The Monsters Among Us

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”

Twilight Zone, Season One, March 4, 1960

Several things have made the original Twilight Zone among the most memorable television series ever aired. First, it never failed to entertain. That’s first and foremost, for without this crucial factor present, Rob Serling could not have successfully delivered any message then or now. Second, nearly every episode had something significant to say about the human condition. It’s rare to find such a program, or even such a book, play, or film. And third, the Twilight Zone continues to speak to every generation that watches it. That’s because the anthology series dealt with topics we can’t ever seem to resolve. We live with them from generation to generation.

Case in point: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Recall the time. We were in the throes of the Cold War. We feared nuclear conflagration. Anyone who lived during the period, your parents and grandparents, will testify to its palpable nature. Nevil Shute’s bestselling novel On the Beach riveted readers in the late 1950s. Two years after the airing of the “Maple Street” episode Burdick and Wheeler’s Fail-Safe scared the hell out of the nation.

What makes “Maple Street” such a brilliant episode for today, for each and every one of us, is how it speaks directly to our current situation. Like almost nothing else, it perfectly dramatizes our worst fears, our worst instincts, and the very goals of our current enemy, the Islamic State. “Maple Street” is the very definition of terror, of how to turn a nation against itself, how to drive it into giving up everything it holds sacred, the values upon which it was founded. As the alien perpetrators comment at the end, you don’t have to invade a nation to conquer it. You simply instill terror, terror that turns neighbors against neighbors.

And isn’t that exactly what is happening today? We turn on our televisions and hear our political leaders and wanna bes rant, spouting nutty ideas, ideas that will surely bolster people’s worst ideas about us. Reasonableness, thoughtfulness, calm reason, let’s toss these out the window in favor of, as the residents of Maple Street do, running from one house to next in search of the enemy, in unconscious bidding to the enemy.

You can find “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” on DVD collections available from your public library and streaming services. Take a look and think about how it speaks directly to our times.

And then keep this closing voiceover in mind when people are losing their heads around you:

“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. For the record, prejudices can kill — and suspicion can destroy — and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children — and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is — that these things cannot be confined — to the Twilight Zone.” w/c

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Reflecting on Ourselves, Darkly

Black Mirror (Channel 4; Netflix)

English satirist and broadcaster Charlie Brooker’s new series, Black Mirror, has received many positive notices in the U.K., China (where it boasts very high viewer ratings), and now the U.S. All the current episodes are dark, some more humorous than others, some much bleaker than others. All involve the interaction of people with each other through technology. Thus the title “Black Mirror,” the screen before we charge it with images and/or words.

If you are looking for something different to watch, that takes current technology a step into the future, that reminds us of The Twilight Zone, particularly the early 30-min. episodes (the similarity being in the storytelling and addressing of concerns that haunt us, even if we are not fully aware of them), then you’ll want to binge it on Netflix right now. Well, maybe wait a moment until you’ve finished this.

My son, who lives far away but who phones and Facetimes regularly (yes, like you we might be syncing up with the Black Mirror future), often discuss what we are watching and reading. Black Mirror is a show we both watched at the same time, each without knowing the other had found it. We talked about what we liked and disliked. Following are how we rank episodes best to good (nothing bad here; we can like a series or film overall but find fault with elements, as nothing is perfect).

Favorite. Episode 5: “White Bear” A woman awakens not knowing who or where she is. She soon discovers the world turned upside down with people trying to kill her and bystanders capturing the attempts on their phones. In the end, the story turns on the question: where’s the line between justice, revenge, and pure morbid public spectacle?

Close second favorite, Episode 2: “Fifteen Million Merits” You don’t think anything can be worse than cubeland or, horrors, the throwback open office? How about riding exercycles to nowhere and existing in a digital cube? Very devilish commentary on game shows and, more to the point, the isolation of a digital world.

Third, Episode 1, “National Anthem” Apparently terrorists have abducted a British princess. They threaten to kill her … unless the Prime Minister has sexual intercourse with a pig that is broadcast live. The idea sets the Twitter world on fire. So what will the PM do faced with this insanity and how will our electronic world distort the real world? And even when we discredit ourselves, can we still find redemption? Some rank the episode the best or nearer the top. Very good, very thought-provoking, but highly distasteful, much like the fringes of Twitter and YouTube. Nothing graphic but your mind supplies the details, each cringeworthy.

Fourth, Episode 4 “Be Right Back” Best summed up as, “Careful what you wish for.” A young woman’s husband dies suddenly in an auto accident. Pining for him, a friend tells her how she might get back an electronic semblance of him to ease her through her grieving. But, things get out of hand.

Fifth, Episode 3, “The Entire History of You” Suspicion of marital infidelity receives support from an implanted technology allowing people to record and playback for themselves and others episodes of their lives. Good for how it illustrates that our propensity for sharing can go too far. Not so good because you can predict the outcome from the beginning. Still, a credible warning about carrying electronic sharing to the extreme.

Sixth, Episode 6: “The Waldo Moment” Failed comedian Jamie Salter is the human behind the animated, bitterly satiric blue bear Waldo. During a by-election, Waldo inserts himself into the campaign, with the encouragement of the CIA (they do get around, don’t they?). In a travesty and joke of an election, which seems to show how meaningless and easily manipulated elections can be by irrationality spread widely, Waldo places second out of three candidates. In the end we see that Waldo has gone on to pretty much run the country, perhaps the world.

A different kind of series with something to say about the digital world, and one that doesn’t waste your time. Six episodes available in the U.S. with more to come. w/c