The following contains spoilers for The Twilight Zone, “Six Degrees of Freedom.”
If the latest episode of the newly rebooted Twilight Zone — “Six Degrees of Freedom” — feels old school to you, you’re not crazy. For bookish types, the most obvious Easter egg in the episode comes pretty early; the Mars-bound spaceship central to the story is called “Bradbury Heavy,” a kind tribute to Elon Musk putting the word “heavy” after the names of rockets, but also, of course, the iconic author of The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury. And, even if the screenwriters of this Twilight Zone episode (Glen Morgan and Heather Anne Campbell) weren’t intentionally homaging Ray Bradbury’s writing, his ghost haunts this creepy episode in surprising ways.
Famously, The Martian Chronicles is not a work of hard science fiction, and probably has about as much to do with Mars as an episode of Sex and the City has to do with really living in New York City. For Bradbury, “Mars” was an easy metaphor for all sorts of issues, ranging from racism, to classims, and even the nature of reality. But, throughout the stories of The Martian Chronicles, the human race ends up looking pretty fucked-up, which, is, for the most part, is very similar to the vibe of “Six Degrees of Freedom.” Moments before launch, the first crewed-mission to Mars also finds out they are quite possibly the last human beings alive. Multiple nuclear strikes on Earth, suddenly suggest the entire population has been totally wiped out.
The idea that the world is going to end, and that you’re just going to have to deal with it is explored in the Bradbury short story, “The Last Night of the World,” which is found in the book The Illustrated Man. In The Martian Chronicles, you’ve got something close to a companion piece for this book in the story “There Will Come Soft Rains.” That story depicts a kind of futuristic smart-house, going through the motions of preparing meals for humans every single day, even though, as the story goes on, it becomes clear that everyone on Earth has been killed by nuclear weapons. And of course, in The Martian Chronicles — just like “Six Degrees of Freedom” — the only living human beings are on Mars, not on Earth. Thinking of the story this way, you can almost imagine “There Will Come Soft Rains” taking place in the exact same fictional universe as this Twilight Zone episode.
But, perhaps the truest, and most Bradbury-esque aspect of “Six Degrees of Freedom” is found in the episode’s psychological arc. Halfway through the episode, Jerry (Jefferson White) crazily tells his shipmates that nothing they are experiencing on their space voyage is real and it’s all just an elaborate test. Smartly, Commander Brandt (DeWanda Wise) shuts him down, but after Jerry kills himself by being shot out an airlock, even she begins to have doubts if anything they are experiencing is real.
Poking a stick at realties — perceived or otherwise — is pretty much an easy definition of the entire oeuvre of Ray Bradbury, which in why reading The Martian Chronicles like it’s a series of vaguely interconnected Twilight Zones makes more sense than reading it as a “novel,” because it’s totally not a novel; it’s The Martian Zone. In what is probably the best story in the book, “Night Meeting,” an Earth traveler (in a pickup truck!) debates with a Martian about which one of them is a ghost from the past and which one of them is communicating from the future. The story never answers this question totally, which is also true of “Six Degrees of Freedom.” We see Brandt and the remaining crew looking out at Mars, but the final scenes also show us that Jerry is alive and seemingly possessed by an alien. Strongly, this ending suggests that we’re maybe all living in a simulation, but it’s also possible that interpretation is too on-the-nose.
An underrated Bradbury short story actually might provide the best lens for interpreting the ending of “Six Degrees of Freedom.” In the story “”No Particular Night or Morning” (found in The Illustrated Man) two dudes on a spaceship debate about what is real and what isn’t. This leads one of them to walking out of an airlock, because he’s pretty sure that it’s all fake anyway. Bradbury doesn’t tell us if this guy was right or not, and even though “Six Degrees of Freedom” attempts to explain Jerry’s fate with more clarity, its in the grey areas where all of this narrative stuff lives.
Refreshingly, many episodes of the new Twilight Zone are more like Ray Bradbury short stories than episodes of TV shows; these stories are pulling us through a compelling set-up, but leaving us before we can form too many conclusions about these worlds. Maybe that’s better than explaining everything anyway. As Bradbury knew, sometimes the questions of science fiction were more important than the answers.
The Twilight Zone airs new episode on Thursdays on CBS All-Access.
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