[February 26, 1961] A Choice to Make (The Odyssey of Flight 33)

Friday night is The Twilight Zone night.  It’s true that the second season has not been as consistent in terms of quality as the show’s first season, but it has had enough good episodes to remain regular watching. 

Normally, I wait until I have a month’s worth of episodes before I summarize, but this week’s episode, The Odyssey of Flight 33 impacted me such that I wanted to talk about it with my readers.

The episode takes place entirely within the confines of a (refreshingly accurate mock-up of a) 707 jetliner.  On its way from London to New York, flight Global 33 comes across a superpowerful tail wind.  The hapless plane is accelerated to a ground speed of 3000 miles per hour and then plunged through a barrier of turbulence.  The flight crew loses all radio contact with the ground.

A dramatically changed ground—all traces of habitation have disappeared from the mid-Atlantic coast, though the contours of Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Hudson River are all recognizable.  When the co-pilot spots a Brontosaurus grazing in primeval jungles of New York, it is clear that the plane has somehow been transported far into the past.

On a hunch, the pilot takes the jet back into the heavens to ride the mysterious tailwind again.  Another crash of turbulence, and the plane’s radios come to life, the familiar skyline of Manhattan appears, and all seems well.

That is, until the pilot surveys the site of the United Nations.  Instead of that familiar building, he sees the distinctive structures of the World Exposition of 1939.  The plane has come back, but not quite all the way.

At that point, the pilot is faced with a choice: risk a landing at La Guardia, low on fuel, without radar, and on a runway that’s too short, or ascend again for one last try.  He chooses the latter, and on that note, the episode ends.

There is much to like and dislike about the episode.  On the con side, it is ploddingly paced and utterly predictable.  Within the first ten seconds, my daughter exclaimed, “Is the plane going to go back in time?”  The scene with the dinosaur is ludicrous, not just in the dodgy special effects, but conceptually.  The Hudson Valley is an artifact of the last glacial period.  Certainly no aspect of the Eastern seaboard would be remotely identifiable 100 million years ago.  The cockpit of Global 33 is cramped with five crewmembers, one of whom seems to have no purpose but to take dictation for the Captain.

On the other hand, the cockpit action is extremely accurate (aside from that last point).  As an aviation enthusiast and former leisure pilot, the terminology and procedures are spot-on.  The acting is universally good (we’ve seen the Captain before, as an angel in the first season episode , A Passage for Trumpet).  The soundtrack is excellent.

Most importantly, the show provoked a long, thoughtful discussion afterwards.  What a choice to have to make.  Is it worth the gamble that you might end up in the primordial past or the unfathomable future just to get a little closer to your proper time?  Could you relive the last 22 years, understanding that the entire course of history would be altered?  Knowing that every person on the plane had a younger self down there? 

I’ll say it flat out: I would land the plane.  22 years is close enough.  I would not risk the lives of my passengers on a slim hope, nor could I pass up the opportunity to avoid the horrendous toll of the second world war.  It’s not an ideal solution, but it entails the lesser risk, in my estimation.

Of course, as my wife points out, I spend much of my life dreaming about the past, anyway.  Perhaps the thought of being a temporal castaway is less appealing to most.  Or playing God with history…

What would you do?

8 thoughts on “[February 26, 1961] A Choice to Make (The Odyssey of Flight 33)”

  1. Really, without the open ending this would probably be a fairly forgettable episode. As you say, it’s predictable, the effects are cheesy (the dinosaurs aren’t even as good as the ones in King Kong, and that was over a quarter of a century ago) and the probably questionable geology (I’ll give them that one, to an extent; this new theory of plate tectonics looks sound, but it’s still being debated). But leaving us without a final answer, a real resolution, is pretty daring for a television show. I think the only way it could have been more thought-provoking is if the captain made it clear he’d made a decision, but we weren’t told what it was.

    Like you, I’d probably opt to land. It would be difficult with that short runway, but it should be survivable. 1939 is a little late to stop the war, (as Europeans would remind you, it had already started) but it could at least lessen the impact of Pearl Harbor and might get the Allies to act a little faster in Europe. And just a couple of years head start on jet engine technology could be a real game changer. But do you tell them about the bomb?

    On the other hand, taking one more pass might mean overshooting a little in the other direction. Who knows what you might find in 1983. Moon colonies? Vacation trips in orbit? What diseases might be cured? It would be tempting.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts.  The Fair opened in Spring ’39, so there’s a chance the war hasn’t started yet. 

      As for plate tectonics, you’re right that there are a few hold-outs, but even without that mechanic, no one disputes the Ice Ages!

  2. I understand that Rod Serling’s brother is a professional airline pilot, and that he acted as a technical adviser on this episode.

    I would definitely land the plane.  I always did want to see the 1939 World’s Fair.

  3. 1939 does make it seem kind of meant, doesn’t it? ATheist though I am, I’d give a nervous look upward.

    Did the captain day anything about loving his wife or somesuch? Because it could be construed as someone putting his own wants first. Chapter 18 of Lewis’ Preface To Paradise Lost could be relevant.

  4. I’d land.  Hopefully the passengers would have generic medicines that didn’t exist back then and could probably be duplicated with the medical technology of the time.  Who wouldn’t want a polio vaccine in 1939 instead of 1954 when Salk created it?

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