Thanks to Netflix, I’ve been enjoying a much-needed re-watch of one of the greatest shows ever to grace the small screen, Rod Serling’s original The Twilight Zone. As TV shows go, I can’t think of one that had, or required, more originality in its development than this one.
Two of my favorites, and they concern the very same topics presented in different ways, are the Rod Serling-written episode ‘Eye of the Beholder‘(Season 2 Episode 6), and a much later show entitled Number Twelve Looks Just Like You(Season 5, Episode 17). The two episodes dwell on what ‘beauty’ is, and how society defines attractiveness. Of the two, the Serling penned ‘Eye‘ is generally considered the go-to episode about this subject, but ‘Number Twelve‘ speaks to me louder, and clearer. And, scarier. I’ll admit the costumes were entirely ridiculous, but they only had a television budget to work with, and hey, it was the sixties after all.
Though the episodes address basically the same subject, they have more differences than similarities. The main character of both stories are young women, considered “undesirable” by the societies in which they live. The antagonists, if you will, are people who are trying to change that. Both societies are portrayed as totalitarian, in reality if not in effect.
After that, nothing about the episodes is the same.
In ‘Eye of the Beholder’, the young woman wants to be changed, to be made ‘pretty’; while in ‘Number Twelve’ the main character resists the ‘Transformation”, as it’s called. One can easily read the story of each of these episodes by clicking these links, so I won’t bore you with each detail, or spoil them if you want to see the episodes for yourself, which I highly suggest.
Number Twelve has a much darker feel to me. Marilyn, the main character, is continually pressured by friends, family, and even doctors to undergo the radical ‘Transformation” in order to reap all its benefits. They just can’t understand why the poor girl resists all the good that will come with her conformity. I’m probably reading more into their words and gestures when I watch this episode, but I think deep down some of those characters long for their own lost identities; some are too naive to know it, while others are too scared to go against society at large.
Number Twelve also presents a much darker society than Eye, perhaps because more time and dialogue is given to explaining just what kind of world the main characters live in. In Number Twelve, doctors are constantly probing young Marilyn to find out exactly why she doesn’t want to change, and then fix that problem, so that she will think correctly. Back in the sixties when this was filmed, those scenes would have been rife with echoes of communism, as the Red Menace was still lurking everywhere. But those scenes still have relevance today. Human beings tend to congregate in groups of like minds, and when one of those minds espouses a view radical from the group, the rest want to know, what’s up with that?
Both episodes show just how much society influences, even determines, what is and is not beautiful or attractive. They are extreme cases, of course, which is part of what makes them interesting. Yet they are effective demonstrations nonetheless. Our own society still has strict rules about what is and is not pretty, and how men and women should look, act, and feel.
To some extent, we can’t help it. We’re born into this world, and shaped at our earliest ages by our experiences therein. We therefore come to see things, including beauty, as defined by those standards. There are many different cultures on this planet, some with ideas radically different from our own. A mere observance of these differences can demonstrate how the society one lives in can determine his or her outlook on many things, including beauty.
I think the main reason Number Twelve hits closest to home for me is that I can see it one day actually happening. Medical science marches ever onward. I applaud the research and education conducted into understanding our physical bodies. But what happens if and when the time comes that our own science can actually duplicate something like the ‘Transformation”? Technological advance marches in near-lockstep with medical science. Government, and society, will know more and more about us as science unlocks the mysteries of our bodies. When the future comes, will we still be clinging to our current perceptions of beauty? If we are, I don’t think humanity will be able to resist the temptation to alter ourselves into something ‘prettier’, even if that means losing our identities. I like to think I’d be able too, but when it comes down to it, if I’m being totally honest, I’m not too sure. It’s like trying to imagine what we’d do if diagnosed with a terminal illness, or how we’ll raise our as-yet unborn children. We can speculate all we like, but when actually faced with the decisions, we often arrive at vastly different places than we thought.
Hopefully, our wisdom will grow with our knowledge. After all we invented the atomic bomb nearly seventy years ago and have had the good sense to only use it twice, and that was to end a war. If and when medical science can one day make us perfect, I hope we’re smart enough not to do it. Because when you sit down and think about it, it’s our imperfections that really make us unique, and beautiful, especially in the physical way.
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See You in the Future,
J S Eaton