This The Twilight Zone review contains spoilers.
Social commentary and The Twilight Zone have always gone hand-in-hand. So many of the original series’ episodes dealt with subject matter that no other TV show at the time would ever dare address. The Twilight Zone without some meditations on society, politics, and humanity just wouldn’t be The Twilight Zone.
However, the original Twilight Zone excelled at two things that the new series has struggled with so far. First off, it often (though not always) used commentary as the basis for many of its stories rather than rely on the commentary itself to be the story. You can perhaps chalk that up to some of the restrictions of that era which forced the show’s writers to be a little more clever with their messages, but they were sometimes a little more clever nonetheless.
Second, the original Twilight Zone series was a true variety show. Every now and then, it would tell a story that’s purpose wasn’t necessarily greater than to be a tremendous piece of sci-fi storytelling. This is how we ended up with classic episodes like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “The Hitchhiker,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” and “The After Hours.”
“Six Degrees of Freedom” represents the new Twilight Zone’s best attempt yet at telling a story that is not necessarily defined by its commentary (though it does utilize commentary) and serves as something you probably wouldn’t see on any other modern sci-fi series. Unfortunately, it’s an episode that reveals that sometimes the difference between great and good is less about intent and more about execution.
It’s somewhat difficult to talk about “Six Degrees of Freedom” without spoiling it outright. Honestly, this episode works best if you go into it blind. In some ways, that’s a testament to its ability to keep you guessing like some of the best Twilight Zone episodes of old.
For the sake of discussion, though, let’s dive into the plot a bit. “Six Degrees of Freedom” tells the story of a group of astronauts who have been chosen to lead a mission to Mars. Moments before their launch, though, they receive a radio transmission which suggests that North Korea has just launched nuclear missiles. Now facing the unenviable position of living on a planet devastated by nuclear war, the crew make the difficult decision to head to Mars as planned and deal with whatever may come next.
It’s a fascinating premise that brings to mind the incredible original series episode, “Third From the Sun.” The crew’s decision to leave Earth not only touches upon the horrors of living (or dying) in a world that has been devastated by nuclear weapons but is bold enough to suggest that their motivations are at least partially based on a desire to complete the mission they’ve been waiting for most of their lives instead of living on a planet that is soon to be in ruin.
It’s around this time that two things happen. First, we see the crew struggle with the moral and practical circumstances of their situation (which includes a fascinating debate regarding whether or not any of the crew members should have sex given the dangers of procreation in their situation). Second, we watch as the first seeds of doubt regarding what is happening are planted.
Unfortunately, the former element of the plot vanishes rather quickly. The crew struggles with the logistics of their situation and mourn what they left behind, but that element of the story takes up a surprisingly short amount of this episode’s runtime. We’re treated to the occasional mention of a lover that was left behind or how there is no more new music, but the episode rarely dives deeper than that.
Instead, we get quite a few scenes of the crew debating and theorizing over the circumstances of their situation. Early on in the episode, a member of the crew brings up the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and seemingly suggests that they may have also fallen victim to a similar error in perception. This particular theory is loosely referenced again when the crew “encounter” an old television broadcast bouncing through space.
Soon, other theories regarding what it happening emerge which again point to the idea that not everything is as it seems. This is actually something that the original Twilight Zone did all the time. It would start off with an incredible premise (such as a couple waking up in a town that is eerily empty), and would then challenge the viewer to guess what is happening.
Such episodes are often fun to watch even if you know the outcome, but their legacies were often defined by the strength of their payoff (which typically came in the form of a twist). Unfortunately for “Six Degrees of Freedom,” its journey ends up being far more fascinating than its resolution.
This episode spends much of its runtime building towards a potentially fantastic ending by teasing various possibilities. There’s the War of the Worlds theory as well as the more prominent idea that everything the crew is going through is simply a test imposed on them by their commanders on Earth in order to see if they could handle their mission under the least ideal of circumstances. At one point, one crew member brings up the idea that the true test of an advanced lifeform is its ability to make contact with life outside its own planet before destroying itself.
The truth of the matter turns out to be a combination of some of their theories. At the end of the episode, we learn that an alien race (or some kind of beings beyond ourselves) have been watching us in order to determine if we were capable of reaching this point. When the crew presses through hardships in order to reach Mars, humanity has apparently been deemed worthy of salvation.
It’s a whimper of an ending. Part of the problem with the twist is that the episode’s characters essentially “figure it out” in a roundabout way (at least if you combine some theories). There are other Twilight Zone episodes (such as the underrated original series episode, “Shadow Play”) which essentially tell the viewer what is happening, but the best of them used their endings to confirm some kind of nightmare scenario or add another layer to the mystery.
Unfortunately, this episode’s ending dilutes what stakes existed in the first place. Yes, nuclear devastation is a tragedy, but from a storytelling standpoint, this episode doesn’t spend enough time establishing our characters and the conflicts that would arise in their situation. That, combined with the episodes numerous time jumps which make the journey feel shorter than it is, makes it harder to buy into this really being a “test” of humanity. We even see the one crew member who seemingly dies get rescued at the end by the intergalactic watchers who were apparently seeing if humans could make it to Mars. The implication that these watchers are about to help what is left of humanity is surprisingly uplifting, but it too cleanly wraps up an episode that doesn’t always effectively sell the risks associated with the reward.
“Six Degrees of Freedom” would be an interesting first episode for a Star Trek-like series in which we watch humanity rebuild itself with the help of the adventures of a group of brave survivors and the intervention of an advanced species, but as a standalone story, it is burdened by an emphasis on the destination rather than the journey. Still, there’s a lot of good to take away from this episode. It is certainly fun to watch a sci-fi story that essentially serves as the antithesis of your average Black Mirror episode by offering a future where technology can be used to devastate and save. The difference, naturally, is the quality and intent of those who wield it.
While “Six Degrees of Freedom” suffers somewhat when you start to break it down plot beat by plot beat, it easily among the best Twilight Zone reboot episodes and gives us hope for a future in which this show advances its own formula by telling stories that not only better weave commentary into the plot but stand taller on their own as viscerally effective pieces of sci-fi storytelling.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.