I posted a few months ago about the 2019 Twilight Zone: the simple version is that it’s not very good, not as smart as it would like to be, and fundamentally flawed in its structure. I thought that would be the end of my thoughts on it, but somehow it’s festered in my mind, and I have some more thoughts about it.
In the original post I talked about how while the original Twilight Zone looks on the surface like science fiction, it’s actually parable in structure, but I want to go more in depth in exploring what science fiction is and what it tries to achieve.
Scifi: What It Is, And What It Isn’t
For example, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov is interested in the implications of what sentient artificial intelligence means for our understanding of personhood, how an AI would define and think about itself, and how society would go about trying to control it, leading to the three laws of robotics for which the book is most famous.
This definition of science fiction is also why something like Star Wars, at its heart, is not science fiction despite having a lot of the trappings of it. It has a lot of technologies they don’t exist in the modern day, but it’s not interested in the impact of them. It has lightsabers because they’re cool, not because it wants to speculate about how they would change warfare.
Even the implications of the force, the speculative aspect of its universe that’s most critical to the story, isn’t really explored. How does the force existing change the universe? You get mystical samurai cops, and that’s about it. Nothing about the force is actually key to the functioning of the star wars universe. You could take it out and the movies would be a lot less fun, but the universe wouldn’t really be changed. This isn’t to disparage Star Wars: I love Star Wars, but despite its trappings it’s fantasy, and to say it’s science fiction just isn’t accurate.
2019 Twilight Zone: Simple Themes for a Simple Show
In the original post I stated: “Another fundamental problem with the 2019 Twilight Zone series is that it isn’t anywhere near as smart as it thinks it is. Often the idea or message at the heart of an episode is borderline offensive in how simple it is… They’re not bad messages, but they’re simple. And the television audience of 2019 isn’t the audience of 1959: the modern audience is more schooled and experienced with scifi and weird fiction. We’re not shocked or provoked into thought anymore just by the introduction of a weird element like your car coming to life and stalking you. It’s not enough.”
This isn’t to say audiences of 1959 were dumb, but the discourse around scifi for even the casual tv watcher of today is a lot more complex than it was back then. We’re not in the 101 level of scifi anymore, more like the 103 level: we’ve seen the initial introduction of most scifi ideas, seen them explored and challenged and subverted, and are now bored by those first two levels of discussion.
It’s a bit like watching the original Godfather. It’s a great movie, but watching it today it’s so archetypal as to be simple. It’s still a compelling work because of the gravitas involved and because we subconsciously give old movies a pass, but a modern beat for beat remake would be boring and fall flat because we already know the mafia genre in and out, have been through six seasons of the sopranos and other works that took the foundation the Godfather put in place and built on it.
This is why the core message of an episode like Point of Origin, in which refugees from another world are rounded up and placed in concentration camps, that immigrants aren’t bad and we should care about the suffering of others falls flat. It’s not a bad message, and it’s one that a mind boggling amount of people nowadays somehow still don’t understand, but from a fictive perspective it’s too simple and trite to spark interest and engagement or make the audience think.
Censorship and Metaphor
In the original post I wrote: “Another main reason that the original Twilight Zone was structured as a parable was because of Rod Sterling’s frustration with censorship. In 1959 what could be portrayed on screen, and which topics could be explored, was far less permissive than it is today. This video explains how a screenplay Rod Sterling wrote about the holocaust ended up being edited and having all mention of gas chambers cut from it because American Gas was one of the sponsors. The weird and fantastical elements of the original Twilight Zone were often used to allow the writers to talk about issues through metaphor.”
As an aside, the video goes on to show an interview with Rod Sterling where he disavows any kind of social commentary in the Twilight Zone, but whether this was his initial conception of the Twilight that then evolved or just him trying to play dumb so the Twilight Zone would seem harmless to advertisers, as the video goes on to point out, the Twilight Zone went on to be filled with social commentary that Sterling couldn’t explore in his other work because of the censorship of advertisers.
But just as with the point about the lack of complexity in it’s themes, 2019 Twilight Zone exists in a different era than the original. We’re at a point in television and fiction where creators don’t have to bow as much to advertisers or censors and can actually just say what they mean.
Point of Origin doesn’t need to veil it’s message about immigrants and the demonization in scifi terms; it could just tell a story about real world immigrants and refugees. This doesn’t mean it has to be bereft of weird elements, those still have a valid role to play, but it does mean it can address the issues it’s about head on and directly, and I’d argue there’s value in that kind of clarity.
Some people will make an argument that veiling issues in scifi metaphors lowers an audience member’s defenses and lets them look at an issue stripped of their preconceptions and prejudice. And there’s certainly a tradition of creators using weird fiction to try and accomplish that.
I’d argue that while it’s a nice sentiment, it’s not a particularly effective technique, and often the metaphor simply goes over people’s heads. It’s far, far too easy for an audience member to simply think that sure, in this case what happened was unfair, but this real world case is different for x y and z reasons, no matter how insignificant those x y z differences are to the core situation. Fundamentally, people are simply very, very good at ignoring and minimizing information that destabilizes their world view, and it’s relatively simple to do it with fiction. And none of the 2019 Twilight Zone episodes are pointed enough to break through that cognitive barrier.
From Best to Worst: Ranking 2019 Twilight Zone Episodes
Before we go, let’s have a little fun and rank the 2019 Twilight Zone episodes from best to worst. The only genuinely good episode is The Traveler, which is creepy and atmospheric even if it doesn’t have anything interesting to say.
Next come the block of episodes that could potentially be interesting, but squander their premise and feel like cheap and abbreviated movies: Wunderkind, Not All Men, Point of Origin, and Replay. They have a clear message, but are still boring and don’t have a twist that’s worth waiting for.
Which is in contrast to the next block which are just nonsensical: Nightmare at 30,000 Feet, Blue Scorpion, Six Degrees of Freedom, and Blurryman. The last three are the most incomprehensible. Blue Scorpion can best be described as something something guns something. It understands there’s a conversation to be had about whether it’s the gun or the person that’s at fault in gun violence, but decides to strike a third route and say nothing while also collapsing into complete gibberish. Six Degrees of Freedom is even worse. After floating around a spaceship for an hour, the message seems to be that there are aliens, they’re watching us, and they have goop.
Blurryman is the last episode of the season, and decides to get meta and comment on the Twilight Zone itself and bemoan how hard it is to be taken seriously as a writer. As a bonus, it also includes a terrible cgi version of Rod Sterling when the main character suffers what is very clearly a psychotic break with reality.
Photo Credit: IMDB