Number 12 Looks Just Like You

January 1, 2014

Let’s call it the year 2000. . . . Imagine a time in the future where science has developed a means of giving everyone the face and body he dreams of.
— Rod Serling, 1924-1975
American screenwriter
narrating “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” Episode 17, Season 5 of The Twilight Zone

In 1964, noted science fiction writer and futurist Isaac Asimov made some predictions about what the world would look like in 2014. He envisioned devices like personal coffeemakers, microwave meals, cordless communications devices, and video chat protocols. He predicted the world and the U.S. populations quite close to what they are mow. He said that people would withdraw from nature to build environments tailored to their particular tastes, be freed from tedious repetitive work and be able to talk to anyone on earth with the flick of a switch. And yet we would be bored.

I turned 17 in March of 1964. I didn’t drink coffee yet, so I didn’t care how it was made. A cordless telephone would have been nice, so I wouldn’t have to have my phone conversations in the kitchen or my parents’ bedroom, but the possibility of video calling, rumored to be on the near horizon, made me nervous — you’d always have to have your hair and face fixed.

On January 24, 1964, I was sitting in the basement family room of our house in Camp Hill, where the TV had been installed in the utility room and behind a framed opening in the paneling, so that it looked not unlike the flat screen TVs of today that hang on the wall. It was the fifth and last season of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s anthology of half-hour scripted dramas that explored aspects of human psychology through fantasy and science fiction, almost always with something of a macabre twist at the end. That night, I saw “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” for the first time. Although I would not see it again for at least thirty years, when reruns of the series became popular, especially in New Year’s Eve marathons, I never forgot it.

Set in the year 2000 (now thirteen years ago, remember, but then a distance of thirty-six years away, when anything could be possible), the story centers on the refusal by an 18-year-old girl, played by Collin Wilcox (who the year before had portrayed Mayella Violet Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird), to undergo “The Transformation,” a process which will change her appearance to one she chooses from a limited array in a catalog. The girl, Marilyn, is quite plain, especially when compared to her mother, played by then-high fashion model Suzy Parker, whose strong cheekbones and cascading (red) hair are quite striking, even in black-and-white.

Marilyn’s mother, her best friend, and the doctors are all aghast at her stance. “Why do you want to stay ugly?” asks one. “I’m not ugly,” Marilyn says. “I’m not pretty, but I’m not ugly.” She wants to stay the way she is, be herself, and not be like everybody else. “Being like everybody is the same as being nobody.”

The episode made a deep impression on me. I identified with Marilyn, not because of her refusal to undergo The Transformation, but because of her plainness. I saw myself that way — not ugly, but certainly not pretty. Doppy, my mother pronounced me, a Pennsylvania German word that doesn’t mean “unattractive,” exactly, but more like “clumsy” or “awkward.” I was that, too, so unskilled at jump rope that in elementary school I volunteered to be the permanent end, just so I could be part of the group. But I also identified with Marilyn’s wish that her personality, her unique blend of talents and interests and perspectives, be accepted and honored as they were. I was impressed with Collin Wilcox herself as well. She really was plain, and I admired her willingness to use that feature of herself to win roles and make a career

Marilyn eventually decides to undergo The Transformation, almost certainly because she has been administered some mind-altering drug or been subjected to an invasive brain probe. The point of the story. like most of those in The Twilight Zone, is easy to grasp and made quite broadly: obsession with appearance and the social engineering needed to make us all happy all the time are insidiously destructive.

The stories making the rounds today about Isaac Asimov’s vision for 2014 make no mention of any thoughts he might have had about people’s ability to manipulate their physical appearance. While we don’t have the ability to reshape ourselves into exact duplicates of the attractive people we admire, we do have a wide array of tools — liposcution, face lifts, rhinoplasty, tummy tucks, breast augmentation, botox. They can effect change in appearance, but they don’t necessarily make anyone happy.

“Number 12 Looks Just Like You” is readily available on You Tube or DVD that you can have at home and watch anytime. Nevertheless, I wait until the SyFy Channel’s New Year’s Day marathon each year to watch it again. I sit in front of my flat screen TV, a bowl of chips and onion dip at my side, much as I did fifty years ago, and ponder Marilyn’s dilemma and her eventual resolution. It’s ironic, perhaps, that this annual viewing of a familiar story comes at a time when most people, myself included, are rededicating themselves to practices and regimens they hope will improve their appearance and the ways they carry themselves in this world. I’m doppier than ever, but still sad for Marilyn, who becomes just like everybody else.

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