TZ: The Best of Season 4
“Ours is the perfect half-hour show. If we went to an hour, we’d have to fleshen our stories, soap opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”
That was Rod Serling speaking, a couple years before The Twilight Zone spent one season as, yes, an hour-long show.
Why? Typical network short-sightedness. The show was a hit at 30 minutes, so why not expand it to 60 and give the audience twice as much show?
It soon became clear why: Fantasy stories, especially ones that depended on a twist ending, were more ideally suited to the half-hour format. In 30 minutes, they could get in, set up an intriguing premise, and then deliver the payoff. But when you double that length, the effect is ruined. The longer the expected payoff was delayed, the more the suspense and tension was dissipated.
Take “The Thirty-Fathom Grave,” for example. It’s a story about a modern Navy ship discovering a sunken World War II submarine — and hearing a mysterious tapping sound coming from inside. For the sake of those who haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin the ending, but suffice it to say that the story, despite the usual quality touches you’d expect on a TZ, is simply too padded. Several other Season 4 episodes were also stretched out a bit too long.
Yet there were several remarkably solid episodes from Season 4, ones that actually benefited from the expanded length. For my money, they include:
1) In His Image: A man who keeps hearing strange voices in his head travels to his hometown and finds things are not exactly the way he remembers them. Then he meets his “inventor,” a man whose boyhood dream was to create a perfect artificial replica of himself. Again, I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t seen it, but it’s an absorbing tale from Charles Beaumont, the writer who gave us “The Howling Man” and “Perchance to Dream,” among many other TZ classics.
2) Jess-Belle: If you’re a woman, and the man you love is about to get married to someone else, how would you handle it? Jess-Belle (played by the beautiful Anne Francis) didn’t take it lying down: She went to the local witch and found a way to steal him back. Happy ending for all? Not quite. Earl Hamner Jr. (who later created “The Waltons”) crafts a well-paced tale about getting more than you bargained for, not to mention which curses are permanent and which ones aren’t.
3) Death Ship: Three astronauts land on a remote planet (in 1997!) and see a startling sight: a crashed space ship that looks just like theirs. That’s bad enough, but then they start exploring — and find three dead bodies that, yes, resemble theirs perfectly. The incomparable Richard Matheson, who also wrote “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and several other great TZs, sketches an intriguing mystery, as the astronauts try to find out what in the world is going on.
4) On Thursday We Leave For Home: A group from Earth has tried for years to set up a successful colony on a desert planet, to no avail. The only person who’s kept them alive is Captain William Benteen, the group leader. So when a ship from Earth arrives to take them home, they’re ecstatic. So is Benteen, at least at first. Gradually, though, he finds it’s not easy to give up control. A fascinating study of the use and misuse of power from Serling.
Honorable mention also goes to “Printer’s Devil,” with Burgess Meredith doing his usual charismatic work as, well, the Devil; and to “The New Exhibit,” a Psycho-type story about a man acting as caretaker for a group of wax figures portraying famous murderers in history.
Most of the other episodes aren’t as strong, but they’re rarely bad, of course. They suffer only when measured against the usual excellence we expect on The Twilight Zone.
One final distinction: Season 4 gave us the famous Twilight Zone opening with the clock, the shattering window, the door, the “E=mc2,” etc. Serling apparently liked it; the credits had changed repeatedly throughout the show’s run (Season 1 is my favorite), but it retained this look throughout the last two seasons of the show.
Season 4 may have failed to live up to the very high standards of Seasons 1-3, but it still gave us several memorable episodes.
Episode photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 05/31/2012, in Twilight Zone and tagged Anne Francis, Burgess Meredith, Charles Beaumont, Death Ship, In His Image, Jess-Belle, On Thursday We Leave for Home, Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.