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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.

8 Answers 8

57

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.

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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.

12

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.

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  • Literal figurative disconnect is more literal than expected. Jul 29, 2017 at 19:31
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This happens to be my favorite Twilight Zone episode and I would argue that the entire point of the story is that there are things in the universe that are beyond our understanding and defy simple explanations. The writers make no effort to “explain” what’s going on because doing so would defeat the purpose of the episode and diffuse the terror it creates. Ultimately, this episode is about fear of the unknown distilled to its purest form. It’s cosmic horror without the big scary aliens.

One thing that is very important in understanding this episode is the fact that it was written before the first manned space-flight launched in 1961. By leaving Earth, we were at the cusp of setting foot in a strange new world of experiences. Yes we had studied the stars and had an understanding of physics but we were still trying to touch something which had been out of our reach for the vast majority of mankind’s existence (an existence which is far, far shorter than that of the universe).

The episode tells us that this is an experimental aircraft, probably the first of its kind. While in space, these men disappear for a moment and then manage to come back and crash in the desert. Over time, each man realizes that something is wrong, their return was some kind of mistake, and something is now correcting this mistake. What really happened up there is beyond their understanding. How this mistake is being correct is also too much for simple humans to comprehend. Think of how single-celled organisms might feel when we put them in a petri dish and study them. It probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to them either because they aren’t anywhere near the point where they could understand what’s really going on.

If you read up on serious studies of extraterrestrial intelligence, you’ll find a prevailing opinion that your average movie or TV show gets it all wrong by showing aliens who look, think, and act far too much like human beings. They usually have two arms and two legs. They usually use machines made of metal just like we do. They tend to have the physical properties of your average carbon-based life-form rather than something that might have evolved in far different circumstances in another galaxy. So this episode goes in the other direction. These astronauts encounter a phenomenon and they come to believe that there is some kind of intelligence behind what’s happening to them (perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly). Maybe they slipped through an anomaly of time and space that would completely change our understanding of the universe the properties that comprise it. Maybe they made contact with an intelligence that we can’t see or measure in the traditional sense. Maybe they encountered some of the dark matter or dark energy that scientists still have virtually no understanding of but that makes up the majority of our universe. I think all those who dismiss this episode as a failure are not giving Serling enough credit. I think he knows the emotions he was trying to evoke and the point he was making even if he never said, “this episode is about the fear of the unknown.” I think you can see that simply in the context of his other scripts, particularly Mirror Image. That episode is similarly terrifying. A woman briefly catches sight of someone who appears to be her exact double. As she waits for a train, other people seem to have seen this other person who looks just like her doing things she has no memory of. They all assume that she’s crazy. This episode gives a bit of “explanation” but only in the form of speculation. The woman vaguely remembers hearing something years ago about different planes of existence; parallel worlds that can intersect with our own, sometimes leading to a person from the other places cross over to our world and forcing them to replace their counterpart to survive. But the episode doesn’t really give us anything beyond these strange ramblings making reference to a phenomenon that doesn’t exist outside of the Twilight Zone. It’s really not much different from the astronauts saying, “I don’t think we were supposed to make it back; something made a mistake and now it has to fix that mistake.”

The point of this episode is that you don’t get an explanation. The cosmos is bigger and probably stranger than we can imagine. Sometimes setting sail in uncharted waters means you get lost.

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    a well written answer (if a bit verbose) but doesn't really add anything to the already accepted answer. Welcome to the site and as you gain more rep you'll be able to make comments on posts instead of answering
    – NKCampbell
    Jun 9, 2021 at 23:53
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It's all “explained” by reading Freud's essay, "Negation" . . .

“Originally . . . the mere existence of the idea of a thing is a guarantee that the thing actually exists. . . It comes about only because thought has the capacity to bring back something once perceived by reproducing it as a mental image, with no need for the external object still to be present. The first and immediate aim of reality testing, then, is not to discover, in real perception, an object corresponding to a mental image, but to rediscover it, to ascertain that it still exists.”

Does “an imagined thing exist in reality”? Are they “escapees” from unconscious repression? “The content of a repressed idea or thought can get through to consciousness, then on condition that it is negated. Negation is a way of acknowledging the repressed, indeed it amounts to a lifting of the repression, although not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed." The three photographs are an interesting aspect of the story. Think of the photo-negations in Stalin’s Soviet Union, as apparatchiks fell out of favor, the fell out of sight. They were negated. All three astronauts are, over the course of the episode “negated.” By who? From who? Finding an “answer” to that is more complex and troubling . . .

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. Do you have any evidence that this theory is what Rod Serling and the writers had in mind when they wrote the episode?
    – DavidW
    Oct 7, 2020 at 1:12
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This episode has hallucinogenic qualities, so I wouldn't try to interpret it in terms of strict scientific possibilities. I always found this one of the creepiest of Twilight Zones, esp. in a philosophical way, i.e. "Do I exist & how can it be proven objectively". The story maybe advanced by the idea that the astronauts passed thru some kind of mysterious & destructive time warp.

Still, the concept of disappearing time/existence might work easier without resort to the whole spaceship/astronaut conceit, that seems to demand more explanation than necessary. Imagine simply that there are holes tearing up the time/space fabric, or a fold in time that keeps folding over again & again, swallowing up existence of people & things, like some kind of black hole that keeps sucking up our existence & understanding. Far out -- not an episode to watch on drugs.

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  • I don't understand this. Is the answer "the astronauts passed thru some kind of mysterious & destructive time warp"? That seems to be the only thing in your "answer" that actually addresses the question. If that's your answer, can you provide any evidence for this warp?
    – DavidW
    Mar 18 at 21:58
  • The best explanation re: the apparent problem in the episode -- it's just a story, not science -- is related to the use of the astronaut aspect, which creates more questions unrelated to the concept of vanishing existence than was in the original story the episode is based on. As pointed out in another comment, Serling indicated: “When Dick Matheson first wrote the story, it had nothing to do with astronauts” The original story concept was probably more relatable in existential/philosophical terms, not demanding "scientific" explanation, as I try to explain in my 2nd paragraph.
    – JCHarvard
    Mar 20 at 5:36
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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.

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    Can you offer any evidence to support this bold assertion?
    – Valorum
    Aug 19, 2018 at 19:44
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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, 2018 at 4:01
  • Hmmm, I guess not...
    – Möoz
    Oct 22, 2018 at 3:18

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