The Twilight Zone: Sixteen Millimeter Shrine
The Twilight Zone is a very old US series of half-hour shows from the late 1950s and 1960s. It harks back to an era before special effects could really be used to sell a TV show, and instead producers had to rely on a solid plot and very high standards of acting. Twilight Zone was something very new at the time: A series of what-if standalone episodes and fantastic scenarios played out in a serious tone.
156 episodes were produced, each on a different subject. So, of course it was inevitable that quite a few would discuss subjects pertinent to the nature of reality, machine sentience, and sensation. They didn't know anywhere near as much about these subjects back then as we do now, of course, with many of the episodes pre-dating the first actual VR interfaces by over a decade.
Still, whilst they didn't always get a lot of the details right, in their own stumbling way they often managed to deal with the gist of the issue, and present a take on things that still holds true and retains its value even a half century later. Sometimes the shows could even be considered progressive in our time, never mind in their own.
This episode is number four in the series, Sixteen Millimeter Shrine. Nearly irrelevant to most aspects of VR, it does contain a single theme that cuts to the core of a virtual life. It is a very sad, lonely stale, but covers:
The episode opens on a romantic scene. A man and woman clutching one another as he heads off to war. It's a replay of an old movie reel. As the scene comes to an end, we see the audience watching the film. It is the same woman as in the scene, much older, sitting in an armchair in a darkened, lavishly decorated room, a 16mm cine projector on the table next to her. A private viewing room, belonging to someone with considerable finances.
Barbara Jean Trenton, or Bobbie, is an actress whose hayday is long behind her. Sitting watching reruns of past glories, and remembering what once was. Her world, effectively, is the projection room, gazing into one rerun after another, as she loads reel after reel onto her projector in endless days of reminiscing.
A little later on, we see the morning maid carrying a breakfast tray through a luxurious house. To a set of closed double doors just off the foyer. She knocks, and calls out for Miss Trenton, before opening the door and entering.
Predictably, the home cinema room is on the other side, and lights strobe through the dark as yet another old rerun plays on the screen. She has clearly been up all night, staring into her world of what once was, wishing that world, that life was hers once more.
Yet, Bobbie is not there when the maid gets to the chair. It is empty, the room appears vacant. She calls out for Miss Trenton several more times before Bobbie emerges, from behind the projector screen. She had been standing there 'in' the movie, treating it like a crude virtual world, attempting to immerse herself in the world of the film, to live it as her reality, however briefly.
Bobbie is not happy at having been interrupted, and has her put the tray down and leave, quickly, so she can return to her preferred reality.
Outside, the maid, whose name we learn is Sally, composing herself, goes to answer the door. It's an old friend, Mr Daniel Wise, come to check up on Bobbie. He asks if she's in, and then sighing, asks if she's in the projector room. Yup. She is clearly pulling away from a reality she does not want, and striving for a reality she wishes to live. In her case, it is living it again, having already been through once, but still, it is no different in basis, to any other individual,, who rejects one reality in favour of another.
Sally speaks with him, frantically, that Bobbie's reclusiveness is getting much worse, and she is withdrawing from the outside world much more than she ever has before. Daniel speaks to Sally, commenting that she's been in there too much. I think it is beginning to disturb you too. I'll see what I can do.
He heads over to speak with the lady of the house, back behind closed doors in her private world. There is no answer to his knock, but he enters, to find her sitting in her armchair again, the breakfast tray beside her. She turns to him as the ending credits for another film roll by, and she flicks the projector off returning light to the room.
He is all joy and light, telling her all about the marvellous things it being a wonderful day in Beverly Hills, great air quality, wonderful sunshine, warm, cloudless skies, etcetera. She on the other hand, is not interested in any of that. They're side-notes of a reality she feels distanced from, that she can not bear to be a part of.
An argument ensues, in which Daniel continues to remind Bobbie that those films were 25 years ago. He is an agent, her agent, and he is using his professional opinions that something has to be done when she bottles herself in that room, stopping the clock. It is sick to put the clock back 15, 20 years every day. He is adamant that something is wrong with her mind, that she is seeking escapism rather than living with what she has.
He ends this tirade with good news; he has made an appointment for her with a film studio, in a couple of hours. Overjoyed at the news, Bobbie fawns on him, preparing to actually regain what she has lost, and immerse herself in film for real, once more. Unfortunately, perhaps predictably, the role is not what she had hoped for. She is still all excited at the possibilities, right up until she hears what it actually is in the office. An office belonging to a man she worked with 25 years ago, a man visibly much older and much changed.
The first shock comes when she hears the words I think it fits you. It's not a big part but.... Things only go downhill from there. The part is for a mother in her late 40s, a minor supporting role in someone else's picture. It goes down like a lead balloon. The manager loses his temper, and tells her that she is nothing special, and any part she gets will be charity. She leaves the room in a huff.
Back at home, Daniel catches up with Bobbie, and she tells him that the studio they were just in doesn't exist. The foul tempered man they spoke with does not exist. That This is the world, Dan, right in here. From now on I keep the drapes drawn and the doors locked. I don't want any of the outside world coming in.
His response to that is Whether you like it or not, that's the way things are. That's the way it is.
Of course, that has always been one of the staple stock-in-trades of VR, even this pre-VR exhibited here. It offers an alternative to dealing with an utterly unpalatable existence whatever that might be it offers a new reality, tailored to your desires. Bobbie doesn't have that level of sophistication available to her, but she has the basics, and a burning desire right to her core, to live them.
The way it is, is not the way it's going to be. She is going to live the 1930s again. If she wishes hard enough, if she wishes with all her strength, pours heart and soul into it, it will be. Close your eyes and the outside world disappears. Wish hard enough and the reality you perceive is what you want it to be.
Danial isn't having any of this. He tells her But that's not real. It's not true. It's phony. He shakes her trying to get her to see that the reality he sees is the only one there is.
Bobbie tells him in reply It doesn't have to be phony. If I wish hard enough it won't be phony.
Of course no true virtual reality is phony. They are valid realities in every way that matters, so on this point she is quite correct. Of course she is doing it without sensory immersion hardware, so all she has to fall back on is perceptual reality, and an overlaying of what she chooses to be, on top of the world, like a layer of polish on top of a mirror world, removing the imperfections and setting back the clock without divorcing her from interacting with others who do not see what she sees.
She wishes a party, to tell all her friends to come. Daniel has problems with this, notably that several of her friends are dead, several others moved across the country or the globe long ago, and the ones who he could get to come are old. She needs to understand that they are old now and deal with it. He tells her she keeps wishing for things that are dead. With that he leaves.
Some time later, Bobbie is in her cine room again, watching a film on the projector, and laughing at what she sees.
At the front door, Sally lets Daniel in. Concerned, he asks if she is alright, and Sally says she wishes she could tell him,.but since he left the other day, she has been holed up in the projector room. Sally doesn't see her any more, and she doesn't sleep in her bed any more.
She then says to Daniel, that she doesn't want him to think she's gone crazy, but she would swear that sometimes when she has gone in there, Bobbie, the older Bobbie, is not in her chair, but is in fact up on the screen herself. It sounds crazy, but its almost like Bobbie's found a way into the VR itself, into a microworld her will and effort has assembled, and is with hit and miss, slowly squeezing herself into it.
In much the same way as willpower and effort at a sensory interface over time increases the level of embodiment, so Bobbie's will is doing the same, moving her physically inside a micro-world or pocket dimension she has created. However, it is obviously not complete yet, and she cannot get in fully; she keeps popping out again, explaining what Sally is seeing.
The corollary in actual VR is of course that increasing embodiment, and the sense of self being placed inside the virtual environment, a little more each time as new interface hardware is added, or neural codes are refined, with the ultimate goal of putting your sense of self, or consciousness inside the avatar for all practical purposes, so that what you see, smell, hear, touch, taste, all of it reflects the avatar's view of things, as opposed to your outside body.
Bobbie's method is superior in that it doesn't actually leave an outside body to maintain, in theory at least. Similar perhaps to mind uploading or similar technologies a long time yet distant, in which the personality of the user can be transferred literally into the new body; virtual or physical.
Back with Daniel and Sally, Daniel tells Sally not to worry herself, he has arranged a visitor to pop by and help Bobby. Its one of her co-workers from the old days, once an actor now a businessman. Daniel feels it will be good for Bobby to see another familiar face, remind her that there are still people out here for her.
Daniel knocks on the (locked) projector room door, and calls out to come in. An annoyed Bobbie calls out for him to please go away. Eventually, he convinces an angry Bobby to turn her equipment off, and open the door to hear him speak. In doing so, she severs her connection to her new reality, at least for a little while.
The old friend is Gerry, her old leading man, someone she has had a deep crush on for decades. Panicked she issues harried instructions for what to do with him when he arrives, and hurries off to make herself look presentable. It seems Daniel's ploy is working. So far at least.
Evening comes, and Bobbie is dolled up to the nines, really excited and looking forwards to this evening so much. She hears Daniel letting someone in and strides into the study to come face to face with a very elderly, balding man in spectacles and a severe overbite. The shock to her system is considerable. All but gone are the last vestigial physical traces of the man she loved to follow. But maybe he still has the same mind?
She comments, on the verge of hysteria, and trying to hold herself together Isn't it odd we always picture people the way they were, and never as they really are?
She thought he'd be wearing an officer's uniform or a smart suit and champaign. Instead he slouches with none of the class she remembers. His comment is that the time she remembers was 20 years ago, and things change. He tells her he gave acting up long ago, and is a changed man now, running a supermarket chain in another city. Not only has his physical appearance altered, but he has mellowed considerably, and all the fire and ambition she remembers is all long gone.
Bobbie is devastated, and her snarky and sarcastic attitude shows it. She is trying to hold it together, but not doing too well. The man she longed for, faded away whilst she pined for him. He doesn't exist any more, not in this reality.
She nods to a picture of Gerry in his acting days on the wall. He's the one I expected. He's the one I wanted to have come and see me, but he's dead now. Dead like all the others. She tells them to go away, as the last vestiges of her control break.
Daniel is getting the sneaking suspicion at this point that his brilliant plan might not have worked out quite the way he planned. Instead of pulling Bobbie back, it has shattered the last tendrils of hope anchoring her to the world he wishes her to stay in. With nothing left to hold her back, her push into her own world is going to be stronger than ever.
With Daniel and the old Gerry gone, she makes her way purposefully to her projection equipment, knowing now, there is nothing for her left, in this reality. As soon as she hits the chair, her hand is out and all her equipment springs to life. She needs to remember, to see Gerry as she remembered him, the youthful strong man, full of fire and passion. The man who is denied to her.
She looks at the younger Gerry kissing the younger her, and stands, moving closer to the screen, wishing with all her might, over and over to be up there with him, wishing she could, to be as it was then, with the man she loves so much, not the stranger who was there earlier. The scene blurs and fades with her still wishing.
It is meal time again. Sally is outside with a tray, trying to get Bobbie to eat something or at least answer the door. She knocks and calls, but no one answers, so she tries the handle. For once it is not locked and opens easily. She steps in, the room seems empty, but the projector is running. Perhaps Bobbie is behind the screen again. She looks to the screen, and her eyes register what is on it.
She gasps, then shrieks and drops the tray.
Not long after Daniel arrives, called by a frantic Sally. He looks at her, then walks straight over to the projection room. The lights are on, the equipment is off, and there is shattered crockery and food on the floor where Sally dropped it earlier.
He asks who shut it off, and she says she did, an hour prior, right before she called him. She's checked the whole house, Bobbie is not anywhere to be found. Sally says she's not here, at least not in the way that she and Daniel are.
Daniel sits in Bobbie's chair and eyes the projector. Reluctantly he turns it on.
The lights dim, and the screen lights up, displaying a picture unlike any he has seen before and he has seen them all. Sally, with great reluctance also puts her eyes to the screen. It shows the doors of the house that same house opening, and a motley cast of characters coming in. All Bobby's friends from 25 years ago, back in their youth, milling about excitedly, dressed for a party.
The camera follows as they enter the foyer, and group at the foot of the staircase, where Bobby the older Bobby - comes down, dressed in all her finery. The same finery she was wearing that previous night when she met the elder Gerry. She encompasses all of the gathered characters with her hands, telling them how good it is to see them, and would they go outside for dinner by the pool. They file out as she greets individuals in the crowd with joy, the camera does not follow.
Finally, it is just Bobbie and young Gerry in a soldier's uniform standing before the camera. By this time back in the projection room, Daniel is standing, silently mouthing no, not even really consciously aware he's doing it; staring at the screen with mounting horror. As the on-screen Bobbie heads out to the pool, Daniel finds his voice, and cries out for her. He begs her to come back, please.
On-screen, Bobbie pauses, and turns to face the camera, her hand still in Gerry's. Daniel cries out that it is him, and Bobbie steps forwards towards the camera, demonstrating she does indeed hear him. She smiles, lifts her arm with her handkerchief to her lips, kisses it then drops it, before turning and walking out to the pool, the camera again, not following as she disappears from sight.
Daniel is yelling by now, for her to come back, shaking his fist at the screen, desperate. The scene remains empty, the camera motionless, displaying the garden doorway. Then the screen goes blank, and a variety of characters scroll up the end of the film reel. The projector keeps running with the film slapping about as the reel whirls round.
Daniel slowly sits back into his chair, stunned, and knowing somehow, that she's gone. She found her opening into her own private reality, and stepped through it, never to re-emerge. The world she truly wanted; the reality she truly desired with every fibre of her being is hers now. She is done with the old one.
Daniel gets up, forlorn. He turns the projector off, and steps outside, into the foyer. He goes to the stairs, and looks out the doorway into the garden where Bobbie just stepped, in the film. As he approaches, he notices something. Bobbie's handkerchief, still laying on the floor where she dropped it, still smelling of her.
The garden is empty, but she hasn't gone far. She has just abandoned his reality, for her own.
Sixteen Millimeter Shrine is one of many Twilight Zone episodes which discusses escapism, and immersion in a pocket world. Each has a focus on a different aspect, a philosophical or logical point to consider. However, this episode is by far the best when it comes to showing the social and mental strain between those who wish to escape, and those who refuse to let them.