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Can anyone explain the original Twilight Zone episode, "And When the Sky Was Opened"?

In summary, the plot is three astronauts return to Earth after a space mission. However, each one gradually disappears, one at a time, and it's like they never existed.

49

There is none!

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the episodes entry in the book The Twilight Zone Companion, written by Mark Scott Zicree:

"And When the Sky Was Opened" is a flawed episode, however and this flaw lies in its resolution. Like "Where Is Everybody?" it sets up the question "What is going on here?"—then fails to satisfactorily answer it. In this case, an answer isn't even attempted; the astronauts are simply yanked out of existence with no explanation at all, like an old vaudevillian getting the hook from a stagehand in the wings. Serling didn't feel that this was particularly significant, though. "My feeling here was that the bizarre quality of what occurred so out-shadowed the required rationale that we didn't have to worry about it."

One consideration perhaps should soften any dissatisfaction with "And When the Sky Was Opened." In a sense, the episode was made in a different era. We know that when astronauts go into outer space they don't cease to exist—we've done it. But when Serling wrote the script, no one could be certain what would happen when men first ventured into space. In his script, he was trying to capture that dread of the unknown, and in that, at least, he succeeded.

29

The reason is never explained directly in the episode; however, there are a couple of pertinent pieces of information given:

  • The space plane the astronauts are testing is said to have disappeared from radar for a short period during its flight

  • The space plane crashed in the desert, and the astronauts were rescued from the wreck

The episode leaves the viewer to guess what might have happened to the astronauts to cause them to slowly disappear - did the spaceplane cross into some other dimension during its absence from radar, and now they are gradually being drawn back across? Was there an encounter with aliens or some natural force which is causing them to fade away from reality? Did they all die in space or in the crash and death is coming to claim them?

Rod Serling, who wrote the screenplay based on an existing short story, later commented on this episode:

“When Dick Matheson first wrote the story, it had nothing to do with astronauts. At least if I’m dealing with outer space, I can say something, someone [caused the disappearances], and I’ve got a little bit more going on.”

So his intent seems to have been to leave the cause deliberately vague whilst focusing on the ever increasing desperation and confusion of the unfortunate protagonist.

9

Some stories at the time just sort of... ended. Wikipedia said this episode was based on a short story called Disappearing Act (this is a book entry describing the story)

The gist of the story is that Bill is married to Mary, the latter of whom is forced to work a job because Bill is trying to start his career by writing. This makes both of them unhappy, but Bill is unwilling to make a career change that would at least make Mary happy by allowing her to stop working. He then strikes up a relationship with another woman who supports his writing. But his disconnect with the world causes it to start vanishing around him. First his girlfriend, then his friends, his wife, and finally the man himself are simply erased from existence. And that's how the story ends.

While this type of storytelling is unpopular today (Star Trek Voyager had a similar type of episode), a lot of these stories were originally written, which is a different medium from TV. Magazines were the popular culture of the day, and often stories were often vignettes meant to provoke the imagination more than tell a complete story. This helps make more sense of the Serling quote from Nathan's answer

“When Dick Matheson first wrote the story, it had nothing to do with astronauts. At least if I’m dealing with outer space, I can say something, someone [caused the disappearances], and I’ve got a little bit more going on.”

Remember that this episode aired in 1959. Sputnik was the relevant issue of the day and, with Yuri Gagarin more than a year away, coupling a story about people just disappearing with a story about astronauts probably made a lot of sense at the time, especially to TV executives.

  • Literal figurative disconnect is more literal than expected. – Cees Timmerman Jul 29 '17 at 19:31
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It is the Twilight Zone for gosh sakes. It is supposed to be weird and strange.

But this story has a simple explanation. There were advanced aliens watching mankind's efforts to reach space. They exist on a temporal plane that bisects our own and they can control matter and time and human memory so they took the men one by one into their zone for study and the also took away any trace of their existence so the rest of humanity did not come looking for them or mount a defense.

I take exception to Mark Scott Zicree saying we now know that when men go into space they do not cease to exist. TZ is not a documentary on reality. It is an exploration of the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.

  • 1
    Can you offer any evidence to support this bold assertion? – Valorum Aug 19 '18 at 19:44
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I’ve always viewed the story as a military cover up conspiracy. The astronauts were part of a classified military project that doesn’t “exist.” In a sense the government wiped them from existence.

  • 1
    Do you have any reason to believe this is the explanation for the story? Have any specific details in the episode given you this particular view or an official source confirmed it? – Edlothiad Jan 14 '18 at 11:32
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I came looking for Serling's words on his inspiration for what struck me as a clear illustration of wars wiping out of young men, taking all that they were and could ever be, with a bit of survivor guilt thrown into the mix, as well, with so much talk of "mistakes" in the who that got left living integral to the episode. That seemed particularly sharp in Harrington's phone calls to his parents, which otherwise wouldn't really make sense in the scheme of the story. A grown and very happy to be alive man out happily boozing with fellow survivors and goodlooking dames in a bar suddenly calls home to mom, only to discover he doesn't exist?!? Yet the context fits with parental death notifications during war and reaching out for that essential connection (truly essential, as the essence of life is in that parent/child bond) only to find rejection, denial of existence, and an angry father/husband trying--and failing--to protect his wife from pain correlates with stages of grief and the aftermath of war. As Serling was a paratrooper, it makes sense that he would employ such a metaphor for how war seemingly reaches down from the sky to pluck up sons and then somehow determines who comes back alive and whole--or not. The struggles of surviving veterans plagued with "why me" and "why not me" questions built into the episode match the way Serling processed the experience of war, which left him a committed pacifist in regard to everyone but the Nazis (which is one more way he both led and reflected modern, mainstream cultural tides). Since he did not apparently offer explanations for inspirations underlying the episode and inherent to its symbolic representations, our speculative discussions will have to suffice. I think that the metaphor in regard to war is particularly befitting to the Memorial Day observance on the eve of which I've viewed the episode and written this analysis, so at the very least the paltry few readers who might someday see this could spare a few moments to consider those lost and those left grieving when young men and all their potential were plucked from the skies by war, as both groups greatly touched Serling!

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    Can you apply some formatting to this to help break it up and make it more readable? This would greatly improve the quality of this answer. Welcome :) – Möoz May 28 '18 at 4:01
  • Hmmm, I guess not... – Möoz Oct 22 '18 at 3:18
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It's an analogy for time.

When you were young people talked about those long gone but to you it was as though they never existed.

Later in life you talk to youngsters about people they've never heard of and its as though they never existed.

Someday it will be as though we never existed.

Brilliant.

  • Er.... what? This makes no sense whatsoever. – amflare Apr 19 '18 at 17:07

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