
"The Thirty-Fathom Grave"
Video & Audio
Like previous volumes, The Twilight Zone - Season 4 looks absolutely splendiferous, offering terrific high-definition detail, all pillar-boxed to 1.37:1, from 35mm film elements showing incredibly little wear for such a perennially-printed, 50-year-old show. On this season series DP George T. Clemens began alternating episodes with Robert Pittack, but all the shows are beautifully shot - just gorgeous. The inky blacks and added high-def detail really make these play almost like new theatrical features; the black and white photography is just sensational.
The uncompressed PCM mono audio is likewise strong, though I'm totally satisfied with the original mono, also included. The five discs are region "A" encoded. Menu screens are easy to navigate. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Supplements include new audio commentaries, isolated music scores for every episode, and seven radio adaptations featuring the likes of Jason Alexander, Barry Bostwick, and original series actor H.M. Wynant. There's a vintage, audio-only interview with George T. Clemens; and previously available video interviews, bloopers, sponsor billboards, and the like.
The new audio commentaries are enormous fun. Series historian Marc Scott Zicree does them all, either solo or partnered with somebody else; Gary Gerani, Bill Warren, Earl Hamner, Jr., Jeff Vlaming, and Joseph Dougherty are the others. Zicree's intense style packs a lot into each commentary, and when paired with someone else the effect is like old pals hanging around the water cooler excitedly discussing last night's episode.
As with The Twilight Zone - Season 3, these hour-long episodes are a mixed bag, with several truly terrible episodes jumbled in with a few of the series best, and several more ripe for rediscovery. And at its best The Twilight Zone - Season 4 is as good as any other, and boy - do these episodes look great! A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
This review is dedicated to Gail Kobe, Julie Newmar, and Earl Hamner, Jr.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.