Every weekday, we’re going to review an episode of Rod Serling’s classic sci-fi/horror TV series “The Twilight Zone“. We’re starting from the beginning and we will be working our way through every episode the series has offered, including the episodes from the 80’s. You can see all the reviews right here.
“Judgment Night” – Directed by John Brahm
Broadcast date: December 4th, 1959
Carl Lanser is a passenger on the S.S. Queen of Glasgow, a passenger liner. The year is 1942 and Lanser is incredibly agitated and seemingly hiding something, although we come to find that he simply cannot remember where he came from or why he is on this ship. We find that the ship is part of a convoy that is trying to evade German U-boats but its engines have been overworked and are at risk of shutting down at any moment. To save as much energy as possible for the engines and to avoid being detected by the Germans, the ship is sailing without any lights.
At dinner, Lanser is pressed to reveal some information about himself, which is finds he is unable to do, aside from his name and where he was born. However, as the topic around the dinner table turns to the ship’s precarious situation, Lanser seems to know precisely how the Germans would attack them and with what tactics. This raises some suspicions with the captain, who is obviously keen to understand why Lanser has this knowledge. However, after questioning him, he realizes that Lanser is in a near amnesia-like state, able to offer little more than the basics of his life story. It is in Lanser’s room that he, and we the viewers, learn that he was a naval officer for the German Navy, something that seemingly shocks him.
In the parlor, Lanser is having a nightcap only to realize when the engines stop. Suddenly, he is struck by a premonition that something awful will happen a little more than an hour after the engines ceased. His theory is proven right when a German U-Boat begins attacking the S.S. Queen of Glasgow, ultimately destroying it. Before the ship sinks, Lanser is able to use binoculars and sees that the captain of the U-Boat is none other than himself. He dies with the rest of the crew and passengers.
On the U-Boat, Lanser, the captain, is approached by his second-in-command, who admits his distaste with having sunk the ship without warning. He feels that by doing so, the entire crew has become damned and their punishment is to suffer the same fate as the S.S. Queen of Glasgow over and over again for all eternity. Little does he know how right he is.
What stands out about this episode is that it feels like every shot is done beginning with a palette of darkness and then light was carefully added. Lanser unknowingly must live in the shadows for the rest of eternity in his own personal Hell. It’s a wonderful way to present a story that is so dark and morbid as I constantly felt like there was a sinister undertone throughout the episode.
Feeling almost like a story that would be included in the Bermuda Triangle lore, “Judgment Night” is a tale of déjà vu that will always end in pain and death, which is befitting for a Nazi commander. Still, it then raises a question of compassion. We know by the scene where Lanser is on the U-Boat talking with his first mate that he is an evil person. But do we feel the punishment matches the crime? As a Jew, I find myself relishing and delighting in his fate. As a what I believe, and hope, to be empathetic person, it’s a fate I find horrifying. To never truly know yourself? To come to that awful realization mere moments before death only to start again with a blank slate? It makes me nauseous.
This is one of those episodes of “The Twilight Zone” that stick with you for a while after you’ve seen it. It’s one that makes you question your own nature. For that, I truly commend it.