Friday, December 3, 2010

Blu-ray Review: "The Twilight Zone: Season 2"

Despite its relatively short existence of only five seasons (156 episodes) on television, Rod Serling's anthology series, “The Twilight Zone” should be viewed as a watershed event for the medium. Praised by most critics of its day and cited as childhood inspirations by many future television and movie writers and producers, “The Twilight Zone” not only entertained its audience with some genuinely scary stories, the show also serves as a subtle microphone for Serling to express his views about the various issues plaguing society and the politics of the day. To illustrate what an impact Serling's writing had during the lifespan of the show, he was nominated for an Emmy for “Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama” three times and won twice (for the first two seasons of the show). The show was also awarded the sci-fi-centric Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation three years in a row.

The second season of “The Twilight Zone” featured some important cosmetic changes that has now become synonymous with the show. Gone is Bernard Herrmann's original haunting theme song and it is now replaced by the all-too-familiar Marius Constant theme that features the distinctive bongos. Gone too is the original Salvatore Dali-esque opening sequence and is replaced by the surreal “signpost” montage with Serling's familiar narration that appropriately ends with, “That's the signpost up ahead, your next stop--the Twilight Zone.” Also new is the on-camera appearance of Serling at the start of each episode to deliver his opening narration (this was previously done as a voice-over).
Despite these cosmetic changes, the stories themselves have kept their edge and quality from the first season. While the majority of the episodes continue to be written by the trio of Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, a new writer, George Clayton Johnson joined the writing team and penned the rather whimsical episode, “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” Season 2 starts off on familiar ground with the episode titled, “King Nine Will Not Return.” It is actually quite similar in concept and tone to the very first episode from Season 1, “Where Is Everybody?”. Both episodes feature a disoriented man waking up to strange surroundings only to find towards the end that they have been hallucinating. But have they? These are the types of signature stories that “The Twilight Zone” is known for: mysterious or disturbing but always with some kind of a twist ending. As if to continually pound it into our skulls with each episode, in “The Twilight Zone,” nothing is what they seem to be.

Some of the best episodes of the anthology series came from the second season. Among them include “The Invaders,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” “Night of the Meek” and “The Howling Man.” But seriously, how can one not love all the episodes? In my view, they are all classics in their own unique way. Take “The Invaders” for instance. It features an old woman living in a rustic cabin as she finds herself invaded by a couple of aliens just a couple of inches tall in comparison to herself. This episode features no dialogue whatsoever until the very end when we finally see the shocking reveal. Then there is “The Eye of the Beholder,” a very telling social commentary on what makes us human and different and that beauty should only be skin-deep. And what about the double twist ending in “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” episode? If you are just looking for some old-fashioned spine-tingling scare, just tune in to “The Howling Man” where the devil takes center stage. It was simply incredible what Serling and his writing team did. And these episodes are only from the second season. There are plenty of other classic episodes sprinkled throughout the series' five seasons. I'm sure that every one of us fans have our own top ten episodes list and can still be surprised by the top choices made by others.
Many fans of the series rejoiced when Image Entertainment released “The Twilight Zone: The Definitive Collection” on 28 DVDs back in 2006. Back then, it was indeed the best way for fans to enjoy every episode of the series with restored video. To make this large set even better, lots of new special features were included as well and as expected, the DVD set received rave reviews. Now, Image Entertainment is back and is releasing each season individually on Blu-ray disc. If you thought the 2006 set was the definitive collection, it's time to rethink that notion. Despite its lofty promises, Blu-ray does not always make every movie look or sound better. Most of the time, it does and fortunately for “The Twilight Zone,” the proverbial ball is authoritatively hit out of the ballpark this time. Like the first season's debut on Blu-ray, this one is awesome as well. Fans of the series can rejoice yet again.

Like the first season's release on Blu-ray, this one continues the excellent run. Encoded in AVC, each episode gets a spanking new 1080p video transfer framed at its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The black and white images are almost pristine, looking as if they've gone through some kind of restoration. There are barely any specks nor stains to mar your viewing pleasure and hardly any instances of the dreaded edge enhancement.

Now, if you know your “Twilight Zone” history, you'll know that when new CBS executive James Aubrey took over the network in 1961, he went on a cost-cutting spree and one of his targets was “The Twilight Zone.” So, instead of the usual 35 episodes (like on the first season), he ordered the show to be cut down to 29 episodes and had 6 of those shot on inferior videotape, instead of film. They are “The Lateness of the Hour,” “The Whole Truth,” “Static,” “Twenty Two,” “Long Distance Call” and “The Night of the Meek.” These six episodes unfortunately have a soap opera-ish look to them and is presented here in 1080i. Considering the inferior quality of the source print that it was shot on, these episodes probably look to be as good as they can possibly be. They are slightly blurry and do not have the pristine look of the other filmed episodes.
Each episode comes with two audio uncompressed PCM Mono options, one is restored and remastered and the other is taken unchanged from the original magnetic tapes. They both sound wonderful, with the restored track having a distinct edge. The dialogue is clean and clear without any residue of hissing or other artifacts and the music score is lovingly reproduced. Each episode also comes with English SDH subtitles.

As if having remastered video and audio is not enough, this Blu-ray set is also endowed with an impressive array of extras that will blow your mind. Consider this: there are 25 (yes, count them, 25) audio commentaries from various “Twilight Zone” experts, historians, actors, writers and producers, 22 isolated music scores, 15 Radio Dramas, video and vintage audio-only interviews, sponsor billboards, image galleries, alternate end titles and more. I could list them all but that would take up too much space. Suffice to say, every episode comes with its own set of extras and they are all impeccably done. Kudos to Image Entertainment for this lovingly presented set. It is right up there with the works from the Criterion Collection.

Film Value:
For fans of “The Twilight Zone,” there is no better way to watch your favorite episode than on this Blu-ray release. Not only is the video and audio presentation so beautifully restored and brought into the 21st century, you also get an ornate amount of special features to go along with each episode. Until something better comes along, this will definitely be the definitive collection of “The Twilight Zone” episodes from Season 2.

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