A Flight from Fear

“I was on an airplane. I looked out the window and thought, ‘Jeez, what if I saw a guy out there?” — Richard Matheson, writer of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

+++

I know what I saw. I’m NOT crazy.

Easy to say, sure. And why should they believe me? What I’m saying would sound crazy if the most sane man on the face of the earth said it. And I’m far from that.

Nightmare 20,000-11

See, I had a little breakdown a while back. Spent some time in the Waldorf for wackos. Recovered nicely. The doctor said I was cured, my wife came to get me, I boarded the plane … which was probably a mistake. I mean, this happened before on a plane.

But face your fears, right? Get back up on that horse, they say. So I did. I boarded the plane. We took off. Then I looked out the window. And I saw …

I saw a man. On the wing.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly a MAN. It was more like a … creature. A hulking, furry thing. Like Bigfoot decided to take up wing-walking. At night. In a thunderstorm.

Nightmare 20,000-24

I know, I know. When you’re flying at that height, and that speed, there’s no POSSIBLE way that ANYTHING could even hold on, let alone walk or tamper with the engines.

That’s what he was doing, you see. That’s why I had to warn them. You think I wanted to have everyone looking at me like I’m a lunatic? I didn’t! I could have just shut up about it! Lord knows I tried.

But I couldn’t just sit there and watch us all crash! I had to say something.

Of course Julia looked at me as if I’d just sprouted a third eye. The stewardess, too. And that flight engineer? Pulling the old “we see it too” gag? It was just like being right back here among the padded cells and the leather restraints. Smile and play along, right? Then kick you into a room, lock it and lose the key for a few days, is that it? Well?

Nightmare 20,000-30

I’m telling you, if I hadn’t pulled the marshal’s gun, and actually DONE something about that monster, you wouldn’t have a patient here to psychoanalyze! Me, Julia, that smirking flight engineer, and everybody on board would be spread across a few miles of charred wreckage right now! I mean, that’s all there is to it!

Wait, no. Set the phone down. I’m calm. See? Sitting nicely. Voice is normal. Just talking.

+++

It’s among the most iconic images in television history, let alone the annals of The Twilight Zone: a man on the wing of a plane.

Nightmare 20,000-23

A “gremlin”, to be exact. It’s up there with Henry Bemis’s smashed eyeglasses, the unbandaging of poor Janet Tyler by pig-faced doctors and nurses, and the badly timed translation of a Kanamit cookbook.

On Oct. 11, 1963, William Shatner made a second trip to the fifth dimension. He’d already won a secure place in TZ history playing superstitious Don Carter in Richard Matheson’s Season 2 gem “Nick of Time”, gripped by the conviction that a napkin-holder with a grinning Devil’s head could predict the future.

Now, armed with another surefire script from Matheson, Shatner was about to do battle again. His opponent this time appeared much larger and more menacing.

Nightmare 20,000-38

I say “appeared” because in my view, his ultimate opponent was the same in both cases. It wasn’t a penny-ante fortune-teller or a high-flying sabateur. It was self-doubt.

First as Don Carter and then as Bob Wilson, Shatner gave pitch-perfect portrayals of men haunted by a lack of faith in their own abilities and judgment.

Don can’t make a move without paying an inanimate object for a vague answer. Bob can’t speak up without leaving everyone convinced he’s lost his mind. Again.

Nightmare 20,000-31

+++

It would have been so easy to swallow that sleeping pill. I’d gone mad before, hadn’t I? Maybe I WAS seeing things. And the looks people give you. It’s awful.

But not as awful as crashing. Because if I was right, we were all going to die. I’d rather be locked up here, and know that Julia and the rest of those people are alive and well, than sit there and not lift a finger.

Nightmare 20,000-35

So yes, I took that gun. And I fired every last bullet right into that … THING.

And you know what? I’d do it again.

+++

That’s the thing about Don and Bob. Each one finally acts. Don shakes off the paralysis of superstition and believes in his wife. It’s hard, but he takes a leap of faith, and goes on to live a life free of mental enslavement.

Bob spits out the sleeping pill, takes the extraordinary risk of stealing an air marshal’s gun, and nearly takes a parachute-free ride to the ground, he’s so determined to kill the gremlin. The episode ends with him wrapped in a straitjacket, but look at the smile on his face, the relief in his eyes. He did the right thing, so he’s never been freer.

Nightmare 20,000-45

Shatner’s penchant for overacting has become so legendary that he himself has played on this stereotype for years. But “Nick of Time” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” show that he was actually a very capable actor.

“William Shatner was just wonderful,” Matheson said. “In ‘Nightmare’, he was so, so restrained. You could see him struggling to maintain his sanity, after just getting out of a sanitarium.” It’s a beautifully controlled performance.

Nightmare 20,000-22

There’s another reason, I believe, for this episode’s success — one that is seldom mentioned. It goes beyond Matheson’s writing, Shatner’s acting, and Richard Donner’s direction. (Donner would helm five more TZs before going on to direct such films as “The Omen”, “Superman” and the “Lethal Weapon” series.)

It’s the fact that the gremlin was real.

So often in stories like this we’re faced with a hero who never gets the satisfaction of being proven right. We either know no one will ever believe him, or we’re not sure.

Not this time. When we see that very last shot of the damaged wing — the “tangible manifestation” that Serling mentions in his conclusion — we know Bob will be exonerated. His incarceration will be temporary. He’s won.

Nightmare 20,000-46

+++

It’s funny. You’d think people would be grateful to learn the truth. I mean, if your life was in danger, wouldn’t you want a warning?

But no. People just want you to keep your head down and shut up. Don’t rock the boat.

And I get it, I really do. I didn’t want to interrupt their reading. I didn’t want to shake them out of their naps. I was looking forward to a peaceful flight myself!

But no. Sorry, gang. That creature had other plans. Are they mad at HIM, though? No. Shoot the messenger.

Well, I had a different idea. Shoot the gremlin.

Nightmare 20,000-42

+++

Nick Cravat, a former circus acrobat, was hired to play the gremlin. It was a tough, demanding role, with Cravat getting soaked with water and buffeted by wind machines throughout the shoot. Matheson was no fan of the make-up and suit (“I didn’t think much of that thing on the wing”), but Cravat lends the part just the right air of menace and turns in a solid performance.

So does Christine White, who plays Julia. Matheson was hoping for Patricia Breslin, who played Shatner’s wife in “Nick of Time”, but White (who also starred in TZ’s “The Prime Mover”), is well cast as a woman put in an impossible situation: believe in your poor husband and appear just as mad as he is, or reject this ridiculous story of his and rob him of the support he so desperately needs.

Nightmare 20,000-4

But the whole thing rests on Shatner’s carefully balanced portrayal of a man faced with a terrible dilemma. It’s an unexpectedly subtle performance, one that Matheson justifiably called “really marvelous.” Even a skeptical reviewer in the Tucson Daily Citizen noticed it, noting that “the only redeeming quality of this far-fetched half-hour is the acting of William Shatner”.

The shoot itself was, not surprisingly, a logistical “nightmare” of its own. The left airplane wing that jutted out from the interior cabin mock-up was suspended over a huge water tank to catch all the “rain” as they filmed each take. There was plenty for director Donner to keep track of:

A man flying in on wires. Wind. Rain. Lightning. Smoke, to get the effect of clouds and travel and speed. Actors. You couldn’t hear yourself think because of the noise in the machines outside. And fighting time, all the time. It was just unbearable. If any one of those things went wrong, it ruined the whole take.

But no one could say that it was a wasted effort. “I love it, I do love it,” Donner added. “It’s just such an unusual thing for television, really, to see that much energy go into a half-hour film. And the story was good, too.”

Nightmare 20,000-39

Serling, ever the practical joker, had a perfect post-script in mind. One that, in true Zone fashion, didn’t quite come off as planned:

Matheson and I were going to fly to San Francisco. It was like three or four weeks after the show was on the air, and I had spent three weeks in constant daily communication with Western Airlines preparing a given seat for him, having the stewardesses close the [curtains] when he sat down, and I was going to say, ‘Dick, open it up.’ I had this huge blown-up poster stuck on the [outside of the window] so that when he opened it, there would be this gremlin staring at him.

Nightmare 20,000-19

So what happened was we get on the plane, there was the seat, he sits down, the curtains are closed, I lean over and I say, ‘Dick –‘ at which point they start the engines and it blows the thing away. It was an old prop airplane … he never saw it. And I had spent hours in the planning of it. I would lie in bed thinking how we could do this.

Fortunately for Twilight Zone fans, the episode itself came off just as planned. Another Zone classic had been born.

Nightmare 20,000-3

We had already enjoyed Don Carter’s victory over superstition. Now we had Bob Wilson’s triumphant journey — “a flight not only from Point A to Point B,” Serling says in his final narration, “but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown”.

+++

Face your fears, they say. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I did it.

Shooting the gremlin? No. Oh, that was scary. I won’t deny THAT. I wasn’t sure I’d live through it, to be honest.

Nightmare 20,000-41

No, the real challenge was refusing to deny what I saw merely to win some cheap approval. I had to face down that man inside who might have done that. Hell, who likely WOULD have done that. Standing up to him was hard.

So I didn’t just kill the gremlin. I killed the old Bob Wilson.

I wasn’t cured when I walked out of that hospital. But I am now.

Nightmare 20,000-6

Julia: It’s all right now, darling.
Bob: I know. But I’m the only one who does know… right now.

***

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!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 10/11/2013, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Okay. It’ll come as a surprise to no one that I’m a big fan of your work. I’ll even go so far as to say that I’m your biggest fan. (Shocker, right, Boss? ;)) I’m always impressed when you send me something to read. Always. But this… wow. This is a true masterpiece. You bridge the gap between creative and informative writing like no one else. I saw you take this idea from the conceptual stages to the finished product, and you amaze me. You’re the best writer I’ve ever read, as I’ve told you before. And that is completely the truth. I thought that even before I knew you personally.

    What a great analysis of this classic, beloved episode. I love how you brought to light the real message of the story, highlighting Bob’s leap of faith. We could all learn a valuable lesson from this. And your concluding lines? Best ending of all your posts. I LOVE that. So, so good. Rod Serling is reading this post today and smiling. I know I certainly am. Very nicely done. :)

    • For the record, anyone else who might be reading this? I don’t pay Wendy one thin dime, I swear!

      But maybe I should. I really appreciated the high-quality pics you pulled. I used 17 here … out of the 46 you sent me! But that kind of variety is a godsend when you want to use just the right shot.

      Nice to think of Serling enjoying this post. Thank you for that. I hope Matheson is too. He certainly deserves our gratitude for all the great stories he gave us over the years. What an amazing storyteller. That’s what made TZ work: the stories. And what is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” but a great story? Thanks for helping me showcase it so well!

  2. This really is an outstanding post, Paul! Thanks so much for sharing it with us. I hope you’ll have some other episodes retold “from the inside” in the future – it really added a whole new and rewarding dimension to this one.

    I will only add (and, yes, I’m an unrepentant Trekkie, but it doesn’t make it any less true) that Shatner turns in some similary nuanced and subtle performances during the first season of Star Trek. Not every week, no; but more often than not. Only as the show wore on did he let himself go (in more ways than one).

    • Thanks, Mike! I enjoyed trying something a little different and creative. Wendy suggested that I try writing it from the perspective of someone who was THERE, and the more I turned it over in my mind, the more I wanted to explore Bob’s thoughts, especially after it was all over. It was fun to imagine him reflecting on the whole incident, and it yielded a better post than a straight “analysis” might have.

      And you’re right, Shatner did some solid work on Star Trek. I imagine it’s hard to get all Shakespearean when you’re faced with a horde of tribbles! But he did show some acting chops in certain early episodes, I agree.

  3. Outstanding post about one of the truly great TZ episodes. Great work, Paul.

  4. Outstanding post, Paul and Wendy! Great images and great thoughts! Re-watched this one the other day….

  5. I’ve thought about this before – you say, “we know Bob will be exonerated. His incarceration will be temporary. He’s won.” However, we don’t REALLY know that. Serling’s ending narration states that “his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass.” Even then though – yes, people will find the damage, but maybe they’ll think someone (just a person, not a gremlin) tampered with it before or after the flight, but Bob’s still on his own. No one else saw the gremlin, and unless the body was found…well, I’ve always thought that Bob was likely to remain locked up for awhile! Funny how we analyze the “befores” and “afters” of fiction!

    • Yes, and it’s remarkable how many different theories there are out there!

      Now, I know we’re not shown, for a fact, that Bob is proven right. But I think it’s a solid assumption.

      I don’t think the authorities can conclude that someone tampered with the engine before or after the flight. The plane would have been inspected before it took off, for one thing. Leaving with that kind of GAPING hole in the engine seems highly unlikely.

      And given the heightened security that would greet them on the ground, we can be sure no one could just walk up to the plane and start monkeying with the engine. Ergo, it had to have occurred mid-flight.

      Most of all, we have Serling’s narration, which assures us that his CONVICTION (i.e., his belief that a gremlin did the damage) “will not remain isolated too much longer”. We can argue semantics, but I really think we’re meant to take this, combined with the look on Bob’s face, his final line, and the shot of the wing, to mean he will be believed.

      At least that’s how I see it. It’s fun to debate, though, no question. Hope you enjoyed the post!

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