The Arrival opens up with a teaser that we are about to see the tail end of a long mystery around strange airline flight. Yes, this is another Twilight Zone episode that focuses on an airplane! However, this opening serves well to grab hold of us and keep us interested. Yet, that wasn’t my initial reaction. Near the end of the episode, I was becoming confused thinking that I’d been tricked: that scene that we had at the start was not at the ending! Had Serling forgotten what he promised? But the next morning, while I prepared for work, my brain kicked in and I realized what was done to me. I don’t know if I was just slow – a distinct possibility – or if the trick eludes most people upon first viewing, but when it hit me, I was far more impressed by this episode than I’d been with many of Serling’s more recent contributions.
Grant Sheckly is sent to investigate a real conundrum: Flight 107 from Buffalo arrived on time after an hour and 20 minute trip… but with no one on board. Sheckly has a track record of solving these little puzzles; he’s sort of the Sherlock Holmes of aviation mysteries. (I wonder if he solved all of the other airplane episodes of The Twilight Zone. “Elementary, Watson… flight 33 is traveling through time…”) Now, for the first half of the story, the mystery has my brain racing, as I’m sure it did everyone else. But I kept asking myself something: did anyone call Buffalo? You don’t need the internet to contact the point of origin to ask if people boarded the plane. He even says that no one has called to ask for the passengers on the receiving end, but no one thinks to put that together to think, “maybe they never boarded in the first place”. That would still be a mystery, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps of a different sort. Specifically, how did the plane land! But the story is more clever than that in that Sheckly states early on that the names of the passengers are “so familiar” because there is a double-whammy moment coming up. Where things get supremely tense in a way I utterly did not expect for a show from 1961 is when Sheckly states that he believes he and his fellow investigators are all under some hypnotic spell. Yet another mystery could have been: who did it and why, but no, even that’s not where we’re going! To prove his belief, he plans to put his hand into the spinning propeller. As he approaches, the tension mounts and I was on my seat like I was watching a modern thriller. Then… the plane vanishes.
So here I had to complain. Sheckly is of the mindset that if the propeller lops his hand off, it was real, but if it doesn’t, it was an hallucination. How does he explain the dude sitting up in the aircraft? Surely that means that fella is just hovering 20 feet above the ground, right? Except, no, because it turns out that it’s not just the plane that wasn’t there: none of the people Sheckly is involved with are there either. This also explains why no one has called and why the names were “so familiar”. None of this is taking place in the “now”. Sheckly is having a breakdown. He’s been emotionally destroyed by the one puzzle he could never solve; a puzzle that is over 17 years old. We wrap the episode watching him walk the runway, a broken man, tortured by a mystery beyond his comprehension.
While the last few minutes were a bit depressing, it was the sort of storytelling that keeps you guessing. I had no memory of ever seeing this one before so it was an exciting new story for me. The mystery around the plane was deeply fascinating, especially as everyone remembered the seat colors differently. What could it mean?! And I think that’s sort of the point too: the mystery was not one we’d solve. This is one right out of the Twilight Zone. We get to see Sheckly’s reaction to being pulled into that world and it’s scary; it’s not logical and sometimes, that’s life. This is where the Zone is most effective: it shows what happens to regular people when they encounter the supremely strange.
Serling managed to make me laugh at the start of the episode when describing a plane. “This object, should any of you have lived underground for the better parts of your lives and never had occasion to look toward the sky, is an airplane…” Alas, that’s the last laugh the audience gets for the next 20-odd minutes. We’ve seen a lot of plane-related episodes and, I’ll be honest, they’ve all been varying degrees of good, but this one offered me a mystery and a double whammy that I did not see coming. And it did it with a cast of likable people too – none of Serling’s typical misanthropes. This is the way you tell a story and keep it interesting for the full running time! Or perhaps I was just hypnotized into thinking that… ML
The view from across the pond:
What a great mystery Rod Serling sets up for this episode. A plane comes in to land, and when the airport staff open the doors there is nobody inside. No passengers, no luggage, no pilots. Various theories are suggested, none of which actually work. For all the talk about parachuting out, never boarding, etc., it’s impossible to get past the simple fact that the plane could not have landed so smoothly without a pilot, and yet there was nobody in the cockpit.
Having set up this interesting question, Serling then spends the first half of the episode with the storyline just as motionless as the plane. The riddle has been asked of us, quite literally in Serling’s opening narration, and now we have about ten minutes of people being confused. The plot thickens when it turns out that nobody is seeing quite the same thing when they look at the plane, and then the Federal Aviation Agency investigator sticks his hand in one of the propellers when it’s moving, to test out his theory. That takes some guts, and it’s the highlight of the episode, a magnificent moment of extreme tension. It also supports Sheckly’s claims about his excellent track record, and shows the extent to which he is willing to back himself.
Sheckly’s explanation works, as far as it goes. If everyone were suffering from some kind of mass hypnosis then of course the details that had not been specified by the hypnotist would be the things they would see differently, because their own minds would have to fill in the gaps. That explains the seats inside the plane being different colours and the registration number on the side looking different to each person in the room.
Then everyone in the room apart from Sheckly fades away, and the logical explanation to what seemed like an unsolvable mystery is tossed aside.
The mid-episode twist would have been magnificent, if Serling had actually come up with a good explanation for his mystery, but the nervous breakdown thing is just another flavour of that mouldy old chestnut: it was all a dream. I suppose if you squint a bit it makes sense, but to make it work you have to rationalise everything you’ve already seen as an insane man’s imagination, right down to the landing of the plane at the start. Nothing we’ve just watched can have happened, and that makes it all rather a pointless exercise. This is particularly disappointing, because the mystery asked was fascinating, and the mid-episode explanation actually pretty darned good. I wanted to see how that story would play out, not watch one of the endless iterations of Bobby Ewing waking up in a shower, and a particularly miserable iteration at that. TZ is often an unhappy show at the conclusion of many an episode, but this is especially bleak: a broken, lonely man who has lost his mind, because he couldn’t accept the fact that just once in his life he failed at the one thing he thought he was infallible at.
In the end, it feels a bit like two stories cobbled together. The second one would feel like an average, unremarkable, competent TZ tale, were it not for the first one being so much better. That makes for an anticlimactic episode, and one that gives the impression of a writer having lost his way a little. The pilot for this one really did go AWOL on landing. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Shelter
Ironically I somehow ended up seeing this classic TZ episode very late in life. In fact it was within the last decade. It was quite a lot to take in, either compared to most other TZ tales or for how the point of a lifelong unsolved mystery can take its toll on someone. In a way, it kind of prepared me for Season 3 of True Detective. Harold J. Stone is an interesting casting choice. He makes this role most effective as a man who at the start seems to have a good beat on things. So consequently the viewing of his whole reality unravelling at the end is as much a shock to the system as a TZ classic can traditionally be. But in certain ways it was different from what I remembered most about the TZ classic series earlier on and that encourages my fascination. It can be refreshingly appreciable when our chances for viewing particular episodes at specific points work out the way. Thank you both for your reviews.
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The chief problem with this episode is that it doesn’t play fair. If this is all in Sheckly’s imagination then he should be there at the beginning of the episode when the plane arrives, but he isn’t. How can we be seeing an imaginary scene of something that he’s not yet part of? This isn’t one of those problems that crop up on repeat viewing it’s a “first guess” plot hole that sticks out a lot more and kills the episode.
That said, if Serling had done just one thing he would have salvaged the episode for me if he had made the lost flight “Flight #33” and had Sheckly haunted by the memory of 707 from London to NY that never arrived (“Odyssey of Flight #33”) then that would have made the episode work as a sequel to the previous episode!
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