Twilight Zone Marathon: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

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Welcome back to my Twilight Zone Marathon! Today, I’m taking a look at a classic episode starring a very young William Shatner, later remade for the Twilight Zone Movie with John Lithgow. I’m of course talking about “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”

Robert “Bob” Wilson and his wife are taking a flight home. Having just spent 6 months in a sanitarium because of a breakdown he suffered on a previous flight, Bob is understandably antsy from the get-go. This only gets worse when he spots an apparent gremlin tearing up the wing of the plane. Is this creature all in Bob’s head, or could they all be in serious danger?

I’ll admit, knowing the twist to this one didn’t surprise me, although the paranoia is rampant in this one. I feel like this is the kind of episode you wouldn’t want to watch before flying, simply because of the danger aspect. If there’s one thing I’ll immediately praise this episode for, it’s that it had me slightly on edge despite knowing the outcome. The paranoia factor makes things feel a bit tense throughout, both in that you don’t quite know if the gremlin is real or if something will happen to the plane because of it.

As far as the acting, it’s top notch in this one. His wife is appropriately concerned the more he spouts off seeing the gremlin, which jumps away before others can see it. She does a fine enough job, but this episode is carried by Shatner. Aside from a few goofy expressions, Shatner does a great job showing Bob’s spiral into paranoia and fear of relapsing into another breakdown. I’ve never been a huge fan of his, but he brings enough subtlety to the role to make you side with the character.

Where things start to fall flat for me is with the gremlin itself, purely from a design standpoint. I get that Twilight Zone was never an extremely high-budget show, but I just couldn’t feel scared by this thing. I did feel tense when it was focused on tearing up the plane, though, and its introduction during a storm (before we clearly see its face) is a little unnerving. However, the rest of the time I felt like I was looking at a mutated monkey man. The effect of him jumping away occasionally (most likely wire work) also looked a bit silly.

Despite the poor gremlin design, this episode was fun and simple from beginning to end. I liked that, aside from the end, it took place strictly in an airplane. There’s something about such tight quarters that always feels unnerving and adds to any tension, especially here. It was a bit funny to see someone holstering a pistol on a commercial flight, but that’s hardly a nitpick due to the time period. I liked that we got a good deal of information about Bob’s breakdown to really hammer in how much flying in general gets to him, making it harder to tell if he’s truly seeing things or not. It’s a great build-up to the ending, which pays off pretty well.

Overall, I liked “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” While it wasn’t scary, it did carry some suspense and definitely a lot of tension throughout. I enjoy a good paranoia story once in a while, and I think this one still holds up (minus the gremlin costume). If you like those kinds of stories, anything involving flights, or William Shatner himself, watch this episode.

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