S01E07 - The Lonely
"For inmate James A. Corry, solitary confinement means life on an asteroid nine million miles from Earth. Corry craves human contact — so much so that he counts the minutes until a roving ship makes its annual drop-off of provisions. Corry may well be the loneliest man in the universe. But all of that is about to change. Because the supply ship is on its way, this time carrying a special package for Corry that will help him to forget his problems… and present him with a whole new dilemma."
In our look at Episode 1 of the Twilight Zone, we noted how the theme of coping with loneliness was one Serling would return to multiple times over the course of the series. Well, here we are just six episodes later and here it returns in spades. Some sources indicate The Lonely was the next to be produced after the pilot, so perhaps the idea of isolation was weighing heavy on Serling’s mind for some reason as he was getting the show up and running. In fact, the themes of the two episodes are similar enough that an alternate, unused opening narration Serling had penned for Where Is Everybody? would actually have worked just as well for this episode…
“The barrier of loneliness: the palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man. Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting... in the Twilight Zone.”
If that doesn’t fit a story about a man imprisoned by himself on an asteroid for fifty years, I don’t know what does.
Watching this episode at the beginning of 2016 when both Ex Machina and The Martian are up for Academy Awards only accentuates just how much the subject matter Serling was dealing with still resonates today. Jean Marsh’s sympathetic android, Alicia, is a clear forerunner of Alicia Vikander’s Ava as both leave the viewer with questions about just how “human” their artificial intelligences really are. And Jack Warden’s hopelessly lonely prisoner can’t help but make you think of Matt Damon’s Mars-stranded astronaut. Warden is particularly excellent in this episode, turning in perhaps the best acting of the series so far. His desperation for even a simple game of checkers with another human being is palpable.
Warden’s performance is also pretty accurate to those real life prisoners in long term solitary confinement, at least if some mental health specialists are to be believed. As an article from Wired notes, “The human brain is ill-adapted to [solitary confinement], and activists and some psychologists equate it to torture. Solitary confinement isn’t merely uncomfortable, they say, but such an anathema to human needs that it often drives prisoners mad. In isolation, people become anxious and angry, prone to hallucinations and wild mood swings, and unable to control their impulses. The problems are even worse in people predisposed to mental illness, and can wreak long-lasting changes in prisoners’ minds.” If that’s all true, then it should be no surprise to find that Pope Francis has condemned the practice.
Still, understanding the anguishes of such isolation does shed some light on the Catehchism’s description of Hell, which is basically “eternal separation from God.” If solitary confinement in an earthly prison can be enough to drive some mad, then just imagine the horror of eternal isolation. As Prof. Peter Kreeft explains it, “The images for hell in Scripture are horrible, but they're only symbols… The pain of loss - the loss of God, who is the source of all joy - is infinitely more horrible than any torture could ever be.” I think Warden’s character would agree.
Twilight Tidbits: While it would be another decade before the character of pompous newsman Ted Baxter would make Ted Knight a household name, he makes an uncredited appearance here as (surprise, surprise) an arrogant jerk of a spaceman.