Space Travel Pessimism
A popular theme in Twilight Zone is space travel, but the episodes all have a pessimistic, dark tone. Nothing good comes of traveling across the universe. Check out these episodes.
“Where Is Everybody” – The premier of the Twilight Zone series. In this episode, a solitary man dressed in an Air Force jumpsuit is nearly driven crazy trying to find someone, anyone, in the town he wanders into. In the end, it was a simulation to test loneliness during space travel.
“And When The Sky Was Opened” – Three astronauts return from a trip to space, then begin disappearing one by one. In the end, no one is left and the mission had never happened.
“I Shot An Arrow In The Air” – Here the astronauts crash onto what they believe is a desolate asteroid, but it’s really the desert of Nevada. With little water to share, they kill each other off until the last survivor realizes where he is.
“The Invaders” – The twist here is that the single character, Agnes Moorehead, is fighting off invaders who turn out to be astronauts from Earth.
“The Little People” – Two astronauts crash on a planet inhabited by tiny people. One of them is having a grand time being the new god of the planet and kills the other astronaut who insists that they leave. He is quite astonished when another ship lands with giants who tower over HIM.
“Death Ship” – The three astronauts are doomed to continually land on a planet where they find the wreckage of their ship and their dead bodies.
“The Parallel” – An astronaut lands safely from his mission to what seems to be Earth and his home, but small details are different. He goes into space again and lands again with Earth and everything he knows the same again.
“Probe Seven Over And Out” – The sole survivor of the Earth that has blown itself to bits in nuclear war lands on a distant planet to begin again. His name? Adam. The woman he meets? Eve (of course).
“Elegy” – Low on fuel, three astronauts land on a planet where everything seems to be in suspended animation. They find out too late that they’re on a cemetery planet and the one living being is the caretaker who embalms them and places them back in their ship. Wow, Houston, that’s a really big problem.
Fear of the Unknown
Why so dark? The fear of the unknown is a probable explanation. At that time, space travel was just beginning to happen and no one knew what would happen or if it could succeed.
Traveling into space was fantastic and frightening at the same time. For the scientific types at NASA, it was all math and science, but for inquisitive writers like Rod Serling, journeying into space was the ultimate trip into the Twilight Zone.
Rod Serling grew up in a happy home. He married the love of his life and they had a beautiful family. Serling worked hard and achieved what most writers only dream of, earning awards and accolades.
Yet, Serling was somber and brooding. Not even 20 years old at the outbreak World War II, he enlisted in the paratroopers, saw action in the Philippines and was severely wounded. While he was in the Pacific, Serling’s father died. He came home, he said, “bitter and at loose ends.” No doubt this left him permanently unable to feel warm and cozy about nearly anything, so writing was his escape.
Most Stories Have a Somber Tone
Indeed, Serling’s dark tone exists in almost every episode of Twilight Zone. Stories with a nice, neat happy ending don’t make for great drama, especially for an accomplished, driven writer like Rod Serling already was. Light and happy stories aren’t especially thought provoking. It’s the problems that make us think.
So what could go wrong with space travel? Well, just about everything, and that provides lots of material for stories. How much could you write about astronauts walking on the moon and coming home safely? The composition of the rocks they brought back? The amount of fuel it took for the trip? Not nearly as dramatic as when capsule explodes and you’re not sure if the astronauts are going to make it back home at all.
In addition, the Soviets seemed to be beating us to the punch in the space race. Was the American space program doomed before it even got off the launch pad?
Beyond the technicalities of space travel were the human beings doing the traveling. It always comes down to human nature and our fears, our jealousies, our pettiness, all our human foibles. Despite being highly trained and possessing the right stuff, a space mission fails because the ship crashes and there isn’t a lot of water left. So what do the astronauts do? Kill each other, of course.
Or the astronaut who decides to become king of the miniature beings. Was that really what he trained for years to achieve, spending years in the military, studying, working, just to let grandeur go to his head in an instant?
Those of us who see the wonder and awe of venturing into the galaxy might be a bit disheartened by the failures of space travel in Twilight Zone. Perhaps that was why Star Trek was so warmly embraced when it came along just a few years later. The United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Academy conquered space travel and made it cool, too.
Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between Twilight Zone and Star Trek. I love them both! Zoners and Trekkies travel in two different worlds, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. Have a good time in whatever dimension you happen to land in.