The Twilight Zone (Episode #18): “The Last Flight” (airdate 2/5/60)
The Plot: A cowardly WWI pilot lands at the right base but at the wrong time – 42 years after he takes off.
The Goods: This episode is a true joy to watch because it’s a sci-fi mystery nested in other mysteries that need to be solved. Lt. William Decker (Kenneth Haigh) brings his Nieuport biplane and British stiff upper lip onto a French base that he believes is controlled by, you know, the French. When he lands, he finds it run by the United States, who wasn’t expecting his presence. Of course, Major General Harper (Alexander Scourby) takes him into custody for questioning.
His story is a fantastic one that involves dogfighting in WWI, magic clouds, being from the past, and watching a colleague’s plane go down. Even though he has identification and personal effects from the time period, the man he claims he abandoned to die back in The Great War (“Leadbottom” McKaye) is actually now an Air Vice Marshall who is coming to the base for an inspection.
So who is Decker? Is he a pilot from the past who flew through a strange time-traveling cloud and ended up in 1959 for what seems like no reason? Is he an assassin with a fabulous story trying to gain access to a high-ranking Royal Air Force member?
There’s little doubt to the answer, but that doesn’t make this episode clear-cut by any means. Since Decker is confused as to why he’s there (and because this was written by Richard Matheson (a known fan of magical time travel clouds)), the audience has to find out what little details there are along the way. Fortunately, the story isn’t a lightweight series of odd events – it’s a soft sci-fi tale that questions whether knowledge of the future can affect our decisions in the present. The intrigue is matched by the simple intensity of seeing a man in custody on a military base. There’s an “How will our hero get himself out of this one?” element to the proceedings that occurs in the immediate while the back of our minds keep trying to figure out what’s really going on.
Of course, what’s really going on creates a time travel paradox. Decker goes back to his own time to save his friend specifically because he sees the future where he saves his friend. It isn’t a parallel universe or an It’s a Wonderful Life style breathing hypothetical; Decker advances in time enough to see the result of what happens when he learns what happens in the future. He knows he can do it because he’s seen that he did it.
However, alongside a science fiction that hopes you won’t think too deeply about the time bending, Rod Serling and company deliver a serious price to pay for doing your duty that’s worth thinking deeply about.
A hell of a story, some strong acting all around, and a plot that continually surprises all the way to a very, very satisfying and bittersweet ending – this episode is definitely a stand out.
What do you think of the episode?
The Trivia: General Harper continually calls Air Marshall MacKaye, “sir,” even though they are equals as officers – a rare error made by a militaristically knowledgeable Rod Serling. Maybe he didn’t double check Matheson’s teleplay script.
On the Next Episode: A man with a special power in a war zone.
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.