“The Arrival”: A Twilight Zone Episode on Auto-Pilot
An airplane taxis down the runway, pulls up to its marker, and stops. Perfect landing.
Well, it would have been perfect if anyone, including a pilot, had been on board. The plane is completely empty. You see, this is The Twilight Zone, and you’re watching Rod Serling’s “The Arrival”.
Things look very odd. And they’re about to get a whole lot odder.
Opinions vary widely on Serling’s first episode of Season 3. Some people like it a lot. Others find it a mish-mash of strangeness, more mystified than mystifying.
I’m more in the “like” camp, though I can see where its detractors are coming from. (Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen it, check it out on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, DVD or Blu-ray, then come back. I’m open 24/7/365.)
The story, shortly after the startling arrival of the plane, centers on flight investigator Grant Sheckly (Harold J. Stone). He assures everyone at the airlines that, no matter how offbeat this situation is, they’ll get to the bottom of it. His track record is stellar, he says. It’s just a matter of time.
So he and the airline officials swap theories, each one more implausible than the last, until Sheckly notices that none of them are seeing the same things. One man sees blue seats inside the plane, another sees brown, another red, and so on. They can’t even agree on what number is painted on the tail.
What’s going on? Mass hypnosis, Sheckly conjectures. They’ve all been programmed to see a DC-3 at that place and time, but each one is filling in different details. In short … the plane isn’t even there.
And to prove it, Sheckly has them start up the plane … so he can stick his hand in the propellers. They do, he does … and his hand is chopped off in a shower of blood. Kidding! No, the plane disappears. So do the officials. Sheckly’s left alone in the hangar.
He trots back to the office, only to have the same officials act like they’ve never seen him before. Finally, one man remembers him and recalls a case from years earlier — the one unsolved case in Sheckly’s whole career.
Sheckly is stunned. Apparently, seeing the same flight number pop up in a news account that day triggered some kind of flashback. That day’s investigation turns out to have been a hallucination, the fevered result of a mind racked with guilt and bewilderment. Sheckly is left running down the night-shrouded runway, calling out helplessly to Flight 107.
Sounds intriguing enough, right? And it is fun to watch them try and untie this knot. So why isn’t “The Arrival” a TZ classic?
A couple of reasons, I think. For one, although the twist is appropriately Zone-y, it’s not particularly satisfying. In fact, it feels a little like Serling’s been throwing a lot of strangeness at us, only to have it all, in the end, not really amount to much. That may explain the decide-for-yourself tone of his concluding narration:
Picture of a man with an Achilles’ heel, a mystery that landed in his life and then turned into a heavy weight dragged across the years to ultimately take the form of an illusion. Now, that’s the clinical answer that they put on the tag as they take him away. But if you choose to think that the explanation has to do with an airborne Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship on a fog-enshrouded night on a flight that never ends, then you’re doing your business in an old stand — in The Twilight Zone.
Another reason the episode falls a bit short, I believe, is that it lacks the simpleness that made other TZs such fan-favorites. Think of your favorite episode, and I can almost guarantee that it’s a story you can summarize easily in a sentence or two.
“The Arrival” isn’t like that. Yes, the premise is simple. But by the time it plays out, your head kind of hurts. And speaking of heads, finding out that most of the action occurs all in the lead character’s mind feels like a bit of a cheat.
But wait, you may say, isn’t that the case with episodes such as “Where is Everybody?” and “King Nine Will Not Return”? Yes, but again, those stories were pretty simple. And let’s not forget they had happy endings. Mike Ferris and James Embry go through a lot, but they’re going to be okay. Grant Sheckly, on the other hand, is headed for a rubber room somewhere.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that “The Arrival” … well, arrived at a time when Serling reported feeling very overworked. There’s intrigue to spare, and as I said, I do like this episode. But I can see the fatigue creeping in a bit. The clichés are starting to show.
That said, “The Arrival” gets us where we’re going — and it sticks the landing. Just don’t look under the hood too long.
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.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!