The Twilight Zone: Season 5, Episode Three “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

Original Air Date: October 11, 1963
Writer: Richard Matheson
Director: Richard Donner

“I know I had a mental breakdown. I know I had it in an airplane. I know it looks to you as if the same thing is happening again, but it isn’t. I’m sure it isn’t.”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In another masterpiece by Richard Matheson, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” stars everyone’s favorite Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise in his second and final appearance in The Twilight Zone series. He plays a recent mental patient who is suddenly isolated with knowledge critical to the survival of an aircraft mid-flight. The somewhat ambiguous ending of this episode leaves the audience in a state of wonder, on par with other psychological mysteries in the series (“Where Is Everybody?” “Perchance To Dream,” “Twenty-Two”) as well episodes addressing air travel anxieties (“King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” and “The Arrival”). “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is a simple story but it is nevertheless an absolute classic and has since become culturally iconic. In our latter-day age of flashy effects and seizure-inducing explosions, I am ceaselessly reminded of our Twilight Zone forbearers who accomplished far more with much smaller budgets and more rudimentary effects, instead relying on superior scripts and writers.

“Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home—the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson’s flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he’s traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

Bob Williams (William Shatner) boards a plane with his wife, Julia (Christine White). He has recently recovered from a mental breakdown on an airplane and has spent six months in a sanitarium. He appears agitated as he sits next to the emergency exit. He hopes to have fully recovered from his breakdown so he can help Julia raise their children.

Shortly after take-off, Bob gazes out the window at the gathering storm where he suddenly spots a hairy gremlin creature walking around on the wing. In a panic, he alerts his wife and hails a stewardess but by the time they look out the window the creature has disappeared. This happens several times until the creature begins ripping up the engine so Bob steals a sleeping police officer’s gun and opens his window, releasing the cabin pressure, while he shoots at the creature. He barely clings to his life thanks to his seat belt as the dead creature slides off the airplane wing.

In the final scene of the episode, Bob is carried off the now-grounded plane. Julia reminds him that everything is ok now. He smiles and notes that he is the only one who realizes everything is ok now. The trauma of the vent can be starkly seen on his face as the camera pans back to the damaged airplane wing.

“The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer… though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer, for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

This episode plays around with themes of mental illness, delusions, and the gaslighting of one man’s fragile state of mind. In allusion to Aesop’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” we see Bob beg the airline crew members again and again to handle the gremlin on the wing as it rips apart the engine, but each time Bob calls for help the gremlin disappears. Was this merely the fever dream of a sick man? The ending would suggest not. We in the audience are constantly questioning Bob’s mental stability throughout the episode until the conclusion finally offers a satisfying acknowledgement of Bob’s experience not as hallucination, but rather as truth… at least insofar as truth might be attained in The Twilight Zone.

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • This was the thirteenth episode completed in production but the third episode to air in Season 5.
  • This episode is based on Richard Matheson’s 1962 short story of the same name. The idea for the story came to Mr. Matheson while flying aboard a passenger plane and gazing out the window. In the story the protagonist’s name was Arthur Jeffrey Wilson, a solo flyer on business who is struggling with suicidal thoughts.
  • Richard Matheson later expressed dismay at how the gremlin appeared in this episode. He found it unconvincing.
  • This was the second of four scripts Richard Matheson completed for the fifth season.
  • According to Richard Matheson, there were old legends among World War II RAF pilot about gremlins in their planes.
  • A version of this episode appeared as one of the segments in The Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983.
  • Roald Dahl wrote a similar story entitled “Gremlins” under the pen name “Pegasus.”
  • William Shatner and Christine White each appeared in earlier episodes of the series. Shatner starred in “Nick of Time” (1960) and White played the female lead in “The Prime Mover” (1961).
  • The gremlin is played by actor and acrobat, Nick Cravat, an associate of Burt Lancaster.
  • A year before this episode’s release, William Shatner appeared in a film called The Intruder (1962) which was scripted by fellow Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont.
  • Ed Kemmer plays the pilot in this episode, he was known for playing the Captain on the 1950s television show Space Patrol. As Marc Scott Zicree notes, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” brings together the celebrated space captain of the 1950s (Ed Kemmer) with the soon-to-be-celebrated space captain of the 1960s (William Shatner)
  • Richard Donner (1930-2021) directed numerous Hollywood films including The Omen (1976), Superman (1978), The Goonies (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), and many others. He also produced the Free Willy and X-Men franchises. He died at the age of 91 in 2021.
  • Apparently this shoot was a bit chaotic as the filming schedule moved from four to two days (per a tweet from William Shatner upon the passing of Richard Donner). The crew and actors were kept overnight to rapidly finish the episode. Bill Froug hired Richard Donner for five additional episodes.
  • Despite the sleep deprivation, the crew kept a light-hearted mood. Actors Edd Byrnes and William Shatner staged a fight on the wing of the plane. Director Richard Donner caught a glimpse just as Shatner’s body tumbled off the side of the wing falling 40 feet the ground below (it later turned out to be a dummy).
  • Rod Serling attempted another prank, this one on Richard Matheson. They were flying to San Francisco and Serling orchestrated an elaborate plot involving the airplane crew who taped a frightening photo of a gremlin to Matheson’s window seat, however the picture unfortunately blew away when the plane took off.
  • The airplane wing used in this episode was brought to the set from an out-of-service aircraft at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica.
  • This entire episode was shot at Stage 15 of the Warner Bros lot.
  • “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was wonderfully recreated in The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror IV” in which Bart Simpson’s school bus is plagued by a gremlin but no one believes Bart’s cries for help (the segment was called “Terror at 5 1/2 feet”).
  • “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was reimagined for the second half of the first episode of Jordan Peele’s 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone (starring Adam Scott) though instead of a gremlin, he is faced with an evil podcaster (Dan Carlin).

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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