CBS’s The Twilight Zone
Season 1, Episode 2: “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet”
Directed by Greg Yaitanes
Written by Marco Ramirez
Based on the teleplay and short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” by Richard Matheson
* For a recap & review of the premiere, “The Comedian” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Replay” – click here
Justin Sanderson (Adam Scott) is heading through security to board a flight. He’s having trouble. It takes an additional scan before he makes it past and into the terminal. He goes to one of the shops and sees a magazine with an article of his in it called “The End of Civility?” He and another man— Joe Beaumont (Chris Diamantopoulos), a pilot— go for the same copy. Once Joe realises Justin is the very author of the article it’s a funny introduction. Justin offers to buy a copy for him, and Joe asks him to autograph it.
Afterwards he calls his wife briefly. He talks about his latest assignment not being “high stress.” He mentions his time in Yemen, where he “saw some fucked up shit.” He probably has PTSD. Right now, he’s headed for Tel Aviv. Spooky or not: his flight number is 1015, it’s October 15th, and his departure time was bumped from 9:30 to 10:15.
Usually Father Gore would say coincidence— not in the Twilight Zone.
Justin gives his seat up to a Muslim family who are having trouble with their infant and older child. He’s sent back to the main cabin where he finds a seat. On the same flight is Beaumont. Justin sits down then finds an mp3 player tucked away behind the seat in front of him, and on it is a podcast called Enigmatique with an episode titled “The Tragic Mystery of Flight #1015.” He’s curious, so he turns it on. The podcast narrator essentially narrates everything he’s seeing, and he says people on the flight will never be seen again. Our Narrator, Jordan Peele, appears on the in-flight screens. He begs the question: can Mr. Sanderson, an investigative journalist, manage his way through the strange dimension that is the Twilight Zone? And, on this flight, what’s at stake if he can’t?
Enigmatique’s narrator mentions a Captain Donner (Nicholas Lea), who’s the same man piloting the plane. Things are getting freaky, so the author asks the man in the seat next to him to listen to the podcast, hoping he’ll be proven wrong, but the guy’s a germophobe. Justin listens more. He hears about a flock of birds nearby, as well as the harbinger of a “dead bird” in the aviation world. Then, as if it’s actually occurred, Justin can feel the explosion of an engine. Who knows what type of brutality he witnessed in Yemen, and now that could be coming to bear on his psychology at the worst of moments.
The past is past
Justin calls one of the flight attendants to ask about a bird and a sound in the engine. He’s starting to look paranoid. Others notice him raising his voice. He apologises to the attendant and says he’ll “shut up.” Post-9/11, heading to Tel Aviv out of America— things could get very unsettling if Mr. Sanderson isn’t careful. It doesn’t help that Joe reaffirms the notion that there WAS a bird outside.
(Quick theory spitball: is Joe actually real? Or a figment of Justin’s imagination?)
The podcast is prompting Justin to investigate. He begins looking for anything unusual. Nobody stands out, except for Justin himself. The podcaster suggests a device may interfere with the flight. Hmm, maybe like the mp3 player? Well, Justin doesn’t think of that, he goes right to the Sikh men using a device across the rows. He’s starting to look like a paranoid white man with Islamophobia running so wild he can’t tell a Muslim from a Sikh. When the podcaster talks of a gentleman called Igor Orlov (Alexander Mandra), who’s on the flight headed to rat on the Russian mob, then a U.S. Marshal, it gets our author’s brain running laps.
Joe’s convinced Sanderson to look through the Russian’s luggage, resulting in him knocking stuff out of the overhead cabin and waking Orlov— or, who he thinks is Orlov, anyway. The entire plane’s suspicious of Justin now, and the real Orlov comes rushing out of the 1st Class cabin causing a bigger scene. Cpt. Donner comes back from the cockpit to warn the author to relax. Everybody on the plane’s recording this, too.
When Justin turns the podcast back on, the narrator says it’s Mr. Sanderson who’s “directly linked” to the cause of the flight’s disappearance, confirmed by video that gets uploaded to the internet right before the plane vanishes. Suddenly, Cpt. Donner grabs Justin, believing he’s having a “psychotic break.” They put the author in ties after the air marshal reveals herself, though he tries to tell the pilot not to say the fated final words of Flight #1015: “Goodnight, New York.”
Justin’s seated with the U.S. Marshal. She says help will be available for him when they land. He tries convincing her he knows what a breakdown is and that he has proof of what’s about to happen. It just isn’t convincing enough. While she speaks to the pilot, Justin grabs the headphones again. Joe sits with him and reassures him via the magic of flight: “Just the fact that we‘re in this plane means anything‘s possible.”
So, Justin suggests Beaumont take control of the plane. They need the code to the cockpit first. Guess what it is: 1015. Joe heads inside, takes violent charge of the controls, and prepares to lead Flight #1015… somewhere. Everybody in the cabin is panicking. Cpt. Beaumont knocks everybody out by fucking with the systems, and Justin manages to get his oxygen mask to prevent himself from falling asleep.
But Joe utters those familiar words: “Goodnight, New York.” Uh oh.
Soundtrack note: “Fly Me to the Moon” by Frank Sinatra follows the flight’s descent after Joe takes the reins.
Justin wakes. Next to him is a doll floating in the water— a great visual callback to the original gremlin creature on the plane’s wing from The Twilight Zone‘s 1963 episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” starring William Shatner and directed by Richard Donner (whose name the pilot bears). The author can’t find anyone else on the shoreline. He does find the mp3 player and turns on a Part 2 of the Flight #1015 episode. The podcast’s narrator tells of a lengthy search for survivors. Until a cargo ship found a small strip of land where all the survivors were still alive. Well, all but one.
What exactly happened to the author?
The other passengers saw to it he wouldn’t be found out there on that lonely island. Ever.
Our Narrator, Mr. Peele, remarks that the investigative journalist couldn’t investigate himself, unwilling to look inward and constantly looking outward for the source of the problem. What’s compelling is when we look at it as an allegory for 2019’s state of journalism, particularly in America. We have so many journalists out there who’ve refused to look at their own actions, such as how Trump was covered before his election and everything else wrapped up in that, to the misogyny and racism which so often unconsciously and consciously dictates reporting, to the situation with white supremacists being re-branded as the ‘alt-right’ and given a media makeover, to so many other instances where journalists lament the state of things today while simultaneously refusing to look at their role in how it got this way.
“The End of Civility?” article is a good image signifying all that’s been wrong with the state of journalism, as a white writer like Sanderson is probably questioning the rhetoric of 2019 and wondering why we all can’t just sit down and have high tea with neo-Nazis to solve our problems. Not a coincidence Justin is white and on a flight with plenty of people of colour, all of whom he’s nearly killed all because of his inability to see what he’s doing by his own hand. Genius writing.
A FANTASTIC EPISODE! Stellar update to the classic episode. Truly exciting, surreal, and, above all, filled with relevance, as were many of the best of the original Rod Serling Twilight Zone adventures.
“Replay” is next time.