A race of aliens and their suspicious cookbooks. A gremlin wreaking havoc on the wing of a plane. A clown, a homeless man, a ballet dancer, a bagpiper, and an army officer trapped inside a giant cylinder with no idea how they got there or how they get out.
So go the plots of ‘To Serve Man’, ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ and ‘Five Characters in Search of an Exit’, three episodes of the original Twilight Zone that have taken on lives of their own in modern pop culture. And yet, compared to the rest of the series, each serves as merely a drop in the weirdness bucket. Creator Rod Serling, a man whose four-pack-a-day cigarette habit probably would’ve given you lung cancer just by standing around him, seemed determined to grab each viewer by the scruff of their neck and shove them head-first into the unknown – whether or not they were prepared for the journey. A bottomless supply of idiosyncratic characters, surreal twist endings and thinly disguised social commentaries has made The Twilight Zone an enduring staple of television history, more than sixty years after the first episode premiered on the grainy, black-and-white television sets of 1959.
A catalogue of five seasons and more than 150 episodes wasn’t enough to save the show from cancellation in 1964, but as The Twilight Zone has taught us numerous times before, resurrections are more common than we might think. In 1983, the first attempt at a revival was made in the form of Twilight Zone: The Movie, directed by John Landis. If we lived in a perfect world, the film would be best remembered as an admiral – if highly flawed – homage to the original series.
But we don’t live in a perfect world.
Instead, it remains notorious to this day because of an on-set helicopter accident that claimed the lives of three actors. One was Vic Morrow, a veteran character actor and one of the film’s leading stars; the other two were children, both of whom had been hired illegally. You might recognise John Landis as the director of Michael Jackson’s iconic ‘Thriller’ video, but just twelve months before he was choreographing dancing zombies his face was plastered over magazines and late-night news reports after being arrested and charged with manslaughter. Landis was eventually acquitted, along with four other crew members who were implicated in the accident, but the decade-long trial left a permanent scar on his career, the movie, and the world of filmmaking in general.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the Twilight Zone franchise is that it was able to claw its way out of this fiery abyss of controversy. Just three years after the crash, the series was revived and continued to churn out episodes for the next four years. Another revival aired during the early 2000’s, although neither matched the critical success of the original series.
But now a new incarnation has appeared on our screens. Presented by Jordan Peele, the new series has some thought-provoking offerings, most of which contain glaring references to real-world social and political issues.
So let’s take a look at three episodes from the show: ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’, a remake of one of the show’s original and most iconic episodes; ‘A Traveler’, a tale of mystery, espionage and close encounters of the third kind in an isolated Alaskan town; and ‘Blurryman’, an episode with a bizarre ending even by Twilight Zone standards.
Nightmare at 30,000 Feet
Arguably the weirdest feature of this episode was the presence of Adam Scott. I personally know him as Ben Wyatt on Parks and Rec, so watching him portray a PTSD-suffering journalist was kind of like seeing Ted Mosby in an episode of Narcos.
But I digress. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to refer to this episode as a remake because it is missing the most crucial element from the original: a hideous, death-defying gremlin. Instead, the plot revolves around Scott discovering an MP3 player that relays a prophetic podcast describing the aircraft’s imminent disappearance.
It was an interesting attempt to drag a sixty-year-old story into the 21st century, but by the end I was left with more questions than answers. This isn’t exactly an uncommon feature of Twilight Zone episodes, but I knew as the credits were rolling that something had been lost on me. In the end I had to look up the plot on Wikipedia to fully understand what I had just watched. This episode has its strengths – that much is true – but ultimately suffers from poor storytelling.
This episode was my personal favourite. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Twilight Zone story: an isolated community, a mysterious stranger, and a few shape-shifting aliens thrown in for good measure.
Set in an Alaskan police station on Christmas Eve, sergeant Yuka Mongoyak discovers a well-dressed stranger (legally named ‘A. Traveler’) sitting in one of the holding cells, claiming to be an extreme tourist who has travelled there solely to experience one of the station’s legendary Christmas parties. It doesn’t take long for Traveler’s charming personality to win over the confidence of the party guests – all except for Yuka, who grows increasingly suspicious of the mystery man who has seemingly appeared out of thin air.
It’s not a perfect episode: the script is patchy, the ending was predictable and there’s no particular moral to the story. But in the grand scheme of things, these issues don’t sit at the front of your mind. There’s a cosiness to this episode that’s difficult to explain, and the spectacular array of northern lights that confront you just a few minutes in are enough to grab your attention and keep you hooked.
The premise of this episode is strong. In essence, it’s a story-within-a-story, revolving around a Twilight Zone writer (Zazie Beetz) struggling to complete the opening narration for a segment; Peele and several other cast members appear as fictionalised versions of themselves. While reviewing some completed scenes, Beetz spots a mysterious blurry figure in the background, despite the insistence of her co-workers that the figure was not there when the scene was being shot.
Not a bad idea, right? It was arguably the most creative storyline of the entire season. Unfortunately, it quickly derails into a baffling cat-and-mouse chase between Beetz and the so-called ‘burryman’ – who is eventually revealed to be none other than Rod Serling himself, brought to life by CGI nearly fifty years after his death.
What I couldn’t understand about this episode was the insinuation that Serling would be a violent, sociopathic ghost if given the opportunity. Throughout the episode, Beetz is attacked by flying books and falling shelves, all telekinetically controlled by Serling in his blurry form, and subjected to a form of psychological torture that wouldn’t be out of place in Guantanamo Bay. Sure, the episode ends on a positive note, with Beetz and Serling walking side by side into the mystical dimension that is the Twilight Zone. But it’s difficult to imagine the famously compassionate Serling designing such an elaborate and gruelling obstacle course when he could have simply directed her towards the finish line. The premise was intriguing, but the execution of this episode was poor.
So, is it worth watching?
There are seven more episodes to the first season, each of varying degrees of quality. Peele is a stellar narrator and you’ll struggle to find fault with the performances. The scripts, however, are a different matter. Clunky dialogue and fractured storylines prevent this series from reaching its true potential. It’s worth a watch – especially if you’re a fan of the franchise – but don’t expect to be constantly on the edge of your seat.