Jeanne Hoffman: Welcome to this Kosmos online podcast, I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today I am pleased to be joined by Aeon Skoble to talk about themes of liberty in the popular TV show the Twilight Zone. Dr. Skoble is professor of philosophy at Bridgewater State University. Welcome Dr. Skoble and thanks for being on our podcast.
Dr. Skoble: Happy to be here.
Jeanne Hoffman: First, what is your expertise in the twilight zone?
Dr. Skoble: It started mainly as some obsessive fan worship of the show. I just watched it a lot growing up, I’m not that old, but it was on re-runs all the time when I was in junior high and high school I ended up getting pretty familiar with the entire 5 year run of the series. Much later, when I became an academic, I was asked to start writing about some of the pop culture topics that I was interested in.
Jeanne Hoffman: Have you ever written anything on the twilight zone?
Dr. Skoble: Yes, Lester Hunt, and Noel Carol recently put together a book called philosophy in the twilight zone. They asked me to contribute a chapter to it, which I did. I wrote an essay on the episode “Nick of Time,” which contemporary audiences might note for having a very early appearance by William Shatner.
Jeanne Hoffman: So you wrote about rationality and choice in “nick of time” right? Could you go into that a little bit?
Dr. Skoble: Yes, that is an interesting episode. Most Twilight episodes are notable for having a famous twist ending or a supernatural element to it. One of the things that always struck me as fascinating about the episode “Nick of Time” was it doesn’t have either a supernatural element, or a strange twist at the end. It draws its suspense entirely from the internal psychological workings of the main character, which as I said, is played by William Shatner. He is a very superstitious man and while he is with his wife at a diner he gets in the grip of a little napkin fortune teller thing. You put penny into it and it tells you your future.
It’s a classic example of the vague prediction. It’s like a magic 8-ball in that it spits out vague answers that you can interpret in any way you wish. It’s an interesting exercise in confirmation bias, he sees what he wants to see in the answers. He becomes literally irrationally imprisoned by this fortune teller machine. Interestingly, he comes to reclaim his autonomy by recognizing how silly his superstitious beliefs are, and how he is in fact using confirmation bias and other fallacious forms of reasoning.
What’s really rewarding about the episode is that he is liberated from his irrationality purely by choosing to do so. His wife is helping him, she is not superstitious, and helps him see that he is being irrational and that he literally loses his autonomy through this irrationality. When he realizes that his very freedom depends on rejecting superstition and irrationality then he sees what he’s been doing wrong he goes and reclaims his life.
Jeanne Hoffman: You gave me a list of other episodes that have themes of liberty in them. A couple of them caught my eye that I’d like to ask you to elaborate on. Could you talk about the episode called the shelter at all?
Dr. Skoble: Sure, at the beginning of the episode we see a neighborhood with people having dinner together, and socializing together. One of them has a bomb shelter in his basement. It’s the cold war, and people are concerned about this. Some of his friends think he is being a little too paranoid to have put so much energy into his bomb shelter.
Then the radio alert system comes on and tells them that there is an imminent attack. He and his family bundle off into the shelter where they’ve got their canned provisions, bottled water, filtered air, and what have you. Then what happens is that his neighbors realize that they don’t have a bomb shelter, and that they need to use his. Just as he is about to get into the shelter the neighbors come over, and they want to get into the shelter as well. Of course, the problem is that the shelter is only built for one family. If too many people are placed into the shelter than they will die as the shelter runs out of food, water, and air.
The neighbors start fighting among themselves about who should be allowed into the shelter with him. His position is that ‘I don’t want any of you guys in the shelter, because we’ll all die.’ The neighbors are not only fighting each other, but also eventually getting battering rams to knock the door down. Of course this is completely foolish because if you knock the door down then nobody will be protected by the shelter. They are panicking, and it’s a classic case of mob psychology. It’s almost like a Hobbesian state of nature that they are all at each others throats.
The moment there is the threat of a nuclear war they are literally punching each other, knocking down the door, and forcing themselves upon him. The twist is that as they knock down the door the radio comes back on and says ‘false alarm.’ There wasn’t a nuclear attack coming at all, we were mistaken. The neighbors say ‘oh we’re so sorry we hope you can forgive us.’ He’s not sure he will be able to, because he’s seen this savage inside of each of them.
Jeanne Hoffman: There is another episode called “On Thursday We Leave For Home” that I thought had a really good moral to it. I wonder if you could go into that too.
Dr. Skoble: Yeah, that’s an interesting science fiction story. Just in case some of the listeners aren’t familiar with this: this is an anthology series. There are no repeating characters or settings, every episode is its own free-standing story. So, some take place in the past, some take place present day, and some take place in the future. “The Shelter” that you just asked me about takes place in what was at the time ‘present day’ in the 1960’s. “On Thursday We Leave For Home” takes place in the future somewhere.
What happens is that there is some colony on another planet that has been marooned for thirty years. They have managed to survive because their leader has had a very hard strict rule over them all. He has been simultaneously inspiring them and encouraging them with stories of how wonderful Earth is, but at the same time ruling with an iron hand to maintain order. This has worked in the sense that after 30 years the colony is still alive and well, but he has gotten so use to his power that when the rescue ship finally comes he doesn’t want to go. The ship comes and the colonists pile onto the ship, but he doesn’t. He sort of runs into his cave, and starts going over a litany of rules to an audience of nobody. At the last minute he realizes he has made a terrible mistake by staying behind, but it’s too late and the ship has left.
His power had become an addictive drug, and he couldn’t kick the habit until it was too late.
Jeanne Hoffman: This is the final one I wanted to ask you about directly. Could go into the episode called “The Little People”?
Dr. Skoble: That one is an almost funny example of Acton’s quote about power corrupting. These two space travelers arrive on a planet where the people are the size of ants. One of them decides that ‘oh wow this is great, I can be like a god here.’ He steps on them and terrorizes them, and makes them worship him like a god. When it comes time to leave he refuses, and threatens his traveling companion. He tells him ‘you leave, I’m staying here, and there is only room for one god on this planet’. His friend blasts off, and he’s left there to terrorize these little people.
The twist ending is that another spaceship lands with people that are from his point of view giants, and they step on him.
Jeanne Hoffman: Is there a similarity with “On Thursday We Leave For Home” in that the character is willing to stay for the sake of power rather than leave to go back to his community?
Dr. Skoble: That’s right both of them show, in different ways, the corrupting influence of power. Especially unchecked power.
Jeanne Hoffman: Which episode did I not ask you about that you wish I did?
Dr. Skoble: Well again, this is an anthology series that ran for five years. Most of them didn’t deal with themes that are of interest to classical liberalism. There are a handful of others. The most famous is probably “Eye of the Beholder.” Which is an episode about conformity in a tyrannical society.
The episode concerns a young woman in the hospital for plastic surgery, because we are told that she is hideously ugly and disfigured. She just wants to be normal and look like everybody else. It is a very cleverly filmed episode, because we never actually see anybody’s faces until about three quarters of the way in. The bandages come off, and she is by our standards very beautiful. We see that all of the doctors have what we would consider hideously deformed pig-like faces. That is a way of pointing out that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Throughout the episode we find that one of the reasons why she if afraid of looking like all of the others is that she actually lives in a society that is ruled by a dictator that enforces conformity of not only appearance but opinion. All of the ones that look freakish by their standards, like you and I look, are all sent off to this colony where they live separately. Their individuality makes them freakish, and that is why they are all corralled off on this separate island colony.
The leader appears on televisions throughout the episode talking about how important it is that everybody look the same and how conformity is so important. What is interesting to the viewer is that she doesn’t look freakish from our point of view at all.
Jeanne Hoffman: So is Twilight Zone the greatest show of all time?
Dr. Skoble: Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, maybe it’s in the top ten. The anthology series has gone out of style as a way of doing television. With an anthology series you get some episodes that are just fantastic and others that are not that great. With five years of stories every week you are going to get some hits and some misses. I do think that the Twilight Zone at its best is television at its best. Using the medium to not only be very entertaining, but to be thought provoking challenge people’s settled notions.
Jeanne Hoffman: Well thank you very much for joining me Dr. Skoble.
Dr. Skoble: You’re very welcome.
Jeanne Hoffman: For more interviews with leading scholars visit KosmosOnline.org, providing career advice and resources for liberty advancing scholars. This is Jeanne Hoffman signing off.