Well here’s an episode of The Twilight Zone that does not get a lot of repeats to the best of my memory and I can’t understand why. I think it’s a damned good episode. And clearly I’m not alone since Torchwood pulled off nearly the same story with Catherine Tregenna’s Out of Time. (For a refresher on that, please pop back to our Torchwood page here.) In this story, Flight Lt. William Terrance Decker, a pilot from 1917, finds himself displaced in 1959. Can he provide the evidence needed to convince the airforce personnel that he’s telling the truth?
Maybe the reason this one doesn’t get repeated is that it depicts the military as a little inept. The thing is, I’m not really sure that it does do that but I could see how one might perceive it that way. The military has a reputation: chain of command matters, be ready to deal with uncertainty, etc. For this episode, the chain of command doesn’t seem particularly strong when General Harper gives orders that are ignored and Major Wilson can’t contain one prisoner. Furthermore, Wilson even talks over his commanding officer and refers to Air Vice Marshall Mackaye by a nickname provided by a man who may or may not have been who he claimed to be. But I think we have to take things into consideration; we have to remember is that this is an extraordinary situation, one unlike any the military is prepared to deal with. It goes so far outside of what anyone could be expected to believe that I don’t think it does paint them in a bad light, which just makes me wonder why this one never seems to be on the repeat list!
As far as Decker, the initial discussion would make anyone think he is a nutcase, but as the episode progresses, along with the Major and the General, we are brought into his story and before we know it, we believe Decker’s story. He was swallowed up by a cloud and deposited in the future. Impressively, he pieces together that he needs to go back into the past to save Mackaye so he steals his ship and off he goes. How he knew what to do was anyone’s guess, but maybe he just worked it out; maybe it was the only outcome that could have happened. I could imagine the sequence after the episode ended. Mackaye asks Wilson, “what did you just call me” and they sit down to a remarkable story and they all become closer as a result of an amazing tale. It is, as Serling’s narration says, a lesson that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can ever imagine.
But that doesn’t make the episode flawless. I had to laugh at the very pointed question to the Vice Admiral about “… a white cloud, sir?” Was he going to say, “no, it was a red and grey cloud!” I mean, granted some are whiter while others are a bit more grey but was it really that significant? Were white clouds really uncommon back then? I also started to think of Decker as Schrodinger’s pilot when it was explained that he either was or was not telling the truth. I’d say that’s true of anything. I’m either sitting while typing this or I’m not. True. But if those are my complaints, they are supremely minor. This episode shines.
I remember watching the Torchwood episode and finding it an incredible character piece, but by then we’d had 10-ish weeks to get to know the main cast, so the story can focus tightly on the newcomers. The Twilight Zone doesn’t have that luxury. In the Twilight Zone, we have 20 minutes less than an average Torchwood episode and we don’t know a thing about the characters, yet Serling weaves a narrative that holds the attention from start to finish. I’ve found that some of the episodes feel like they take their time (like The Fever, which seemed never-ending) but this one was gone in a flash. Much like Decker himself.
I think it’s fun to wonder about this planet; that it does have a few unmapped surprises to throw our way. I look up at the sky every single night in both wonder and hope. Maybe there is a rift up there that can bring us to another time or another place. There either is, or there isn’t. Or maybe it’s just the act of wondering that can transport us from our own world, the one we know so well with many of the secrets already mapped and explored, and that other, slightly stranger place that we call The Twilight Zone! ML
The view from across the pond:
Twilight Zone episodes often centre around fate punishing somebody for their actions. In Judgment Night a war criminal suffers the same fate as his victims; in both What You Need and The Four of Us Are Dying, a man tries to cheat at life, and pays the ultimate price; in I Shot an Arrow into the Air, a selfish man is punished with the realisation that he has killed his friends for nothing; and last week, in The Fever, we saw a deeply unpleasant man lose his life to his gambling addiction. The Last Flight does something much more unusual. Flight Lt. Decker has committed an act of cowardice, which has cost a colleague his life, but is given a chance to rethink his actions and reverse his decision. This is a story about redemption, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the misery of recent episodes.
We don’t learn this until quite late in the episode, though. Many Twilight Zone episodes have only one dramatic beat, such as last week’s effort, with a man who railed against the dangers of gambling succumbing to addiction himself. Many more episodes use a twist ending as a kind of second dramatic beat, but by that point the episode is wrapping up. That generally works very well, thanks to the 25 minute format, but The Last Flight does something very different, because it packs in no fewer than four major dramatic beats within that short running time.
The first is of course the arrival of a pilot from 1917 at an airbase in 1959. Exactly 42 years have passed, and we have the usual doubting of his story that we would expect from a time travel episode. The second dramatic beat is probably the best of the episode, because it’s the point at which we realise this is more complex than we thought. Something more is going on here, because a man Decker knows to be dead is alive, and on his way to the base. In hindsight it looks like a cheat from the writer, but in fact it makes perfect sense. Here’s the key dialogue:
“Why is that impossible, Lt Decker?”
“Because he’s dead.”
Considering Decker left Mackaye surrounded by seven enemy planes, and his experience tells him that there’s no way to survive that, the line does actually work perfectly. In fact, “I think he’s dead”, would seem unnatural in that context. The third dramatic beat solves the mystery of why Decker claims that Mackaye is dead, with the revelation that he abandoned him and flew away, while not yet explaining how Mackaye survived.
“I’m a coward.”
The interesting thing about this part of the episode is the lack of condemnation we might expect Decker to receive from the Major.
“It isn’t a crime to be afraid, Decker.”
At the risk of being cynical, I doubt the realism of this reaction from a top brass military man, and it’s certainly a reaction to “cowardice” that Decker would never have heard from his own commanding officers. During the First War, not only was death the maximum penalty available to a court martial for desertion, it was also available for “misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice”, so being a coward was very specifically a crime at the time. Even today, the US military retains the threat of the death penalty for cowardice, although it has been an empty threat since 1945. Suffice to say, I don’t really buy how sympathetic Major Wilson is towards Decker. A longer episode could have made that work better, perhaps examining some aspect of Wilson’s own past that makes him tolerant of cowardice in others.
Our fourth dramatic beat is Decker coming to the understanding that he was the one who saved Mackaye after all:
“Maybe I was brought here for a purpose… to find out that time was giving me a second chance.”
… and the coward is a coward no longer, telling a man holding him at gunpoint to go ahead and shoot, because he would rather die than abandon his fellow officer, before flying off to meet his fate, 42 years ago. Finally, “old lead-bottom” learns what has happened, with the proof of Decker’s personal effects. It could have done with a shot of Mackaye watching the old plane taking off as he arrived at the base, but other than that it’s a poignant end to a great episode. The one aspect of this that probably makes it so thought-provoking is that Decker only saves one man. In fact, when you look at what he does quite literally and dispassionately, it’s a young man exchanging his life for an old man, which doesn’t seem like much of a win. But it has something very important to say: maybe heroism isn’t just a numbers game. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Purple Testament