This is Why The Twilight Zone is Still Relevant Today

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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

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How to Edit Old Story Ideas: The Delete Key Is Not Your Friend

About six years ago, maybe more, I started writing a short story about a retail cashier dealing with the back-to-school rush at her store. Yeah, that was inspired by my own time in hell, er, retail, which was especially awful during back-to-school because the store was flooded with bratty kids trashing the store.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with kids. I have a problem with parents who refuse the discipline their kids. When I was little, if I pulled something off a shelf in a store, my parents told me to put it back, where it went, and neatly, because it wasn’t fair to leave a mess for someone else. And then they stood there and made sure I did it. Probably one of the few things they were right about, and that’s a very short list.

So, fast forward to when I’m an adult and working in a store, and I discover parents today don’t seem to teach this shit to their kids. Maybe a few do, but the majority that visited my place of employment didn’t. So I had to always put shit back so as not to inconvenience a cashier, but when I grew up and became a cashier, no one returned the fucking favor. Meanwhile, the parents did manage to find time to yell at me about things I had no control over, like the store being out of stock of something they wanted, or prices not being cheap enough, or limits on the really cheaply-priced items because they had ten kids and six erasers at the deep-discount price wouldn’t cut it, and somehow it was all my fucking fault they couldn’t use a condom.

So to make myself feel better, I started a short story in which a bratty little kid at a store gets abducted by aliens while his mom yells at a cashier about something stupid. I never finished it, because I wasn’t really inspired to figure out what happened when the aliens got him up to their spaceship. I always thought it was a great scene and I’d come back to it later and finish it, but for a long time, I didn’t.

I wrote other stuff.  I wrote my first book, Stupid Humans, and I wrote other short stories. I kept thinking I’d use that half-finished story as a scene in something, but I never had an “Ah-ha!” moment where I found the right place for it.

One day, while contemplating the Aliens Abducting Annoying Assholes series I do here on my blog, I started thinking about all the former coworkers, bosses, and annoying customers I’d dealt with at work. Could one of them inspire the next piece of flash fiction?

Then I remembered my half-finished story and decided to find it, which involved digging out my old terabyte hard drive, hooking it up, and combing through hundreds of badly organized files trying to find the damn thing. Naturally, I had no idea what I’d named the file. I found all sorts of stuff, including a couple other unfinished stories I decided to save for future use, and a couple of trunked second drafts of first and second novels I wrote years ago. Definitely didn’t feel like dealing with that.

After about three hours, I managed to find the damn thing. Now, how to finish it? It occurred to me that having the kid abducted wasn’t really fair, since his mom was really the asshole in the story. Also, I had played with the idea of the cashier getting abducted, since I often fantasized about being beamed up into an alien spaceship when forced to toil in that miserable hellhole. If the aliens couldn’t take my damn customers, maybe they could get me off this damn rock?

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But I still didn’t know what the aliens wanted, and I’d already written a story about an alien abduction from a busy store, so I wanted to do something different. I’d always wanted to write a parallel universe story, so I decided to get rid of the aliens entirely, leave the annoying asshole customer at the register, and have the cashier sucked into a parallel universe.

Suddenly, I had lots of ideas. How could things be different in this other universe? What if no one over there ever decided the customer was always right? Ultimately, my short story turned into a next-novel start. I’m currently at about 28,000 words, and enjoying my custom-designed universe. (Who doesn’t want to be in charge of their own universe?)

A couple people in my writing group like to say you should never throw away anything you write, even if you think it’s awful, because you might re-purpose it someday. Me, I never throw anything away because I’m too lazy to find the file on my computer and delete it, but you get the idea. (I’m also too lazy to delete anything in my inbox, so I can pretty much find any email I’ve ever sent or received ever. Laziness is handy.)

All this thinking about parallel universes has made me ponder if there’s another universe where I decided to stick with the alien abduction story. I wonder how it turned out?