The Twilight Zone: Shadows of a Past Future

The Twilight Zone is another one of those things that even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen some form of it. One of the most prolific shows in the history of television, it has been recreated and parodied throughout the decades since its inception.  Rod Serling fought in WWII and competed as a boxer before using PTSD as fuel to create 156 episodes of the original Twilight Zone series. Struggling for artistic control with Red Scare censors and corporate sponsors, he managed to wedge as much political and philosophical reflection into these shows as possible. Clever tricks of light and shadow were often used in lieu of expensive special effects. This melange of light and shadow, developed for the relatively new technology of black and white television, became ingrained with metaphors that emphasized the mind-bending plot twists and heart-wrenching drama throughout the evolution of the series. When it comes to cinematography, black and white is training wheels for color. Once you make friends with shadows, the light can come out to play.

It’s a Good life

A kid has psychic powers of manifestation with the desires of a child. He keeps his family in mental torment under threat of death and ironic (almost comedic) torture on a whim. The entire town lives in fear of this little monster, who wishes horrible fates on them based on his six-year-old preferences One scene in particular disturbs to the core:

The boy’s drunk uncle implores the family to beat the child to death with a bottle. The implied violence in the next shot has a nauseating effect. The audience sees the shadow of the uncle’s severed head, bobbing to and fro on a spring in a Jack-in-the-box. The shadow is very obviously a doll head with a clown hat on a spring, but we see just the head and neck of the uncle with the same clown hat on, bobbing to and fro in the next shot.

There’s no blood, no severed spinal cord, but the reaction of the family’s reaction implies the violence. Censors in 1961 would never have allowed such gore on television. Early television producers had to find creative ways around such obstacles, in this case coming up with a more disturbing image than color could have achieved. This scene proves that big budgets aren’t a necessity for creating such disturbing drama.

“Number 12 Looks Just Like You”

In a dystopian future, everyone gets plastic surgery on their 19th birthday to look like a stock character in a government sanctioned catalog. The sameness is so rampant, everyone has name-tags coordinated into their skin-tight 60’s future catsuits. You couldn’t tell anyone apart if they didn’t. The producers must have saved money on actors in this episode with four actors play all the parts. Everyone is vapid, shallow, and perpetually perky from swilling something that sounds coma-inducing, called “Instant Smile”.  Aptly named, Marilyn is plain and wants to stay that way. She does not see the appeal of being pressed into the exact same Barbie doll mold as her friend Valerie, who along with her mother and doctors, insists that the transformation will make her beautiful.

“Is that good? Being like everybody? Isn’t that the same as being nobody?” Marilyn implores her uncle Rick (who wears the same face as her dead father). Smart girl. That doesn’t stop her mother from taking her to a doctor to try to change her mind about changing her body. This is when the shadows really start to speak.

Dr. Rex (same actor as Marilyn’s father and uncle), sitting at a glass desk in the center of the frame, surrounded by a triangle of light resembling a pyramid, a symbol of supreme reigning power used by the Freemasons since ancient Egypt. Rex sits nonchalant and utterly secure in his seat of power as if it were a throne. As soon as she walks in the room, Marilyn is greeted by the insurmountable force she has come to resist… with the face of the father who taught her to think for herself.

Dr. Rex moves around the room, the shadows he casts on the walls move with him, as if he’s being followed by several dozen dark copies of himself. Marilyn seems small, pale and outnumbered as she desperately pleads to save her individuality to no effect. Unable to convince her of the positive aspects of transformation, Rex sends her to another doctor, in a room that looks exactly the same, swathed in a much thicker coat of shadows and the new doctor is the same actor again, in a different shirt. His back is to Marilyn as she walks into the dark and shadowy room, visually implying that he is Dr. Rex’s evil twin. He swivels around in his chair with a villainous flourish.

This one calls himself “Professor Sigmund Friend” and insists she call him “Professor Sig”. The unsubtle German accent could not have screamed “Nazi Doctor” more if he snapped out a heil salute. The pro-eugenics propaganda that he tries to shove down poor Marilyn’s throat must have been straight out of Rod Serling’s fascist-hating nightmares.

Menacing shadows dance across Professor Sig’s face as he plies her with the idea that most of humanity’s problems stem from their differences and transforming everyone into the top tier of society’s standard of beauty eliminates those differences. Marilyn (a bright spot of white light in the scene) tells him it wouldn’t matter to people who loved her. The shadows transform his face from handsome, to ugly, to evil, to kind as he insists the transformation is necessary for the sake of her health, preserving her youth and longevity (doubling or tripling the human lifespan). She insists they could do that without changing her appearance. She reveals that she has read Shakespeare, Aristotle, Dostoevsky and others who wrote about “Truth, beauty, the dignity of the individual… and love”.

Professor Sig realizes that if she is reading these banned books, then she must be a lost cause and calls in a nurse that looks like her mother to take her away to be drugged. As Marilyn is being dragged away, the Professor sits among the shadows behind his desk, transformed into a dark, grotesque, many-armed monster with his face smiling out from the middle. It becomes clear that Marilyn will be forced to undergo transformation. Her friend Val tries to make her feel better by saying “I don’t know why you’re so upset about your father, you’ve had lots of fathers since then”. Marilyn has a meltdown, screams out every teenager’s mantra “They can’t understand!” and tries to escape. She runs through the halls, which all seem the same, with prison-bar shadows cast over every grey wall, filled with the same two people with different name-tags.

She is caught and brought into a room with a metal table and a clear-plastic coffin lowering over it. Marilyn becomes an exact copy of Valerie and immediately falls in love with a mirror. In the reflection, they are all surrounded by prison-bar shadows.

The Obsolete Man

Burgess Meredith (also star of the classic episode “Time Enough At Last” and the Penguin in the original Batman TV Series with Adam West) plays Romney Wordsworth, a librarian in a future where books are banned by “The State”. He is declared obsolete by a thinly veiled Hitler parody “The Chancellor” and condemned to die in an execution style of his choosing. When we first see the doors open in a vast, shadowy hall, bright white light is shining behind Mr. Wordsworth standing in the doorway, creating a long shadow stretching across the floor. His shadow is a copy of him, twice his size and laying, stretched out like a dead body on the floor, simultaneously implying that he is more powerful than the state and that he is already dead before he walks in the door.

The courtroom where he faces charges of obsolescence is shrouded on all sides by shadows, appearing infinite in every direction. Grey figures in matching clothes flank the perimeter defined by the central light. A robotronic bailiff sits at the base of a giant trapezoid podium, which is topped by the Chancellor, creating the eye of another pyramid, another symbol of insurmountable power. Wordsworth stands at the other end of the table, looking small, mousy and insignificant. He boldly states his occupation as a librarian and receives a shocked reaction as if he started shouting obscenities. The Chancellor demands that Wordsworth “Step into the light” to face his charges.

Wordsworth declares his belief in God, which appears to disgust and enrage the Chancellor, who declares “The State has proven there is no god!”*.

*Sidebar: I’m an atheist and I strongly believe that the government should have no say whatsoever in personal belief. I would be very uncomfortable with the idea of the state declaring the existence OR non-existence of any sort of deity. Theists, please try to see it from my perspective. This is like if the president held a press conference tomorrow, stating “My horse is now Attorney General.” You would think he’s smoking crack. (2018 update: this is not so far-fetched in current times).

The chancellor shouts at Wordsworth, waving his arms around reminiscent of Hitler, casting long shadows down the front of the pyramid. His manic arms seem long and elastic, as if they can reach out and grab poor Wordsworth like a frog’s tongue. The Chancellor states “You are obsolete, Mr. Wordsworth” and a shadow is cast underneath his nose which looks distinctly like a Charlie Chaplin mustache. Wordsworth stands up for himself, appearing unafraid when faced with death over living in a world like without books. He is given the right to choose his method of execution, so he chooses to be executed by a secret assassin with the stipulation that the assassin be the only one who knows the way he is to die. The Chancellor is overtly delighted when Wordsworth requests that his execution be televised, at midnight, the next day…

The Chancellor visits Wordsworth in his book hoarder’s nest of a one-room apartment, during his last hour. Books line the walls, creating an insulating layer, protecting him from the outside world. The Chancellor waltzes in the room, appearing to look with disdain on an existence he sees to be obsolete. The door closes and locks behind him. A television camera is mounted on the wall so the entire country can observe the whole scene playing out. Through a thick cloud of smugness, the Chancellor condemns obsolete parts of society, such as the elderly. He implores Wordsworth to beg for his life to the camera, Wordsworth snaps back “You’d like that wouldn’t you?”. He reveals that not only is the Chancellor trapped in the room, but a bomb is going off at midnight. Not bad, for an old librarian. The Chancellor panics, looks for an escape and cowers in the shadows when he realizes there is none.

“Step into the light.” Wordsworth tells the Chancellor, imploring him to face the camera and beg for his life. The Chancellor tries to remain calm for the viewing public as different clocks float through the scene, ticking down the seconds until midnight. Wordsworth sits calmly in a chair and reads Psalm 23 aloud from an illegal bible. At 11:59 the Chancellor breaks down and begs “In the name of GOD LET ME OUT!”. Wordsworth unlocks the door “In the name of God”, lets the Chancellor flee the room, we see his hunched shadow scurrying away like a cockroach. Wordsworth turns to face his death, serene with his bible in his hands. The bomb explodes, killing Romney Wordsworth and destroying his beloved book hoard.

The epilogue returns to the courtroom of infinite shadows where a new Chancellor has taken the place of the old Chancellor, who is in the same place where Wordsworth stood at the beginning, facing the same charges of obsolescence. He thrashes around proclaiming his necessity, his right to live, but the shadowy figures lining the room start chanting “Obsolete! Obsolete! Obsolete!” and they swarm around him, devouring him.

Peer into the shadows of The Twilight Zone, a wealth of fascinating subtext can be found. The original series is an intense visual training exercise for any aspiring cinematographer, photographer, or visual artist. Go ahead and make a game of it… you won’t get too lost in the shadows.

Dedicated to both of my fathers, who nurtured my interest in science fiction.

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