In 1947, a mysterious unidentified flying object crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. It began an obsession over the potential of alien life that is still going strong today.
Are there creatures living on other planets?
Are they intelligent?
Are they like us?
If not, then how are they different?
These were the types of questions front and center in most people’s minds throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
It didn’t take long for writers’ imaginations to kick into warp speed, and these two decades produced a flurry of gloriously galactic sci-fi content, both in books and on screen.
While The Twilight Zone was certainly heavy on fantasy and imagination, I wouldn’t say it was predominantly “sci-fi”. Rod Serling’s blend of fantasy, phenomena, and morality is completely unique. I would even venture to say that with The Twilight Zone, Rod actually created a brand new genre — a genre in which he and his creation still stand completely alone.
Perhaps the quintessential alien-but-not-quite-sci-fi story is season 2’s morally memorable “Eye of the Beholder“.
You know the one I mean — the one with the pig-faced doctors who think that the gorgeous blonde bombshell Donna Douglas is ugly.
It’s quite a shocking story, and the big twist reveal seems just as poignant now as it was back in 1960.
As Serling’s end narration begins: “Now the questions that come to mind. Where is this place, and when is it? What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?”
But as fans of the show well know, “The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference. Because the old saying happens to be true. Beauty *is* in the eye of the beholder, in this year or a hundred years hence. On this planet or wherever there is human life, perhaps out amongst the stars.”
There’s our classic Serling — taking a basic sci-fi/fantasy story and infusing it with a lesson in morality. It’s not just a weird tale about perception. It has substance. It’s not just about telling a story. It’s about telling a story that will make you think.
Have you ever wondered what this story might look like without the conscience of Rod Serling taking a negative and turning it into a positive? Well, in 1953 — seven years before “Eye of the Beholder” streamed into little black and white television sets all over North America — a comic book called Adventures Into Weird Worlds did just that.
The story “Too Horrible To Live” appeared in Adventures Into Weird Worlds #18, May 1953. When I first started reading it, nothing particular came to mind. Then as the panels went on, I began noticing that the faces of the people were being deliberately obscured. By the end, of course I realized what this story reminded me of.
Surprise! This isn’t Earth, and these “people” are not us. Much like in “Eye of the Beholder”, what makes this baby “too horrible to live” is simply the fact that it looks human.
“There is a very strict law about babies of this type. They must be put to death!”
Well. Horror comics at that time certainly weren’t known for their feel-good messages, were they?
And herein lies what makes Serling’s version of this aliens-that-aren’t-like-us subject matter so different… and so special.
Yes, the very basic premise is the same: A different world where things are backwards. What’s “normal” to us, is “abnormal” to them. And being “abnormal” means you aren’t worth the air you’re breathing. But “Eye of the Beholder” is not some plagarization of this comic book story. It is uniquely Serling, because Serling is flipping the script.
In the horror story, there is no lesson. There is no moral. It’s just a crazy sci-fi tale that’s meant to give little kids the creeps.
But Serling’s script for “Eye of the Beholder” transforms a basic idea and turns it into a teachable lesson about differences, worth, and motivation. It was perhaps Serling’s most admirable trait that in the face of seemingly insurmountable and unforgivable odds, he was always optimistic that humankind could do BETTER.
Serling used his platform to rightly criticize mankind’s many dangerous and malicious attitudes. But never without giving us an “out”: The possibility for redemption and forgiveness; an optimistic outlook on our strengths, abilities and potential. Serling knew that in order for humans to be better, they have to want to be better. But to want to be better, they have to believe they can be better.
“Eye of the Beholder”, like many other Twilight Zone episodes, is a gentle but poignant reminder that life is a gift. It’s valuable. It’s something worth protecting. Which is exactly the opposite of what “Too Horrible to Live” was telling us.
So the question that comes to mind is: Did this comic book story from 1953 inspire Rod Serling to write “Eye of the Beholder”? The answer is, it doesn’t make any difference. Because there is nothing new under the sun. Everything that is has been before, and will be again. Ideas are nothing in and of themselves. It’s what we do with those ideas that makes them into something substantive and unique.
Whether Serling ever read issue #18 of Adventures Into Weird Worlds or not, it doesn’t change the fact that “Eye of the Beholder” is NOT the same story. At all. The horror tale provides a moment of strange entertainment. But Serling’s episode opens up a whole new avenue of living. It tells us that while yes, there might be life “out there”, and yes, that life may be different than ours, the important thing to remember is that life is precious, and it isn’t what you look like that matters: It’s how you treat other people that makes you a man or a monster. On this planet or wherever there is human life, yes….. even perhaps out amongst the stars.