For those of us who love vintage television shows, New Year's means The Twilight Zone Marathon, a tradition of over 30 years' standing which airs on the cable Syfy Channel.
A classic fantasy/science fiction TV series created by Rod Serling (who also authored many of the scripts), The Twilight Zone is an enduring piece of American popular culture. Even people such as myself who weren't born when the show first aired in 1959 continue to enjoy it. Serling crafted timeless moral parables, stories that while rooted in the social situation of the Cold War era are still relevant today. The basic premise of the show—ordinary human beings caught in extraordinary (and often supernatural) circumstances—never grows old. Nor do the themes, including the threat of nuclear destruction, the overwhelming presence of technology in modern life, and the oppression of the individual by impersonal forces of bureaucracy and the state.
Some of the series' themes have only been magnified in the past 50 years. Take the episode “A Thing About Machines,” in which a luddite intellectual finds the various machines in his house coming to life to torment him. The episode hits very close to home at a time when we rely on technological tools almost every waking moment of our lives. For the protagonist it was the automobile, the electric razor, and the television; for us it's all those things plus the fax machine, the iPhone, the tablet, and whatever gadget will appear next to “simplify” our lives.
Many of the Twilight Zone episodes were futuristic—indeed, dystopian—in nature. In the episode “The Obsolete Man,” a librarian is condemned to death in a future totalitarian state in which books and religion have been banned. The obsolescence of literacy is also examined in the episode “Time Enough at Last”: here a bookish bank clerk craves a few moments to read in peace and finally gets his wish when a hydrogen bomb destroys the world and leaves him the sole survivor.
Today we no longer fear death from the H-Bomb, but the death of literacy still looms large. We are told that reading is alive and well thanks to the Internet. But doesn't the Internet encourage superficial skimming rather than serious engagement with a text? And speaking of “texts,” don't people today read more text messages and tweets than books?
Perhaps the most prophetic TZ episode of all is “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” It originally aired in January 1964, but the world it describes is frighteningly close to that of 2016: a world dominated by superficiality and narcissism, in which the state exists to enforce conformity, and in which the motto on everyone' lips is “Life is pretty, life is fun, I am all and all is one.”
As libertarians are wont to lament, the power of the state over local and personal concerns is at an all-time high in America today; and our everyday lives are often consumed in superficial pursuits.
New Year's is a time for reflecting on the past, taking stock of the present and looking to the future. And so it's fitting to celebrate it in the company of a classic TV show that was ahead of its time. Watching TZ fosters a feeling of nostalgia (even melancholy) as we realize how vibrant popular culture was then and how pathetic it is now. The constellation of artistic talent that formed in the years following World War II was unique in American cultural history. We may never see its likes again, perhaps because the crucible of experience out of which artists like Rod Serling forged their stories no longer exists.
All the more reason to enjoy The Twilight Zone Marathon and to reflect on how the world, though very much changed, is also very much the same.