When the original The Twilight Zone initially started tackling the subject of space travel in 1959, people had very little idea of how such a thing would actually work; after all, it would be two years until a human being even orbited the planet for the first time. The universe was a great unknown, as was much of the science behind exploring it. Yet, right from the series’ pilot — titled “Where is Everybody?” — creator/writer Rod Serling clearly understood that while such monumental undertakings might certainly take their toll on a person’s psyche, the journey could never begin without intelligent, rational thought. Six decades later, “Six Degrees of Freedom” jettisons that idea out the airlock, resulting in possibly the most disappointing episode of this new Twilight Zone‘s inaugural season.
The story assembles a team of paper-thin, dense, obnoxious characters posing as elite astronauts tasked with Earth’s first mission to Mars (that the nature of their journey is detailed in clumsy expository narration is just one of many signs that viewers are in for a bumpy ride). Minutes before the scheduled launch, there is word of an impending nuclear strike, causing the crew to make a decision about whether to proceed and save their own skins, or abort and try to evacuate with the rest of Ground Control. Turns out it’s a pretty easy choice; they launch, and with the presumably apocalyptic planet below them, they eventually decide to carry on with their mission.
The setup of “Six Degrees of Freedom” is not far from the realm of classic TZ; many of Serling’s episodes dealt with nuclear fears, and some even involved leaving the planet or being marooned. “Third from the Sun” involved escaping atomic warfare, and both “Time Enough at Last” and “Probe 7, Over and Out” dealt with the loneliness of surviving such a catastrophe. The situation is ripe for dissecting all manners of human nature, yet first the script needs to actually create believable humans. This has been a consistent failing of this season of The Twilight Zone so far, but writer Glen Morgan (who also penned the marginally better “A Traveler”) here stretches the credibility of these characters even farther than previous episodes.
From the moment an important, opening-scene communications alert is nearly unheard in the cockpit due to a bar-room rendition of a hipster rock song, it’s immediately clear that none of these apparent pilots, scientists, or engineers take their job seriously enough to concentrate during one of the most important stages of their trip. The subsequent undisciplined outpouring of emotion, as well as the lack of any sort of basic reasoning when it comes to actions or procedure, casts further doubt; were any of these people actually qualified for an operation of this magnitude and precision in the first place? The original Twilight Zone often included one wild card aboard any spaceship, but as a contrast — a way to visually portray how a seed of corrupting logic can bring down an otherwise stable society. The pressure would get to someone and irrationality would manifest in some unfavorable human trait — selfishness in “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” fear in “People Are Alike All Over,” or power in “The Little People.”
However, everyone in “Six Degrees of Freedom” is horny, petty, oblivious, or power-mad — as soon as the chips are down (and even before), this supposed cream of the crop shows themselves to be a bunch of tedious goons, subject to their base instincts. If there was once rigorous training and extensive psychological tests (again, the intelligence of “Where is Everybody” comes to mind), the results are nowhere to be found among these squabbling simpletons.
However, could that be the point? Perhaps “Six Degrees of Freedom” wants to portray this group dynamic as a microcosm for the rest of the world: destined to break down and eat itself, much like the nuclear event that set this story in motion. It couldn’t happen to a better group, and that might have been clever enough to justify having to spend nearly an hour with these characters — but alas, no such luck. Instead, a ridiculous twist that wants to recall better sci-fi like Contact and The Abyss posits that after all the idiocy, after all the loss of self-control, humankind is still clearly worth saving because they are capable of…what, exactly? Choosing to die on a voyage instead of dying while circling the planet?
Add to those missed trajectories the uninspired visuals, stilted pacing, a clumsy last-act attempt at some story sleight of hand, and a weightless cast; “Six Degrees of Freedom” burns out soon after takeoff, and never recovers.