Getting more in the 'Zone' with new boxed sets

Two of the most memorable episodes from 1960s television become available this week in new box sets certain to turn collectors' heads all over Howard County. And — cue the eerie Theremin music — both are connected to "The Twilight Zone."

Anyone who watched "The Twilight Zone" with some regularity in any of its many scheduled airings over the years will surely recall the episode titled "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." This was the one in which the young William Shatner played a recovering mental patient who just can't be fully certain whether or not there really is an ugly, fur-covered gremlin balanced on the wing of his airplane, about to tear a huge hole in the engine casing.

The delicious torture of suspense in that one episode was almost overpowering to those of us laid out in flannel pajamas, our eyes propped on skinny elbows, as close as we dared get to the volcanic rim of our erupting Motorolas.

I can't say the experience is the same watching it again some five decades later. But it's pleasant indeed to find that the show itself still comes off as solid and well told — even if scary makeup, fantasy effects and real newscasts have all taken us far nearer to our own nightmares in the years since we mislaid our innocence.

The classic Shatner episode appears early in the new five-disc Blu-ray collection "The Twilight Zone" Season 5 (Image Entertainment, not rated, $99.98). After trying their hands at an hour-long format in season four, Serling and company went out in grand style by returning to terse and pointed 30-minute episodes. It was not enough to please sponsors, however, and season five became the series' swan song.

Guest stars in these 36 final episodes are Mickey Rooney, Jack Klugman, George Takei, James Coburn, Lee Marvin and many others just as good. All perk up the gem-like tales of invaders and androids, impostors and dreamers, which Serling and his fellow scribes served up in some of the most economical dramatic writing that series television ever produced.

As in the first four box sets released on Blu-ray, the shows here all look fresher than last month's teen idol, thanks to being shot on quality celluloid film stock. Bonus supplements include 20 new audio commentaries, isolated music tracks, rare vintage TV ads and interviews, radio dramas and more.

The second unforgettable relic of '60s TV, relative to "The Twilight Zone," came in the midst of an otherwise reality-based comedy series. It was on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and it was creator Carl Reiner's stroke of genius to take his domestic sitcom off the well beaten path in the episode "It May Look Like a Walnut!"

This was the show where Van Dyke's Rob Petrie wakes to a world taken over by scary pod people who all think the same — sort of like today's liberals — only they take their orders from a very dapper Danny Thomas. They have come from a distant planet to enslave us by eradicating our sense of humor and our thumbs, two cogent symbols of our uniqueness and our independence.

Reiner named that scary planet Twilo as an homage to Serling's groundbreaking series. Reiner's present-day recollections of how it all came together is just one of the priceless interview supplements on the new five-DVD box set, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" 50th Anniversary Edition: Fan Favorites (Image Entertainment, not rated, $24.98), arriving in stores Sept. 20.

"It May Look Like a Walnut!" was the episode that helped clinch one of the series' 15 Emmy Awards. For a pleasant reminder why, watch Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) walk a fine line between their usual warm comedy personas and grotesque, tranced-out aliens. Then stick around for smiles, chuckles and even a tearful belly-laugh or two in the original pilot and another 19 fully restored episodes, all carefully chosen for inclusion here.

More 'Fringe' elements

The only fantasy series today that comes anywhere near "The Twilight Zone" for sheer imagination, originality and human drama is "Fringe." To mark the return of its fourth season this fall on Fox, Warner Home Video has just released "Fringe" The Complete Third Season on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

I definitely warmed to "Fringe" over its first two seasons, but it became real "appointment television" for me in its third. In what is basically an episodic cop series format within an unfolding uberplot, it doubled down in season three, sending its characters out into an alternate universe in search of even more odd phenomena and logic-defyingmysteries.

This was the season in which FBI special agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) was brainwashed into thinking she belonged in the alternate universe of a New York City where the World Trade Center never fell, coffee and fountain pens have disappeared, and rips in the fabric of time and space have put her official counterparts on the offensive.

Meanwhile, Olivia's doppelganger is working undercover in our universe, and in the guide of the good agent Dunham is actively working on our world's destruction. (Like we need help.)

So far, the team of writers and directors assembled by exec producer J.J. Abrams has kept a firmer rein on the shenanigans than he did in the muddled bog that was "Lost." Each episode's mini-mystery plot is better integrated with the series' advancing plot, and both universe's sets of characters are kept distinct and engaged in the numerous intrigues.

The six-disc DVD set ($59.98) is flawless, leaving seemingly no room for improvement in the high-definition version. But the Blu-ray set ($69.97) is noticeably brighter, with deeper blacks and firmer colors, and the DTS-HD 5.1 audio is a real kick in a good sound system. The Blu-ray box also comes with over two hours of exclusive features, including "maximum episode mode" extras on "Glimmer to the Other Side."

Many happy returns

These are happy days for purveyors of TV's episodic parade of villains and heroes, as collectible DVD box sets pile up faster than the leaves in October.

You're probably on the lookout for your own personal favorites. But more offbeat new arrivals are awaiting adoption — most of them costing less than a tankful of gas. Submitted for your approval:

"Nikita" The Complete First Season (Warner Home Video, not rated, DVD $59.98; Blu-ray Disc $69.97). The world never grows tired of sexy assassins, especially ones that "go rogue" and begin targeting their former trainers in covert government agencies known by aliases such as "Division." Maggie Q of "Mission: Impossible III" makes for a compelling action lead in this good-looking CW series, also returning this fall for a second season. The set includes all 22 episodes of the premiere season, plus some three hours of bonus footage, deleted scenes, a gag reel and audio commentaries.

"Two and a Half Men" The Complete Eighth Season (Warner Home Video, not rated, two-DVD set $44.98). We have to admit, we didn't watch the first seven seasons of this notoriously edgy sitcom about raunchy bachelors and the lighter side of shacking up. We plan to miss the eighth, as well, but all 16 of its episodes are included on this two-DVD set for die-hard fans. This is the last season in which Charlie Sheen will be on hand to add his brand of antics to the mix. Wait, wait, this is also the season when Alan (Jon Cryer) "attempts to save his failing chiropractic business with a ridiculous investment scheme." ... Nah, still not interested.

"Mad" Season One - Part One (Warner Home Video, not rated, DVD $19.97). The Cartoon Network's attempt to recapture the feel-good lunacy of the old Mad Magazine in an animated sketch-comedy format proves diverting, at best. Some of the parodies of famous films and TV shows merit a chuckle, but most seem pretty mechanical and rather tame. The obsession with pimple-squeezing is a dead giveaway to the level of humor. Mad Magazine could be gross, too, but it was mostly good-natured fun. Still, if you enjoy being diverted by hit-and-miss sophomoric humor, this collection packs 13 half-hour episodes onto one DVD at an economy price.

"Camelot" The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay Entertainment, not rated, DVD $49.98; Blu-ray Disc $59.99). The highest rated debut ever on the Starz cable channel, this adult "re-imagining" of the Arthurian legend is handsome but gets hokier by the minute. Its succession of bodice-ripping hunks and honeys do little to help us suspend our disbelief about it being set in muddy medieval times, just before chivalry began to flower and someone installed running water. The three-disc sets include the 10 initial hour-long episodes, plus all the expected blooper footage, interviews and featurettes.

Also new on DVD

"A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song" (Warner Home Entertainment Group, rated PG, DVD $28.98). Warner Premier takes a well-thumbed page from the Disney Channel in this direct-to-video original about a would-be teen idol (sweet Lucy Hale) whose nightmare of a stepmother (Missi Pyle), catty fraud of a stepsister (Megan Park), and bratty younger brother stand in her way of winning a big talent showcase and taking home the boy of her dreams. The script and direction are too formulaic and overblown, but the few musical interludes are as good as any in the recent Disney vehicles. The DVD offers lots of bonus extras for fans of Lucy Hale.

"The Entitled" (Anchor Bay Entertainment, rated R, DVD $26.98; Blu-ray Disc $29.99). Class warfare erupts in this fairly engrossing kidnapping drama about an out-of-work young man (Kevin Zegers) who decides to spread the misery around by holding three wealthy kids for ransom. The "perfect crime" goes awry soon enough, leaving everyone scurrying to find a way out. The high-pressure theatrics on both sides of the kidnapping scheme pay off in quality acting and stylish direction, making this one of the most ambitious psychological thrillers of the year. Ray Liotta and Victor Garber co-star.

"Thor and Loki: Blood Brothers" (Shout! Factory, not rated, $14.97). More graphic-novel-style animation from the Marvel Knights studio finds our main Thunder God, Thor, chained in the dungeons of Asgard, about to be re-engaged in a final deadly tussle with his twisted estranged brother, Loki. This 72-minute original feature offers insight into Loki's "insatiable lust for power." Is the poor dumb brute just hurting and feeling unloved and misunderstood? The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes look and a visit with the writer and illustrator. If you are a fan, doubt not for whom the hammer pounds, it pounds for thee.

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