Looking back at the (awesome) original “Twilight Zone”

Jen Joseph

jejoseph1@ursinus.edu

So I watched Jordan Peele’s new “Twilight Zone” episode. It was pretty good. Not great, but not lacking in imagination either. What I couldn’t stop thinking about, however, was just how good the original pilot to “The Twilight Zone” was, and how its themes of loneliness and triumph are relevant to this day. So today we’re going to talk about “Where is Everybody,” an often overlooked episode, and see what we can get from it. Spoilers abound!

The episode begins with a man looking somewhat confused as he enters a diner. He talks aloud because he can’t seem to find anyone. Now today this episode might have been a silent one in order to eschew the unrealistic nature of this, but I kind of like that he’s just so willing to talk to himself and be warm in an attempt to connect to everyone, even if he can’t find anyone. The man, who doesn’t know his own name or anything else about his life, walks through the town struggling to find people. Although the man, a rather charismatic actor, is trying to remain calm under pressure, the episode becomes more and more tense. He starts to believe he’s being watched, but he doesn’t know why. He figures out he’s a pilot but is given nothing else. On his last string, the man runs into an earlier phone booth pleading for help, pressing a button. That button turns out to be real, releasing him from the simulation by getting help.

It turns out that the man was a pilot, specifically a US astronaut, and he broke down mentally after a simulation of a moon trip that would take several months of human isolation. He could be given food, water, even fake movies, but there was nothing in that simulation that could ever recreate people. The moral from this would seem to be that humans need other people.

The special-ness of this episode, however, is that it isn’t as dour an ending as that to say that we aren’t capable of this intense space travel. The astronaut remarks proudly that he’ll be back, and this time “[he’ll] be ready… don’t go away up there.” Knowing that the moon would only be a few years away from humanity’s grasp, the optimism is far less far-fetched than it may have felt back in 1959. It really did happen.

“The man, once on the brink of his fears, stares at the stars, the summit of his knowledge, shown in every episode of the show. But this time, when he looks at them, he knows he’s not alone.”

I find this ending really striking in a way I can’t quite explain. It may be one of my favorite endings of the whole show. There isn’t an especially crazy twist, no one died, and the simulation was technically a success. I just think the fact that the man really understands now the value of humans and how much we need one another, even if he had an especially horrifying way of finding out, gives his mission to the moon more purpose than it ever had before. The man, once on the brink of his fears, stares at the stars, the summit of his knowledge, shown in every episode of the show. But this time, when he looks at them, he knows he’s not alone. Though the new “Twilight Zone” series is colored by not just the original series but also the other anthology series that have preceded it –– most notably “Black Mirror” –– it is worth revisiting these original episodes because of their creativity, originality, and uniqueness.