And so the annual ritual is upon us again.
On New Year’s Eve, SyFy will launch what has become an annual tradition: A “Twilight Zone” marathon that runs all day and all night on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and finally wraps up about 5 a.m. on Jan. 2.
This is the 20th anniversary of the annual event that attracts people like me who find the combination of brainy scripts, good acting, shoestring production values and a visual creepiness made possible only by shooting on black-and-white film irresistible. It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen most of them too often to count. I’m always good for another run.
But I’m not alone.
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Vince Gilligan, creator of “Breaking Bad,” said in an email interview with The Kansas City Star this year that he’s always compelled to tune in. Gilligan said he consumes “Twilight Zone” episodes on SyFy “one right after the other, like potato chips, for hours on end. It doesn’t seem to matter that I already own every episode, uncut and commercial-free, on pristine Blu-Ray and catch them anytime I like. I can’t figure out why I do that. It’s turned into a bit of a holiday tradition for me, I guess.”
Rod Serling, the creator, had cut his teeth writing for radio and live television. He wrote a lot — including the screenplay for “Planet of the Apes” — but these modest 30- and 60-minute mini-movies are what he’s remembered for. Serling’s introductions, delivered through constricted vocal cords and tight lips with cigarette perpetually in hand, became the show’s signature.
“The Twilight Zone” premiered on CBS in 1959 and ran for five seasons. (“The” was eventually dropped from the title.) Most, if not all, of the episodes were shot at the MGM Studios in Culver City, where an exterior town-square set became a recurring visual touchstone, beginning with the pilot episode. The title was “Where Is Everybody?” and starred Earl Holliman as an astronaut with amnesia who stumbles into a deserted town. It was beamed out to American TV viewers on Oct. 2, 1959 — and so a strange weekly journey into mind-boggling science-fiction stories, tales of the supernatural and metaphysical transformation began.
One thing that made “Twilight Zone” special was the quality of the writing. The stories had to be good because there was nothing in the budget for special effects. According to “Twilight Zone” lore, Serling constantly fought with CBS executives about money. The early episodes were purportedly shot for about $65,000 each — compare that to Netflix spending $90 million on 10 episodes of “Marco Polo” — but even that was too much for the network. Some episodes were shot on videotape just to shrink the budget.
Serling wrote many of the scripts, but so did other gifted writers, including Richard Matheson. Matheson was already known as the novelist and screenwriter of “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and for “Twilight Zone” he contributed some of the most memorable episodes — particularly “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner played an airline passenger tormented by a gremlin scampering about on the wing that only he can see.
Like many other actors, Shatner starred in more than one “Twilight Zone” episode. Today he’s only remembered for two things — “Star Trek,” of course, and two “Twilight Zone” episodes — “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Nick of Time,” in which he plays a traveler who becomes obsessed with a fortune-telling machine in a diner.
The complete series DVD collection includes many extras, including commentaries by some of the actors who appeared on the show. One of them is Rod Taylor, who starred with Jim Hutton and Charles Aidman on an episode written by Serling and based on a Matheson story. “And When the Sky Was Opened” depicted three astronauts who return from space and begin disappearing one by one.
“It’s absolutely amazing to me with all the movies I’ve done — like 72 major motion pictures, some good, some not so good — but so many people remember this episode of ‘Twilight Zone,’” Taylor said. “That’s how good it was.”
Taylor also had high praise for Serling’s script.
“It’s very easy to become a character like this, because it’s all written for you,” he said. “You just let your imagination go. … Your life is made so much more easy when the material you’re working with is as good as the stuff that came from Rod Serling. It was a joy.”
Taylor also commented that every good actor in Hollywood at the time appeared on at least one “Twilight Zone” episode. Some appeared more than once — Burgess Meredith, Jack Klugman, John Dehner. Some actors who would later become major stars, including Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, also made appearances. But the bulk of the performers were unsung journeyman character actors.
Not every episode was a classic. Earl Hamner, who later created “The Waltons,” contributed a couple of duds — “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” a Southern-fried supernatural tale with child star Mary Badham, and “The Hunt,” with crusty Arthur Hunnicutt as a coon hunter who passes on to the great beyond.
But the best ones linger — “The Dummy,” with Cliff Robertson as a ventriloquist controlled by his dummy; “To Serve Man,” in which people on earth decipher an alien document; “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” an existentialist depiction of five holiday toys that don’t know what they are or how they got there; and “After Hours,” in which department store mannequins come to life.
I may have some tough viewing decisions, because Showtime on New Year’s Eve will offer a marathon of “Penny Dreadful” episodes. John Logan’s inventive Edwardian supernatural series in a way owes a debt to “Twilight Zone,” but its lush production values, sexuality and copious gore put it in another class altogether. What it doesn’t have is the bare-bones virtue of a show that was able to stimulate viewers’ imaginations with low-budget black-and-white episodes that all asked the same question: What if?
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Where to watch
Syfy begins its annual “Twilight Zone” marathon at 7 a.m. Wednesday.