S01E18 – The Last Flight
“A World War I flying ace flies through a mysterious cloud - and lands at a modern U.S. air base in the year 1959!”
Although Rod Serling had previously adapted one of Richard Mathieson’s stories for the Twilight Zone episode And When The Sky Was Open, The Last Flight represents the acclaimed (and for good reason) author’s first self-penned screenplay for the show. It also happens to be the first episode to take the show’s title somewhat literally.
According to the Twilight Zone Archives…
The original phrase "twilight zone," came from the early 1900's, used to describe a distinct condition between fantasy and reality. The phrase then evolved into a term used to define the lowest level of the ocean that light can reach, and then as an aeronautical term used by the U.S. Air Force. When Rod Serling was asked how he came up with the title The Twilight Zone, he replied, "I thought I'd made it up, but I've heard since that there is an Air Force term relating to a moment when a plane is coming down on approach and it cannot see the horizon. It's called the twilight zone, but it's an obscure term which I had not heard before."
So, while not exactly in sync with the USAF’s use of the term “twilight zone,” this tale of a strange cloud in the sky that disorientates pilots is pretty close. Of course, said cloud doesn’t just discombobulate them. There’s a bit of time travel involved as well, a component which (unless they’re not telling us something) is not included in the Air Force’s definition. But while the time-hopping aspect of this episode might not apply to real life servicemen, the fear of dying during combat displayed by the main character certainly does.
The military does its best to prepare their troops for the stress of combat, but even seasoned soldiers can have moments of panic, extreme anxiety, or utter indecision. This type of short-term behavioral disorganization is officially referred to as Combat Stress Reaction (CSR), though ‘combat fatigue’ is the more common moniker amongst the rank and file. So it’s hard to completely fault Flight Lieutenant Decker when he momentarily freaks out and abandons his fellow airman in the middle of a dogfight. It could happen to anybody.
However, the fact that Decker’s done it more than once and keeps covering it up so that no one will look down on him, that’s a problem. As Walter Farrell, O.P notes in his Companion to the Summa Theologica…
It is not, of course, wrong to feel fear. A good ghost story should cause goose flesh and shivers; a mysterious noise at night might well make our knees knock and our teeth chatter. There are things that should be feared, things like snakes, broken legs and tornadoes; but we should fear those things reasonably, not suffering damnation in an attempt to escape snakes. For if, feeling fear as every man does, we allow that fear to take command of our action, then we are cowards.
Decker knows that each time he enters combat he is going to turn tail and run, thereby increasing the odds that his comrades will die. And yet he keeps doing it, excusing his actions because there was a good chance those who perished were going to do so anyway. It is war, after all. But his little jaunt to the future shows Decker that his cowardly actions have ramifications far beyond the battlefield, that untold numbers of people who would otherwise have lived will now die prematurely because of Decker’s continued cowardice. No person’s choices rarely affect only themselves. This lesson learned, Decker is finally able to choose the path of courage and do what is necessary. He dies a hero. More importantly, as Farrell might put it, he doesn’t suffer damnation in an attempt to escape snakes.
Overall, The Last Flight is a solid episode and a strong debut for Mathieson, though his best are yet to come. It’s also an interesting one because Mathieson, despite his Christian Scientist upbringing, is usually considered much less of a moralist than Serling was. Maybe so, but you couldn’t tell it from The Last Flight.
Twilight Tidbits: The 1918 Nieuport biplane used in this episode was something of a star itself, having previously appeared in such films as The Dawn Patrol, Men With Wings, Lafayette Escadrille, and The Last Squadron.