There's something on the wing!
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The worlds of fantasy and science fiction lost a giant last month with the passing of Richard Matheson. Over a long career, he’s penned tons of classic novels, including I Am Legend, A Stir of Echoes, and Bid Time Return. Many of his novels were adapted into films over the years, from the multiple incarnations of I Am Legend, the Robin Williams flick What Dreams May Come, and the aforementioned Bid Time Return, which took the name Somewhere in Time for its big-screen outing starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.
But I’ve always had a soft spot for Matheson’s Twilight Zone episodes. Matheson was a frequent contributor to Rod Serling’s classic series, penning the teleplay for several iconic episodes, or having other writers adapt his stories. If you’re a Richard Matheson fan, there’s no shortage of the man’s work for you to revisit in his memory. But for me, I decided to revisit my favorite Matheson episodes. Here are my picks for Matheson’s five best excursions into another dimension…into the Twilight Zone…
“The Last Flight”
First aired February 5, 1960
Confused and disoriented, a World War I British Royal Flying Corps pilot emerges from a strange cloud bank and lands his biplane at an American airbase in France. He’s taken into custody and viewed with suspicion immediately…because it’s 1959. When questioned, he tells them the date is March 5, 1917. There’s plenty of reason to suspect he’s just some nut who got his hands on an antique plane, but his story has an awful lot of details. “The Last Flight,” rather than hanging everything on a last-minute twist, instead shows its hand early, and then lets you guess precisely how it will all come together.
“A World of Difference”
First aired March 11, 1960
Arthur Curtis is an ordinary businessman, living an ordinary life, in the middle of an ordinary day. Then his phone stops working, someone yells, “Cut,” and he looks up to find the fourth wall of his office missing and a film crew staring at him impatiently. According to everyone around him, the life he thought was his is just a fiction, and he’s merely an actor tasked with playing it. Having your very identity stripped away is primal nightmare fuel of the highest order, and actor Howard Duff plays Curtis fear and frustration perfectly. Here we have a damn near perfect Twilight Zone, a cinematic short story that presents us with a nightmare scenario, puts its protagonist through the ringer, and then closes up with a haunting scene that could be interpreted different ways.
“A World of His Own”
First aired July 1, 1960
Here we’ve got a perfect example of Matheson’s sense of humor and lighter touch, as well as the tonal flexibility. These days when everything is targeted to ever narrowing demographics, it’s odd to think that both this episode and the previous one are from the same show. They both explore similar ideas of “breaking the fourth wall,” but “A World of Difference” is quirky rather than frightening, with a protagonist who, rather than being powerless, has all the power in the world. If you’ve never seen it, I can’t bring myself to spoil it any further, except to say that actor Keenan Wynn is perfect as a playwright whose wife suspects of cheating, and it ends with one of The Twilight Zone’s very best punchlines. It’s one of my favorites.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
First aired October 11, 1963
And here we have, unquestionably, the best-known entry on this list, and indeed one of the best-known episodes of Twilight Zone’s entire run. This iconic episode stars a pre-Star Trek William Shatner as a nervous flyer who spots a hairy gremlin beastie lurking on the wing of his plane mid-flight. It seems to take great amusement in showing itself to Shatner’s character but hiding from everyone else, and it’s soon ripping up panels and threatening to bring the plane down. Shatner’s performance is very Shatner-y, and the gremlin costume that looks like somebody wearing a Halloween mask and some carpet samples, but the story is still simple and frightening. There’s also no doubting its influence, having been remade as part of the 1983 Twilight Zone movie (with John Lithgow in the Shatner role) and referenced countless times over the years. “There’s something on the wing!”
“Spur of the Moment”
First aired February 21, 1964
Matheson explored notions of time travel and regret powerfully in Bid Time Return/Somewhere in Time, and you can see some of the thematic bones of that tale in this Zone episode. Young Anne (Diana Hyland) is a woman torn between two lovers: her respectable investment broker fiancé and the rebellious David (Roger Davis), who wants to elope with her. One day while out horseback riding, she is confronted by a mysterious woman in black who chases her, screaming all the way. She escapes, but is deeply troubled by the encounter. The story’s eventual twist isn’t overly shocking, especially when viewed in retrospect from a pop culture landscape that has trained us all to figure out twists, but it remains a powerful exploration of choice and consequence, and the all-too-real knowledge that the one thing none of us can escape, is the weight of our past.