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).

Flashback: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “The Night of the Meek”

Christmas of 1960 saw Rod Serling’s ‘The Twilight Zone’ enter festive territory…

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John Fiedler and Art Carney in ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Year:  1960

Starring:  Art Carney, John Fiedler, Robert P. Lieb, Val Avery, Meg Wyllie (introduction/narration by Rod Serling)

Series created by:  Rod Serling

Written by:  Rod Serling / directed by:  Jack Smight

What’s it about?

On Christmas Eve a drunken and depressed store Santa Claus is fired only to discover a mysterious and magical sack full of presents…

Retrospective/review

Originally airing on 23rd December 1960 during The Twilight Zone’s second season, “The Night of the Meek” is a special seasonal tale written by series creator Rod Serling.  It features The Honeymooner’s Art Carney (who would go on to appear in the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special) as Henry Corwin, a drunken but kind spirited department store Santa Claus who after being fired on Christmas Eve discovers a magic bag that dispenses a wealth of gifts.

In true Serling (who was actually born on Christmas Day of 1924) fashion the set-up for “The Night of the Meek” is sombre and relatively bleak but through the course of 25 minutes takes the viewer on a mysterious and enlightening journey that with a lot of heart and a good dose of Christmas spirit delivers a positive and jovial outcome.  Art Carney is perfectly cast and Serling’s rich and wonderfully dialogued script provides a lot of introspection and commentary on the human condition.  Henry Corwin is at the bottom of a barrel, a derelict who for most of the year is unemployed but finds some sense of worth each Christmas as he takes on the job of Santa.  This time however he is in deep despair at the plight of those less fortunate as he preaches the true meaning of Christmas, something he feels has been neglected in favour of commercialism.  Carney’s performance is suitably humble and melancholic with an underlying touch of benevolence and together with Serling’s writing creates a layered and interesting character who we sympathise with and ultimately root for.  Corwin’s discovery of the mysterious present-giving bag gives him a renewed purpose and a sense of hope as he hands out gifts to children and the homeless.  His charitable nature is justly rewarded in Serling’s inspiring and aptly festive twist ending.

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Rod Serling introduces viewers to a seasonal offering of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Of the rest of the cast, John Fiedler (famous for his roles in films such as 12 Angry Men and The Odd Couple, but perhaps best known to genre fans for appearing in the classic 1967 Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold”) is a particular standout, making for an appropriately irascible store manager who also helps to provide a touch of comedy in the episode’s latter act as the story moves into merrier territory.  The episode was shot entirely on impressive interior sets (including the fake snow-littered street scenes) and it’s all neatly staged by Emmy Award Winning director Jack Smight (who previously directed The Twilight Zone episodes “The Lonely” and “The Lateness of the Hour”).  The accompanying music score (the composer is unfortunately uncredited) is beautifully fitting as it utilises the tune of favourite Yuletide carol The First Noel.

“The Night of the Meek” would eventually be remade for the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone (the cast of which includes Die Hard’s William Atherton) but as ever, nothing compares to Rod Serling’s original fable which should be part of anyone’s festive viewing.

Geek fact!

“The Night of the Meek” was one of six episodes from the second season of The Twilight Zone to be shot on video tape instead of film as part of a cost saving exercise.

Flashback: ‘The Twilight Zone’ – “Where is Everybody?”

It’s almost sixty years since the pilot for Rod Serling’s classic anthology series premiered…

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Earl Holliman searches for answers in ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Year:  1959

Starring:  Earl Holliman (narration by Rod Serling)

Written by:  Rod Serling / directed by:  Robert Stevens / series created by:  Rod Serling

What’s it about?

A man wanders into a small town devoid of people, with no memory of who he is or how he got there he tries to unravel the enigma…

Retrospective

Celebrating it’s 60th anniversary this year, Rod Serling’s classic science fiction/fantasy anthology series The Twilight Zone began airing in October of 1959.  Frustrated by the rigid censorship of television, Serling (much like Gene Roddenberry would later do with Star Trek) used The Twilight Zone as a means of telling imaginative, thought-provoking stories exploring the human condition and often touching upon issues of the day that would otherwise be unlikely to escape the scrutiny of TV executives.  The series is also famous for its surprise twist endings providing a memorable outcome, several of which have become quite iconic.

Written by Serling (who would, impressively, go on to write or co-write 92 of the series’ 156 episodes) and directed by Robert Stevens, “Where is Everybody?” is the debut episode of The Twilight Zone.  It stars Forbidden Planet’s Earl Holliman as a lone amnesiac who wanders into a deserted town as he tries to figure out who he is and why the streets and buildings are empty.  Serling’s talent as a writer is evident from the outset and whilst “Where is Everybody?” may not deal with hard-hitting social issues it is an engrossingly mysterious tale about isolation and loneliness that keeps the viewer intrigued and engaged throughout the 25-minute running time.  Holliman is great in the central role and together with the monologues Serling (who draws the audience in with his opening narration) provides for the actor, we truly get a sense of the unease and exasperation his character endures – the only clue to his identity being the Air Force flight suit he is wearing.

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The incredible Rod Serling, creator of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (image credit: CBS).

Director Robert Stevens keeps things moving along steadily, never keeping the camera fixed in one place for too long and there’s some particularly effective use of lighting and off-angle shots in the climactic night-time scenes that increase the spookiness of the story as well as the feeling of increasing anxiety and desperation of Holliman’s character.  The sequence in which Holliman enters an empty movie theatre and the shock as the projector begins running is a quintessentially classic Twilight Zone moment of conception, acting and execution.  “Where is Everybody?” is also enhanced greatly by the atmospheric and eerie music score by Bernard Herrmann, perhaps best known at that time for The Day the Earth Stood Still before going on to frequently collaborate with legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

The final twist (to spoil it would be cruel) establishes The Twilight Zone’s most celebrated trope of pulling the rug from underneath the viewer and an example of Rod Serling’s gift for imagination and forward thinking.  Running for five seasons, The Twilight Zone was revived in the 1980s and a short-lived series was also produced in 2002.  A film adaptation with contributions from directors such as Steven Spielberg and John Landis was released in 1983 and the series has since been rebooted for the CBS All Access streaming platform, fronted by Get Out’s Jordan Peele.  Yet nothing compares to Rod Serling’s beloved black and white original series (with reruns continuing to this day) and “Where is Everybody?” serves as an enjoyable and fitting introduction to the wonders of The Twilight Zone.

Geek fact!

Superstar Tony Curtis was originally considered for the main role in “Where is Everybody?” but most likely deemed too expensive.

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

Comics Review: ‘Planet of the Apes: Visionaries’

Rod Serling’s original ‘Planet of the Apes’ screenplay comes to life in a new graphic novel…

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Cover art for ‘Planet of the Apes: Visionaries’ by Paolo Rivera (image credit: Boom! Studios/20th Century Fox, used for illustrative purpose only).

Written by:  Rod Serling (adapted by Dana Gould) / art by:  Chad Lewis / inks by:  David Wilson / colours by:  Darrin Moore, Miquel Muerto & Marcelo Costa

What’s it about?

A crew of astronauts find themselves stranded on a strange world where intelligent apes are dominant…

In review

In celebration of fifty years of Planet of the Apes, Boom! Studios present an original graphic novel that brings The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling’s original screenplay of Pierre Boulle’s novel to life.  Adapted by writer/comedian Dana Gould (whose writing credits include The Simpsons and Stan Against Evil) with art by Chad Lewis, Planet of the Apes: Visionaries is an interesting reinterpretation of what eventually became the first Planet of the Apes feature film.  On first thought, Gould may seem like an odd choice for such a project but given his professed love for Planet of the Apes and The Twilight Zone then it soon becomes clear that he’s perfect for the job.

As is well documented, Rod Serling’s screenplay for Planet of the Apes was rewritten by Michael Wilson in order to accommodate budgetary limitations but it’s evident here that an awful lot of Serling’s work was retained for the film and was simply retooled to fit a more modest production and entertain the masses.  The main differences are visual, given that Serling adhered closely to Pierre Boulle’s vision of a modern, industrialised ape society.  In place of horses there are motor vehicles (and helicopters) and instead of primitive stone huts there are skyscrapers, film theatres and nightclubs.  Reminding us that these are in fact apes, whilst adding a touch of the zany, is the sight of citizens swinging across the streets using monkey bars!  Like Boulle’s novel, the dialogue is a little more academic and in true Serling style accentuates the satirical and social elements, giving the story a slightly darker and more philosophical slant.

Another significant departure is the leading protagonist, named Thomas, who though sharing some similarities to Charlton Heston’s Taylor is largely a different character.  Taylor’s gruff heroism and misanthropic outlook was a perfect fit for Heston as an actor and screen presence (and Planet of the Apes would not have worked so well without him at the centre) but the ‘hero’ of Serling’s take on Boulle’s story is of a more scientific and anthropological disposition.

All of that doesn’t necessarily make this version of Planet of the Apes superior to the screen version, just a fascinating alternative.  The less technologically developed simian culture of the 1968 film is actually to its benefit, providing a primal feel and otherworldliness that make the final outcome all the more shocking and Charlton Heston’s performance unforgettable.

The interior art by Chad Lewis (inked by David Wilson) is appropriate with a loose, rough and slightly cartoonish style that together with muted, dreamy colours (provided by Darrin Moore, Miquel Muerto & Marcelo Costa) helps to evoke a pulpy, retro sci-fi feel with the ape character design more animalistic and simian-like in a way that could not have achieved with actors in make-up and prosthetics.  It’s fair to say that in the hands of previous Boom! Apes artist Carlos Magno Visionaries could have actually been even better, but it may have ultimately changed the tone and visual uniqueness of this particular iteration.

Aside from the story itself, Planet of the Apes: Visionaries contains closing thoughts from Dana Gould and Chad Lewis (backed up by some nice concept sketches) discussing various aspects of Rod Serling’s vision and their approach to faithfully interpreting and respecting his work.  They’re fascinating to read and Gould’s passion for the Apes franchise and his adoration of Rod Serling is particularly enlightening.

Boom! Have done great work with the Apes license and have produced some brilliant stories that have expanded and embellished the Planet of the Apes universe and Visionaries is no different, whilst the uninitiated may find it odd it’s well worth a look for Apes fans.

The bottom line:  Planet of the Apes: Visionaries provides an intriguing look at what might have been and a fitting tribute to fifty years of an iconic and beloved franchise.

Planet of the Apes: Visionaries is published by Boom! Studios and is available in print and digital formats now.