The Twilight Zone’s “Six Degrees of Freedom” fails to fly…

****SOME SPOILERS****

Failure to launch? Go or no go?

A near-future mission to Mars, sponsored by the “Whipple” company is on the launchpad and ready to take off for the red planet. With less than a few minutes to launch, the crew, led by Commander Alexa Brandt (DeWanda Wise) gets word from Flight Control that incoming North Korean missiles have hit the United States’ west coast.

Does Alexa Brandt have the right stuff?

Rather than wait for their own imminent destruction, Brandt decides that they are not only the last chance to save their mission but possibly the last chance for humanity’s survival. They switch from ground control to internal power and proceed to launch. This opening act is a genuine nail-biter, and easily the single best part of the entire 52 minute episode.

It’s just their jobs, five days a week…

Once the crew is in space, “Six Degrees…” becomes Battlestar Melancholia, with the crew unable to reach any of their loved ones back on a nuked Earth (the US & Russian counterstrikes took care of any chance of survivors).

Because long exercise scenes really get the heart pumping..

After launch, we are stuck on the ship with these characters (along with their talking computer system, TINA) and much of the running time feels aimless. The characters are not truly likable enough to invest too much feeling. Rae Tanaka (Jessica Williams) repeatedly attempts to call home, awaiting an answer that’ll never come. Pilot Casey Donlan (Jonathan Whitesell) remains committed to the mission. Recently divorced flight surgeon Katherine Langford (Lucinda Dryzek) offers to be the ‘mom’ of the crew until the Commander regains her bearings. Mission specialist Jeffrey Pierson (Jefferson White) keeps to himself as he doggedly collects data for reasons temporarily not understood.

“Talking TINA wishes you a happy birthday too, Commander.”

The weeks of navel gazing are broken up with spats, an ‘unauthorized’ tryst (Rae & Casey), angsty speechifying, brief false hope, and an attempt to return to something resembling decent crew morale with the celebration of Brandt’s birthday.

Jerry tries to bring his crew mates up to speed on his belief that they’re all in the matrix…

It is during a hazardous incoming solar event that Jerry unveils the outline of his belief (corroborated by hand-collected data) that they are not actually en route to Mars…that they are, in fact, stuck in a giant simulation somewhere (like original TZ’s “Where Is Everybody?” or SyFy channel’s “Ascension” miniseries). To prove his theory, Jerry decides to step out of an open airlock during the solar event.

Tough luck, Jerry…

With the crew strapped into their chairs in the shielded cockpit during the event, they are unable to restrain him, so Jerry opens the outer door and steps out. He is not heard from again. His loss leads some in the crew to really wonder if he truly ‘died’ or if he is in the real world somewhere, incommunicado from his former crew mates.

“Is that Matt Damon over that ridge?”

As the ship prepares for Martian descent, everything seems ‘real’ enough. They land, the ship’s protective solar shield panels are retracted and they reveal what appears to be a sunny sky over the cold, frigid landscape of Mars…

“Can I get a towel, please?”

… but all isn’t what it seems. Without giving away the ‘surprise’ ending, I’ll leave it at that.

The End.

Nits and tidbits.

Granted, the ‘reality’ of the mission is questionable, given Jerry’s theory, so perhaps I shouldn’t nitpick too hard over some of the science issues, but there was a scene that would’ve been a major tipoff to anyone familiar with the workings of analog radio/TV signals outbound from Earth since the mid-20th century. Rae thinks she’s located a signal from a survivor on the war-ravaged Earth, but it turns out to be a passing analog broadcast from a 1950s television show. An old analog TV signal from that era, traveling at the speed of light, would’ve left the solar system decades prior to the launch of their mission. Light travel time to Mars is a matter of minutes, not decades. This science nit is so glaring (especially in a modern sci-fi TV show) that I would’ve sided with Jerry’s theory in no time.

A very different “talking Tina” was seen in a 1963 Twilight Zone episode.

There are also a few easter eggs of the old show sprinkled throughout, as usual with this new series. The most noticeable of which is the “Whipple” company that funds the mission, which was last seen in 1964’s “The Brain Center At Whipple’s” (about a company which relieves its entire human workforce in favor of automation). There is also a talking computer interface named TINA after the murderous “Talking Tina” toy in 1963’s “Living Doll.” The current TINA proves much more benevolent than her predecessor…

Summing it up.

Where does it go from here?

“Six Degrees…” feels more like an episode of the Showtime/SyFy resurrection of “The Outer Limits” (1995-2002), which enjoyed a healthy run, despite a slew of mediocre offerings that rarely approached the moodiness, artistry or pure effectiveness of its shorter-lived (1963-1964) parent series. With the new TZ getting an order for a second season, perhaps it can and will do better in the years to come. As a longtime TZ devotee, I sincerely hope so. I don’t want this series to fail, but out of six episodes streamed so far, only one or two have been genuinely interesting or thought-provoking (“The Comedian” and “Replay”). The rest have been either quasi-remakes or muddled kit-bashings of old episode parts, coated with modern gloss. All of them have felt belabored and overlong.

Directed by Jakob Verbruggen (“Black Mirror”), written by Heather Anne Campbell and former “X-Files” producer Glen Morgan, “Six Degrees Of Freedom” is another potentially good idea that is sidetracked by unevenness, and its own killer-length running time. I sincerely wish this new series had the discipline to make half-hour segments (maybe stream two a week) instead of variable running times anywhere from 38 minutes to 54. At a soul-sucking 52 minutes “Six Degrees…” feels about 20 minutes too long. Brevity would be a huge boon to this show, as it might force the writers to wrap up their stories in neater packages instead of these lethargic, shapeless masses. Serling himself tried to make the series hour-length in its fourth season, and wisely came back to a half-hour length by the fifth. For the Twilight Zone, shorter running times just work better. The R&D on this was already done 55 years ago.

So once again, another adequate episode of Jordan Peele’s revamp of “The Twilight Zone” has been made available for streaming. I keep holding out hope that Peele himself will get more personally involved with this series somehow (write a script, or maybe direct), but that has failed to happen. As a result, the show that bears the name and clout of a talented, deservedly Oscar-winning filmmaker has been a middling imitation of Rod Serling’s classic series. Serling wrote 96 out of the original 155 episodes of classic TZ (1959-1964), giving up a lucrative screenwriting contract offer to do so. Peele, while doing a perfectly okay job as “The Narrator”, is hardly showing anything close to that level of commitment with this new series, and that is what is so frustrating. The talent potential is there…it’s just going untapped, week after week.

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