Now this is more like it. Rod Serling has been hitting us with a number of characters of questionable merit, and ironically it ties in with a discussion I’ve just been having with friends. In a discussion of Resident Alien and Strange New Worlds, we were talking about characters we can identify with. One of our friends commented on the difference between the blue collar workers of Resident Alien versus the top tier educated people of Starfleet. Apt timing after watching Twenty Two and The Odyssey of Flight 33 because it drove home one of the issues I have with many of Serling’s characters: they are often not very well educated. Many times, they are the down-and-outs who struggle through life. Rarely has Serling introduced us to members of the upper end of the spectrum.
The Odyssey of Flight 33 introduces us to an airline captain and his crew. Barring the fact that the captain smokes, there’s nothing to indicate that he’s a stupid man. He’s a pilot and skilled enough at his job that he can detect a change in the speed of the ship when no one else can. So we’re not following the folly of some nitwit, but an odyssey for a highly trained crew and I can say that I appreciate that immensely. I like following the adventures of intellectual people more than nitwits.
Having said all that, this is an “imagination-heavy” episode. Like most Twilight Zones, there is a lot of padding to build out the 25-minute format. Something is amiss and we have to wait 15 minutes to see the first result: Flight 33 has traveled in time to the era of the dinosaurs! The (intelligent) captain decides to try to find the same slipstream and go back through it and ends up in 1939. Will they ever get home?
Fans of Doctor Who may detect the influence of this episode on the Peter Davison story Time-Flight. That has four episodes to flesh out the story and they do a better job, but only because they have more to work with (…well, and the Doctor!) It’s an idea ripe for speculation, now that so much of our planet has been mapped out and discovered. Could something amazing happen while we’re flying the friendly skies?
I will point out that this is one of the episodes I knew well, having grown up with, but I felt a special joy when I heard my hometown of Staten Island get a shout out. Since this one resonates, I’ll also share that I’ll be on nearly the same course home when I leave my summer vacation spot and at roughly the same altitude. (These guys are going from London to New York at 35,000 feet. I typically go from Ireland to New Jersey at 38,000 feet!) Speaking of parallels, this episode has an echo to Twenty Two because it is about a flight and “runway 22” is referenced. Maybe Serling just liked double numbers!
Regardless, this is one of the better “time flights” of The Twilight Zone and one that always sparks the imagination. We’ve seen another aerial time distortion in season one with The Last Flight but I find this one more to my liking. It is interesting that both have links to Doctor Who though. Maybe if we look hard enough, we’ll find a whole area for Doctor Who stories that have their origins in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
I am going to have to be a broken record again and complain about the things that Rod Serling does badly, so first of all let’s look at what he does well: building the tension. He does that brilliantly here, with a passenger jet increasing in speed until it is going impossibly fast, while nobody in any airport answers the calls from the cockpit. That makes up a big chunk of the episode and it’s gripping viewing.
“There is no New York. It’s disappeared.”
When the plane arrives in the past, it is initially frustrating, with the crew looking out of the window and talking about what they are seeing instead of actually showing us. This episode could be amazing if it were remade with modern technology, but we do eventually get a brief shot of the prehistoric world below, after a great deal of describing instead of showing. That shot is a stop-motion dinosaur, which would probably make viewers laugh nowadays, but at the time would surely have been impressive. It was certainly expensive, the most costly shot ever constructed for The Twilight Zone. That’s money well spent. It might look a bit silly by modern standards, but I have a soft spot for traditional effects shots like this, and it’s better than just having a bunch of actors in a studio set describing what they are seeing.
A problem that crops up more than once in this episode is the tantalising prospect of what might have been, and the prehistoric sequence had me speculating on how they might survive their predicament, perhaps attempting a landing on the Hudson River, but instead the captain makes a very boring decision:
“We’re going to try to go back where we came from.”
Yawn. It makes little sense, because they surely would have ended up further into the past, and should instead have been trying to fly into the mysterious airstream instead of rejoin it if they wanted to try to reverse the effect, but luckily they are somehow propelled back into the future… as far as New York’s World Fair in 1939. Then the pilot makes an utterly ridiculous decision. Bearing in mind his first duty is to the welfare of his crew, he decides to try again, despite having a runway to land on and hardly any fuel remaining. Unsurprisingly, Flight 33 is never heard from again. I didn’t buy that at all. I think any pilot in that situation would have landed in 1939, to refuel at the very least. From a storyline point of view, a tantalising prospect of a trip to the past is rejected.
The main problem with this is it’s just not an anthology episode. It doesn’t function like that, and it can’t. What we have here is the first act in a film, or even better the first episode in an exciting adventure series. As a one-off episode, Serling just doesn’t have a clue what to do with his idea, and instead wastes time with distractions such as the military veteran sitting among the passengers who figures out something is wrong, and his knowledge is a complete irrelevance to the story in the end. The reason Serling couldn’t figure out how to make this work as a piece of 25 minute drama is that it simply cannot work like that. It’s the beginning of an idea rather than a complete picture. So instead we reach 25 minutes and then the story just stops. And there’s nothing more frustrating than a story without a
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Mr. Dingle, the Strong
For a most down to basics episode about a time travelling airplane, we can’t do better than this Twilight Zone classic. Its open ending can earn a sequel in our imaginations. With all our sci-fi has given us since from Dr. Who: Time Flight to Manifest, it will always be worth reflecting on a story that started it all thanks to Rod Serling.
Thank you both for your reviews and Happy Holidays. 🎄
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I think the reason why this episode is so great despite the fact it doesn’t give us a hard “resolution” is because what it’s real purpose has been is to show us how a trained crew would react to an incredible situation like this. This is where Serling benefited from getting technical advice from older brother Robert J. Serling, an aviation writer (and author of a number of books on the histories of the major airlines). The story doesn’t give us silly bits of melodrama like having someone in the crew flip out in hysterics and necessitate some stern angry rebuke from Captain John Anderson. Instead, we’re seeing before our eyes an example of what today is called “Cockpit Resource Management” in which a crew tries to work together to solve a problem thrust into their faces no matter how incredible it seems. And it’s also a good move not wasting time giving us backstories of the passengers etc. or anything like that since a “believable” situation would mean that they wouldn’t have time to tell each other things like that.
Serling IMO missed a golden opportunity to make the S3 episode “The Arrival” a sequel to this one because if he’d had the lead character of that episode be a man haunted by the memory of a flight disappeared that was specifically “Flight #33” and if it had been about an empty 707 arriving with no one aboard, we would have had a perfect bookend to this story (and it wouldn’t have necessitated being familiar with “Odyssey”).
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