The 80s were the golden age of baby boomers nostalgic for the pop culture of their childhood. As the decade doubles as the pop culture of my childhood, I lucked out - two for the price of one. It's a theme I return to often in these pages, it's true. Today will be no different! There's a signpost up ahead.
|Your next stop:|
Says the AVC: "The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s classic sci-fi anthology series, which ran from 1959 to 1964, is the original underground cult show, and one of the earliest TV series to acquire a new, hip luster years after it was originally broadcast. Kids who grew up watching it in syndicated reruns were transfixed by the low-budget punchiness of the best episodes, and their perfectly preserved, claustrophobically intense atmosphere of Cold War paranoia. So it makes sense that The Twilight Zone was one of the first TV series to get its own reboot."
I love the original Twilight Zone, but it was actually this 80s incarnation with which I was first familiar. But I hadn't revisited it in many years. (Unlike the original, which I still revisit often enough.) I was curious to see how it held up.
Short answer: Pretty well. If the intent was to outdo the original, it of course fails, but a) that wasn't the intent, and b) while it's certainly fair to compare it to the original, there's really no need to do so. It makes more sense to compare the original Outer Limits to the original Twilight Zone and to compare the 80s Twilight Zone to the other anthology shows of the period, like Amazing Stories, (production of which was the whole catalyst for CBS' resurrection of the TZ) The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Freddy's Nightmares, or Tales from the Darkside. And it's the best of those.
|No disrespect to Darkside, which I enjoy quite a bit, but its ratio of great-episodes-to-fair wasn't as impressive. (Nor its production value, but again, no dis: they did great with what they had.)|
|Tales from the Crypt is probably the reigning champ of anthology shows from this era, though it was a late entry.|
"The (80s) Twilight Zone never achieved the stylistic unity and clear, strong personality of the original—a unity and personality that can make a fan more forgiving of the dud episodes turned out by Serling and his team, because a sub-par episode of Serling’s Twilight Zone is still recognizably an episode of The Twilight Zone and not easily mistaken for anything else."
Visually, this is true. While more than a few images from the 80s TZ have stuck with me over the years, it (as is true of all the other 80s anthology shows aforementioned) could have used a more instantly-recognizable look or personality. And chances are they would have gotten it, had the creative team remained consistent. Its most successful stretch of episodes were overseen by James Crocker and Phil DeGuere, but the latter died after the first season and the former was sacked after the 11-episode second season. The 30 episodes of the third season were produced mainly to qualify the show for syndication, though that's not to say there weren't some great ones.
(EDIT: Please see the comments for some corrections on my shoddy fact-finding, above.)
Additionally, Harlan Ellison (whose involvement was originally touted as a major coup for the series) only made it through half of the first season before getting into a major blowout with CBS executives and exiting the show. But overall, the writing for the show remained fairly consistent. The original Twilight Zone relied heavily on Charles Beaumont, Serling himself, and Richard Matheson (among others, certainly) to create its mood; the 80s Twilight Zone got the same from George RR Martin, Martin Pasko, Alan Brennert, Rockne S. O'Bannon, and J. Michael Straczynski. That's a murderer's row of writers, right there.
(Pasko and Brennert are no stranger to these pages. Welcome back, gents!)
Did I mention the intro?
Awesome. As mentioned elsewhere, a memorable intro and theme song are at least 40% of any anthology show's success. The Grateful Dead's version (as aided and abetted by Merl Saunders on Hammond B-3 organ) of the classic theme is married perfectly to the visual design. I love that zoom-out and always expect the windows to shatter, even still. (They never do.) I love the brief use of Rod Serling's image, as well.
So, I recently watched all 3 seasons and went looking around to see what others had to say about it. As per usual, I didn't find or read too much I agreed with. (The above remarks from the AVC aside.) Moreover, some of the episodes I kept finding on other people's "Best 80s TZ Episodes" lists were among my own least favorite. (One of which - "Paladins of the Lost Hour" - was god-awful to me and seemed to go on forever. Yet google it and you'll see I'm very much in the minority. As Alan Brennert himself said in the comments section of this Groggybot overview, "that's the nature of horse races.")
Some of the episodes that I remembered loving as a kid (like "Ye Gods," "Dreams for Sale," or "The Leprechaun Artist." Oh yeah: at present, almost every episode is available for free on YouTube. Definitely worth a bookmark) didn't hold up for me so much this time around. But it was fun to see them again.
I didn't include any 80s remakes of original TZ episodes in the list below. (Such as "Dead Man's Shoes," filmed as "Dead Woman's Shoes" with Helen Mirren, above.) Some of these are quite good, though. ("The After Hours" is probably my favorite of them.) It was interesting to revisit these remakes as like I say above, I saw these remakes before seeing the originals but have seen the originals many, many times in the years since. Almost like seeing them the first time, but with accompanying deja-vu and time-bends.
Oh and I didn't dwell on guest stars. Yes, it's cool to see Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Shelly Duvall, and so many others showing up here and there. But I got annoyed with this in the overviews I read out there. Mildly but enough to not go out of my way to mention anyone here.
I guess that's two things, isn't it? Okay, then.
Mentions: "The Uncle Devil Show" (Season 1, Episode 10, Segment 2) and "Personal Demons" (Season 1, Episode 18, Section 2.)
I guess that's two things, isn't it? Okay, then.
|Let us begin.|
"Personal Demons" seems to end where it should begin. Martin Balsam plays a writer who is plagued by these impish demons that only he can see. He finally confronts them and they tell him the only way he can get rid of them is to write about them. He starts writing, and they disappear. The End. Come on! What happens next? Still fun, though. Ditto for "The Uncle Devil Show," though that one feels resolved enough. It just would have been more interesting to see it directed by the 1985 equivalent of Rob Zombie.
|A boy learns how to cast demon spells from an innocent looking children's show.|
110 segments were produced for the 80s TZ.
Here are my 25 favorites.
Here are my 25 favorites.
|Season 3, Episode 27.|
Directed by Randy Bradshaw. Written by J. Michael Straczynski.
Reality TV didn't exist at the time, at least in the United States, and The Truman Show was still years away. This isn't the most mind-blowing episode to watch in 2015, and maybe not even in 1989 when it aired. But it's a fascinating reminder of how the concept of Reality TV was once imagined - a horrorshow, but one the character ultimately chooses over reality.
|Season 1, Episode 18, Segment 3.|
Directed by Gus Trikonis. Written by Martin Pasko and Rebecca Parr.
Nothing too complex here, but fun, with a zing at the end that while mild nonetheless less delights me. I'll try and remain as spoiler-free as possible with these plot summaries, given the importance of the twist-ending/reveal to so many TZ episodes. So no word on what said-zing-above is, but sometimes spilling the beans will be necessary. As with our next entry:
|Season 1, Episode 15, Segment 2.|
Directed by Claudia Weill. Written by Alan Brennert and Carter Scholz
He appears holographically before the UN Security Council and says Greetings Earthlings, we seeded your planet long ago. But you're a bunch of losers, so now we're going to kill everybody. So sorry. The United States ambassador (naturally) argues for and wins a 24-hour stay of execution, during which time the nations of the world make an ironclad peace. They present it to the aliens with pride, but they have it backwards: our distant ancestors the aliens are warriors and its our petty attitude towards conflict (our "small talent for war") that makes us beyond redemption.
This twist (and the last shot of the sky filled with the arriving armada) is at least as impactful to me personally as the twist of "To Serve Mankind" probably is to baby boomer Zone-o-philes. (Though I love that one, too.)
|Season 1, Episode 24, Segment 1.|
Directed by Jeannot Zwarc. Written by David Gerrold.
A young couple is traveling through the remote desert when they see something crash into a nearby hill. Investigating, they discover a flying saucer and insect-faced beings. Hi-jinks ensue.
This is a keenly observed homage to not just the original show but sci-fi of the 50s and 60s in general. The town is named after Charles Beaumont, and nearby towns are named Willoughby and Matheson. The main character's name (as well as the general set-up) is a reference to It Came From Outer of Space, the aliens' inability to bend their pinkies recalls The Invaders, and the giant space pods are an obvious reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Not to mention "the Bradbury Rays.") Fun stuff.
Season 1, Episode 6, Segment 1.
Directed by Paul Lynch. Written by Philip DeGuere and Henry Slesar.
|Season 3, Episode 29. |
Directed by Paul Lynch. Written by Harlan Ellison.
Harlan Ellison left in the first season when his adaptation of the Donald Westlake story "Nackles" (about a mean-spirited Santa terrorizing a group of children) was halted mid-production by CBS executives. That he returned to the series for this pulpy tale of mobsters, demons, and degenerates is a testament to his loyalty to his friends still working on the show.
Season 1, Episode 18, Segment 1.
Directed by Bradford May. Adapted by Harlan Ellison.
I'm not a huge fan of the original Stephen King story. It's not bad, just a rather perfunctory (to me) riff on Lovecraft. I have to be in the mood for those, and I probably wasn't when last I read "Gramma." This adaptation is pretty great, though. It evokes the fear of the young boy (played by Barret Oliver, remember him?) quite well.
At its core this is about the revulsion the young can feel towards the old and the guilt that accompanies it. After all, it's not how we're supposed to feel about our elders. That manifests itself as Gramma quite dramatically. Not that it harms anything, but the Lovecraft stuff doesn't really need to be there.
Speaking of Stephen King:
|"The Hellgramite Method"|
Season 3, Episode 7.
Directed by Gilbert M. Shilton. Written by William Selby.
"Miley Judson happened upon the simple discovery that there is no sure-fire cure, no quick fix, no shortcut to either sobriety or peace of mind. Some people achieve it through an individual act of will, others find strength in numbers. What Miley Judson needed was a little something extra, something that could only be found..."
|"in the Twilight Zone."|
|Season 1, Episode 1, Segment 2.|
Directed by Wes Craven. Written by James Crocker.
Penny, a housewife overwhelmed by her family and by the endless tense reports on the radio of escalating nuclear war with the Russians, discovers a gold pendant that allows her to freeze and re-start time at will. When she and her husband hear air raid sirens and reports that Soviet ICBMs have entered American air space, she stops time and wanders out into the street.
|I love this sequence.|
|If you will indulge me.|
|That's one of the ICBMs above the marquee. (Itself another cheeky reference.) There's a zoom on it in the episode itself, but it didn't screencap very well.|
Season 1, Episode 11, Segment 1.
Directed by Gerd Oswald. Written by Martin Pasko and Rebecca Parr.
As have I, but this is a worthy take on the topic. Also stars Martin Landau and a young Giovanni Ribisi. I know I said I wouldn't dwell on casting, but you know, while we're here.
|"The Misfortune Cookie"|
Season 1, Episode 14, Segment 3.
Directed by Allan Arkush. Written by Rockne S. O'Bannon.
|(Genghis Khan himself, Al Leong, ladies and gentlemen.)|
|"Last Defender of Camelot"|
Season 1, Episode 24, Segment 2.
Directed by Jeannot Zwarc. Adapted by George RR Martin from a short story by Roger Zelazny.
I'm generally not a fan of attempts to mix Arthurian mythos with modern-times stuff. (Iron Man #150 a notable exception.) But this one works. I haven't read the Zelazny story it's based on, but I assume it follows it pretty closely.
|Jenny Agutter as Morgan Le Fay. Making Griffin Dunne the only lead from An American Werewolf in London not to appear in TZ. (He appeared in both Amazing Stories and the 80s Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though.)|
|"Time and Teresa Golewitz"|
Season 2, Episode 10, Segment 1.
Directed by Shelley Levinson. Written by Parke Godwin and Alan Brennert.
This is a really sweet episode. It strikes the right balance between sentimental and surreal.
|Season 2, Episode 1, Segment 1.|
Directed by Jim McBride. Written by Bryce Maritano and George RR Martin.
The episode ends with a nice shot of Elvis overlooking the Vegas strip, but alas it didn't screencap too well.
"Sometimes you get called back for one encore too many... in the Twilight Zone."
|Season 3, Episode 22.|
Directed by Richard Bugajski. Written by Paul Chitlik and Jeremy Bertrand Finch.
This was an unexpected treat for me, as for years I've thought of this episode, which I saw back in the day but did not know was part of 80s TZ. I thought it was a Ray Bradbury Theater episode for the longest time, but once I got that series on DVD and didn't find it, I had no idea where else to look. As this got going when I watched it a few weeks ago, I got more and more excited. "OMG," Bryan says to no one, "Is this the one where (spoilers?)"
Yep. This is the one where (spoilers.) Re-united and it feels so good.
|"A Matter of Minutes"|
Season 1, Episode 15, Segment 3.
Directed by Sheldon Larry. Written by Harlan Ellison and Rockne S. O'Bannon.
|A young couple awakens to discover strange beings in their house and on the street.|
|They discover that reality itself is being constructed all around them and they have fallen "backstage."|
|Season 2, Episode 9, Segment 1.|
Directd by Gil Bettman. Written by Cal Willingham.
There's a shot near the end where an attempt is made to separate the driver from the vehicle that is pretty cool. (Insert Screencap Failure here.)
|"To See the Invisible Man"|
Season 1, Episode 16, Segment 2.
Directed by Noel Black. Adapted by Steven Barnes from the short story by Robert Silverberg.
|At first he exploits the opportunity and raises hell everywhere he goes.|
It's the sort of Twilight Zone-y allegory that always lands, even if part of your brain won't stop picking at how this whole thing would never work. But of course that's also the point - that it doesn't work. Empathy cannot be imposed by the criminal justice system. At least not without cruel and unusual side effects.
|"Profile in Silver"|
Season 1, Episode 20, Segment 1.
Directed by John Hancock. Written by J. Neal Schulman
After arousing suspicion with his Kennedy half dollar coin (minted in 1964) the field historian admits he came from the future to observe Kennedy's assassination.
|His intervention has - stop me if you've heard this before - ripped a hole in the timestream, so the omniverse is course-correcting.|
|Sure, seeing Garak from DS9 as Kennedy is a little disorienting -|
And that John Hancock traveled through time to direct it...! How is this not remarked upon more?
|"Take My Life... Please."|
Season 1, Episode 22, Segment 1.
Directed by Gus Trikonis. Written by Gordon Mitchell.
Utterly drained, he exits the stage to a standing ovation, and his new agent informs he will be performing every night for the next several thousand years.
|The Hallway of the Damned, flanked by an endless parade of performers.|
This is a much more disturbing episode than the above might imply. Extra props to Tim Thomerson in the lead. At the beginning, he's almost too unlikeable, but as the arrogance and hostility fall away and the reality of his situation dawns on him, the actor subtly transitions into despair and pathos worthy of a film noir.
|Season 1, Episode 22, Segment 2.|
Directed by Ben Bolt. Written by Robert Hunter.
|"Gentlemen... to our mutual damnation" is a great toast.|
|Season 1, Episode 22, Segment 3.|
Direct by Time Traveling John Hancock. Written by Anne Collins.
|Note: not Frances Conroy. That's the legendary Uta Hagen.|
|It doesn't take her long to find her own book and start reading it.|
She discovers she can alter the contents of other people's books and this has instant real-world effect. How long can she keep one step ahead of both her mysterious employers and the results of her tampering?
Another epitome-of-the-Zone type of story, though for some reason not many people have latched onto it as such.
|Season 1, Episode 21, Segment 1.|
Directed by Paul Lynch. Written by Mary Sheldon.
"Man is a questioning creature, constantly striving for answers. But there is some knowledge for which he is not yet ready. Secrets once learned overwhelm him. Secrets that are for now best left undisturbed... in the Twilight Zone."
William Peterson plays a government agent sent to investigate a mysterious outbreak of insanity in a small town. Frances McDormand plays a local woman who teams up with him in order to cure her father.
They discover that the cause of the insanity is not exposure to an airborne virus but to an idea, a short secret phrase that is passed by word of mouth from person to person. The phrase is about the purpose and meaning of existence, and, once exposed, the infected are compelled to share this with everyone.
I really loved this one. The opening is so weird. You're probably getting as tired of reading "but it didn't screencap that well" as I am of writing it. Check it out sometime, though.
|Season 1, Episode 19, Segment 2.|
Directed by Paul Tucker. Adapted by Alan Brennert from a story by Greg Bear.
When he arrives, Hell is in chaos. Souls roam free and are chased down by pig-faced guards in motorcycle masks, brandishing batons. Johnny learns a recent change in management has given rise to more and more mix-ups on who is being sent to Hell.
|Johnny meets the management and discovers why this is the case. (Picard voice) Q!|
|This also features Brent Spiner, while we're TNG-ing.|
You don't have to be particularly religious-minded to appreciate the message of this episode. The drama of a hard choice in an impossible fight and the emphasis on individual character over dogma is universal enough.
|Season 2, Episode 5, Segment 1.|
Directed by Thomas J. Wright. Written by Terry Matz and George RR Martin.
Man, this episode. I really hesitate to say too much, as I knew nothing going into it and was just blown away. This scene in particular:
is just genius. I watched it a couple of times, and each viewing brought out something different. It's edited extremely well - the zooms and cuts employed emphasize the horror and sadness of everything we see. As with "Devil's Alphabet," it would have made an excellent EC story - or would have been perfectly at home in Creepshow - but it's perfect exactly where it is. This is not campy at all. Its allegory cuts at vulnerabilities we cannot overcome.
This scene right before the end of the episode between Toby and his Dad is as heartbreaking as anything I've ever seen.
And coming after everything else in the episode (particularly the scenes immediately preceding it) it sets up the inevitable, bleak, but beautiful end. Masterfully conceived and sensitively executed.
Like I say, the whole series is available on YouTube. You could do a lot worse than heading over that way and punching up any or all of the above.