Rewind: ‘The Twilight Zone’ revisited

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You’re rewinding a VHS tape. A tape that’s rewinding toward the future. A future that looks a lot like the past. Or maybe it’s not the past, or the future. Maybe it’s just… The Twilight Zone.

What’s it about?

The brainchild of TV producer Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone was an anthology drama series, featuring stories of the paranormal and the plain weird.

Starting in 1959, it ran for five seasons, taking viewers across dystopian futures, the not so distant past, and the eerie present. Many of the episodes paralleled social anxieties of the time, which mostly revolved around the Soviets and threat of nuclear annihilation (just see how many times aliens/doppelgangers/robots represent the dangers of Communists), while others were pure sci-fi spookiness.

Who was in it?

Who wasn’t in it? With a different tale each week The Twilight Zone had guest star cameos by the saucer-load. There were both famous faces of the day, such as Burgess Meredith and Buster Keaton, and future stars in the making, including Dennis Hopper, Peter ‘Columbo’ Falk, and Robert Duvall.

To list every celebrity who appeared would be an exhaustive experience. The audience’s one constant companion throughout was creator/writer/handsome park-ranger lookalike, Rod Serling, who introduced and ended every show with an often ominous monologue.

Scripts and stories were provided by some of the finest writers around, with the likes of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson (author of I am Legend and Duel) putting pen to paper to introduce a generation of Americans to their first ‘proper’ sci-fi.

Best moment?

To this day The Twilight Zone is renowned for its ingenious and often chilling plot twists, so it’s difficult to pick one that rises above the rest.

Is it the moment Burgess Meredith’s post-apocalyptic librarian realises he should have gone to Specsavers? Is it Shatner facing down a gremlin at 30,000 feet? Is it the moment you realise they’re all dolls, or that you should never ever stop at Willoughby, or that, dear Lord, it’s a cookbook!?

To choose a best moment from The Twilight Zone is like picking your favourite child, if your children were all monochrome and a bit creepy. So many have become iconic articles of pop-culture reference that it’s unfair to single out just one.

We’ll do it anyway, however, for an unsung but typically Twilight Zone moment which occurs at the end of the Season 1 episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. As a neighbourhood tears itself apart trying to find out which of its members is an alien, the camera pans back to reveal the real aliens who’ve been manipulating them all along, all by simply turning their lights on and off.

It sounds cheesy on paper but it’s a great sci-fi twist, and its message was timely, given that the US was a nation living with the rabid cries of Joseph McCarthy and the saturating fear of a Communist threat.

Last seen?

Since the original run ended in 1964 there have been numerous attempts to restart the series, although none have proven as popular. In 1983 Steven Spielberg produced Twilight Zone: The Movie, which received lukewarm reviews and is sadly most remembered for actor Vic Morrow’s death in a helicopter accident while shooting the John Landis directed segment Time Out.

Two years later a new Twilight Zone TV series appeared on American network CBS, and though it featured the talents of Wes Craven and George R.R. Martin, and actors such as Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and Martin Landau, it was repeatedly tortured in the ratings and ran for only three seasons.

Another stab at a TV series in 2002, featuring new tales (such as Katherine Heigl babysitting Hitler) and modern takes on old stories, such as a post 9/11 version of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, lasted only one season.

The future?

In 2008 rumours circulated that Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to make a big-budget version of The Twilight Zone with Warner Bros., but any plans seem to have disappeared like the airmen in the episode And When The Sky Opened.

Even if it doesn’t reappear on our screens, The Twilight Zone was such a seminal series that future anthology series will owe something to it in some small part. Anthology shows such as The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents… followed in its lasting footsteps and to this day shows still parody it and its most famous episodes.

Charlie Brooker’s recent Black Mirror series owed much to The Twilight Zone in its uncanny tone and dramatisation of societal fears, proving that whether its socialists or social networking we’re afraid of, there’ll always be an appetite for the kind of anthology that The Twilight Zone started.

> Buy the Season 1 DVD boxset on Amazon.

What are your memories of The Twilight Zone? Let us know below…