Original Air Date: December 11, 1959
Writer: Richard Matheson/Rod Serling
Director: Douglas Heyes
Loosely based on Richard Matheson’s short story called “Disappearing Act” published in 1953 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Twilight Zone episode “And When The Sky Was Opened” deals with a popular series theme: the connection between space exploration and altered reality. In this episode, both time and memory are erased as a crew of three astronauts are isolated and driven insane before they ultimately disappear from all records.
“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. But the shrouds that cover mysteries are not always made out of a tarpaulin, as this man will soon find out on the other side of a hospital door.”
A three-man crew piloting an experimental spacecraft called the “X-20 DynaSoar” suddenly disappears from radar during a test flight. They vanish but then they are discovered after having crashed in the desert sending one of its crew members, Major William Gart (played by Jim Hutton) to the hospital with a broken leg. While in the hospital he is visited by his friend and co-pilot Lieutenant Colonel Klegg Forbes (played by the Hollywood rising star, Rod Taylor, who later appeared in films like The Birds and Inglourious Basterds).
“When you walked out of here yesterday morning, you walked out alone! There’s never been three beds in this room, only two. Yours and mine.“
Colonel Forbes interrogates Gart about their third crew member: Ed Harrington (played by Charles Aidman) but there is no official record of Harrington and Gart has no memory of him either. The episode flashes back to Harrington and Forbes in a bar after the crash wherein Harrington suddenly starts feeling strange. He drops his beer in a dramatic moment and calls his parents, but they say they have no son. Suddenly, Ed Harrington disappears entirely and Forbes looks at a photo that has Harrington removed, the bartender claims Forbes entered the bar alone, there is also no spilled beer on the floor. Ed Harrington has mysteriously vanished from the face of the Earth and only Forbes remembers.
After hearing Forbes’s story, Gart still claims not to remember anyone named Ed Harrington. They start to suspect that their ship crossed a forbidden boundary. In fact, Forbes starts feeling unusual just like Harrington. He looks in the mirror but sees no reflection of himself. He screams running out of the room, but just when Gart tries to follow him, the noise stops and Forbes disappears from all records. Gart sees a photo in a newspaper but shockingly it it only shows Gart, the newspaper reads: “Lone Astronaut Returns From Space.” Stricken with fear he lays down.
In an epilogue, a military man comes to the hospital asking the nurse for an empty room. She leads him to where Gart and Forbes were once recovering only to reveal a totally empty room. The experimental “X-20 DynaSoar” craft had actually disappeared and never returned. In the episode we bear witness to 1950s anxieties about space travel, brain-washing, memory loss, and the puzzling notion of non-being.
“Once upon a time, there was a man named Harrington, a man named Forbes, a man named Gart. They used to exist, but don’t any longer. Someone – or something- took them somewhere. At least they are no longer a part of the memory of man. And as to the X-20 supposed to be housed here in this hangar, this, too, does not exist. And if any of you have any questions concerning an aircraft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them – and only in – The Twilight Zone.”
A central question posed by this episode is: what if reality is fluid rather than static? Knowledge demands consistency, however modern theories of multiple realities beg certain uncomfortable questions about relativism and the futility of human endurance. If we can simply be erased from history then civilization is hopeless, it brings to mind efforts by the Soviets to wholly erase people from photographs –a sobering thought from another compelling episode in this series.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- In the original script Rod Serling wrote about a crashed spacecraft but it was deemed too expensive.
- The episode title is a parody of a line from the children’s nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence;” “When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing; Wasn’t that a dainty dish, To set before the king?”
- The scene of Forbes busting through the bar’s glass door was encouraged by Rod Serling and Douglas Heyes though it was not in the script.
- This was Jim Hutton’s television debut.
- Charles Aidman later became the narrator of The Twilight Zone reboot series in the 1980s.
Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.
This and The Legend Of Hell House were the first two experiences that won my respect for Richard Matheson’s writing talents.
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