Updated with panache and hosted by horror maestro Jordan Peele, this version of the iconic series has been worth the wait, says Chris Boyd.
Jordan Peele as the narrator in The Twilight Zone. He is also credited as developer, executive producer and co-writer.
Apart from playhouse-style TV shows, the most successful ‘anthology’ series have typically been driven by a single figure. Roald Dahl penned 21 of the first 25 stories in Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988) but only five of the next 25, and just three of the final sixty.
Apart from producing and hosting, Alfred Hitchcock directed four episodes in the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents but just seventeen, overall, out of the 350-plus episodes of Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour which, between them, ran for a decade.
But no anthology series is more closely associated with its creator than The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling wrote more than 90 episodes over the show’s five year run. That’s more than half the total number of episodes. A majority he wrote outright, the rest he’s credited as writing the teleplay or adaptation. Curiously enough, Orson Welles was almost the face – and voice – of The Twilight Zone. Had he demanded considerably less cash, we might not know the bushy eyebrows and unruly teeth of the chain-smoking Rodman Edward Serling.
There have been a couple of attempts to resurrect his title. The first, in 1985, ran for three years and had multiple episodes directed by Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street) as well as William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and a young Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter). Writers included sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones).
The best thing about the single-season 2002 revival, the second, was Forest Whitaker, who took up Serling’s mantle as host-narrator.
The current reboot – which lists Rod Serling's widow, Carolyn Serling, as an Executive Producer – has been in development since 2012. And, frankly, it shows. (In a good way!)
According to CBS TV Studios president David Stapf, there was no requirement for a series showrunner – “because it’s anthological” – but Greg Yaitanes (Banshee, House, Damages) is responsible for overseeing continuity. Yaitanes also directs the second episode of the new series Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.
Twilight Zone trainspotters will have already pricked up their ears at that episode title. Famously, a pre-Star Trek William Shatner starred (if that’s the word to describe his grotesquely exaggerated mugging) in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963) which screened a couple of weeks before J.F.K. was assassinated. Shatner played a man terrified of flying who sees a malicious teletubby on the wing of his plane on a dark and stormy night. No-one else can see the gremlin, who is bent on sabotage, so Shatner steals a gun from a sleeping trooper, opens the emergency exit mid-flight and takes matters into his own hands. He ends up in a straitjacket, but it’s an oddly happy ending.
Though it gives a respectful hat-tip to the original episode, Nightmare at 30,000 Feet is a completely new and utterly modern take on the paranoid flyer. It’s more than merely 10,000 feet superior to the original. A war correspondent suffering PTSD after a posting in Yemen gives up his first class seat to a harried family who find themselves one seat short. Randomly choosing an empty seat in economy, the man – played by Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation) – finds an MP3 player in his seat pocket which has a podcast on it investigating the disappearance of the very flight the man is on... and his own role in the loss of the plane.
It’s classic Twilight Zone territory – “between science and superstition... between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge” – but it will appeal more to X-Files fans than hardcore Zoners. Which isn’t a bad thing.
Another big plus for the ten episode reboot is that episodes vary considerably in length. Nightmare is 37 minutes; the premiere episode The Comedian is 55; the third episode, Replay, is 45. So instalments are only as long as they need to be, rather than shrunk to fit. (Or, worse, dragged out to fit!)
Part of the joy of the original Twilight Zone for contemporary audiences is seeing golden age TV stars and stars-in-the-making: watching Burgess Meredith (who went on to play the Penguin on Sixties TV series Batman) play a bolshie librarian on death row in The Obsolete Man (1960); or Agnes Moorehead menaced by tiny astronauts in The Invaders (1961); or her soon-to-be-daughter on Bewitched, Elizabeth Montgomery, as a grubby-faced Russian soldier – a brunette, no less! – in a post-apocalyptic war zone in Two (1961). Montgomery’s co-star is an unexpectedly dashing Charles Bronson, sporting a David-Duchovny-in-Aquarius hair-do.
In the current incarnation, the star-spotting is reversed. One of the pilots in Nightmare is Nicholas Lea (Alex Krycek in The X-Files) looking older and stouter, but still sexy as hell. The main flight attendant is Katie Findlay (The Killing, The Carrie Diaries) whose ability to communicate short-fused tolerance is peerless. Jordan Peele (looking like a candidate for contestant killing-expert in an American edition of The Chaser) takes on the host-narrator role. Peele is also credited as developer, executive producer and co-writer.
In the engaging season premiere, Kumail Nanjiani (the voice of Prismo, Silicon Valley) plays a struggling stand-up comedian who gains success at a soul-selling cost. (Not his soul, I hasten to add! That’s only a very slight spoiler.) The Twilight Zone schtick – the retro pizzicato theme music, the pontificating speeches, the spooky credits – is kept to a minimum. (Indeed, it’s back-announced.) Production values – casting, cinematography, direction, locations, design, the overall look of the thing – are very fine indeed. It looks polished without being overly slick.
The first two episodes premiered on the fledgling subscription-only CBS All Access in the U.S. on April 1. There had been some speculation that the series might end up on Ten All Access in Australia. But, no. Well, not exclusively. The first episode screens on Channel Ten, free-to-air, on Thursday April 18. It will be available to stream (ad-free) on Ten All Access from Friday 19th, where you will also find episodes from the original series.
The Twilight Zone. Channel 10 free-to-air from Thursday 18 April, 10.40pm. Streaming on Ten All Access from Friday 19 April.