If you recall back to last week’s post, I was discussing how titles are not something you can just slap on a show; they need planning and thought. Last week’s title I felt didn’t really work for the episode because it ignored a lot of the conventions that were incorporated into the episode. The title is a line that sounds like it should be spoken but never is (“The four of us are dying”) and it ignores that the star character is capable of having any face, not just those four. This week does have a better title, Third from the Sun, but it still isn’t a great one because it gave away the punchline before we got there. And make no mistake, this is textbook Twilight Zone material here. We get that zing that should have been a jaw-drop, but the moment that they said they had an experimental ship that might be able to go outside the atmosphere, I realized where they were going. The whole time I was thinking this was a commentary about our world and what a warlike people we are until they talked about escaping off-world. Now, having said that, it’s important to remember when this show was made. This episode premiered in a very early part of 1960. There was a lot of fear about nuclear war and, as Jody says, there’s “something in the air”. Talk of global destruction was on everyone’s mind. This must have been an utterly unnerving episode back then. In that way, it’s very easy to see how this title worked for its time. (Still, I wish the episode had a name like The Getaway or something.)
Getting past my own nitpicking, this is a strong episode laced with tension. It’s felt in every word spoken. Carling (played by Edward Andrews) is a nerve-shattering character. He clearly holds sway over the protagonists of the story, but we’re never really sure why. I mean, if I allowed someone into my home, I’d be pretty confident in my own domain, and wouldn’t let him dominate the room.) But Andrews does dominate the scene; every one he’s in is electric. When he picks up the piece of paper, which Bill and his friend Jerry have with data about their escape, you actually are on the edge of your seat. And when you think about it, it’s silly! He picked up a piece of paper, but I was tense as hell! He seems to know that Bill Sturka and his family are planning some kind of escape from a world on “the eve of the end”, which is really an uncomfortable thing to think about, but he’s going to be a good citizen and bring them in. The moment Jody pushes the car door open so quickly, I was delighted to see this man taken down, and Bill does an incredible leap over the car to grab Carling in a chokehold before knocking him out. The whole thing was perfectly executed, but tense from start to finish. And I can’t help but think about their plight. If we truly suspected the end was nigh, what could we do? As Barry McGuire once said, “if the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.” I found everything about the story incredibly tense and it’s executed just so well it deserves to be one of the classics.
But if I can pick nits over a title, I’d better be willing to heap on praise where due as well and this episode is cleverly subtle in the way it creates a non-Earth. Did you notice that the cards during their game are cast down on a glass table, but we can’t see what they look like? The moment the cleverness really dawned on me was the dance music Jody was listening to. It caught my ear instantly but I thought it was background music until Jody asks her dad to dance with her. When she turns it off, that strange, otherworldly quality struck me. Who dances to that? I loved it, but then I have weird tastes. Then there’s the phone; sure, very 60’s (think of The Prisoner) but not like most phones we would be familiar with. Also, listen to the motor on the car; it sounds more like a rocket than a car. We also see it from an odd angle when it’s traveling to the base. While they may have got the title wrong, when you nail so many other little things so perfectly, I have to applaud the creativity.
Carling asks the question, “could there be people on those stars,” and we know the answer is no, dude, people would burn up on stars! But his point is a good one. And it makes us wonder about life out there. You know what else it makes me wonder? If Harrington, Gart and Forbes were from that planet, and not ours! Is Burgess Meredith’s character, Henry Bemis, the bookish little man trapped on an H-Bomb destroyed world, from the same place as this story? Maybe his story takes place right after the events we see here, on this pseudo-Earth. I really wonder if some semblance of unity could be compiled out of this show. Whether or not it can be done may become a pet project of mine, but one thing that does stand out to me is just how many people smoke in this series. I may not be able to track a meaningful chronology out of the series as a whole, but I can say that it’s a place full of smoke. Clever ideas, unknown forms, questionable titles, shadows, substance and lots of cigarette smoke: that’s what we can expect in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
It’s funny to think that there was a time when people were not only terrified by the prospect of a nuclear holocaust wiping out the human race, but also wanted to make lots of television shows about that. I can understand the fear, and that hasn’t gone away since 1960, but the impulse to make that fear the basis of a lot of entertainment is the bit that seems odd. Maybe it was a kind of addiction to misery, something akin to the modern compulsion to watch reality television or a bystander who stands gawping at a car crash.
Will Sturka’s day job involves making a weapon that will start the war he fears, and yet he goes into work each day and dutifully engineers the means of his own destruction. How can he do that? There seem to be two factors playing into his decision. He lives in an Orwellian society, where surveillance has become such a dominant force that the colleague who is obviously checking up on him can do so by marching into his home during the evening, so he probably doesn’t have much choice. He also tells himself that he is part of a whole team of people making one small component of the bomb, so he should therefore bear only a thin slice of the responsibility.
“I’m just a cog in a wheel.”
Those words are pretty hollow, as evidenced by how haunted he looks. Fortunately he at least has a plan to save his family, if he can only keep his actions and those of his friend under the radar. The build-up to the moment where they do a runner is really tense and gripping, and the director makes good use of Dutch angle shots to raise the tension; the more worrying things get, the steeper the incline of the shot, making this an increasingly unsettling viewing experience.
The interesting thing here is the way the society is portrayed. It’s not just that it’s a surveillance culture and one that is determined to win a war despite the costs being so high that the victory will be meaningless. It’s also how the people in the business of doing the surveillance, as represented by the odious Carling, are such willing cogs in the machine, and surely Carling must be representative of the bigger whole, or the society we see here would fail to function. There have to be enough footsoldiers who are not just prepared to rush headlong into armageddon, but do so enthusiastically, in order for the scenario shown here to play out the way it does. That relies on people like Carling being single-minded, blinkered, and completely committed to maintaining the status quo of how society functions to the extent that any dissenting voice is found and suppressed. What kind of conditions lead to a man like Carling gaining such power? How is a dangerous society like this enabled? Those are important questions to keep in mind, when we think about our own societies. I think some of the answers to those questions are reasonably obvious, and mostly include the word “media”, but this is probably not the place for that discussion.
After a barrage of misery and fear, the happy ending we get to this episode is a great counterbalance, and quite unusual for The Twilight Zone, which more often seems to go with cruel twists rather than the positive twist we get at the end of this episode (which is also a lot of fun). Carling gets his comeuppance as well, his bullying tactics only effective until his victims fight back. If this episode were being made today, I think we would get to see the moment where he recovers from his injuries, looks up at the sky, and sees a missile approaching, just to really drive the point home about where his dedication to his sinister work got him in the end, but the closing moments of the episode as they stand are still strong, with our heroes getting their first sight of their new home. The question is, will they be welcomed there and will they find the kind of society they are hoping for? As we know all too well, that’s not a straightforward question to answer. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: I Shot an Arrow into the Air