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THE FALL SEASON

UPN Hoping It Can Revive the Magic of 'Twilight Zone' Series

September 23, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension ... a dimension of sound ... a dimension of sight

The big question is "why."

Why would anybody want to re-create "The Twilight Zone," Rod Serling's seminal 1959-64 CBS anthology series? The brilliantly crafted sci-fi series, in repeats on the Sci-Fi Channel, was as close to perfection as one could get. Previous attempts to revive the magic and mystery of the series have failed--first as a 1983 movie and then as a series from 1985 to '86 on CBS.

But UPN has decided to unlock the door to "The Twilight Zone." The hourlong series, which premiered Wednesday, is from Trilogy Entertainment, the producing entity that successfully revived another classic anthology series, "The Outer Limits."

Executive producer Pen Densham has been trying for three years to bring "Twilight Zone" back to the small screen. But it has been an uphill battle. "Anthologies are such an anathema to television," says Densham. "It's like trying to sell the plague."

Densham became interested in doing a new version of the series after he read that CBS owned the rights to "The Twilight Zone." "Normally rights to these shows are totally tied up like they are spaghetti," he says.

So he approached CBS chief Les Moonves about doing the series. "In 1999, I pitched him the idea of 'The Twilight Zone' as a 40th anniversary series. He gave it a lot of thought. We actually wrote a bible and 22 episodes of ideas, all on spec. I really believed this series deserved to be on the air."

Moonves turned down the idea, but Densham didn't take no for an answer and called him about once a year. "It was always given consideration, but he just didn't see how this particular show would work."

Then when CBS took over operation of UPN earlier this year, Densham called Moonves again, pitching "Twilight Zone" as a companion piece to the UPN series "Star Trek: Enterprise." This time, Moonves gave Densham the green light.

Achieving the same caliber of storytelling as the original has been daunting to the creative staff. "I am humbled," Densham says. "You read the list of the number of shows that Rod wrote, and you go, 'How could he do all of this?' He was a man of biting intelligence, a man who was using this medium to speak to humanity. I really respect that."

Actor-director Forest Whitaker is the host and consulting producer on "The Twilight Zone." Whitaker had worked before for Trilogy, on the film "Blown Away."

"We went through a list of potential candidates, and when Forest's name came up, we went, 'Wow, this is really cooking,' " says Densham. "This is a man who understands storytelling, a man who has been both behind and in front of the cameras. He is a man who has never come out of the feature world to stand up for a TV show. We believe that Forest spiritually was the person who could say, 'I am not Rod Serling, but I believe in these stories.' "

Like Densham, Whitaker is a big fan of the original "Twilight Zone." He signed on because he felt Trilogy could do justice to the old series. "I decided that if we could make the shows the kind of quality they were before, then I would feel proud," the new host said.

As consulting producer, Whitaker reads all the scripts, gives notes to the writers and discusses casting. He also plans to direct at least one episode.

While Serling was a dour but ironic host, Whitaker is upbeat and friendly. The actor says he is playing himself.

"I am trying to ask the audience to come with me. I can guarantee there will be interesting shows and good shows, and let's watch these together and let's deal with these together. The big difference is that Rod and I have very different personalties. I am not trying to assume his personality," Whitaker said.

The special visual effects in the series are important but subtle. "We call them invisible special effects," says special-effects supervisor Sam Nicholson of Stargate Effects. "They always complement the dramatic intent of each story rather than overshadow it."

Densham says UPN hasn't asked him to fashion the series for young audiences, though he acknowledges, "There is a sensibility at UPN where they want the audience to understand where they are when they tune into the network. But at the same time, we follow 'Star Trek,' which has this incredibly blended audience. We are not locked into youth mode. We are basically locked into how we can fascinate and hold an audience."

"The Twilight Zone" can be seen Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on UPN. The network rated the first episode TV PG-L (may be unsuitable for young audiences, with an advisory for language).

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