05 June 2009

Twilight Zone: And When the Sky Was Opened

Amnesia strikes The Twilight Zone for third time in the first season, and the second time in a row! And the name “Richard Matheson” makes its first appearance in the credits.
Episode #11: And When the Sky Was Opened
Directed by Douglas Heyes. Written by Rod Serling from a short story by Richard Matheson. Starring Rod Taylor, Charles Aidman, Jim Hutton.

“Her name: X-20. Her type: an experimental interceptor. Recent history: a crash landing in the Mojave Desert after a thirty-one hour flight nine hundred miles into space. Incidental data: the ship, with the men who flew her, disappeared from the radar screen for twenty-four hours.”

Selective amnesia presents a serious problem in The Twilight Zone, such as in the previous episode, “Judgment Night.” In this installment of “Amnesia Theater,” it appears to Col. Clegg Forbes (Taylor) that the rest of the world has picked up collective forgetfulness. It’s the sort of blanket-amnesia that appears in Cornell Woolrich’s classic novel Phantom Lady: one man convinced of the existence of a person who everyone else claims is just a figment of his imagination.

In Woolrich’s case, he had to come up with a rational explanation for the “Phantom Lady” (and had to do back-flips for twenty pages to make it sound convincing). But Serling, working loosely from Matheson’s 1953 story “Disappearing Act,” doesn’t need any sort of common-sense explanation for why Forbes is the only man who remembers that there was a third pilot, Col. Ed Harrington (Charles Aidman), on their space flight. Forbes recalls Harrington vanishing in a bar, after the man mentioned that he had a bizarre feeling that he’s not supposed to be there at all. Not only does no one else recall a Col. Harrington, including the third pilot, Maj. William Gart (Jim Hutton), but all physical evidence of the colonel has vanished, with newspaper headlines changing and Harrington’s smashed beer glass cleaning itself up.

Forbes starts to think he’s cracking up, and Rod Taylor goes too far to the mat with his performance—probably the weakest element of the episode. I got tired of hearing Taylor screaming “HARRRINGTON!” repeatedly.

Spoilers: “And When the Sky Was Opened” doesn’t provide a reason for the disappearances—and eventually all three pilots and their craft vanish out of reality and memory—but this remaining mystery is what makes the episode memorable. One possible explanation is that none of the men were supposed to survive the crash of the X-20, and the timeline is correcting itself. However, since the X-20 also vanishes, this explanation doesn’t make sense. If they were supposed to die in the crash, then they should turn into dead bodies and people should remember them, but claim that they never survived the crash, despite what Forbes recalls. The “wiped from memory and collaborative evidence erased” doesn’t match with them dying in a failed landing. This explanation also doesn’t take into account the mystery twenty-four hours when the X-20 went off the radar. What happened then? Something made the mistake of letting these men go, and has started to fix its mistake, as in the 2004 movie The Forgotten (which has many striking similarities to this episode, now that I think of it). So what is this something? I have no idea. But it’s enjoyable to wonder about it, and therefore I’m willing to give this episode the benefit of the doubt despite repeated sweaty screams of “HARRRRRINGTON!”

Trivia: Actor Charles Aidman would later star in a classic Twilight Zone episode, “Little Girl Lost.” But his great legacy in Zone history is as Rod Serling’s replacement as narrator in the mid-1980s revival of the show. The older Aidman’s voice sounds freakishly like Serling’s.