Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Twilight Zone

It has been said that the series titled The Twilight Zone was the best TV series of all time. I cannot give my opinion, for I haven’t seen so many series, so I cannot compare them, but this is what I have read.
The series, which ran for five seasons between 1959 and 1964, was dedicated to fantasy, science fiction, psychological horror and the supernatural. It was created and presented by Rod Serling, who also wrote the script of 92 of its 156 episodes. Rod Serling is well known for the scripts of two famous films of the sixties: Seven days in May and Planet of the Apes. The spectacular surprise ending of the second film (which is not in the book on which it is based, Pierre Boulle’s novel of the same title) is at the same level as many episodes of The Twilight Zone.
The series contains plenty of episodes that have left a lasting mark on subsequent cinema and television. I spoke about one of them in another post in this blog. Serling’s scripts are usually characterized by moralizing intentions. Some critics don’t like this, but I do (:-).
Rod Serling
As The Twilight Zone is a science fiction series (among other things), we can consider whether it contains scientific mistakes. Of course, a few classic science fiction themes are probably unfeasible, such as time travel or interstellar travel at hyper-relativistic speeds, but they cannot be considered scientific mistakes. In these cases the reader or the audience are expected to lower their level of disbelief, for otherwise the novel or movie would not exist.
The answer to the previous question is affirmative, but it is curious how very few problems there are in the episodes of the series. In fact, in my view they are reduced to a single field of science: astronomy, which seems not to have been a fluent subject for Rod Serling and his collaborators. These are the two main problems I have detected:
  • Confusion between the concepts of planet and asteroid. In several episodes of the series (at least three, all belonging to the first season) the protagonists arrive at what is said to be an asteroid, usually desert, but provided with an atmosphere breathable by terrestrial people. As the asteroids are much smaller than the planets (the largest, Palas, is 545 km in diameter), and since dwarf planets such as Pluto and Ceres (the first of these bodies to be discovered) are today classified in between planets and asteroids, it’s evident that an asteroid cannot be provided with an Earth-like atmosphere, even less containing oxygen, which is a consequence of the existence of life.
Maybe someone explained this to Serling, because in successive seasons he didn’t make the same mistake. In fact, in an episode of the third series, in which two astronauts establish contact with tiny aliens, in the style of Gulliver’s Lilliputians, they no longer speak of asteroids, but of a planet.
Image from one of the best-known episodes
 of the series: Nightmare at 20.000 feet.
  • The second mistake has to do with the distance to the nearest stars. We know that the closest (Proxima Centauri, one of the three components of the Alpha ternary system of the Centaur constellation) is 4.26 light years from us (i.e. over 40 billion kilometers). In episode 14 of the first season of The Twilight Zone, some inhabitants of an extraterrestrial civilization, about to self-destroy in a nuclear war, flee to Earth, which they point to as the third planet from the sun (this is almost the title of the episode).
The protagonists mention the distance they must travel to reach this planet, where they hope to find peace: 11 million miles (18 million kilometers). Therefore, their planetary system would be located nearer to Earth than Mars. (The minimum distance between these two planets is 56 million kilometers).
As a final detail, which we can consider moralizing, those space travelers, even if they had managed to reach Earth, wouldn’t find here the peace they were looking for. When this episode was released, our civilization was also on the brink of a total nuclear war. Remember that the climax of the cold war was the Cuban missile crisis, which took place in October 1962, while the fourth season of The Twilight Zone was being broadcasted for the first time. Also in this case Rod Serling seems to have learned over time. Thus, in episode 9 of the fifth season, the spacecraft arriving on Earth (if it is Earth, for this is left unclear) comes from a distance of 4.3 light-years (i.e. from Alpha Centaur). The only unscientific detail would be that, at that distance, the astronaut can speak live with his base, without having to wait over four years between sentences, but this is often done by authors of interstellar adventures.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Literature and Cinema: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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