“Television is very much like the weather: Much can be said of it, but very damn little can be done about it.” – Rod Serling
We live in a time where a reality television star is the most powerful man in the world, in the midst of an international pandemic. If this was an episode of The Twilight Zone, you might think it either a little too on the nose, or perhaps it’d be too implausible, depending upon your perspective. Either way, you probably wouldn’t be too surprised if you were to hear that famous four-note theme, signifying something is slightly askew or off-kilter. Alas, no: sometimes truth really can be stranger than fiction.
Given where we’re currently at, as absurd and disturbing as it may seem, you might well wonder whether there’s even a place for something like The Twilight Zone; after all, it has frequently been said that we are now living in a post-satire and post-truth era, so why not post-Twilight Zone also? Can fiction hope to compete when reality seems to have far better scriptwriters, with even more bizarre and compelling twists and turns than anything which could seemingly ever be thought up and then submitted for our approval by Rod Serling himself?
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Also, does the slot which The Twilight Zone had occupied on our screens even have room for it anymore? In the last decade, we have seen the rise of Black Mirror, the science fiction anthology series which has drawn comparisons with The Twilight Zone; creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker has spoken of his admiration for Serling’s series, including what it managed to achieve in an era when television was more heavily censored than it is today, with Serling having to find ways to tackle serious subject metaphorically, under the cloak of “doing this ‘show about flying saucers’“.
Another recent successor – and contender for the throne – is Inside No. 9. As well as having similarities with some of the aspects of The Twilight Zone – the half-hour running time, the twists and reveals etc. – this portmanteau series shares much of its DNA with anthologies such as Tales Of The Unexpected, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Armchair Thriller, which ventured more into areas such as horror and the supernatural; even the final series of the BBC’s Out Of The Unknown went more in this direction, and away from its SF roots.
The Twilight Zone is over 60 years old now, and although the original series ran for five seasons, it’s never really gone away, with a number of revivals over the years. Firstly, there was the 1983 movie version, which brought together Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Joe Dante and George Miller. Then, between 1985 and 1989, there was a new run on CBS which lasted for three seasons, and it included episodes by Harlan Ellison, J. Michael Straczynski and George R.R. Martin, as well as a theme by the Grateful Dead.
A subsequent attempt to resurrect The Twilight Zone as an ongoing series came in 2002, when UPN picked up a brand new version, fronted by Forest Whitaker in the narrator role, which featured two half-hour stories in each episode; it was to be dropped after only one season. The Twilight Zone has even branched out into other media, including comic book series, and a theatrical adaptation which premiered at the Almeida Theatre in 2017, before later transferring across to the West End at the Ambassadors Theatre with a revival in 2019.
The natural home for The Twilight Zone, however, always has been on television, and in 2012 Bryan Singer started work on bringing the series back to the small screen once again. By 2017, it was announced that a potential revival was now being developed by Jordan Peele, as part of the new streaming service CBS All Access (which is also home to Star Trek: Picard). The original Twilight Zone episode ‘Mirror Image’ inspired the premise for his movie Us, and comparisons were drawn between Peele’s debut feature Get Out and Serling’s series.
Peele appeared to be the natural choice both to helm the series and to be successor to Rod Serling, even taking on the same role as the frontman of the show, opening and closing each episode with an on-camera appearance. The main thing for Peele to do off-screen was to differentiate between The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, by working out what each stands for. Peele has said Black Mirror is “focused on modern technology” and “cynical about humanity”, whereas for him The Twilight Zone is “ultimately optimistic about humanity” and “focused on moral, social justice, political issues”.
With the first season having just finished airing in the UK on SyFy, it’s clear that technology does play a part in some of the tales, such as ‘Nightmare At 30,000 Feet’ revolving around a podcast which appears to know the future of the flight a character is on at the time; in ‘Replay’, an old video camera allows time to be rewound, in an attempt to avoid the attentions of a racist Sheriff and the potentially lethal outcome for the camera’s owner and her son. However, not all of the episodes use electronic gadgetry as the subject of the story, which helps set it apart from Black Mirror.
Firmly at the core of the series is its focus on the notions of the morality play, as well as well as addressing political and social issues through the prism of allegory. In series opener ‘The Comedian’, a struggling stand-up comic makes a deal – seemingly literally – with the Devil, as he realises how much he’s willing to sacrifice in his pursuit of success, and the inherent temptations of chasing fame; it brings to mind the story of Blues singer Robert Johnson, who had reputedly sold his very soul to Lucifer in exchange for guitar-playing prowess.
A similar story is told in ‘The Wunderkind’, in which a failed Presidential campaign manager aims to repair his tarnished reputation by taking an eleven-year-old Internet sensation under his wing after they announced their intention to run for the highest office in the land. The episode’s an effective commentary on the toxic, corrosive nature of social media, as well as the ugly side of fame; it’s also a pointed satire on the dangers of having a tempestuous and needy child in the White House. However, it falls flat with one of the dumbest, schlockiest twist endings ever, which sadly comes across as a poor self-parody of The Twilight Zone.
One of the main changes brought about by our modern era is that the stories can focus on issues in a far less oblique or abstract way than the original Twilight Zone, and be more direct; as such, it does feel a fair deal more politicised than its progenitor was. The episode ‘Not All Men’ is perhaps the strongest example of this, with all of the emotive qualities wrought by the connotations of its title. It focuses upon a meteor shower which makes the men of a small town act in a violent, menacing manner, with the unfolding events seen through the eyes of the two female leads, who start out as seeming victims, but take matters into their own hands as things progress.
Another politically-charged tale comes in the form of ‘Point Of Entry’, which attacks the heavy-handedness of both US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and also Homeland Security, following criticisms over their enforcement of the nation’s current policy with regard to illegal immigration. A further paradigm shift comes with the new Twilight Zone having been made for a streaming service, which means the strictures of US network TV are avoided; as a result, there is a surprising amount of profanity, much of which feels quite unnecessary, and jars with the original series. It almost feels as if it’s just been thrown in to make the show more ‘adult’, or ‘edgy’.
However, while pulling away from the 1960s series in one direction, it oddly tries to emulate it and go for audience recognition in another, by doing thematic remakes or new takes on original episodes. It’s most apparent is ‘Nightmare At 30,000 Feet’, which gets its name from one of the best-known stories, ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’; it also features homages, such as a child’s doll resembling the creature on the airplane wing which had menaced William Shatner. ‘A Traveler’ feels like a weaker take on ‘The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street’, trying to ape its stirring up paranoia and mistrust in a self-contained community.
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It seems odd to try and set itself apart in some ways from the original, yet also go for a nostalgia buzz by referencing so much of what we know; it’s a curious line to walk, and not one it always does entirely successfully. However, things coalesce wonderfully in the last episode, ‘Blurryman’, which is the ultimate meta take on The Twilight Zone, and it – aptly enough – blurs the line between fact and fiction, as well as paying homage to Rod Serling. A season finale is a rather curious notion for The Twilight Zone, but it works beautifully, and points out Easter eggs throughout the rest of the season; in fact, it would have been a fitting wrap-up for The Twilight Zone as a whole.
A second season is currently in production, and – pandemic permitting, of course – is due to premiere on CBS All Access late in 2020. Peele’s iteration of The Twilight Zone doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does tinker with it in order to try and make it more relevant for a contemporary audience. A few further tweaks are needed to make it wholly successful, such as perhaps tightening up on the running times, as they do vary wildly between 37 and 56 minutes, leading to some feeling rather too flabby; much of Serling’s show ran to 25 minutes, and it had a great economy of storytelling, which would greatly benefit this revamp going forward.
Rod Serling’s narration for The Twilight Zone referred to “a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination“; this first season shows that Jordan Peele’s interpretation of the series most certainly has imagination in abundance, so this will hopefully be the start of a lengthy run.