Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Did He? Or Didn't He?

"This is Africa, 1943. War spits out its violence overhead, and the sandy graveyard swallows it up. Her name is King Nine, B–25, medium bomber, Twelfth Air Force. On a hot, still morning, she took off from Tunisia to bomb the southern tip of Italy. An errant piece of flak tore a hole in the wing tank and, like a wounded bird, this is where she landed, not to return on this day or any other day."

Opening narration

With only a few exceptions, the episodes of the second season of Rod Serling's original Twilight Zone TV series — which began 55 years ago today — were arguably its weakest.

And the episode that opened the season may have been the weakest of the lot.

It was called "King Nine Will Not Return" — which, even for the title of a Twilight Zone episode, was baffling for the ordinary viewer. That was a bad start, but, heck, the Twilight Zone had its share of those in the first season yet always managed to connect the dots well enough for the viewer. Sometimes that was accomplished in the opening narration, and that was what Twilight Zone tried to do 55 years ago tonight.

But it really wasn't adequate. The episode was inspired, as I understand it, by what was, for many years, a modern mystery — the true story of an American bomber that disappeared after a bombing run on Naples, Italy during World War II. An oil exploration team found the plane, pretty well preserved, in the desert in Libya about 15 years later. The remains of the crew were found the next year.

Viewers could have benefited from knowing this was one of the Twilight Zone episodes that was based on an actual — albeit largely unknown — event. It wasn't strictly factual, though, and I'm not sure how telling the readers that could have been done — perhaps with some sort of text disclaimer that could have run with the opening credits.

The theme of history/time travel frequently figured in Twilight Zone, perhaps never as much as in the series' second season. In hindsight, I suppose that makes the episode that made its debut 55 years ago tonight a harbinger of things to come. The season that lay ahead would have fewer 30–minute episodes than any other during the series' original run, but it may have had a greater proportion of episodes that dealt with time/history/time travel in some way than the other seasons did.

Anyway, it seems that way to me.

It was practically a one–man show. Robert Cummings played a bomber pilot who regained consciousness in the African desert.

The episode did a good job of simulating that disoriented feeling we all have at one time or another, of waking up somewhere and not being sure where we are or how we got there, at least at first. It isn't necessarily the result of a night of drinking — although it often seems to be. Not in this case, though. Bit by bit, Cummings' mind pieced together what happened to his plane — which was in pieces. It was scattered all around him. But his crew was nowhere to be found.

Cummings found that unsettling, naturally, but he tried to reason with himself, telling himself to be calm, not to be irrational. There was a logical explanation for why there was no sign of his crew. But he couldn't think of one, and then he started to hallucinate. He thought he saw his crew from a distance, but when he walked in their direction, they vanished.

He stumbled upon a makeshift cross that had been erected, based on the inscription, upon the death of one of his crewmen, which resolved the fate of at least one of Cummings' men. Then he looked up and saw jets streaking across the sky. Those jets didn't exist in 1943, but still he knew all about them. How was that possible?

Cummings passed out, then came to in a hospital. Turned out it was nearly two decades after that fateful mission — and Cummings had not been on the flight. Someone else took his place, and he had been lost with the others. Cummings, presumably, had been carrying that survivors' guilt around inside him for years. It bubbled to the surface when he saw a newspaper article about his long–lost airplane having been found in the African desert.

Cummings, of course, wondered if he really had, somehow, gone back to the desert. His doctor, psychiatrist and nurse left his room, discussing his case and his "delusion." But then the nurse dropped Cummings' clothes on a table — and some sand fell out of one of his shoes.

This episode is probably most noteworthy for being the first to feature the now–iconic Marius Constant theme. Constant was a French composer/conductor who was known in the music world for his ballets — but is probably better known to the general public as the man who penned the Twilight Zone theme.