Actor and director Jordan Peele recently rebooted the revolutionary television show, “The Twilight Zone.” Given that Mr. Peele was born in 1979, 15 years after the show’s final episode, this is hardly another revival of baby boomer nostalgia. It is an updated and imaginative recreation of a classic work of art.
Why this show? Some background: In television’s infancy, with inane game shows and cute suburban sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver,” critics bemoaned TV as a dangerous “intellectual wasteland” and a mindless baby-sitter.
Then came “The Twilight Zone.” Though it had a relatively short run from 1959 to 1964, the show entertained, enlightened and startled its viewers. In its episodes, a prisoner fell in love with a “female” robot, aliens plotted to feast on human flesh, hapless souls crafted a deal with Satan or the grim reaper, a gambler was tormented by a one-armed bandit, among so many other seemingly outlandish scenarios. “The Twilight Zone” pushed us to consider possibilities — the promises of artificial intelligence, the fragile nature of our planet, the desire for eternal youth and its consequences.
The show’s creator Rod Serling insisted that the primary focus was on the absurd, tragic and remarkable aspects of us homo sapiens who claim to be the supreme figures of intelligence on this planet. In an interview he noted, “The Twilight Zone is about people — about human beings involved in extraordinary circumstances, in strange problems of their own or of fate’s making.” Rod Serling was a gifted story-teller, part hopeful humanist and part cynic; his episodes often evoked Nietzsche’s point about humans representing only the apes of their ideals.
In his illluminating book, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in The Twilight Zone,” Mark Dawidziak treats the episodes as thought experiments or “little morality plays.” One episode featured four bank robbers who steal piles of gold, then use a time machine that allows them a Rip Van Winkle option of being revived in 100 years. It was a clever plan gone awry. After killing one partner out of greed, the other three begin dying of thirst in the desert and learn that gold has become useless since their bank heist.
“The Twilight Zone” was also quite prophetic. Consider one of the earliest episodes, “The Lonely.” A man’s punishment is exile to another planet. The solitary convict Corry received brief and periodic visits from earthlings to provide him basic supplies. They once leave a package for Corry to assemble — a robot in a very attractive human form. She/it is named Alicia. Corry at first has nothing to do with this machine, until Alicia sheds a tear over his heartless dismissal of her. Suddenly, he apologizes and warms up to Alicia. They fall in love and become inseparable. Soon the earthlings return to announce that Corry has been pardoned. He can go home, but the spaceship cannot take Alicia. (No spoilers here; I won’t reveal the conclusion.)
Two years ago a book called “Robot Sex” was published by the distinguished MIT Press. A variety of scholars discussed the possibilities of humanoid robots providing sexual pleasures to predators, pedophiles and perverts. Better than prison or chemical castration, proposed one writer, a humanlike robot would be a satisfactory replacement for children, women or other victims that the sex offender would otherwise harm.
Not so fast, countered other scholars. Suppose we develop robots with intelligence, emotions, self-awareness. Suppose we can manufacture robots who look, feel, think and speak like the rest of us. If so, they could no longer be treated as useful objects but as subjects deserving of basic rights accorded to you, me and all our fellow humans. One would thus need the robot’s consent before doing the dastardly deed.
These are the kinds of questions “The Twilight Zone” explored years ago. I can’t wait to see what glimpses of the future we’ll get in the show’s latest incarnation.
Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University and co-editor of “The Twilight Zone and Philosophy” (Open Court, 2019).