Twilight Zone Musing - OR - Were There Non-sentient Robots in 1959?

While their annual Twilight Zone marathon ended a day or two earlier, the Sy Fy network seemed to cap it off this morning with back-to-back presentations of the two most famous episodes: "To Serve Man" and "Little Girl Lost". After saving them for later viewing I began to think of my other favorite episodes. Strangely, the first one that came to mind was not one of my favorites but my least favorite--actually, the only Twilight Zone episode that I dislike... intensely.

That would be "The Lonely", the episode about a prisoner sentenced to solitary confinement on a distant planet. Now be advised - everything from this point on is a spoiler, so if you haven't seen the episode and would like to... stop reading. Come back after you've had a chance to watch. Perhaps it will upset you as much as it upset me, first as a boy years ago and still.


It seems the pilot of the supply ship that makes periodic visits to the prisoner feels sorry for him, and on one visit leaves him a female robot to ease his loneliness. Those of you who have seen the episode know the rest of the story. For those who haven't but have chosen to read on anyway...

The prisoner falls in love with the robot when she shows emotion by crying because of his hostility. As luck would have it, he is pardoned a short time later but is unable, due to weight restrictions, to bring the robot with him. When he refuses to leave it, the pilot supposedly does him a favor by terminating the robot with "extreme prejudice". In other words, he draws his pistol and shoots her to death without a second thought.

Serling never addresses the issue of sentience. The pilot proceeds on the assumption the robot is only a machine, and presumably the audience is to do likewise. Now, admittedly, I might be doing Serling a disservice. His intent might very well have been to pose troubling questions. Unfortunately, in the short space of half an hour those questions were not addressed nor even hinted at. The pilot had absolutely no remorse or even second thoughts. Perhaps the robot was non-sentient, but as a science fiction-loving kid, there was no such thing as a non-sentient robot, so I hated the pilot and the episode - still do.

I swear I must have rewritten the ending of that piece in my mind at least half a dozen times. It bothered me then. It still does today, and as I sat musing about that fact this morning, it occurred to me that SYMBIOSIS might well be a (decades old) delayed reaction to my sadness over the brutal slaying of a beautiful young "woman". Is that possible?... Now, wouldn't that be something.