Thursday, April 24, 2014

"The Odyssey of Flight 33"

Clockwise from left: Paul Comi, Harp McGuire, Sandy Kenyon, Wayne Heffley, John Anderson

"The Odyssey of Flight 33"
Season Two, Episode 54
Original Air Date: February 24, 1961

Captain Farver: John Anderson
1st Officer Craig: Paul Comi
Flight Engineer Purcell: Harp McGuire
2nd Officer Wyatt: Wayne Heffley
Navigator Hatch: Sandy Kenyon
Paula: Nancy Rennick
Jane: Beverly Brown
RAF Man: Lester Fletcher
Lady on Plane: Betty Garde
Passenger: Jay Overholts

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Justus Addiss
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Bill Mosher
Technical Advisor: Robert Serling
Dinosaur Sequence: Jack Harris & Project Unlimited
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"Next week you'll find each of your names on the passenger manifest of this jet aircraft that travels from London to New York City. You'll sit in these seats and you'll go through an experience unique beyond words and tense beyond anything I believe you've ever seen. You'll be departing next week at about this time in a vehicle we call 'The Odyssey of Flight 33.' But be prepared for a stop midway. . . in the Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"You're riding in a jet airliner en route from London to New York. You're at thirty five thousand feet atop an overcast and roughly fifty five minutes from Idlewild Airport. But what you've seen occur inside the cockpit of this plane is no reflection on the aircraft or the crew. It's a safe, well engineered, perfectly designed machine. And the men you've just met are a trained, cool, highly effecient team. The problem is simply that the plane is going too fast and there is nothing within the realm of knowledge, or at least logic, to explain it. Unbeknownst to passengers and crew, this airplane is heading into an uncharted region well off the beaten track of commercial travelers. It's moving into the Twilight Zone. What you're about to see, we call 'The Odyssey of Flight 33.'"

            During a routine commercial flight, and only a short distance from arrival at its scheduled destination, Global 33, a jet airliner, catches a sudden and strong tail wind that sends the aircraft careening forward at unsafe speeds. The crew attempts to contact a control tower but is unable to raise anyone on the radio. When a shock wave and blinding flash occur, the crew believe they have broken through the sound barrier. Unable to find their bearings using the instruments on board, Captain Farver decides to descend below the cloud cover in order to establish their location. The crew recognizes Manhattan and the surrounding islands but there is no sign of the city skyline or of human dwellings. As they get lower, the 1st Officer sees something that confirms a horrible suspicion. He sees a dinosaur below, feeding on the leaves of a tree. Global 33 has traveled backwards in time.
            Captain Farver decides that their only chance to get back home is to ascend again and pass back through the sound barrier that brought them here. After they pass through, the plane descends and the crew is delighted to see the recognizable buildings of New York below. The Navigation Officer cannot raise Idlewild Airport on the radio and instead manages to contact nearby LaGuardia airfield. There is some confusion as the air traffic controller on the other end has never heard of radar or a jet. Despite the confusion, he clears the plane to land. Upon their further descent, the crew members notice something below, the buildings that comprise the New York World's Fair, an event which happened in 1939, over twenty years previous. They come to the horrible realization that they came forward in time but not forward enough.
            At this point, Captain Farver decides to let the passengers in on the dire situation and makes an announcement on the final course of the aircraft. Dangerously low on fuel, Global 33 ascends a final time to pass back through the sound barrier in the hopes of emerging in its own time.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"A Global jet airliner, en route from London to New York on an uneventful afternoon in the year 1961, but now reported overdue and missing, and by now searched for on land, sea, and air by anguished human beings fearful of what they'll find. But you and I know where she is. You and I know what's happened. So if some moment, any moment, you hear the sound of jet engines flying atop the overcast, engines that sound searching and lost, engines that sound desperate, shoot up a flare or do something. That would be Global 33 trying to get home, from the Twilight Zone."


"They don't talk about the flight much anymore - at least the pros don't. On occasion a vastly theoretical article will appear in a Sunday supplement or mention will be made in a book on air disasters but, by and large, the world's day-to-day catastrophes are sufficient in scope and number to take even the loss of a giant airliner off the agenda."
           -"The Odyssey of Flight 33" by Rod Serling (More Stories from the Twilight Zone, 1961) 

            It is apparent that "The Odyssey of Flight 33" was a particularly important episode for Rod Serling. He brought his brother, Robert, an aviation writer for the United Press, on as Technical Advisor to assist him with aspects of the show and seems, through his manner and words, to be willing the episode a success. His preview narration states that the episode is "tense beyond anything I believe you've ever seen" and his script and the delivery of his narration quickly inform us that this is not going to be the usual Rod Serling effort. There is virtually no trace of humor, no moralizing, and no weighty conversations. Serling's script for "The Odyssey of Flight 33" is as lean as anything he wrote for the series. If anything, the viewer comes away from the episode wanting more, though some of that feeling is certainly our innate need to have a satisfactory conclusion. Serling does not give it to us. He delivers his tale quickly and accurately and then gets out of the way, letting the setup and the excellent acting carry the episode along. With "The Odyssey of Flight 33," Serling leaves us up in the air concerning the fate of the aircraft, its crew, and its passengers. It is left to conjecture and it is really the perfect ending to one of the very good episodes of the show.
            It may seem contradictory to compliment Serling on his ability to create a fast moving episode void of meandering and moralizing, not to mention the broad humor and dense dialogue which cropped up occasionally on the show, and to also fault it for the same reasons, but if there is one aspect of the episode which prevents it from being in the top tier it is that it comes off as too technical, too rigidly plot driven, with little time given to establishing that unique quality of the show's best episodes which uses fantasy to illuminate some insight into human nature. It is interesting to think how the episode would have played out on the broader canvas of an hour-long segment of the fourth season, a season during which Serling and company struggled to produce many episodes of real quality.
That being said, "The Odyssey of Flight 33" is a quick moving thriller which was produced with Serling's usual workmanlike efficiency and which displays the realistic settings and technical details of an industry which was, in 1961, endlessly fascinating to the average American, not to mention Serling himself. Serling served in the airborne division as a young man, was brother to an award winning aviation writer, and repeatedly returned to aircraft-based fantasies on The Twilight Zone such as "King Nine Will Not Return" and "The Arrival," both of which bear similarities to "The Odyssey of Flight 33." Upon his first time flying in a jet Serling wrote to his brother: "I couldn't help but think as we flew over the midwestern plains and then the deserts and mountains how long it had taken our ancestors, less than a century ago, to travel a journey that was taking me less than six hours - and how far we had come in technology in so short a time. Nor have I ever felt so secure in an airplane. When we began our descent into Los Angeles, I had the sensation that we were riding an enormous railroad track toward the ground." (The Epic of Flight: The Jet Age by Robert J. Serling, Time-Life, 1982). With "The Odyssey of Flight 33," Serling designed to portray the world of commercial air travel in a strictly accurate and technically sound manner. In the time after the episode aired, Robert Serling was to point out that the episode was, and remains, one of the most technically accurate offerings ever filmed on the subject of air travel.
Richard Matheson, another core writer on the series, produced a time travel episode based around an aircraft with "The Last Flight" for the first season, though Matheson used the idea not for displays of a technical nature but in the more traditional manner, for The Twilight Zone, at least, of exploring an aspect of the human condition through the lens of fantasy. Matheson returned to the theme in the fourth season to create one of the finest episodes The Twilight Zone aired that season, "Death Ship," and again, unforgettably, with the fifth season’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” both times using a clever plot device to explore broader, humanistic themes.
  Serling does not concern himself with this very much in "The Odyssey of Flight 33." Serling simply fastened onto a clever idea and rode the plot straight through, not even bothering to devise any sort of resolution (which he instinctively knew would ring hollow). Although known for the philosophical heft of his writings, Serling was a refreshingly efficient writer of thrillers and was perhaps at his best when finding that middle ground between plot driven thrillers and offerings of introspection and sociological comment. 

            Author Marc Scott Zicree, of The Twilight Zone Companion (Bantam, 1982), interviewed Robert Serling and learned the genesis of the episode. Rod Serling received mail from American Airlines in which the airline company was offering, to any production studio on the west coast, a mock-up of a 707 passenger cabin to be used for filming. American Airlines had used the item for training, built a replacement, and was now trying to sell off the first one. Rod Serling became fascinated with the idea of filming an episode within such an enclosed set and lit upon the idea of the aircraft traveling back in time after it picked up a strong tail wind and broke through the sound barrier.
            Robert Serling, then a Washington D.C. resident and award-winning aviation writer for the United Press, was visiting his brother Rod on the west coast at the time Rod received the correspondence from American Airlines. Though the two briefly discussed Rod's idea at the time, Robert went back to Washington and didn't hear anything more on the subject until about two weeks later when Rod, having moved forward with the idea as an episode The Twilight Zone, called Robert asking for help in creating authentic dialogue for the cockpit scenes, which would come to dominate the episode. With the help of a pilot for TWA also living in Washington, Robert came up with the technically accurate dialogue heard in the episode. The manner used, according to Robert Serling, was to act out the scenes with the TWA pilot while killing a bottle of bourbon through the course of a night. Rod later sent drafts of the script to his brother with Robert sending back corrections and suggestions for additional dialogue. The results were some incredibly tense and accurate cockpit scenes. The surprises and twists in the episode hinged on the accurate dialogue displaying the technical changes the commercial aircraft industry had undergone through its early years.

            The other interesting aspect of the episode's production is the brief dinosaur stop-motion animation sequence which established a visual element for the time travel aspect of the show. Film producer Jack H. Harris was contracted by Cayuga Productions to provide the animation. Harris returned to provide another stop-motion sequence of dinosaur action for the third season episode, "It's a Good Life." Harris scored a huge hit in 1958 with The Blob and in 1960 financed the dinosaur film Dinosaurus! which featured sequences of stop-motion animation. That film was co-produced and directed by Irvin Yeaworth, Jr., director of The Blob and 1959's 4-D Man, the latter also being a Jack Harris production. Dinosaurus! ultimately inspired the The Twilight Zone to contact Harris about providing the needed dinosaur footage.  
           The models created for Dinosaurus! were used to create new footage for "The Odyssey of Flight 33." The animation is the work of an accomplished group of special effects technicians known professionally as Project Unlimited, which was founded in 1957 by artists Wah Chang, Gene Warren, and Tim Baar to provide a multitude of special effects for film and television productions. Project Unlimited would produce visual effects, design props and sets, and create makeup effects for some of the most memorable works of mid-20th century science fiction, including George Pal's The Time Machine (1960), the Planet of the Apes film series, and television shows such as The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and Land of the Lost, working alongside such Academy Award winning makeup artists as William Tuttle (who provided much of the makeup effects for George Pal's films and for The Twilight Zone) and John Chambers (makeup artist for The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and Planet of the Apes).
            Producer Buck Houghton recalled the total budget for the animated sequence as $2,500 in an interview with author Marc Scott Zicree, but radio and television historian Martin Grams, Jr., in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), a work largely compiled from production records, listed the budget for the sequence even higher at $3,940. Proper individual credits for the sequence are likely lost to time. Though no credits are given in the film, stop-motion animation for Dinosaurus! is believed to have been performed by Tom Holland, Phil Kellison, and Don Sahlin, yet it is just as likely that the work for "The Odyssey of Flight 33" was performed by animator Jim Danforth, who joined Project Unlimited for production on 1960's The Time Machine. Danforth provided stop-motion animation sequences for a number of films in the 1960s, including Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), this latter film being scripted by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont with Academy Award-winning makeup effects by William Tuttle.
           The sculptors of the tabletop models for Dinosaurus! were the brothers Delgado, Marcel and Victor, who worked on several features in the 1950s and 1960s with Project Unlimited. Their work on "The Odyssey of Flight 33," while fairly accomplished, is not on par with their previous work alongside stop-motion pioneer Willis O'Brien, who hired Marcel Delgado to sculpt the models for the 1925 fantasy film The Lost World, the 1931 experimental film Creation, and, most importantly, the original 1933 King Kong, which remains a triumph of ingenuity, skill, artistry, and imagination. The Delgados would subsequently work on the follow-up films to King Kong, the quickly produced Son of Kong, also released in 1933, and Mighty Joe Young, released in 1949 and which featured early work by O'Brien's talented protégé, Ray Harryhausen, an immensely talented sculptor and animator who would come to define and dominate the stop-motion form in such films as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and Clash of the Titans (1981).  Marcel and Victor Delgado also worked on films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Mary Poppins (1964), and Fantastic Voyage (1966). 
            A final note on the production is that Douglas Heyes, the director behind such masterful episodes of The Twilight Zone as "The Howling Man" and "Eye of the Beholder," was originally slated to direct "The Odyssey of Flight 33" but was replaced at the last minute with Justus Addiss, presumably due to a scheduling conflict. Though it is interesting to imagine what Heyes would have brought to the production, Addiss does a fine job directing a tense episode on a very claustrophobic set.
            "The Odyssey of Flight 33" remains a technically sound, tense, and thrilling episode which perhaps leaves the viewer with more questions than answers but does so fairly by the nature of its plot. The actors and actresses, including Twilight Zone repeat performers, form an excellent collective, bringing the fantastic nature of the show off with a cool rationality. It deservedly remains a highly regarded and fondly remembered episode of the show.

Grade: B

--Justus Addiss also directed the second season episode "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" and the fourth season episode "No Time Like the Past."
--John Anderson appears in three additional episodes of Twilight Zone, season one's "A Passage for Trumpet," season four's "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville," and season five's "The Old Man in the Cave."
--Paul Comi also appears in the first season episode "People Are Alike All Over" and in the fourth season episode, "The Parallel."
--Sandy Kenyon also appears in the third season episode, "The Shelter" and the fourth season episode, "Valley of the Shadow."
--Wayne Heffley also appears in the fifth season episode, "Black Leather Jackets."
--Nancy Rennick also appears in the first season episode, "The After Hours."
--Betty Garde also appears in the third season episode, "The Midnight Sun."
--"The Odyssey of Flight 33" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Daniel J. Travanti.
--Stephen King lifted elements of "The Odyssey of Flight 33" for his novella "The Langoliers," first published in September 1990 in the author's collection, Four Past Midnight. "The Langoliers" concerns a group of airplane passengers that are left in the past where they must find a way back to the present or face the terror of the title creatures, who literally eat past time and space. A character in the novella recalls the plot of "The Odyssey of Flight 33” during the course of the action.
--Rod Serling adapted his teleplay into prose for More Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961). The prose version has been reprinted several times since and inspired a number of cover illustrations for Twilight Zone story collections, examples of which are posted below, including a 1991 edition of the Italian periodical Urania. 



  1. Excellent article, Jordan! I was annoyed at first that you were slamming Serling's writing, but you sure got into the nitty gritty details later on! I always thought that dinosaur sequence was from another movie. I find it hard to believe that Delgado made the models just because they look so dopey. The business about setting a show inside a plane is interesting. I wonder how many shows used this setting before this? We are so used to seeing it now, from Laverne and Shirley to Fringe, to every other show or so it seems.

  2. Yeah I know I can be harsh on Serling's writing sometimes, sorry about that. I don't want to give the wrong impression. I'm a Rod Serling fan. I just think he was obligated to produce so much writing for the show that the law of averages often worked against him but of course he produced some fantastic work and his script for this episode is excellent.

    I found it hard to believe it was Marcel Delgado's work too. It looks hastily done and the footage hasn't aged well at all. But he certainly worked in tandem with Projects Unlimited on several projects, so it stands to reason.

    The question of the setting is interesting but I would guess there weren't many before this episode but I didn't do the research to find out. It is certainly an effective setting and they would later use it masterfully for Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

  3. It's remarkable to see John Anderson as the pilot of Flight 33 in 1961, and then remember him as the grieving, conscience-stricken alien in the very fine episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" entitled "The Survivors" from 1989. Anderson barely seems to have aged in the interim; he's one of those people who leaves you feeling that he must have been BORN old.