By Dave Dentel
Can science fiction and suspense stories like those in This Do in Remembrance also provide insight into human nature and troubling social issues?
Rod Serling, creator of television’s The Twilight Zone, certainly thought so.
After winning several Emmys for dramas intended to prove that TV really could serve up serious art, Serling confounded many of his colleagues by launching what sounded like just another thriller anthology series.
After all, aliens, robots, witches and time travel don’t seem the most fitting motifs for exploring how to stave off nuclear destruction or end racial oppression.
Fortunately, Serling proved his critics wrong.
Today The Twilight Zone is considered a television icon—and for good reason. In the series’ best episodes, the crisp writing and taut plots achieve in 30 minutes what many full-length movies and novels never get around to.
The stories grip you, depict characters you really care about, then through some narrative twist provoke you to wonder what might have happened if only ….
Without necessarily mentioning contemporary events, The Twilight Zone provides a window into the minds of people who lived during the tumultuous 1960s. It also examines issues humans have always struggled with—topics the writers of This Do in Remembrance tackle as well: love, war, identify, and the way our cursed creation plays havoc with our most cherished plans.
Consider these classic Twilight Zone episodes:
Terror at 20,000 Feet
Before he was Captain Kirk, William Shatner put his trademark portrayal of intense emotion to good use in this well-known story. Playing a man recovering from a mental breakdown, Shatner’s character is the only person on an airline flight who sees a gremlin tearing apart one of the airliner’s engines.
By today’s special-effects standards, of course, the monster not only isn’t scary-looking, but is clearly laughable. (I know because during a family New Year’s Eve Twilight Zone binge watch a while back my wife’s nephews laughed at it—a lot.)
What does remain terrifying about the story is its theme of how humans must find a way to cope with everyday risks in a rational way. To some extent we must disregard the mortal threats we face just to be able to function. This intentional closing of the mind, however, brings with it another risk—the death of our ability to comprehend dangers that are truly imminent.
The Obsolete Man
This episode imagines a future where administrators of a totalitarian state determine which citizens are useful and which aren’t, and then dispose of the latter.
Burgess Meredith portrays one of the obsolete—a God-fearing librarian who clings to his faith and his books despite their being rejected by the prevailing ethos.
Sentenced to die, the librarian tricks his judge into a situation where the means of execution threatens to kill them both. The judge pleads for mercy, which, in the name of God, the librarian grants. (Interestingly, this scene also involves one of the longest sequences of non-mocking, non-ironic, contextually appropriate scripture reading I’ve seen on a mainstream TV show.)
Unfortunately for the judge, his fearful plea happened to be broadcast to a national audience. He returns to his seat of judgment only to find that he, too, has been declared obsolete.
It’s a dark story, but it drives home the truth that as bearers of the divine image, all human lives merit protection and respect. Otherwise we’re just checkmarks on some government list.
Number Twelve Looks Just Like You
This story revisits several familiar themes, but the overarching motif deals with how embracing scientific advancements and conforming for the sake of social cohesion can come at a terrifying cost.
Like some other Twilight Zone episodes, Number Twelve’s spare, theater-like setting and low production value seem at first to undermine any chance at generating suspense. There is, for example, just one actor and three actresses playing multiple roles.
This is a deliberate casting choice, as the small ensemble depicts a presumed future where individuals are somehow transferred into one of a handful of body types—engineered to resist disease, aging, and other degradations intrinsic to being alive.
One rather plain young woman resists the transformation. She worries that embracing perpetual youth and vivacity will diminish, if not destroy, more complex aspects of her personality conspicuously absent from her manufactured society—such as her propensity for introspection and melancholy.
Only it’s a future that doesn’t seem that far away.