I don’t watch a lot of old black-and-white TV shows. I like some classic shows, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I have a hard time enjoying anything made earlier than the eighties. For one thing, the writing is so stilted and not-conversational (or at least, not-conversational by today’s standards). Often the pacing is slower than shows today too.
But I always watch the #TwilightZoneMarathon, every New Year’s and Fourth of July when it airs on Syfy. Keep in mind, for someone who loves scifi, I don’t actually watch that channel very often because most of their programming consists of wrestling, ads for male enhancement products, and made-for-TV movies about monsters chasing people. I prefer shows with something resembling a plot—which is why I’m still pissed they canceled Incorporated, probably the best original show they’ve had since Battlestar Galactica—so I always enjoy the #TwilightZoneMarathon.
Although some of these episodes do suffer from old-fashioned dialogue, and the special effects are, well, barely existent, I’m always struck by how relevant some of the plots are today. Some are only personally relevant—”The Bewitchin’ Pool” is an episode that will always speak to every kid who wished they could escape their parents’ constant fighting, but never got their own bewitching pool. (Even if you haven’t been a kid in years.)
But others are socially relevant. Last night’s marathon started with “Hocus Pocus and Frisby,” an episode whose main character immediately reminded me of someone we all know. Watching the first episode in the Syfy Twilight Zone Marathon 2017 reminded me of how, despite being more than fifty years old, an episode can seem like it was made yesterday. Mr. Frisby loves to make up stories about how great he is, how smart he is, how he invented things and solved problems he couldn’t possibly have solved. Fortunately, Frisby is a poor guy living in a small town, not a famous billionaire, so nobody is stupid enough to believe his bullshit.
Well, except the aliens. They take everything literally and decide to kidnap Frisby because he’s clearly the most intelligent and accomplished human being ever. After escaping the aliens, he tries to tell the story to his friends, who naturally assume it’s just another one of his lies.
Why is this episode relevant today? Because in a world full of fake news, we should all be more skeptical of everyone and everything. If your neighbor or coworker or the guy who checks you out at the grocery store started spouting about how he was the best at everything, did every important thing in the world, and could fix every problem around, would you believe him? Most likely, you’d use WebMD to diagnose him with a personality disorder, or just tell him to shut up. So if you wouldn’t believe bizarre claims of superiority from the average person, why would you believe some rich, famous person who says the same thing?
There are other recurrent themes that keep popping up on the show, also still relevant today. One thing that always impressed me was how, in spite of the technology or aliens or magical beings that popped up on a show, the plot usually revolved around the main character’s fight with his or her own demons. Sometimes these played out in a fight with a magical item, like a talking doll or a ventriloquist’s dummy. But those objects were only echoing the protagonist’s own fears. The brilliant thing about The Twilight Zone was it did such a good job of showing how we’re all the most vulnerable to our own insecurities.
This played out in groups, as well. In episodes like “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” aliens arrive, but humans are still the architects of their own destruction. The humans quickly descend into bickering and paranoia, accusing each other of being aliens, while the actual aliens just sit back and watch.
But maybe the most relevant episode of all today is “It’s a Good Life,” in which an innocent-looking little boy terrorizes a small town. Everyone has to stand around and smile and nod and act like everything is awesome no matter what stupid thing he’s done—like making it snow on the crops they need for food. Of course, if anyone says anything bad to him, he can wish them into the cornfield, where they turn into a jack-in-the-box-like toy or something. Yeah, okay, that really sucks and all, but what everyone in this nightmarish town misses is that the little brat’s power doesn’t really come from his ability to wish people into the cornfield. Sure, it’s a scary thing, but what if they all stood up to him? Could he wish them all into the cornfield? Maybe, but then what would he do? Who would he play with? Who would he terrorize? Without his frightened subjects, what power would he have? Ultimately, he would have to wish them all back out of the cornfield.
Which episodes do you think are most relevant today?