After all these years, the title of this one had slipped out of my mind, but this is an episode that resonated with me from the first time I’d seen it. This is The Twilight Zone at its scariest. And it’s not because of monsters, villains or madmen! It’s because memory is a tricky thing and the loss of it is utterly horrifying. The Doctor once said, “a man is the sum of his memories…” That’s true on so many levels. Just think about how many decisions we make based on knowledge and experience we’ve had before. Take that away and what have we got? I know it’s common to forget names, but to forget people completely is another matter altogether.
This story introduces us to Clegg Forbes played by Rod Taylor (who would go on in a year to star in The Time Machine). The story focuses on survivors of an experimental flight into space that goes wrong. Amazingly, the crew survives. But Forbes insists that there were three men in the plane. The third man, Ed Harrington, no one else remembers including fellow crewman Bill Gart. There seems to be validation provided to us through a flashback. The question is: is that real? He’s telling the story but that’s his interpretation of events. Surely we’ve all seen movies or shows where an event is shown from two perspectives. Same event, different perception. There was a great Life on Mars episode where we get the same case from two points of view; one offers a very sinister view of a suspect, while the other, even though the same words are spoken, shows a very nervous youth suspected of committing a crime. Just because it’s on screen doesn’t make it “real”. Sometimes we are just given a perspective to build the story. So the question is: is this just what Forbes believes or did something really happen to one of the survivors of the crashed plane? And if so, what?
Considering we get to see the same thing happen to Forbes, where he vanishes without a trace, we can conclude that he was not losing his mind. Something has wiped Harrington and Forbes from reality. One by one, they vanish and are forgotten by all. In terms of how this might work in the realm if science fiction, I might speculate that the X20, the experimental ship that went into space, came back into a parallel world, not unlike that seen in The Outer Limits episode The Man Who was Never Born. Maybe Harrington, Forbes, and Gart found themselves in an alternate world. Maybe they somehow damaged time and the effects took a little while to show up. Maybe it’s a question of the Mandela effect. Maybe all of that sci-fi speculating doesn’t come close to the real terror that can be found in the idea of memory playing tricks on us, fading before our minds eye. I often think of this episode when my mom references someone from my childhood that I don’t remember. I write it off as a person I was too young to recall, but what if that person is just in my mom’s head? I use her as an example, but it could be any of us! I could ask my wife about someone who she has forgotten, but what if that person actually ceased to exist? The only reason we can verify it here is that it happens so quickly and in a small setting. Someone from my past that I’ve forgotten… well, I can’t even bring them to mind to make my case, could I?!
There’s an added layer of disquiet to the whole affair when Gart tells Harrington, during the flashback, “look after Forbes, he drinks too much.” This single line might explain that Forbes has made the whole thing up; a concoction of a drunk mind. Between the stress of the job and the alcohol, maybe Harrington was a figment of his imagination. That idea adds an added layer to the story. In reality, I shouldn’t be surprised by that since this is based on a story by Richard Matheson; the writer of such greats as I am Legend and The Incredible Shrinking Man. (The former really pulled the rug out from under me by the end.) Knowing this is based on a story of his makes complete sense to me. I’ve been bothered by this idea all my life. I recall the song from St. Elmo’s Fire with that line, “two people touch and they’re gone”. I’ve lost touch with friends that I have no idea how to reach anymore. Were they real? Or were the swallowed up by some unseen force? Is that just Time? It feels so cruel.
I’ve been trying to keep track of the characters we’ve been introduced to in this series, to determine if they’ve had a good end, or a bad one. Did they pass safely through that land of shadow and substance? Did they meet with a pleasant outcome, or a cruel fate? And just as I pondered this, I realized… Who are we talking about anyway? Nope, I have no idea. I have a memory of a hospital room being needed for some malaria patients, but little else… Ah, well. I guess that’s just another mystery for us to consider in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
It’s always interesting watching something that took place before the moon landings and seeing the hopes and fears for the space race. The first season of The Twilight Zone was made at a time when human beings had not even been into space, let alone set foot on the moon, so a story could plausibly be constructed that showed space as something deadly and unfathomable, a place where we had no right to be, and this would play on the viewers’ contemporary fears about our imminent first steps into the unknown beyond our own planet. There is an overwhelming sense here that we might be punished for going out into space, and if that happens there will be nothing we can do to help ourselves. If you scratch the surface this can also be understood as an episode rooted in religious beliefs and the conflict between science and faith, because it suggests an omnipotence dwelling in the heavens, ready and waiting to put us back into our box. It’s a mysterious, unseen power that is unknowable, and beyond our abilities to understand.
That’s the starting point for an episode about the world’s first astronauts, who have crash landed back on Earth with 24 hours missing from their memories. They appear to be unharmed, until one of them disappears, and nobody remembers him apart from one of the other astronauts.
Having come up with this idea, Rod Serling finds little to do with it other than repeatedly restate the horror, and that involves Clegg refusing to accept the inevitable. We can forgive him for being intransigent about it all, because the only alternative is to accept the horror of his situation, but it’s not much fun to watch him berating various different people about exactly the same thing, to inevitably get exactly the same response. Does Bill, the other astronaut remember Ed? No. Does the barman? No. Does their mutual friend Amy? No. Does their commanding officer? No. However much he shouts at them all, it’s still no. We get the point, and it’s not very pleasant to watch Clegg banging his head against a metaphorical brick wall (and smashing non-metaphorical glass) for most of the episode.
Despite only really having this one idea, and the obvious punchline, Serling does find a way to make it all a bit more interesting, by messing with the order of the narrative. Having established that Bill is missing and forgotten, we flash back to several hours before, with Bill and Clegg getting out of hospital and going for a drink in a bar. This technique means that we are waiting for that inevitable moment where Bill disappears, which cranks up the tension very effectively. Then he’s gone without fanfare. There are no flashing lights, no alien spaceship, nothing to ameliorate the weirdness of it all with something tangible. The enemy is an unseen omnipotent force that needs no gimmicks or tools. Bill is simply removed quietly and systematically from the life he used to inhabit, starting with the his parents’ memories and ending with his physical presence.
What’s so frightening about this is how Clegg can do absolutely nothing to help himself or his friend. He’s completely at the mercy of an enemy he can’t even see, so there’s no way he can begin to try to fight it. Unfortunately the big moment of his own disappearance is a rare visual blunder and it’s an absolute howler. I’m pretty certain that what’s supposed to be happening, based on Clegg’s reaction to the mirror, is that he has become invisible to all but Bill in his final moments, and has lost his reflection, but not for a moment does his elbow (and then his hand) disappear from the mirror, completely undermining the illusion that was supposed to be achieved presumably by the use of a simple trick of angling the camera just beyond the point where we could see any of the actor’s reflection. What a shame. Despite that, the episode ends with a chillingly simple and effective final picture of an empty room in the hospital.
“Room 15 can take three patients sir. It’s empty.”
We can never again experience the very real frisson of fear the contemporary viewers must have felt watching this, with the human race on the verge of sending men into the mysterious, unexplored vastness of space for the first time. Despite that, this episode still retains some of it’s power over us, simply because it’s a portrait of three men who have no control over their own fate. In the end, there’s little they can do except rage at the dying of the light. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: What You Need