Saturday, February 12, 2011

Blu-ray Review: "The Twilight Zone: Season 3 (1961-1962)"

Despite its relatively short existence of only five seasons (a total of 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, a feat that has not been matched until 2008 by “Doctor Who.”

Season 3 of “The Twilight Zone” retains most of the cosmetic changes from the previous season, with slight tweaks in the title montage as well as Rod Serling's opening introduction, omitting the ubiquitous words, “the signpost up ahead.” Running from the Fall of 1961 to mid-1962, the third season consists of 37 episodes (one more than season 1), the most in the five seasons the show was on the air. With so many episodes, there are of course great ones, so-so ones and not so good ones. In this season, Serling is again the primary writer of most of the episodes but that number has decreased compared to the previous two seasons, when he wrote the bulk of both seasons' total episodes. Penning alongside Serling are the series' now-staple writers Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson. Joining them in season 3 are new scribes, Montgomery Pittman , Earl Hamner Jr. and even an episode contributed by the renowned mystery writer, Ray Bradbury. Airing as the series' 100th episode, the Bradbury-penned episode, titled, “I Sing the Body Electric,” was however, considered by many as a major disappointment and is probably one of the weaker stories in the entire series.
It's A Good Life
The third season opens with the episode titled, “Two” and it stars a very young-looking Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, who later went on to become a star in the TV series, “Bewitched.” This episode follows a familiar theme of isolation where two soldiers from opposing sides (one is presumably American and the other Russian) come face to face in a deserted town set in a post-apocalyptic world. Amidst the devastation, they must find ways to put their differences aside and either learn to live with one another or end up dead, sort of an unlikely love story set within a bleak future.

If you've watched many of the “Twilight Zone” episodes, you would notice familiar faces popping up in them, often looking very young. This series attracted many famous names (many of them before they became famous) to its acting fold, a reminder of how popular and good the show was during its heyday. Among the famous actors and actresses who have appeared in the series include Roddy McDowall, Burgess Meredith, Vera Miles, Dennis Hopper, William Shatner, Peter Falk, Lee Marvin, silent film legend Buster Keaton, Robert Redford (who played Death!), Carol Burnett, Donald Pleasance and many, many more.
To Serve man
Season 3 also offers up two of the most popular and intriguing episodes in the history of the series, “It's a Good Life” and “To Serve Man.” Now considered classics, these two episodes were chosen by TIME magazine to be two of the top ten “Twilight Zone” episodes of all time. Adapted by Rod Serling from a short story written by Jerome Bixby in 1953, “It's a Good Life” tells the story of a little boy with God-like mental powers, creating and destroying anything he so chooses. The adults around him walk on eggshells, careful not to displease the boy in case he “wishes” them away. To emphasize how important this classic episode is to the series, it was remade as one of four segments in 1983's “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”

Written by sci-fi author Damon Knight and again adapted for the small screen by Serling, “To Serve Man” plays on the verb “to serve,” which can be interpreted two ways: “to assist” and “to provide as a meal.” An alien race lands on Earth and informs its citizens that their intention is to help humanity. In the midst of mistrust by the humans, the aliens inadvertently leave behind a book that when deciphered, seems to carry the title “To Serve Man.” However, as I mentioned earlier, the title could go any of the two ways and it unfortunately, did not end so well for mankind. It is a fun episode with a classic “Twilight Zone” finale. This episode is also one of the rare ones where a character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Yet another great episode from this season is “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” a contemplative story about living in our own version of Hell. It is also another Serling adaptation from a short story by Marvin Petal.
Nothing in the Dark
Many fans of the series rejoiced when Image Entertainment released “The Twilight Zone: The Definitive Collection,” a massive 28-DVD package back in 2006. Back then, it was indeed the best way for fans to enjoy every episode of the series with beautifully-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 format. 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 two seasons' debut on Blu-ray, this one is awesome as well. Fans of the series can rejoice yet again.

Like the previous seasons' releases on Blu-ray, this one continues the excellent run for the series. Encoded in AVC format, each episode gets a spanking new 1080p video transfer framed at its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (matted to 1.78:1). The black and white images are almost pristine, looking as if they've gone through some kind of restoration and remastering. There are barely any specks nor stains to mar your viewing pleasure and hardly any instances of the dreaded edge enhancement. Unlike Season 2, when six of the total episodes were shot on inferior videotape, all of the episodes here are equal in quality with all of them shot on film. The blacks are inky and the images contain nice textures and even some level of definition.

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. As they are originally mono tracks, do not expect any big jump in audio quality compared to newer stereo or 5.1 tracks. 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. True fans of the series will go crazy going through all these extras. Consider this: there are 19 new audio commentaries from various “Twilight Zone” experts, historians, actors, writers and producers, isolated music scores for all the episodes, 19 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.

Blu-ray 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 a massive amount of special features to go along with each episode. Until something better comes along, this 5-disc set is definitely the definitive collection of “The Twilight Zone” Season 3 episodes.

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