Friday, February 21, 2020

Review of The Twilight Zone, Season 1, Episode 18: "Back to the Past"

Having seen a near infinite variety of time travel stories, it's hard to be impressed by a time travel story told in 1960. I mean, Huey Lewis was only ten years old and even if he'd written a song about time travel which could have been used for this episode, he certainly hadn't recorded one. So how is the audience supposed to get excited about the out-of-time RAF pilot getting back to his own time? I had a really hard time caring if he made it back without hearing Huey singing "Gotta get back in time!" or Big Pig's sweet synth bass notes leading into the jangly pop lyrics of "All my life I've wanted to fly like the birds that you see way up in the sky, making circles in the morning sun flying high in the sky 'til the day is done (I can't break away!)". Hell, just typing those lyrics and hearing them in my head has me more excited than this episode of The Twilight Zone, "The Last Flight" (even if it was written by Richard Matheson).

I suppose I could act like a proper critic and judge it by its individual merits instead of writing things like, "This was no Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure!" or "Timecrimes makes the version of time travel seen in 'The Last Flight' seem like one of those messy wipes where you didn't realize you still had a bit of shit clinging to your sphincter so instead of beginning with the pick and pull, you just wiped nonchalantly, smearing feces all over your own backside" or "If the guys who made Primer had been inspired by Richard Matheson's quaint little time travel story, Primer would almost certainly not be my favorite time travel movie of all time." Although now that I mention Primer, it has more in common with "The Last Flight" than I realized which is maybe making me feel a bit better about Matheson's story. In a way, Primer isn't just about guys accidentally inventing time travel and then using it to profit off of which inevitably leads to a big fucking shitstorm of time- and doppleganger-based mishaps! It's also about a couple of guys who are fucking cowards who try to play by the universe's rules but when they realize they've just made their own rules, decide to cheat at life. Sure, you might argue with me about the characters being cowards but how else am I supposed to segue into talking about "The Last Flight"? It's not like the RAF guy traveled to the past and wrestled himself out of his own plane, throwing his old self to his death and not causing a paradox because Primer's time travel logic is that of ever splitting timelines. Basically in the original Primer universe, the guys who go back in time simply disappear from the timeline at the point they go back in time. Their families would just find a weird tin foil wrapped cardboard box in the storage shed they were last seen going into and never figure out what the fuck happened to them. "The Last Flight"'s time travel rules are more like those in Timecrimes where everything that happens, happens, and has always happened. So even in the first pass through the timeline, the person who came from the future is there doing what they always did. So maybe I should have said "The Last Flight" was more like Timecrimes for my segue!

The premise of this story is that a cowardly RAF pilot accidentally flies into the future to discover that his fellow pilot he left to be killed by Germans survived. He can't understand how his fellow pilot survived without help and decides to finally not be a coward so he can go back in time to save his fellow pilot. My problem with the story is that for a coward, he sure gets brave fast! Maybe he's just too dumb to realize that he doesn't have to go back in time to die. He never sees his fellow pilot get killed. He simply assumes that he is going to get killed. So when he gets to the future and discovers his fellow pilot actually survived, he can't get past his initial assessment of the situation and the assumption that his fellow pilot was killed. He insists that he has to go back in time to be the one to save him. Too bad there weren't more time travel stories in 1917 so the cowardly RAF pilot could think, "Well, it would be a time paradox if I came to the future and stayed in the future when I was supposed to save my fellow pilot. So somebody else must have saved him because I'm not fucking going back to 1917 to die saving him! I suppose if some guy were singing loudly right now 'Gotta get back in time!', I might be tempted. But that's not happening so I'm going to stay here in 1959 where it's safe!"

But no. The cowardly pilot decides to go back in time. My theory is that he's such a coward, he can't face the man he abandoned to die and so he races back into the time travel cloud to escape that confrontation, only pretending that he's going back to save his fellow pilot. But instead of going further into the future like he had hoped, he actually does wind up back in time and in the middle of the dog fight where his fellow pilot was sure to die. That makes the most sense, both in terms of the coward's actions and neatly avoiding the possible time travel paradox.

If I were a better critic who wasn't judging this television show in ways it was never meant to be judged because I don't know the meaning of "unbiased", I might have concentrated on the redemption story which is the heart of Matheson's tale. The time travel is just added Twilight Zone flair! But I'm not a good critic at all and I never want to be! If I can't shit on something simply because I don't have the emotional capacity to be touched by it then I don't want to live! Besides, people who claim to be unbiased are simply shouting, "I have no capacity for self-reflection!" And I can't stand people who shout.

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