The new Twilight Zone was an anthology series that shone briefly on American television from 1985 to 1987, before it was unmercifully cancelled by CBS. At odd times it doesn't feel like it's been 27 years since it debuted, yet 1985 seems like the Stone Age to me at other times and no wonder; that's an entire generation away now. It's time for a new generation to appreciate this superb anthology series.
Rod Serling created the original Twilight Zone series in 1959, which ran for five years but also suffered several cancellation attempts by CBS along the way. Rod died in 1975 during open heart surgery, so he was not a part of this new Twilight Zone; we could certainly use him today with the glut of boring reality TV that viewers are being subjected to. The new Twilight Zone would always be compared to the original, yet it wasn't a copy. It stood by itself, at least the first two seasons, bringing many new stories to the mix from famous writers and producing quality adapations with care and expertise. It was a landmark of imagination and quality in the swamp of mid-1980's television, and only those of us who lived through that decade understand this statement.
The series followed the hour-long anthology format over that first year, with either two or three episodes in the time slot. What was different about this series was that it brought excellent short stories from major writers to the small screen virtually intact, something that had not been attempted on network TV since Serling's other creation, Night Gallery, went off the air in 1973. Like Night Gallery on NBC, the new Twilight Zone would ultimately be dumped by CBS.
The cancellation of these two shows had nothing to do with their popularity. Television is a for-profit enterprise, and while NBC gave shows like Cheers time to catch on, for anthology shows like the new Twilight Zone and Night Gallery production costs played a far bigger role than they should have. Cheers had the same sets every week, whereas the segments of the NTZ were set in a new place each time. They also required special effects, which sent production costs up. Still, I believe that CBS decided fairly early on that the show was more trouble than it was worth, and began deliberately sabotaging it. My thoughts on this are that if costs are all that matter don't even bother to run a television network, which is kind of where broadcast TV is today. We would be better off without it because they're running poor quality shows just to get the advertising dollars.
"Her Pilgrim Soul," a teleplay that was written for the new Twilight Zone's first season and then turned into a nearly novella-length story, by Alan Brennert, another superior writer whose work has not had the respect it deserves, was the finest hour for this series and pretty much for the rest of TV history. It is one of the best things ever done for a TV series; it competes with Truman Capote's sentimental and satisfying "A Christmas Memory" and Night Gallery's magnificent "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" and the "Hollywood" episode of the Lou Grant series, for first place as the best program ever produced for television, in my opinion. "Her Pilgrim Soul" was a shining moment of superior entertainment on a medium that is often far too commonplace, and today mostly worthless. I just watched "Her Pilgrim Soul" again last night (November 2012), and it still brings a tear to my eye in Kevin's final scenes with Nola. Excellent stories never date, and this segment is just as good today as it was 27 years ago. There were many other fine segments in the new Twilight Zone's first and second year, and this website will review them all.
The first new Twilight Zone episode aired September 26, 1985, an hour show with two half hour segments. The initial half hour segment was "Shatterday," starring Bruce Willis; he plays a man who takes over his own life from his worst half. It was written by Harlan Ellison, who was also a part of the production staff on the series during the first year. Ellison resigned after the network broke its promise to him over the "Nackles" affair; this is an interesting story, as anything involving Ellison usually is, and I would like to recap it on the website at some point. An issue of the "Twilight Zone" magazine reported the story as well, so it's probably out there somewhere if you search for it.
The second segment of the hour was called "A Little Peace and Quiet," written by James Crocker. He's a very nice man and a wonderful writer; I've apologized to him in-person for my trashing of this episode, which you can read in the Review and Synopses section. It starred Melinda Dillon as a harassed housewife with a clueless husband and a bevy of obnoxious kids. One day while gardening she finds an amulet buried deep in the ground, and she soon discovers that it has magical qualities. It will freeze everything around her, and I do mean everything. She can finally get some peace and quiet when the kids are yelling or pollsters ring the doorbell. But she ultimately has to choose between eternal loneliness or planetary chaos. A friend recently pointed out to me that it bears some resemblance to the original Twilight Zone episode "A Kind of Stopwatch," which I haven't seen for years.
If we examine the initial segment today, it's noteworthy because it's based on a Harlan Ellison story, and that Bruce Willis is in it. However, back in 1985 it was just before Moonlighting began its first official season, and he was virtually unknown. The commentary on the new NTZ DVD set confirms that Willis was a new face to TV, and I remember thinking he was interesting to watch, but nothing spectacular. Compared to the Willis of today he seems much smaller. The story has a schizophrenic feel, which is intentional considering that it's about a man who seems to have split into two different people. It's also the better of the two stories that fill this hour and an extremely effective little teleplay. Ellison's work has not been accorded the respect it deserves, and I consider him one of the pre-eminent writers of the past 50 years, as I do Roger Zelazny and Clifford Simak.
The second segment had Melinda Dillon as the star, and I've always enjoyed her work. Truthfully, if there is a reason this episode works at all it's because of Dillon's acting. This segment may be a bit stronger when viewing it today than it was back in 1985. I just wish the kids were not so broadly drawn. If the incident at breakfast with the snake on the grill is based on real life, and I say this only because Ron Howard has said that "Parenthood" was based on the family life of the production team that made it, the child that put the snake in with the bacon deserves reform school or worse. If not, then it's way too much and creates an unreal situation in the segment.
If the show were to stand or fall on this first installment, I'm afraid it might have failed. The stories were good and well-acted, particularly the Willis episode, but nothing outright spectacular. Fortunately for us, the people creating the show had perseverance and from this rather humble beginning it would go on to become one of the few series that people can still remember. I don't care for "A Little Peace and Quiet," but I get numerous emails every week from people who don't remember much else about the series but do remember "A Little Peace and Quiet" nearly word for word, and especially the end shot. I much prefer "Shatterday," but I don't think I have ever received an email from someone about that episode (because of this statement, I have since received an email from a "Shatterday" fan, but only one - UPDATE - I've received about 200 hundred emails from people who remember the episode very well :-)). It is this memorability that sets the series apart and aligns it with the original Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.
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The new Twilight Zone did well that first year and was renewed for a second year. Yet, it was "sort of" cancelled in the middle of the second season, and for the explanation of this, see the paragraph below the next one. CBS could not have relied on the ratings as the entire reason for their decision. The network had a hand in causing the ratings to falter, and I think it was done deliberately. They kept moving the series around to different days and times during the first part of the second season. In those years before the Internet I had to spend hours studying the TV Guide to figure out when it would be on, and sometimes just lucked into it when going through channels because they would move it without notice. I have heard from thousands of other fans out there that called the stations and sent in letters on the series' behalf, trying to get the network to reverse their decision, as I did.
When going over what happened to the new Twilight Zone, it makes me wonder exactly what or who the Nielsens use to measure a show's popularity and why the networks listen to them. They certainly aren't using an actual cross-section of the American public, and their results are seriously, tragically flawed. In this case they helped the network get rid of a show they didn't quite understand and never appreciated; Serling had the same battles with CBS on the original, and with NBC on Night Gallery. It eventually wore him down and he just gave up on TV. If you're interested in Serling's Night Gallery, by all means buy the excellent book written by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson on the series, "Rod Serling's Night Gallery: An After Hours Tour." It's definitely worth it, and is a mine of information on the show and Serling. While you're at it, visit Scott Skelton's Night Gallery website. It's one of my favorite stops on the Internet.
CBS needed at least three seasons of episodes to sell the series into bondage, or "syndication," if you'd like the polite word for it. The network fired the original production team that had been so careful with the legacy of the Twilight Zone, and brought in a cut-rate group to turn out a quick third season. It was led by J. Michael Stracynski, who created the colorless, bilious, and boring Babylon 5. His group churned out some 30 half hour episodes. This third season has truly awful stuff, and I don't consider it part of the new Twilight Zone series. I will not be including pictures and stories from the third season because I cannot stand watching them long enough to do this.
The one lone episode of the third season that had real writing merit was "The Cold Equations." Alan Brennert adapted the teleplay and it was meant for the second season, but when the show was canceled it was put off till the new production company was formed. Several of the third season episodes are not really that horrible, but they were virtually all written and produced on the level of a sub-par Tales from the Darkside episode. I'm not putting down Tales from the Darkside; it could be a decent show, but when it was bad it was extremely, potently bad, and as the third season of this changed NTZ wore on it resembled Tales from the Darkside at its worst.
The production was so different from the first two seasons on CBS that these episodes are a stark reminder that the regime change had happened. They really had no business being associated with the NTZ, because they have such an alien feel to them. They were shot in Toronto and the visual look of the episodes reminds me of Friday the 13th episodes, with which they have quite a bit more in common than the Twilight Zone. Some of the Friday the 13th episodes were excellent, too, in part because they were so different from TV here in the US, but they were all similar and had the same feel. To so change the look and scope of the new Twilight Zone, a TV series filmed for two years in the US, doomed the third season to be looked at in a different way no matter what they wrote for it. Unfortunately, the third season writers (led by, once again, J. Michael Stracynski) seldom rose beyond a floor-level mediocrity; better writing could have at least made the third season more tolerable.
They also fired Charles Aidman as narrator; official spin was that he was "unavailable" for the third season, but this is ridiculous; see the paragraph directly below as to why this is an outrageous lie. His voice had made the first two seasons so memorable and provided a valuable link with Rod's original series, since he has starred in an original Twilight Zone. They brought in Robin Ward to do the narrating, whose voice is pleasant but hardly something you recall and as I sit here typing this I can't bring to mind what it sounds like. You can't say the same about Charles Aidman's voice. Just one of the many "attention to detail" points the original production team did for the viewers.
For the syndicated version, they relooped Aidman's evocative narration with Ward's, which absolutely shows that they were not interested in quality; they were interested in only profits. They would no longer have to pay Aidman residual's by doing this, and I'm sure his rate was higher than the unknown Mr. Ward. This was recently confirmed thanks to Harlan Ellison's wonderful commentary on "Paladin of the Lost Hour" on the new Twilight Zone first season DVD set. This is also why the bastardized syndication versions should be avoided at all costs. Get out there and buy the new DVD sets that Image has released, so you'll never have to watch those syndie versions again!
Most of all I want this site to bring to life again an excellent series that never should have been cancelled.