How The Twilight Zone Predicted Our Paranoid Present

Tune into the annual New Year's marathon broadcast of the show that debuted 55 years ago, and you might notice something strange: Its sci-fi stories look a lot like today.
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More than half a century after it first aired, The Twilight Zone still has one of the most recognizable opening themes in television history: Doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo-doo. Incidentally, composer Marius Constant dashed off the 30-second theme song in a single afternoon, according to The New York Times—but that melody has endured in our popular imagination just as the program has. Though its original run spanned five seasons between 1959 and 1964, generations of new viewers have since discovered The Twilight Zone, its longevity at least partly buoyed by an annual marathon broadcast each New Year's dating back to 1994. The Syfy network will continue the tradition for a 19th time this week, airing more than 80 episodes in 48 hours starting the morning of Dec. 31 at 8 a.m.

Critics tend to talk about The Twilight Zone like it’s trapped in amber. The series is celebrated as an acute reflection of a rare and intense moment in American history; a space-age cult classic that captured the messy transition between post-World War II America and the chaotic 1960s. Atomic war, space exploration, government control, anxiety, and mortality are all common Twilight Zone themes.

But the series has endured for more than half a century because of how resonant it remains today. The Twilight Zone is at its core an exploration of the human condition and commentary on how people cope with fear of the unknown. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling said that even in science fiction, he was most compelled by stories that were relatable first in human terms. “If you can’t believe the unbelievability, then there’s something wrong in the writing,” he told a college class in 1975. Serling's outlook also meant he was more interested in imagining the world as it might actually become. Here's how he explained this idea in a 1970 interview: "I would probably shy away from the year 2500. I would much rather deal in 1998. The hardware that I use, I think, should be identifiable. I like to know what happens Thursday, not in the next century."

Yet now that we're well into the “next century” that was so distant to Serling, some of The Twilight Zone's more fantastical ideas and inventions have emerged in real life. More than 50 years since it first aired, re-watching the series reveals that many of the technologies and ideas it imagined as supernatural in the 1960s are commonplace or at least conceivable today—including driverless cars, flat-screen televisions, human-like robotics, government surveillance, and more.

The 1963 episode "Valley of the Shadow," for example, features a device that manipulates atoms to make objects disappear or appear. Scientists today are working on making "invisibility cloaks" that obscure objects by bending light waves around them, while 3D printing technology is becoming cheaper and more mainstream.

Several Twilight Zone episodes deal with nostalgia and the desire to return to one's youth. In "Static" (1961), a man is able to listen on-demand to a radio broadcast from his childhood, an idea that seemed supernatural when the episode first aired but is banal today. Platforms like YouTube have so altered our expectations about what’s available on-demand that we’re often surprised today when we’re not able to revisit obscure broadcasts from the past. (And if you want to get meta about it, here’s a clip from that very episode.)

The Twilight Zone also predicted driverless vehicles in more than one episode. A driverless 1939 Lagonda coupe chases a man in "A Thing About Machines" (1960), though the coupe was possessed rather than programmed like Google’s modern-day fleet of autonomous vehicles. Plastic surgery as we know it was still in its infancy when The Twilight Zone first aired, and today cosmetic surgery is common—though still not as extreme as depicted in "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (1964), the episode that imagines a world in which young adults undergo surgery so they can look like one of a set number of models featured in a catalog.

Of course, there's plenty The Twilight Zone envisioned that hasn’t happened. Lucky for us, Earth was not annihilated by nuclear war in 1985, as was predicted in "Elegy" (1960). Gold has not—well, not yet anyway—lost all value, as The Twilight Zone claims it will by the year 2061 in "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" (1961). Humans did not settle on a new planet in 1991, as explained in "On Thursday We Leave for Home" (1963). Astronauts were not placed in suspended animation for long space missions in 1987, as in "The Long Morrow" (1964). And despite a scene in "Two" (1961), print newspapers almost certainly won’t be the primary source of news once 2061 rolls around.

Nevertheless, the abstract future imagined by The Twilight Zone is in many ways spot-on. One particularly prescient theme in the series is a recurring exploration of the relationship between humans and robots. The Twilight Zone imagined robotic lovers, personal assistants, grandmothers, children, athletes, and so on. In "The Lateness of the Hour" (1960), a man and his wife have a team of robot employees, including a maid, a cook, a handyman. Today, we have Siri on our iPhones and Roombas vacuuming our floors, though researchers are still working on robots that can consistently open doors on their own. Our collective fascination with robots is persistent in pop culture. Consider films like Westworld (1973), Weird Science (1985), A.I. (2001), and Her, the 2013 film about a man who falls in love with an operating system.

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Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
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