The Twilight Zone – Complete Series Review – Season 5 Episode 3 – Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

One of the greatest Twilight Zone episodes.  The magnificent awfulness of Bill Shatner’s acting is on full display.

 

The story is simple and short enough.  Bill Shatner is Bob Wilson, a salesman who had a nervous breakdown on an airline flight and is returning home with his wife Julia after a six-month commitment to a mental institution.  As the couple board the aircraft for their flight home, Julia tries to reassure Bob that he is cured and their lives are back on track.  Bob pretends to agree but when he sees that they are sitting in the emergency exit row his panic is there for both to see.

Julia takes a sleeping pill but Bob is too nervous to sleep.  But as he looks out the window into the rain storm he sees a furred man-like creature with a strange masklike face walking on the wing.  Bob rings the service bell and wakes up Julia and tells her what he saw but when she and the stewardess look out the window there’s nothing there.

Now Bob is afraid that he is hallucinating.  But shortly afterward he sees the creature again and he tries to get the crew to see it.  He tells them that the creature is tampering with one of the engines.  The flight engineer pretends to believe but Bob sees through his charade.  Bob says, “I won’t say another word.  I’ll see us crash first.”  When the flight crew gives him a sleeping pill, he pretends to swallow it.  When Julia falls asleep Bob leaves his seat and steals a gun out of the holster of a sleeping policeman.  When he gets back to his seat and sees the gremlin at work again, he fastens his seat belt, wakes Julia up and asks her to get him a drink of water and when she leaves, he pulls the emergency exit handle.  The window flies out and the depressurization and wind speed almost pull Bob out of his seatbelt and pin him against the outside of the fuselage.  The gremlin sees him and trundles toward him menacingly.  Bob pulls his body forward, brings up the gun and fires all six rounds into the gremlin apparently killing it.

The next scene is Bob under a blanket on a stretcher being removed from the plane and waiting on the tarmac for an ambulance to bring him to an insane asylum.  He tells Julia that it’s all over but no one believes what he’s done but that soon they will believe.  In the ending monologue by Serling he shows us the damage to the engine visible on the wing and tells us that soon other people will know and believe Bob’s story.

The story is fun because of its wild nuttiness.  The gremlin creature’s suit and facial makeup is pathetic.  It looks like something that you might buy in a cheap Halloween Costume Store.  Whenever anyone but Shatner is looking the monster jumps off the wing and it’s obvious that a wire is involved.  And when the gremlin is advancing on Shatner’s character at the end of the episode, he walks like he’s stuck on flypaper.  The whole effect is laughably bad.

But what truly makes this story so special is Shatner’s facial expressions.  Many of his grimaces at seeing the gremlin are hilarious but I have two favorite moments.

The first is when Bob first sees the gremlin pull back the engine cowling and start tampering with the wiring.  The Shatner’s masklike expression of terror is uproarious.

The second moment is when he is trying to steal the gun from the policeman’s holster, Shatner’s attempt to look guilty and sneaky at the same moment is pure Shatner gold.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, anyone who can’t laugh at these two scenes has a heart of stone.

This episode is obviously an A+.  Going beyond the scope of these Twilight Zone reviews this review will be a part of the ShatnerKhan corpus of scholarly papers.  I will use this as the basis for a more detailed examination of this very important part of the Shatner canon.