Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

“STEEL.” Episode of The Twilight Zone. CBS. Season 5, Episode 2. October 4, 1963. Lee Marvin, Joe Mantell, Tipp McClure. Director: Don Weis.


   Stories set in a future that have long since passed are often particularly fascinating to read. They do not merely portray imagined futures. They also provide critical insight into how writers understood their own eras within the context of History’s tripartite realms of past, present, and future. Most significantly, many of these stories revolve around man’s complex relationship with technology.

   Consider, for instance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (published in 1958, but set in 1963), and Arthur C. Clarke’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The years in which those novels are set have long since come and gone. When we read these novels, we are reading fiction set simultaneously in the future and in the past. True, they are works of fiction; the books’ authors did not intend them to be prescient renderings of what was yet to come.

   Still, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that humanity did not usher into existence the most compelling aspects of these novelists’ imagined futures. More countries have democratically elected governments than ever before. Humanity avoided a nuclear holocaust. Man hasn’t traveled to Saturn. Scientists have not created an artificial intelligence nearly as advanced as HAL. Well, not yet, anyway.

   Similar to the aforementioned novels, The Twilight Zone episode, “Steel,” based on a Richard Matheson story of the same name (published in the May 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), also takes place in a future date that is now past.

   Originally aired on October 4, 1963, “Steel” is set in a future 1974 in which human boxing is no longer permitted. Android-like robots are the only ones allowed to box; human boxing was criminalized in 1968. Rod Sterling’s narration provides context and instructs the viewer that such a law was passed in an attempt to abolish one facet of human cruelty:

   â€œOnly these automatons have been permitted in the ring since prizefighting was legally abolished in 1968. This is the story of that scheduled six-round bout, more specifically the story of two men shortly to face that remorseless truth: that no law can be passed which will abolish cruelty or desperate need — nor, for that matter, blind animal courage. Location for the facing of said truth: a small, smoke-filled arena just this side of the Twilight Zone.”


   The episode begins with Steel Kelly (Lee Marvin) and Pole (Joe Mantell) escorting a shrouded figure off a bus and into a small town diner. We soon learn that the mystery man accompanying them isn’t a man at all. Rather, he — it — is a fighting android answering to the name of Battling Maxo (Tipp McClure).

   Steel Kelly and Pole are in need of some prize money. Maxo, a B2 unit and a heavyweight, is set to fight a more advanced B7 unit named Maynard Flash (Chuck Hicks). Problem is, Maxo experiences mechanical failure right before the big fight.

   That’s when Steel Kelly, a former boxer, comes up with what he considers to be an ingenious plan. He’ll pretend that he’s Maxo and will go in the ring against Maynard Flash. Pole urges against this idea. Steel, portrayed with gusto by Lee Marvin, is not about to be swayed. He’s determined to see this through. All too human, Steel is both courageous and foolish. As one might guess, he doesn’t win the fight.


   Sterling’s ending narration emphasizes that the main theme of the episode is man’s relationship with technology:

   â€œPortrait of a losing side, proof positive that you can’t outpunch machinery. Proof also of something else: that no matter what the future brings, man’s capacity to rise to the occasion will remain unaltered. His potential for tenacity and optimism continues, as always, to outfight, outpoint and outlive any and all changes made by his society, for which three cheers and a unanimous decision rendered from the Twilight Zone.”

   Upon hearing these words spoken and seeing Steel collapsed on the floor, I initially felt a sense of disappointment at how the episode ended. Lee Marvin was excellent, the androids appeared both plausibly human and uncannily creepy, and the writing was tight and without sentimentalism. But something was missing.

   That’s when I realized that “Steel” is best appreciated within the context of stories set in the past, but which take place in the future, similar to the novels I alluded to previously.


   In order to appreciate this particular Twilight Zone episode, one has to imagine oneself watching it when it was first aired, some two years after President Kennedy’s moon speech and two months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” in which he declared that, “1963 is not an end but a beginning.” Indeed, “Steel,” when considered within dual contexts of advancing technology and changing legal norms, packs more of a punch than when viewed without reference to contemporaneous political issues.

   The episode’s theme of man’s relationship with technology, however, is a far more universal one. Ever since the Gothic horror of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Victorian-era science fiction, the relationship between man and machine has been a constant theme in the genre. In this light, “Steel” isn’t a bad episode. It just seems as though it would have been a much better episode to watch and to ponder in 1963 than in 2014.