Summit of Imagination: Decades Later, “The Twilight Zone” Is Still Influencing Storytelling

Nov 8, 2016

Recently, Netflix furthered its reign of dominance when it released the highly anticipated third season of Black Mirror, an anthology series that provides viewers with stories of the weird, ironic, humorous, and tragic all revolving around emerging or near-future technology. It’s no doubt a topical show in the era of social media. As modernity seems to dictate, we get a vast majority of our news from Facebook, we’re updated constantly of our friends’ goings-on via Twitter and Snapchat, and pretty much any question or curiosity we’ve ever had can be sought or delved further into on Reddit. Tablets, smartphones, and laptops dominate the way we interact with the world today, and on-the-cusp advances like nanobots and self-driving cars are due to make science fiction a reality very soon.

Black Mirror is the perfect gaze upon our imperfect world that gives so much to the individual but asks if the cost is worth it. The world as a collective is transitioning from a generation of early Internet users getting acquainted with a computerized world boasting a wealth of information to one where each successive generation is growing up as greater and greater experts in these technologies, a world where computer science moves so fast that you can either keep up with it or essentially disappear from sight of your family and friends. In short, Black Mirror really couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Its biting commentary and sociopolitical allegories are both heady and entertaining, full of twist endings that will sit with you long after Netflix asks “Are you still watching?”

Such a formula should be instantly familiar to the older generations, television historians, SyFy Channel fans, or even simply those who were pointed toward one of TV’s greatest series by an older family member, like I was. The Twilight Zone is the progenitor of the spooky, mysterious, and sociopolitically critical anthology from which shows like Black Mirror are derived, and if you’ve yet to be assigned a classic episode in school or caught a few tales on the annual marathon every New Year’s weekend, it’s about time you do as narrator and showrunner Rod Serling says and “cross over” into The Twilight Zone.

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Netflix’s anthology was renewed exclusively for the streamium service after Black Mirror‘s original home Endemol had gone the European way of TV and decided twelve episodes was enough. To its credit, Netflix saw something magical in Black Mirror, and it’s now being rewarded for correctly reading the pulse of its subscribers yet again. Just like Black Mirror, however, you can sign into Netflix and find The Twilight ZoneThe Twilight Zone ran from 1959 until 1964, spanning five seasons, including a fourth season that tried hour-long episodes instead of the half-hour format the rest of the series produced. This fourth season is a bit of a lost era for the show. It’s the only one missing from Netflix’s library and those hour-long episodes aren’t often among the days-long lineup on SyFy when it still annually does its New Year’s marathon.

Though I’m only twenty-seven, I really don’t remember a time in my life when The Twilight Zone, which premiered in 1959, wasn’t a big deal for me. For a while, reruns would air just when I got off the bus after school. That was before things like Netflix or even On Demand, so I was grateful to catch it when I could. SyFy Channel, back when it spelled the word correctly, would run twice-annual marathons of the series—during Fourth of July and New Year’s weekends—during which time I would tune in often to those episodes, though commercials were a problem for which we didn’t yet have an answer. It’s been revived twice so far, once in the 1980s and again in the early 2000s, to diminishing returns. Another revival is currently in the works too. It’s a show that was ahead of its time in some ways, while remaining a necessary and daring time-stamp of its era, much like Black Mirror today. The Twilight Zone used science fiction to alternately entertain and confuse, but it always—always—gave viewers something to think about.

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During the sixties, the United States was rife with McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and a sort of xenophobic jingoism that defined the Cold War. Americans lived in fear of foreigners, especially pinko communists and the brainwashing influence they may have on American’s penchant for ideals in the form of sloganeering. To its credit, the Soviet Union was equally appalled at our way of life here and lived similarly on alert for infiltration. Rod Serling, maybe TV’s original badass, observed both sides and used his series to criticize aspects of this sort of culture.

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That fear-mongering, finger-pointing from McCarthyism was never more famously displayed than in what may be the series’ most famous episode, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” If you’re even a little familiar with the show, you know of this one. A neighborhood takes turns playing the blame game after its block loses power and the sole bit of functional electricity jumps from home to home. It was remade in the 2003 revival of the series, where the spooky extraterrestrial scapegoats were replaced by literal terrorists. It lacked the nuance of the sixties classic, like much of that revival did. We didn’t need the assumed villains to be updated for modern day. That’s the beauty of The Twilight Zone—it’s timeless.

Another classic, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” depicts a young girl who, according to customs, is set up to choose one of a handful of full-body makeovers so she can rid herself of her average looks. She resists initially, crying out for the sin of individuality, before she ultimately succumbs to looking just like so many others in her world. The Twilight Zone was decrying the chase of standardized “perfection” long before plastic surgery took over an industry in show business, as much of our culture.

Countless other episodes, like “The Shelter” or “The Obsolete Man,” deal with the culture of the era. Exploring selfishness, willful ignorance, and acquiescence to obsolescence through its 156 episodes, The Twilight Zone constantly critiqued the way of the world at the time. Others, like “The Lonely” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” focused smartly on the psyche of the human mind, consciousness, and the human condition. Projections of space travel were a major theme, of course, as at that time Sputnik had just gone up and the United States was less than a decade from landing on the moon for the first time. The pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?” even deals with the inherent isolation of an astronaut’s job.

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The sort of anti-patriotism, anti-corporation, anti-establishment, and pro-humanity ideals Serling and his team often wrote into the show would have never been approved if they plainly called these things for what they were. So instead, The Twilight Zone, as its names suggests, was presented in an alternate unspecific universe, where the characters merely looked like us, but they weren’t us. We couldn’t be that ugly inside, right? That dysfunctional? Black Mirror is just one of literally countless series to take inspiration from The Twilight Zone. Nowadays, as avid visual-media consumers, we see twists coming from far away. “He was dead the whole time!” “It was all in her head!” “Unreliable narrator!” The Twilight Zone was famous for its twists. Watching the show now, if it’s your first time, you might see some of them coming, but that’s because since then we’ve seen so many other stories take from the seminal show. Even with that knowledge, plenty of others will surely leave you surprised too, and even better, leave you thinking.

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Serling was a champion for the underdog. He invited people to think freely for themselves and craftily found a way to produce and get to air some biting commentary on what simply wasn’t working for mankind at the time. The Twilight Zone is timelessly daring, inspiring, and inventive. Black Mirror is the most recent show to come along and carry that subversive torch, and hold it high too. It won’t be the last, I hope. Other anthologies like The Outer Limits and Serling’s other series, Night Gallery, scratch a similar itch of one-off stories, but those didn’t quite resonate in the same way. Serialized dramas like The X-Files and The Sopranos have arguably borrowed a lot too, albeit in very different ways from one another. Movies like Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, games like Alan Wake and Everybody’s Gone To the Rapture—the list is always growing. Roots of these projects and so many more trace back to some vital extent to Serling’s anthology. Its influence has been seen in all visual media for decades.

I say all this not because I think many people need to be alerted to the existence of The Twilight Zone. In my albeit biased view, it seems to me that most people know of it at least, if nothing else by its signature theme song. But if you haven’t watched it in a while, maybe not since you were assigned it in school or caught it on July 4 weekend some years ago, I urge you to revisit it. Maybe even fulfill the millennial dream and binge-watch the series. It holds up very well. It’s not always easy to see how some of the series’ most important subjects—racism, class warfare, and xenophobia—still haven’t been resolved some fifty years later, but for that reason, it’s all the more important that the series continues to live on even after so many others, like Black Mirror, come along and seek to continue Rod Serling’s original vision.

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