Mon
Jan 14 2013 10:00am

5 Ways to Correctly Reboot The Twilight Zone

Last month, muddled rumors surfaced on the web of CBS and Bryan Singer talking of reviving what is possibly the best science fiction show of all time. That’s correct, a return to another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; The Twilight Zone. If you count the 1983 film there have been four incarnations of the concept, so if it is rebooted, there’s a lot of tradition to consider! With that in mind, here a five ways to prevent a new Twilight Zone from totally sucking.

5. Do it in Black and White

Despite the various merits and awesome roster of writers on both the 1985 and 2002 revivals of the show, the weirdest thing about post-classic Twilight Zone,  is the fact that it’s all in color. The Walking Dead is about to pull a big publicity stunt of re-running the entire show in black and white, which though a little bit of a cynical move, is also kind of cool. This is what The Twilight Zone should do. Be intentionally retro. The stories wouldn’t need to be set in a black and white era, but definitely shot in a throwback style. In keeping with this notion, it would be great if the show were shot on film with zero (or at least minimal CG effects.) The limitations of the original show accidentally created something classic. Now, it would be nice to impose those limitations on the creators on purpose.

 

4. Try to Cast Non-Genre Actors

Something that drives me a little nuts about science fiction television (particularly from the 90’s and early 00’s) is how often the same actors are always showing up. I understand many of these people get typecast, but it gets a little old when you see Battlestar Galactica’s Mark Sheppard on an old episode of Star Trek: Voyager, and then later Doctor Who. What I’m saying, is I really don’t want to see new episodes of the Twilight Zone in which people like Katee Sackhoff, or worse, Brent Spiner, are showing up as the leads in these one-off episodes. Yes, William Shatner famously starred in TWO episodes of the classic show, but I think we’re past this kind of sci-fi incest. Further, if the show is going to succeed, it needs to be a little more welcoming to the mainstream.

 

3. Return to the 30 Minute Format

Seriously. I understand whatever network is running the show won’t like this idea (less commercials), but maybe there could be two episodes run back-to-back on the night the show is supposed to air. The brevity of The Twilight Zone is what makes the-twist-at-the-ending format work so well. Part of the reason why I think M. Night Shyamalan movies are good on paper but tedious in practice is because they’re too long to warrant their premise. The only movie-length Twilight Zone-style film that actually works is Planet of the Apes. And really, why would anyone want to remake that? (Oh, wait.) This may sound insane, but The Sarah Jane Adventures was a 30-minute show, and some of those zany sci-fi premises were better for it. Contemporary TV doesn’t have to be oppressive with the amount of time it takes up.

 

2. No Reoccurring Characters or Plot-lines!

The trend of ongoing storylines is what made Babylon 5 groundbreaking, Battlestar Galactica addictive, and Lost insanity-inducing. But at this point, it’s little played out because most savvy TV viewers no longer really trust show runners to actually plan more than a season ahead. Shows with ongoing plotlines are sometimes thought of as novels for television, but if novelists wrote books the way contemporary TV shows see-saw on their premises, said novelists would likely have seizures. The idea of having what are essentially small cool, sci-fi short stories on TV is what makes The Twilight Zone fun. It is also a great way to get someone into the show. Never watched it before? It literally doesn’t matter.

 

1. Hire Good Writers. Make Sure Some of them Are Not TV Writers

Sure, the majority of classic Twilight Zone scripts were written either by Rod Serling or Richard Matheson, but throughout its long history and various iterations, the list of well-known Twilight Zone writers has included folks like George Clayton Johnson, Damon Knight, John Landis, Harlan Ellison, Joe HaldemanRockne S. O’BannonIra Steven Behr, Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, to just name a few. 

But a new version could benefit from genre and non-genre literary talent alike. How about an episode written by China Miéville, Junot Diaz, or Jim Shepard? In fact, there are an endless amount of short story writers who would be great for this. Nearly every single writer in this Fantastic Women anthology could pen a great Twilight Zone (with Kelly Link probably leading the pack) Etgar Keret’s stories already read a bit like Twilight Zone stories anyway. Hell, Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler could probably pull off a fairly awesome Twilight ZoneGenevieve Valentine, Charlie Jane Anders. The list of talented short fiction writers with an ability to really take on a Serling-esque feel goes on and on. The advantage of using non-TV writers (or at least adapting from more literary sources) is that it will feel fresh for TV viewers. The originality which springs from prose could be translated to a new Twilight Zone without needing to alter much from the source material. Am I saying a new Twilight Zone could increase literacy and encourage reading? Why not. It’s my fantasy.

Hopefully The Twilight Zone will, eventually come back, and when it does Bryan Singer, or whoever else will listen to my advice. Until then, what would you want to see in a new version of the show? Chime in below!


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. 

22 comments
Rancho Unicorno
1. Rancho Unicorno
I would like to point out that SJA, while 30 min long, had two episodes per story, which sort of undermines the keep it to 30 min idea. Still, I agree that short 22 min adventures would be good. I wouldn't even mind seeing some episodes with two 11 min stories. If the writing/acting/directing are taut, it could be a ton of fun.
Rancho Unicorno
2. Quint
Cool ideas, but none that will actually be used I'm afraid.

5. No network would take a chance at running a series in Black and White, an episode or two maybe but not a full series. The walking Dead is only getting away with it because it's concerning reruns and there has been a lot of talk about it on-line.

4. I don't think you can get away with casting non genre actors as it very quickly becomes too expensive especially with a rotating cast. A possible way out could be doing something similar to what American Horror story is doing, using a selected attention grabbing cast in recurring but different roles and filling the rest of the cast with new faces each time.

3. I completely agree with you on this one, but again I don't think they would go with such an idea. Maybe doing shorter seasons would help, like how series are done in Britain as well as a lot of new shows in the US now as well.

2. Again I don't think a network would go for this, even though it's a great idea which would make the whole much more meaningful. Maybe by having recurring well-known actors might do the trick, but otherwise I doubt a network would go for such a format nowadays.

1. Great idea, in general I'd love to see this happen more in general. But the writers union would never stand for this now. You'd be opening a huge can of worms, which is really a shame as it would benefit both worlds a great deal (Novels and TV world).
David Levinson
3. DemetriosX
5. Shooting in B/W sounds very gimmicky and I'm not sure it really brings anything. Doing an occasional story in B/W could be interesting, though.

4. If you're doing a proper anthology show, you'll run out of genre actors pretty quickly. I would say save the bigger names for a role that really fits them and don't bring one in very often.

3. It's probably unlikely for a 30 minute drama to get a green light these days. I would opt for 1 hour and 2 stories. This gives you some flexibilty, keeping slightly longer stories from being gutted or rejected and slightly shorter stories from being padded out. Toss in the occasional 1-hour story every now and then. Don't forget the original TZ had at least one season that was 60 minutes.

2. Here I agree completely. However, I would go with a narrator who sometimes appears on screen for the intro or outro, just like Serling. Just stay away from something gimmicky like the Crypt Keeper. One ordinary actor who gives a little depth and sometimes shows his face.

1. There are writers with feet in both worlds -- Harlan Ellison, George RR Martin, Steve Barnes. I would look for someone like that to act as senior script editor. The easiest way to keep things genre savvy would be to mine published works and option the rights. No network would ever go for that, just because they'd have to pay somebody something.

All that said, I think it unlikely to happen. The day of anthology shows with network sized audiences seems to be pretty much over. Not counting sketch comedies, what was the last successful non-syndicated anthology show? Love American Style? That ended 40 years ago. I can't think of another since then that has lasted more than 2 or 3 seasons at most, even in syndication/on cable.
Rancho Unicorno
4. BenjaminJB
With reboots, the question I'd ask first is, "what made the original what it was?" And I'm sure people are going to have different answers to that.

For me, what made Twilight Zone what it was are the twist endings and a committment to social justice (and a broader 1950s notion of liberalism and humanism). (It might seem political weak-sauce today, but Serling's scripts tended to be against racism, war, scapegoating, etc.)

Now, can you get away with either today? I think a Serling-style message-script against, say, anti-Arab bigotry or misogyny, would be laughed out of a studio for being preachy or alienating those viewers who don't want their bigotry and misogyny challenged. As for twist endings, they're hard to pull off the more your audience knows of possible twists. I'd say the later anthology show Tales from the Crypt heavily mixed their twists with loads of splatter horror, which helped the episodes work, but that's a different type of show entirely.

Maybe the name "Twilight Zone" has some cachet, but I almost think it carries too much baggage (failed tv reboot and movie). I'd be very interested in a classic anthology show format, but it doesn't need the TZ name to complicate things.
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
The 30 minute drama ended in the late 60's. Even Serling's second series "Night Gallery" went to the hour long format but usually had 2 long pieces and a few shorts. Most of the guest stars were actors who were appearing in other shows on the network at the time and was kinda like the guest stars on "Love Boat" or "Fantasy Island".

Good writing is what is needed to bring the TZ back. Follow the Night Gallery format and I think people would watch. Also put it on AMC or SYFY or another cable channel first.
John May
6. jlm012449
I agree with your desire for a return to the Twilight Zone format used in the 60's but I also agree that none of the so-called major networks would touch it without a good helping of sex, bad language and general mayhem. If this idea can be sold it will be to the Sci-Fi channel, TNT or USA. I would to see this "rebooted" but our society has turned the corner away from such shows and the return is not one I can readily picture occurring anytime in the future
Rancho Unicorno
7. Sydney C
Wow. Where to begin? First of all, the latest TZ incarnation was two half hours run back to back. So you didn't even do the most basic research. Secondly, the biggest issue with getting actors for anthology shows is that they generally shoot in Vancouver, and actors don't want to travel there. There's also the issue of cost, a subject about which you know nothing because you are not a television writer. Lastly, you apparently have no idea how offensive you are when you automatically assume that TV writers are screwing up the concept. Seriously, how offensive. I'm going to stop there but WOW, buddy. You prove that you know absolutely nothing about this.
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
On point 5, I don't think retro is the way to go. What made the original TZ so important is that it was a commentary on the social issues of its time. The whole reason Serling did the show was that the strict censorship on TV at the time wouldn't let him come out and overtly protest the Vietnam war or the rampant racism in much of America at the time or other hot-button issues, so he cloaked his commentary in allegorical fantasies in order to slip it under the network's radar. I think if you want to capture the spirit of the original, it should be topical and relevant to the present. I think there are ways to do that without being overtly preachy. Although admittedly it would be less of a standout today than it was then, since networks today aren't as afraid of social commentary as they were at the time.

On point 4, it should be mentioned that Shatner wasn't a "genre actor" yet at the time he did his two TZ episodes, since they were both done years before Star Trek premiered. As for the modern actors who are considered "genre actors," a lot of them do non-genre shows as well. It's not like there's some strict dividing line. Mark Sheppard shows up on a bunch of genre shows, but he was also a recurring player on Leverage, and has appeared in shows like CSI, White Collar, and 24. "Genre actors" become popular with genre fans and producers because they're effective, reliable character actors, which is an asset in any kind of show. An anthology series like TZ would need strong, well-known character actors, people talented enough to bring a character to life in just 20-odd minutes and popular enough to draw in viewers in the absence of a regular cast -- the sort of actors the original series also drew on in its day, people like Jack Klugman and Burgess Meredith and Gladys Cooper and John Dehner. And these days, actors of that type tend to do a lot of genre roles. A new TZ revival would be needlessly shackling itself if it avoided actors known for their genre work, although of course it shouldn't limit itself to them either.

Points 3 and 2 don't need to be said, since there hasn't yet been a TZ revival that hasn't followed them. The '80s CBS version was either two half-hour installments or a half-hour and a couple of 15-minute segments. The syndicated season that followed was a pure half-hour show. The UPN revival was two half-hours. As for continuing characters or plotlines, no TZ incarnation has ever had those; they are anthologies, after all. The only anthology show I know of that's had any kind of continuing threads was the Showtime Outer Limits revival. Some of its episodes were linked by shared background elements (for instance, in many of their "robot/computer run amuck" episodes, the same corporation built the robots/computers), and sometimes to save money they'd do clip shows that took scenes from various standalone episodes and claimed they'd all happened in the same reality.

I do agree with point 1, however. It would be good for a new TZ series to draw on the work of today's prose SF writers in the same way that the original and the '80s revival did, whether by adapting existing short stories or commissioning original teleplays. These days there's a lot more segregation between TV and prose SF/fantasy writing than there was in the '60s. It would be nice to change that.

One well-known writer you left off your list was J. Michael Straczynski. He was the story editor on the syndicated third season of the '80s TZ revival, and also wrote a large number of its episodes. He was a very good mimic of Serling's writing style.
Keith DeCandido
9. krad
A lot of the recurring genre actors are recurring because they're Canadian. A lot of shows film in Vancouver and Toronto, and so call on the same pool of actors (which is why you keep seeing the same actors on Battlestar Galactica, Eureka, Highlander, Stargate SG1, Psych, Supernatural, etc., and all of them probably appeared on DaVinci's Inquest, too.....).

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Christopher Bennett
10. ChristopherLBennett
@9: I used to joke that there was a Canadian law requiring Blu Mankuma to appear in every television series shot in the country. Though these days the law seems to have been revised to apply to Mike Dopud.
Rancho Unicorno
11. twilight.princess
i would like to see all the old scripts to the show basicly done again but slightly modernised (the 50/60's thing is bit dated now).
Bruce Arthurs
12. Bruce-Arthurs
An effective modern-day use of B&W photography can be seen in THE MERCURY MEN, a web serial that ran on SyFy's website awhile ago. It paid homage to the cinematography on the original OUTER LIMITS tv series. (Also recreated OL's air of paranoia and terror quite well.) Doesn't seem to be available for viewing online at the moment, tho' the home website (www.mercuryseries.com/) has a number of "Making Of" videos, and a note saying the series will be re-released in February.

I second DemetriosX's suggestion of hiring Steve Barnes as story editor. He's damn good, and did the adaptations for Silverberg's "To See The Invisible Man" and Zelazny's "Last Defender of Camelot" for the first revival of TZ.

I am completely puzzled by Quint's comment "But the writers union would never stand for this now." Writing for tv/movies isn't a closed shop. It's just hard -- really, really hard -- to get that first foot in the door. (It's not that easy to stay in the business, either. The script I sold to ST:TNG ended up being my sole script sale; several of the movie scripts I wrote after that sale got some interest and led to meetings with production companies, but none of those meetings resulted in an actual contract or money.)
Rancho Unicorno
14. Scott Laz
I love every one of these suggestions. And the show's producers might actually adopt them...... in the Twilight Zone......
Kristen Templet
15. SF_Fangirl
best science fiction show of all time

Really? As a sci fi fan and not a fan of horror or fantasy, I much prefer The Outer Limits. TZ was definately genre, but the the science was iffy in a lot of its fiction. Not that it was bad, but a good bit wasn't my cup of tea.

That said most of your suggestion won't fly. B&W? no. 30 minute format? What other show will it be paired with? A comedy?

As for #2. It wouldn't be the twilight zone if their were recurring characters or plot lines.

And #1? Sad to say, wasn't this tried very briefly with the "Masters of Science Fiction" series? It only lasted 6 episodes and only two were really any good. I whole-heartedly supported this effort, but was disappointed with the outcome.

OTOH the new The Outer Limits was pretty good in 90s. I'm pretty sure it was syndicated though. Your best bet is not network TV, but one of the cable stations.
Christopher Bennett
16. ChristopherLBennett
@15: The Twilight Zone usually tended toward fantasy and horror, with some science fiction in the mix, and even one or two straight psychological thrillers. The Outer Limits was entirely SF-focused (though often horror-oriented too).
Kevin Maroney
17. womzilla
I would say that the 1980s TZ revival met every suggestion here except for "shoot in B&W". It ran 3 seasons, 65 episodes; the first 2 seasons were hour-long and usually contained 2 complete standalone stories, though 1 had a single story and several had 3; the third season was all half-hour stories. Lots of actors appeared from all over the spectrum, and it was helmed by a real sf writer with the unlikely name of G. "Railroad" Martin. Not too much in the way of special effects, either. I'm always surprised it doesn't get more recognition for its quality.
Rancho Unicorno
18. Ace Hamilton
The format of the 80s show was really good. One hour with 2-3 stories ranging from 3-40 minutes. This meant that each story could be the right length with no padding. If there was one recurrent problem in the original series, it was the need to pad stories out to fill running time.

I personally love black and white but shooting it is a lost art. When it is done these days, what we get is overlit without contrast, shot in color and changed to B&W in post.
Christopher Bennett
19. ChristopherLBennett
@18: I'd say the padding problems with the original show were mostly limited to the fourth season, where it switched to an hourlong format.

And you're right that there's far more to black and white cinematography than just turning down the saturation on color images. It's a whole other visual language where images are painted with light and shadow.
Rancho Unicorno
20. aradke
In reply to post #11 (Twilight Princess), I recently purchased and watched the 2002 version of "Twlight Zone" In particular, the remade version of "Eye of the Beholder". Although it was cool to see a contemporary look and feel to the episode, there was absolutely no surprise as i'd seen and loved the original version. So my enjoyment of it was rather bittersweet. If they were to "remake" every old episode from the original series, I believe this would only benefit though who have never SEEN the original series. There will surely be a plethora of TZ fans who will surely have the "been there, done that" mentality if such a concept were executed. 1 or 2 remakes throughout the course of the series would be fine, as it's cool to see a fresh vision on a classic story. I just think a series full of nothing but remade episodes would be nothing short of a disaster. My $0.02.
Rancho Unicorno
21. Abram T
I think it would be a good idea to have original scripts as well as adaptations of classic short stories ranging broadly in Sci Fi, Horror, and Fantasy. Among others, I would love to see adaptations of HP Lovecraft, MR James, Ray Bradbury. Isaac Asimov or even more recent writers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, or Clive Barker.
Quint earlier claimed adaptations would step on the toes of the writer's guild. Not so, it would in many casesrequire other writers to adapt the works for television.
Rancho Unicorno
22. Don Ford
We
can't sell another Twilight Zone series to folks who know it best and
lived it. Listen up; we need new writer blood, and new faces as
actors/actresses. When William Shatner appeared in an episode of the
Twilight Zone, and was trying to convince others on a plane that a
zombie-like creature was trying to crash the airplane, both were
believable characters.



I read a documentary between Writer's Digest and Rod Serling. He
mentioned that he used actors and actresses over and over again because
they were the best in the business at the time. They were type cast
into different roles each time, and we ate it up. We have a score of
great performers today that would blend nicely into such a program.



Now we need to raise up another Rod Serling. Someone has to steer
this ship, while everyone takes care of all the other chores on board.
I'm a storyteller and have been since age 15. I'm over the hill now,
since I know what's on the other side. It takes a great imagination to
begin to spin some of these tales.



I have hundreds of yarns I have spun, and many I have sold to
magazines. I know there are other great writers out there who could
easily take on this job. I'd be happy to shop for writers, and help
them more fully adapt their work to such a performance. It gets pretty
dusty sitting here on a shelf, waiting for the last click of that second
hand - and then it's over.



Where eagles fly,
Don (Greywolf) Ford
Native American Storyteller and Editor
Author of "Connect the Dots" at Amazon
http://beyondwordsblog.blogspot.com/2011/08/author-and-artist-don-ford.html
Rancho Unicorno
23. Holly Kurasz
Well I have over a dozen half hour twilight zone style screenplays but do you think the Hollywood heavy hitters will even look. No..So let them make their dumb little mini series and call it a hit. It won't hold a candle to my work. Guarenteed!

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