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THE TWILIGHT ZONE: SEASON ONE
DVD / Blu Ray. Shock Entertainment.


The Twilight Zone season 1When you think of classic TV, Rod Serling’s anthology series The Twilight Zone has to be up there with the very best. In fact, after watching this first season for the first time in many years, I wouldn’t feel too inclined to argue with anyone who suggested this was the best TV series ever. Because quite honestly, it really is that good – without question the best anthology series ever made, with a consistency of excellence that is remarkable.

This first season ran from 1959 to 1960, and while not all the elements that made the series so memorable are in place – the familiar theme music is absent, and the opening titles vary in style – it nevertheless hits the ground running and rarely lets up in terms of quality. It’s remarkable that a television show could be so excellent at a time when the medium was still relatively young and widely dismissed. Yet here is a show that, in terms of writing and performances from the cast, stands head and shoulders above not only other TV shows, but also most movies of the time.

And these short stories have a distinctly cinematic feel – while the 1980’s revival of The Twilight Zone suffered, like much TV of the time, from being shot on poor quality videotape, making it look cheap and nasty, in these original shows, the crisp black and white film – for the most part looking beautiful in these remastered versions – the feel is very much that of a short feature film – you could probably slice a few episodes together and pass them off as a movie.

The format of The Twilight Zone, for those unfamiliar with it, is simple – each episode tells a self-contained short story with a science fiction, fantasy or horror theme. Often, the stories are morality plays; several are whimsical, possibly even a little sentimental, while others are paranoid, dark and unsettling. There is usually a twist in the tail, and while years of imitations, spoofs and cultural referencing has made a few of these twists less surprising (and, to be fair, a few are easy to guess from the start, the ‘shock’ ending being somewhat telegraphed), others still come as a genuine surprise. And at least one episode, The After Hours, has a couple of creepy shocks that made me jump (ironically, the twist in this episode is one of the sillier in the series).

This first series contains 36 episodes, spread over five DVDs / Blu Rays, alongside a sixth disc of extras. I won’t review then all here, but instead pick a few highlights.

The Twilight ZoneThings kick off with Where is Everybody?, an interesting season opener that for the most part features Earl Holliman as the single cast member – a man suffering memory loss who finds himself in an empty world, not knowing how he got there, or where everyone else has vanished to. It’s a brave way to open a new series, but works well.

One for the Angels is a well-loved episode with Ed Wynn as Lew Bookman, a street seller who is visited by Mr Death (Murray Hamilton). Having talked Death into giving his life an extension, Bookman then has to go all out to prevent a neighbourhood child from being taken in his place. It’s classic Twilight Zone – witty, gentle, warm-hearted and funny. While noted for the scary and paranoid episodes, it could be said that the heart of The Twilight Zone was in episodes like this, where sentiment was used without becoming schmaltzy (a lesson Spielberg singularly failed to take note of when making the 1982 movie).

Walking Distance
sets up a recurrent theme for the series – the need to escape the modern world for something simpler (A Stop at Willoughby, later in the series, has a similar theme). In this case, exhausted businessman Gig Young returns to his hometown and finds himself back in time, meeting himself as a child. This is a wonderful, rather moving story, setting the bar high indeed for the rest of the series.

Time Enough at Last is one of the most famous episodes, and one of those most frequently referenced elsewhere. Burgess Meredith stars as the bookish man who only wants to be left alone to read, but is constantly thwarted by his deeply unpleasant wife (men in The Twilight Zone rarely had happy marriages!) and unsympathetic boss. But when the world is destroyed by nuclear war, he finds himself the sole survivor. The twist here is well known (I won’t spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know it) and is especially cruel!

Perchance to Dream is a weird, trippy story with Richard Conte as a man terrified to go to sleep because sexy carnival dancer Maya (Suzanne Lloyd) is trying to kill him in his dreams; And When the Sky Was Opened has three astronauts slowly being erased from history in one of the series’ most paranoid tales (based on a story by Richard Matheson who, alongside Charles Beaumont, was a regular contributor to this first series).

Third from the Sun has Fritz Weaver as a scientist in a seemingly totalitarian future, aware that nuclear war is just around the corner, and determined to escape with his family to another planet. You might see the twist coming here, but it’s a satisfying and edgy episode anyway. The same is true of I Shot an Arrow in the Air, where the survivors of a spaceship crash bicker over their dwindling water supply and survival options. You guess what’s coming, but the twist is beautifully handled anyway.

The Hitch-Hiker is the first episode to take a turn into full horror, as Inger Stevens finds her road trip haunted by a sinister hitch-hiker, who turns up everywhere she goes. No prizes for guessing that this is connected to the car crash she has had as the episode begins.

The Fever is one of the more cynical episodes – fervent opponent of gambling Everett Sloane becomes hooked by a slot machine, convinced that he is moments away from a $10,000 payout. His deterioration into an obsessed, deluded madman is remarkably convincing and impressive, and only a rather silly ‘monster’ - in fact part of his delusion – spoils the tale.

The Twilight ZoneElegy is another well-known story where three astronauts crash on an asteroid, only to find that it is a replica of earth – only with people that don’t move. It turns out to be an exclusive cemetery, where the deceased can forever live out their dreams – but this is not good news for the three…

The Monsters are Due on Maple Street is one of the show’s most highly regarded episodes, and rightly so – an none-too-subtle allegory about the Reds-under-the-Beds scare that had gripped America only a few years earlier, it sees a quiet neighbourhood turn on itself after a passing meteor seems to have shut down all power in the street. It’s a hugely powerful, remarkable slice of paranoia – grim and angry.

The Big Tall Wish stars Ivan Dixon as the washed-up boxer who has one last moment of glory thanks to a small boy’s wish. But Dixon doesn’t believe in wishes, and if you don’t believe, they won’t be true… with a mostly black cast – unusual for the time - this is a nice mix of sentiment and realism.

A Nice Place to Visit is a humorous tale that suggests that Hell might be getting everything you want, while Nightmare as a Child, despite the clumsy title, is a grim story of a woman being visited by a sombre, rather creepy little girl who seems to know a little too much about her past.

A Passage for Trumpet
has Jack Klugman as an alcoholic jazz trumpeter who is given one more chance, while Mr Bevis is a celebration of individual eccentricity over conformity. And the series ends with a couple of light-hearted slices of whimsy in for form of The Mighty Casey (a baseball playing robot) and A World of His Own, where playwright Keenan Wynn invents the people around him – including Rod Serling, making his first on-camera appearance in the show proper.

It should be noted that the episodes not mentioned here are no less interesting - this is a show that rarely dipped in quality. With the spoken intros and outros by Serling - a man born to narrate - each story in this collection, even the waekest, could stand alongside the best of any other series.

This collection is as definitive a release as you could hope for. Each episode includes Serling’s on-camera previews of next week’s show and trails for other series, and the episodes generally look great – a little grain here and there being the only sign of age. There are commentary tracks – some freshly recorded, some culled from archive interviews and lectures by Serling, the other writers, directors and actors. While some of these are poor quality, they are essential archive material, and given the age of the show and the fact that most of those involved are now dead, the best we can hope for. There are also isolated scores for several episodes. The extras disc includes the pilot version of Where is Everybody?, footage of Serling’s other TV shows, and a PDF version of the Twilight Zone comic book. The Blu Ray has another 19 commentaries – mostly of the ‘expert’ variety – more interviews and pre-Twilight Zone Serling episodes The Time Pilot and Tales of Tomorrow, plus 18 radio dramas.

Essential..

DAVID FLINT

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