The Twilight Zone: The Complete Fifth Season DVD Review: The End of the Line

The final episodes-only set of Rod Serling's classic series is now out on DVD.
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The fifth and final season of The Twilight Zone aired during the 1963-1964 season, almost exactly 50 years ago. I suppose as we work our way through the teen-years of the 21st century, we will get to plenty of 50-year anniversaries. We are a couple of months away from the one for Doctor Who, and I can’t wait for the upcoming refrains of “It was 50 years ago today,” in 2017 to celebrate the release of Sgt. Pepper.

Baby Boomer nostalgia or not though, 50 years is a very long time, and it certainly puts things into perspective. Some things last, and some things do not. Rod Serling’s brilliant Twilight Zone is a program that still feels remarkably fresh and innovative. There is little wonder that it has remained so popular 50 years down the line.

With The Twilight Zone: The Complete Fifth Season, Image Entertainment have completed their series of episodes-only DVD releases. “Episodes-only” means there are no DVD extras of any kind, the big attraction is that they sell for about half the price of the earlier, bonus-filled editions. I think it is a great trade-off, as the episodes are what count for me.

After the half-season of one-hour programs that made up the fourth season, things were back to normal for the fifth. This five-DVD set contains all 36 half-hour episodes of Season Five. One of the things I have really enjoyed in watching DVDs is the opportunity to really focus on particular writers. I believe that The Twilight Zone was one of the ultimate writer’s shows, and Serling offered some very talented people the chance to shine. One of those was Earl Hamner Jr., who got his first big Hollywood break writing for the series.

Besides Serling himself, Hamner wound up writing the most episodes of the fifth season, with five. As a matter of fact, he was responsible for what turned out to be the final episode of the series, “The Bewitchin’ Pool.” Hamner’s fondness for setting his stories in a rural environment, during an idealized “good old days,” would pay off handsomely with The Waltons later on. But he was already working on variations of the theme for Serling.

In “The Bewitchin’ Pool” we meet two young children whose parents are splitting up. They are being asked to choose which parent they want to live with. The mother is a beautiful monster, as she tells the kids that the only reason the couple stayed together was for them. The setting is upscale Southern California, with a nice suburban house, complete with outdoor pool. When the kids jump in to the pool to escape the fighting, they magically emerge in a mountain lake. Other children are fishing and playing there, and a wonderful, grandmotherly woman is baking a cake. It really is paradise.

When they hear their parents calling them though, they feel that they must go to them, even though they are told that if they do, they will likely never find their way back. This actually happens a couple of times, with the parents never understanding that it is their behavior that the children are escaping from. Finally, the children stay, and the cries of their parents become dimmer and dimmer, until they are no longer even audible.

I have tried to give the bare-bones of this episode, but it is amazing to me how much Hamner is able to get across in just 24 minutes. He shows us how hellish modern-day life can be for children, and contrasts it with the beauty of a simple life in the country. Serling clearly loved Hamner‘s story, as evidenced by him giving it such a place of honor in the schedule. The date-stamp of the episode is actually 1963, so it was obviously his choice to go out with “The Bewitchin’ Pool” in June 1964.

Charles Beaumont, a Twilight Zone writer I have come to have a huge regard for, is credited with three episodes this season.  However, because of his poor health at the time, ghostwriters were used. “Living Doll” by Jerry Sohl is something of a classic. It too deals with bad parenting. In this case, Telly Savalas is a mean step-father. His new wife and step-daughter return home from a shopping trip with a Talking Tina doll that somehow pisses him off to no end.

He is an awful man, who apparently hates the woman’s daughter for coming between him and her mother. He takes his anger out on the doll, but the doll strikes back, and does so in a very effective way. The doll that comes to life is a concept that has been used before in The Twilight Zone, but in different ways. If nothing else, watch this one for Savalas’ performance of a man coming unhinged, right before our eyes.

Since the beginning of the show, Richard Matheson had been another of Serling’s ringers. He contributed four episodes to the fifth season, including the classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” There was a time when I thought that Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) might have been detrimental to the legacy of the series. My reasoning is quite apart from the fatal accident that happened during the filming, although that was certainly horrible. It just seemed that the stories that were chosen to be remade for the film instantly acquired a certain status, whether deserved or not.

In watching “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in the original order that it was presented back in 1963, I can only imagine the impact it had at the time. It was the third episode of the season, and it is truly gripping, no matter how many times you have seen it. A pre-Captain Kirk William Shatner is great, and the scenes of the monster on the wing are terrifying. This episode definitely deserves all of the accolades it has received over the years.

Part of Rod Serling’s contract with the network was that he would write the majority of the scripts, and to that end he had 14 in the fifth season. Even though I called this a “writer’s show” earlier, the performances are obviously very important as well. I believe that the script of Serling’s “The Last Night of a Jockey” is pretty good, but not one of his best.

But the one-man performance of Mickey Rooney makes this one of the finest of the season. The set-up is pretty simple. Rooney is a washed-up jockey, alone in his hotel room with a bottle. For someone of my generation, Mickey Rooney had always been something of a joke. For one thing, he was lampooned mercilessly on Saturday Night Live as the ultimate has-been. Watching his performance in “The Last Night of a Jockey” put all of that to rest for me. He should have been nominated for an Emmy.

I am too much of a fan to say that by the fifth season The Twilight Zone was running out of gas, but there are a fair share of themes that are revisited. Oddly enough, Serling seems to be the major offender in this regard. I think that running the show, plus being called on to write the majority of the scripts was too much for one person to handle. And I do use the word “revisit” loosely, because while some of the themes remain similar, he always brought a unique twist to each story.

In Serling’s “A Kind of Stopwatch,” we meet a loudmouth guy who clears out of his favorite bar, every time he goes in. Nobody can stand him. One day he meets an older man who actually does listen to him though, and even gives him a stopwatch. As we discover, it is a very special stopwatch, for it stops time itself. When clicked, the watch stops the entire world. The loudmouth barfly is then able to do anything he wants to do before starting it back up.

At first, this leads to him pulling some amusing pranks. Then he realizes that he could clear out a bank vault while everyone is stopped, and nobody would know what happened. So he stops the world with his watch, and does the deed. Starting it back up again becomes a problem though.

Without completely spoiling the denouement, I will refer the viewer back to what happened at the end of “Time Enough at Last” from the first season. If you know what happened to the book lover played by Burgess Meredith in that episode, you should be able to figure out what happens to our friend’s stopwatch here.

I became a fan of The Twilight Zone in the ‘70s, when the shows were in syndication. For years I thought I had seen all of the episodes multiple times, but in watching these DVD sets, I have discovered a number of them that I had never seen before. This was especially true with the hour-long programs of the fourth season. It may have been that there was a “greatest hits” package that was syndicated, or maybe I just missed some. In any event, there have been some wonderful surprises for me in these sets, and this was the case with the fifth season as well.

If you have held back on buying the DVDs because you thought you had seen them all already, you may be in for a similar surprise. For fans on a budget, there is no better deal than these episodes-only collections. My only regret is that this is the last one.

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