It’s a Classic: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

Looking at some of the best pop culture offerings in film, TV and comics…

“There’s a man out there!”

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William Shatner provides a wonderfully anxious performance in the classic ‘Twilight Zone’ outing “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Year:  1963

Starring:  William Shatner, Christine White, Ed Kemmer, Asa Maynor, Nick Cravat (introduction/narration by Rod Serling)

Written by:  Richard Matheson / directed by:  Richard Donner / series created by:  Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A man, flying home having just recovered from a breakdown is convinced he can see someone or something on the wing of the aeroplane…

In review:  why it’s a classic

One of the greatest and most popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is amongst the best not to be written by series creator Rod Serling.  Penned by noted science fiction writer Richard Matheson (author of I Am Legend and a regular contributor to The Twilight Zone, having previously written memorable episodes such as “Third from the Sun”, “The Invaders” and “Steel”) – adapted from his 1961 story Alone by Night – and helmed by future Superman: The Movie director Richard Donner, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” features a pre-Star Trek William Shatner (who also starred in another Matheson scripted story for The Twilight Zone: the excellent 1960 episode “Nick of Time”) as Robert Wilson, a man flying back home on a stormy night with his wife (played by Christine White) after recovering from a nervous breakdown.  During the flight, as his wife sleeps, Wilson observes something outside the window – a strange figure on the wing of the plane that subsequently disappears.  As the figure – a gremlin-like creature – reappears, only to jump away before anyone else can see it, Wilson is convinced it is causing damage to the aircraft and desperately tries to convince his wife and the flight crew what he’s witnessed is real – but nobody believes him.

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The gremlin creature (Nick Cravat), given a suitably creepy facial make-up design by William Tuttle (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Richard Matheson provides a suitably mysterious and tense script that’s enhanced greatly by an increasingly anxious performance from William Shatner.  The tight close-ups and low angle shots employed by Richard Donner’s direction add to the sense of unease and help capture the exasperation and nervousness of Shatner’s reactions, you truly believe this is a man on edge, having already suffered through his own emotional issues and thrust unwittingly into a fantastic scenario that he faces alone – a common but always enjoyable theme in Matheson’s writing.  The general look of the ’gremlin’ may now appear a little dated with the plump and fluffy boiler suit costume, yet the monstrous make-up design by William Tuttle is still very effective and with the strange animal-like movements by actor Nick Cravat makes it appropriately creepy.

Whilst the fifth and final season of The Twilight Zone is generally considered as its weakest (and even then, it yielded some firm fan favourites), “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is rightly praised and beloved.  It’s the one that even the most casual of pop culture observers recognises, affectionately parodied on The Simpsons and remade twice (a third time if you count the 2002 radio drama adaptation with Smallville’s John Schneider) – firstly for a segment of 1983’s The Twilight Zone:  The Movie (starring John Lithgow and directed by Mad Max’s George Miller) and more recently as an episode of the Jordan Peele-fronted revival of the series, the retitled story “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”.

Although “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” doesn’t feature a traditional rug-pulling twist that more often than not would conclude an edition of The Twilight Zone, it does leave the viewer with an unsettling final shot as the episode fades out with Rod Serling’s wonderfully lyrical closing narration to an all-time classic outing for the celebrated science fiction/fantasy anthology series.

Standout moment

As his flight home weathers a raging storm, Bob Wilson looks out of the window and between flashes of lightning is convinced he can see someone moving about on the wing…

Geek fact!

Richard Matheson would go on to write for the first season of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, scripting the iconic 1966 episode “The Enemy Within”.

If you like this then check out:

The Twilight Zone – “Nick of Time” : William Shatner makes his first TZ appearance in another classic instalment written by Richard Matheson in which a pair of newlyweds find their fates controlled by an ominous fortune telling machine.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).

Have You Seen… ‘Escape From New York’?

Film and TV you might not have checked out but really should…

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Kurt Russell as “Snake” Plissken, the iconic anti-hero of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York’ (image credit: Studiocanal).

Year: 1981

Starring:  Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau

Directed by:  John Carpenter / written by:  John Carpenter and Nick Castle

What’s it about?

1997: New York is now a maximum-security prison and when the President of the United States is taken hostage after terrorists seize Air Force One, the authorities enlist the help of “Snake” Plissken – a convicted criminal and ex-Special Forces solider…

In review: why you should see it

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York may not be as widely known to contemporary viewers as the director’s more iconic mainstream hits – Halloween and The Thing – but it’s a science fiction action cult classic and comfortably one of Carpenter’s best films.  Taking place in the dystopic then-future of 1997, the U.S. crime rate has risen to uncontrollable levels leading to the conversion of Manhattan Island into a maximum-security prison, the city of New York being walled-off and mined in order to contain the most dangerous of criminals.  When the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) – on his way to a critical peacekeeping summit – is taken hostage after fleeing a terrorist-seized Air Force One, the U.S. Police Force enlists the help of “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell – who would subsequently star in The Thing) a former Special Forces operative incarcerated after attempting to rob the Federal Reserve.  Offered a full pardon if he can rescue the President and get him out of New York alive within 24 hours, Snake is unwittingly given an extra incentive:  explosive charges injected into his arteries that will only be neutralised if he succeeds and returns in time.  Free to roam the decaying New York landscape and live as they please, with no hope of ever leaving, the prisoners within bow to the rule of the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) – the city’s overall crime boss – and Snake, with his life already on the line, must fight his way through the deranged and deadly gangs of a place that once stood for peace and liberty before it’s too late.

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Oscar-winning music legend Isaac Hayes as the Duke of New York (image credit: Studiocanal).

As the gruff, eye-patch wearing and no-nonsense Snake, the excellent Kurt Russell, with some Clint Eastwood-esque delivery (and accompanying attitude), creates an iconic action anti-hero (who would be the basis for the “Snake” character of the popular video game series Metal Gear Solid) – a disillusioned man, jaded and apathetic to the Stars and Stripes, whose only real interest here is his own survival.  It’s a central character we’re not initially supposed to like but quickly find ourselves rooting for.  Co-starring with Russell is Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) as the equally no-nonsense police chief, Bob Hauk, whose grudging dislike for Snake begins to soften as he monitors the mission’s progress from the Liberty Island control centre.  Also appearing is Alien’s Harry Dean Stanton as “Brain” a genius engineer serving as an advisor to the Duke, Adrienne Barbeau (wife of Carpenter and star of one of his previous films – The Fog) as Brain’s tough-as-nails girlfriend, Maggie and Airwolf’s Ernest Borgnine as “Cabby”, the New York cabdriver who helps Snake get about in his armoured taxi.  Donald Pleasence, best remembered as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the classic James Bond film You Only Live Twice, provides a wonderful performance as the slightly buffoonish U.S. President and music legend Isaac Hayes (later the voice of Chef in South Park) makes for an appropriately menacing villain as the proclaimed Duke of New York and is aided by Frank Doubleday (previously from Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13) as the oddball and eccentric Romero – named after George Romero, director of legendary zombie-horror classic Night of the Living Dead.

Considering its modest $6 million budget and the technical limitations of the time, the production of Escape From New York remains impressive.  Without the by now all too easy reliance on computer generated wizardry, John Carpenter and his team employ incredible ingenuity to combine miniatures, physical sets and matte-painted backgrounds (all helping to effectively create Snake’s stealthy insertion into New York by glider plane) with the St. Louis locations, practical effects and stunts that blend to create a suitably declining and rotten New York (that feels as indelibly dangerous as it looks, even more so given much of the film takes place at night – kudos to Director of Photography Dean Cundey) complemented by the expertly staged action sequences – whether it be gun battles or fist fights…even the arena match Snake is forced to submit to.  It’s been said before but despite the great wonders that can be achieved with CGI, its now predominant usage has diminished the true art and craft of filmmaking.

Escape From New York oozes atmosphere and is populated with colourful characters backed up by a great script.  Writing with Nick Castle, Carpenter produces a pleasingly lean and uncomplicated action-narrative laced with political subtext, social commentary (the real-world escalating New York crime rate feeding the core concept) and flourishes of black humour.  The film’s memorable synthesized music score is also composed by Carpenter (with Alan Howarth) and like much of his directorial output is an important component, elevating all the tension and excitement as the stakes begin to stack up.

Escape From New York would prove another success for John Carpenter and after teaming up for The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell would later reunite for a disappointingly poor sequel – 1996’s Escape From L.A. – but that doesn’t erase the appeal and the pure entertainment value of Escape From New York.

Geek fact!

Working with Carpenter on Escape From New York is future director James Cameron (credited as “Jim” Cameron) as part of the visual effects team and a matte artist, just a few years away from his breakout success with The Terminator.

All images herein remain the property of the copyright owners and are used for illustrative purposes only.

TV Review: ‘Star Trek: Picard’ – Season 1

A science fiction legend returns in the newest ‘Star Trek’ spin-off…

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Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) embarks on a new mission in ‘Star Trek: Picard’ (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Warning! Contains some spoilers

Starring:  Patrick Stewart, Isa Briones, Alison Pill, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, Harry Treadaway, Evan Evagora, Peyton List, Brent Spiner, Jeri Ryan

Series created by:  Akiva Goldsmen, Michael Chabon, Alex Kurtzman & Kirsten Beyer (Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry)

What’s it about?

As the end of the 24th Century approaches, on the anniversary of the devastating destruction of the planet Romulus, retired Starfleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard is confronted by a mysterious young woman on the run, as a new adventure beckons…

In review

Recently completing its ten-episode run (via CBS All Access/Amazon Prime), the first season of Star Trek: Picard is an enjoyable beginning for the newest addition to the expanding Star Trek television universe.  From the creators of Star Trek: Discovery, Picard adds additional pedigree to its creative staff in the form of Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay), serving as co-creator/showrunner and who writes/co-writes a number of episodes throughout the season.  The series boasts the same impressive production values seen in Discovery, with near-feature film quality visuals and special effects complemented by some striking cinematography.  Headlined by lead star/executive producer Sir Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: Picard sees the celebrated actor return to the beloved role of Jean-Luc Picard after an eighteen-year absence (last appearing on the big screen in 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis), with a clear enthusiasm and investment in the material.  In the established traditions of Star Trek, Picard provides a mirror for current events weaving commentary on issues ranging from Brexit to global political turmoil and social segregation into its narrative, whilst also delving into the often mined but always intriguing concept of artificial intelligence.

Star Trek: Picard picks up two decades after the events of Star Trek Nemesis and the destruction of the Romulan homeworld in the wake of a catastrophic supernova.  Having resigned from Starfleet following their withdrawal from the Romulan relocation effort, implemented after a deadly revolt by the synthetic workforce brought online to increase the production of rescue ships, a dejected and morose Jean-Luc Picard has retreated to the family vineyard in France, embittered by the failure of the once cherished and noble values of Starfleet and the Federation which he long fought to protect.  Haunted by dreams of his late comrade and friend Lieutenant Commander Data (the ever-excellent Brent Spiner), the Enterprise’s former android crewman, Picard is lost and without purpose until one day, he encounters a young woman named Dahj (Isa Briones).  Hunted by Romulan assassins and drawn to Picard by hidden memories, we soon discover that Dahj is an advanced type of android created by Doctor Bruce Maddox (John Ales – portraying the character originally played by Brian Brophy in the classic Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man”) based on Data’s positronic neurons – essentially Data’s ‘daughter’.  Picard is unable to save Dahj but learning that she has a twin, Soji, unaware that she is in fact an android and working aboard a Romulan-captured Borg vessel known as ‘the Artifact’ to help rehabilitate the individuals assimilated by the Borg and now disconnected from the Collective.  Refused help by Starfleet, Picard gathers a crew of his own aboard a ship called La Sirena and sets out on a mission to reach Soji as a conspiracy by a secret Romulan order – the Zhat Vash – to eradicate all synthetic life before it threatens organics (prophesied by ‘the Admonition’), unfolds.

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The superb Jeri Ryan returns as Seven of Nine (image credit: CBS Viacom).

Assembled aboard the La Sirena (following a trilogy of opening chapters, all skilfully directed by executive producer Hanelle M. Culpepper), the main players are an eclectic – and flawed – bunch.  Joining Picard is the washed-out, hard-drinking Raffi Musiker (a conflicted yet maternal Michelle Hurd), his right-hand woman during the Romulan evacuation crisis who was subsequently forced out of Starfleet, robotics expert Dr. Agnes Jurati (Alison Pill) who joins the mission to search for Maddox – and whose troubled journey becomes a highlight, with a wonderfully quirky and nuanced performance by Alison Pill – and Elnor (Evan Evagora), a childlike but dutiful young Romulan warrior Picard once befriended and mentored as a boy.  Commanding La Sirena is the roguish cigar chomping Cristobal “Chris” Rios (Santiago Cabrera), who is a nifty blend of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, with his own reasons for abandoning Starfleet and aided by a number of Emergency Holographic programs, each with their own specific purpose (medical, helm, navigation, engineering…even psychiatric!) and personalities to suit.  The main threat is provided effectively by Gotham’s Peyton List who plays Narissa, a Zhat Vash operative who is devilish and formidable, but also given some credible motivations.  List’s character is supported by her brother, Narek (Harry Treadaway), assigned to become close to and manipulate Soji – who is believed to be ‘the Destroyer’ who will bring about the annihilation of organic life – and Commodore Oh (Tamlyn Tomita), the sinister Romulan/Vulcan spy at the head of Starfleet security.

Picard’s voyage also facilitates the return of some old faces.  Aside from Brent Spiner’s Data, there’s an emotional reunion with former Enterprise colleagues Will Riker and Deanna Troi (in the Chabon co-written episode “Nepenthe” which is a standout of the season, featuring wonderful performances by Jonathan Frakes – who also directs a number of episodes – and Marina Sirtis), appearances from Hugh, the former Borg introduced in TNG (a now de-Borgified and sorely underutilised Jonathan Del Arco) and popular Star Trek: Voyager character and other ex-Borg, Seven of Nine (the superb Jeri Ryan).  Seven (rejecting her real name of Annika Hansen) is in something of a dark place in Picard, the tragic loss of her young protégé Icheb (sadly, original Voyager actor Manu Intiraymi is recast for a startlingly brutal flashback sequence) leading her to join a group of galactic mercenaries.  Jeri Ryan is well-served by the writers and excels in a performance that evolves Seven and takes her in an unexpected direction, allowing for more depth and complexity and she is a significant asset to the series.  What works especially well about the inclusion of legacy Star Trek characters in Picard is that they each play a part in the story and are not simply incorporated to provide fan service, which could have all too easily been the case.

As the show’s lead actor and focal point, Patrick Stewart is given a lot to play with and delivers a generally robust, passionate – and at times touching – portrayal of the 94-year old Picard.  There’s a slight shaky quality to Stewart’s performance – understandable, given his age – but it goes without saying that the mere presence of Jean-Luc Picard, a character that fans have longed to see return to the screen, is reassuring.  The revelation that Picard is beginning to experience symptoms of a terminal neurological condition (undoubtedly the Alzheimers-esque ‘Irumodic Syndrome’ depicted in the alternate future of the TNG series finale, “All Good Things”) adds a bittersweet touch and there’s an element of PTSD as Picard has to once again deal with his traumatic history with the Borg – which naturally provides some neat moments between Patrick Stewart and Jeri Ryan as the series examines the plight of the innocent victims (referred to as ‘Ex-B’s’) who had their individuality stripped away by the Borg.  The relationship between Picard and Elnor is quite sweet and the interplay between Stewart and Isa Briones is also memorable and especially well-portrayed as Picard helps Soji come to terms with, and embrace, her true nature.

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Picard seeks the help of some old friends (image credit: CBS Viacom).

As the season unfolds, there are various twist and turns – often genuinely surprising and even shocking (none of which will be divulged here for the sake of those not yet caught up) and the story reaches a climax with a two-part finale (“Et in Arcadia Ego“) in which Picard and his cohorts find their journey reaches Coppelius, a planet Dr. Maddox withdrew to continue his work following the synth ban and now populated by androids.  Trying desperately to prevent the galactic cataclysm foretold by the Admonition and from Soji playing a role in the event, Picard soon finds himself piloting the La Sirena and heading off a fleet of Romulan warships.  It’s a suitably epic confrontation and leads to an emotional and poignant denouement which establishes a new status quo for Picard, some satisfying closure for the TNG era and the promise of exciting new adventures to come.

Picard isn’t perfect, despite some of the talent behind the scenes the plotting can be a little haphazard and the writing is sometimes a bit clunky and contrived.  Some of the narrative elements – such as the afore-mentioned synthetic revolt and subsequent ban on artificial life – are not afforded enough focus, likewise there are character backstories left underdeveloped, such as Raffi’s strained relationship with her son.  It makes IDW’s Star Trek: Picard – Countdown comic book mini-series and Una McCormack’s novel Star Trek: Picard – The Last Best Hope recommended reading as they flesh out much of what is missing on screen in that regard.  It’s also worth mentioning that unlike The Next Generation, Picard – like a lot of modern genre TV productions – carries a mature viewer rating and fulfils it with instances of bloody violence and a jarring overuse of profanity.  Whilst Picard was never intended (nor should it be) as merely a reprisal of TNG, perhaps it’s a missed opportunity to not have the series be accessible to a broader age range given its heritage.

Grumbles and nit-picks aside, Picard remains entertaining and each episode is at the very least (ahem) engaging with plenty of drama, action and numerous Easter eggs for fans to feast on.  The series may have benefited from tighter and more consistent pacing, especially in the earlier instalments and maybe even an increased episode count to better cater for the various sub-plots and character developments, but there are often glimmers of greatness that assures potential for the already confirmed second season.  It’s hard to recommend Picard to the uninitiated as it is steeped deeply in the lore and history of what has gone before, requiring a certain amount of affection for the viewer to become properly committed.  In the end, Star Trek: Picard isn’t bound to please everyone – much like we’ve seen with Star Trek: Discovery – but on the whole it’s a well-produced and worthy new entry in the Star Trek canon with an intriguing story that’s elevated by the return, and resurgence, of Jean-Luc Picard and whets the appetite for the further voyages of a science fiction legend.

The bottom line:  A solid if sometimes flawed first season, Star Trek: Picard is non-the-less enjoyable and enhanced by the triumphant return of Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard.

All episodes of Star Trek: Picard season one are available to stream via CBS All Access in the U.S. or internationally on Amazon Prime.

Image(s) used herein are utilised for illustrative purposes only and remain the property of the copyright owner(s).