Monthly Archives: April 2016

April 13, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 11. And When the Sky Was Opened


directed by Douglas Heyes
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on a short story by Richard Matheson
starring Rod Taylor
with James Hutton and Charles Aidman
music by Leonard Rosenman

Friday, December 11, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

As you well know by now (but I’m about to say it again anyway, to refresh after a couple months’ break), my basic framework for reading The Twilight Zone is to treat it like dream interpretation. To wit: the unresolved foreboding that makes up the majority of an episode’s running time constitutes the episode’s real meaning, whereas the ultimate twist resolution, no matter how clarifying it might seem, is actually a defense against the true meaning, a rationalizing escape route that allows us to deny and suppress the emotion we’ve just been experiencing.

At first it might seem like “And When the Sky Was Opened” defies this scheme, since there’s no “twist” per se; the nightmare just intensifies in the final act, and the only explanation we’re ever given is fuzzy and mystical:

It’s as if… as if maybe we shouldn’t have come back from that flight at all. Maybe somebody… something… made a mistake and let us get through when we shouldn’t have.

In other words, “the reason this is happening is because some Other is doing it.”

The old pulp convention of alluding vaguely to “somebody… something…” is basically a butterfly net for catching up any and all projected ideas of Higher Authority. Even those in the audience who would scoff at the concepts of “God” and “Fate” still have social intuitions of Authority, like anyone else; they just need to be snagged delicately, without waking the dreamer. Hence all those Ellipses… Of… The Uncanny!… which are the sound of the rational mind being tiptoed toward as it snoozes, its hand loosely grasping the keyring, its villainous moustache fluttering with every wheeze. The keys of course unlock the cell of “sanity.”

“It’s as if… somehow… this was… supposed to happen.” Got ’em!

Anyway, as I was saying: it may seem like “And When the Sky Was Opened” doesn’t follow the standard scheme of repressive rationalization, because it never turns a corner into revealing or explaining itself. But, in a sense, the whole story is an “explanation” that serves to cushion the real core of the episode, the bulk of its action: Forbes’s struggle to be taken seriously and make himself understood. As usual, it’s fundamentally a social crisis that we’re watching, not actually a science-fictional one. Forbes has memories that aren’t corroborated by other people, and so is forced to contend with the terrifying feeling that either he or everybody else must be insane. Everything to do with the test flight into space, the “somebody… something” making a mistake, and the eventual obliteration of these three military men — it’s all a narrative misdirection that just serves to take the edge off the actual angst, the underlying nightmare: the fear of having the contents of your mind differ from the people around you.

It’s really no different from the old Lady Vanishes, North By Northwest, Spanish Prisoner scenario — you return to the scene the next day and lo, it’s all changed and you’re the only one who remembers the thing you remember — but here without any deceit or scam as an “out.” The essential nausea of that dramatic situation, after all, is not of being betrayed but of having the feeling that you haven’t been betrayed, that the discrepancy between realities is in fact socially absolute, which means that your sanity, the root of your claim to social integration, is on the line. For much of “And When the Sky Was Opened,” this horror stands relatively exposed: the direct conflict of mutually incompatible subjectivities.

This episode’s use of the trope is distinctive in that it implies that the nauseating discrepancy between one man’s reality and another’s is transmissible. One version of the world seems to be catching, like a virus; the dividing line between realities is a moving storm front. The world as we know it is all in our minds, so we’re extremely dependent on one another’s minds. The episode shares this idea with “outbreak” plots, movies about zombies and pod people. The deepest horror is not actually of the specific symptoms of the virus that’s going around (in this case, complete non-existence), but of the fact that one’s only defense against insanity — namely, corroboration from other people — is the very part of the the self/world complex that is diseased. If you can no longer trust other people to confirm that you’re a person and that the world is the world, all you have left to work with is your own animal instinct. And that’s where the fear lives.

It’s worth noting that in these sorts of stories — that is, stories where someone says “I know it sounds impossible but you gotta believe me, Harry! It was right there, I saw it with my own eyes!” — we always know that the “crazy” guy is gonna turn out to be right. Our narrative sympathies are always instinctively with the “insane.” Uneasy sympathies, but sympathies nonetheless; deep down we all resent the notion of “insanity,” exactly because it’s a determination always to be made by an unreliable, zombie-susceptible, world of other people. Who are they to say who’s sane?

Escapist entertainment is an opportunity to indulge this resentment. But we’re not ready quite to throw in our lot with pure individual irrationality, either, since that brings its own world of lonely terrors. So our expectation is that such stories will put us through the changes — briefly test the water — and then deposit us back down where we think we belong, in some kind of cute compromise between individuality and “sanity” that conforms to the fashion of the moment.

Consider the philosophical slalom that must obligatorily be negotiated by something like, say, Harvey. (Which I suppose I should admit I’ve never seen all the way through. But would like to.)

Or consider Don Quixote, which, as I recall it from many years ago, seems like perhaps it’s going on and on and on just because Cervantes isn’t truly happy with any particular form of cute compromise. How after all ought Don Quixote to end? Ask your intuition. My gut tells me that, properly, it ought not to.

Maybe I sound inconsistent here. Earlier I said that The Lady Vanishes et al. give some sort of plotted “out” from the horror of experiencing disparate realities (i.e.: The Lady didn’t actually vanish; the people on the train are lying as part of an intrigue), whereas “And When The Sky Was Opened” is more merciless about trapping us with the essential discomfort. And yet just prior to that I was saying, at some length, that The Twilight Zone always provides its own sort of explanatory “out,” and that this episode is indeed no exception.

Well, both things are true. The difference — between The Twilight Zone and The Lady Vanishes — is one of degree, not type. My overarching Twilight Zone theory — that it’s a true fear followed by a false rationalization — is just an extension of the same principles at work in more “realistic” entertainments. What is The Lady Vanishes appealing to in the human soul if not this same thing, more obscurely?

Many stories are fantasies, but don’t dare admit it to themselves, nervously cloaking themselves in the garb of realism. Generally, The Twilight Zone is a fantasy that admits it, but still doesn’t dare admit what kind — that is, that it’s actually an emotional or social fantasy rather than a truly scientific or “paranormal” one.

The sci-fi justification for this particular episode is, as I’ve said, admirably thin-to-absent. But even what little there is doesn’t really hang together. If at the end of the episode, these guys have been removed not just from Earth but from all of Time, past present and future, why does the hangar still have a separate fenced-off area with a dust cover for the absent X-20? That certainly seems like “they never returned from their trip” rather than “they’ve never existed.”

Indeed, there’s already something strange about the idea that this particular test flight brought about their retroactive nonexistence — including presumably the nonexistence of the test flight. If the Eerie Someone Or Something that brings about their absence lives Outside Of Time, presumably It wouldn’t need to wait for any particular moment in time — and certainly not for a spaceship to fly up into Its neck of the woods and catch Its attention — to realize that It wanted to eat these guys.

(So on second thought, I guess what we’re supposed to take away is that the Great Authority hasn’t actually rewritten the past, has only rewritten the present world — including everyone’s memories — so that the permanent abduction of these guys goes unnoticed by the rest of humanity. Which, I note, is the exact inverse of that clever episode of Rick and Morty about memory parasites. I have no doubt the Rick and Morty writers had seen this one.)

This episode — like “Where Is Everybody?” but even more literally — equates the frontiers of military technology with unthinkable extremes, where emotional and existential normality threaten to break down. The recurring association is, I think, not coincidental within the mind of Rod Serling, whose tortured relationship to the Higher Authority of Uncle Sam and the military establishment is fueling a lot of this stuff. As the series continues we’ll be seeing lots more test pilots, astronauts, and soldiers wrestling with deep existential confusion, imposed, in the line of duty, from somewhere on high. 900 miles and higher.

This is our first episode based on a Richard Matheson story, although only very loosely. The differences between the Matheson and the Serling versions are perhaps instructive.

In the original 1953 story, “Disappearing Act,” there is no outer space and no military; the story is presented as the diary of an unsuccessful writer, and his eventual disappearing act is fate’s answer to his private plea for the universe to be simpler (than his tangle of frustrations, infidelities, confused emotions):

I’m sick of it all anyway. Bills, bills. Writing, writing. Failures, failures, failures! And little old life dribbling on, building up its beautiful, brain-bursting complexities like an idiot with blocks.

You! Who run the world, who spin the universe. If there’s anybody listening to me, make the world simpler! I don’t believe in anything but I’d give… anything. If only…

Oh, what’s the use? I don’t care anymore.

This private wish brings about the gradual Lady Vanishes erasure of everyone and everything he has ever known or has ever known him, with him going last, and the diary remaining behind. (Final sentence: “I’m having a cup of cof”)

Matheson’s framework gives a richer meaning to the gimmick, even a moral: recognize that wanting less of the messy stuff of life means wanting less of your own existence. It’s a cautionary tale about getting what you wish for, but since the caution is fantastical, it’s really just a reminder: look more clearly at your wishes.

The Rod Serling version does away with any such overt wishing. These particular three guys weren’t wishers — they were just minding their masculine American business, breaking sound barriers and whatnot, under orders from Uncle Sam. Any cautionary moral is thoroughly buried in their subconscious, underneath and behind their commitment to that system of values. That’s the Rod Serling way.

But perhaps for storytelling purposes that way is actually preferable. It’s truer to the nature of dream not to know one’s wish consciously, or put it into words.

Because “careful what you wish for” does apply, somewhere below the surface. It still feels like a “careful what you wish for” story, even though there’s no onscreen wishing.

What is it, then, that these three men have ventured, that dooms them to erasure? I’d say it’s ultimately something similar to the frustrated writer’s desire for a simpler world. Implicit in their masculine American military ordinariness is their willed dedication to that way of being, as an illusion of order. They followed orders and flew into space and into danger; someone needed them to do it, so they did it, ’cause that’s what men do. So they want to believe.

Look how conspicuously the episode shows them going through the motions of 1. JOSHING ONE ANOTHER and 2. DRINKING BEER and 3. HITTING ON WOMEN. On the face of it, that’s all just there to serve on prime-time TV as some “normality,” as something to get broken down by the coming paranormality — but that’s exactly my point: even the mass audience subconsciously agrees that this tight concept of “normality” is cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

These guys want to believe in their particular world of conventions, a world simpler than the one we actually live in, because they want life to run smoothly. And so the Great Irony Beast makes it so. “You want to comfortably know your place in relation to everyone and everything; you want to just get along with the world and fit in? Then I guess you don’t want to be you. That can be arranged.”

(This is what I take to be the meaning of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, too.)

Another thing Rod has altered is the title. “And When the Sky Was Opened.” What does this title mean?

One guy on IMDB says it’s a reference to Acts 10:11 (in which Peter has a vision of a picnic blanket descending from the heavens with all the animals of the world on it, which he is encouraged to eat — no, really) because in one translation (not King James, for what it’s worth) it includes the phrase “and he saw the sky opened up,” which is as close as the bible ever comes to the exact words “And When the Sky Was Opened.”

Another guy on IMDB says it’s a reference to the line “When the pie was opened” from “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (again with eating animals!)

These both seem extremely unlikely to me, not least because they have absolutely nothing to do with the content of the episode.

As best I can tell, the title is simply an embarrassing Serling stab at “ominous, bookish, biblical-quote-style resonance” without any actual biblical quote to sustain it. Sure sounds like some kind of awesome literary reference, right? Good enough for government work.

Here are some other good grown-up-sounding titles for anything:

“For As The Book Was Sealed And All Looked Upon It”
“Else He Too Be Forsaken In That Land”
“As Ever Unto Little Children”
“Or When In Gardens Green We Tarry”

These titles are especially well suited for stories that take place on Mars, but don’t let that constrain you. Knock yourself out. These titles are offered under a Creative Commons license, etc. etc.

Music is by the fairly esteemed Leonard Rosenman. This is his only Twilight Zone score; I assume the choice not to return — if it was a choice — was his rather than Rod’s, because this is very good work indeed.

Rosenman is sometimes noted for his relatively highbrow approach to the Hollywood style, and while this episode isn’t anything too ostentatious, it definitely has an angular modernist feel that makes a satisfying contrast with Herrmann’s minimalist/Romantic approach. (This points the way that the series as a whole is going to go, toward the bizarre-modern of the 60s, typified by the second (more famous) main title music.)

I thought maybe I’d just link to one standout cue, but the entire track is only 12 minutes and it’s all pretty good, I think. So enjoy.

I happen to have some info on these scores, so heck, I’ll share it. I like thinking about the real place that this stuff came from; maybe you will too.

Composed and conducted by Leonard Rosenman.
Recorded November 23, 1959, 2–5 PM, Goldwyn Studios.

12 players:
Sylvia Ruderman, flute [no relation (?)]
Charles Gentry and Mitchell Lurie, clarinets
Sinclair Lott, horn
Robert DiVall, trumpet
Frank Flynn and Ralph Hansell, percussion
Verlye Mills, harp
Ray Turner, piano and celeste
Israel Baker, violin
George Neikrug, cello [still alive!]
Robert Stone, bass