Episode 54 – “The Odyssey of Flight 33”

The possibility and the nature of time travel is a frequent theme  in The Twilight Zone. It is front and center in this one. Inexplicably, a commercial jetliner, a Boeing 707 enroute from London to New York, gains speed, too much speed, and finds itself not over the New York in 1961, but New York during the Mesozoic Era, a mere 100 million years or so prior. They know this when they get below the clouds and see the dinosaurs. There’s no airport, of course, and so they head back up, to gain speed and inexplicably try to get “back” to 1961.  They get close, but not close enough, and the episode ends with them undertaking a third attempt, with little prospect of hitting their target time.

In this, as in all time travel scenarios, there are two ways to track the passage of time: There is what David Lewis calls “personal time,”  the time span as the crew and passengers on Flight 33 (and we) experience it, and there is what Lewis calls the “external time,” the time span from some point on the flight to the location in time at which they have arrived. In normal cases, personal time and external time are the same. The passengers and crew endure a six hour journey from London, and arrive in New York six hours after leaving. But in this case, they arrive in New York 100 million years or so before they left London. Time has passed in these two, seemingly irreconcilable ways. It’s even problematic to say that time has “passed.”

Arriving in New York 100 million years ago, the occupants of Flight 33 inhabit a time before their species existed and before Boeing 707s were built. So at the point at time to which they have traveled, there are no humans, but there are humans, and there are no airplanes, and there is an airplane. The aircraft continues to function. It continues to burn fuel, and the crew monitors the remaining fuel. The occupants of the plane still wear their 20th century clothes. Everything inside the aircraft remains as it was. But the crew has lost contact with their ground communication counterparts, because those counterparts don’t exist and won’t exist anytime soon.

Typically emphasized in time travel scenarios are interpersonal relationships and the consequences of time travel for those relationships. In contrast, “The Odyssey of Flight 33” is not about that at all. Instead, what we come to appreciate is the role that the environment, including the state of technology, where it exists, plays for the time traveler. Flight 33 simply can’t land  in most of the past, since the past is not set up for the technology of jet travel. Without airports, or even with airports but without long enough runways, there is no place to land, and Flight 33 is doomed, unless it can return to the narrow window in which the airborne technology meshes with that on the ground.

Suggested reading:

David Lewis, “The Paradoxes of Time Travel” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 1976) pp. 145-152.

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