Warning: Contains Spoilers
I really wanted this series to be good. I’m such a big fan of The Twilight Zone, but I’ve found it hard to like the various remakes and reinventions that have followed on from the classic series that ran from 1959 – 1964. Twilight Zone – The Movie (1983) has a certain appeal, but that’s more to do with 80s movie nostalgia than anything else and Rod Serling’s Lost Classics is fun but overlong. The 80s series I always found watchable but unremarkable and the 2002 series was not only awful but also indistinguishable from the same company’s The Outer Limits remake. I winced at the news of the show returning as some kind of interactive online thing that seemed to share more common ground with the Tower of Terror than serious drama, but was pleased when this gimmicky revival fell by the wayside to be replaced by a new TV series courtesy of Jordan Peele. I’d seen Peele’s film Get Out and really enjoyed it, so I was expecting good things from the series – but this is The Twilight Zone and the unexpected is never far away.
I watched the series on SyFy in the UK, who showed it in the wrong order. I’m presuming the reason for this was to put Nightmare at 30,000 Feet first, because it’s a remake of a classic series show; but that was their first mistake right there, because it’s not a strong episode. This is the third version of Richard Matheson’s short story Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, following the 1964 TV episode and the fourth (and best) segment of Twilight Zone – The Movie; it’s often voted the best episode of the original series and although I’d disagree with that, it’s certainly one of the best known. This second remake does it no favours at all, replacing the central conceit of a man recovering from a nervous breakdown being the only one who can see the creature that is dismantling the engine of plane on which he is a passenger with one in which said character is the only one aware of a very earth-bound conspiracy to bring down the passenger jet.
Its post 9-11 twist aches to be relevant, but the media has been chock-a-block with such stories in the two decades since the attack on the twin towers, so it already feels over familiar. Also, the fact that our protagonist is fed his paranoid fantasies by a mysterious podcast on an i-pod that he finds smacks of a middle-aged writer desperately attempting to get down with the youth and missing by a decade or so. The acting and direction are fine and the ending is suitably strange; but it has no rhyme or reason to it, coming across more like a ‘this is the Twilight Zone so weird shit happens’ rather than any kind of considered narrative. In my opinion, making another version of Nightmare at 20,000 Feet was a mistake – and making it in this way was certainly a mistake! I very much doubt there’ll be any fan of The Twilight Zone out there that sees this as anything other than the worst of the three versions of Richard Matheson’s story that we’ve seen.
The second story (actually the first story) The Comedian is much better and you can see why this was originally chosen to open the series. The idea of a struggling stand-up comic discovering that everyone he mentions in his observational material subsequently ceases to exist is a very Twilight Zone one, though it leaves little room for possible outcomes. The ending, when it eventually happens, is pretty much as you would expect, but this is not really a criticism as that could be said of several episodes of the original series. The story does wimp out slightly on the Twilight Zone ethos of ‘things just happening’ by having the ‘genie’ figure of an ageing comedian bestowing these powers on the central character; though again, this is not without precedent, as the ‘genie’ figure appears in more than one episode of the original series. Watching them in this order, The Comedian was a vast improvement on Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.
The upward trend continues with Replay, in which an African-American mother taking her son to college is harassed by a racist cop, only to find that the old camcorder she owns has the mysterious power to turn back time. However, no matter how many times she turns back the clock, the awful cop is always there in one way or another. The idea of being gifted with the chance to relive the past, only to discover that you cannot change the future is one familiar to The Twilight Zone and the ‘inanimate object with mysterious powers’ can be seen in A Kind of Stopwatch, Dead Man’s Shoes and a dozen other classic series episodes. The cop represents fate, which appears unavoidable… until the very last reel, as this is one of the few episodes this series which has anything even approaching a happy ending. Rod Serling struggled to get stories about race past the networks in the 60s, hiding it in stories like The Dust; but in 2019, those things can be stated more openly and Replay does well to put them across without appearing too preachy.
A Traveler wisely adopts the scenario of a remote location with a finite cast of characters, on this occasion a rural police station in Alaska. It’s Christmas Eve and the station staff are having their annual party at which the Chief traditionally pardons someone in the cells. As no-one is in the cells, Inuit cop Yuga Mongoyak arrests her ne’er-do-well brother specifically to be pardoned and released. But when they go down to the cells, someone is already there – a mysterious traveller who seems to know a lot more about the townsfolk than he has any right to. This is another familiar Twilight Zone trope: the alien invasion that starts in a very small way. We do not, of course, see the invasion; we’re just told that it’s about to happen. This is a very moody episode and dark, snowy Alaska proves an excellent backdrop. It’s perhaps a little bit on the long side and, like a great many of these stories, would have worked better in a half-hour format, but it’s spooky and enjoyable and an interesting contrast to some of the surrounding episodes.
Probably the most overtly political episode on display here is The Wunderkind, in which a fallen political campaign manager attempts to prove what he is capable of by promoting an 11-year old boy as the next President of the United States. Events go astray when a disenfranchised public actually vote the kid in and are horrified to discover that, with all that power at his disposal, he continues to behave like a kid. It’s a not-terribly-subtle treatise on the folly of voting for celebrity candidates – I mean, I don’t need to spell out who this is really about, right? In the old days, this episode would have started out as a light, almost comedic story, turning horribly dark as the reality of having an immature mind in charge became apparent; but this is the 21st century, where audiences need to be spoon-fed such simple messages, so it’s drummed home from moment one that America is doomed. This lack of subtlety makes what could have been a good episode end up a little bit tiresome and, unfortunately, it won’t be the last this season.
Six Degrees of Freedom is the first overtly sci-fi episode in the series, telling the tale of a crew of Astronauts on their way to Mars who discover that the Earth they left behind has been destroyed in a nuclear war. The crew fight amongst themselves and one of their number becomes convinced that the ship is not in space and their flight is an illusion, causing him to eventually throw himself out of the airlock. In the end, it turns out that he was correct and superior aliens are assessing whether mankind is fit to journey among the stars. This episode looks beautiful and there is some excellent acting but, as the longest episode of the series, it once again overstays its welcome just a tad. Ten minutes shorter and it would’ve been much improved. This is followed by Not All Men, in which a meteorite shower causes 90% of men to become arseholes and… well, that’s it. There’s very little development or progression in the story; you could literally write the plot on the back of a postage stamp and still have room for the cast and crew. I applaud the sentiment and can see the point you’re trying to make, but it really needs some kind of narrative to house it.
In Point of Origin, a wealthy lady discovers that her life is not as she remembers when she is taken away and imprisoned by immigration control. It turns out that she’s one of a number of people who fled from an alternate dimension to escape war and poverty, but has eliminated all memories of her past from her mind. This story shines a light on Middle America’s attitude to immigration by making the immigrant a nice, respectable white lady in twin-set and pearls. It’s not amazingly subtle, but it puts its point across nicely and doesn’t drag it out too long. I couldn’t help thinking that I’ve seen a similar concept somewhere before, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember where. A story I’ve definitely seen before is that of The Blue Scorpion, which sees the ‘inanimate object with mysterious powers’ trope returning, alongside the literal ‘bullet with your name on it’ trope. As with Not All Men, this is another concept desperately in need of a story… and not a particularly original one; the idea of following a gun as it passes from person to person has been explored many times in fiction and this version doesn’t really add anything new.
The series ends with Blurryman, a self-consciously metatextual story in which a writer on The Twilight Zone argues that it isn’t all about the scares, but more about social commentary. She then finds herself in a Twilight Zone story of her own, in which there is no social commentary, being stalked by a mysterious blurry figure. It’s easy to guess from quite early on who the blurry figure is going to be, even before the protagonist steps into the black and white set of the 1953 Rod Serling episode Time Enough at Last. The special effects recreating Rod Serling are pretty good, though he looks sort of angular and thin in the face. If you took the classic series episodes A World of his Difference and A World of his Own and put them in a blender with some 80s stalker/slasher movie, you’d have something close to Blurryman. File this one under ‘too clever for its own good’ and hope that the second series has something better.
On the whole, I found the new Twilight Zone a bit disappointing. It’s nowhere near as bad as the 2002 series, but there’s a lot of potential there that seems to be going to waste. Someone somewhere along the production line seems intent on making it into Black Mirror and thinks that adding a few names and visual cues from the 60s series is enough to turn it into The Twilight Zone. It isn’t. This series sports a lot of things that I dislike about streamed television (it was originally made for the CBS streaming platform in the States) – the undisciplined variation in episode length, the arbitrary use of profanity in a ‘because we can’ sense – but, as I said before, there’s definitely potential there. Jordan Peele himself makes for a better narrator than anyone else that has come since Rod Serling and he’s a steady hand on the tiller when it comes to the feel of the show. But it needs better scripts; simply having an idea isn’t enough, nor is having a strong character – you need a solid story to hang them on, and hopefully series two will have that.