July 13, 2016

Is "perfect harmony" just a pipe dream?

It's doubtful even a Coke could bring the world together today.

On September 30, 1963, ABC debuted an episode of The Outer Limits entitled "The Architects of Fear," starring Robert Culp. The story concerns "a group of scientists who try and instigate world peace by creating an imaginary alien threat, which they hope Mankind will unify against." Culp plays one of the scientists, who, by drawing the short straw, agrees to undergo injections and operations that will transform him into a grotesque alien creature. (I suppose now they'd just contact George Lucas and have him whip up an intelligent alien, but that's beside the point.)

Robert Culp, transforming to an alien.
Coming at a time just two months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a time when cold war tensions were running high, when the struggle for civil rights was bursting into flames, there was every reason to be pessimistic about the future, and to see the need for drastic action. Of course, as usually happens in stories like this, things go awry; the spaceship, which is supposed to land outside the UN building, instead goes off course, and Culp winds up being fatally shot by farmers wife. There are several effective, not to mention disturbing, scenes in the show, including the physical and mental transformation of Culp into the alien, and a powerful final scene - a brief reunion between the dying scientist/alien and his wife, one that demonstrates that love has a power that can transcend even death.

Once upon a time the Mad Men of the early '70s told us that buying and sharing a Coke could "teach the world to sing in perfect harmony." Today, it seems as if this country has reached a point where serious people ask if the various rifts now existing can ever be overcome, if there is anything that can transcend the bitterness and hatred that appears to have split us along almost every fault line one can imagine - religious, political, ideological, racial, socio-economic, sexual, what have you. (Have I left anything out?)* We seem to be operating with no common definitions, no agreed-upon standards, not only disagreeing about the nature of good and evil but whether or not they even exist, and having contempt for those who disagree. At a time like this, considering the events of the last week or so, it seems like a good occasion to take a brief, unscientific look at how television has answered this question.

*Even Coca-Cola and other soft drinks are divisive nowdays, thanks to the desire of the health police to cure Americans of their obesity.

I use the term "unscientific" advisedly, because in fact the main instigators in such scenarios are often scientists, who fall into two main categories: the benign scientists, who react in a way similar to what we see in this episode, by creating a man-made threat which they hope will bring the world together, usually against the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers. The other scenario we see often casts the scientists as less benign, as elitists who feel their superior knowledge and ability entitles them to make unilateral decisions in the name of "peace," decisions which often involve breaking a few eggs, so to speak, in the service of a greater good.

You can see these scenarios play out usually in science fiction, in various TV series such as Doctor Who and Star Trek, or on shows like MST3K in which the cheesier sci-fi movies on the subject can be seen. What runs through both of these versions is this: the elitist scientists know best, certainly better than the population at large, and their machinations usually fail. When you do see people come together to fight a common threat, it's usually in a situation such as The War of the Worlds, where there actually is a threat to the world from an outside force. Even here though, the scientists - in this case Gene Barry - are reduced to "praying for a miracle" rather than using their own knowledge to exploit the situation. The lesson here is that if we want to take our cue on how to overcome our national divide from television, we're in big trouble.

I'm being partly facetious here, but it does bring up the question as to what precisely would bring people together, whether even a common threat would be perceived as such, or - in the immortal words of The Simpsons newscaster Kent Brockman - a sizable number would welcome their new insect overlords. Probably a good number would see them as an improvement over what we have today.

If this is true, if there is no assassination or tragedy or threat that would bring most people together - and off the top of my head, I can't think of one - then it portends dire consequences for the nation. It means we'd probably be looking at a scenario similar to that portrayed in the TV series Revolution, that of the country splitting into several separate and distinct nations.

This is the outcome I personally think is more likely than the others, but the process through which this is achieved is by no means guaranteed to be a peaceful one. We might well be looking at North and South: Book 4, for all any of us know.

The point to all this is not to put this blog in the position of taking sides, or to have its readers take sides. It's merely to look back at the - what? Naivety? - of those scientists in September 1963. Yes, their concerns were primarily international rather than just about the United States, but today we'd see the idea that the world, or the country, could actually be unified by a common threat as laughable, Utopian, far-fetched. And, perhaps in a way, charming. Would that it were that easy - of all the differences that TV has shown between then and now, this one might be the most stark.

Perhaps The War of the Worlds had it right, that praying for a miracle is all that is left. You probably couldn't show that on TV, though.

1 comment:

  1. Not to sidetrack this post but to anyone who has seen the 2009 film, "Watchmen" it too had a similar plot to that classic Outer Limits episode, "The Architects of Fear". Though you wouldn't know that if you'd only seen the movie and not read the graphic novel (and before that comic book series) that it was based on.

    In the original graphic novel the, for want of a better title, villain of the story, Ozymandias, realizing that Earth was at the brink of nuclear war, between the West and USSR, created an alien like creature and landed it on New York City. It killed and injured thousands and thousands of lives but by doing so, it caused the nations to put aside their own differences and to team up against (though non-existent) alien invasion.

    The original graphic novel was written in the 1980’s when there was still a hint of the Cold War. By the time of the film, the last decade, the ending was changed. I wonder if it was thought by the movie makers that we in the 21st Century wouldn’t understand a world, or to use your point, a country so divided that could be pulled together by a common front.


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