One of the most iconic, referenced, and imitated shows in science fiction history finally comes to Blu-ray. And while the quality of the presentation is unquestionable, the quality of the writing is what still shines the brightest.
The story of The Twilight Zone's origins is something of a TV legend. Rod Serling, already hugely successful in his industry, found himself constantly frustrated by the whims of sponsors and networks. The things he most wanted to address with his writing -- the real, pressing problems of his age -- were considered too controversial. The stories he wanted to tell were either denied outright or had all the fire pounded out of them until they were palatable and inoffensive. Discussing his 1957 production The Arena, Serling bemoaned the fact that "I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem. To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited." At some point, Serling hit upon the realization that he could tell the stories he really wanted to tell, camouflaged under the trappings of fantasy and science fiction. The truths would be there for all to see, but any busybody sponsors would simply dismiss the show as disposable entertainment. After all, what could a show about ghosts and robots and space men have to say about the human condition?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. Serling's formula worked brilliantly, allowing him and his writers to truly explore the most controversial of subjects right under the noses of the powers that would never have allowed a more straightforward treatment of the subjects. Perhaps the best-known example of this narrative sleight-of-hand is in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," where a strange light in the sky and a mysterious power outage unleash rampant paranoia and set neighbor against neighbor. The infamous reveal that this chaos was orchestrated by alien scouts planning an invasion may be the punch line that everybody remembers, but what really sticks with you is Serling's clear message that we don't need aliens to turn us against each other. The inherent darkness of human nature only needs the smallest of shoves, making it all the more important to be vigilant against those who would use that sad truth to manipulate us for their own ends. Serling would probably be saddened to learn how timely "Monsters" still is a half a century later, but he wouldn't be surprised.
Not every episode is as direct a political allegory as "Monsters," however. While Serling wanted the freedom to talk about the things they saw happening around them, he was most interested in more internal matters, with that most fundamental definition of drama: the human heart in conflict with itself. While the first season of Twilight Zone contains space ships and robots and other traditional SF elements, this is science fiction more in the style of Ray Bradbury than Isaac Asimov. Twilight Zone is science fiction as allegory, as fable, as fairy tale. It's amusing when the show gets basic facts such as the distances between planets wrong, but the numbers aren't really the point. These are stories of fundamental themes such as loneliness ("Where Is Everybody?"), redemption ("Mr. Denton on Doomsday"), nostalgia ("Walking Distance"), and the ugliness of human nature ("I Shot An Arrow Into the Air"). Some characters get their comeuppance ("A Nice Place to Visit"), while others are ground beneath the heel of a universe with a cruel sense of humor ("Time Enough at Last").
That variety is also key to Twilight Zone's appeal, and why it is still perhaps the most perfect example of the television anthology series. Each episode is a totally new experience, ranging widely across tone, style, and subject matter. The show is funny as often as it is thought-provoking; heart-breaking as often as it is silly. There truly is something here for everybody, and even the weaker episodes are worth watching once.
Of course, part of the reason the show's writing is so strong is that Serling, while a brilliant dramatist, didn't rely solely on his own talent for storytelling. He filled out his series with some of the best genre writers of his day, including Charles Beaumont (who wrote the wonderful 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, amongst many other things) and Richard Matheson. He also adapted short stories and plays including Lucille Fletcher's "The Hitch-Hiker," which had already been told numerous times as a radio drama and which is still well-known today. As Star Trek would do a few years later, it didn't try to stand apart from its inspirations, but instead embraced what had come before and brought some of the best genre storytellers of the time into the sandbox and told them to have fun.
When our modern TV-scape is a mixture of long-form serials, self-contained procedurals, and mindless reality shows, it's refreshing to see a different type of show done with style, wit, and grace. There simply isn't anything like this around these days, and that's a shame. We may never get another anthology series as good as The Twilight Zone, but the fact that a whole new generation can experience the show on Blu-ray makes that truth sting just a little less.
This set, and the following ones that collect subsequent seasons, should be an absolute no-brainer for Zone-philes and genre fans in general. The show looks amazing, far more gorgeous than a 50-year-old program has any right to, and it's wonderful to see these episodes presented this cleanly after years of edited and aging copies haunting the syndicated landscape. Anyone interested in TV history will also be happy to see these episodes presented in their original format, complete with the early versions of the opening narration, the mid-show "intermission" cards, and Serling's delightful introductions to the following week's episode.
But the TV relics don't stop there. This set is worth the asking price simply for two rare gems alone. First up is the original version of "Where Is Everybody?" which jarringly features a different voice inviting us into the Twilight Zone (Westbrook Van Voorhis, for the record) and which includes Serling's sales pitch to the network and sponsors, introducing the concept of the show. Even more interesting is "The Time Element," a 1958 script that was originally intended to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock as the pilot for a weekly series. It eventually made it to air as an episode of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and it's included here complete with an introduction by Desi Arnaz. As if that weren't enough, the episode also includes an alternate opening and closing from the syndicated version, plus an audio commentary by Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree.
That's just scratching the surface of this set. You get 19 commentaries, many by Zicree or film historian Gary Gerani, and these are consistently wonderful. These gentlemen know the Zone backwards and forwards, and it's great to get a historical context for the episodes and find out what went on behind the scenes during their production. The other commentaries feature music historians Steven C. Smith, John Morgan, and William T. Stromberg; writer/producer David Simkins; writer Mark Fergus; director Ted Post; CBS exec William Self; and a bevy of TZ actors. These other commentaries are hit and miss and rarely up to the gold standard set by Zicree and Gerani, but they often contain some fascinating nuggets of information.
Sadly, Serling has long since passed away and can't lend his unique insight to the commentaries, but the producers have provided the next best thing by including audio from several of Serling's lectures from Sherwood Oaks College. Serling is brilliant, funny, and self-deprecating, and it's a joy to listen to the man talk about his frustrations and inspirations during the show. Plus, you can hear about how he once got stuck inside a phone booth, an embarrassing moment that found itself revisited via fiction in "Where Is Everybody?"
Even once you get through the hours and hours of commentaries, there's still more to be heard. The set includes tons of interviews with actors, writers, directors, and more. There are over 30 isolated score tracks to let you appreciate every note of the music by composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. There are 18 radio drama versions of assorted episodes, performed by contemporary actors such as John Schneider, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, and Blair Underwood. There's even footage of the show's Emmy wins. And honestly, I'm probably still forgetting some stuff. The set is a true treasure trove for series fans, and if they continue to pack the other sets this full, these Blu-rays will emerge as the definitive editions of The Twilight Zone. If you've got a Zone fan in your life, this will make the perfect Christmas gift.