Friday, January 24, 2014

A Paean to Non-conformity

"What's so terrible about being beautiful? After all, isn't everybody?"

Suzy Parker (Lana)

The episode of the Twilight Zone that made its debut 50 years ago tonight almost never shows up on a "Best of" list — yet I often hear it mentioned by Twilight Zone fans as being one of their favorite episodes.

I don't know why it is such a fan favorite. It isn't one of my favorites.

That doesn't mean I didn't admire the talents of the people who appeared in it. Collin Wilcox, who played Marilyn, is probably best remembered for playing the alleged victim of a black rapist in "To Kill a Mockingbird" a couple of years before she appeared on Twilight Zone.

That, of course, was a role she played. It wasn't her — although attendees at a conference of the NAACP had to be reminded of that when she showed up as a participant.

When I saw "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" for the first time (whenever that was), I was familiar with Richard Long from his extensive TV career, and, once in awhile, I have seen him in a movie on television. I knew less of her other co–stars, Suzy Parker and Pam Austin. Most of Parker's career apparently was spent in advertising work as a print model or an actress in TV commercials, although I have seen her in a few movies. Austin apparently guest–starred on several TV shows that I seldom, if ever, watched.

I appreciated the theme of individuality vs. conformity. It was definitely a Twilight Zone theme, but it didn't give me that familiar chill down my spine the way the really good episodes did when I was a child — and still do today.

The premise was simple. In some future time (Rod Serling suggested, in his opening monologue, the year 2000), young people are required to undergo what is called a physical transformation. They choose from a rather limited selection of attractive model types and then have some sort of surgical procedure that changes them into that type.

The procedure didn't appear to alter their personalities (although there was a reference to its influence on an individual's psychological adjustment), but it did seem to extend their lives, slowing the aging process and rendering them immune to disease. They were identifiable as individuals only by the names sewn into their garments.

(Parker, who played Wilcox's mother even though, in reality, she was only a few years older, did not appear to be any older or younger than anyone else who had chosen her model type.

(There were, of course, model types for men as well, but there was only one that I saw — portrayed by Long, whose primary role in the episode was as Dr. Rex, the man who was to perform Wilcox's transformation.)

Wilcox's character resisted the transformation, though, preferring to hold tightly to the allegiance to individuality that she had been taught by her father. (Her father was deceased, but a picture of him could be seen in the episode, and the image in that picture was the same as Dr. Rex. It also bore a striking resemblance to her uncle.

(I must admit that all those characters who looked and sounded the same was so very Twilight Zone.)

It was a good metaphor for those who resist what they see as a conspiracy to make everyone the same. "When everyone is beautiful," Wilcox's character said, "no one will be." She argued that the powers that be didn't care whether everyone was beautiful, only that everyone was the same.
Marilyn (Collin Wilcox): Why are you going to force me to do something I don't want to do? You can't make me do it, can you? Nobody can make me do it.

Dr. Rex (Richard Long): Now, now, my dear child. No one has ever been forced to take transformation if he didn't want it. You see, the problem is simply to discover why you don't want it and then to make the necessary correction.

As I say, there was no actual influence that the transformation seems to have had on personalities, but the very act of the physical transformation seems to have affected them to an extent.

When Marilyn finally gave in and had the transformation, she chose the "pattern" her friend Valerie had chosen.

"The nicest part of all, Val," Marilyn said, " I look just like you!"

An interesting — and prophetic — angle of the conformity story was the tendency of the characters to encourage other characters who were sad, melancholy, even pensive to "drink a glass of Instant Smile." Seen from the perspective of half a century later, doesn't that seem to foretell of humans' growing desire to self–medicate?