A Stop at Twilight Zone 4.0?
“You don’t get writers today who write with that kind of compassion.” — Jack Klugman on Rod Serling
And that, in a nutshell, is why I greet the prospect of a new Twilight Zone movie or TV series with a cautious optimism that’s … well, heavy on the caution. Consider, after all, why we’re even talking about a fourth TZ: because Serling created a series that is as fresh, as innovative and as entertaining today as it was 50 years ago.
Indeed, TZ is rare in that it seems even more relevant today than when it first aired. Few classic series have aged as well.
In the assembly-line world of weekly TV, where shows are cranked out with little pride and even less attention to detail, Serling and his talented crew went above and beyond the call. They poured quality into every shot and scene. TZ was truly a world-class affair from top to bottom.
Alas, the first Twilight Zone revival, which came in the 1980s, fell short of the mark. This despite the fact that some top-notch writers, including J. Michael Straczynski, Alan Brennert and J.M. DeMatteis (among others, including original TZ scribe Richard Matheson) did some excellent work on the show.
But while there were some memorable episodes, it was uneven (not unlike the final two seasons of the original Twilight Zone, to be fair). “There were episodes perfectly in keeping with The Twilight Zone spirit, and then others that could have been from The Outer Limits or from anything,” staff writer Michael Cassutt later said.
At least the ’80s TZ managed to get through three seasons — two on CBS, one in syndication. The next revival, which came in 2002, aired for only one season on UPN. Efforts to remake or update several classic episodes from the original series served only to underscore how counterfeit the whole affair was.
So, third time’s a charm, as the saying goes? Will the producers of a new Twilight Zone movie or TV show make a conscientious attempt to follow faithfully in Serling’s footsteps? Let’s hope so.
Even less certain is the fate of the new Twilight Zone movie. The Leonardo DeCaprio-produced film has been in what Hollywood insiders call “development hell” for the last several years, with new writers and directors jumping on and off.
One thing we do know is that it won’t mimic the format of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. Instead of a few standard-length TZs stitched together, the new film will be one long story.
The latest word is that it will focus on a test pilot who breaks the speed of light and finds himself 96 years in the future. An intriguing concept, to be sure, and very Serling-esque. But a two-hour TZ sounds like a contradiction in terms.
The 30-minute format suited the show perfectly. Serling discovered this firsthand when TZ’s fourth season went to an hour, and episodes that relied on a snappy twist ending began to feel padded. The new movie may well succeed, but if it does, can it fairly be called a Twilight Zone movie?
Despite my caveats, I won’t write off either the movie or the series until I see them. I’m an unabashed fan of this genre, and the idea of a new Twilight Zone naturally sounds tempting. Even if nothing can top the original, it still would be fun if some smart producers, actors and writers could give us an entertaining update on a classic.
But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s an incredibly tall order.
I don’t say that because I think there’s no originality left in Hollwood, as some charge. As Serling pointed out in a 1960 newspaper column, there are still plenty of good stories out there:
“We haven’t even scraped the surface of ideas. What we’re dealing with here is imagination, and the scope of this approach is broad, wide, deep and almost unfathomable. This is possibly the one anthology format that is not self-limiting. We can travel as high or as deep as the human imagination, and the material for this kind of dramatic excursion is limitless.”
Of course, it was easy for someone as prolific and gifted as Serling to make it sound as if ideas were out there to be plucked by anyone. (Even he, though, confessed to feeling “drained” before TZ was even halfway through its run.) And not all ideas are good ideas. But his point still stands. There are still entertaining stories out there to be told, and skilled writers could use a new TZ to present them.
But what makes a good sci-fi or fantasy story right for Twilight Zone, and not a dozen other anthology series?
The formula, as I’ve touched on in a previous blog post, can be surprisingly hard to nail down. Too many people think a sufficiently weird story does the trick, or that it boils down to the hardware. Include a robot, an alien or a creepy doll, and you’re good to go, right?
Hardly. To be a TZ, you need a human element. The hardware, the weirdness … whatever your twist, it’s got to be at the service of a character or characters we care about. We have to be able to relate to the people or the situation being portrayed, or we’re not emotionally invested in the outcome.
Ask yourself: Why is it heartbreaking when Henry Bemis breaks his glasses? Why are we relieved when Don Carter is able to break free of the Mystic Seer? Why are we grateful that Professor Fowler’s students stop him from committing suicide?
It takes a good writer to come up with an entertaining idea. It takes a great one to create memorable characters and situations that bring that idea to life.
The first one has imagination. The second one has imagination and heart. My concern for any new version of TZ is finding that second kind of writer. He’s far more scarce than the first one.
I don’t mean that I despair of finding such writers. They’re out there. The writers of series such as “Lost” and “Fringe” know there’s little point delving into all those mind-bending concepts if you neglect to create characters that viewers react to almost as strongly as if they were real people.
It’s hard to do that, especially on an anthology with no recurring or regular characters. (It was often said that Serling was the only “star” of TZ.) But it can be done. In fact, if the series is going to last, it has to be.
Another challenge will be creating the right look. The original Twilight Zone had a look and a feel that set it apart from other television shows even when it first aired. The stark black-and-white images, the inventive camera angles, the shadow-laden lighting — all combine to tell us, from first frame to last, that we’re in another world. It’s like ours, yes, but something’s … different.
That separation is crucial, I think, to creating a successful Twilight Zone for today. How can viewers be asked to suspend their disbelief if they’re presented with a world that looks, feels and sounds exactly like their own? We have to make their journey to a different plane of reality effortless.
That doesn’t mean the new series has to be shot in black-and-white, as some have suggested (though it’s an intriguing idea), but you need a director of photography who is smart enough, and capable enough, to ensure that it doesn’t look like everything else on TV. (A decent budget is also important, although the original TZ managed to do some wonderous things on a virtual shoestring sometimes.) Getting the right look is essential.
It’s not that a new TZ series has to be a retread of the original. (And please, don’t remake any classic episodes; you’re just begging for unflattering comparisons.) The producers simply need to be aware that no amount of special effects or other gimmickry can substitute for a good story, told with conviction, about characters with depth.
A successful TZ takes the kind of writer who can understand the eternal wisdom found in Serling’s concluding narration to the episode “Dust”:
“In any quest for magic, in any search for sorcery, witchery, legerdemain, first check the human heart. For inside this deep place there’s a wizardry that costs far more than a few pieces of gold.”
You need someone who cares deeply about people, who wants not only to entertain them, but to lift them up, to write words like that. Someone with, yes, compassion.
If we get that kind of writer on any future TZ, I think we’ll all be happy to renew our passports to the fifth dimension.