“The Arrival”: A Twilight Zone Episode on Auto-Pilot

An airplane taxis down the runway, pulls up to its marker, and stops. Perfect landing.

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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.

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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.)

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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 arrival13notices 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 arrival14different 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.

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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?

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 09/22/2016, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. It’s funny, Paul. Whenever I crawl back through the DVDs, I never skip this episode. It isn’t a favorite, but I can picture those men, struggling to do their jobs, afraid of the damage to the company reputation and all that. It’s believable in human terms, even though it’s unbelievable. I’m also always impressed with how well it has aged, even though they already had jets flying when it was filmed.

    • Yes, it’s very believably presented. TZ was very good at that: “Okay, crazy thing X has happened. How would a normal person deal with it?” That definitely helps make it relate-able. And yes, they had jets, but it’s more fun when you have a propeller to stick your hand into, I’m sure you’ll agree!

  2. This turns out to be one of my favorites! Yes, your head hurts if you think too much about it…like the opening scenes of plane actually landing and the other characters doing their stuff before Sheckly’s POV enters the picture…but I love aircraft, love “Flying Dutchman-like” stuff, love the atmosphere of this episode. But you’re right, even the TZ “reconciliation” doesn’t quite work…unless you look at it as it’s all in Sheckly’s head, even the apparently third-party-removed scenes. If you look at it kinda like “Perchance To Dream”…that the entire scenario IS in Sheckly’s head and he’s in the background…it’s HIS dream…even with the supposed actions of others “on their own”…then it works. At least for me. But, yes, every time I see this episode I begin deconstructing it! :-]

    • Same here! And I know that a lot of the crazy stories I enjoy don’t hold up to scrutiny. A lot of times, you just have to relax and enjoy. But it can be hard to turn your brain off entirely, so I appreciate it when a writer makes SOME effort to make it believable. I don’t need much! I actually enjoy twisty stories and can forgive much, especially if they end well. :)

  3. It’s easy to see why “The Arrival” is an underrated episode but for my own reasons,I like it. It maintains a feeling of unease throughout and I’ve known a few people like Sheckly,obsessed with their work to the point of mania. To have one blemish on their record is more than they can stand. There are several Zones like that,less popular episodes that strike a chord with me somehow.

    • I know what you mean. There are some lesser-known TZs that resonate with me as well, even if I can’t always put my finger on why. I like this one, too. My criticisms aren’t really deal-breakers — just nagging questions that I have.

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