I’m embarrassed to say it took me until writing up this review to realize why the episode was titled 8. In fairness, it’s a testament to the writing, acting, and directing that the title just faded into the background. This episode had me starring at the screen without blinking for the better part of its 30 minutes. So engrossed was I, that when Jordan Peele started the end monologue, I was flabbergasted that the episode had ended. The 30 minute format definitely works better for this series, but I actually wanted more. Although, I imagine that’s a really good sign; for the audience to be left wanting more is what every storyteller wants. Speaking of the story, this happens pretty infrequently but, when I watch the shows we talk about on the website, I write notes. Within the first few minutes, I’d written 2 things down, then wrote a single two-word comment during the rest of the episode. When it finished, I wrote 2 more things, totally 7 words. I barely took my eyes off the screen even to make my notes. But what’s really interesting is that if you go to Wikipedia and view the Twilight Zone episode guide, this has the meatiest write up of all the episodes. My guess is, people really liked this one! (I don’t read those but usually use the page to get a cast list!)
The episode features Joel McHale as the head of a research base in Antarctica. They are supposedly looking into polar melt, but there’s a secret mission that they are actually investigating. Frankly, that’s the weakest element of the story to me. In fact, I’d argue that having one member of the crew who couldn’t speak English took away more than it added. I say that because it was challenging to hear the translation and my brain had to work harder at picking up everything that was being said. Having said that, I think there’s merit in what they did on a purely psychological level. I believe that when we have a character who doesn’t know our language, we automatically see them as more “alien”, different. For instance, I’d done a bit of traveling over the last decade and my least enjoyable trip was to France. This was largely because I couldn’t communicate with people easily. I learned how to ask for two scoops of ice cream – priorities, you understand – but barring that, I didn’t know the language. (Spain, at least, had the benefit of my taking Spanish in high school and while I’m far from fluent in it, I can get by.) So by making Michelle Ang’s character speak only in Chinese and then having to wait for a machine to translate her words, we are showing that she is really different. But was it necessary? I don’t really think so. If the idea was to use the iPhone-like device to draw attention to the fact that she was working for an alternate government, frankly, I think the same could have been achieved with ease in some alternate way. But that doesn’t make the story less engrossing. It lives by the horror of the creature that makes up the title. It’s one of the coolest of the sea creatures we have on the planet.
That brings me round to why I love the ocean; it’s full of really alien species. It’s right here on earth and about as alien as you could get. Stingrays look like elegant space ships, angler fish look like a skeleton from nightmares, but one of the most interesting, intelligent species is that 8 tentacled wonder, the octopus. (For a truly interesting documentary, I highly recommend Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher!) My problem with the episode is the people on the base. Frankly, they sucked. The moment the octopus is discovered, which happens early, not one of them had a nice thing to say about it. I would have loved to meet that creature! I desperately wanted the humans to try to communicate with it because it was clearly intelligent. Defy expectation, for god’s sake! Give me a friendship between alien and human and I’m a total sucker for that (haha, pun…). Of course, this being the Twilight Zone, that’s never going to happen. We get the horror and this ends up reminding me a lot of a base-under-siege story from Doctor Who. While it lives firmly in the horror genre, where it differs from most sci-fi horror bases under siege stories is that it’s not a game of Ten Little Indians, the creature isn’t out to kill everyone leaving that one, lone human alive at the end to tell the tale. Sure, our 8 armed friend is good at killing, but that’s not its purpose; it’s studying us. That still pulls me in like a… well, like a giant octopus pulling us under the surface. (The nautical puns are so tempting and I’m doing my best to avoid them!)
There are some amazing visuals in this episode like when the octopus cloaks to hide in a room, but the episode also has one horribly gross moment that I’d say wasn’t needed, and far from tasteful. I’ll just say, I didn’t see eye to eye with the decision to add it to the story. A few clever bits in the creation of the episode was that it again references Whipples. This is not the first time we’ve seen Whipples mentioned through the series and, while I have no memory of the original series episode, there is one from season 5 of the classic Zone called The Brain Center at Whipples. We have 4 more episodes to see if there’s any meaning to it. Also, listening to the video about the shark was fun because we hear Rod Serling narrating. (This is actually not Rod himself, but voiced expertly by Mark Silverman.)
Overall, I found this an utterly fascinating episode. The people want a way of changing the human genome to adapt us to other environments, creating a new breed of mankind. It’s a topic I love and one that has featured on a few wonderful TED Talks. To have that as the subject of a Twilight Zone episode, complete with one of my favorite sea creatures, is just a gift! To then learn that the same creature has similar designs… excellent science fiction writing! This episode flew by for me and is definitely one of my favorites. And could you blame me? The Serling-esque narration refers to the ship as the submersible “Cthulhu”. Don’t think that went unnoticed by this native R’lyehan! ML