The Great Filter theory, developed by economist Robin Hanson, posits that the reason humans have failed to find extraterrestrial life is that all advanced forms of life destroy themselves before expanding habitation beyond their original home. If an alien race ever lived on Pluto, we would not know of them because they killed each other before making it off Pluto and towards Earth. The Great Filter challenges any species’ existence. Can advance life overcome existential hurdles – whether created by a natural force or themselves – to extend its reach across multiple planets?
That question is central to The Twilight Zone’s sixth episode “Six Degrees of Freedom.” As a group of five astronauts are preparing launch for a round-trip to the red rock of Mars, humanity enacts its Great Filter via nuclear war. North Korea launches missiles at a number of the United State’s largest cities, and the United States aptly retaliates. Global warfare ensues just as the team is celebrating the beginning of their historic mission. The crew’s space center is among North Korea’s targets, so they hurriedly launch the ship into the galactic abyss and reckon with the fact they are likely the last humans left.
Their coping mechanisms – a generous phrase, given the gravity of the situation – are varied. Crew leader Alexa Brandt (DeWanda Wise) is an ardent supporter of detachment. She orders the ship’s AI assistant, a.k.a. Space Alexa, to block all communications to Earth as a protest to Rei Tanaka’s (Jessica Williams) repeated calls to her parents’s home. Flight surgeon Katherine Langford (Lucinda Dryzek) tries to ease the tension between the two of them by embodying the things the whole crew cherishes from civilization; she sings songs to the crew, creates birthday parties, and consoles the crew through their apocalyptic nightmares. Jerry Pierson (Jefferson White) mansplains the situation to all of the crew, bringing up the Great Filter Theory to explain the severity of their mission’s implication, as if the severity of nuclear annihilation isn’t apparent enough. Jerry also makes sophomoric remarks about the differences in everybody’s reality. “In your reality, those tomatoes taste real but in mine? No way.” The crew collectively rolls their eyes at his faux-intellectual garbage.
But Jerry’s penchant for institutional skepticism is the linchpin of the episode. He decides at one point that the whole mission is a simulation. At some point before launching, the crew was transported to a Six Degrees of Freedom simulation that allows for space-like motion. His 200-day long experiments have proved that none of this is real, man. It’s all a test to see if humanity is capable of passing through The Great Filter and expanding its life reach to other habitats. Jerry, sans suit, releases himself into the great black vacuum to prove his hypothesis.
The ship has no windows, so the crew is unable to see what happens of Jerry’s body, or if they indeed are not floating through space. Their only vision of the outside comes through cameras – cameras that could be manipulated by the system, bro. While they think Jerry was likely going mad from the shock of Armageddon, maybe he was onto something. His conspiracy has the power to corrupt the whole mission. The burden the crew carries as the last human life in existence, though, is far too heavy to be risked by Jerry’s potential mindless rambling.
“Six Degrees of Freedom” attempts to answer the question of humanity’s ability to survive despite its worst tendencies by embedding various broad traits in its crew. Captain Brandt is goal oriented and determined, unwilling to let the grief of Earth’s demise hold her back from the mission. Rei is angry at the world, but her anger stems from sentimentality. Rei wants to believe in the strength of the human race. Now that optimism has been wholly corrupted, and every effort she makes to contact people at home proves that hope is essentially dead. Katherine is the loving mother of the crew. And Jerry, of course, is not trusting of institutions nor accepted cultural narratives.
What happens when you put all of these people together and give them the knowledge that they are the only of their kind? Essentially you get the same dynamics that Earth is familiar with. Optimism in the good of humanity is usurped by “rational” progress toward a scientific goal that leaves the interests of society behind (think of Deep Fake videos; they are technological achievements that will certainly ruin massive aspects of national and international relations). We try to reconcile those heartless failings with care and tenderness, which works for awhile until personal interests conflict yet again.
While acknowledging the toxic tendencies society leans toward, “Six Degrees of Freedom” ends on a largely hopeful note that seems to suggest humanity can pass through The Great Filter. The potential for that success, though, depends on trust not only in one another as individuals but the alliances we share as groups. It is an oddly pro-government stance from a show that has depicted the darker sides of governmental bodies (see “Replay” and “The Wunderkind”). Of course, we can work passed corruption if we cling to what makes humanity worth fighting for. The crew of “Six Degrees of Freedom” successfully keeps our virtues at the forefront of their minds, and through that focus they are able to keep out species alive – if just for a small moment.
Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively at CBS All Access.