Between science and superstition lies the middle ground upon which Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone. A fan of fantasy and sci-fi magazines since childhood, Serling intended to utilize top pulp authors in developing his television series. Holding a screening of the pilot for a select pool of writers, they were to then pitch ideas for future episodes.
This is where Rod Serling would cross paths with Richard Matheson, celebrated author of the 1954 novel I Am Legend. Richard Matheson would adapt quickly to Serling’s style, becoming a creative pillar for the show and penning 16 episodes throughout his 5-decade career. Of these, we have Twilight Zone’s Death Ship.
As Far From Home as They Will Ever Be
In 1997, the earth has been devastated by overpopulation. The Interplanetary Administration routinely searches space for other inhabitable planets. Spaceship E-89 of the Rocket Division scans the 13th planet of star system 51, ready to land and collect specimens that will determine if the terrain is possible for colonization.
The stern Captain Ross pilots the ship with Lt. Mason and Lt. Carter scanning the planet’s surface. A curious glimmer catches Mason’s eye and with it blossoms the hope of contact with alien life. Though mankind has flourished beyond earth, they have yet to encounter other intelligent lifeforms in the universe.
Captain Ross quickly dismisses the possibility of aliens as the crew prepares to investigate. Upon touchdown they discover the wrecked hull of a ship identical to theirs. Inside are the remains of a 3-man crew, killed upon impact. Corpses identified as Ross, Mason, and Carter. The captain is incredulous with the notion that they’ve died in a crash, unphased by the discovery. His crew members, however, are deeply disturbed and unravel mentally, suffering visions of familiar faces in hometowns and long-lost family members.
Each time Carter or Mason drift away from the horrors of their reality, Ross physically manifests in their daydreams, pulling the Lieutenants back into the present to follow orders. Together, they seek out a logical explanation that satisfies. Captain Ross is a man of indomitable will that refuses to see the truth.
Richard Matheson adapted The Twilight Zone’s “Death Ship” from his short story of the same name. It was originally published in a 1953 issue of Fantastic Story Magazine. “Death Ship” was more recently republished in the 2013 anthology, The Time Traveler’s Almanac. Standing out as the introduction with more horror elements of the time travel theme.
Matheson claimed the story was his first attempt at writing standard science fiction, as he was simply trying to sell as many stories as possible at the time. The resulting short story would pave the way for other science fiction creators, desiring to combine logic and superstition. His entire career would leave a legacy of influential works, most notably the 1954 novel I Am Legend. The book had a massive impact on the development of the zombie and vampire genres with 3 screen adaptations: 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, 1971’s The Omega Man, and 2007’s I Am Legend.
Richard Matheson considered The Twilight Zone adaptation to be one of the better episodes that he wrote. Many fans, however, would argue that “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” is the most beloved episode. Starring a young William Shatner in 1963, the episode would be reimagined in 1983 for the movie and referenced in an episode of the series’ 2019 reboot.
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The Twilight Zone’s “Death Ship” ends with a snap back, as if a reset button is pressed. The crew members are stuck in a time loop, cursed to repeat the tortured discovery of their demise. A postmodern Flying Dutchman, barred from the afterlife. This idea bears a resemblance to the legendary Ampoliros in the Dune universe… a ghost-starship sailing the galaxy for eternity, forever prepared and forever unready.
The theme also appears in the first Star Trek: The Next Generation Pocket Book. Published in 1988 by Diane Carey, Ghost Ship finds the Enterprise encountering lost souls on an endless interstellar voyage. Released the same year as the events of “Death Ship” took place, the horror movie Event Horizon seems to have taken inspiration from the episode. The 1997 film shares themes of a doomed crew and endless cycle of cosmic horror.
The Damned are Very Comfortable in Hell
The Twilight Zone’s “Death Ship” gives the audience a horrific peak into limbo, where death is only a beginning… a never-ending purgatory piloted by a man who will not see anything he does not choose to see. Perhaps the crew members of ship E-89 are trapped in Captain Ross’s personal hell of disbelief… denied their own hereafter and forever sailing the skies of… The Twilight Zone.
Last Updated on September 20, 2021.