Today, in honour of Saskatoon Comic and Entertainment Expo’s announcement that the great William Shatner will be coming to the show this year, I checked out his Twilight Zone and Outer Limits features.
The Outer Limits episode, “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” featured Shatner as Jeff Barton, an American hero who had just been on a trip orbiting Venus, and was working on a project (Project Vulcan) which had to do with the colonizing of Mars. After an accident in orbit, his body starts to alter itself and he becomes extremely sensitive to the cold. This episode had a focus on his relationship with his wife, which was a binding force, and his adapting to the elements of different orbits.
This role has many similarities the role he is known for as James T. Kirk. Both characters are driven by a sense of adventure. Kirk on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations”. Barton living out his childhood dream of flying and setting out further and further. But they are also quite different. While Kirk is a womanizing, come up with a plan when he gets there, kind of guy, Barton is a planner, the majority of the episode he is at home with his wife, who is “the most important world” to him, planning how he is going to get funding for the next stage of his work. Barton is also grounded in that he is a man of the times, with technology not much more advanced than what they were working on to get to the moon. This role was not to different from Kirk, but showed a good deal of Shatner’s talents within 50 minutes, unlike Star Trek, where they could had a lot more time to give us a lot more depth.
His Outer Limits episode was good, but his Twilight Zone episode was great! I did have a little bit more going for it though. Not only did it feature Shatner, but it had a couple other big names. The episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was written by Richard Matheson, who wrote I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, and it was directed by Richard Donner of Superman fame.
This episode was only a half hour, but it’s simplicity carried it a lot further. The story is this: Bob Wilson (Shatner) is flying home with his wife after a long time away getting psychiatric help. His doctors say he is healed, but he sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane. No one else sees the gremlin. Is he cured or is he still crazy? Even he has to ask himself that.
I have said before that I find realistic terrors more frightening than fantastical ones. This is an example of why. I don’t fear turning alien, as Barton does, but the fear of losing your mind, or not being able to prove to others your sanity, as Wilson does, is something that I think everyone has had to deal with. Repeatedly he tells his wife and the airline staff to look out the window and see what he sees, but repeatedly there is nothing to see. It is also a quite realistic sensation to be afraid on a plane and feel like your fear is irrational. If it’s due to turbulence, you’re not alone. But if you’re seeing a gremlin, it might be.
Shatner does a superb job of taking us on a ride from rationality to the edges of sanity and just a little bit beyond in both episodes, and I think it is part of what made him perfect for the role of Kirk, a man who could be cool, calm and collected, or seemingly irrational (especially to Spock) and bring us to the edge of our seats in moments of pure emotion from episode to episode and into the films. He is, along with Stan Lee, Patrick Stewart and Adam West, one of the few men who defined my childhood, and who I feel is deserving of every ounce of praise and respect they receive from fans. (There are others who would be on that list if they were still with us)
Bonus: I would have also reviewed an episode of Star Trek, but the best episode, and certainly the best Kirk episode, I already reviewed. Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever. Coincidentally, I read today another Ellison story. Batman ’66: The Lost Episode, which is the unaired 1966 Batman Two Face episode: The Two Way Crimes of Two-Face. This, like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, would also have been a big name episode. Not only was it scripted by Ellison, but Clint Eastwood was in talks to play Harvey Dent. That would have been pretty awesome.
However, in my opinion, I think this story would not have worked as an actual episode. Jose Garcia-Lopez did a great job of visually capturing the style, but the story itself was a little too clever. When I initially read it, it didn’t seem to actually be that great of a story, until I let it sit a little, and again realized the beauty of simplicity. Those are the best stories, the ones that sit a little and make you think about them. It didn’t read like some of the great villain stories of today, but it did read like of the simple Joker stories that have gone down in history, such as “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge”. I also read the pitch afterward and realized that Len Wein, who scripted the comic, added large portions of dialogue and only the basis of the story was Ellison’s. Still, I think it may have been just a little too clever to translate into an episode of the intentionally campy series. However, we will never know. We do know that Ellison’s Star Trek episode is widely considered the greatest episode of Star Trek, maybe he would have hit gold twice and held the greatest episode of Batman title as well. Although, if he hit gold twice, and stored it in the twin vaults of Gotham’s Second Municipal Bank, then Two-Face probably would have stolen it and Ellison would be left with nothing.
It’s too bad Shatner guest starred on Batman. He and Adam West would be a hoot to see together. Maybe we’ll get a Star Trek ’66 and Batman ’66 team up comic. They seem to be doing a few team up’s with both series these days. And some people don’t appreciate TV of the past? I don’t get it.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to come see Shatner when he comes to the “Khaaaaaan!”