Sixty years ago today, the third episode of the fifth season of CBS’s wildly popular anthology show, The Twilight Zone, aired featuring a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, and a premise that has become a historic part of pop culture.

The episode was entitled “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” with Shatner playing Robert Wilson, an airline passenger who was just released from a sanatorium where he spent the last six months recovering from a nervous breakdown as Rod Serling’s opening narration tells us. This makes the difference from many other TZ installments as usually the protagonists have no mental health baggage so when Wilson yells about there being something on the wing of the plane, people have plenty reason not to believe him.


That something that Shatner’s Wilson determines is a gremlin, jumps away whenever he tries to get anyone to see him, so he goes crazier and crazier until he actually steals a gun from a sleeping policeman to kill the creature to keep it from tearing apart the engines.

It’s an effectively scary story with some of Shatner’s best acting, sharp direction by Richard Donner, who would go on to helm SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, THE GOONIES, and the LETHAL WEAPON series; and a superb script by Richard Matheson, who wrote many TZs, and notable works such as THE OMEGA MAN (remade later as I AM LEGEND), SOMEWHERE IN TIME, and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME.

In a 2016 interview with The Aquarian, Shatner talked about the episode with Brian Reesman:

“So this guy on the airplane was actually a Czechoslovakian acrobat * in a furry suit like you would buy for your child to go to a Halloween party, but nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about how stupid it is that at 500 miles an hour the guy is not aerodynamic. They just accept what this little suit means, which is, I guess, fear of flying.”

* Actor/stunt performer Nick Kravat

20 years after Shatner’s ill-fated flight, the episode was remade for TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE (released June 24, 1983) by George Miller (MAD MAX) with John Lithgow in Shatner’s shoes, although his character is renamed John Valentine, and there’s no mention of a mental hospital stay – he’s simply crazy scared of flying.

The segment, which is the fourth in the film following TZ efforts by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, and Joe Dante; is much edgier, and more amped up than the original, but it doesn’t top it – it co-exists as another worthy adaptation of Matheson’s original short story that appeared in the anthology, Alone by Night (1961).


The parodies of “Nightmare of 20,000 Feet” are too numerous to mention (the Wikipedia page for the episode lists about a dozen) as every comedy show from The Simpsons to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to, of course, Saturday Night Live has taken it on. Here’s SNL’s from 2010 with Jude Law in the Shatner role, and a hilarious Bobby Moynihan as the gremlin (somehow they even work musical guest Pearl Jam in there too):

Jordan Peele’s 2019 TZ reboot had an episode that might be best considered a re-imagining entitled “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the new-fangled take, written by Marco Ramirez (from a story by Peele, Simon Kinberg, and Ramirez), Adam Scott plays passenger Justin Sanderson who this time is spooked by a podcast about a missing plane that makes him think the flight is doomed unless he saves it. It’s good stuff like the rest of Peele’s TZ run, which sadly ran only two seasons.

But the best capper to celebrate the anniversary of this legendary TZ episode is from the sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun, which starred Lithgow as alien masquerading as a college professor. In the 1999 episode, “Dick’s Big Giant Headache Part 1,” Lithgow’s Dick Solomon meets his superior, The Big Giant Head (portrayed by a drunk-acting Shatner), at an airport. When asked how his flight was, Shatner’s character replies, “Horrifying at first, I looked out the window, and there was something on the wing of the plane!” Lithgow’s Dick responds, “The same thing happened to me!”

And that, my friends, is one of the best meta moments in TV history. So heres to sixty years of there being something on the wing of the plane that nobody but you can see.

More later…

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