The Twilight Zone is one of the classics of television to the point that stories from the series have become so rooted into pop culture that people who have never seen an episode of The Twilight Zone know all of the major episodes by cultural osmosis alone.
With the original series running from 1959 to 1964 and being a cultural milestone in terms of not only television, but of storytelling in general, it’s no surprise that more than one attempt at reviving the series came about after creator Rod Serling’s death in 1975. There was the 1983 movie and there was a disastrously bland and pointless 2002 revival, but there was also a very interesting and overlooked 1985 version as well.
While the 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie was being a modest hit at the box office (and despite the tragedy that surrounded the making of the film) Twilight Zone was a somewhat hot property again. The original series was doing very well in syndication and with a new Anthology series boom about to crest (with Tales From The Darkside, Amazing Stories, Ray Bradbury Theater and the new Alfred Hitchcock Presents to name just a few on the air at the time) it might be time to bring Zone back.
This was no easy task as the original series was held in such high regard and bowing to some of the criticisms of the film a deft hand would be needed if this were to work.
Philip Deguere was that hand and he knew that the success or failure of this new iteration of a classic series would rest solely with the writing. The scripts on the original series are why The Twilight Zone worked and Deguere was smart enough to realize that he needed the best writers in the field to make this work.
Established and respected writers such as Harlan Ellison (who also acted as consultant on the series itself), Greg Bear, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, George R. R. Martin and Rockne O’Bannon are only a small starting point to the talent that lay holding up the new Twilight Zone as it would be termed.
The new series would be on CBS and while the network was excited about The Twilight Zone, they also were not going to go nuts for it either.
The budgets per hour long episode were roughly equivalent to that of a show such as The A-Team over on NBC but the issue was that was that with a regular show they had reusable props, costumes and sets… with Twilight Zone every week at least three completely new and original productions had to be created and that budget would not suffice.
To stretch the budget farther some sacrifices were going to be made and these affected the overall quality of the show. One way they saved money was to shoot on film but to edit on video which is quite a bit cheaper but also greatly lowers the visual quality of the product. This process also renders optical special effects much more obvious as opticals. This is also why the DVD’s will never look better than than the so-so versions out there now… there are no film masters to locate… only the video tapes which have degraded over time.
The new series was determined to honor the memory of Rod Serling all the while forging it’s own path and setting itself apart. With The Grateful Dead composing the new theme song an a strong outing of writers and directors everything was poised for success.
As shooting began on the first season of The Twilight Zone (simply called The Twilight Zone but often dubbed The NEW Twilight Zone by the press) the series was not without it’s own set of controversies… most of which revolved around writer and consultant Harlan Ellison.
While Ellison is no stranger to controversy in 1985 he seemed to attract it. He almost punched a producer on the set, verbally attacked director Wes Craven over his direction on an Ellison script and fired a director (not Craven) who he (in this case rightfully) saw screwing up an episode he wrote and finally creating news covered in all the press with the dreaded “Nackles” censorship issue.
“Nackles” was a Donald Westlake story about the Anti-Santa Claus, Nackles.
For the Christmas show of Twilight Zone Ellison was going to adapt (and update) the story as well as direct it. In the rewrite, Ellison added a great dose of social commentary about 1985 and created a very dark tale of social justice. In the script the main character (to be played by Ed Asner) was a racist social worker taking advantage of his charges so some… colorful language was used. The CBS censor went ballistic over the “Nackles” script leading to a heated conversation and (depending on who you ask) death threats from Ellison to the censor.
Ellison was fired (or according to him he quit) over this. What became known as the “Nackles Affair” was covered in Time, Newsweek and even on Entertainment Tonight. This was not the kind of press the new series needed before it even went on the air. In the end where “Nackles” would have gone was replaced with the decidedly banal and non-Christmas tale, “But Can She Type”.
Needless to say they didn’t need to worry about what viewers thought… they didn’t have many. Airing on Friday nights the series got okay ratings out of the gate, but this very quickly evaporated and the series was being ignored outright as new episodes of The Twilight Zone were regularly trounced by reruns of sitcoms.
“You have not known humiliation until you have been beaten by Webster and Mr. Belvedere“
– Alan Brennert (consultant and writer on the Twilight Zone).
Then the Nightcrawlers episode aired. This was an intense anti-war tale directed by William Friedkin and it one of the most intense 20 minutes on TV… so intense that it created quite a bit of angry calls for such a horror story to air at 7pm. Again, this did not help matters. Another season one episode, “Examination Day,” would also cause outrage when a child was killed in the story.
The series was structured in an unconventional manner which also helped alienate viewers. Each show would be an hour long, but would be broken up into multiple stories of varying length. An hour long episode might have two half hour stories in it, or three 20 minute stories or five 10 minute stories… the audience never knew.
Only twice did an episode from seasons one or two feature just a single hour long story. This meant that tuning in late or at the half hour mark was no guarantee you didn’t miss something vital.
CBS would move the show around a bit on Fridays to try and find a spot where it worked but eventually when it came time for a second season they dumped it on Saturday nights where it simply died.
Ratings never improved and while CBS was done with them, the new Zone was not dead just yet. The First Run Syndication market was very hot and many network series at this time eventually moved to First Run Syndication to finish out their runs (21 Jumpstreet, Punky Brewster etc…) so the producers figured that Twilight Zone could as well. There was one problem though and that is the hour long format for an anthology show is a hard sell in First Run Syndication so it was determined that season three would be half hour shows with just a single story.
Most of the CBS era writing staff was long gone and with the smaller budget that First Run Syndication series had new blood brought in with J. Michael Straczynski chief among them (he even brought Ellison back for an episode).
The problem they still faced though was that the typical ideal of a network show moving to syndication meant that there needed to be at least 100 episodes in the package so as to run the old show along with the new one. This was an issue as well as the inherent problems of selling a show that was sometimes an hour long and sometimes a half hour long (similar reasons are why the original series 4th season was often left out of the syndication runs as that season was an hour long).
To accommodate this the ultimate indignity was enacted on The Twilight Zone. The two CBS seasons would be chopped up into half hour episodes but due to the uneven and erratic length of the stories this meant that some stories needed to be severely cut in order to fit into a half hour and others needed to be padded (usually with barely similar footage from movies).
It should not need to be pointed out that this made those CBS episodes unwatchable in syndication. Also since Charles Aidman did the narration for the CBS episodes and was not working on the new season for a sense of uniformity Robin Ward (the season 3 narrator) would redo all of the Aidman episodes as well.
After this the The Twilight Zone receded into the darkness and was mostly forgotten, save for a comic book series by NOW! comics.
In the end the 1985 Twilight Zone became a joke when it really did not deserve to be as most people actually saw the series in this butchered syndication version. Thankfully, once the uncut DVD’s came out, the series got rightfully reappraised as there are many standout episodes which rival that of the original show.
The 1985 Twilight Zone should not be ignored.