June 30, 2021

The Descent into Hell: "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (1964)

A person, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is defined as "an individual substance of a rational nature. It implies independence or existence in itself." It goes on to state that, "The strongest proof of the reality of human beings in the world around us rests therefore on the evidence for human personality, and for each of us ultimately on the proof of our own personality." It is what makes us different from animals; only persons exist as rational beings (though some, through their actions, certainly seem bent on disproving that fact); and therefore only persons can be said to be self-conscious, aware of such things as reason, ethics, and truth.

That self-consciousness, combined with one’s collective memories, limitations, and free will, is what guarantees our continued existence as an individual human being, as “a free, self-conscious, separate personality, possessed of a genuine individual existence” that belongs to no one else. As John Stuart Mill would write, individuality is essential to the development and refinement of the self; it becomes a moral necessity for the individual to have freedom to make choices based on his or her own experiences and beliefs, else they have no more character "than a steam engine has character." 

And so the individual human being, with all those characteristics and traits, with free will and consciousness and the knowledge of right and wrong, could therefore be said to be the majesty of God’s very creation, the shining jewel in the crown. 

t t t

Let's set aside the metaphysics for a moment and look at "Number 12 Looks Just Like You," an episode of The Twilight Zone that aired on January 24, 1964, the fifth and final season of the series, written by John Tomerlin and based on a short story by Charles Beaumont.* 

*The episode's credits list both Tomerlin and Beaumont as scriptwriters, but Tomerlin wrote the script in its entirety. Beaumont's name was used to sell the story, but he was unable to write any longer, due to the Pick's Disease from which he would die in 1967. 

The key element in "Number 12"—the only science fiction element in the story; everything else is psychological—is a process known as the "Transformation," which everyone undergoes upon reaching the age of 19, and by which you essentially trade in your body for a designer model. In true democratic fashion, you're even given a catalog of styles from which to choose! Needless to say, all the models will transform you into either an astoundingly beautiful woman, or an extraordinarily handsome man. (One aspect which the writers didn't factor in to their vision of the future: that someone would want to transform themselves into a person of the opposite sex. Science fiction is one thing, after all, but who in their right mind would want to do that?) The transformation not only turns you into an insanely handsome or beautiful person, it also eliminates most illnesses and extends your lifespan by two, maybe three times, As someone puts it, "The transformation is the most marvelous thing that could happen to a person." 

Our heroine, Marilyn (Collin Wilcox), has just reached the age of transformation, and being a rather plain girl, you'd think she'd be excited about it all. On the contrary: she wants nothing to do with it. As she tells her mother (Suzy Parker, who, it must be said, is gorgeous), "I want to stay ugly." 

Concerned, her mother takes her to Dr Rex (Richard Long), who assures her that the transformation is nothing to fear. "The transformation has become a normal part of growing up. It's a sign of maturity." It also, Dr. Rex adds, plays a very important role in "psychological adjustment." But Marilyn is adamant: her late father, a "nonconformist," had called transformation a "tragedy" that took away one's individuality, made everyone alike. His words resonate in Marilyn's mind. "There's got to be more to life," she insists. "Being like everybody. . . isn't that the same as being nobody?"

Marilyn is kept in the hospital—Dr. Rex tells her, "I am afraid that for the time being, you must let us decide what is best for you." Her best friend Val urges her to embrace transformation. "It isn't as if it hurts or anything." To Marilyn's protests that "I won't let them change me," Val replies with the inane ditty, "Life is pretty, life is fun, I am all and all is one."

Attempting to escape from what she now sees, correctly, as a prison, Marilyn runs through deserted corridors, hides from passing nurses, sees a body being wheeled away on a gurney. Another person who's gone through the transformation. Recoiling from the sight and realizing that they don't intend to allow her to refuse, she runs through a doorway which then closes behind her. Inside, two nurses are waiting for her. "Come in, my dear," one says, "we've been expecting you. Sooner or later, everyone wants to be beautiful."

And so the transformation is accomplished. Marilyn emerges from the room, identical to her friend Valerie, who had urged her to undergo the process. Beaming, she admires herself in a mirror. And the nicest part of all, she says to Val: "I look just like you."

"Portrait of a young lady in love," Rod Serling says in his closing narration. "With herself."

t t t

The origins of transformation: "Many years ago," Professor Sig explains, "wiser men than I decided to try and eliminate the reasons for inequality and injustice in this world of ours. They saw in physical unattractiveness one of the factors which made men hate. So, they charged the finest scientific minds with the task of eliminating ugliness in mankind." But that's not all: "As we learned to reshape the features, remold the body, we also learned to eliminate most of the causes of illness and thus to prolong life. Before the transformation, you could have expected to live 70, 80, perhaps 90 years. But now you can live twice that long. Perhaps three times. This is a good thing, is it not?"

Interesting, don't you think? 

Of course, one could say that ideas such as "racism," "prejudice" and "bigotry" are just another form of ugliness, an internal one. And if there was a way to remove such ugliness from a person, that would be a good thing, would it not? And to prevent people from, say, holding racist opinions, would it not be justified to teach them to detest that ugliness within themselves, to retrain the way they think about themselves and the world, to own up to their past sins (even those that date back generations) and to transform themselves into new men and women? That would be a good thing, would it not? And to prevent these people from having a platform in which they could spread their insidious ideas—to "cancel" them, let's call it—that would be good as well, would it not?

In the meantime, people like that have to be kept from attaining positions of influence in business or government. The education of their children has to be turned over to a more responsible authority, one not tainted by such dangerous ideas. Think of what a wonderful world it would be if we all saw things the same way.

As one political commentator says, "Error has no rights."

t t t

There are two great reveals in "Number 12," or perhaps we should say one reveal and one discovery that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who knows how these things work. The reveal comes in Marilyn's hospital room, where she is "resting." Marilyn's mother and Valerie continues to press Marilyn on why she's so unhappy. After all, her mother says, "all they want to do is make you pretty." That's not true, Marilyn replies, recalling what her father had once told her: "When everyone is beautiful, no one will be, because without ugliness there can be no beauty." As Marilyn becomes more agitated, the doctor suggests they leave her alone, but Valerie asks to stay behind for a moment. She truly cannot understand why Marilyn feels the way she does; furthermore, why does she care so much about what her father said? He's dead, and she's had plenty of fathers since then. "I cared about him," Marilyn says. "He was good and he was kind and he cared about me. Not what I wore, not the way I looked, but what I thought, what I felt. He cared about himself and his dignity as a human being." And then she tells Valerie what really happened: her father didn't die in an accident; he committed suicide following his own transformation. "Because when they took away his identity he had no reason to go on living."*

*It's quite possible that Dr. Rex is making an oblique reference to this when, speaking of the transformation process, he mentions how "we've improved methods since the old days and now it always turns out well." 

This raises an interesting question. From what we can see and hear, we know that Marilyn is her father’s daughter. She's inherited his sensibility, his way of looking at life, and she clearly idolizes him. Could it be that her hostility toward the transformation is based in part on the desire to give her father's death some greater meaning, that he was a martyr to a philosophy of life—to what it meant to be human—rather than the alternative, that he was suffering from depression and had lost the will to live? I know that's a particularly Freudian way of looking at it, but considering one of the doctors interviewing Marilyn is named Professor Sigmund Friend, it wouldn't have been out of line had it been brought up. 

As for the discovery I mentioned, the "Soylent Green is people!" moment, it is the revelation that the transformation process is mandatory, despite the assurances that everyone makes—"No one has ever been forced to take transformation if he didn't want it," Dr. Rex had told Marilyn, but that was a lie, and anyone who's been reading this series could probably have told Marilyn that actually believing she had a choice in the matter had another think coming. No government, no regime, is ever going to pass up an opportunity to make something mandatory if it helps them stay in power. In her desperate dash through those bleak, antiseptic corridors of the "hospital," Marilyn finds herself in a rat's maze with no way out; no matter which way she goes, she's always going to wind up running through that doorway into the waiting arms of the nurses who, of course, only want to "help"  her. 

Elk verzet volledig zinloos, as the Nazis put it in their declaration of war against The Netherlands: Resistance is useless.

t t t
Although the theme of "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" seems obvious, and its message a sobering one, not everyone feels the same way. In an in-depth look at the episode at the blog Shadow & Substance, one commentator wasn't sure that this "utopia" was such a bad thing:

Come on, she was quite happy afterward. I suppose other races had their own change machines. They're just making everybody perfect. Sounds good to me. 

I understand your response. But I have to ask myself, after the transformation is there no more racism, murder, poverty,...etc?  If so, having to live a sanitized existence is a small price to pay.

For some people, free will isn't that big a deal. Maybe some of you feel the same way.

t t t

It has to be noted in any discussion of this type that unfettered individualism, which can quickly morph into utilitarianism or hedonism, creates a danger as great as that which we see in the cold, soulless dystopic environments of stories like “Number 12.” But right here, right now, we're interested in the beauty and majesty at the heart of the individual, and the individuality that is at the heart of creation: two snowflakes never alike, fingerprints unique to each person.

The importance of the individual—the power of the individual to change things, which makes him just a magnificent and frightening person—is a theme that is a constant in literature, in movies, in television shows. In Fahrenheit 451, the Fire Chief explains to Montag just why books have to be destroyed: "We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy." Books contain knowledge; once people begin to accumulate knowledge, they are no longer equal, and that cannot be allowed to happen. (Interesting that "Number 12" also takes place in a society in which books have been outlawed.)

In one of the most significant television series ever made, the epic British series The Prisoner, the unnamed title character—christened Number 6 by his captors—fights for the right to be himself. "I will not make any deals with you," he tells the ubiquitous Number 2. "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered." He concludes his stirring defense of the individual by defiantly pronouncing, "I am not a number. I am a free man." (And six times two is 12—coincidence?)

One of the main benefits of transformation is that it eliminates illness, lengthens lifespans, makes us happy—and that, too, is a good thing, is it not? And yet, in the otherwise disappointing Star Trek V, Kirk resists the efforts of Sybok to take away his innermost pain, "You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand," Kirk says to his friend Dr. McCoy. "They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away. I need my pain."

Would we be willing to give up everything that makes us who we are, in return for such a life? What would a life like that mean?

In A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt's play about the martyrdom of St. Thomas More, the future saint is confronted at his trial by the betrayal of his former friend Richard Rich, who, as part of the deal for providing damaging evidence against More, has been made Attorney-General for Wales. With his characteristic humor, More looks at the chain of office that Rich wears, and wryly comments on the sellout, “For Wales? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. . . but for Wales?”

But then, when all is said and done, it is as Cromwell had predicted to Rich when they made the deal to betray Thomas. "That wasn't too painful, was it?" Cromwell asks. "No," Rich concedes. "No," Cromwell agrees. "And you'll find it easier next time."

It's always easier next time, isn't it?

When they ask you to sacrifice for a few weeks—wear the mask, close the stores and offices, shut down the churches—that's a small price to pay for the common good, isn't it? And when they ask you to keep doing it, when a few weeks become a few months and then a year—well, if you've been doing it this long, it's just easier to keep doing it, isn't it?

And to live twice as long, or three times as long, as you used to; what wouldn't we do to extend life like that? Take a shot of an unproven vaccine? Everyone's doing it! It's for the common good! And if you have to get another shot, or a different shot for the next virus that comes up—well, it didn't hurt the last time, so it must be all right to do it again this time, isn't it?

Besides, whenever the inhabitants of Marilyn's world get stressed or upset, they just have a glass of Instant Smile. It's like those little pills, mother's little helpers, isn't it? So enticing, and soulless. 

t t t

"The combination of all these causes forms so great a mass of influences hostile to Individuality, that it is not easy to see how it can stand its ground," John Stuart Mill wrote in his treatise On Liberty. "The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves, grows by what it feeds on, It will do so with increasing difficulty, unless the intelligent part of the public can be made to feel its value—to see that it is good there should be differences, even though not for the better, even though, as it may appear to them, some should be for the worse." 

We are, I think, entitled to wonder why "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" ends as it does, with no miracle, no last-gasp reprieve. In a sense it can be seen as a companion piece to the classic "Eye of the Beholder," where beauty is the exception rather than the rule, but even there Serling can be said to have offered a glimmer of hope in the form of a colony to which those plagued by "ugliness" are sent. In offering the consolation of companionship, it raises the prospect of an ending that leaves the soul bruised and battered but still breathing. Here, there is no such hope, no prospect for escape: just soul-crushing conformity. Even worse, our heroine seems to have succumbed wholeheartedly; she goes through the transformation and comes out on the other side as "one of them." No regrets, no prospect of martyrdom, not even the sidelong glance that suggests the transformation was not, after all, quite complete. This is no pyrrhic victory; it's more 1984 than Darkness at Noon. Notwithstanding the propensity for The Twilight Zone to engage in such unusually downbeat endings, it is one that can leave the viewer feeling discouraged.

"So," you might ask, "what, then, is the point?" The point, I think, is that this is meant to serve as a warning, a reminder that not all stories end with the characters living happily ever after. It's a warning on how easy it is to lose your individuality, your soul. And for what? For a lifetime expanded far beyond what we know it today, a life filled with pleasure, happiness, free from want, free from fear. How enticing such an offer can be. 

There’s got to be more to life.

John Stuart Mill concludes: "If resistance waits till life is reduced nearly to one uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it."

And then? Elk verzet volledig zinloos. TV  



  1. One of season five's best. The most uneven season, but the high points (like this, "Steel", "Living Doll") can stand with any season's best. And yes, one of the show's most crushing endings.

  2. And then she joined the Trump cult.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!