The Lure of Forced Utopia: Twilight Zone’s “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”

Watching The Twilight Zone can sometimes seem like a Rorschach test. What seems obvious to you may not even occur to someone else — and what they see can leave you scratching your head.

Case in point: “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”. This Season 5 episode deals with a future society in which everyone must undergo a “transformation” when they reach a certain age. They browse a set of pre-arranged body types, select one of these attractive models by number, and one painless operation later, presto, they look like all the other people with that number (hence the title). Ugliness is a thing of the past.

In the episode, however, one rather plain-looking girl, Marilyn, rebels. She doesn’t want a new face, a new body — or the transformed mind that goes with it. But her mother, her friends, and the others in her social circle will have none of it. They cheerfully keep chipping away at her resolve. In the end, she’s simply forced into it, but now she doesn’t mind. She’s last glimpsed excitedly admiring the fact that now looks just like her friend Valerie.

I’ve given only the barest synopsis here, one that doesn’t really do the episode justice. So if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to check it out. The writing, acting and direction is top-notch. The dialogue is filled with sharp, interesting quotes that underscore what I and many other fans feel is the central message — that the true horror is this so-called utopia, not Marilyn’s resistance. It’s a stirring paean to individuality.

But as a similarly themed Twilight Zone classic notes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. After quoting the episode on Twitter recently, I got this reply:

I honestly thought he might be kidding. With no facial expressions, tone of voice, etc., to tip you off, you can’t always tell, and there’s plenty of dry humor pinging around the Internet. But no:

I hadn’t expected this. What seemed self-evident to me was anything but for this fan. But I didn’t feel as if I could explain my position adequately with a quick tweet or two, so I told him it would probably take a blog post to unpack my answer.

After all, there is a kind of superficial appeal to his view. Consider what Professor Sig says when Marilyn asks him why she’s being pressured to undergo the Transformation against her will. He explains its origins:

Many years ago, wiser men than I decided to try and eliminate the reasons for inequality and injustice in this world of ours. They saw in physical unattractiveness one of the factors which made men hate. So they charged the finest scientific minds with the task of eliminating ugliness in mankind.

Who wouldn’t want a world purged of inequality and injustice? It sounds ideal, to put it mildly. They’re “just making everybody perfect”, as Steven says. And if all the men are handsome and the women are beautiful, who’s to complain?

Marilyn, for one. And me. And many other fans. Not because the thought of getting rid of the social ills listed above doesn’t appeal — it does — but because it’s not a “small price” to pay. It’s an enormous one, in fact: our very selves.

We won’t be a prettier or handsomer version of ourselves when they’re done. We’ll be robots, programmed to act a certain way. And even if that way is good, the methodology isn’t: we’re not pursuing truth and justice because we recognize they’re good and freely choosing them, but because we’ve been hard-wired to do so, à la A Clockwork Orange.

“The transformation is not merely desirable from an aesthetic point of view,” Dr. Rex tells Marilyn. “Experience has shown us that it plays a very important role in psychological adjustment.”

Indeed it does. Our free will, our personality, our quirks … all of it would be gone. It’s not a “sanitized existence” — it’s a neutered one. Pre-transformation, you’re you, a unique individual who’s never been seen before in the history of the world, and never will be seen again. Post-transformation, you’re the 83,937th version of number whatever. A copy of a copy of a copy.

What virtue is there in studying if everyone is programmed to get all A’s? Or falling in love if you’re doing it because you have no choice? Or pursuing a certain career because “wiser men” selected it for you?

Have you ever thanked a vacuum for making the floor look cleaner? No, because it’s a machine doing exactly what it’s built to do. It has no choice. But if a friend or family member takes out the vacuum (especially without you asking), and runs it over your carpets, you’re going to thank them, and probably quite warmly.

After all, they didn’t have to do it. They chose to do the right thing, even if it meant sacrificing some time in which they could have been doing something for themselves. That’s the key to understanding this episode.

Rod Serling must have agreed, or he wouldn’t have produced Charles Beaumont’s witty and thoughtful script. Serling made his antipathy toward “inequality and injustice” quite plain over the course of his career. So if, in his view, the “wiser men” of Number 12’s world were on to something — if the Transformation was a viable solution — he wouldn’t have aired a story that showed how dangerous this way of thinking really is.

We’re not mannequins. We’re people who must learn to see the value in being virtuous, and strive to do so. And when we fail, we must pick ourselves up and try again. Not because we have to. But because we want to.

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 02/09/2018, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Very insightful! Enjoyed reading this.

  2. You’ve made your point in an eloquent way. I can understand where that comment is coming from, there may be immediate benefits to living in that world. But as you said, it’s only looking at the superficial. Who wants to live in a world where everyone looks alike? Where feelings are stamped out? – And the models, there’s only a few set choices. It opens another can of worms about race too – do other countries have models based on their nation’s features? Is there no mixing and matching? We don’t get to see that. Or have these ‘wise’ men decided on the master race? That would supposedly put an end to racism and prejudice, wouldn’t it?

    This is almost like a robotic world. I remember as a child how this episode was shocking when Marilyn tells the truth about her father and the only reaction she gets is a vacant smile. It’s still chilling. You wonder how many more holdouts are left around the world, dragged kicking and screaming to the transformation lab. What does this do to human DNA? That will create different features on the offspring and they won’t look like the numbers. Or I suppose children are born and then when they come of age they’re forced to pick a model body? I think that’s what it was in the opening of the episode.

    I love all the questions this episode brings out. The story could definitely be expanded.

    • I couldn’t agree more. The layers to this story are really incredible when you think about it. The ramifications of this mindset are truly frightening. It reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World”, published in 1932 about just such a designer world. Like Beaumont, he took a dim view of it, and intended his book as a type of warning bell. So yes, this story could definitely be expanded, no question.

      • Yes, that book came to mind! I haven’t read it in close to 20 years, I’ll need to pick it up again. Out of the big 3 bleak future world books I’d read in college – Fahrenheit 451 was my favorite because I loved books and reading.

  3. I’ll have…a 2/3 caff triple ristretto affogato Number 3, two-pump Number 13, one-pump classic Number 8, 2% Number 12 to the second line, three-scoops Number 1, three-scoops Number 11, two-scoop Number 7-and-4 mix…with, ummm, a caramel Number 2 drizzle!

    • Ha! See, now when you apply this approach to the wonderful world of coffee drinks, I’m totally on board! Thanks for the laugh, Frank. :)

  4. Excellent post, Paul. This episode was hard to watch, for many reasons. At no time did it seem like a life I’d want to live.

    This episode illustrated how easily we might be coaxed into giving up our individuality. I don’t think it’s all that far fetched. Would we trade being an individual if we could live a lot longer?

    When I compare that to how much of our privacy and identity we gladly give up in exchange for free email, convenient shopping and somewhat easier travel, I don’t think it’s a reach.

    The other thing I never understood about this utopia is the fact that they seem to have created a servant class. I was always upset when Marylin’s mother chastises the maid for not remembering to call her “Lana” with something like “why is it so hard for you people to remember that…”

    • Thanks, Dan. I agree, this world in no way appeals to me — hence my surprise at the Twitter reply that prompted this post. And you’re right about how easily most people give up their individuality. Marilyn stands out because she is unusually strong-willed (in fact, they finally just force her to take it), but few of us have spines that stiff. Like you said, we give it up gladly just to get free stuff!

      And you’re right, there does seem to be a servant class in this world, albeit one that’s only hinted at in passing. Just goes to show you, you can make things “perfect” without making them perfect.

  5. That Twitter exchange raises an interesting point, I get what they are saying about racism and hate but without individuality nobody would be special any longer. Also wouldn’t people get confused about who they were talking to if everyone looked identical and had the same name? Also what about age? Do the good looks fade after a time with age or not?

    I always wonder as well about this episode is there thought control? Are certain feelings and desires erased along with the transformation? This episode is frightening to me because nobody in this society has free will anymore (it’s a sort of pressure to get the transformation)and they all think that they have to look a certain way to be happy. Today young people are obsessed with their looks, their weight, and with living up to some sort of standard. Just be you for goodness sake, stop trying to satisfy other people over your own needs and happiness.

    Why is it so hard for people to just look beyond the physical and see the person inside? In my opinion it is your mind, opinions and actions that count more than your attractiveness, weight etc.

    To me the greatest ugliness is the human ability to hate another human because of their skin colour, gender etc. Physical ugliness does not cause hate. A lack of understanding, resentment, stupidity and ignorance cause hate. Making people look beautiful and handsome won’t erase ugliness because that is something that comes from within.

    • Good questions. There is a reference at one point to people living longer at one point — that the Transformation improves the cells, etc, and enables people to live longer lives that, it seems, are largely pain- and disease-free. So I would imagine there’s either no signs of aging, or relatively few.

      As for thought control, I believe it is that most assuredly. After all, Marilyn doesn’t emerge from the Transformation and say, “I resent the fact that you forced me to do it, but now that I see ‘new’ self, I kind of like the idea”. No, she’s like a different person. And that’s the whole point — it’s not just her appearance that’s changed, but her inner self.

      Your last two paragraphs are right on target. Hear, hear!

  6. I show this episode to my students when we study dystopian themes. It seems particularly fitting to today’s world, where there is ever more emphasis on the physical and superficial, and surgery to this end abounds. But it promises a better world, at the expense of one’s own identity.

    • Excellent! Glad to hear it. I hope that they not only absorb the lessons of this episode, but discover the series itself and go on to watch more episodes.

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