In Part I, we began our countdown with four episodes of The Twilight Zone that touched on fear of the unknown and how human’s natural instincts react to each other under a veil of suspicion.
For Part II, the list explores futures which are rooted in history, where oppressive states wield their power because they know what’s best for you and for the collective. Rod Serling, the series’ creator and writer of most episodes, was a decorated WWII veteran and joined the military hoping to fight the Nazis. Serling instead was sent into the Pacific theater to fight against the Japanese. Having witnessed death and the horrors of war so often, Serling returned to civilian life a strong opponent of military force, and even more opposed to fascistic governments as evidenced in the top three episodes. But first, we continue with #4 and it’s study on neighborly responsibilities and self-reliance in the face of a looming crisis.
(The list will solely draw from the 30 minute episodes of season 1-3 and season 5, the only seasons available of the series currently available on Netflix. Season 4 episodes were an hour long and can be seen on DVD or OnDemand at Amazon.)
#4 – The Shelter (S03E03)
The radio announcement of an approaching missile attack sends a group unprepared neighbors into a frenzy as they try to breach the only underground bomb shelter in the neighborhood. Built by the local doctor, it only has enough resources to secure himself, his wife and child.
The doctor has taken all precautions to be self-reliant and prepared to secure his family’s safety in the event of such a scenario. His neighbors, too caught up in the most recent innovations in home comfort, have no such plan in place. During the crisis, they plead to be let in to the shelter, they even begin to turn on each other. The doctor remains steadfast in his decision and we are left to feel sorry for the ill-prepared. Even when it’s suggested that they enlist the help of people on the next street over to gain entrance to the doctor’s safe-haven, the small mob claims that this shelter is theirs, and no one else’s.
I don’t blame them for the actions they take trying to survive during the crisis, I blame them for the actions they didn’t take in not preparing beforehand, and then expecting to rely those that did, to secure their well being. Being self-reliant is one of the most important neighborly things you can do to secure the peace.
#3 – Eye of the Beholder
A woman lies in a hospital bed, her head and face completely covered in bandages. It’s her eleventh and final approved state funded surgery to attempt to correct her appearance so that she will fit in with the rest of society and not be an outcast. This episode is one of the more famous of the series due to it’s dramatic-twist climax.
On it’s surface this episode (and the following #2 entry) is a commentary on the perception of beauty and it’s status in our culture. But more importantly, it shows us a future where the state has imposed rules that clearly distinguish those who are normal from those who are not, and that attempts to force conformity of the abnormal – whatever the state deems that to be. In this case, it’s the physical appearance of this woman, but during a consultation with her government doctor, she lashes out about the broader issue.
“Who are you people anyway? What is this state? Who makes all these rules, and traditions and statutes that people who are different have to stay away from the people who are normal? The state isn’t God, doctor… it’s hasn’t the right to penalize for an accident at birth, it hasn’t the right to make ugliness a crime.”
The crime of nonconformity is so severe that the state even provides for the exterminations of undesirables. Liberty most certainly is a celebration of nonconformity and the abnormal.
#2 – The Obsolete Man (S02E24)
Trust me, it was close call when deciding which episode would top this list. I suspect most would have guessed this would be the one. Well, I aim to misbehave. The obsolete man in question is librarian Romney Wordsworth. A God-fearing man, Wodsworth is on trial and must defend himself against the God-less State, one that seeks to destroy truth by burning pages.
The episode begins with a trial wherein passionate volleys of diatribe are fired from both sides. After the verdict, Romney is sent to his quarters for a televised acting out of his sentence. It’s a truly fun and riveting half-hour of television as Burgess Meredith acts his heart out. Wordsworth’s rants seem drawn from fantasies any free society junkie has if ever confronted by tyranny. The Obsolete Man is a bit like a greatest hits record of liberty versus tyranny. A rebuttal to arguments made by George Bernard Shaw and the eugenists of the early 20th century that continue to creep up in today’s 21st.
Rod Serling’s epilogue of the episode speaks the truth…
“…Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man, that state… is obsolete. A case to be filed under “M” for Mankind, in The Twilight Zone.”
#1 – Number 12 Looks Just Like You (S05E17)
The theme of beauty in this one is practically the same as Eye of the Beholder above, but for me this is a much more accessible story for today’s generation and a great companion to #2 on the list. Based on the 1952 short story “The Beautiful People” by Charles Beaumont, (who also penned this and a number of other episodes of the series) the episode follows a young woman who is about to approach the age when she will undergo “the transformation.” A process that promotes social harmony whereas every young adult has their facial and body appearance altered according to the look of a small selection of base models – all very attractive and now only distinguishable by the name tags they must wear.
The young woman, Marliyn, has serious doubts about the process of which her mother and best friend have already undergone. They encourage her to go through with it and when she becomes agitated, they even offer her a glass of “Instant Smile,” another of the state’s devices to promote social harmony. Part of me thinks I hear The Lego Movie song, “Everything is Awesome” playing in the background. When Marilyn asks if she will be forced to take the transformation if she chooses not to, she is met with coercive utopian hogwash.
“No one has ever been forced to take transformation if he didn’t want it. You see, the problem is simply to discover why you don’t want it. And then to make the necessary correction.”
As we move closer and closer to a time where simply tolerating differences is no longer accepted and full celebrated conformity becomes the law of the land, let this episode remain as a warning from science-fiction and not a prediction for reality.
The episode doesn’t end in the way we’d like it to, (most TZ episodes don’t) and I like that. It allows us to witness with great sadness how and what happened in this fictional world and hopefully instill within us the will to stop why it would happen in our world. It’s the perfect prequel to the tragic events of The Obsolete Man and the why of that world’s existence. Western tyrannies have roots made up of cultures like the world of this episode and that’s why it’s number one. Politics is downstream of culture.