The Twilight Zone: “Twenty-Two”/“The Odyssey Of Flight 33”
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The Twilight Zone: “Twenty-Two”/“The Odyssey Of Flight 33”

“Twenty-Two” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 2/10/1961)
In which there’s always room for one more

See if this sounds familiar:

“Oh hey, have you heard this? Oh man, it’s amazing. So, my sister’s best-friend’s roommate knew this dancer? And dancing is, like a crazy stressful job. You’ve got all those steps you have to remember, and you’re freelancing, and you have to obsess over your weight and how you look all the time. So this dancer has something like nervous breakdown, and they put her in the hospital. And while she’s there, she starts having these crazy dreams. Every night, she gets up from her bed and follows a nurse down to the basement of the building. That’s where they keep the morgue, y’know? Very creepy. She follows the nurse right up to the morgue itself—and it’s room 22, remember that, it’s important—and the nurse looks at her and says, ‘Room for one more, honey.’ Nurses are just the worst. So the dancer has this dream, which is really a nightmare, over and over and over, and she’s freaking out, but there isn’t anything she can do about it, and hey, everybody has crazy nightmares sometimes. Only, when they let her out of the hospital, she goes to get on a plane, and she finds out she’s got a ticket for Flight 22. Yeah, just like the room number! And when she goes to get on the plane, the stewardess who asks for her ticket is the nurse from her nightmare, and the stew says, ‘Room for one more, honey,’ and the dancer wigs the hell out and runs away. Which was lucky for her sake, because the plane blew up on the runway! Isn’t that crazy? Swear to god, completely true.”

That’s not a bad urban legend. It has all the required hallmarks: a vague plausibility, a shocking outcome, and the implication that the universe is working on some vast and incomprehensible mechanism which only occasionally becomes visible in human lives. But while the above works as an anecdote, it’s not much of a story. We never get any sense of who the dancer is, and we have no notion of why she was chosen to get a vision of her future. That’s fine for a legend, but when you try and translate the story into twenty-five minutes or so of television, you need a little more. “Twenty-Two” does what it can; Serling’s script adds a few characters (most notably a sleazy agent and a condescending doctor), and a couple extra wrinkles, but nothing substantial. There’s a fair amount of Serling’s favorite time-killer, lush dialogue which is too fixated on an emotion to ever give us a sense of personality. The video format looks cheap, although the dream sequences have a certain eerie immediacy to them. While the story keeps you watching if you’ve never seen it before, it’s not a satisfying experience. In a weird way, it reminds me of all that kvetching about The Killing season finale last year; in both cases, the audience holds on just to get the minimal information required to justify their time. At least this episode doesn’t short-change you in that respect. This isn’t very good, though. Individual moments are defensible, but they add up to a picture which could, with very few changes, serve as an effective parody of Serling’s storytelling style. All that’s missing is an “It was Earth all along!” style twist.

There are elements here which might have cohered into a stronger half hour. As the unlucky/lucky dancer Liz Powell. Barbara Nichols is bitter, nearly hysterical, and rather sad. For all her dialogue, the starkest piece of characterization is the way she clings to her stuffed animals in her hospital bed; she’s a grown woman reduced by stress and the men in her life to a child, fraying around the edges while her agent leers at her and her doctor talks down to her. It’s frustrating to watch, but that’s not the problem. This makes dramatic sense. Liz has been offered information she has no way of processing, and in her waking life, no one takes her seriously to be of much use. “Twenty-Two” is going for horror, and horror is often the most effective when its protagonists are helpless. And hey, there’s thematic resonance as well. A woman being treated as a child to be protected but dismissed has implications beyond the simple requirements of this story, and the fact that her visions ultimately point to a greater truth—she’s not being paranoid or hysterical, she really is getting some kind of psychic premonition of doom—could be seen as a commentary on the doomed futility of the male gaze. Just because the agent and the doctor can only see Liz as a little girl doesn’t make her any less valid as an adult.

That’s stretching, though; this isn’t “The Yellow Wallpaper.” While agent Barney (Fredd Wayne) and the never-named doctor (Jonathan Harris, aka Dr. Smith from Lost In Space) are dismissive, but their behavior is driven more by a need to kill time than any intentional social commentary. It’s not hard to imagine the genders switched, and if Liz was a guy, he’d get roughly the same treatment. Which makes the middle fifteen minutes of the episode just that much more pointless. It’s not utterly awful, but the fact that you could remove all of it from the episode and not lose a damn thing is hard to ignore. The audience knows from the very first dream that something bad is coming. We know that what Liz is experiencing is more than a simple nightmare, so we don’t learn anything from her repeated protestations, or from watching her struggle with her inability to process what’s happened to her. Stories don’t need to be information-delivery-devices, but they do need to justify every moment in them. Each scene should either provide us with plot, or give us some sense of character, or mood, or ideally, all three. A good two-thirds of the scenes in “Twenty-Two” are simply the repetition of a small handful of ideas, to no good effect, and that kills of the illusion. Instead of worrying what will happen to Liz, or being creeped out by that cat-like nurse, we’re seeing the strain of expansion.

Probably the best example of this strain is the doctor’s advice to Liz. He tells her to try and change some aspect of her nightmare, to prove it has no hold over her. This isn’t a bad idea, and what’s better, it treat’s Liz’s experience as a problem to be addressed, and not just a horror she has to passively endure until it reaches its conclusion. Because that’s the other problem with the one-act-only TZ episodes; the protagonists are always passive and helpless in the face of their fate, because if they weren’t, we wouldn’t get that killer twist ending. (Having the hero’s actions be inadvertently responsible for the twist is preferable, but much harder to pull off.) So it’s nice to see Liz briefly entertaining the hope that she can be more than just a victim. But of course it doesn’t work. It can’t work. Liz doesn’t reach for the glass of water, but she ends up breaking the glass anyway, and the rest of the nightmare plays out as it always had. Ideally, this should conjure up a sense of impending doom, of the eerie terror of inescapable fate. Instead, it’s a reminder that none of this really matters until the last five minutes.

And how are those last five minutes? Eh. A little drawn-out, a little silly, but at least it makes enough sense for the episode to not fall apart entirely. The plane exploding on the runway is more ridiculous than shocking, especially given the quality of the effects, but it does satisfy the episode’s most basic need by explaining what all of Liz’s dreams really “meant.” Except, it doesn’t explain anything, when you think about it. TZ episodes often introduce the inexplicable without any solid justification, and that’s not in and of itself problematic; I’d argue it’s one of the show’s strengths, in that it creates a space in which we’re conditioned to believe anything is possible. But there are certain requirements for that “anything.” We’ll accept strangeness without exposition, but the strangeness needs a resonance to make it worth accepting. There’s no resonance here, no sense Liz’s temporary gift for prophecy stemmed from anything more than a fleeting authorial whim. And honestly, there’s no more reason to spend time on this.

What a twist: Liz keeps dreaming of a trip to Room 22, the hospital morgue. But it turns out 22 is also the flight number of an amazing exploding plane! The sad part is that the plane can only do its trick once.

Grade: C

Stray observations:

  • Favorite useless scene? Probably the one where the doctor explains to a nurse how strange it is that Liz knows the morgue’s room-number. Because this is clearly super-secret knowledge no one else in the hospital could’ve possibly told her.
  • It’s weird that she ends up in a hospital that just happens to have a morgue with the same room number as the eventual flight number, though. What if she’d gone someplace else? Serling adapted the story from an anecdote which didn’t have any numbers at all, which would’ve made more sense.
  • I feel bad for the stewardess.

“The Odyssey Of Flight 33” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 2/24/1961)
In which you can’t go home again, no matter how hard you try

I love flying. This is probably because I don’t fly very often; maybe once or twice a year, if that. And it’s a pain in the ass, no question. It’s expensive, and airport security is weird and intrusive, and you have to get uncomfortably close with strangers, which is never fun. Plus, the last time I flew (coming home from Arizona), I got a migraine, which was just the worst. But the basic core idea of flying never gets old for me. Strip away the complications, and it’s the closest to magic I’ve ever come in maybe my whole life. The moment when the plane picks up enough speed and jumps off the runway is astonishing, a practical example of transcendence which happens hundreds, if not thousands of times every day. And then you’re in the sky, you are literally in the sky, with clouds around you and the soft whirring sound of air rushing past at high speed. At this point, it becomes less magical, and more dull, which is why we have inflight movies and iPads, but I still prefer having a window seat. Because it’s easy to imagine anything going on under those clouds. Up there, disconnected from the world and all you know, the regular rules of reality no longer seem to apply. When those clouds pull back, who knows what I’ll see?

“The Odyssey Of Flight 33” is a terrific episode, coming at a time when my faith in the show was getting shaky (I realize we had “The Invaders” last week, but “Twenty-Two” is so mediocre it’s hard to think rationally), and serving as a perfect example of everything The Twilight Zone can do right. There isn’t a wasted moment in the script, and the pacing is deft and controlled throughout. The characters aren’t deep, but they’re well-drawn, and exactly as clear as they need to be, and there are no convenient acts of stupidity to drive the plot. The final twist comes logically from what came before it, playing off our assumptions without cheating them, and the ending is one of the best I’ve seen for the series, a perfect blending of uncertainty, danger, and not-quite despair. This is a half hour of television that understands exactly what it’s limits are, and uses them to the best of its advantage, giving us just enough to be amazing, without ever over-playing its hand or outstaying its welcome.

There are a couple of key points that combine to make this one a success, and they’re worth discussing individually. What most impressed me coming off of the previous episode is how “The Odyssey Of Flight 33” knows exactly how much story the format needs to be satisfying. It’s easy to forget, but this is a tremendously difficult balancing act to pull off. On the one hand, you need enough events to avoid padding. The premise of this episode is that Flight 33 inadvertently travels back into time, to the age of the dinosaurs (awesome, stop-motion dinosaurs, I might add). That’s a good start, but it’s not quite enough to fill a full twenty-five minutes. There’s no real second act, and you need a “what happens next” to make this work. Do they land? Does someone fight a dinosaur? Are there aliens, or Sleestacks, or whatever? We’ll never know; Captain Farver (John Anderson, aka MacGyver’s grandfather), the closest this episode has to a hero, decides the best course of action is to go back up above the clouds where the initial time-travel apparently took place, and try again. This goes back to what I was talking about earlier, about the effectiveness of a active, not passive, protagonist. Farver’s plans don’t work out quite as everyone hopes, but it’s still a smart move, and it helps give the episode a direction.

It also gives us the all important other-shoe-falling moment that TZ stories need to be great. Arguably, there’s almost too much plot here for the episode to do it all justice. We’ve got multiple instances of time travel; dinosaurs; a past version of New York City; and a plane full of pilots and navigators and stewardesses and passengers. There’s a sense throughout the half-hour of the bare minimum of information coming through, as though we’re getting a filtered, essential-parts-only view of what’s happening. And that’s great. Populating Flight 33 with more characters than we can possibly really get to know in the time allotted gives us a sense of the story existing outside of what we get to see. For contrast, imagine how this could be stretched out to a full hour. (Or to, say, a novella *cough*TheLangoliers*cough*) We’d know more of the passengers’ names, I’m sure, and we’d find out whose marriage was struggling, and who had a sweetheart waiting for them back home. We’d learn that one of the men in the cockpit had had an affair with a stewardess at some point, and I’m sure somebody would have a major freak-out at some point, and put everyone’s lives in danger. (Only to ultimately get eaten by a T-Rex.) This could be done well, but it would all be superfluous to the real heart of the story, and, as such, would only serve to slow us down. Whereas in the half-hour version, we know one of the stewardess’s is heading to the opera, and one of the passengers is British military, aaaand that’s about it. And it works, because this isn’t about the people—t’s about what’s happened to them.

The other, super smart choice Serling makes with his script here is including all the highly specific and technical flight chatter in the cockpit. Because, let’s face it, this is very goofy concept. A tail-wind throws a jet back in time millions of years? And then, when the plane hitches a ride on the tail-wind a second time, they wind up just a few decades before their own time? Yeah, sure, pull the other one. TZ premises are often absurd, but they generally only focus on one or two victims; here, we have maybe fifty people doing the time warp, with no more explanation than the whim of fate and the mysterious emptiness of the heavens. And yet I can’t imagine anyone questioning any of this, and that’s due in a large part to all the tech-speak. Serling’s brother, Bob, was an aviation reporter, and when Serling decided to put this script together, he asked his brother to help him get the details right. So Bob called up a pilot he knew, and the two of them spent a night drinking and role-playing out the details. (Got this out of Mark Zicree’s ever helpful Twilight Zone Companion.) In addition to being just about the coolest behind-the-scenes story you’ll hear all week, this helped create all those scenes of Farver grilling his navigator on radio checkpoints. These scenes could’ve been boring, but they’re just authentic enough, and just short enough, to do exactly what they’re intended to do: ground the episode’s silly ideas in stark, unblinking realism. The best way to make an outlandish premise work is to make sure the people responding to it act in a reasonable, believable way. The more Farver and the others keep their heads, the more we take their plight seriously. These aren’t cartoons. This could happen to anyone.

And that, right there, is why I really love this episode. It’s brilliantly made, and driven by a number of strong artistic decisions, and at its heart, it’s about the uncertainty that hits us when we lose touch with the Earth. That’s what drives all the best Twilight Zone’s, really; the Zone is where the radio signals fade out and the unknown moves in. It’s that moment right after take off, as the plane rushes towards the sky and you have to remind yourself that flying is possible, it happens all the time. “Flight 33” ends with the pilot telling the passengers what’s happened, and explaining they’ll need to take another go at that impossibly fast tail wind, to see if maybe this time, against all odds, they can find their way home. It’s a beautiful way to close the episode, leaving just enough hope while full acknowledging the likelihood of doom. The plane is low on fuel, after all, and while they can get back on the tail-wind, there’s no way of judging where it will send them next. If the plane had crashed, this would been emptily nihilistic, and if they’d found their way home, it would’ve been a little too easy. Instead, they’re out there, searching for a place to land. That's not hard to understand.

What a twist: Flight 33 travels back to the time of the dinosaurs, but just when they think they’ve returned to their own time, they recognize the site of the 1939 World’s Fair.

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • Another reason to love this episode: stop-motion dinosaur.
  • It’s fun how the show has to find a way to let the heroes know they’re in the wrong time without ever letting them land. Easy enough to do in Dinosaur Times, but it’s lucky they manage to hit New York in a year with a World’s Fair everyone could remember.
  • They smoke in the cockpit!

Next week: Todd investigates the strange case of “Mr. Dingle The Strong” and tries to make some sense out of “Static.” 

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