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Lost In The Twilight Zone

January 5th, 2005

One of the reasons I’m most grateful for the TV-on-DVD format hit retail last week: the 1985 version of The Twilight Zone.

Viewers of a certain age may recall that for a brief time, there were three drama anthologies on network TV in 1985. The one with the highest profile was Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, which NBC contracted for an unprecedented two-year run before the first episode ever aired. Second was a remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, featuring colorized versions of the old Hitchcock intro segments. Third was The Twilight Zone, which for me turned out to be the most interesting and well-produced of the lot.

Producer Philip DeGuere (who was also behind another of my favorite series, Max Headroom) took a very different approach to updating the classic Rod Serling fantasy. Rather than a single, half-hour episode, he used a flexible hour format with two or three tales of varying lengths. In that manner, some stories could be developed fully, while others (particularly those entirely dependent on a twist ending) could get on and off the stage without unnecessarily stretching the gag.

The results were mixed, but the same could be said of the original Zone. Even a brilliant writer like Serling was entirely capable of penning a lousy episode or three. However, there were a number of stories that were entirely worthy of the Twilight Zone name, and others which arguably improved upon the formula, notably the love story Her Pilgrim Soul.

One appealing aspect of the ’85 series (as had been the case with the original) was its frequent use of sci-fi and fantasy short stories by known authors. Harlan Ellison (who also served as a creative consultant before an inevitable tiff over one of his shows caused him to leave) contributed several scripts, and Ray Bradbury wrote an episode (The Elevator) as well. Stories by Henry Slesar (Examination Day), Joe Haldeman (I of Newton), Arthur C. Clarke (The Star) and Roger Zelazny (The Last Defender of Camelot) were among those seen during its brief, two-season CBS run.

Struggling ratings killed it in its second year on the network, but it was revived in syndication for one year with the sole purpose of creating enough additional episodes to be sold as a package. Unfortunately, the syndicated half-hour version required many stories to be reedited (in some cases, expanded) to fit into the allotted time. The original hours have been unseen for nearly two decades, until now…

It’s great to finally be able to ditch my ancient off-air recordings and enjoy the ’85 Zone as it was meant to be seen. Here are some of my favorite episodes:

A Little Peace and Quiet. Melinda Dillon plays a harried housewife who is grateful for the peace offered by an amulet that can stop time.

A Message from Charity. A young boy inexplicably finds himself in telepathic contact with a girl in Puritan New England, and must save her from being branded a witch.

Her Pilgrim Soul. A scientist falls in love with a living hologram who matures from fetushood to old age in a matter of days.

I of Newton. Sherman Hemsley is a mathematician who accidentally sells his soul to a devil, and engages in a battle of wits.

The Misfortune Cookie. A critic gets his just desserts after unfairly maligning a Chinese restaurant.

A Small Talent for War. An alien arrives to tell humanity that he is disappointed with their warlike ways, and gives them 24 hours to change or face destruction.

A Matter of Minutes. A married couple find themselves outside of time, and encounter the construction crew responsible for building each individual second.

To See the Invisible Man. For the crime of being emotionally cold, a man is sentenced to “invisibility”: everyone he meets is required to ignore him.

Dead Run. A truck driver is hired to carry souls to Hell. I am amazed that this episode ever got to air on network TV, given its suggestion that God has contracted the Religious Right to determine whom is allowed into Heaven.

Button, Button. A couple will be given $200,000 for the simple act of pushing a mysterious button, which they are told will kill a person they do not know.

Second season favorites (not yet on DVD) include:

The Once and Future King. An Elvis impersonator travels in time and meets the King at the start of his career.

The Toys of Caliban. Parents are faced with the impossible task of raising a retarded child with the ability to “bring” any object he sees pictured.

Shelter Skelter. A survivalist is entombed in his shelter when a nuclear blast obliterates the town above him.

The ’85 Zone may not be as well-remembered or regarded as the original, but there are gems within for those who take the journey.

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