THE Twilight Zone turns 50 today and in its honour, I decided to make Nightmare at 20,000 Feet my latest great sci-fi moment.
For those not familiar with it, the episode is based on a Richard Matheson short story and stars William Shatner (bonus – I love the Shat!) as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who sees a gremlin on the wing of a plane, which (here’s the kicker) no-one else sees.
Host Rod Serling – who wrote 92 of the 154 episodes – summed it up thus, in the introductory monologue he started each episode with:
Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father, and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home – the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.
While the gremlin looks a bit ropey now, the episode is a masterpiece in building and sustaining tension with Shatner’s ermm, individual style of acting absolutely right to portray a man on the edge of losing his mind, and taking desperate action to save the plane at the risk of his own sanity.
It is a fantastic story and has been referenced or homaged many times, including Bart Simpson defeating a gremlin on the schoolbus in the Simpsons episode Terror at 5 and a half feet.
By the time this episode had been broadcast, The Twilight Zone had already been running for four years, with a self-contained story each week.
The first episode was Where is Everybody, where a man in an air force jumpsuit finds himself in a town where all the other people have vanished.
It ran until 1964 (with a movie remake in the 1980s), by which time it had won an Emmy and an Oscar, while the title had entered popular culture as had Marius Constant’s theme tune (which only started in the show’s second year).
Go on, I bet you’re humming it now!
It also attracted fantastic guest stars including the Shat, Telly Savalas, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds.
I’m going to throw out a ScyfiLove challenge to any TV company or production house to bring it back – given the sheer amount of sci-fi shows on now, this would take the roof off with the ratings and be true event TV.
Who’s with me? And do you have any favourite Twilight Zone moments?