Judge Geoffrey Miller wishes William Shatner could narrate everything.
"Close your eyes…and imagine!"—The Storyteller, William Shatner
A Twist In The Tale wants to be a sort of spookified take on Afternoon Specials. It's one part troubled teen (or pre-teen) melodrama mixed with the typical ghosts, mystics, and time travelers of sci-fi/fantasy anthology shows. The concept itself isn't terrible, but the execution is sorely lacking. Flat, pedestrian writing and excruciatingly slow pacing keep the show stuck in first gear. Filmed in New Zealand, it provides definitive proof that not every Kiwi is as talented as Peter Jackson.
Facts of the Case
William Shatner hosts this collection of "supernatural stories of the imagination for all ages." All 15 hour-long episodes of the series are included on this four-DVD box set.
• "Obsession in August"
• "A Crack in Time"
• "The Anchoress"
• "The Duelists"
• "The Magician"
• "A Ghost of Our Own"
• "Jessica's Diary"
• "The Pirate"
• "The Skeleton in the Cupboard"
• "Between Life and Death"
• "Darkness Visible"
• "The Green Dress"
• "A Matter of Time"
Any sci-fi/fantasy anthology TV show has an impossibly high standard to live up to: The Twilight Zone. That classic series not only laid down all the elements that would define the genre, but did them better than any pretender that came after it, including its own later ill-advised revivals. The show had it all: a brilliantly creepy host and narrator in creator Rod Serling, some of the best writers available at the time (including Serling himself and such luminaries as Ray Bradbury), and a list of actors that reads like a who's-who of late 1950s and early 1960s TV.
It's a tough act to follow up. A handful of contenders—The Outer Limits and Tales From The Crypt come to mind—have managed respectably. A Twist In The Tale is not one of those contenders, not by a long shot.
The formula of every episode of A Twist In The Tale goes something like this: William Shatner, who plays the role of "The Storyteller," starts things off by introducing the premise and theme for the episode to a gaggle of children assembled in an old-fashioned study-cum-library. Then we're introduced to a couple of kids (ranging in age from around 8 to 14) dealing with a typical problem (parents divorced, trouble with bullies, just moved into a new town, etc.). Pretty soon, they have some sort of unusual/supernatural encounter or experience. Shatner pops up again interminably to add commentary, the same synthesized New Age music drones on, and eventually the "twist in the tale" is revealed. We see Shatner once more as he sums up the moral of the story.
A Twist In The Tale's makers seem to have made the erroneous assumption that an "all ages" demographic meant nothing could be remotely complicated or frightening. Even on the rare occasion when something possibly scary happens, it's played with such a lack of dramatic flair that it might as well have been someone going to the refrigerator to grab a soda. The "twists" promised by the title are anything but surprising. "It was all a dream…or was it?" and, "That teen by the abandoned mine who looks exactly like the one who died in an accident there 50 years ago is really a g-g-g-ghost!" are hardly O. Henry material. Hell, they're barely even worthy of Scooby Doo.
The hour-long format doesn't do the show any favors either. The stories have a half-hour worth of material, tops. So, inevitably, the episodes drag and plod along until all the life is slowly sucked from them. There are countless unnecessary scenes, even characters repeatedly restating points that they've already gone over. To add insult to injury, the same stock footage, like lightning flashes or an owl perched on a branch, is repeated ad nauseam. A little bit of judicious editing would really go a long way towards making the show more palatable.
The cast, composed of unknown New Zealanders, is mostly competent but undistinguished. There are a few notable performances, such as Renee Ellwood as quirky, spunky, budding magician Cherry in "The Skeleton In The Cupboard," but those are balanced by a couple that are downright awful. To be fair, these actors aren't exactly working with Shakespeare, and obvious budget constraints occasionally force them to wear embarrassingly ridiculous costumes. In "A Crack In Time," the girl from the future's attire consists of what appears to be an old Halloween costume and decorative jewels on her forehead courtesy of a BeDazzler. The ghosts in "The Duelists" are caked in cheap white powder, like they're straight out of a high school production of A Christmas Carol.
The only truly impressive thing about A Twist In The Tale is just how bland and mundane it is. There's no lack of enthusiastic but financially compromised amateurs making sci-fi and fantasy that is, at the very least, inspired. After all, these are genres that are usually ripe for entertaining pulp, even when the technical aspects are lacking or the plot is rife with cliches. A Twist In The Tale certainly isn't afraid of cliches, but it is afraid of having fun. It's so dull and flavorless that it makes Touched By An Angel look like a Quentin Tarantino film by comparison.
The features on the DVD set itself are crummier than William Shatner's hairpiece. There are no extras whatsoever. The menus are nothing more than a still, silent screen. At least there are generous chapter stops, and the transfer is decent. All 15 episodes are presented in 1.78:1, enhanced for widescreen TVs. (Yes, oddly enough, the series was shot in widescreen.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is one saving grace to the show, and it can be summed up in one word: Shatner. Yes, Captain Kirk comes through with his patented cheesy, schmaltzy charm. His narration, either sitting in front of an audience or outside by his lonesome, has clearly been spliced in with the rest of the show at the last minute. In a couple of particularly awkward scenes, he's even cheaply superimposed over images from the original footage. Still, he is entertaining, something I can't say for the rest of the show.
I can't imagine who would enjoy A Twist In The Tale. Too slowly paced and talky for children yet not complex or deep enough for adults, it's spoiled by its own misguided attempts to have broad appeal. Had it been a half-hour series with better attention paid to creating snappier dialogue and more memorable characters, it'd still be mediocre at best. It's understandable why William Shatner's name and face are all over the packaging: He's the only potential draw, and he does his best to add a little vitality to an otherwise lifeless production.
Shatner is allowed to go free with a slap on the wrist. The rest of the cast and crew are found guilty.
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