Friday, October 11, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (10/11/1963)

Season 5, episode 3 (123 overall)
Originally aired 10/11/1963
Cayuga Production # 2605

50 years ago tonight, a nervous air traveler came face to face with an impossible enemy: an otherworldly creature out on the wing, who apparently is determined to sabotage the plane and endanger everyone on board.

Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is probably one of The Twilight Zone’s most recognizable episodes. It’s been spoofed repeatedly over the years (more on this below), and it had the (dubious) honor of being remade in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. After Captain Kirk, it’s probably William Shatner’s most famous screen role (well, maybe it’s a tie with T.J. Hooker), and well-deservedly so: he’s straight-up brilliant here, his characterization nuanced and complex. He’s completely convincing as a man struggling with two demons: the one out on the wing, and his own precarious grip on reality.

Bob Wilson has just spent six months in a sanitarium after experiencing a nervous breakdown on an airplane (the specifics aren’t given; did he see something on the wing that time too?). Evidently he’s recovered and, as a final breakthrough, he’s going home on a plane (is it just me, or is this approach kinda sorta asking for trouble?). Of course he’s got a window seat, and of course his seat just happens to be right next to an emergency hatch.

Oh, there’s also a wicked storm directly in the plane’s flight path, promising a rough ride. Jesus, this guy can’t catch a break.

Most of the episode is spent having Bob see the Gremlin, but only when nobody else is there to see it. We wonder if it’s all in his head (this argument seems pretty valid until the very end of the episode). His wife, the stewardess, and finally the pilot interact with him in a placating but skeptical manner, but wouldn’t we do the same? Even if there were a man (or whatever) out on the wing, he (or it) would’ve been blown off immediately upon takeoff... right? The fact that this Man Crying Wolf was very recently crazy (pardon my political incorrectness there) doesn’t help his case.

My only real gripe (other than the gigantic one directly below) is the fact that Bob easily (too damned easily) manages to get his hands on a nearby air marshal’s .38. I won’t spoil it, but trust me when I say it’s contrived and awkward, not to mention completely unbelievable. In Matheson’s original story, Bob is in the midst of experiencing a nervous breakdown and is contemplating suicide, so he has his own pistol in his carryon bag (wow, things are sure different now). Of course you couldn’t do suicide on TV at that time, so Matheson went this route. I’m not sure I could’ve thought of something better, but I still don’t like it.

However, the gun situation is negligible when you consider the true, fatal flaw of this episode. We must now discuss the elephant in the room. This particular subject has been touched on previously in the pages of this very blog, but it’s high time we tackle this beast head-on.  And as it turns out, “beast” is a pretty accurate descriptor. I’m of course referring to…

*Sigh* The Gremlin is, hands down, one of the stupidest creature designs I’ve ever seen, on The Twilight Zone or elsewhere. Matheson’s seminal short story describes it as follows: “It was a hideously malignant face, a face not human. Its skin was grimy, of a wide-pored coarseness; its nose a squat, discolored lump; its lips misshapen, cracked, forced apart by teeth of a grotesque size and crookedness; its eyes recessed and small --- unblinking. All framed by shaggy, tangled hair which sprouted, too, in furry tufts from the man’s ears and nose, in birdlike down across his cheeks.” Matheson was reportedly unhappy with its television incarnation, which is basically a giant teddy bear with a mongloidish face (crafted by William Tuttle and presumably cobbled together from leftover “Eye of the Beholder” prosthetics), and why wouldn’t he be? It looks utterly ridiculous, particularly when it swoops in and out of the frame on (hidden) wires. 

I fly through the air with the greatest of ease…

The Gremlin isn’t scary in the least, and severely undermines the tension that the episode is otherwise building quite successfully.  I’ll even go so far as to say that it pretty much ruins the episode. And look! Even the bottoms of its feet look dumb:


This is William Shatner’s second TZ appearance. We saw him previously in season two’s “Nick of Time,” in which he played Don Carter, a somewhat-less neurotic slave to our old friend The Mystic Seer. I like to think of Don Carter and Bob Wilson as variations on the same basic character, and Bif Bang Pow! clearly agrees with me, as evidenced by their action figure of William Shatner, which comes with both characters’ outfits and accessories!

But Bif Bang Pow! didn’t stop there: they’ve released bobbleheads of both Bob Wilson and The Gremlin, a furry action figure of The Gremlin (which actually looks better than the “real” thing), and a diorama of the airplane with a li’l tiny Gremlin on the wing (my purchases of TZ collectibles have pretty much ground to a halt, but I must admit this last one’s kinda cool).

A 12-inch action figure of The Gremlin was released several years back by Sideshow Collectibles. Their work is usually superb, but something went horribly wrong here. I mean horribly. Just look at it. Just take a moment or two and gaze at its hideousness. What an utter piece of shit. It's a monstrosity (and not the good kind).

*Ahem* Back to the cast. Christine White is quite good as Ruth, Bob’s long-suffering wife (and fellow passenger on the plane).  She was also Ace Larson’s long-suffering girlfriend in season two’s “The Prime Mover,” so apparently she was quite adept at the whole long-suffering thing.  Ms. White passed away just two months ago, after which the NY Times wrote a very “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”-centric story about her here

The stewardess is played by Asa Maynor, whose very first TV role was “Ginger Snap” on a 1960 episode of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. This is her only TZ appearance; however, she gets a special mention because she’s a bona fide TZ Babe.  Arrrrooooooogah!

The episode was remade in 1983 for Twilight Zone: The Movie (retitled “Nightmare at 35,000 Feet” to bring it up to modern aviation specs), this time featuring John Lithgow in the lead (though Shatner was certainly still young enough to reprise his role; I guess he was busy with the aforementioned T.J. Hooker at the time). The film’s Gremlin design is a gigantic improvement over its furry ancestor; however, the segment as a whole (directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame and, more recently, Happy Feet, which suggests a pretty bizarre career path) is much too frenetic to generate any true tension (many reviewers consider it the highlight of the film; I find it grating, personally, but I guess I kinda agree, which should give you an idea of my thoughts on the film as a whole).

Many of The Twilight Zone’s iconic, most widely-remembered episodes have been parodied by TV’s The Simpsons over the years, and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is no exception. The 1993 episode “Treehouse of Horror IV” includes “Terror at 5½ Feet,” which moves the action from an airplane to Bart Simpson’s school bus. Interestingly, the framework of this particular episode is patterned after Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, with Bart introducing each segment using gallery paintings.

The episode was more recently parodied on Saturday Night Live in 2010, with Bobby Moynihan playing the Gremlin and the brilliant Bill Hader standing in for Rod Serling. It’s a bit dumb, but very well done on a technical level. I was going to embed the video directly into this entry, but I can't seem to find it anywhere (including SNL's own website), so.... sorry, mates.

Splice the ’83 Gremlin (not the car, dammit) into the ’63 episode and give Bob Wilson his own pistol (as in Matheson’s short story) and you’d have an undeniable classic.  As it stands, however, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is still a classic… but not the masterpiece that it could’ve (and should’ve) been. That fucking Gremlin just wrecks it for me. Your air mileage may vary.

Coming up:
STOP everything and WATCH this. Ha, see what I did there?  No? Well, it’ll make more sense next week.


Mike said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never read Matheson's original, so I never knew Bob had his own pistol with him. Wow! That surely would have packed more of a punch.

Nice recap. Next week's episode is the very first TZ I ever saw, so I will look forward to your comments!

Troy said...

Nice entry on one of my favorite episodes, Craig. Like many a child, I was glued to my seat in fear watching this episode as a kid. I don't even have THAT many problems with the Gremlin design. And as I think I've stated before, I have the Sideshow Gremlin figure, it's one of my favorites. Much as I love the movie segment (and I really do), my preference will always be for the episode.

Ken said...

Good to see the 5th season underway!

I found out about a month ago that Richard Matheson passed away in June. I don't know how I missed that! Were you going to do an article on him?

Anonymous said...

I too think that the TZ gremlin would have looked better as something else--perhaps a wicked-looking bird head, with toothy beak.

As far as parodies go, Svengoolie razzed the Night Gallery with this ultimate send-off of one of the classic customer complaints, here:

Both characters are portrayed by the talented and underappreciated Rich Koz (pronounced Koze).


aam985 said...

At the end of the show when the camera shows the torn wing cowling look close and you can see a painting of rod serling in the cowling made to look like apart of the cowlings torn shadows. He is wearing a suit and tie and it looks like a woman is next to him.