One week a month, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new show coming out that week. This week: The return of Black Mirror has us thinking about TV’s other visions of ominous futures.
The 1980s incarnation of The Twilight Zone was brief, clocking in at a mere three seasons (one in syndication only). Yet judging by the number of times someone has turned to internet forums, Yahoo! Answers, and even The A.V. Club asking after some traumatizing pop-culture memory they’ve dredged up from their brain, only to have the answer be one of its 65 episodes, the show had a lasting impact. Much of that had to do with the nasty sting of the stories it told—segments that were often all the more intense considering they constituted a mere 10 minutes of screen time. “Examination Day” is one of these.
The premise is simple: On his 12th birthday, Dickie Jordan (David Mendenhall, probably best known for playing Sylvester Stallone’s son in Over The Top) is preparing to take his government-mandated IQ test. Dickie lives in a future of indeterminate year, though it’s a typically ’80s vision of tomorrow. The buildings are all sleek glass and steel, the people dress in pastel doctors’ scrubs or Jiffy Pop-silver suits, and the “OmniCoder” Dickie receives as a present (a box that allows him to video-call his friends!) is a chunky CRT monitor. Dickie, meanwhile, is obviously a bright child. He prefers reading to TV, and he’s eager to take the exam and prove himself—a little too eager. We sense something is off about this timeline from the parents’ furtive glances and their fretting that he’s “not like other boys.” (Well that, and the fact that Dickie’s birthday cake is an unappetizing blue slab.)
Of course, suspecting all is not as it seems should be obvious to anyone familiar with the show, or with the writer whose 1958 story “Examination Day” is based on: Henry Slesar, a prolific author of hundreds of sci-fi and fantasy tales, as well as scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone. Like most of Slesar’s work, “Examination Day” ends with an ironic twist that, for the purposes of our discussion here, we may as well spoil: The government calls Dickie’s parents to inform them their son’s intelligence exceeds the national standard—then ask what they want done with the body.
Like so much of the ’80s series, especially, the effect of “Examination Day” boils down to that upsetting final image of Dickie’s parents collapsing into tears as the news is delivered, coldly and matter-of-factly, through a faceless gray box. On the whole, the episode is mostly a well-trodden vision of the future as totalitarian, bureaucratic nightmare, where people are cogs and even the cakes are drab. But with that chilling final scene (and especially for other, too-smart-for-their-own-good kids who might have caught it in the ’80s), ”Examination Day” paints an unforgettable picture of a world where intelligence has at last become a disadvantage—a fatal one. It’s similar to the territory explored in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” or more recently Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, albeit whittled to its bluntest point. And even today, the story’s basic conceit of an oppressive government that depends on stupidity resonates with Obama conspiracists, as well as anyone who’s seen a Trump rally.
Availability: The complete run of the 1980s The Twilight Zone is available on DVD at Amazon.