When it comes to The Twilight Zone, usually there are a few images which immediately come to mind. One: the now iconic title font, which beautifully captures the eerie atmosphere of the show. Two: a giant eyeball floating through a blurry expanse of night sky. And finally, three, a twisted face staring through a rain-streaked airplane window.
There’s no mistaking that ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’, is still one of the best episodes that the original show ever created. Written by the author of I Am Legend, the story tells of an emotionally unstable man who, while on a plane, believes that he sees a ‘Gremlin’ destroying the wing. For most the episode, the people around him discredit the claim as being the ramblings of a madman, eventually sending him away to be institutionalised. The episode takes a simple concept and turns it into a finely crafted piece of blood-curdling nightmare fuel. In many ways, this one episode exemplifies all that the original show could do with such a simple premise – something that the new show sadly seems incapable of reaching.
When I heard that CBS was planning to revive the show for the new year, my first thought went to the notion of a modern remake of ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.’ As one of the show’s most iconic episodes, the story has seen its fair share of reimaginings over the intervening decades. The story even being faithfully re-crafted by director George Miller, for the 1983 Twilight Zone movie. So, again, it did not surprise me when I saw that the second episode of the new show was entitled ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet’, which I expected to be another reinvention of the classic tale.
But it is not. And, honestly, that’s a real shame. Because Jordan Peele’s retelling of the story ranks as one of the most dull in television history. The story focuses on Justin Sanderson, a war journalist who has been suffering from PTSD, who discovers an omniscient podcast foretelling the crash of his plane. And, from that synopsis alone, you can probably see how far this story shifts from its base material. The fact that the new show completely eradicates the Gremlin (who only appears as a doll), is almost insulting. As if the new showrunners view it as nothing more than a man in a silly costume. The episode also doesn’t seem to understand why William Shatner’s performance in the original story was both iconic and sympathetic to the audience. As a viewer, you want the people around him to believe in the Gremlin’s existence, especially seeing as you are watching the story unfold from his believing perspective.
In the new show’s iteration, Adam Scott plays a character who is both unsympathetic and cocky. He completely believes that what he is hearing is true, but instead of portraying it with humanity and emotion – Scott plays it with pretention and stubbornness. Making it hard for any member of the audience to side with him in his mission to make the cabin crew believe his ramblings.
I guess that this could be the main goal of the episode, as the conclusion does have the character suffer because of his entitlement and self-indulgence. But it comes after such a long period of time, that it doesn’t feel like victory – it actually just feels pointless. Overall, this episode did demonstrate both better writing and acting, when compared to the first, but it also conveys a shallowness that seems to be a primary component of the show’s modern make-over. If we do see the reinvention of another classic story in this new show, I hope that it is both faithful and respectful. Because this episode not only seems to greatly dislike its source material but also does not understand its longevity and impact.