The Twilight Zone, The New Twilight Zone and The Twilight Zone (2002)

The Twilight Zone (1959-1965)
The New Twilight Zone (1985-1988)
The Twilight Zone (2002-2003)
Type: Series Revival

   Okay, this isn't like most spin offs. It's a revival of the original Twilight Zone. And its an anthology series so its not like "It's the same old characters but in a new situation." There are no old characters to be brought back - except for host/narrator/show creator Rod Serling and given his death he could only return in the form of a brief cameo in The New Twilight Zone's credit sequence. And his pressence on the third Twilight Zone series? Well lets just get on with the history lesson... of the Twilight Zone (doo dee doo doo, doo dee doo doo...)

   For the uninformed, that last bit was as close as you can get in print to simulating the original theme music for The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone was the brainchild of writer Rod Serling. In the 60's, sponsors ruled what went out over the air. If your show was sponsored by a coffee company, you'd better not mention tea in your show - that's the competition! No joke. Given that they could get on your case about nitpicky stuff like that, you can imagine how they could interfere in the major plot elements of a story. If you really wanted to have a script that said something important about our world you could be in trouble. Sponsors weren't looking to change the world, just to sell some cookies. So if you tried to do a show on the evils of racism, that might not go down so well. You do a show about black equality in the 60's and the fear was that cookie buying homes all through the south would turn off the set!

   So how do you get around all this censoring silliness? Rod Serling got the bright idea to tell those same stories in the form of fantasy and science fiction. You might not be able to tell a story about blacks being discriminated against, but make the story about the Snarfblatt alien race from Mars being discriminated against and you were fine. No one took sci-fi/fantasy seriously. And even if they did, who's gonna be yelling about Snarfblatts? And so The Twilight Zone was born.

   As I said, The Twilight Zone was an anthology series - a new cast and a new totally self contained story each week. Show creator Rod Serling served as host introducing each week's story. They were stories about seemingly normal people who suddenly had the rug on reality pulled out from under them. Sometimes it was the audience who would have the rug pulled out when the normal people turned out not to be so normal. (Warning: this page is chock full of spoilers for many Zone stories. Read on at your own risk.) A man finds himself transported back in time to his home town when he was a boy. He meets his younger self. He wants to stay. Only he doesn't belong there and he begins to realize you can't live in the past. You need to build yourself a good future. Or Changing Of The Guard, a poignant story of a teacher of literature being forced into retirement who feels he has accomplished nothing. On Christmas eve, the ghosts of some of his students appear to him, explaining how they died because of him. Not for bad reasons but for good. They explain to him the lessons about honor and nobility they learned from him that enabled them, when the time came, to sacrifice their lives for worthy causes.

   There was The Invaders, where an old woman is tormented by small alien invaders - only it turns out in the end she was in fact the giant alien and the little men were in fact explorers from Earth. Or Eye Of The Beholder, where a woman is trying desperately to have surgery to correct her hideous appearance. The episode is shot so that you cannot see anyone's faces. When her bandages are finally removed, she is HOT. Only everyone reacts in horror and we discover that the story takes place among a society of people with pig faces who find her hideous.

   The original Twilight Zone as I've said also dealt heavily in stories against hate and racism. A former Nazi visits his former prison camp to relive his glory days, only to be met by the ghosts of the men he killed who give him a bitter taste of what he did. In The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, a small town is thrown into panic when because of small meaningless incidents they start to believe that someone on their street is an alien out to destroy the rest of them. They turn on each other like dogs, destroying themselves. It turns out there are aliens. They never actually entered the neighborhood though. They stayed outside and supplied just enough odd happenings to get the fear and hatred going and then let the residents destroy themselves. This is how they will take over the world.

   In 1985, CBS TV brought the Twilight Zone back. It got a total makeover. It had new theme music composed by The Grateful Dead which still worked in pieces of the famous original theme. Instead of one story each week, the show was an hour featuring several stories per episode. It was kind of cool since the stories could be just long enough to tell the story they needed. There was less need to stretch a story further than it could handle or to truncate a story that needed more time just because of the time constraints of having to tell a story exactly half an hour or an hour long.

   The original Twilight Zone told mostly stories with themes based on societal issues and how the individual dealt with them. When The New Twilight Zone premiered, it dealt mostly with themes dealing more with personal issues (although technically they had a certain degree of each). While the original Zone had people confronting themes of group racism and community fears, the New Twilight Zone personalized the same issues. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street showed how paranoid finger pointing led to conflict and war, the New Twilight Zone's Nightcrawlers literally externalized the horrorible things war can do to a man's mind. Nightcrawlers told the story of a Viet Nam vet who due to something that was sprayed on him in the war could make what he imagined real. Stopping in a small diner he makes a steak appear out of thin air. He is as haggard and worn as our most paranoid thoughts of what a troubled vet should look like. He's that way because he can't let himself sleep. If he did, the war in his dreams would come out into the real world. Of course when he explains all this to the people in the diner not everyone believes him. He gets knocked unconscious and the war comes home to America. Very chilling.

   Or how about Shatterday where Bruce Willis accidentally dials his own home phone number and finds the phone answered... by another him! Another him who slowly takes his life away from him, making changes for the better, making himself a better man than the original him.

   Then there is the one about a lady photographer who can take a new assignment or get married, but not both. She soon finds herself hanging out with a young boy who she encounters. She grows to love him and in the end finds this is the child she will have IF she chooses marriage. It was her would-be son's one chance to influence her to let him become real. She still chooses not to marry and her son fades away. Its a heartrending piece.

   With Rod Serling gone, the task of narrating the stories fell to Charles Aidman who knocked the ball out of the park, more than living up to Serling's legacy. While Serling had appeared on screen to introduce the stories, the new show had the host simply introduce the stories through voiceovers.

   The New Twilight Zone didn't become a major hit though, especially when CBS moved it from 10pm to a 8pm timeslot. Now in family viewing hours, the show had to tame itself down and, ironically, censor itself. The move hurt the show and the ratings. CBS had the remaining episodes recut to fit into a half hour timeslot to finish the end of its network run.

   There were not enough episodes of The New Twilight Zone to put it into syndication though. So new episodes just for syndication were made to give the show enough episodes. These new episodes were produced under the guidance of J. Michael Strazynski, future creator of Babylon 5 and fan of the original Twilight Zone. He also wrote a number of the stories and while they are not all classics, many are some of the best Twilight Zone stories I've seen. Something In The Walls is about a woman who sees faces, like we all can sometimes, in the patterns on the walls. Only she catches them looking back. There is one about a tomcat who can become human and who romances a lonely woman. Being a tomcat though, he loves her and leaves her. Well he tries to. The twist ending features a visit to the vet for Mr. Kitty. You might be able to guess what happened there to stop his catting around. And The Cold Equations is one of the best Zone segments ever. A space pilot delivering needed medical supplies discovers a stowaway in the form of a young girl who wants to see her brother. Problem is the pilot had just enough fuel for the trip given the weight the ship was supposed to have. With the girl's extra weight, they will crash and burn leaving a colony without desperately needed medical supplies. Policy says to shoot her into space... but she's just an innocent girl. The Twilight Zone is famous for twist endings and you watch this episode waiting for that twist. When it comes, it is the last thing you would expect and a shattering moment.

   Changes were made to the stories shot for CBS. To turn it into a half hour show, the stories produced for CBS were recut to fit the new time requirements. Some stories had extra footage added just to pad for time while other stories had the guts ripped out of them to make them shorter. They also could not afford Charles Aidman to do the narration for the new episodes and hired Robin Ward to replace him. To give the show some consistency though, they had Ward redo the narrations on the CBS episodes and took out Aidman entirely. The CBS stories as shown in syndication are nowhere near what they were when they first aired on CBS. If by some chance you have an opportunity to see the CBS versions or the syndicated cuts, watch the CBS cuts.

   Following even this incarnation of The Twilight Zone, it surfaced again in the form of a TV movie featuring stories from unproduced Rod Serling scripts. And of coruse, between the original series and the New Twilight Zone, there was a Twilight Zone movie which primarily refilmed old TZ stories. The only new segment has become infamous due to the on set death of actor Vic Morrow and two children during its filming.

   In 2002 The Twilight Zone returns as a TV series for the third time. With so many networks on the air, every network is looking for sure thing programs to grab viewers. Nothing says sure thing like a tried and true franchise like The Twilight Zone. UPN decided to bring it back to see what sort of twist The Zone could put on its ratings. This time around actor Forest Whitaker will be attempting to step into Rod Serlings rather large hosting shoes. Some of the folks behind the successful revival of The Outer Limits were put in charge of bringing The Zone Back to life. A good start. But in execution the show somehow fell short. Why? Well... if I had to guess I would say this. The Outer Limits was more of a straight up sci fi show. I mean, don't get me wrong. At its best it was really great sci fi. But TZ... it wasn't just good sci fi and fantasy. Yes it had great twists and gimmicks but, again at its best, it also had a real kinda soul. It would deal hard core with social issues. The first revival dealt with real personal ethics and dilemmas. The 2002 Zone felt mainly like solid twists and gimmicks.

   A perfect comparison is the 2002 remake of the TZ classic The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street mentioned above. The original worked because it felt real. Maple Street was an average suburban street. It had old people, young kids, middle aged people who were fat, attractive, average... a real neighborhood. In the remake the entire community seemed to be composed only of attractive Hollywood looking baby boomers and their kids. Right off the bat believability is lost. I never have seen a neighborhood of people that looked like that. It felt taht much more plastic and artificial. And with that there goes the soul out of the thing. These aren't people that could be your neighbors. They're just characters. The moral punch at the end gets muted because these aren't real people you care about - who could be you - learning a lesson. Their just characters being run through the wringer for our amusement. And then you get to the end and instead of the villain being aliens, the villain is a group of government scientists testing their evil theory. I think the idea was to heightened the moral. I did just say that making the characters more fake hurt the impact. So it would seem to make sense that making the villains more real and less fantastical would deepen the reality and the impact of the moral. Only... it doesn't. Did anyone tell the makers of the show that this is The Twilight Zone? I mean... its supposed to have an element of the fantastic. Taking that out makes it a story that could be told on any show. And the audience isn't dopes. When the villains are literally a mysterious "alien" force the story is a metaphor about all ominous hidden forces. Its about the generic evil "they". A force hidden that we are warned to beware of. You make it the government and now it isn't about the mysterious unknown "they" (which might even be the government). The message now is just a more straight forward, "The government is creeepy and deceptive." The story's message loses much of its universality. And if the viewers want creepy government conspiracy stories they already have The X-Files. They don't need that from The Twilight Zone.

   Well, the show only went for a single season. To be fair it wasn't all bad. It just was rarely great and usually just okay. And it just didn't catch on. I will give them credit for one clever bit of thinking though. The original Zone worked best with half hour stories. This version was scheduled for an hour. The 80's Zone used that time frame to tell stories of varying length with the result that in syndication the stories all needed majorly recut to fit a half hour format. The New New Twilight Zone wisely told 2 half hour tales each show. That being the case the show will be much easier to format as a half hour show for syndication. Not only that, it also means that even though the show only ran a single season, when turned into a half hour program the show will actually have about 2 seasons worth of episodes. So they were clever there at least.

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