Everyone knows that Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone television series, running five seasons on CBS from 1959 to 1964, was the greatest television show ever created. At least, it’s hoped they know that. Such was the cultural impact of the show (Serling introducing episodes in a dark suit, cigarette firmly planted between his fingers, the spooky theme music, the trademark TZ twist ending), that it has been revisited twice with separate revival series: one that ran for two seasons on CBS starting in 1985 and then in syndication for a further year, and another on UPN that ran for one season starting in 2002.
Both series have their ups and downs, but the 1985 run is the stronger of the two. It was created during a resurgence of anthology TV shows, such as Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, and a redo of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. No less than Harlan Ellison was involved as creative consultant, wanting the new Twilight Zone to be writer-driven like the original. Writers for the show included George R.R. Martin, David Gerold, J. Michael Straczynski, George Clayton Johnson and others. It also drew in a lot of directing talent, from the likes of Wes Craven, William Friedkin, Tommy Lee Wallace, John Milius, Martha Coolidge, Atom Egoyan and more. The 2002 series didn’t have as good a pedigree… but it did have Forest Whitaker delivering the opening and closing narrations, digitally inserted into the scenes.
So, submitted for your approval: 20 of the best episodes from the other Zones.
#20 – A Little Peace and Quiet (1985)
This episode stars Melinda Dillion, in a harried housewife role similar to the one she played in the perennial holiday classic A Christmas Story. She’s a quirky actress, and her twitchy delivery serves her character well here, a woman named Penny with nary a second of calm from her family. That is until she digs up a sundial medallion out of her garden, which allows her to freeze time for everyone else in the world by yelling “SHUT UP”!
The episode has a fun time exploring the concept, including a scene where the family is frozen at the breakfast table, complete with the loose end of the husband’s tie sticking out in mid-air; it’s obviously cardboard inside holding it stiff, but gags like this are neat visual tricks. Since we’re in the era before extensive CGI, the scenes of everyone standing there frozen while Penny walks around them reveal movements as everyone tries to hold still. It reminds me of the frozen tableaus of the townsfolk in the original TZ episode Elegy.
It’s all fun, until the final, devastating situation that Penny is faced with, a scenario that sticks in the mind afterward. The special effects might end up a bit dodgy, but the impact left by this episode lingers on.
#19 – A Small Talent for War (1986)
The first season of the 80’s TZ featured multiple short segments in each episode; this is one of the shorter ones, but still manages to pack a punch. Aliens arrive on Earth, and their emissary decries mankind’s savagery. Representatives of the U.N. rush to prove him wrong, with disastrous consequences.
This is an obvious bid to replicate the feeling of the original TZ episode To Serve Man, and it does pretty well… heck, the ambassador even ends up with a big book in his hands at one point. Unsettlingly played by John Glover, he looks like nothing so much as a glowing David Bowie from The Man Who Fell to Earth. They also make him look very tall, all the better to remind people of the imposing stature of Richard Keil in the original. The real hook to this episode is the twist at the end, which amazingly isn’t telegraphed too obviously, and winds up being as clever as the original.
For an interesting clue as to the ambassador’s REAL intentions, check out the hand motion he uses to transport out of the U.N. Seems like a certain kind of salute…
#18 – A Matter of Minutes (1986)
This episode presents a very interesting concept: a couple wakes up to noises of construction, with blue-clad, faceless workers moving items in and out of their home and all over the neighborhood. They eventually discover they have slipped ‘behind the scenes’ of time, with each minute being constructed and dismantled, and no known way to return to their proper minute in time.
It’s a great conceit, which is explored thoroughly, but the production is a bit clunky at times. Adam Arkin and Karen Austin play things for laughs, where the stark imagery would be better served with a more unsettling tone. There’s also a fair chunk of exposition doled out as things are explained, and even the gravitas of Adolph Ceasar’s commanding voice as the Supervisor prevents one from wondering why he isn’t getting on with the task of maintaining time instead of explaining things to these two nitwits. The episode also bites off more than it can chew in the area of special effects, with iffy matte work and other video chicanery.
Still, even though it feels as cheap as a high school play, A Matter of Minutes keeps things ticking along with its strong time-travel tale. Perhaps now we know where Stephen King got the idea for his story The Langoliers.
#17 – Dealer’s Choice (1985)
Here’s a rarity: a comedy TZ episode that is actually funny. A friendly poker game suddenly means high stakes, when it is revealed that one of their number is the devil, and he has come for one of the other players.
It’s directed by horror Maestro Wes Craven, who has a cornucopia of talent here at his disposal. Morgan Freeman, M. Emmet Walsh, Dan Hedaya, Garrett Morris… and Barney Martin, who some might recognize as Jerry’s dad from Seinfeld. The boys might come to their conclusion as to the nature of their guest at little too quickly, but some genuinely LOL lines are delivered, mostly from SNL alum Morris. He’s never been more amusing than in Dealer’s Choice, and the Zone has never been as funny.
#16 – Cradle of Darkness (2002)
Ah, the old “let’s go back in time and kill Hitler” routine. In this go-around, a woman named Andrea Collins is sent back in time to kill Hitler in the crib, before he can grow up, come to power and take Germany and the world to the brink. Katherine Heigl comports herself well in the role as the time-travelling would-be baby murderer, but the German accents for everyone go in and out. As for the plot, outside of the paradox of killing someone and then having no reason to actually travel back in time in the first place, why wouldn’t she just kill Adolph’s father Alois if she was squeamish about dispatching the murderer of eight million Jews? Played by James Remar, Alois is presented as the probable cause of creating the future monster through his intolerant views.
You also end up wondering how the ending could possibly work. Even so, the results of Andrea’s actions keep you pondering “what if” for a time.
#15 – Gabe’s Story (2002)
Christopher Titus really shines as Gabe O’Brien, a hapless schlub who realizes just who is responsible for all the bad luck in his life. Like Dealer’s Choice, this is another TZ comedy episode that works, mainly on the Jim Carrey-ish charm of Titus and the fact that everyone around him mainly plays it straight. The concept isn’t quite explored to the fullest, but enough is sketched out keep things moving.
A Serling-esque twist isn’t always needed at the end of these stories, and this episode doesn’t really require one to present its moral: write your own story.
#14 – Shadow Play (1986)
There’s been a few remakes or reboots of original TZ episodes in both revival series, and this is a good one. The story deals with a man trapped in a recurring nightmare, where he is convicted of murder, sentenced to die, and executed. It follows the original TZ season two Charles Beaumont tale of the same name quite closely but adds its own touches as well. For one, condemned man Adam Grant posits a possible reason for why this is happening to him: the D.A. Mark Ritchie’s wife is the one character who is not shuffled around every occurrence of the dream and is actually Grant’s sister, who hates him in real life.
Unfortunately, Peter Coyote as Grant doesn’t have quite the same desperate, manic quality of Dennis Weaver in the role in the original. But the remake still stands as a great Beaumont mind-screwing, and it’s always good to see William Schallert take on a cameo role with no tribble at all.
#13 – The Last Defender of Camelot (1986)
For all its budget deficiencies, this episode weaves a pretty epic tale quite effectively. Sir Lancelot of the Knights of the Round Table is an older man living in current-day London, England. At the behest of enchantress Morgan le Fay, also surviving into the present, Lancelot goes to meet the great wizard Merlin, waking from a long sleep while hidden in Cornwall, and determine his intentions.
Helping to sell the ambitious Arthurian plotline is the solid acting from the veterans playing the three figures from history: Richard Kiley as Lancelot, Jenny Agutter as Morgan le Fay, and Norman Lloyd as Merlin. Chivalry, sword fighting, enchanted suits of armor, magic spells… combine all that with a crackling George R.R. Martin teleplay, and you have a legendary episode for the ages.
#12 – Paladin of the Lost Hour (1985)
An embarrassment of riches in this one: you not only have a deeply moving script by Harlan Ellison, but also one of the last performances of Danny Kaye, one of the most beloved actors of all time. Kaye plays Gaspar, an elderly gentleman who is mugged while standing at a gravesite. Coming to his rescue is another visitor in the graveyard, Billy, played by Glynn Turman. The two form an unlikely relationship, with Gaspar eventually revealing his special mission in life, along with his very unusual watch.
The bond the two leads form, along with Ellison’s powerful script, help to create real magic in this episode, one that stands alongside any of those found in Serling’s original series.
#11 – Into the Light (2002)
To put things in a nutshell, a teacher starts seeing a bright glow in the faces of students and other people around her, who all end up dying soon after. Placing things in a school is a pretty daring move. It’s in the best tradition of Rod Serling, who created a genre TV show as cover to address pressing societal issues and escape the wrath of the censors while doing it.
The situation dealt with here is an all-too-common occurrence these days, and perhaps it takes a touch of the fantastic to make us face up to the madness.
To be continued in Part 2