CBS’s The Twilight Zone
Season 1, Episode 6: “Six Degrees of Freedom”
Directed by Jakob Verbruggen
Written by Heather Anne Campbell & Glen Morgan
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “The Wunderkind” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Not All Men” – click here
Earth ain’t doing so well these days.
A mission— Bradbury Heavy, evoking the great Ray Bradbury‘s spirit— is sent into outer space to seek “new horizons.” The first mission to Mars is prepared to launch. Flight Commander Alexa Brandt (DeWanda Wise) has a team along with her, including pilot Casey Donlin (Jonathan Whitesell), flight engineer Rei Tanaka (Jessica Williams), flight surgeon Katherine Langford (Lucinda Dryzek), and mission specialist Jerry Pearson (Jefferson White). There’s an “artificial intelligence unit” called Tina (Joyce Kurtz), too.
When the ship’s about to launch an alert comes through: long range missiles have been fired from North Korea. The crew are trying to figure out what to do— stay, or go. Everyone else is evacuating. American military are preparing a counter-attack. The crew argue amongst themselves until Commander Brandt decides they’re blasting off.
The ship takes flight, leaving Earth, and whoever’s left alive, behind. Our Narrator (Jordan Peele) juxtaposes the greatest product— a spaceship— of the “human spirit” against the worst— nuclear weapons— that humanity has to offer. Can the ship’s crew find a better place to go? Or, will they find more of the same in the Twilight Zone?
Soundtrack note: Their launch song is “Family” by the Interrupters featuring Tim Armstrong of Rancid
Pearson talks about what’s known as the “Great Filter.” This involves whether or not advanced life can make it from one planet to the next, and if they will self-destruct before doing so. (Not entirely what the theory means, so you can read more right here.) Not everybody’s quite on the same page, though they all pull together for the time being, if only to prolong the inevitable.
They’ve got to deal with the extended isolation of their trip. Not only is it the isolation of being in space, it’s knowing the Earth below them has been decimated and, more than likely, many people they know have died. Commander Brandt cuts off calls to Earth for a while. More tension to add to the pile.
Pearson notices something strange one day while checking the ship’s systems. Not sure he ever tells anybody. Things go on just fine. There’s an excellent Alien-homage while the camera spins around the dinner table. This scene doubles as a conversational Matrix homage: “In your reality, the tomatoes taste real. In mine, no way.” Plus, Pearson talks about The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Dinner conversation mentions “no ground support,” meaning Tina’s not getting any upgrades any time soon.
One night, Commander Brandt tries calling home to her partner, Natalie, only getting the machine. She worries the worst has happened. She also hears something nearby. She looks into a room where Rei and Casey are having sex. She’s shocked, and this prompts a meeting of the crew. Brandt explains they can’t risk any children being born on their mission, as well as the fact that relationships like that on a long mission could potentially make things difficult.
While the crew are looking to contact Earth, they receive bits of a communication. They try to speak with whoever’s calling across the airwaves. It’s only a TV show— a signal “bouncing around space for seventy years.”
Pearson is reaching around in his toilet to see how dry it is, making notes in his book. What exactly is he marking down? Is it possible that whatever was in the electrical systems, creeping out of the monitor, somehow got into him? Is he suffering from space madness? Somehow’s absolutely wrong with this dude.
On Brandt’s birthday she gets a surprise from the crew: a song and a cupcake without lit candles. Everybody wishes her a happy birthday and they sing “California Dreamin’” for her. Out of nowhere, Katherine breaks down from the stress of the mission. Everybody understands. They’re all feeling the stress. Pearson claims he has “the best gift.” His notes have been part of a hypothesis. He tells the crew: “None of this is real.” His brief detour into The Matrix earlier might be a full-on descent into mental illness.
Then there’s a solar flare, which causes the crew to scramble. Aside from Pearson, who’s convinced the entire mission’s an “endurance simulation experiment” to see what such a deep space voyage would be like, to replicate the mission before actually setting one in motion. Everyone else is trying to save the ship from the flare’s impact. Pearson quickly flies off the handle, distrusting the rest of the crew.
“I’m commander of nothing
but a slow suicide”
Commander Brandt and the crew fight to keep the ship from being destroyed at the same time Pearson has decided to try proving his hypothesis by stepping into the airlock, then stepping out into space. This leaves the ship in a messy situation, as the gravitational pull’s thrown off and everybody hangs on for dear life. Everyone survives, except for Pearson, whose hypothesis couldn’t save him. The crew checks anyway, and Katherine confirms their friend was deathly wrong.
They all reminisce about Pearson, sad he’s gone and that he lost a sense of home before dying. Katherine doesn’t want them to “romanticise” him and “make him a legend.” She doesn’t want them to become lost in a fake reality, to the point where they lose a sense of home and family and all that keeps them grounded. That can put everyone in danger, not only one individual.
Arrival has come. Mars is right outside the spaceship’s windows. The crew are touching down on the planet’s surface. They head out to be the first people to set foot on Mars, in awe of the beauty.
Then we see a conversation between Other Beings. They comment how humans only got past the Great Filter because their planet was nearly destroyed. And Pearson didn’t die out there in space. His leap becomes akin to sacrifice for these Other Beings. He knew the truth— just not the WHOLE truth. It isn’t the government pulling the strings. It’s something far greater, older, and far more sinister. They’re the ones determining who’s worth saving, who’s better off being destroyed.
This should make humans wonder if what’s out there, waiting beyond the stars, actually wants to be found. Perhaps whatever, or whoever, is out there is far smarter than we assume ourselves to be as narcissistic creatures.
Quite the episode! Really loved this one, and the ending is such awesome Lovecraftian-style weirdness. The image of Pearson in that goop reminded Father Gore of Fire in the Sky, which, to this day, remains a fucking frightfest. Anyway, this is a solid episode for The Twilight Zone, opting for more cosmic horror this time around apart some of the more social sci-fi/horror the other episodes have gone for so far. Loving it all.
“Not All Men” is next time and it looks delightfully twisted. Any basis in “The Screwfly Solution” by Alice Bradley Sheldon a.k.a Raccoona Sheldon? We’ll see.