“Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” (season 5, episode 3; originally aired 10/11/1963)
In which there’s very good reason to fear flying
I am not a particularly great flyer. Yeah, I’ll get on a plane if I have to, and once I’m in the air, I can distract myself well enough. But I’d much rather drive, all things considered, even if it’s clear across the country. Being jammed into one of those little seats is no fun, of course, especially when it’s for long periods of time. But beneath even that is the sense that this shouldn’t be happening, that we shouldn’t be in a long metal tube that’s been flung through the sky, as if by some angry child god. I understand how the science works. I understand why this giant metal husk can stay in the sky as well as a bird can (and when was the last time you worried about a bird suddenly plummeting out of the air?). But deep down in my most primitive brain, this feels like something that shouldn’t exist, a waking nightmare that can only end in fiery death.
“Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” is one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes—perhaps the last of the gold standard ones that everybody knows, even without seeing them (give or take a “Living Doll”)—and I think it maintains its resonance to this day because of that simple fact. Is there anybody who really enjoys flying, who doesn’t find themselves a little terrified at the thought that somebody might be clinging to the outside of the plane, tearing away at the surface and dooming everyone onboard to plunge to their deaths. And it needn’t even be a supernatural occurrence. You don’t need a gremlin involved, I don’t think. It could just be a really enterprising bird or a squirrel who went for a ride and woke up terrified. There are many, many logical reasons why this wouldn’t happen. But the best horror stories don’t speak to the logical brain. They speak to something deeper and more complicated.
Like many of the best Zones, “Nightmare” is a model of narrative efficiency. Everything you need to know about, outside of the gun used to fire upon the monster at the episode’s end, is established in the first few minutes. There’s a man who had a nervous breakdown the last time he flew, and now, he’s flying back home after a quick stay in a mental hospital. His wife is by his side, and they’re both happy he’s cured. They’re seated by the exit window, and it’s a late night flight, so most everyone (including the wife) will be sleeping. He, however, looks out that window and sees a hunched figure wandering around on the wing, bent on destruction.
The economy is astounding. Richard Matheson’s script uses this basic setup throughout the entire running time, but it finds every possible iteration of it that it can. The gremlin gets up in the man’s face for a big, spooky moment, but it also starts ripping away at the wing. When that’s not enough to up the stakes, our hero’s wife insists he take a sleeping pill, which further creates the suggestion that this might be all in his head. Because this is The Twilight Zone, we know that this is very likely actually happening, rather than being imagined, but Matheson makes very good use of the thought that everybody else thinks our hero is crazy. To stop the gremlin, he’s going to have to give away the appearance of his sanity, and yet, he must, because if he doesn’t, he and the woman he loves will die. It’s a neat twist on the standard “nobody believes the hero that there’s a monster, but there totally is” storyline that’s come up more than a few times on this show and others like it.
It goes without saying that none of this would work without William Shatner. Shatner’s a ham of an actor, and his work here as Bob Wilson is far from subtle. But that’s also always been his charm, and it’s turned all the way up in this guest spot. He had previously appeared on the show in the excellent second-season episode “Nick Of Time,” in which he faced off with a coin-operated fortune-telling machine that seemed to be the real deal, and something about the combination of his wild-eyed fervor and Matheson’s words in that episode must have spoken to somebody on the show, because the two were paired to even better effect here. The times when Shatner doesn’t work on screen are the times when he’s going so huge that he’s blowing away everybody else sharing the screen with him, but it’s hard to blow a monster crawling around on an airplane wing off the screen. When his eyes bug out and his mouth hangs open in slack-jawed awe, he’s note perfect. Furthermore, he’s helped by a really simple, really effective monster design. The gremlin seems like it’s covered in shag carpeting, sure, but it also has this horrifying, frozen face that suggests some abandoned line of primate evolution that’s been going on under our noses all this time, even if only a few of us can see it.
The episode also marks one of the earliest directorial efforts by Richard Donner, the man who would go on to direct Superman and all four Lethal Weapon films. “Nightmare” shows off a young man who’s already in near-perfect control of action direction, as he manages to turn a set that’s essentially filmed from only a handful of camera setups into something that feels filled with infinite variety. In particular, Donner makes great use of the curtain that blocks our hero’s view out the window, swiping it closed so none of us can see what’s going on, then tossing it open to reveal the monster’s face frozen against the glass or the dim glow of the electrical panel casting light up on its face. Amazingly enough, “Nightmare” must have been a very cheap episode to shoot, with only the one set and just a handful of camera setups. But Donner keeps things moving so briskly that it never feels cramped or small, outside of the fact that airplanes feel cramped and small. He even makes the gremlin floating away from the plane’s wing like a flying squirrel look eerie, rather than goofy. The ruthless efficiency of Matheson’s script makes it into Donner’s directing, and that makes so much of the difference.
Of the major Twilight Zone writers, Matheson was the one who least went in for grand, shocking twists, and “Nightmare” follows that paradigm. Rather than turning everything on its ear at the end, Matheson merely answers the story’s central question—is Bob Wilson crazy?—in the negative. (The closing narration also suggests he’ll be vindicated by the signs of the gremlin’s tampering left on the plane’s wing.) That’s, again, part of Matheson’s story economy, but it also reflects a certain affection for this man, who puts everything on the line—maybe even his marriage—to save lives. This allows for the story to become something beyond just a horror or science fiction tale, something much richer.
See, “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” strange as it might sound, is one of the most romantic episodes of The Twilight Zone. It reminds me of the X-Files episode “Folie A Deux” in the fact that at its center is the story of a desperately mentally ill man who only wants to find someone else to share his madness, to prove that he’s not crazy. But where “Folie” eventually showed a Mulder and Scully who could share each other’s delusions to track down things that go bump in the night, “Nightmare” has a certain tragedy at its center. It’s easy to forget—because of how thoroughly Shatner chews up this script and spits it out—that Bob’s wife is sitting there all along, played by Christine White. But there she is, and she’s just as good as Shatner, only the monster she’s worried she might be seeing is the one sitting next to her in his assigned seat. She, too, wishes what she’s seeing isn’t real, and she, too, slowly realizes that she’ll have to deal with what’s happening.
Because the episode puts us in Bob’s point-of-view—and because that gremlin really is real—it’s easy to miss that the same thing is playing out in the seat right next to him. Because of where they’ve been, Julia Wilson must always suspect her husband is rounding the bend into true insanity. The irony is that he’s never been more sane. And yet there’s that chewed-up wing, that tangible proof of Bob’s mental certainty. It might be enough to give these two space to trust each other again, or it might tear them apart in the end, simply because she couldn’t let go and trust that he would not mislead her, no matter how sound her reasons for doing so. But I want to choose to believe they’ll find their way back to each other. After all, this is an episode that ends with proof of the Twilight Zone’s existence. That, in and of itself, has to stand as a kind of hope.
What a twist!: The gremlin is real, as revealed by the damage done to the wing during flight.
- Nick Cravat plays the gremlin, and he’s very good, traipsing around on the wing like some sort of long-lost missing link between ape and man.
- The remake of this episode in the Twilight Zone movie is very good and just might be the best part of that film. A lot of that is the direction of a young George Miller, but just as much is thanks to John Lithgow’s performance. (The inside joke about this in a 3rd Rock episode Shatner guest-starred in was pretty amazing.)
- I wonder how you’d remake this episode today. It certainly seems made for an age of slightly less omnipresent airline security and small propeller planes that didn’t fly nearly as high as modern jets. My guess: Put the gremlin inside the plane somewhere.
“A Kind Of A Stopwatch” (season 5, episode 4; originally aired 10/18/1963)
In which time can be stopped
“A Kind Of A Stopwatch” is a goof of an episode, a trifle told in the series’ most comedic style. And yet its ending packs a wallop, the sort of thing that arrives out of nowhere and blindsides you, even as it’s a rough riff on a bunch of other stuff the series has done in the past. For quite a bit of its running time, it seems a little one-note, a little unnecessarily cruel to the bore that is Patrick Thomas McNulty, but once that ending rolls around, it elevates everything to some other level. It’s rare, I think, that The Twilight Zone is able to do that with one of its bitterly ironic twists, but it certainly works here, as McNulty chooses to finally do something that will gain him the notice he so desires and finds out that there will no longer be anyone around to notice him. The vision constructed at this episode’s end is as close to a pure look at Hell as television has ever come up with, and there’s an eerie unnaturalness to it that’s only intensified by the image of all of those actors, frozen in place.
What I was most struck by in watching this episode is how thoroughly its notion of freezing time has trickled into our pop cultural collective unconscious. I found myself watching it and wondering why McNulty was so confused by the power he had gained, figuring that Rod Serling’s script only had the one beat, so he had to just keep hitting it over and over. And yet as the episode wore on—and especially when McNulty realized that everyone who was frozen was unable to realize what was happening to them—I started to realize that the episode was playing all of this so straight because it was essentially inventing this trope. (Serling’s script is taken from a story by Michael D. Rosenthal, but that story was never published.) McNulty learning how his power works is essentially the same as the larger genre audience learning how this basic idea would play out for generations to come. We’re so used to the idea of people who can stop time being able to mess with other people without those other people knowing that this can drag a bit when you’re just waiting for McNulty to come to the same conclusion. But once you realize it was essentially inventing the trope, it becomes easier to understand.
It’s not like it was a huge problem before that, either. As McNulty, Richard Erdman (probably best known nowadays as Leonard on Community) walks the right line between being really irritating and being weirdly easy to sympathize with. The character reminded me of the line the American Office walked with Michael Scott. It’s easy to see why everybody hates him so much, as he really is that annoying. But there’s also a naked emotional neediness in Erdman’s performance that isn’t hard to relate to. We’ve all been that person nobody really wanted to be around, and we’ve all had to have that realization come slowly. It might come a little more slowly for McNulty than most—since a lot of people tell him right to his face that they don’t want him around—but there’s still that deeply buried fear that nobody you know actually likes your company and they’re just putting up with you until they can find a better version of you.
Yet McNulty really is that much of a boob. The episode opens with him having filled the suggestion box at the women’s clothing company he works at with suggestions that mostly revolve around the idea of “diversification,” including such gems as making flat hot dogs that will fit in hamburger buns and giving soldiers pontoons for easier river crossings. (McNulty’s really into that idea, for whatever reason.) The folks down at the local watering hole are so exasperated with his inability to shut up during the big game that they constantly clear out for places where it might be much less pleasant to watch TV, but at least they won’t have to listen to him. Where Serling’s script is able to keep him as a relatable protagonist is in the way that it has others pile on so much that it becomes just a little bit more than anyone should be able to bear. The fact that McNulty is able to keep smiling in the face of that emotional onslaught, along with Erdman’s rich performance, give the whole thing the frisson of desperation it needs to keep from being completely unbearable.
Where the episode doesn’t quite work as well is in the connection between McNulty’s obnoxiousness and the power that he’s granted by Mr. Potts (or, as McNulty would have it, Mr. Botts). Serling’s best scripts on the show often function as tiny modern parables, and there’s an attempt to do that here. McNulty’s desire to have others notice him and be impressed by his ultimately small thoughts turns out to be the main reason he keeps stopping time, but the condition and the power don’t really fit each other. It’s like an idea that’s halfway there that hasn’t quite made it the full way up the hill, as if Serling had the idea and the character but had trouble finding a way to get them to match up. The idea that he’s trying to get people to notice him almost works, but it also doesn’t really follow logically from what’s happening. Even if you don’t know this trope (as most of the original viewers surely didn’t), you’re still going to notice pretty damn quickly, I imagine, that McNulty is being ignored by everybody he’s frozen.
Still, there’s something ultimately irresistible about the idea of being able to stop time, and director John Rich has a good time with the scenes where a grinning McNulty hits the button on his watch and causes a room full of people or a bowl full of goldfish to come to a halt. There’s nothing hugely innovative or impressive about the effects (which are all handled practically), but the scenes where McNulty walks around through rooms full of frozen people, messing with them, have the potency that would allow this idea to last long enough for Bryan Singer to do the big-budget version of it with Quicksilver in the latest X-Men movie. Erdman has fun with these scenes, too, goofing a bit on the idea of what might happen if a man was given something that amounts to omnipotence but didn’t have an imaginative enough brain to really do anything with it.
And then there’s that ending, which is among the best of them in the Zone. Were I a quibbler, I would point to its similarities to “Time Enough At Last,” but there’s something so much more horrifying about this one. In “Time Enough,” there’s the ironic sting, of course, but there’s also the slight possibility that our hero will figure out some other way to read, by finding some glasses amid the rubble or something. Here, however, there’s something about the severity of the punishment that’s almost hard to watch. Yes, McNulty went and became an actual criminal by robbing a bank, but does that match up with the horror of living in a world where everybody else is there but they’re also not there? It’s this dark, terrifying notion, and the fact that it comes at the end of an episode that’s often a one-note lark makes it even better. After all this time, The Twilight Zone can still surprise us.
What a twist!: McNulty breaks his magic watch and is forced to live in a world where everyone but him is frozen all of the time.
- That said, I did find myself wondering why McNulty didn’t just learn how to fix his watch. He’s got all the time in the world to do so, right?
- I do wonder how cool ‘60s audiences found all of those shots of things being frozen in place. There are a lot of them, and the other possibility is just that this episode was short, and putting a bunch of them in there was a good way to pad it out.
- My favorite laugh line in this episode is in the world where everybody’s seemingly permanently frozen, as McNulty stumbles into his boss’ office, only to see the boss and his secretary in a passionate embrace. That he apologizes before stumbling back out says so much about the character and has a wry humor to it that really works.
Next week: Zack attends the “Last Night Of A Jockey,” then learns what happens when one purchases a “Living Doll.”