Thursday, December 29, 2011

"The Last Flight"



“The Last Flight”
Season One, Episode 18
Original air date:  February 5, 1960
                                                
Cast:
Flight Lieutenant William Decker: Kenneth Haigh
Major Wilson: Simon Scott
Major General George Harper: Alexander Scourby
Air Vice-Marshall Alexander Mackaye: Robert Warwick
Corporal: Harry Raybould
Guard: Jerry Catron

Crew:
Writer: Richard Matheson (original teleplay)
Director: William Claxton
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler and Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Joseph Gluck
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
“This is the model of a Nieuport—fighter aircraft, vintage, World War One.  Next week it’s flown on a patrol over France in 1917 and its pilot discovers that time has passed him by.  Kenneth Haigh stars next week in Richard Matheson’s exciting story of ‘The Last Flight,’ on the Twilight Zone.  We hope you’ll join us.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Witness Flight Lieutenant William Terrance Decker, Royal Flying Corps, returning from a patrol somewhere over France.  The year is 1917.  The problem is the Lieutenant is hopelessly lost.  Lieutenant Decker will soon discover that a man can be lost not only in terms of and maps and miles, but also in time, and time in this case can be measured in eternities.”

Summary:
            Flight Lieutenant William Decker of the Royal Flying Corps is on a routine patrol over France in 1917 when he gets lost and lands on an American SAC base.  Immediately upon landing he is met by American military officials who inquire into who he is and why he has landed on their airbase.  Decker notices that the base and all of its planes and equipment are far more advanced than anything he is accustomed to in Britain.  He is then taken inside for questioning.
            Once inside, Lieutenant Decker is escorted by Major Wilson to the office of Major General George Harper for briefing.  He begins to notice that everyone is eyeing him strangely.  In the General’s office Decker tells the two men that he is a pilot for the Royal Flying Corps and that he landed on their base because he was lost.  Major Wilson asks him what year it is and he says 1917.  The two Americans look suspiciously at one another and then inform him that it is not 1917 but 1959.  It’s clear to Decker that the men do not believe him and that he must look like a lunatic to them.  Decker mentions that the last thing he remembers is being on patrol with Captain Alexander Mackaye and then wandering into a mysterious cloud and getting lost.  The General informs him that Alexander Mackaye is now the Air Vice-Marshall for the Royal Air Force and is in fact on his way to their base for a routine inspection.  Decker tells them that that isn’t possible because Mackaye is dead.
            Later on Decker is being held in a room until Air Vice-Marshall Mackaye arrives.  Major Wilson enters and attempts to grill Decker for more information.  He asks Decker why he believes that Alexander Mackaye is dead.  Decker tells him that the last time he saw Mackaye they were being attacked by German pilots and that Decker ran from the fight and left Mackaye to die by himself.  But Wilson insists that it no longer matters because Mackaye survived the attack.  Decker knows that the reason Mackaye survived the attack is because someone must have saved him, but he realizes that the only person that could have done it is himself.  Somehow he needs to get back to his own time in order to save Mackaye’s life.  He decks Major Wilson across the face, races out of the room, manages to make it back to his plane and then takes off into the clouds, leaving 1959 behind him.
            Later, after Air Vice-Marshall Mackaye arrives at the base, he is greeted by Major General Harper and Major Wilson.  They ask him if he knows a man named William Decker.  Mackaye recounts the story of how they were on patrol one day when they were ambushed by a half dozen German planes.  He says that Decker disappeared into the clouds for a moment as if he were running from the fight, but then came back firing away at the German planes and took out several of them before they destroyed him.  He saved Mackaye’s life.   The General and Major Wilson share a glance between each other before they inform the Air Vice-Marshall that Lieutenant Decker, who died in 1917, left their airbase only hours ago.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Dialogue from a play, Hamlet to Haratio: ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’  Dialogue from a play written long before men took to the sky.  There are more things in Heaven and Earth, and in the sky, that perhaps can be dreamt of.  And somewhere in between Heaven, the sky, the Earth…lies the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
            “The Last Flight” marks the first non-Serling script to go into production, although Charles Beaumont’s “Perchance to Dream” was the first to air.  By the time Matheson began writing for The Twilight Zone, he had already established a significant place for himself in the world of popular fiction as a prose writer.  But Hollywood, especially television, was still a predominantly new field for him.  “The Last Flight” was only the second television script that Matheson wrote by himself, the first being the 1958 pilot episode for an anthology series called Now is Tomorrow that never aired.  Up until this point, he and Charles Beaumont had collaborated on teleplays for various programs including Buckskin, Have Gun-Will Travel, and Wanted: Dead or Alive.  The two friends had known each other since the early 1950’s and had both recently decided to attempt a career in television after having tremendous success in the prose markets. Since it was a new medium to both of them, and they knew very little of the intricacies of the television industry, they decided to collaborate on a number of projects. They joined the Preminger-Stuart Agency in Los Angeles and began pitching ideas to producers on a regular basis.  This would eventually lead to Buck Houghton and Rod Serling.  
            In early 1959, in addition to opening submissions to freelance writers, Serling and Houghton held a screening of “Where is Everybody?” for several writers that had already established names for themselves, and Beaumont and Matheson were among those in attendance.  Unlike the shows they had previously submitted scripts and stories to, which were all either westerns or police dramas (two genres that were in abundance in the 1950’s), The Twilight Zone was more suited to their abilities as fantasists.  Since speculative fiction was second nature to both of them they decided that they wouldn’t need to collaborate on their scripts for the show.  After selling Houghton and Serling his two short stories, “Disappearing Act” and “Third From the Sun,” Matheson was unofficially hired to write his own scripts.  At first he wanted to write only original material for the show but later on he would adapt several of his own stories.  Matheson says that he sold Serling and Houghton the idea for “The Last Flight” with one sentence: a British World War I pilot gets lost and lands on an American SAC base in 1959.  He had no storyline other than this simple premise but the idea was peculiar and vivid enough that they bought it immediately.  The thing that sets The Twilight Zone apart from many television shows of this time period is that it was a devoutly writer-friendly program.   Matheson recalls that in all of the fourteen scripts that he submitted to Rod Serling, no word was ever changed.  Serling had already seen many of own scripts rewritten for various reasons (usually to appease the unforgiving scrutiny of oppressive network officials or prudent advertisers) so he handled the scripts of others with the utmost devotion to authenticity (although it should be noted that the title of this episode was changed from “Flight” to “The Last Flight” for unknown reasons).  Everything in this episode was written by Matheson with the exception of the opening and closing narrations which were written by Serling, as was all of the narration from the first season.  I am not exactly sure when Matheson began writing his own narration but I know that for his first few scripts he wasn’t aware that Serling preferred for writers to write their own intro and outro.
            Matheson’s episodes, like much of his fiction, are defined not so much by his characters, but by his ideas.  And while “The Last Flight” isn’t the most original idea he would bring to this program (for the time travel paradox is in fact one of the oldest and most overused plot devices in the field of science fiction), Matheson adds enough mystery and detail to the story to make it interesting.  It was a smart move to set the episode entirely in the present.  When the audience first encounters Decker they know absolutely nothing about him, which makes his past as mysterious to them as it does to Major Wilson and Major General Harper.  Another nice twist that defies the usual time travel paradox is that Decker does not want to return to his own time because he is afraid of being killed by the German planes.  But at the same time he is afraid of remaining in the present because he doesn’t want to face Mackaye.  It is only once he realizes that as long as he remains in 1959, Mackaye will never arrive at the SAC base because he will not have survived the attack.  And he arrives at the understanding that he has the opportunity to become a hero instead of remaining a coward. What he may or may not realize, however, is that he will sacrifice his own life in the process. 
This episode is a great example of Matheson’s skill at being able to adapt easily to the format of The Twilight Zone, a format which, as Matheson has said many times, was one of the key features to the show’s success.  He grabs the audience’s attention at the very beginning (the vivid contrast of a single engine Nieuport airplane from 1917 landing next to an advanced, military jet aircraft from 1959), and holds their interest until the end of Act I where he leaves them with a cliffhanger (Decker saying that Mackaye is dead) and then reveals everything in Act II (Decker confessing his cowardice) and wraps up the story with a logical explanation of the events (Mackaye’s story of how Decker saved his life).  He also knew that time travel should remain purely fantasy and should not be given any kind of theoretical explanation.  This way the audience focuses more on the story than on the science and the writer can get away with more.
While “The Last Flight” isn’t one of Matheson’s more memorable episodes (for he scripted some of the finest episodes that this program has to offer), it remains an enjoyable story with a solid script and fine acting from all four of the major players. 

Grade: B

Notes:
--This is the first of four episodes directed by William Claxton, who also directed the season two episode “The Jungle” and the season three episodes “The Little People” and “I Sing the Body Electric.” 
--"The Last Flight" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Charles Shaughnessy (Falcon Picture Group, 2002).

--Brian Durant


8 comments:

  1. Good acting helps save The Last Flight from mediocrity, as does its You Are There vibe, which makes it feel like a true story, maybe an entry in the One Step Beyond series. Kenneth Haigh is particularly good as Decker. His light, amiable presence makes his character all the more sympathetic. The ending is wistful, and the tone overall is gentler than in later episodes in the Twilight Zone. The show was still finding itself, trying a little of this and a little of that in its early entries, of which this is one.

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  2. I agree with you, John. The show was still growing its wings at this point and "The Last Flight," while still a good, solid episode, doesn't adequately represent Richard Matheson's voice on the show, which tended to be bleak and unsympathetic. And Kenneth Haigh does do a great job here. Thanks for checking out the site!

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  3. Speaking of wings, Brian, having just watched The Last Flight again, and having thoroughly enjoyed it,--TV shows were so well made back then, and I mean built--I was reminded of just how many "Zones" were airborne, whether literally or figuratively, including, of course, space travel. The series began with the prospect of space travel with Where Is Everybody?, and there are a number of other airborne sequences early on. Height, and I don't mean the physical stature of human beings (though sometimes, yes, as as The Little People, The Invaders, Last Night Of A Jockey, I suppose the ventriloquist dummy eps, even Stopover In A Quiet Town).

    Or maybe Rod Serling had a fascination with things vertical; and maybe a fear as well. Even the all indoors The After Hours has that department store top floor that doesn't exist, the creepy elevators. The Lateness Of the Hour, the Talking Tina ep and Uncle Simon prominently feature staircases. In Ring-a Ding Girl Bunny Blake is killed in a plane crash. Hazel Court and Mark Richman encounter tiny aliens and their big balloon in the underrated The Fear.

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  4. My daughter thought the pilot had "the cutest accent." This episode had the virtue of being the first time travel episode. The gimmick quickly wore thin...

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    1. I definitely agree that the time travel theme grew tiresome pretty quickly but it's one that can be approached many different ways, so it's understandable that the show would return to it so often. "The Last Flight" is pretty solid but it's not my favorite time travel episode. If I had to pick one I would probably go with "Walking Distance." "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" is also really good.

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    2. According to our Genre Guide to the series, 19 episodes concerned time travel. That's tied with "Enchanted Objects" for most episodes on the same theme.

      "Walking Distance" is probably the best time travel episode. I'd also throw in "Execution" as a quality take on the theme. "Death Ship" is sometimes regarded as a time travel episode. Matheson's original story is included in the Vandermeers's definitive anthology on the subject, The Time Traveler's Almanac (2013). I placed "Death Ship" under "Death and the Afterlife" in our Genre Guide.

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  5. I just watched The Last Flight again and the quality dialogue was what struck me this time. Yes, Decker's reaction to the U.S. air base of 1959 seems a bit too reserved, given the "shock" of what he's actually seeing (gigantic jets, helicopters, all dwarfing his little fighter plane), but no matter. The episode had to get the job done, and as a character study it's quite good. Decker's admission of cowardice was both moving and credible; Kenneth Haigh really sold it. The paradox of his being alive in 1959 and his friend Mackaye, presumably dead, now a senior air officer, is nicely dealt with, and this brings out the hero in him. It's more of a moving little drama than a true fantasy episode.

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    1. It's a solid episode for sure. The dialogue is really good and Haigh carries the episode well. This one always felt more like a Serling episode than a Matheson episode. Maybe its because of Serling's association with war-related episodes or his fascination with airplanes but it seems like one that would have fit his personality well. I actually don't think I have seen it since I wrote this review but I believe I'll give it another viewing sometime very soon. As always, thanks for an informed and thoughtful comment, John.

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