The Twilight Zone: The Shelter

The Twilight Zone Original Logo 1959It sounds a bit like a riddle: how do you destroy a society without laying a finger on it?  I don’t know; you probably get the idea.  But Rod Serling answers that with The Shelter.  The problem is that, like so many of these stories, we’ve got to fill 25 minutes with a concept that really only has about 10-15 minutes of life.  This is a good story, but I don’t think we needed the elongated style for what Serling is telling us. It’s a thought experiment in true horror.  It makes for a great question for The Book of Questions, but isn’t a 25 minute episode of a 60’s TV show, despite the fact that, at the time, this fear was very real.  That’s the one thing you have to remember: this was a very clear and present threat at the time it was first aired.  But was there enough content?  Maybe but for me, it was held together by one line and I’ll talk about that in a moment…

The thing is, I’ve recently been watching the Netflix series Love, Death and Robots.  It’s an interesting show: a series of individual stories that might as well be an animated version of the Twilight Zone.  Where this form of storytelling succeeds most is that there’s no set length to the episodes.  One episode might clock in at 6 minutes while another is 20.  Now, this would have been a novelty in 1961 but Serling probably could have worked wonders with the lack of a constricted timeframe especially considering this is thought-provoking material.  The Shelter is about a family that has prepared for the potential of nuclear war and built a bomb shelter to protect themselves.  Unfortunately, none of their friends had the foresight to do the same thing so when the announcement comes that something has been launched into the air, everyone panics.  Bill Stockton, his wife and son all prepare to go to their shelter: a small room with 3 beds and a little living area.  The room can sustain them for a few months in the hopes that when they emerge, there will be some kind of future for them all.  Of course, all the neighbors want in, and that’s when things get ugly.

And then we get 15 minutes or more of the same thing over and over: “let us in”, “no, we built this for my family… you should have done the same…”  “Please let my family in!”  “I know, let’s break down the door – you know, so none of us could survive because the door would be broken.”  “Hey, while we’re at it, lets attack each other with racial slurs too…”  It’s a nightmare scenario, don’t get me wrong.  How do you live with yourself knowing you survived but all your friends died and you stayed on the other side of a wall and listened to their death cries??  I couldn’t do it.  Survival instinct is strong, but is that living?  Where do we draw the line?  Where is it that life goes from having worth to being a living death?  I don’t know the answer, and thankfully Bill Stockton doesn’t have to find out how bad it could have gotten, but what he comes out to is the realization that our civilization is a stone’s throw from caving in on itself.  That is a harsh realization.  Bill’s friends turn on one another when the going gets tough.  What makes that sobering is that I wonder of my friends.  I think we would fight to protect one another even if that meant putting ourselves in danger, but the truth might surprise me, as it surprises Stockton.  Do any of us really know how our friends and neighbors would react under similar circumstances?

That’s what makes it interesting but I still felt it didn’t have 25 minutes of story to tell.  Sure, it forces us to look at our own lives, our friends, our families… it makes us ask a very uncomfortable question about the world we think we know and in that way, it makes excellent food for thought.   It gives us a good mirror to hold up to examine our lives.  But the moment that really hit home wasn’t the terror of what Bill was dealing with.  No.  It was after the fear has abated, one neighbor says that they should have a block party to get back to normal.  That was the moment I felt dizzy.  Isn’t that basically how we handled Covid-19, when the fear abated?  Have we become so caught up in our own mundane existence of TV and blog write-ups that we’ve forgotten to actually think about things?  To prepare?  To get those important things done, rather than sitting around playing video games?  Wow, that was sobering.  Perhaps I should start prepping for that bomb shelter.  We have another election coming in 2 years, it might be a good idea.  Should I make it big enough for a few of my friends to join me, so I keep them safe as well?  I could.  In fact, you know what?  I’m going to.  Just… let me watch one more episode first, before I start.  You know, maybe a lighter one that I don’t have to think about quite so heavily…    ML

The view from across the pond:

The threat of nuclear apocalypse has been hanging over the heads of just about everyone on the planet for as long as we can all remember, but I was a child of the 80s, so I suppose from a lucky generation that didn’t really need to think about that. The risk was always there, but it felt relatively unlikely. A television episode like The Shelter, which deals with the threat of a nuclear strike, therefore didn’t seem particularly frightening when I first watched it. In fact, it tried my patience. Rewatching it now, that gut punch of fear it packed is much closer to how the original viewers must have felt.

To explain, my reviews of The Twilight Zone appear on the blog weekly, but I don’t watch and write them that way. For each series we tackle in the Junkyard, I work my way through a whole season before moving onto something else, and I write the reviews and schedule them in advance. In the case of TZ, I’m actually writing this almost a year before anyone will get to read it, and that creates an odd feeling for The Shelter, because I don’t know what the nuclear threat level will look like by the time this post goes live. It’s a similar feeling to the blog posts I was writing during the height of the covid pandemic, when I would occasionally watch something that was relevant to the times we were living through, knowing that any reference to covid would probably have to be rewritten nearer the time. But the covid comparison is relevant for another reason, because the last thing I really wanted to watch during the pandemic was something like a disaster movie. Watching things go badly wrong for the human race, once the biggest thing Hollywood had to offer for a mass audience, no longer felt like entertainment, and I remember reading an article at the time that suggested I was far from being alone in those feelings. Most people didn’t want to watch something that reminded them of their troubles. Cosy viewing was the order of the day.

That brings me to The Shelter, because I can’t think why this would have been rushed into production as a response to the heightened threat of nuclear attack at the time, but that’s what happened. Serling saw an opportunity, and this episode was his way of engaging with the big issue of the moment. But why would anyone want to torture themselves by watching this, knowing it might happen to them? It is far from being a precise reflection of the world I live in, like it was for the original viewers. I’m not even in the same country. Virtually nobody has a basement, let alone a shelter. And even I found it unpleasant viewing that hit too close to home, over 60 years after it was made. For a contemporary viewer, seeing something with no actual sci-fi element, a dramatisation of a nightmare scenario that could have actually happened to them the next day for all they knew, this must have kept them awake at night.

Apart from upsetting people, I just don’t see much point in it, either. There is a message, which is very simple: people turn into wild animals when their lives are threatened. I don’t want to speculate on how true that is, but it’s bleak. We are shown how people can become increasingly insular in times of trouble: it’s about OUR country (not the Johnny Foreigner, “half-American”, a nasty representation of racism bubbling just under the surface), and then it becomes about OUR street, OUR shelter, OUR family. Nobody else’s matters when it comes to the crunch. It also asks the question: is friendship an illusion? Are any friends really more than fair-weather friends? Serling manages not to go too definitively damning with his indictment of the entire mechanics of friendships, by showing a bunch of friends who are neighbours. A neighbour, by definition, is somebody you happen to know by an accident of geography. Is that kind of a friend somebody we end up being with just by chance, and therefore somehow lesser? Then again, many friendships come about by chance, and this guy was just sharing his birthday with them.

So this raises some unpleasant questions about human nature, and it’s not exactly a bonus that they are the exact same questions that were raised in The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. This is a virtual remake, with the nuclear threat substituted for aliens, thus removing the sci-fi element. The opening and ending narration even sound like Serling is talking down his own script: “it is not meant to be prophetic”; “no moral, no message”, “tonight’s very small exercise in logic…” What we have here, therefore, is a mostly inferior remake, written for a particular audience at a particular time. Finding ourselves now in a much closer place mentally to those original viewers than we ever wanted or expected to be doesn’t exactly make it a more rewarding viewing experience. It’s just a reflection of how we probably don’t want to be reminded of the miserable truth about the dark side of human nature. I prefer to find hope in the basic goodness of some (most?) people and cling on to one, simple assumption: not everyone would be like Dr. Bill Stockton’s “friends”. I pray that we never have to find out if I’m right or not.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Passersby

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: The Shelter

  1. scifimike70 says:

    To further appreciate such movies like Deliverance and Prisoners, or any episode of any TV series that shows human beings at their worst under great pressure or stress, there is much to reflect on thanks to the most unique TZ perspectives of Rod Serling. We’d all like to believe that we could be at our best in times of great darkness or uncertainty. But when our breaking points are portrayed as being so inevitable as in The Shelter, leaving the characters and the audiences in a very painful aftermath, especially when it comes down to racial prejudices, we naturally hope that anthologies are empowering us all for the better. As a cautionary tale, The Shelter doesn’t really have to come true. As a human drama to make us question things, especially about ourselves, it’s a reminder of why such dramas in our TV and movies still find their places. Thank you both for your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron Cerabona says:

    Human nature can be pretty bad even when not in such extreme circumstances. Have you ever seen the Billy Wilder movie Ace in the Hole (1951) starring Kirk Douglas? It’s satirical but close to home, a pretty savage indictment of journalism but even more, of human nature. And it was inspired by two real cases: Kathy Fiscus and Floyd Collins. It was a box office flop in the US: one latterday writer thought this might have been “because it told people too much about themselves”. Ever rubbernecked at a traffic accident? Or clicked on a headline promising something really awful? Who hasn’t?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s