Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Twilight Zone: Vol. 2

If there is one volume of the Twilight Zone DVD collection that could be called definitive of the entire series, volume 2 probably comes the closest. Whereas the first volume had three episodes, this one boasts four: "Time Enough at Last," "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "The Odyssey of Flight 33." Of those four, three are considered classics, if not iconic.

Before I discuss the individual episodes, is it just me or is anyone else annoyed by Image Entertainment's decision to release each volume featuring a mis-mash of episodes from random years rather than put out the sets in chronological order? The production values sometimes vary wildly from year to year, and to my thinking, at least, first-season episodes are best viewed in the context of the first season, as opposed to the third or fourth. It's great that all the episodes are now available, and the presentation is good, but the bizarre packaging strategy bugs me to no end.

"Time Enough at Last," a first-season entry from 1959, is famous for put-upon bookworm Henry Bemis (deftly portrayed by a young Burgess Meredith) who triumphs over his oppressors only to fall victim to the cruelest ironic ending ever. Yes, the sets look very much like sets, and everyone giving Henry a hard time over-acts with gleeful venom, but this isn't a story that calls for realism. Irony rules. If not for a well-timed nuclear holocaust, this episode (adapted by Rod Serling from a short story by Lynn Venable) could be a prequel to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It remains one of my favorites.

Until now, I'd never seen "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," although I'd heard of it. Starring Sheriff Lobo himself, Claude Akins, it examines the fallout when paranoia grips an isolated suburban community. Part "Leave It to Beaver" and part "Lord of the Flies," the community is just a little too isolated, a little too insular, a little to ready to jump to a panicked bunker mentality. But like "Time Enough at Last," this isn't a story concerned with realism. Instead, it's a parable about McCarthyism and witch hunts, humans' instinctive need to find convenient scapegoats to blame problems on. The premise has been referenced so many times by Hollywood that there's no surprise in the ending, but that doesn't make it any less timeless--or relevant--today.

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," a selection from 1963 written by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Donner, is probably the best-known of the episodes here. The remake starring John Lithgow in the feature film is excellent, but the original with William Shatner still sets the bar for claustrophobic paranoid terror. The scene where Shatner wrestles with the temptation of whether to pull back the curtain or not still packs a punch, and the Wife and I still jumped even though we'd seen this one many times. It's just creepy. It has aged well. It's also the source of one of my all-time favorite pop culture gag references. On one episode of "Third Rock from the Sun," Shatner, playing the alien overlord "Big, Giant Head" arrives late to meet with his alien minions on Earth. Apologizing, he explained that the plane he was on was beset by a monster on the wing of the plane. A startled Lithgow (who played the lead alien in the series) exclaims "The same thing happened to me!"

"The Odyssey of Flight 33" is the only disappointment of the bunch. A transatlantic passenger flight in the 1960s gets caught up in some anomaly which flings it back to the time of the dinosaurs. Then they get caught up again, arriving in the 1930s. Low on fuel, the crew decides to chance another trip through the anomaly to reach their home time. Written by Serling, it must've sounded good in concept but doesn't deliver. There are logical inconsistencies throughout, characters that are introduced that have no further bearing on the storyline, and story details that seem significant yet are never explained nor referenced again. In short, the script is a mess, quite probably written on a looming deadline. The actors do their best, but they've got nothing to work with. Not that it matters--with three other powerhouse episodes sharing the disc, "The Odyssey of Flight 33" is one to be easily overlooked.

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