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:
Love the episode. But is it such a bad thing? Come on, she was quite happy afterward. I suppose other races had their own change machines. They’re just making everybody perfect. Sounds good to me.
— steven wynn (@stevenwynn37) January 24, 2018
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 understand your response. But I have to ask myself, after the transformation is there no more racism, murder, poverty,…etc? If so, having to live a sanitized existence is a small price to pay.
— steven wynn (@stevenwynn37) January 28, 2018
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!