The original Twilight Zone aired for five seasons (1959-64), on CBS. Like most of the people I know, the first-run shows were before my time, and I got to know the series via syndication. When I did catch up to it though, I was hooked. The Twilight Zone definitely deserves its reputation as one of the greatest television programs of all time. Image Entertainment have just issued The Twilight Zone: The Complete Fourth Season as a five-DVD set. It is episodes-only, and perhaps the most controversial season of the five.
I say “controversial” because of the situation Rod Serling was faced with in the ‘62-‘63 TV year. The show did not have a sponsor in September, and without a sponsor, there was no show. When CBS decided to cancel a one-hour series called Fair Exchange in the middle of the season, Serling was offered its time-slot. So the fourth season of The Twilight Zone was only a half-season (January to June 1963), and the half-hour format was expanded to a full hour.
Rod Serling was not thrilled with the idea of an hour long Twilight Zone. "Ours is the perfect half-hour show,” he said at the time, “If we went to an hour, we'd have to flesh out our stories, soap opera style. Viewers could watch fifteen minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse." He had little choice in the matter though, outside of just walking away. Thankfully he pressed on, and what we have here is a most unusual stylistic mix.
The biggest surprise for me with this set was just how many of these TZ episodes I had never seen before. I honestly thought I had seen them all, multiple times. As far as I can tell, that is true for the half-hour installments, but not for these. There are a few that I remember as being shown as two-parters in syndication, but not many. Because of this situation, season four held a number of previously undiscovered treasures for me, which was a very cool surprise.
“Printer’s Devil” has to be just about at the top of that list. I cannot believe I had never seen it before, but somehow I had not. “Printer’s Devil” was written by Charles Beaumont, one of Serling’s greatest finds. It stars Burgess Meredith as a wise-cracking, older linotype operator/reporter. In a sly nod to The Devil and Daniel Webster, a depressed newspaper editor by the name of Douglas Winter (Robert Sterling) is standing on a bridge weighing his options when he is approached by a Mr. Smith (Meredith). Smith asks to be hired, and tells Winter that he will turn his newspaper’s fortunes around for him. Price will be negotiated later.
This being The Twilight Zone and my mention of The Devil and Daniel Webster should give you enough to take it from there. I thought I had it pretty well sussed early on, but what I was not prepared for was how brilliantly Beaumont skewered the newspaper business, circa 1963. In fact, this episode led me to a whole new appreciation of Charles Beaumont as a writer.
Beaumont wrote six of the 18 episodes, and he was really at the top of his game. It is amazing to think that he only had four years left, almost as if he knew his time would be short. For my money, he is the star of this season. And his star turn has to be “Valley of the Shadow.“ This is one of the few of the episodes that I had seen previously in syndication, but it has been a long time. I had forgotten just how brilliant “Valley of the Shadow” is.
Philip Redfield (Ed Nelson) is a reporter who has gotten lost on the backroads of New Mexico. When he sees a sign for a town called Peaceful Valley, he decides to stop in and get directions. Peaceful Valley is a very small town, with a population of 980, and it is clear that nothing much ever happens there. But some very odd things do happen to Redfield, things that get his curiosity as a reporter up quite a bit. His dog disappears, then reappears. When he wants to get a meal, he sees that the only restaurant in town is closed, but the hotel is open. Yet at the hotel, he is told that they have no vacancies.
Nothing adds up, until the town elders finally call him in to a room and explain things to him. It is like the old saying, “If I told you, I would have to kill you.” They are not going to kill him, but they are not going to let him leave either. It is quite a conundrum, and since I do not wish to spoil it, you will just have to watch and see. I really liked “Valley of the Shadow,” in fact, it is my favorite episode of the season.
At the risk of turning this review into an all-Beaumont appreciation piece, I have to mention his “Miniatures” as another outstanding discovery for me. “Miniatures” stars Robert Duvall as a bookkeeper who just doesn’t fit anywhere. He is an odd duck, and gets fired for basically being a square-peg. His social life is nil, and he still lives at home with his mother. But he finds a world he wants to live in at the museum display of an intricate miniature house, and “falls in love” with the young lady of the house. This again being The Twilight Zone, you can take it from there. And much like “Printer’s Devil,” even though the plot may sound basic enough, the subtleties of Beaumont’s script take it to a whole new level.
Earl Hamner’s first big break as a television writer came when Serling hired him for The Twilight Zone in the third season. By season four, he had added “Jr” to his name, for one of his finest efforts, “Jess-Belle.” Hamner would strike gold in a few years as creator of The Waltons, but his taste for stories set in the Blue Ridge Mountains was already on display. The main action of “Jess-Belle” happens at a square dance out in the mountains, and concerns witches and love potions. Besides being a highly entertaining story, “Jess-Belle” stars Anne Francis as the marvelously bewitching title character.
As usual, Rod Serling was responsible for the most episodes, having written seven this season. A couple of them are very pronounced takes on the post-war world, such as “He’s Alive,” and “No Time Like the Past.” Dennis Hopper is excellent in “He’s Alive” about a neo-Nazi in 1963 America, who gets to meet his hero. In “No Time Like the Past,” we meet a man with a time machine, who tries to go back and stop the second World War, to no avail. He is so depressed about the present day that he then goes back to 1881, just to live in a time he thinks will be more pleasant. As we discover along with him, the “good old days” never really existed.
Serling’s fear of padding the stories was sound, although the worst offender was actually Serling himself with “The Thirty-Fathom Grave.” One problem with this one is that the plot is a recurring TZ theme, that of a “ghost” ship. In 1963, a Navy destroyer happens upon a submarine that was supposed to have been sunk nearly 21 years earlier, during WWII. The crew hear a clanking sound that seems to indicate someone is inside the sub, possibly sending out a distress signal. Has the crew miraculously survived down there for 21 years? Watch and see. For me, it was slow going. I believe “The Thirty-Fathom Grave” would have been one of the lesser stories of the season in any case, but with an additional 30 minutes to kill, it was a chore to get through.
One sub-par episode out of 18 is not bad at all. And there really is quite a bit more. With the Space Race in full swing in 1963, there are a couple of stories that touch on it. I really enjoyed Serling’s “Parallels,” which posits the idea of an astronaut going to a parallel universe. Then there is Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship,” which stars James Doohan of future Star Trek fame, as a crewman aboard an American space craft.
The Twilight Zone: The Complete Fourth Season is obviously unique in that the shows are all in the one-hour format. For the fifth and final season, the series returned to 30 minutes. With these episodes-only sets there are no bonus features, but that is alright by me. The stories are what count, and there are some great ones here.