The Twilight Zone: Eye of the Beholder

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959It is perhaps the most well known episode of The Twilight Zone.  At the very least, it’s one of the top 5 episodes.  It’s also a nice departure for Serling this season, giving us a more likable protagonist.  And it offers us a very important life lesson: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The first question I have to ask, however, is: is the protagonist really that likable?  I feel for her, absolutely, because she’s wrapped in bandages and when she freaks out, beseeching the doctor to take them off, it’s a palpable moment.  But… this is her 11th time in the hospital.  At this point she should be used to it.  Now maybe if I really want to rationalize it, I could say that she’s so desperate after 11 attempts that she loses her cool but I don’t feel it fully; I’m offering her an excuse, but not one I fully buy into.  And for this, we turn to the real world for Exhibit One.  My niece is 10 years old (at the time of writing).  She goes for transfusions every 6 weeks.  She’s as brave as any intrepid hero on the Enterprise going without fear.  It’s become just a part of her life and she does what she has to do, actually looking forward to it for a day off of school and a trip with her dad.  She doesn’t freak out and, did I mention, she’s 10?  When Janet Tyler lost her cool, I remembered that she was an adult and had been to this medical facility 11 times!!  This should have been old hat by now.  What was there to freak out over?

Still, I did find her likable, despite this mostly because that has to be a tough experience. I didn’t have to like everything about her, but I did sympathize to some extent.  She feels like an outcast and her earliest memory was of someone screaming when they laid eyes on her.  The episode relies on the audience being so caught up in the plight of Janet Tyler that they miss an obvious fact.  For this I now go to Exhibit Two.  My nephew was about 5 when I was visiting my mom for one of the summer holidays that was airing a marathon of The Twilight Zone.  Seeing this episode start, I sat to watch it.  My nephew and I have always been close and, though he’s of a nervous disposition, he came in to watch it with me.  I was excited to see his reaction, but he was anxious, asking repeatedly what will she look like, what happened to her… all the things a 5 year old would ask.  And then he said to me, “I bet she’s going to look normal and all the other people will look scary.”  Some part of his young mind must have realized we had never seen the faces of those others around Ms. Tyler.  The magic was broken. Sure, I knew what was coming!  I’d see the episode dozens of times, but it always had a magic to it.  When my nephew said what he said, it was like showing the magician’s trick for all its non-magical properties.

Now that doesn’t really stop this from being a great episode.  The use of shadow and camera angles is a triumph of form over substance.  We are given a 10 minute story that is somehow extended to over 25 minutes and it still works.  It has a flow but it almost becomes a game of spot the camera trick.  A nurse stands in front of the doctor who is facing the camera.  A cigarette pack becomes the focal point when moving between people.  The entire episode works hard to make sure we never notice the absence of faces and it does it well, despite my nephew’s observation.  It’s a magnificent piece of visual trickery; a testament to a bygone era that could do more with shadow than we can with CGI.  But for me, the magic was lost.  Oh, I admired my nephew more than ever and that was already a pretty high point, but this elevated my admiration to new heights.  How had he figured it out!?

The episode does go some way to creating a conformist regime, but it never builds enough on it.  The tyrannical leader spouting words about conformity proves only that someone in the production crew thought everyone looked alike.  There are hints of some form of dictatorship when the doctor questions why everyone has to look alike, but they clearly didn’t.  There were many faces and I could see the difference in each; they just all had that odd configuration of left-upturned lip, droopy eyes and piglike nose.  When that same nephew was younger, he was describing our faces and had some very odd descriptors: upside down triangle, circle, and our personal favorite: the flipturn face.  I have no idea what a flipturn face is but wish I had thought to ask him to describe these creatures.  I sure hope he didn’t say they had flipturn faces… that was the one he used to describe me!

Overall this is still a wonderful episode and I would consider this “required viewing” for anyone who wants to see just how much could be done with a limited budget.  Students of film should watch this to appreciate the craftsmanship.  It may have lost some of the magic in my book, but it’s still an incredible half hour of television.  Well, at least I consider it incredible, but then, isn’t that the point?  Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder both in our world and in The Twilight Zone…  ML

The view from across the pond:

Eye of the Beholder is considered something of a classic, and it’s not hard to see why: the dark lighting, the uncertainty of what’s under those bandages ramping up the tension, their gradual removal, drawn out for the maximum effect, the superb acting performances, and the important message the episode has to offer.

The plight of the bandaged woman, Janet Tyler, is extremely uncomfortable to watch. She has suffered for being different, and has been bandaged for so long that she has started to take comfort from living “inside this cave”. It soon becomes clear that she is living in a society that segregates people who look different, with a leader who talks of “glorious conformity”. Although Janet says the state “hasn’t the right to make ugliness a crime”, that’s exactly what has been done. This is a cautionary tale about where xenophobia can lead.

This is not one of the episodes I saw on DVD when they were released as fairly random collections, so I came to this completely unspoilt. If anyone is interested in the perspective of a first-time viewer, the twist falls completely flat. The problem is that it’s immediately obvious that the director is going to great lengths to hide the faces of the doctor and nurse, either keeping them in darkness, shooting them from the neck down, or keeping them obscured behind a lamp, etc, or with their backs to us. This looks contrived, and it wasn’t exactly a huge mental leap to figure out what’s going on here: of course Janet is going to be the one who looks human.

This is the problem with Rod Serling’s writing style for most of his episodes. He comes up with one big idea and that’s it. If the idea falls flat or is spoiled by shoddy execution, then all his eggs are in one basket: the twist ending. So in the end I was impatiently waiting for the twist that played out exactly as I was expecting, and the execution of the idea is indeed very shoddy indeed. On several occasions the actors’ faces are not sufficiently obscured and they clearly have human features. Then, for the final scenes, it’s obvious that the actors have been fitted with their masks. Even from behind the heavy brows and extended cheekbones are visible. This is a cheat that thoroughly spoils the illusion.

So I think this is a great idea, but one big idea is once again not sufficient to stretch to even the modest running time of 25 minutes, without giving the viewer plenty of time to spot the problems with it, figure out exactly what is happening, and then wait impatiently for the bandages to be unwrapped. To be fair, the big reveal is executed very well indeed, is worth waiting for, and provides a reasonable indication of a happy ending for the main character. She just needs to conquer her own xenophobia, and realise that there is a community ready to give her a “sense of great belonging” and a “sense of being loved”.

Rod Serling’s closing narration is problematical:

“What kind of world where ugliness is the norm and beauty the deviation from that norm?”

It’s almost like he doesn’t quite understand his own message. Saying “ugliness is the norm” labels this alien race as ugly, just the same as they label human features as ugly, but the remainder of his summary is sound: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lesson to be learned in the Twilight Zone.” After 60 years, are we any closer to learning that lesson? I’m not sure.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Nick of Time

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Twilight Zone and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Twilight Zone: Eye of the Beholder

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Eye Of The Beholder, whether everyone in the world can fully appreciate its message by now, has withstood the test of time for shaping how SF writers could address the natural issues of physical appearances. Including myself in regards to the Gemingans for my Continuum City, a race where external appearances have become so visually irrelevant to the point where Janet Tyler may find some peace there. So even more to the point of the episode, the conditioning of a society to make people who are visually non-conforming to some predetermined sense of beauty into outcasts, to the point where some dictator on the TV exploits the situation just to make a name for himself, is clearly what Serling is most pivotally addressing and rightfully so.

    Why are we as humans so quick to label someone or something as either beautiful or ugly? If it’s truly just within our perspective, then can changing our perspective be as easy as a story like this may compel us to ask? It’s just as well that I had the chance to see this episode early on before all these delicate issues for Doctor Who, and sometimes even Star Trek, would finally come crashing down. Especially enough to embrace some favorite films like Enemy Mine even more.

    I was surprised to learn that the unmasked Janet Tyler was played by Donna Douglas who I knew beforehand as The Beverly Hillbillies’ Elly May Clampett. The remake in the 2002-3 revival series was very impressive too. Thank you both for your most thoughtful reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. sopantooth says:

    Huh, I could have sworn this was an Outer Limits episode

    Liked by 2 people

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