Within the past couple of weeks, I have seen two dystopian television shows, one new and one more than half a century old.
My nephew and I like to watch Teen Titans Go! on The Cartoon Network. It's a very smart and funny show with good writing and attractive and colorful animation. The episode of June 29, 2015, is called "Beast Man." In it, Beast Boy changes into a middle-aged man, and for awhile the Titans have fun with his new identity. Then the identity takes over, and the adult Beast Boy trudges off to a soul-sapping job at a place called The Man, Incorporated, run by (who else but?) The Man. Beast Boy's new place of work is a kind of corporate dystopia, but it looks like Jonathan Pryce's government office building in the movie Brazil (1985). The Man himself is actually an onscreen, disembodied face, as in the classic Apple Macintosh commercial of 1984. (He also evokes memories of two American cultists, Morris Applewhite and Stephen Covey, as well as the villain in the 2002 film Undercover Brother.) Luckily for Beast Boy, the other Teen Titans follow him to work and rescue him from the clutches of The Man.
A few days later, we watched a Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy. By accident or design, Syfy showed the episode "The Obsolete Man" on Independence Day. "The Obsolete Man," originally broadcast on June 2, 1961, is an out-and-out dystopia, set in the future and probably modeled after 1984. Rod Serling wrote the script, an unsubtle but effective work showing just what is possible when people give themselves over to an all-powerful State. In his introduction, Serling speaks:
This is not a new world, it is simply a extension of what began in the old one. It has patterned itself after every dictator who has ever planted the ripping imprint of a boot on the pages of history since the beginning of time. It has its refinements, technological advances, and a more sophisticated approach to the destruction of human freedom. But like every one of the superstates that preceded it, it has one iron rule: logic is an enemy and truth is a menace. . . .
The story of "The Obsolete Man" is built around a trick by which an individual--a man played by Burgess Meredith--defeats his tormentor, a representative of the State played by Fritz Weaver. Weaver is defeated when--locked in a room in which a bomb is about to explode--he exclaims in desperation, "In the name of God, let me out!" Returning to the trial room, he himself is declared an obsolete man and is condemned to death. Last year, I wrote about the zombie as a monster of the twenty-first century. In the last scene of "The Obsolete Man," Fritz Weaver's character is torn apart by the zombie-like servants of the totalitarian State.
Teen Titans Go! is a cartoon. The idea of a corporate dystopia may very well be on the level of a cartoon. That's not to say that a tale of corporate dystopia can't be interesting and entertaining. In the end, though, it's probably just another kind of fantasy. The overarching State on the other hand represents a very real and potent threat to the rights and freedom of the individual. Rod Serling introduced "The Obsolete Man" as "not a future that will be but one that might be." That was fifty-four years ago. How close are we now to that future that might have been? Can we say that the State has begun forging its iron rule? Will the State one day declare the truth to be a menace? Or has that declaration already been made?
|A scene from "The Obsolete Man," the last episode of the second season of The Twilight Zone. "It was vaguely reminiscent of some of the German films of the twenties," said director Elliot Silverstein, "and there was a certain amount of expressionism in the style of the performances and the sets." (Quoted in The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree , p. 209.) In his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947; Princeton University Press, 1971), Siegfried Kracauer talked about the choice in Weimar Germany between tyranny and chaos. Silverstein's linking of German expressionism to the choice of tyranny in "The Obsolete Man"--conscious or not--was no mere coincidence.|
Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley