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Throwback Thursday: Remembering When The Sky Was Opened

This Throwback Thursday, Aaron Yap applauds the metaphysical triumphs of a particularly buzzy episode of The Twilight Zone. //

The conflation of metaphysical concepts and science has always been a difficult, tricky thing for me to swallow in TV and movies. Not that it’s impossible to achieve; for example, Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica was persuasive in threading religion and philosophy into a sci-fi template.

But beyond the ideological murkiness – which in itself isn’t intellectually unengaging – the marriage tends to be problematic and uneasy on a basic storytelling level. There’s a strong element of copping out when abstract notions such as love, or a Greater Power/Being, are used to explain and overcome outlandish phenomena that’s purportedly grounded in science.

Recently, Christopher Nolan’s space travel opus Interstellar, otherwise laden with jargon-heavy astrophysics-speak, was somewhat blatant in going down this route. On TV, cult shows like Lost and Fringe, to varying degrees, have both unabashedly testified to the Power of Love to worm out of corners they’ve backed themselves into, to the disappointment of their sci-fi leaning fans (for what it’s worth, I’ve made peace with those shows since they’ve ended).

Pondering this drew me back to Rod Serling’s groundbreaking anthology series The Twilight Zone – in particular season one’s eleventh episode, “And When The Sky Was Opened.” While many Twilight Zone episodes can be appreciated simply as carefully crafted genre vehicles for surprise endings, some of Serling’s best work also functioned as remarkably thoughtful, thematically provocative fictions that tapped into aspects of our human condition so deeply as to haunt you long after.

Based on a Richard Matheson short story, “And When The Sky Was Opened” is one such episode. On the surface another one of Serling’s paranoia-soaked explorations of identity, this mind-bender winds up – if by accident – a more metaphysical experience than originally intended.

The plot, which confounded me on first viewing years ago, and admittedly is still a bit of a loopy one to synopsize, concerns the crash of an experimental spaceship in the Mojave desert after disappearing for 24 hours. One of the three survivors, Colonel Forbes (pre-The Time Machine Rod Taylor, who passed a couple of weeks ago) visits the recovering co-pilot William Gart in hospital. He’s shocked to discover that Gart has no memory of a third pilot, Ed Harrington, ever being on board the ship with them – or even existing.

The front page story of a newspaper, showing a picture of only Forbes and Gart, appears to confirm this too. Flashing back to the previous day, Forbes clearly remembers all three were in the same hospital room together, but it’s revealed that the third pilot later inexplicably vanished… [cue spooky Twilight Zone theme]

The narrative is layered, subtly shifting – a great onion-peel of a tale. But more so than its clever construction, it’s the gut-wrenching impact of its punchline that’s stayed with me all this time. Ostensibly dealing with the erasure of three men from existence by an undefined force, “And When The Sky Was Opened” confronts the scary prospect of our sense of belonging eroding away and, maybe even more terrifying, the Self never being there in the first place.

Harrington calls his parents only to be told that they’ve never had a son; Forbes believes everyone’s playing an elaborate prank on him, even his wife. The scene where Forbes, dazed in his search for evidence of Harrington’s existence, wanders into the bar they visited earlier in the day, beautifully captures the character’s feelings of loneliness and abandonment. In a show where Man questioning his reality is the norm, this moment of desperation – powerfully acted by Taylor, evocatively directed by Douglas Heyes – still resonates, and is one of the most chilling and emotional Serling has given us.

As for who or what plucked these pilots from the world and why, Serling revels in the ambiguity, scattering just enough clues for the viewer to postulate. The characters continually refer to their return to Earth as a “mistake” – that they weren’t meant to come back, but through some error of action have been granted this brief release. Aliens? Some strange source of magnetic energy? Or perhaps God?

It wouldn’t be such a stretch to read the Rapture (a la The Leftovers) into this if you wanted. In Serling’s original script, Forbes’ disappearance was written to be “painful”, but rather intriguingly, Heyes and Taylor decided to play the scene as “euphoric”, allowing a story with dreadful, seemingly sinister implications to assume a celestial, unexpectedly transcendent quality.

Rewatching it for umpteenth time, the episode, especially the above departure scene, also gained extra poignancy with the news of Taylor’s death. He was generally known for his brawny, square-jawed manly roles, but Taylor displayed a raw vulnerability here that ranks among his most sensitive performances.

Rest well in the Fifth Dimension, Colonel Forbes.

Watch the full episode below:

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