Think Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is the height of science fiction-horror on television? Think again.
The television in your house, at its best, is a portal to another dimension. Somewhere new. Weird. Frightening. Beautiful. Absurd. “A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.” 2nd October, 1959. On comes the TV. And there he is. That caricature of an American man, with his square jaw and gameshow eyebrows, announcing in his subtly bizarre speech patterns that you’ve just entered… The Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone remains the best vehicle for imagination on TV because every episode was created by a circle of ever-changing talent
Rod Serling’s excellent creation wasn’t the first vehicle for the imagination on TV, but it remains the best. Not because every episode was brilliant, but because every episode tried to explore something its audience feared; because every episode was imaginative, written, directed, scored and performed by a large circle of ever-changing talent. That was in 1959. So what about now? On comes the TV. You sit back, you enjoy. You’re entertained, made to laugh, to scream, to sneer. You might even be moved. But what about your imagination, your creativity? Are they being galvanised? Stop fooling yourself. You know the answer is no.
That attention-seeker, Charlie ‘Are you shocked yet?’ Brooker, thought that Black Mirror would serve as a modern-day Twilight Zone. Oh, Charlie. In updating the themes to current fears and tensions, he and his writers also updated the approach to a standard over-the-top and cripplingly negative scream in the ear. Basically, Black Mirror inspires nothing. It wants only that you stop doing this or stop thinking that. How patronising.
We all know there’s a lot of crap on TV, and that’s mostly because there are a billion channels. Crap has always ruled the pie-chart when it comes to art. But there’s still some brilliance, even if it does come mostly in the form of American drama series, BBC documentaries, and the odd sitcom. But why, today, can we not turn on the set in the dark of night and see something really weird happening to an everyday guy or girl? Why do our narratives remain so firmly in the known, the familiar?
Where are the dreams, the living dolls, the gremlins on the wing?Where have all the ideas gone?
Where are the dreams, the living dolls, the gremlins on the wing, the howling prisoners and rain-soaked apparitions, the Nazi condemned to suffer the same horrible fate every night aboard the ship he destroyed, the town where the sun won’t rise because its inhabitants so greedily want to hang one of their prisoners, the girl who doesn’t want to undergo the same beautifying surgery that all girls must agree to, the man who finds himself in a town utterly deserted by its people? Where have all the ideas gone?
The closest thing to The Twilight Zone now is Doctor Who. Yes, Doctor Who. That show with fantastic ideas, featuring a wonderful nutcase who can go anywhere at any time and do anything or meet anyone. But it fails because its fantastic ideas are always criminally under-explored. Because it’s a family show, and a family show has to keep everyone happy and entertained. Those kinds of boundaries do not create great TV. Fun TV. But not great.
So what would make a show great? TV scheduling has always exploited our love of regularity, a characteristic from the more boring side of our natures. Fine. So what we want is a show that’s on at the same time, on the same day, every week. But what if, then, that show – even though it was recognisably the same show, presented by the same man – changed every week? What if it revealed to you a new world, a new time, a new way of seeing something you thought you knew? All in the comfort of regularity. Alas. That’s exactly what The Twilight Zone did.
This is not a call for The Twilight Zone to be brought back. They tried that a few times, and it just didn’t really work, because everyone watching the new episodes found themselves missing the old episodes (and probably Rod). Then came things like The Night Gallery, Tales from the Crypt, and there was always The Outer Limits. But no other show has managed to mix the unlimited possibilities of the imagination with poignant, frightening, funny and heart-breaking tales as well as Serling’s finest creation.
No other show has managed to mix the unlimited possibilities of the imagination with frightening, funny and heart-breaking tales
So, we need something new. We need it now. If anyone reading this doubts the importance of a stimulated imagination, then ask yourself what aspect of human endeavour it was that brought us art, agriculture, democracy, stories, music, scientific discoveries, technological breakthroughs and the desire to leave our planet and explore the universe. Without imagination, we’d have done none of those things. Just ask cats and dogs.
For every scientist out there now who wouldn’t be a scientist if not for David Attenborough, there is a writer, a painter, a performer, a composer (and God knows who else) who wouldn’t be who they are now if not for invaluable shows like… The Twilight Zone.
Featured image: CBS
Inset images: Channel 4; CBS