Courtesy of CBS

'The Twilight Zone,' Season 2, Episode 7.

October 22, 2020

PONTIN | ‘The Twilight Zone:’ Yesterday and Today

Print More

“It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Believe it or not, the entity described here is not no man’s land on the debate stage, but rather an entirely fictional dimension that enveloped 1960s television viewers and quickly ascended to untouchable acclaim.

Upon tuning into any arbitrary episode of The Twilight Zone, the obvious soundstages and shrill orchestrals appear to be archaic predecessors to the intricate sets and strikingly complex special effects that have become trademarks of modern horror. The grainy, monochromatic wasteland of dated three-piece suits makes the show appear to belong in an era entirely separate from our own, one to which we bear no ties or relations. Of course, however, appearances are often deceiving. Doesn’t this twisted web of trepidation, confusion and frustration sound awfully familiar?

The Twilight Zone isn’t brimming with gore or jump scares; yet it, like many of its contemporaries, reflects the diligent design of plotlines that taunt the limits of the human condition.

As the title sequence so enthrallingly previews, The Twilight Zone is something unearthly without transgressing into the territory of the extraterrestrial. Correspondingly, what is perhaps most perplexing in the landscape of The Twilight Zone is the role of humanity. Are Rod Sterling’s, the creator of the series, characters human? They appear to wallow in some quasi-human classification that waltzes precariously along the border between the qualities we recognize in ourselves and those we scorn as the outsider. The essence of this inquiry lies in the show’s undeniable trend towards determinism, opting frequently to insert characters into pernicious plotlines over which they are poignantly powerless.

The absence of free will is The Twilight Zone’s most moving motif. Time and time again, the characters are caught in the throes of a world they are simply incapable of impacting, a world in which the most crucial decisions are made at the hands of some force that is out of sight yet far from out of mind. As historians have noted on numerous occasions, the show was in many ways an allegory for the environment the Cold War had constructed — potent, puissant, pervasive governmental authorities left to fiddle with the lives of citizens (in their own country or beyond) like pawns.

On a more sinister note, however, the allegory still feels unsettlingly applicable. It is clear that we cannot so easily dismiss The Twilight Zone as a relic of an era marked by containment, proxy wars and missile crises.

As evidence of the series’ enduring resonance, it has since been swooped up for multiple reboots. The most recent surfaced in 2019 with Jordan Peele at the helm and remains strong with two seasons now on the books. The new installment follows the tried-and-true format of the original rendition, leading viewers through a path of (albeit longer) detached stories that are, of course, anchored by foreboding narration — this time with Peele’s voice instead of Serling’s. As is to be expected for a project that bears a cultural weight as heavy as The Twilight Zone’s, the scroll of featured actors is practically bursting with big names, ranging from Seth Rogen to Tracy Morgan, Ginnifer Goodwin and Kumail Nanjiani. Peele’s interpretation is also painstakingly aware of the context in which it was created, grappling with issues like racial profiling in law enforcement and immigration policy.

The series also appears to have been a predecessor for Black Mirror, Netflix’s wildly popular foray into the world of science fiction first released in 2011. While the contemporary project’s focus is concentrated on technology’s role in fashioning the lives we lead and the people we become, the two are indisputably intertwined.

The Twilight Zone accomplished in 25 minutes each week what many film creators would be proud to execute in a single, once-in-a-lifetime project. The show’s success in developing and maintaining its trademark unpinnable haunting quality, even in the midst of an ever-circling carousel of new characters and new cast members, is not something to be taken lightly. The anthology serves as an astonishingly clear reminder that our own world, much like the Twilight Zone, is a frustratingly yet stunningly puzzling home.

 

Megan Pontin is a sophomore in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at mpontin@cornellsun.com. Rewind runs alternate Tuesdays.