‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Black Mirror’ are frequently compared, but here are three fundamental differences.
If you’re just catching on to the series Black Mirror, you’re not alone. Though it first aired on British television at the end of 2011, its acquisition by Netflix in 2016 brought it to a whole new audience. The original press release for the series called it “a hybrid of The Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected which taps into our contemporary unease about our modern world.” This particular bit of marketing of the techno-drama series, which mainly plays on insecurities about the digital world, seems to have been particularly effective. A whole lot of articles have declared Black Mirror the heir to The Twilight Zone.
That’s a difficult standard for any show to live up to, but Black Mirror does admirably well. Both shows are quite largely concerned with future worlds and the morality (or lack of it) that humans are capable of. Both shows delve into dystopian themes. However, The Twilight Zone differs from Black Mirror in a few really fundamental ways.
Black Mirror is almost entirely based on anxieties about the tech era. In the first episode, “National Anthem,” the British prime minister is forced to do a terrible, terrible thing with a live pig in a live-stream broadcast to prevent a kidnapper from harming a much-loved royal figure. He’s forced to do it through technology — leaking of the original ransom video, dispersal through social networks, widely stated public opinion, the ability to capture and broadcast every moment and the subsequent inability to “fake” the kidnapper’s demands. The tech that Black Mirror employs is often not quite science fiction, as much of it is based on current technologies. However, technology is almost always pivotal to the plot.
In contrast, when the The Twilight Zone made a point about the world moving toward some fearsome conclusion, it was almost never based on any possible future technology. Take, for example, the classic episode “Midnight Sun.” It’s not global warming or the increased destructiveness of humans that’s making the Earth hot and uninhabitable. Instead, the Earth fell out of orbit. In the episode “The Obsolete Man,” the death of a man obsessed with God and books in a totalitarian state is to be broadcast live — a plot twist not unlike what we’d find in Black Mirror — but the enemy is not the possibility of the broadcast as much as the possibility of the state adopting thoughtless cruelty. The futures of The Twilight Zone are as much “what ifs” as those of Black Mirror, but the latter focuses on technology in a way that even the post-Hiroshima world of sci-fi often couldn’t imagine.
Black Mirror delves into dystopian themes almost exclusively, while The Twilight Zone was more likely to work in a broader range of speculative realities, such as fantasy or utopias. There are the occasional glimmers of hope in Black Mirror, such as in “Nosedive,” an episode from the third season in which rankings on social media follow people everywhere and can affect their entire lives. The episode ends with the main character, who has been obsessed with her ranking, in prison with a man with whom she hurls insults, gleefully, realizing she is free. Though these dark glimmers of hope do exist, Black Mirror is set almost exclusively in the realm of dystopia.
The Twilight Zone often travels into this realm, too, but just as likely are alternate realities, animated inanimate objects, space aliens and the like. Even death in the world of The Twilight Zone is not always fearsome. Most of the episode “Nothing in the Dark” revolves around a woman who has hidden in her dark basement from Mr. Death, who she fears is coming from her. Death, as opposed to her self-made nightmare, is a release who takes her back into the light. The sense of hope is often stronger in episodes like this than ever seems possible in Black Mirror.
The final difference I’ve seen between the two shows deals with nostalgia. The Twilight Zone, which aired in 1959, had much anxiety about the post-nuclear-war era, man’s travels into space, and the general future. However, a long-running theme through the series was nostalgia for a simpler time. So many episodes deal with it. In “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” two children escape their arguing parents through a portal in the bottom of their swimming pool. In “Walking Distance,” a man stops to have his car fixed within walking distance of his hometown, finds it completely unchanged and chases his child self. In “Kick the Can,” folks in a retirement home find eternal youth by playing childhood games at sundown. As you can see, the list goes on and on.
Black Mirror, however, offers no nostalgia. The future, which is really only a few steps away from our future, never acknowledges the past. It acknowledges us and how we are heading directly into the dystopia portrayed. But there is not a hint of longing for what was, for simpler times, for the days when things like the terrors possible in its world could never have happened.
And that is part of the genius that makes Black Mirror its own invention. The Twilight Zone was a wonder for its time, but it is clearly a product of its time. The longing for the past, the terror of the future, are part and parcel of it. Black Mirror is simply a remorseless plow forward into the terror, with just the knowledge that the present is responsible for it.
While both of these television shows are excellent examples of some of the finest speculative work of their times, they are not quite as similar as they seem at first glance. Black Mirror is making its way into uncharted territory that even The Twilight Zone didn’t reach.