And When the Sky Was Opened is one of The Twilight Zone’s great Air Force Angst stories. Other include the supreme The Last Flight with Kenneth Haigh (making a surprise jaunt stateside) and the similar but inferior King Nine Will Not Return with Bob Cummings (AKA the Butcher of Strasbourg). I was initially unsure what caused this harping on the aerial theme, other than the appeal of pitting a rational, manly, courageous authority figure against irrational forces he’s not remotely equipped to comprehend. It’s a good writing tip and I offer it to you for nothing: if you come up with an interesting dramatic situation, go looking for the worst person to put in it. But not the obvious worst person — something subtler.
But this episode hints at the spark that may have ignited Rod Serling’s fascination with this motif, for Leonard Rosenman’s score practically quotes Allan Gray’s sinister arpeggio from A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, another movie in which an airman must face off against mysterious and all-powerful universal forces, a story which similarly can be viewed as an account of supernatural interference or mental derangement.
Tip-top Zone helmer Douglas Heyes directs deftly, and his star is Rod Taylor, who enters his buddy’s hospital room at the start with an all-of-a-sudden move, as if hoping to catch the universe out. Then he hunts around while talking to his buddy, as if looking for clues. (Many dramatic scenes could be improved if at least one of the actors would prowl around in search of evidence.) What he’s looking for his confirmation of the existence of his best friend, who was on an experimental space flight (X20!) that crashed, was recovered safely along with Rod and his other pal, but has since disappeared. And he hasn’t just disappeared from the present tense, but from the past too. Like he was never there. Rod Taylor, it transpires, is the only one who can remember him existing at all.
What’s particularly frightening about this one, a Richard Matheson story adapted by Rod Serling, asides from Taylor and the other mens’ powerful performances, which make the whole situation credible and even moving, is the weakness of any explanation offered. In a flashback, Carrington (Charles Aidman), feeling that he’s vanishing (sort of like Michael J. Fox fading away in BACK TO THE FUTURE, but using no special effects, only acting) speculates that the plane shouldn’t have made it, that the fliers ought to be dead, and the universe is correcting its mistake. But that doesn’t fit the facts: the fliers are not being rewritten as dead, they’re being rewritten out of the timeline altogether. It seems like some kind of punishment for trespassing beyond the outer atmosphere, but nobody hints at this. The story sits there, smugly, staring at us and giving away nothing.
Part of what makes this superior to King Nine is that the focus is more on what will happen next rather than the meaning behind what’s just happened. Viewers experienced in the uncanny tale may quickly suspect that this one is never going to be explained — and it’ll be all the scarier for that. There just hasn’t been any set-up which could be repurposed to make an answer to the puzzle. Outer space is really a red herring. Instead of unravelling a mystery, Rod gets ravelled in one — it becomes clear that the universe IS correcting a mistake, sort of, and Rod is part of it. The episode begins with a shot of the space-plane under a tarp, but ends, after all three astronauts have been vanished, with a shot of the tarp lying flat on the ground, like the aftermath of a magician’s trick.
This covers similar terrain to Jean-Claude Carriere’s magnificent short film THE NAIL CLIPPERS — where a man checks into a hotel, unpacks, and loses his nail clippers. Then the overnight bag they were in. Then his suitcase. Then his wife. Then himself. The logic of a nightmare — also, a magic trick familiar to writers, who often erase unwanted characters, not only from the present tense, but from the past. “He’s been yanked off,” mourns Rod, using an actorly image instead — the vaudevillian tugged from the stage by a slyly approaching shepherd’s crook. The comic never does notice the crook until it’s around his neck.
Neither will any of us.
“Once upon a time there was a man named Harrington. A man named Forbes. A man named Gart. They used to exist, but don’t any longer. Someone, or something, took them somewhere. At least, they are no longer a part of the memory of man. And as to the X-20, supposed to be housed here in this hangar, this too does not exist. And if any of you have any questions concerning an aircraft and three men who flew her, speak softly of them, and only in… the twilight zone.”