Judge Erich Asperschlager keeps misplacing his keys of imagination.
Our reviews of The Twilight Zone: Season One (Blu-ray) (published October 29th, 2010), The Twilight Zone: Season Two (Blu-ray) (published December 9th, 2010), The Twilight Zone: Season Three (Blu-ray) (published February 15th, 2011), The Twilight Zone: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published August 29th, 2011), and The Twilight Zone (2002): The Complete First Season (published October 6th, 2004) are also available.
"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone."
The Twilight Zone's third season was almost its last. Instead of bringing it back in the fall of 1962, CBS gave the show's time slot to a new show, the ironically titled Fair Exchange. With the show in hiatus, longtime producer Buck Houghton pursued other work. Rod Serling, burned out by the writing and production process, left for a teaching position at Antioch College. Without a sponsor, network, or its two originators, The Twilight Zone was thrown into TV limbo. When the series was resurrected mid-season to replace its own replacement, it came back as a different show. Besides the lack of day-to-day input from Houghton and Serling, CBS expanded it from a half hour show to a full hour to fill the void left by Fair Exchange. It also came back with a new name, dropping the "The" for the simpler Twilight Zone.
Although Serling was as visible as ever—writing a third of the scripts and flying in occasionally to record his introduction segments—it was clear from the first of the season's eighteen episodes that things had changed, not necessarily for the better. Like the taped episode experiments during the second season, the show's new format did not last. Twilight Zone returned for a fifth and final season in its old half-hour format, and though the show wasn't as consistently great as the first few years, it still produced a handful of classic episodes. Season Four, meanwhile, remains largely forgotten—its episodes absent from TV marathons and best-of lists.
As a result, The Twilight Zone: Season Four on Blu-ray will be the first time many viewers will see the show in its hour-long format. Although many of these episodes are best forgotten, just as many are unpolished jewels. At its best, the extended runtime gives room for the writers to delve deeper into issues and ideas; at its worst, it's painfully dull. Despite the season's ups and downs, Image Entertainment once again delivers the best possible way to watch it, with a set that equals the high standards set by their Blu-ray releases for Twilight Zone Seasons One through Three.
Facts of the Case
The Twilight Zone: Season Four has 18 episodes across five Blu-ray discs:
Although Rod Serling began his TV career writing hour-long dramas, he knew that The Twilight Zone worked best as a half hour show. The shorter format provided just enough time for the set-up, story, and gut punch twist ending that made the show famous. In order to fill the full hour CBS demanded for its fourth season, the Twilight Zone's writers were forced to work in a different way. Although some of the episodes still go for the big twist finish, most follow a more traditional format. The best use the larger canvas to tell complex stories that wouldn't fit into a half hour. The worst feel like half hour episodes padded out to 50 minutes.
The bulk of Season Four's best episodes come from the minds of Twilight Zone mainstays Earl Hamner Jr., Richard Matheson, and Charles Beaumont. Matheson's "Death Ship" is a wonderful bit of creepy science fiction. In it, a three-man spacecraft lands on a distant planet. They are looking for extraterrestrial life, but instead find a crashed spaceship with their own dead bodies inside. What makes the episode work isn't the nifty set-up or the solid final twist, but the way Matheson builds the characters, giving us glimpses of the lives they left behind on earth. In "Jess-Belle," Hamner returns to his Southern roots to conjure a backwoods tall tale, about a country girl (played by Anne Francis of Forbidden Planet fame) who asks a witch to help her win a young man's heart, and pays a terrible price.
Beaumont's best is an adaptation of one of his own short stories, called "Printer's Devil." In his final Twilight Zone appearance, Burgess Meredith plays the titular demon, using modern notions of faith and reason to trick a newspaper editor into trading his soul for circulation numbers. At this point in his career, Beaumont was struggling with overwork and the beginnings of an unknown disease that ultimately killed him. He contracted out some of his assignments, including "The New Exhibit," a Beaumont-credited episode actually ghostwritten by Jerry Sohl. Even with some minor pacing issues, this horror tale about murderous wax figures is great, more akin to something you'd find in EC Comics than 1960s television.
In a turnaround from the first few seasons, some of the worst Season Four episodes were written by Serling himself. "The Thirty-Fathom Grave" might have been a cool nautical ghost story with a Bill Bixby cameo if its author had found better ways to fill the time than endless scenes of strict naval protocol. In "He's Alive," Serling hops on his favorite soap box, burying an excellent performance by a young Dennis Hopper as a Neo-Nazi under a mountain of a message. The episode isn't helped either by the fact that the build up is too long, and the twist too obvious, to pack the right emotional punch.
Serling's "No Time Like the Past," "The Parallel," and "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" are likewise lacking; all overstuffed and suffering from the repetition of themes he'd addressed in earlier, better episodes. Despite the misfires, Serling redeems himself with the season's strongest episode. "On Thursday We Leave for Home" is classic Twilight Zone, combining a sci-fi story about a remote outpost of intergalactic ex-pats waiting to be rescued with the character study of a self-proclaimed captain who refuses to relinquish power.
Although the episodes of Season Four stand at odds with the rest of the series, fans will find plenty of familiarity here. This was the season that introduced the show's most iconic opening sequence, with the floating eyeball, breaking window, and doll falling through space. This season is also packed with notable names and returning actors, including Jack Klugman ("Death Ship"), Martin Balsam ("The New Exhibit"), Julie Newmar ("Of Late I Think of Cliffordville"), Bill Bixby ("The Thirty-Fathom Grave"), and a surprise cameo by a young Burt Reynolds doing his best Brando impression in "The Bard." Although there are many fine performances, the best is Robert Duvall's in "Miniature." In this fantasy love story, Duvall plays a sweet, harried man who finds solace in a museum dollhouse exhibit occupied by a miniature woman who moves only when he's around. Duvall carries the episode with a quiet grace that brings the audience into his view of the world, making his struggle and ultimate redemption so satisfying.
Image Entertainment has done a remarkable job bringing The Twilight Zone to Blu-ray. To say the show never looked better is an understatement. Not only are these AVC-encoded 1080p episodes excellent for a series five decades old, they stand toe-to-toe with the best that modern hi-def has to offer. Seasons Two and Three had minor presentation issues that kept them from perfect video scores, but Season Four is a return to the near-flawless quality of Season One. Everything from fabric detail to background poster text to bald cap seams are razor sharp, without any hint of compression. Blacks are deep and nuanced, moving through rich tones of grey to bright whites. A satisfying, unobtrusive film grain is present throughout. The image is so good, in fact, the only problem I saw were some film scratches in the on-deck sequences of "Passage on the Lady Anne"—that's it. In the first few Twilight Zone seasons, the image quality matched that of the show; in Season Four it's better than the episodes themselves.
The image upgrade might be more obvious than the audio, but the restored, uncompressed 2.0 mono mix is outstanding—crisp, clear, and hiss-free (especially compared to the original mono mixes, also available). To hear just how good a job Image has done, every episode comes with the option to listen to the isolated score, stripping out everything except the memorable music.
With each Twilight Zone Blu-ray set, there seem to be fewer extras. Season Four doesn't have any bonus episodes of other Serling-penned or hosted television, like the first three sets did. Instead, it focuses on commentaries and interviews, relegating some random Serling-related clips to a small part of Disc Five. Even so, there's plenty of great content for fans to dig through. Only a cranky reviewer could be disappointed by a line-up like this:
• Fifteen audio commentary tracks, all but two of which are brand new to this set. Like the previous seasons, most of these tracks feature The Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree joined by a host of authors, historians, and television writers.
• Audio and video interviews with various writers, producers, and actors—including Burgess Meredith, Pat Hingle, Anne Francis, Buzz Kulik, and Herbert Hirschman, who replaced producer Buck Houghton after Season Three.
• Part four of Zicree's massive interview with director of photography George T. Clemens, covering Season Four.
• Seven more episodes of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, starring people like Jason Alexander ("No Time Like the Past"), Lou Diamond Phillips ("The Parallel"), Barry Bostwick ("On Thursday We Leave for Home"), and John Ratzenberger ("The Bard").
• Sponsor billboards for every episode.
• A brief collection of clips, including a Serling blooper from "He's Alive," a Genesee Beer ad, a Twilite Zone sketch from Saturday Night Live starring Dan Aykroyd, and another promo for the sketchy learn-by-mail Famous Writers School.
I'd never seen any episodes from The Twilight Zone's fourth season before this set. I imagine that will be true for a lot of fans—and for good reason. The hourlong format took its toll on the series, forcing the writers to pad out otherwise fine ideas, and trading the twist endings that made the show famous for repetition and ponderous dialogue. There are at least a couple of classics, but this is more a season of great moments than great episodes. Although The Twilight Zone: Season Four isn't for the casual fan, completists will still enjoy the visit. Image Entertainment has released another audio-visual stunner, packed with meaty bonus features to enhance the experience and fill the gap until the Season Five wrap-up in a few months.
Even though the journey into this forgotten outpost of the Twilight
Zone is for series devotees only, Season Four's Blu-ray debut is Not
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Episode Commentaries
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