10 June 2009

Twilight Zone: The Last Flight

We are now at the halfway point of the first season of The Twilight Zone, and so let’s all put our hands together and give a bit Muppet greeting to—in his first solo writing gig for the show—Mr. Richard Matheson! Yeaaaaaah! (This must be done with a Kermit the Frog voice.)
Episode #18: The Last Flight
Directed by William Claxton. Written by Richard Matheson. Starring Kenneth Haigh, Simon Scott, Alexander Scourby, Robert Warwick, Jack Perkins.

“Witness Flight Lieutenant William Terrance Decker, Royal Flying Corps, returning from a patrol somewhere over France. The year is 1917. The problem is that the Lieutenant is hopelessly lost. Lieutenant Decker will soon discover that a man can be lost not only in terms of maps and miles, but also in time. And time, in this case, can be measured in eternities.”

After Rod Serling, Richard Matheson is the author most associated with The Twilight Zone. Matheson had a tremendous affect on horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and not just from his considerable work on Zone. His stories have appeared on many anthology programs, and Stephen King considers him one of the strongest influences on his own writing. Matheson’s short story “Duel” became Steven Spielberg’s first film. Matheson’s most famous literary work is I Am Legend, perhaps the finest vampire novel ever written, and which has so far appeared on the big screen in three different versions—none of which has gotten the story right. His other popular novels include Hell House (filmed as the excellent The Legend of Hell House), What Dreams May Come (made into a film with Robin Williams), and Bid Time Return (adapted to film as Somewhere in Time).

In other words, Matheson is a pretty important speculative-fiction writer.

Serling adapted two of Matheson’s stories for Twilight Zone episodes during the first half of the season: “And When the Sky Was Opened” and “Third from the Sun.” But with “The Last Flight,” Matheson took over the full scripting duties.

In Matheson’s Twilight Zone library, “The Last Flight” ranks as average material. The author had classics ahead of him like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “The Invaders,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Death Ship,” and “Night Call.” But average Matheson is still excellent for most anybody else, and “The Last Flight” visits the well-trodden path of the time-travel tale with rewarding results.

The British World War I pilot William Decker (Haigh) mentioned in the narration passes through a strange white cloud and then lands at a U.S. Air Force Base in France—in 1959. While waiting for the U.S.S. Enterprise to swing past the base for the episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” Lt. Decker tries to figure out what has happened to him and why he’s come forward to this base at this particular time.

Like much of Matheson’s work, there’s more trickery occurring beyond what appears like the initial trick. Decker discovers from General Harper (Scourby), the base commander who thinks this Brit in the silly uniform is some sort of prankster, that Air Vice Marshal Alexander Mackaye (Warwick) will make a visit to the base later that day. This shocks Decker: not only did he and Mackaye fly together in World War I, he’s convinced that Mackaye died in a German attack.

Decker has put himself on a flight collision course with a time-paradox. Can he stop the indestructible robot from killing Sarah Connor? Or can he return USAF Captain John Christopher to his base without memories of the Enterprise so his son can go to Jupiter? You know the story, and even though we’ve seen a trillion and one variations on it, it still works because the script and Haigh’s performance provide a good character arc that gives the paradox dramatic weight. It’s a solid start off the blocks for Matheson, but wait until he reaches top speed.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 bonus-sighting: The small part of the mechanic is played by none other than A&E Biography host Jack Perkins, whom Mike Nelson performed as a parody character a number of times on MST3K. Perkins is a fan of the show, and therefore a very cool guy.