Saturday, May 11, 2024

National Twilight Zone Day: "A Nursery Rhyme for the Age of Space"

The genre anthology Black Mirror (2011 - ) is beloved by today's audiences as a series obsessed with the nexus of human nature and technology. The titular black mirror is the reflective surface of a contemporary i-Phone, for example.

But going back nearly sixty-five years, it is possible to understand how Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) also stood on the vanguard of American's culture's imagination about technology. 

Where today, Black Mirror ponders social media, video games, the cloud, and other evolving 21st century technologies, The Twilight Zone stood on the cusp of a very different world.

Consider, on October 1st, 1958, just a year before The Twilight Zone debuted, NASA came into being. And in 1959, some six months after NASA's foundation, the seven astronauts of Project Mercury were named. The first American in space, Alan Shepard, did not take that famous journey until May 5, 1961, years into the Twilight Zone's run. 

So as The Twilight Zone bowed, America stood on the precipice of a journey mankind had never undertaken before. 

Man-made rockets were going to carry the human race further than it had ever traveled. But no outcomes, no details were yet known about what might be "out there." The Twilight Zone, in its original era, dealt in the realm of "anticipatory anxiety" about the next step in human development.

It is appropriate then, that no less than four episodes of The Twilight Zone's inaugural season obsess on the opening journeys of the space age, on man's first, tentative, frightening steps away from planet Earth.  

It is true that other episodes in the series' run -- and also others in its first season -- explore a later age of "established" space flight ("The Lonely," "Elegy," "The Long Morrow,") but it is fascinating today to remember the four episodes from the 1959 season that fretted and worried about what the first astronauts to leave the safety of Earth's atmosphere would discover upon their historic flight.  

These are the stories that The Twilight Zone imagined would be "Chapter One" in the annals of man's' space age.

The premiere episode of The Twilight Zone, "Where is Everybody," not only began the network run of the series, but also initiated this recurring theme about the beginnings of manned spaceflight.  "The place is here, the time is now," Serling's narration notes, as it introduces the audience to a man (Earl Holliman) who finds himself wandering in an isolated, lonely town. 

Throughout the episode, he keeps running into the inescapable conclusion that he is totally alone in this atypical town.  There is not a soul to be seen, or heard.

And at story's end, viewers learn that this "last man on Earth" is actually an astronaut in training, one sitting in a hanger, on an air force base, in an isolation chamber. After he goes crazy from the loneliness of the experience in town (really an hallucination), an Air Force officer observes that "next time, it won't be a box in a hanger."  

In other words, the next time it will be real. 

A real life human being will have to deal with being alone in space, far away from his home, family, and every other human being, for a long period. Will he face what Holliman did, the episode wonders, "an enemy known as isolation?"

A few episodes later, another first step to space generates terror in The Twilight Zone. In "And When the Sky Was Opened," the X-20 rocket is launched with much fanfare. It travels 900 miles into space from Earth's atmosphere, the first such voyage of this type. When it returns to Earth, however, something strange occurs.  

The three astronauts who made the journey to Earth orbit are erased from existence, one at a time. Finally, even the rocket, the X-20, disappears from the world. It is as if someone, or some thing has taken them somewhere; ripped them from consensus reality. As the episode observes, the astronauts and their vehicle are "no longer a part of the memory of man."  

Today, this episode plays on an understandable if irrational fear about progress and technology, framed in an almost religious way. Would God be angry, the episode asks, if man were to leave his home, forsaking the Earth? Would an angry deity punish the men who dared to make that journey? Not by killing them, but actually by wiping them from the face of reality?  

These heroic men face terror and oblivion as an unseen force wipes away their histories and lives, before their eyes.  

Then, they just fade away.  

Was their offense so great, hoping to get a "God's eye" view of the Earth?

"I Shot an Arrow into the Air," the third Twilight Zone episode featured in this survey, is oddly, a variation on the premise of "And When the Sky Was Opened." In this tale, the Arrow 1, "the first manned aircraft into space" (think, the X-20!) is launched, with a crew of eight men aboard. 

Something goes wrong during the flight, and that accident is called "a practical joke perpetrated by Mother Nature." 

The rocket disappears from all tracking devices, radars, and watch posts on the Earth. A man in mission control discusses the lost rocket, and calls its story a "nursery rhyme for the age of space," an apt description of this Twilight Zone leitmotif.  The underlying fear is that something like this might happen, in real life, and quite soon. Astronauts sent to space could die in an accident, or even become marooned there. With six decades of hindsight, we know that space travel and accidents are not strangers, as Serling's series predicted.

The remainder of "I Shot an Arrow into the Air" follows the surviving astronauts, who believe they have landed on an arid asteroid, and go in search of water. One astronaut, however, is desperate to survive, and kills his ship-mates for their water canteens. 

After killing his captain, the last surviving astronaut crosses a mountaintop only to see, in the valley, below, a sign for Reno, Nevada. The Arrow 1 never left Earth at all, and now the astronaut is a murderer, and will pay for his crimes. He killed for a canteen of water on twentieth century Earth, only miles from civilization. 

This episode's stark photography and story are a clear influence on Serling's Planet of the Apes (1968) screenplay. In that story, astronauts also crash-land on Earth, mistaking it for another planet, and must traverse an arid wasteland in search of water and food. 

More to the point for this essay, however, "I Shot an Arrow into the Air" worries that mankind, when faced with life on an inhospitable world, will regress to his most barbaric, selfish nature. He will murder to stay alive. The underlying idea is that man may not be ready yet, to take to the stars. As "Chapter One" in the annals of manned space flight opens, there is the fear, displayed in this tale, that man is not the evolved creature of rockets, but still a cave man.

Finally, "People are Alike All Over," another first season episode, showcases yet another rocket "taking a highway into space," this time heading for Mars. Man is depicted "unshackling himself...and his tiny groping fingers into the unknown," Serling's narration tells us. 

The episode then showcases a fearful scientist and astronaut on the rocket, Conrad (Roddy McDowall). He is terrified of what might await mankind on the red planet.  He has good reason to be scared, as he soon finds out. After the rocket crashes on Mars, Conrad is captured by Martians and put on display in one of their zoos, where he spends the rest of his natural life, the man "from a primitive planet."

The photo above foreshadows Conrad's entrapment on Mars. In the shot above, he is trapped or caged by his fears of the space flight (which has not yet occurred, in the story). In the shot below, he is trapped or caged by what he discovers on his journey: man's inferiority in a cosmic sense.

Nearly sixty years later, it is easy to gaze at all these Twilight Zone tales and read them as simply "twist-ending stories" about failed space missions. Instead, one must remember the original context of the first season, and stories such as "Where is Everybody?", "And When the Sky Was Opened," "I Shot an Arrow into the Air" and "People Are Alike All Over."  

These tales were watched by a citizenry standing on the brink of a new frontier, not knowing what would await our brave astronauts out there. Would the first people to leave Earth find loneliness and nothingness, at a great distance from the rest of us ("Where is Everybody?") Would they face the wrath of an angry God by developing a technology that allowed them to leave this Eden-like home ("And When the Sky Was Opened?")  Would they face catastrophe, and revert to barbarism in a Darwinian battle for survival ("I Shot an Arrow into the Air?")  Or would they become the playthings of beings far more advanced than mankind ("People Are Alike All Over?")

Today, these science fiction stories remain ones that chill the blood. But imagine living in 1959, as NASA was founded, as the first astronauts were selected.  How must it have felt not to know what the opening chapter of space flight would look like? 

The Twilight Zone exploited these timely, and disconcerting fears brilliantly in its first season, and in these four tales, in particular.

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