5 Most Prophetic Twilight Zone Episodes: The most prescient and profound episodes of Rod Serling’s groundbreaking television series.
It’s just a few days until SYFY airs its annual New Year’s Twilight Zone Marathon.
So how does a fifty-four year old TV show remain so beloved?
The appeal lies between the show’s clever twist endings, and the hybrid of sci-fi and social commentary. Cautionary tales were the shows stock in trade.
So here’s our list of the most prophetic Twilight Zone episodes, that deal with technology, vanity and other ills that have become more fact than fiction.
SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be discussing some big reveals to illustrate the prophetic aspects.
5. The Midnight Sun
Lois and her landlady are trying to stay cool in their sweltering apartment, but they’re only prolonging the inevitable; the earth has left its orbit and is moving closer to the sun.
Power and water are rationed and looting is rampant. A radio announcer illustrates the chaos: Ladies and gentlemen, tomorrow you can fry eggs on sidewalks, heat up soup in the ocean and get help from wandering maniacs, if you choose!
The landlady dies from heat stroke and Lois collapses. But, it turns out it’s just a dream. Lois has awoken from a high fever. But Earth is still in peril. It’s actually drifting away from the sun, and humankind will freeze to death in a short time.
Our orbit notwithstanding, the effects of climate change has given us record summer and winter temps. We have dwindling water supplies and power rationing due to overpopulation and drastic weather. Until we wake up from our dream world, nothing will get better.
4. He’s Alive
Dennis Hopper plays a young Neo-Nazi named Peter Vollmer in this controversial episode that had Serling barraged with anti-semitic hate mail.
Vollmer is having trouble leading his group. He’s directionless and weak. But a still living (in hiding) Adolph Hitler comes to his aid, and teaches him how to draw a crowd and be respected. He tells Vollmer to kill one of his own members to earn fearful loyalty. Peter tells him after the act that he feels immortal, to which he replies; We ARE immortal!”
In the finale, Vollmer is shot while fleeing from the police. He lies dying, incredulous; There’s something very wrong here…Don’t you understand that I’m made out of steel!?”
Hitler moves on to find a new successor.
Serling’s tale was a mediation on anti-Semitism and racial prejudice, but it’s prescient in so many ways. It preceded escalating hate crimes. And terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden, who sacrificed many for a cause that he was too afraid to die for. And it predated numerous mass shootings from deluded, disenfranchised individuals. We live in a world inundated with Peter Volmmer’s, who crave attention and purpose above all costs. Serling’s closing narration says it best:
Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare – Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.
**The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, is a much more revered commentary from Serling, which successfully pointed out Red Scare hysteria.
3. From Agnes With Love
James Elwood is a nerdy programmer who repairs an office computer nicknamed Agnes, which can communicate via worded messages. Elwood turns to Agnes in desperation for advice on his love life. But every piece of advice ends in disaster. Finally Elwood realizes that Agnes sabotaged his love interests because it’s she who’s in love with him!
Now are we technologically advanced enough where a computer can fall in love with a human? Not yet. But amazingly, the reverse is becoming a reality, with cases of iPhone users actually developing feelings for Siri. It’s even inspired the recent movie Her by Spike Jonze.
It seems the more we advance in technology, the more isolated we become. And for the socially awkward, a human/robot relationship is an unsettling, yet plausible future scenario.
2. The Brain Center At Whipple’s
Business owner Wallace A. Whipple installs an advanced machine to replace his human workers. Dickerson, an aggrieved ex-employee tries to appeal to Whipple’s better angels, but Whipple will hear none of it:
Wallace V. Whipple: Shall I tell you the difference between you and it? That machine costs two cents an hour for current. It gets no wrinkles, no arthritis, no hardening of the arteries! That one machine is a lathe operator, a press operator. Two of those machines replace a hundred and fourteen men who take no coffee breaks, no maternity leaves, no vacations with pay! And that, in my book Mr. Dickerson, is worth considerably more than you are.
Dickerson: Somebody shoulda held you down and put a bit in your head and poured in some reminders that men have to eat and work! And you can’t pack ’em in cosmoline like surplus tanks or put ’em out to pasture like old bulls! I’m a man, Mr. Whipple, ya hear me?! I’m a man! And that makes me better than this hunk of metal!
In the end, Whipple finds himself out of a job, replaced by a machine as well.
Serling’s tale is incredibly omniscient. It predicted manufacturing robots, and jobs shipped overseas to save on labor. It predicted the disdainful disconnect between employer and worker. When Wal-Mart employees live in poverty, and the gap between rich and poor is at an all time high, Mr Whipple offered a lesson that should’ve been heeded.
1. Number 12 Looks Just Like You
In a future society, teenagers are required to go through the transformation, where they can choose a body type deemed acceptably attractive to society. 18-year-old Marilyn Cuberle rebels against this, but her cries fall on deaf ears. Her mother and best friend are detached and glassy-eyed, who avoid depression by drinking instant smile.
They don’t understand her resistance to conformity, love of the arts, poetry, and her aversion to shallowness. They openly consider her natural state ugly, and she feels hopelessly alone, noting that her own father killed himself to avoid the process.
In the end, she relents and goes through the transformation, making for one of the most heartbreaking finales in the series. She arrives post-procedure to meet her mother and friend Valerie. It’s made apparent that in addition to her physical change, that she’s been brainwashed, as she says in a vacant tone; and the nicest part of all, Val, I look just like you! And then glares at herself admiringly in the mirror. Chilling.
In a world rampant with body dysmorphia, plastic surgery and antidepressants, this simply feels like normal 21st century living. Our society is more in tune with reality television than exploring the human condition, and insightful literature. Talking points over content. Number 12 looks Exactly like us.
So that’s my list of the 5 most prophetic, prescient, and profound Twilight Zone episodes. Do you agree? What other episodes do you feel remain timely? Tell me in the comments.