Before 'Black Mirror,' We Had 'The Twilight Zone'
Some of the best science fiction gives lie to its name—it’s not about science, and it resonates with its audiences precisely because it’s a commentary on present realities. Mainstream science fiction, in particular, has asked us many times to consider some very fundamental questions about society, politics, identity and individuality, about the very nature of reality itself. The Star Trek franchise, for example, was known for social commentary on life in 1960s America: “I have no belief that Star Trek depicts the actual future,” Gene Roddenberry has said about his creation, “it depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that.”
Now we’ve got Black Mirror, which, in these one-hour standalone episodes, allows us to confront our unease about technology (about social media and virtual realities in particular, it seems) by pushing the what-ifs to unthinkable extremes: What if the number of followers and likes on Instagram really determined our station in life? What if things like our Spotify playlists can determine our relationships?
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker has made no secret that he’s taken inspiration from The Twilight Zone, and while some similarities are obvious—in genre (science fiction, sometimes bordering on horror) and format (the episodic anthology was something The Twilight Zone helped pioneer)—and the dissimilarities between the two parsed to death, the two shows are fundamentally, philosophically connected.
Now here’s little bit of history for our Netflix-era friends. The Twilight Zone is actually three series, beginning with the five-season original created by Rod Serling, which ran from 1959 to 1964. Twenty years later, it was revived for a second series, which ran from 1985 to 1989. A second revival was short-lived and unremarkable, running only for one season. (And yet another reboot, this time to be produced by Jordan Peele, has just been greenlighted by CBS-All Access.)
Choosing science fiction as a genre allowed Serling to tackle the big issues of his time with immunity from pressure from advertisers—he could argue that his stories were metaphorical, while confronting heavy themes that were verboten on primetime television. For American baby boomers, these anxieties that would emerge as recurring themes included nuclear war, McCarthyism, racism, and the loss of innocence.
(As everyone from Stephen Colbert to random YouTube uploaders have noted, many of these themes are eerily…current. And that's what makes these episodes classics.)
For us Gen-Xers, the Twilight Zone revival of the late 1980s was a landmark show that helped give voice to our own set of anxieties. Following on the heels of the tepid Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), which seemed to forget the seriousness of its roots and went full fantasy-horror, The Twilight Zone TV series was truer to its roots. Though a good number of its episodes were also fantasy-horror pieces, the series attracted some notable talents, some of whom were still about to hit it big.
Wes Craven directed some of the series' most memorable episodes, while writers like Harlan Ellison, Rockne S. O'Bannon, and even George R. R. Martin have their names on a handful of episodes. Bruce Willis was the lead actor for the premiere episode, "Shatterday", while other episodes featured a list of name actors that included Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand, Martin Landau, and Helen Mirren.
Technology wasn't always front and center in these episodes—at the dawn of home computers and pre-Internet, we didn't yet have a relationship with technology that we could be fearful about. Technology did figure at the edges of the stories, though, hinting at future anxieties. In the touching episode "Her Pilgrim Soul," for example, a pair of scientists discover a human soul living out its life inside a hologram, while "To See the Invisible Man" imagines a world where one could be subject to banishment from social interaction by the use of an implant (hello there, Facebook).
The 80s was still in the age of the Cold War and of the Space Race, so these would be recurring themes, too, but as in the original series, these bigger issues really only provided the backdrop for the characters to question their humanity. Take "A Little Peace and Quiet," where a harried housewife discovers that she has the power to stop time. Annoyed by her family, by her neighbors, and by the news of rising tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (that was a thing, kids; read up), she uses her power to buy herself a little peace and quiet through the ultimate kind of apathy—by removing herself from current events. That backfires in the end, as these stories ultimately do, as she finds herself the sole actor in a world on the very brink of nuclear annihilation. It's not the atom bomb that's the villain here; it's apathy.
One of my favorites of all time would have to be the underrated "The Cold Equations," which came out in 1989, in the third season of the series. Here, an astronaut finds himself in a profound ethical dilemma: Tasked to deliver medicine to a plague-stricken colony on another world, his ship is doomed to run out of fuel because of an unexpected extra payload, in the form of a stowaway. Does he jettison the girl into space, or does he offload the vaccines? Is his responsibility to the greater good, or to the individual right in front of him? There are no easy answers.
Tellingly, "The Cold Equations" was based ona short story by Tom Godwin, first published in 1954. It was also made into an episode of the British TV show Out of This World in 1962, before being remade for The Twilight Zone in 1989.
What is at the heart of all this episode, and indeed most of The Twilight Zone and, now, Black Mirror, is the tension between our humanity versus the demands of modern life and the inexonerable march of technological progress. As it turns out, we've been worried about the same thing for a long time now, only in different forms—and we've had (perhaps ironically) television to help us through.