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The Twilight Zone: Season 1 (The Definitive Edition)

"If you can't believe the unbelievability," says Rod Serling to a master class of college writing students, "then there's something wrong in the writing." And who better than Serling — creator, on-screen host, executive producer, and head writer of The Twilight Zone — knew how to make us believe the unbelievable? What we're hearing is a lively Q&A session with a TV-writing class in 1975. The students had just screened his episode "And When the Sky Was Opened," a weird story of cosmic alienation (a favorite Twilight Zone theme). It's one of the 36 episodes included in this DVD set, with the Q&A session serving as an audio commentary track.

But lest we assume that this audio track only rah-rahs Serling and his influential horror-fantasy-science fiction anthology series, note how feverishly he upbraids himself for using a "dumb, stupid, rotten, narrow, idiotic expository line that comes to you larded with bullshit." Looking back at the 1959 episode after 16 years, he instructs the would-be TV scenarists before him to "never allow yourself the infinite luxury of permitting an expository line like that to sneak by." You can almost hear him grimacing and crushing out his cigarette to begin a furious rewrite. During the episode "Walking Distance," a popular favorite, he critiques a scene in which "the illusion was completely destroyed" and says the story "never works for me now; every time I see it I die." Before The Twilight Zone debuted on Oct. 2, '59, Serling had already won three Emmies for scriptwriting. His renowned Playhouse 90 teleplay for Requiem for a Heavyweight had received a fine big screen adaptation. So here, when a student tells him, "You're not giving yourself enough credit," we glimpse a writer whose prodigious energies were vulnerable to his own self-criticism. In the short lecture excerpt attached to "The Mighty Casey," Serling mentions the restrictions of writing under tight deadlines — "You don't have time to perfect" — then reveals that this comedic episode's original version never aired because its visibly ill lead actor was literally dying on camera and dropped dead from a heart ailment days after shooting ended. But the studio wouldn't pay for a reshoot. So with money out of his own pocket he hired actor Jack Warden to take the original actor's place. "That's indicative of the nature of the network," Serling says by way of a moral.

Those are just some of the lessons packaged within this exemplary six-disc boxed set. Courtesy of Image Entertainment and CBS DVD, what we get is a lesson in how to raise the TV-on-DVD form to, as the man himself said, "a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind." After previous editions that released selected Twilight Zone episodes, this "Definitive Edition" is the real deal and then some. Like Burgess Meredith's bespectacled bookworm in "Time Enough At Last" (on Disc 2) we can now gleefully wallow in our own private library of classic favorites and special features, and with no atomic apocalypse in the bargain.

Not only do we get the entire first season of the original (and for some of us, still the only) Twilight Zone, the cultural touchstone that held a mirror to the anxiety-ridden Eisenhower-Kennedy era and shaped the Boomer generation like no other TV show. We get all 36 episodes newly, beautifully mastered from the original camera negatives. Classic titles here include "The Hitch-Hiker," in which a woman's cross-country drive picks up the most persistent stalker. Compact fables and morality plays were Serling's stock-in-trade, and "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" is a model of the form as it bottles the manipulative fear and mob psychology of the Cold War era (still relevant for a new century). The sublime "A Stop At Willoughby" offers a harried executive's escape to a nostalgic idyll, a theme Serling returned to often. The suicidal musician played by newcomer Jack Klugman in "A Passage for Trumpet" gets a somber second chance. Anne Francis is lost in a creepy department store in "The After Hours." Jack Warden is a prisoner on a penal asteroid in "The Lonely" when a supply ship drops off a unique companion. "A World of His Own" ends the season with the most perfect of punchlines.

We get eps with audio commentaries from actors Earl Holliman, Martin Landau, Rod Taylor, Martin Milner, and Kevin McCarthy. Some offer their isolated musical scores by Bernard Herrmann, Jerry Goldsmith, Franz Waxman, and others. Some come with radio drama adaptations. Disc 6 holds the original unaired pilot with an audio commentary by the producer and another of Serling's college Q&A lectures. It also holds a 1960 Emmy Awards clip of Serling accepting his fourth gold statue for Outstanding Achievement in Drama. There's a funny blooper, a clip from the game show Liars Club hosted by Serling, period TV advertising, behind-the-scenes photo galleries, and lessons on how to pitch a new-concept TV show to dubious sponsors and execs.

Best of all, this is no doubt the first DVD set to include an extra that's been nominated for the American Book Award. Packaged in the box is The Twilight Zone Companion, Marc Scott Zicree's exhaustive (466 pages) episode guide and backstage production chronicle. This forthrightly opinionated reference book is the essential Fodor's Guide to The Twilight Zone. It may be the single most useful DVD supplement on the shelves, period. Some of the interviews Zicree conducted for the book are here too, so we can hear him chatting up such participants as actors Burgess Meredith and Anne Francis, writer Richard Matheson, director Douglas Heyes, and producer Buck Houghton. We even get an issue of the 1963 Twilight Zone comic book in PDF format.

For fans and serious students of TV history alike, The Twilight Zone: Season 1 (The Definitive Edition) is a boon worth celebrating and, we hope, repeating through seasons two through five of this important and beloved series. The discs come housed in six individual thin-pak holders in a paperboard sleeve, all boxed with Zicree's book.

—Mark Bourne

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