This is an episode of firsts and repeats. King Nine Will Not Return is the first to use the iconic opening theme. It’s provides the first time for Serling to appear onscreen at the start of the episode. It’s also a repeat thematically, reminiscent of Season One’s isolation episode Where is Everybody. Captain James Embry finds himself alone in a desert and starts asking all the helpful questions that the audience wants to know: where am I, what’s going on, where is everybody… But there’s a big difference between the Season One and Season Two protagonists and it made this episode very hard for me.
Mike Ferris, the isolated lead in Where is Everybody, is asking a lot of the same questions as Avery as he goes from place to place finding hints of life, but that’s why I liked him: he goes from place to place. I found Embry a bit of a lame duck, deeply upset but failing to walk even a basic perimeter. He explores precisely nowhere except for the content of the very small aircraft for what seems like hours, before finally, after hearing a noise, walks 15 paces to a patch of grass to find a grave marker. Also, right after calling his missing colleague a jerk for dropping his canteen filled with water, he sees an apparition and forgets how to drink pouring the entire content of the canteen out. This is supposed to be the captain of the aircraft, not the scullery maid!
Now look, I recognize that this is a man under extreme stress and I appreciate his troubles. I would, as I said when we reviewed Where is Everybody, be in my own private hell living through a situation like this, but I need to believe a captain of a plane has more wits about him than Embry shows. Like the pilot episode, we are given a mystery when jets fly overhead because this was supposed to be April of 1943 and Embry shouldn’t be able to recognize them, but this isn’t quite the alluring mystery we saw at the start of the series. I’m not saying it’s not a good one, merely that it doesn’t shine as brightly as the Season One pilot.
On the other hand, what did make this episode stand out was the setting and the plane itself. The desert is a perfect setting for what James Embry experiences and it creates a superb sense of isolation. Even more impressive was the plane itself. Talk about an uncomfortable ride. Embry has to crawl from the front to the back or slide out through a window to get around. To compound those impressive elements, the story was based on a real life event: the Lady Be Good, a B-24 bomber, was found in 1958 so the story was inspired by reality.
When James wakes up in the hospital bed, the doctors think he had a breakdown upon reading the newspaper headlines, but when the nurse accidentally knocks over his shoe, a mound of sand pours out. Of course, this leads us to wonder if it was in some way possible for Embry to be in that desert. Seems unlikely of course, but this is the Twilight Zone after all!
The real life elements blend well and still provide us an engaging story, even if I didn’t think Embry had what it took to be a captain. Having said that, the theme of isolation is one that gets into my head in an uncomfortable way. I suppose this is why I’m not captaining a plane. However, I am writing this on the eve of a flight and all I can do is hope I don’t end up like Embry: crashed, alone, and worst of all, stranded in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
The Twilight Zone returns for its second season with a strong episode about survivor’s guilt. We don’t know that from the start, when we are apparently presented with a lonely pilot crashed in Tunisia in 1943. His prospects are bleak, with his plane severely damaged and desert surrounding him, but the mystery is the whereabouts of his crew. If they wandered off into the desert, why did they leave him unconscious on the baking hot sand?
A Twilight Zone episode normally thrives on a twist in the tale that somehow changes our understanding of what we have watched. That happens at the end of the episode, and this is no exception, but there is also a stronger twist in the middle, when we see modern jet planes flying above the desert. Even more amazing is the fact that he knows what they are, although he couldn’t have had that knowledge in 1943. It’s a great twist because it’s a game-changer. Up to this point there could have been all sorts of explanations for what is happening, as the only mystery is the absence of his crew, but this leaves us with only one realistic possibility: he isn’t really there.
As is so often the case with TZ, there is one big idea and we are then left impatiently waiting for the punchline while the episode goes nowhere fast. We know Embry can’t be there, so we are expecting him to wake up in a psychiatric ward. That’s exactly what happens, but before that we have to suffer the spectacle of his descent into madness, laughing maniacally at his situation and questioning his own existence. In Embry’s own words, writer Rod Serling gives us some “bum action” here (no giggling at the back), because it’s pure padding, albeit well-acted padding. For all his genius, I’ve never known a writer struggle to justify such a short episode length. This could have been cut down to 15 minutes, perhaps even 10, with no loss of actual story.
The inevitable happens eventually, and we are left with a poignant representation of survivor’s guilt, with Embry unable to forgive himself for missing the mission that killed his crew, and he has been “carrying that around in his gut” for 17 years. Although he was inspired by a recent news story, you get the impression that Serling was writing from experience for this one. He was, after all, a war veteran himself, and had witnessed the death of friends in action, serving in a platoon nicknamed the “Death Squad” due to its high casualty rate. If anyone understood the gnawing in the gut that is survivor’s guilt, it was Serling. And it’s easy to forgive an episode that is not perfectly constructed when the writer is perhaps pouring his own emotions onto the page.
The final twist suggests something supernatural has occurred, which presumably Serling felt was obligatory for a TZ episode. It could not, after all, just be about a man’s hallucination and recovery in a hospital bed. That would be potentially a powerful drama, but it wouldn’t be The Twilight Zone. Instead, Serling suggests that Embry somehow physically travelled to the location of the plane crash, arriving in the present day rather than travelling into the past (the jet planes prove that much). That’s an interesting thought, but Serling drops the ball by only representing this idea with some sand in a shoe, far too easily written off as a man who had just been on a trip to the beach or something. The final shot is of the crash scene, and that was a golden opportunity to make the twist really work, showing some clear evidence of Embry’s presence there. It could have been as simple as a shot of his hat lying in the desert. As is so often the case, Serling’s work is one draft away from perfection, but he gets closer to it than most writers could ever manage. That happened because he wrote from experience, and from the heart. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Man in the Bottle