The Door to The Twilight Zone Opens Once More

(This article was posted to VRV on October 5, 2018. It has been rehosted here after the site was taken down)

The portal to the fifth dimension has opened yet again. The Twilight Zone is coming back, and this time, Academy Award-winning director and comedy king Jordan Peele will be behind the spooky wheel. What can we expect from this latest edition of the anthology classic? To answer that question, we have to enter the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge… we have to enter The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone first aired from 1959 to 1964, presided over by its creator Rod Serling. Along with The Outer Limits, it was one of the first anthology horror shows—each episode told a standalone tale of supernatural terror, with an introductory and closing monologue by Serling offering morals that drew on the creator’s progressive politics. For example, one episode titled “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”, is a warning against McCarthyist suspicion of one’s neighbors. The Twilight Zone has returned multiple times in the decades after its initial run, though its 1985 and 2002 incarnations are not nearly as well-regarded as the original.

Today, the original Twilight Zone can be something of a hard sell for viewers used to high quality video—the episodes are presented in low resolution black and white, and aside from its infiltration into the popular consciousness through parodies on shows like The Simpsons, it no longer has the brand recognition of, say, a Black Mirror. Even the classic Tower of Terror ride inspired by the series was closed last year at Disney’s California Adventure to make way for a Guardians of the Galaxy Ride. If not for my encounter with the ride during its operation, I might never have gotten into The Twilight Zone.

Jordan Peele and The Continental Breakfast

But even if you haven’t watched the original series, you’ve likely felt the influence of the show in contemporary science fiction and horror. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, draws on some of the same feelings evoked in the early days of The Twilight Zone. Like many of Serling’s protagonists, Get Out’s Chris slowly comes to discover the horrifying truth of his circumstances as the film unfolds. And The Twilight Zone pushed the envelope in terms of social and political content, too—the science fiction nature of the series was chosen to help prevent Serling’s progressive political messages from being blocked, as occurred with his earlier Noon on Doomsday, an indictment of the acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderers in Jim Crow-era Mississippi.

And while Get Out is Peele’s best-known contribution to the horror genre, even his sketches as half of comedy duo Key & Peele sometimes evidence sinister influences. The classic “Continental Breakfast” may look like an innocent play on complimentary hotel perks, but by the end it’s an homage to Kubrick-style creepiness.

Just like The Twilight Zone, the sketch begins light-hearted and unsuspecting, only to deliver a dread-filled—and funny—gut punch at the end. A classic example of this truly Twilight Zone phenomenon is the episode “Time Enough At Last,” one of Serling’s favorites. The tale of a bullied bank teller who just wants to enjoy his books sees him emerging from a vault the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Finally, he is able to spend as long as he desires in his beloved library without interruption—only he breaks his glasses, leading him to bemoan the fateful irony in a famous speech from which the episode draws its title.

Mirrors and Doors

Looking beyond the work of the incoming host, there are signs that doors to the fifth dimension have opened elsewhere in recent times—ost obviously the more metaphorical door of Black Mirror. In early interviews about the series, showrunner Charlie Brooker spoke about the influence of The Twilight Zone on his work—like Serling, Brooker situates his stories on the cutting edge of life as we know it, in realities just slightly adjacent to our own. Black Mirror’s stories are as of the moment as Serling’s were at the time—it remains to be seen if the former endure in the same way.

Both shows elaborate upon the technological advancements of their eras, imagining the wild, fantastical places these changes could lead us to in the way all good science fiction does. Equally, they allude to the ancient fear of humankind being undone by our own creations—our hubris.   

Episodes such as “Metalhead,” where humankind is terrorised by mechanical dogs, might have felt like a somewhat of a departure for long-time fans of Black Mirror. However, The Twilight Zone’s anthology model was so varied and experimental that it paved the way for the unexpected. The storytellers added layers and rules completely unique to each episode, only to wipe the slate clean and create a brand new, complex world for the next instalment. It was this range exhibited by The Twilight Zone, espousing a meaningful and relevant message with every twenty minute story, that Brooker has built on.

Just as Black Mirror swings from bee-filled buildings to personal rating systems, The Twilight Zone hops from Martian adventures to street vendor spooks. Each burst is equally as dark and complex. Sometimes we learn an important lesson about pride, tolerance, or kindness—at other times, we are simply left to wallow in grim irony. And while many—but far from all—of the progressive values Serling fought to get on air are now mainstream, Black Mirror and other shows continue this tradition, with episodes like “USS Callister” exploring male abuse of power over female colleagues at the height of contemporary conversations around the in issue in media.

If Rod Serling opened the door to The Twilight Zone, Brooker and Peele have moved in to rediscover what that fifth dimension looks like all these years later. At this early stage, the short clip of the new series doesn’t give eager fans much insight into its direction. Still, classic motifs including the hypnotic swirling vortex, the eerie solitary eyeball and, of course, the unnerving theme tune are all featured, indicating some homage to Serling’s concept. Whether it will be third time lucky for the revival remains to be seen.

Still, one thing is for sure—there has never been a better time for new tales from the fifth dimension. Because at this point, we’ve not only entered it, we’ve bought a house there.

We’re getting our mail forwarded to… The Twilight Zone.

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