On the brink of leaving for the first manned flight to Mars, the astronauts aboard the Bradbury Heavy learn that the U.S. has suddenly been attacked by North Korea. If the crew of five does not take off soon, mankind may no longer exist. The group is divided on what to do, but they ultimately escape from the approaching apocalypse. Little do they know, the crew of the Bradbury Heavy is not only heading for Mars, they are also on a direct path to The Twilight Zone.
In “Six Degrees of Freedom,” five people have the distinct honor of being on the first Martian expedition—Flight commander Alexa Brandt (DeWanda Wise), pilot Casey Donlin (Jonathan Whitesell), engineer Rei Tanaka (Jessica Williams), flight surgeon Katherine Langford (Lucinda Dryzek), and mission specialist Jerry Pierson (Jefferson White). Assisting them is the onboard Transport Information Network Artificial Intelligence unit, or simply “T.I.N.A.” The crew is celebrating when seconds before launch, they’re informed by ground control that North Korea has begun an all-out assault on the United States. So far, Los Angeles and Seattle have been hit by nuclear warfare. And the Bradbury Heavy is the next target.
When Brandt takes an immediate survey to determine what to do—launch or return to the ground—everyone but Tanaka votes “go.” Realizing they could be the only survivors in a matter of moments, the team initiates liftoff. They leave Earth and whatever dark fate is bestowed upon their loved ones.
The crew starts to have doubts about their decision so Brandt reassures them they did the right thing. She and Donlin trained together for four years with the latter “giving up [his] only family;” Pierson beat out 15,380 other applicants; Katie‘s marriage dissolved because of her devotion to the mission; and Tanaka‘s late father died, proudly knowing his daughter was going to Mars. Brandt wants them to remember both their accomplishments and sacrifices they all made to get to this point.
Off of Earth, the five must now decide what to do next—orbit the planet until they run out of resources and die, or head for Mars. The grim options at hand persuade them to do what they were trained for. In their voyage to the unexplored red planet, the crew is overwhelmed by survivor’s guilt and paranoia. Pierson is most affected when he convinces himself that this is all a test, and they are actually housed in a “six-degrees-of-freedom simulator.”
In the face of Pierson‘s suspicions, the Bradbury Heavy is put on a collision course with a solar flare. The other four astronauts prepare for drastic measures while their shipmate attempts to prove his radical theory. Even if they do survive impact, the crew will have to live with the fear that Pierson is on to something. Did Earth succumb to total annihilation, or are they really part of a simulated experiment? The truth is out there in The Twilight Zone.
Of all the plots found in works of science fiction, the most enduring one is undoubtedly space travel. We love the idea of exploring the unexplored. And the sheer amount of stories about people venturing to Mars alone is innumerable. One of the most well-known examples is Ray Bradbury’s short The Martian Chronicles. It seems pretty clear the talent behind “Six Degrees of Freedom” owes much of the episode’s conception to Bradbury’s classic tale of humans trying to colonize Mars. The fact that the shuttle is called Bradbury Heavy indicates this inspiration.
Though in its defense, “Six Degrees of Freedom” does itself a favor by steering toward the human element of its story as opposed to the sci-fi. The burgeoning distress the characters feel makes up most of the running time after all. Yet somehow seeing all of that up close and personal adds weight to this tale of celestial travels.
The episode runs the risk of being not Twilight Zone-y enough until the very end. Is it a rewarding revelation? Not as much as some might like; it may be too subtle. The writers Heather Anne Campbell and Glen Morgan laid it out quite clearly what was going to happen. The twist isn’t so much a curveball as it is an adjustment of what was already explained to us ahead of the conclusion.
Director Jakob Verbruggen (Black Mirror, “Men Against Fire“) takes full advantage of the set piece that is the Bradbury Heavy. He capably translates the characters’ loneliness and growing disconnection from humanity into a palpable series of lingering, intimate shots within the spacecraft. The profuse, all-telling close-ups of the actors at their most vulnerable sells the emotional appeal of “Six Degrees of Freedom.”
In Jordan Peele’s reboot of The Twilight Zone, we’ve experienced heavy-handed commentary on current social and political climates. To which has been met with mixed reactions from viewers and critics. “Six Degrees of Freedom,” however, strays from the theme so that we can have this tense genre offering that highlights positive aspects of humanity when push comes to shove. It’s a hopeful step in the right direction that the series sorely needed.
Like in previous episodes, “Six Degrees of Freedom” has some easter eggs! Did you catch them? Here are just a few:
- Whipple is back—the shuttle is made by Whipple Aeronautics, and the crew’s suits are Whipple branded. Whipple has appeared in nearly every episode in some shape or form. Whipple is the brand of the MP3 player seen in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and the camcorder in “Replay.” Whipple News was shown in “The Wunderkind.”
- Langford holds a toy replica of a Northern Goldstar jet liner. The airline was first seen in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.”
- The premise is similar to that of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”