The Plane Truth: Twilight Zone’s High-Flying “King Nine Will Not Return”
The Twilight Zone launched its second season on Sept. 30, 1960, with an episode that — thematically, at least — echoed the Season 1 opener: “Where Is Everybody?”
In “King Nine Will Not Return,” we meet Capt. James Embry, a World War II pilot who awakens to find himself in a desert. Beside him lies the wrecked fuselage of the King Nine, a bomber that shows no sign of its crew anywhere.
Embry seems to recall that he crashed while on a mission with his men, only … where are they? (If you haven’t seen the episode, check it out via DVD/Blu-ray, Netflix streaming, Hulu (embedded below), iTunes or Amazon Video before I divulge the ending here.)
“King Nine” is largely a one-man show, and Bob Cummings carries it admirably. As Embry, we see him go from surprise, to bewilderment, to giddiness, to anger — and back again. It’s easy to believe that we are, in fact, watching a man slowly losing his mind as he struggles to understand what’s happening.
A radio crackles to life, then falls dead. His men appear and disappear. At one point, he sees jet aircraft flying overhead. He realizes that, although jets didn’t exist during World War II, he knows what they are. How can that be?
We see why in the end, when Embry comes to in a hospital. It’s all been a dream, a psychiatrist explains. He had spotted a newspaper story that morning about the King Nine being found — his aircraft during the war. Because he was ill, he had missed out on its final mission. Its discovery in the desert 17 years later quickly drew Embry’s overwhelming guilt to the surface and landed him in the hospital.
His trip to the desert? Just an illusion. Except … why is there sand in his shoes?
In planting that final twist, Rod Serling did something he had wanted to do in “Where Is Everybody?” Remember Air Force pilot Mike Ferris wandering around an empty town? We learn in the end that he’s been cracking under the strain of a lengthy isolation test.
At one point, he goes into a movie theater. Serling’s idea was to have a ticket stub fall out of his pocket at the end, so viewers would say, “Wait a minute …” But this was a bridge too far, though, for sponsors who were not yet used to such off-the-wall stories. Instead, the show ended on a more straightforward note. Ferris hallucinated it all. End of story.
Serling did, however, add the ticket-stub detail when he wrote a short-story treatment of the episode for the 1960 book “Stories From The Twilight Zone.” And once The Twilight Zone was an established success, he felt comfortable adding the sand-in-the-shoes twist to “King Nine.”
He finally got his “Wait a minute …” moment. Viewers are left wondering: So Embry did go back to his plane?
But don’t expect to be handed a pat answer. This is the fifth dimension, after all.
“The question is on file in the silent desert,” Serling says in his closing narration. “And the answer? The answer is waiting for us … in the Twilight Zone.”
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!