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Recap / The Twilight Zone (1959) S5E3 "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
aka: The Twilight Zone S 5 E 123 Nightmare At 20000 Feet

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Rod Serling: Portrait of a frightened man: Mr. Robert Wilson, thirty-seven, husband, father and salesman on sick leave. Mr. Wilson has just been discharged from a sanitarium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown, the onset of which took place on an evening not dissimilar to this one, on an airliner very much like the one in which Mr. Wilson is about to be flown home — the difference being that, on that evening half a year ago, Mr. Wilson's flight was terminated by the onslaught of his mental breakdown. Tonight, he's traveling all the way to his appointed destination, which, contrary to Mr. Wilson's plan, happens to be in the darkest corner of the Twilight Zone.

Bob Wilson (played by William Shatner) is a salesman on an airplane with his wife for the first time since his nervous breakdown six months prior. As he stares out his window on a a stormy night, he thinks he spots a supposed gremlin on the wing of the plane. But, every time someone else looks out the window, the gremlin always leaps out of view, so nobody believes Bob's seemingly outlandish claim. Bob realizes that his wife is starting to think he needs to go back to the sanitarium, but after he sees the gremlin begin to peel back the metal on the wing he realizes that if nothing is done about the gremlin, it will cause the plane to crash. The flight attendant tries to give Bob sleeping pills, but Bob fakes swallowing them so he can stay up and do something about the gremlin. Bob then steals a sleeping policeman's revolver, and opens the window marked "Auxiliary Exit" to shoot the gremlin, succeeding despite the fact that he is nearly blown out of the plane himself. Once the plane has landed, although he is whisked away in a straitjacket, a final shot reveals evidence of his claims: the unusual damage to the plane's engine nacelle, yet to be discovered by mechanics.

Tropes at 20,000 Feet:

  • Adaptational Backstory Change:
    • In the short story by Richard Matheson, Wilson is extremely apprehensive about flying but no specific reason is given as to why. In the television adaptation, he suffered a nervous breakdown on a plane six months earlier. He also derives the gremlin's name from something "...they called them during the war," and with Wilson's age stated as 37 in 1963 (the year of the episode), he's potentially old enough to have been in either WWII or the Korean War.
    • In the Twilight Zone: The Movie adaptation, John Valentine suffers from a fear of flying.
  • Adaptation Name Change:
  • Big Bad: The gremlin.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Although Bob will go back to being in an asylum after that stunt he pulled on the plane, what counts is he stopped the gremlin from sabotaging the plane. His wife is supportive and comforting towards him, and Bob goes to the asylum with grace. What's more, it's implied that his claim might be validated once mechanics discover the damage on the wing.
  • Canon Foreigner: Julia does not appear in the short story.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The second Bob takes his seat, he sees the means to open the Auxiliary Exit window. It's played off as ironic that such a nervous man would be next to the emergency window, but it'll be important for the climax.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: As soon as he takes his seat, Bob starts to light up a cigarette to calm his nerves. However, Julia reminds him that he can't smoke until the plane has taken off.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Bob is initially relieved when the flight engineer says they're aware of the creature and just want to avoid panicking the passengers. His mood turns incredulous, though, when he realizes the guy is just humoring him.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Fortunately, Serling's ending narration implies that the damage to the plane will be discovered and Bob will be vindicated.
  • Episode on a Plane: The entire episode takes place on a plane.
  • Gender Flip: Normally at the time, a character who'd recently been through something like a mental breakdown would've been female by default.
  • Griping About Gremlins: This is the Trope Codifier. Bob sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane attacking one of its engines but can't get anyone else, including his wife Julia, to believe him or see the gremlin.
  • Hidden Harasser: Bob Wilson can see a gremlin trying to sabotage the plane he's travelling in from his window seat, but it hides whenever anyone else looks. At the end, he ends up being dragged off to a mental asylum, but it's implied that the damage to the plane might vindicate him.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills:
    • Wilson manages to hit the gremlin with a revolver while hanging outside of a flying plane in the middle of a storm.
    • Averted in the film remake, where he misses.
  • Jump Scare: The scene in which Bob pulls the curtain back quickly, revealing the gremlin's face pressed against the window along with a Scare Chord.
  • Large Ham: When you have William Shatner playing the main character...
  • Look Ma, No Plane!: Having strapped himself in to avoid being blown out, Bob opens the door marked "Auxiliary Exit" next to his seat and shoots the gremlin with the gun that he stole from a sleeping police officer.
  • Mistaken for Insane: Wilson sees a bulky, furry creature on the wing trying to destroy the engine. When he tries to tell the other passengers including his wife, they all think he's losing his mind. It doesn't help that he's just been discharged from a mental asylum.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Bob alludes to this early on, as his breakdown meant being away from his family for six months, leaving Julia to both make ends meet and raise the kids. He's ashamed of himself for leaving her with all that responsibility and the pressure that goes with it.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the short story, the stewardess is not given a name. In the television adaptation, her name is Betty Crosby.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend. In this case, a Not-So-Imaginary Enemy. In the final scene, it is revealed that the gremlin was real all along as it can be seen that one of the plane's engines has been badly damaged.
  • Only Sane Man: Bob's the only one to see the creature, and he can't get anyone else to believe him.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: When being taken away in a straitjacket, Bob is calm as can be, a stark contrast from all the stress and turmoil he suffered on the plane. Aside from just the relief of surviving the ordeal, his "for now" when talking about being the only one who knows what really happened suggests he fully expects to be vindicated in the near future.
  • The Remake:
  • Tempting Fate: Before the plane takes off, Bob is a bundle of nerves, remarking it doesn't matter where he sits and that he's not acting cured.
  • Wham Shot: The original episode ends with Bob being taken back to the sanitarium, but the camera pans down to the plane's wing to reveal one of its engines is badly damaged.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Bob knows he's in a supernatural story with a creature thought to be make believe threatening to kill them all. Unfortunately, everyone else thinks this is just a mundane story of a man who already had one nervous breakdown suffering a relapse, and they react according to that instead. His increasing panicked warnings about a monster lead to airplane staff either humoring him or trying to sneak him a sleeping pill.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: Bob's increasingly desperate attempts to get people to look out the window and see the creature lead to this.

Rod Serling: The flight of Mr. Robert Wilson has ended now, a flight not only from point A to point B, but also from the fear of recurring mental breakdown. Mr. Wilson has that fear no longer... though, for the moment, he is, as he has said, alone in this assurance. Happily, his conviction will not remain isolated too much longer — for happily, tangible manifestation is very often left as evidence of trespass, even from so intangible a quarter as the Twilight Zone.

Alternative Title(s): The Twilight Zone S 5 E 123 Nightmare At 20000 Feet, The Twilight Zone 1959 S 5 E 3