3.15.2016

The Twilight Zone: Number Twelve Looks Just Like You


This show originally aired on January 24, 1964 (a particularly strong night for CBS programming), but it's one of those original Twilight Zone episodes that seem to be speaking directly to audiences in 2016.


Perhaps it's become too commonplace to read that this-or-that episode of old TV (particularly of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone) "seems so much like nowadays", but, as Smells Like Infinite Sadness sketches out fairly well, "in a world rampant with body dysmorphia, plastic surgery, and antidepressants, this simply feels like normal 21st century living. Our society is more in tune with reality television than exploring the human condition and insightful literature. Talking points over content. Number Twelve looks exactly like us."

Maybe not exactly, exactly. The Kardashian / botox cult of Hollywood (still the dream factory of America's collective self-image) degraded even this horrifying vision of the future. At least the robots in "Number Twelve" live - however vacantly - for centuries.

"Improbable? Perhaps. But in an age of plastic surgery, body building and an infinity of cosmetics let us hesitate to say impossible. These and other strange blessings may be waiting in the future which, after all, is the Twilight Zone."

Pamela Austin helpfully makes direct eye contact with the viewer (at episode's end) to drive the point home: Number Twelve Looks Just Like You.

It's like Serling - I keep saying Serling but the episode was adapted by John Tomerlin from "The Beautiful People," a short story by Charles Beaumont originally published in September 1952 - took a look around and saw a narcissism gathering momentum that, if unchecked, would expand exponentially until its needs were so great that every other aspect of society would be subordinated to it. What might that society look like, what would be gained, what would be lost?

Everyone is inoffensive and happy - with bodies to match - by being reduced to assembly-line perfection

"They don't really care whether you're beautiful or not. 
They just want everyone to be the same, that's all."

Marilyn is approaching the age of Transformation. Her mother Lana gently pressures her to make up her mind and choose the model in which she'll live the rest of her life. But Marilyn doesn't seem to want to be transformed, something no one can understand.

They bring her in to see the specialists to determine why she doesn't want to be like everyone else. Or one of twelve everyone elses.

"Being like everybody - isn't that the same as being nobody?"
"I think it's time we talked about where you're getting these radical ideas."

Marilyn's radical ideas are the legacy of her father, who committed suicide after his own transformation. When she tells her Uncle Rex that her father was unhappy, he responds (unironically) "Now, Marilyn, your father was a handsome man." Her father chose the same model as both her uncle and her doctor. As well as every other male character in the episode (economy!), such as the psychologist "Dr. Sigmund" who laughs good-naturedly when she brings up Keats, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky - "these are all banned books."  

Naturally such a society as this one has no use or room for "Beauty is truth and truth, beauty." (Or anything by Dostoyevsky.)
Complete with Viennese affectation.

Marilyn's unresolved grief over her father's suicide imbues the story with a real sense of tragedy. Her mother simply cannot compute this unhappiness, as her own Transformation obliterated any sense of her own individuation. Ditto for Val, her uncle, Dr. Sig, et al.

No one can be of any comfort to her.
Not looking like this, anyway.

Marilyn is repeatedly told that she will not be forced to undergo Transformation, but as she talks to more and more people (visually, of course, the same person over and over) she realizes that this isn't actually the case: they simply plan to "fix" her so that won't mind the procedure. There's no room for her kind of questions or feelings in this world.

She runs through the halls of the clinic and crashes into an orderly wheeling a patient on a gurney, immediately post-Transformation

Unsettled from this, she flees into a room where she surrenders to the procedure.

When last we see her - directly before she turns and looks into the camera, as mentioned above - she is transformed: 

"And the nicest part of all, Val - I look just like you."
The End.

The ending suggests Marilyn will avoid her father's fate, but at the cost of her depth of feeling - and her memories of him. She has won the dubious victory over herself, ironic given the wording of Serling's outro. ("Portrait of a young lady in love - with herself.") Happiness awaits. 

Remaking a population into an always-agreeable, homogenuous - identical, in fact - mass, as easily controlled, unquestioning, and self-policing as can be imagined - so long as everyone keeps themselves attractive - is the dream of totalitarians throughout history. This episode is the engineered dictatorship described in Huxley's Brave New World Revisited, though we see or hear nothing about the people who run things. If they even exist. Perhaps they set things in motion and lived and died, and this is just the way civilization will play out until the machines break.

Some casting tidbits: Collin Wilcox (Marilyn) played Mayelle in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Suzy Parker (Lana, Eve, Number Twelve et al.) was the first $100k-a-year model and the only one to have a Beatles song named after her (albeit an unreleased one).

Wilcox has arguably the more challenging role, but Suzy Parker is the visual throughline for the story. Both acquit themselves nicely.

Richard Long (Uncle Rick, Rex, Sig et al.) was married to Mara Corday (below left), and Pamela Austin (Val, post-transformation Marilyn, Number Eight) was probably best known for her roles in the Elvis movies Blue Hawaii or Kissin' Cousins. (With Yvonne Craig, below right.)


"Number Twelve" is also a clever satire of Hollywood's youth obsession, and television's eschewing of deep material in particular. Serling was always happy to rip the medium. On this score, the story is only half as prophetic; it gets the youth obsession/ body-and-mind conformity of the future exactly right but not the TV part. The variety of content - and good content - here in 2016 is well-remarked-upon.

And here's Film School Rejects ftw: "One of season five's better ones. For an episode so focused on its characters' happiness this is easily one of the series' saddest. People are a depressing species. "


"Can't you feel anything?"
"Of course I can, silly. I feel good. I always feel good.
I feel pretty, I feel fun;
I feel all and all is one
."
 
~

2 comments:

  1. "I feel pretty, I feel fun; I feel all, and all is one."

    I mean, shit, man; that could come straight from the mind of a Manson.

    I haven't seen this episode, but based on your writeup of it, I can certainly see how some of this would still play in 2016. Not hard to imagine that it'd be "The Twilight Zone" that held up the best of the numerous major sci-fi shows.

    My knee-jerk reaction for a follow-up sentence to that one: the time seems incredibly ripe for a really good modern version of "The Twilight Zone." Thing is, it already exists: it's called "Black Mirror," and I seriously cannot recommend that show to you strongly enough. They've only made seven episodes, but I loved all seven.

    My resolve to watch my way through all of original TZ is reaching peak intensity, by the way. Pretty sure I'm going to pull the trigger on that very soon.

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    1. I am definitely intrigued by "Black Mirror." I do need to check that one out, especially now while the catch-up time is relatively brief.

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