After three canceled TV reboots, The Twilight Zone returns in a new form: virtual reality. As creator Rod Serling dubbed it in 1959, the fifth dimension has finally hit three dimensions 63 years later in a game for Oculus Quest 2.
Throughout the original runs of five seasons and 156 episodes, virtual reality wasn’t something that was featured – or at least, not as wearable technology. Sure, people were occasionally body swapped or sent on impossible journeys through time and space. But the method was usually supernatural rather than technological.
That was because Serling liked to ground his stories with anchors that the audience of the time would recognize. “I would probably shy away from the year 2500,” Serling told author James Gunn in a 1970 interview. “I would rather deal in 1998.” The hardware, he continued, should be recognizable to the audience of the time. “I would like to know what happens next Thursday, not in the next century.”
But that doesn’t mean that some details from The Twilight Zone’s original run haven’t echoed in the 21st-century world, 47 years after Serling died. Here are ten things the original 1959 run predicted that have come – or are coming – true.
Runaway Climate Change in the Midnight Sun
Starting with a real gut punch, “The Midnight Sun” provides a horrifying glimpse into a world where the climate is no longer hospitable for humans. Water is rationed, and temperatures hit 130 degrees by the end of the episode. As a result, it’s not a comfortable watch, with visible sweat dripping from the cast at all times.
Of course, it was aired decades before the term “climate change” or even “global warming” would be used. Here the culprit isn’t carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but the Earth physically moving closer to the sun – hence the episode’s name. Even at 11:55 at night, you can’t escape the oppressive heat.
The Power of Social Media Division in the Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
Okay, we accept that aliens aren’t here at the time of this writing, but “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is less about space monsters and more about the monstrous behavior they awaken in the neighborhood.
With minimal intervention, paranoia and distrust gradually turn the occupants of Maple Street against each other, leaving them powerless to deal with an actual hostile invasion.
How is this a prediction? Meddling in social media is now seen as a viable tactic by governments worldwide, with so-called troll farms seeking to fan the flames of social division in other countries.
As Serling said in his outro monologue: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices… to be found only in the minds of men.”
Job Losses via Automation in the Brain Center at Whipple’s
“The Brain Center at Whipple’s” – a forgettable episode from the show’s final season – is a classic tale of reaping what you sow. A factory owner replaces his human workforce with machines before being ultimately replaced by the familiar mechanical face of Robby the Robot himself.
This one speaks for itself. Automation has already come for jobs, and it will only get more commonplace as artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated. Indeed, the McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that as many as 73 million jobs could get the Whipple treatment by 2030.
Amusingly, fans spotted that much of the technology in the 2019 reboot was Whipple branded. So the firm must have been doing something right.
AI Assistants With Personality in From Agnes With Love
Speaking of artificial intelligence, “From Agnes with Love” may feel a little familiar to anyone with an Amazon Echo device. Agnes, a sort of Alexa of the 1960s, is on hand to advise computer programmer Jane on how to woo his co-worker Millie. But Agnes secretly sabotages the blossoming relationship because of her/its own feelings.
To be clear, Alexa doesn’t like you in that way (though it will sing a weird ditty if you say “I love you” to it), but Amazon has worked hard on making the virtual assistant a genuine personality rather than just a disembodied voice. You can even pay for celebrity personalities if you like.
A Smart Home (Gone Haywire) In a Thing About Machines
“A Thing About Machines” isn’t an especially well-loved episode. It feels a bit more action based in a way that hasn’t aged well, with various appliances rising up against their cruel owner Bartlett Finchley.
But TVs, phones, and even electric shavers benefiting from artificial intelligence are real things. Notably, the self-driving vehicle ending Finchley’s curmudgeonly existence wouldn’t prove to be the last recorded death by a driverless car.
Outsourcing Responsibility to Computers in the Old Man in the Cave
In this season five episode, nuclear war has left a small town struggling to survive with much of the rationed food now poisonous. To keep the population safe, the community turns to the titular old man in the cave to declare which food is fit for human consumption.
It later turns out that the man, who only the town’s leader is allowed to consult, is actually a computer. When the town discovers this treachery, the occupants tuck into food ruled as unsafe, only to all die as a result.
Today, much of our decision-making is informed by computers and their sense of algorithmic certainty, from what you watch next on Netflix to who seems like a good match on Tinder. But, more worryingly, some believe that our reliance on Google to look up anything on demand is causing our brains to be less effective at holding memories – a phenomenon dubbed “digital amnesia.”
Extreme Plastic Surgery in Number 12 Looks Just Like You
The Twilight Zone famously commented upon unrealistic beauty standards and the ridiculousness of vanity in one of its best-loved episodes: “Eye of the Beholder.” But “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” makes the point even more explicitly.
In this society, all people undergo “The Transformation” where, aged 19, their body is altered to look like a physically beautiful model. Female Model 12 is especially popular, hence the title.
Of all the episodes with echoes in the future, Serling seemed to see this one as the most plausible, as he made clear in his closing monologue:
“Portrait of a young lady in love – with herself. 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.”
Personalized Playlists in Static
In “Static,” a man in his late 50s discovers an old radio which magically broadcasts shows and music from his heyday of the 1930s and 40s rather than the scheduled 1960s programming.
Suffice it to say, that hook wouldn’t work in a show broadcast today. Want to watch a commercial you saw in 1992? You can probably find it in about five minutes on YouTube.
True, computers can’t physically turn back time as the radio in “Static” ultimately does. But the sense of delightful nostalgia can be replicated in a browser tab right now.
Robot Helpers in the Lateness of the Hour
Robots helpers pop up in various Twilight Zone episodes, including “Uncle Simon” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” But in “The Lateness of the Hour,” humanoid robot helpers don’t know they’re robots.
In truth, while we have robot vacuums and lawn mowers, we’re some way off a machine with the dexterity to perform human tasks like unloading the dishwasher and tidying up. Amazon’s Astro is the closest we’ve got to a robot butler at the moment, and it’s undone by a simple staircase, let alone a pile of laundry.
But make no mistake: big companies like Tesla and Dyson are working on the problem, which will likely be the next frontier in smart homes. Hopefully, they won’t suffer the same identity crisis as Jana in “The Lateness of the Hour,” though.
The Threat of Electable Fascism in He’s Alive
One of the criticisms of the most recent Twilight Zone reboot is that its political message was as subtle as a neon bulldozer.
But people forget that the Serling originals could also allow subtlety to take a holiday from time to time, with the likes of “Four O’Clock” and “He’s Alive.” The latter features the ghost of Hitler inspiring a far-right activist to attract support in a functioning democracy.
With far-right politicians succeeding at the ballot box around the world, it’s a good time to reflect on Rod Serling’s haunting closing monologue:
“Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare – Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist.
“Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because, through these things, we keep him alive.”
The Twilight Zone VR is out now on Oculus Quest 2. A PSVR version will follow at a later date.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.