It's hard to imagine a world without The Twilight Zone.
Writer-producer Rod Serling's mid-twentieth century television marvel is more than a landmark genre series, it's a turning point in American pop culture history. A river into which flowed so many of the great short stories of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and which in turn ran through many of the TV shows and films we've enjoyed ever since. Serling was heavily influenced by writers like O. Henry and Ray Bradbury (in the latter's case to the point where he was accused by some of plagiarism), but there's no doubt that the wunderkind responsible for some of the most acclaimed television dramas of the 1950s had his own distinct style and approach to storytelling; and, with the help of likeminded writers like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, Serling fashioned a weekly anthology program that used the primary colors of horror, science fiction and fantasy to paint vivid portraits of the weird, often dark side of the American Dream at a crucial moment in our country's tumultuous cold-war adolescence.
Twilight Zone writer George Clayton Johnson ("Kick the Can", "A Penny for Your Thoughts") once told me that Serling's secret (borrowed from Bradbury) was to take the everyday, the commonplace, and introduce one simple element of the fantastic. In so doing, each half-hour episode of the Zone prompted viewers to question their view of the universe. This sort of thing may have already been old hat to horror and sci-fi readers when the show premiered in 1957, but the cumulative widespread effect on a conservative Eisenhower-led nation was incalculable. It was a weekly fix of low-level LSD aimed at every U.S. citizen. Almost all the anthology series that followed took their cues from the Zone, from The Outer Limits to Tales from the Darkside. Writers like Stephen King grew up with the show, applying its strategies in their own work. And filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg (himself one of four directors responsible for the 1980s well-meaning but inferior feature-length homage Twilight Zone: The Movie) wear its influence on their sleeves.
Image Entertainment's new Blu-ray release of The Twilight Zone is better than time travel for those who've not seen the show in some time, and it's sure to be a revelation for those who've never seen it. Presented in full 1080p high-def taken from the original 35 mm camera negatives and magnetic soundtracks, it's stunning in its clarity. Not every one of the thirty-six season 1 episodes looks perfect (some minor scratches here and there are inevitable in a show this old), but every episode looks and sounds far better than I've ever experienced them. It's the kind of release of an older title that's so clear you can sometimes see the actors' makeup lines; but not to worry -- the show's storytelling is so strong this isn't really distracting. To see gems like "Time Enough at Last" (the one in which Burgess Meredith -- pictured above -- plays the last bookworm on earth), "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" (an allegory about paranoia that is, in its own small way, on the level of Dr. Strangelove), or the creepy "The After Hours" (the one about the department store mannequins that come to life) in this format is, for a longtime fan like myself, electrifying.
As if the image and sound quality aren't enough, Image has seen fit to load this set with enough extras to make anyone intrepid enough to plow through them qualify for a college degree in the Zone.
The new bonus stuff includes the never-before-released unofficial pilot "The Time Element" written by Rod Serling and hosted by Desi Arnaz; 19 new audio commentaries, featuring The Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree, numerous other experts, and episode stars like Earl Holliman, Martin Landau, Rod Taylor, Martin Milner, and the late Kevin McCarthy; a Tales of Tomorrow episode "What You Need"; a vintage audio interview with director of photography George T. Clemens; 1977 syndication promos for "A Stop at Willoughby" and "The After Hours"; 18 Radio Dramas; 34 isolated music scores featuring composers like Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith; audio recollections with actors Burgess Meredith and Anne Francis, and writer Richard Matheson; Rod Serling Audio Lectures from Sherwood Oaks College; Serling's original weekly promos for "Next Week's" show; the original unaired pilot version of "Where is Everybody?" with Serling's network pitch; and footage of the show's Emmy Award wins. That's in addition to all the extras (including more commentaries, radio dramas, etc.) that were on the show's previous standard DVD release. Not to sound like an infomercial pitchman here, but… Whew!
If you've never seen The Twilight Zone, I envy you. Because your first time viewing it will be in a presentation undreamt of by the show's first generation of fans, or, even with his famously expansive imagination, Rod Serling himself. Over fifty years have gone by since its debut, but the Zone remains the greatest genre television show of all time. Pop these discs in your player and find out why.