Thursday, November 15, 2007

My Life in the Shadow of The Twilight Zone

Funny, I've been thinking back over the past 20 years, and marveling at how many times I've collected The Twilight Zone on home video.

First, I home-videotaped the series in the early-to-mid-80's. A local station (KPTV 12, as I recall, long before it became Fox) started airing the half-hour episodes six nights a week, Monday through Saturday, with an hour-long episode also shown on Saturday (oddly enough, they started with the 25th episode "People Are Alike All Over" and went pretty much in sequential order from there, which meant the first 24 episodes didn't get aired until months later, after they finished the run and started over). I eagerly began spending my allowance money (I was 12 or 13) on blank VHS tapes and recorded it every single night. Every now and then I’d miss an episode due to a variety of problems (a stray power outage, for example, or setting the VCR to record at 11:00 AM instead of PM. D’oh!), but I steamed ahead undaunted, fairly sure that they’d show every episode at least twice. After a couple of years I had 151 episodes recorded, which represented the entire syndication package (of course, the downside to home-recording old TV shows is the sad fact that they’ve been shortened to fit more commercials; each episode was missing at least two or three minutes, sometimes more). Five episodes eluded me, however (the five non-syndicated episodes, otherwise known as “The Lost Five”). Much to my delight, three of these rare gems were aired as part of a Silver Anniversary Special around 1984 or so, and I eagerly recorded them. I then stumbled upon the fourth non-syndicated episode (“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) on a public domain tape in a clearance bin at Musicland (now known as Sam Goody).

A few years later (1992 to be precise: I remember because it was shortly after the birth of my daughter), I triumphantly finished the collection with the purchase of the two-tape “Treasures of The Twilight Zone” VHS set, which provided the final missing episode (“The Encounter”). With all 156 episodes acquired, I assumed the task was complete, and I’d never need to collect the series again.

Next, I ended up buying the entire series on VHS from Columbia House, this time in full uncut versions with vastly superior picture and audio, to replace the hacked-up syndicated versions I had already collected, from about 1993 till 1996 (it was a monthly subscription thing). 42 purchases later, I had the entire series, complete and uncut, which rendered my original home recordings ob-so-lete.* I recall having vague concerns that the tapes wouldn’t last forever, but VHS was the format of choice back then (unless you consider laserdisc, which I never delved into, and besides, the series was never made available in its entirety on laserdisc anyway). In any case, I believed that this would be the final time I'd ever collect the series.

Next, I bought the entire series on DVD, a single disc at a time, from 1998 till 2002. I didn't hesitate because of the dramatic leap in quality from VHS to DVD. 45 purchases later, I had the entire series in digital form and could get sell off my Columbia House tapes (which I did, a few at a time; a gentleman in Australia who’s name I’ve long since forgotten bought many of them). Better yet, the slimmer DVD cases took up much less room. I firmly believed that this would be the final time I'd ever collect the series.

Then, in December of 2005, the first of five Definitive DVD sets was released. The new editions were newly remastered in high definition from the original camera negatives, which promised pristine picture and sound. I snapped them up without hesitation, given the tremendous leap in quality from the previous DVDs (which were sold off on eBay for a decent sum), not to mention the minimal shelf space these new sets would take up. Throughout 2006, I bought each set as it was released (about every three months or so). My impending purchase of Season 5 (December 2006) will mark the fourth time I've collected the series in its entirety.

The reason I'm thinking about all this? Because last night in my garage, digging through boxes, I discovered my original VHS home recordings. I thought they were long gone (in fact, I have a vague memory of throwing the entire box into a dumpster with a sort of manic glee, but I guess I must've dreamed that, or maybe glimpsed an alternate reality). I sifted through them, studying the crude hand-written episode titles on colored paper scotch-taped to each tape sleeve. I remembered fondly the excitement I felt every time I finished one tape and started a new one. I recalled the thrill I experienced when I finally recorded “Eye of the Beholder” (indisputably one of the finest episodes ever) after missing it the first time around. I basked in the glow of a time long past, when my responsibilities consisted solely of doing my homework and getting my chores done, when The Twilight Zone was my daily ticket to mystery, to terror, to paradox, to fascinating realms of wonder and imagination. Touching those tattered, clunky tapes was like touching my childhood. Tears welled up in my eyes. Tears are welling up in my eyes again, as I type these words.

The Twilight Zone has accompanied me through high school, through college, through a failed marriage, through fatherhood, through career changes, through remarriage, through apartment-dwelling to homeownership, from adolescence to middle-age. It’s inextricably a part of who I am.

I purchased the first four Definitive season sets eagerly, but for the most part they’ve sat on the shelf in my office. Since I tend toward obsessive compulsion, having them was paramount, but actually watching them hasn’t been a priority. Why haven’t I explored these sets? Why haven’t I set aside adequate time? Have I simply been too busy? Or have I been waiting till the collection is complete?

Well, the collection is about to be complete. Again.

I fear I will sob like a baby, and my wife will think I’m even crazier than she already believes me to be.

I hereby pledge, in writing, that I will watch these DVDs. I will make the time. I will, I will, I will.

I must.

And you know what? When the series comes out yet again on home video, presumably in a high-definition format (optical disc, holographic pocket-cube, or whatever)…. well yes, I’ll buy it again. How could I not?

* TZ pun, intended for hardcore fans only.


Michael Chambers said...

Do you still have those original VHS tapes? They are priceless if you do. Not just for the TZ episodes but for the commercials and other station ID content.

Tell me you didn't throw them away. At least say someone bought them.

Craig Beam said...

Michael, sorry for the delayed response. I actually DO still have them! Lots of great KPTV-12 bits. Sadly, since I was young and stupid, I recorded everything on the SLP speed, so the tapes look awful, even by VHS standards.