When I was a kid, I had a late night line-up for our nights at our summer home. 11:30pm: The Honeymooners. I didn’t love it as a kid, but my grandfather did so I’d watch because he was awesome and if he liked it, it had to be good; I grew to like it as I got older. 12:00am: Star Trek. I loved classic Trek and it captured so much of my best summer vacations. 1:00am: The Twilight Zone. Had to end the night with that eerie black and white piece of TV history. Black and white, color, black and white. It was every weeknight of my childhood summers at the Jersey shore with my cousin. Great times indeed. If there’s a lesson to be learned in I Shot an Arrow into the Air, it’s one that Ralph Kramden of The Honeymooners had said many times with that tone that only Jackie Gleeson could master: be good to the people you meet on your way up, because you’re going to meet the same people on your way back down. Man, Ralph, you said it. Shame Corey didn’t watch your show!
Dewey Martin plays officer Corey and man is he a jerk. I mean, you’ve got an 8 man crew, 5 die and this guy survives?! He is instantly annoying and never gets better. So bad is he that Rod Serling himself contemptuously spits words out at him after he’s committed his vile acts! Where I think the episode fails is that Corey would probably never have passed a psych eval before getting to be in the ship to begin with, but stress is a funny thing and maybe that didn’t manifest until this situation. (Mind you, in my pet project to find a meaningful chronology to this series, it might be the events of Arrow 1 that lead to the psych tests we see in Where is Everybody!) Anyway, Corey and his crew, Colonel Donlin and Pierson crash on what they believe to be an asteroid. This also defies belief because even with their electronics out, surely they would be able to gauge where they were; certainly not far enough out to have hit the moon, let alone a lone asteroid. No matter how you cut it, there are logic gaps, but this was the early days of space exploration so maybe we throw them a bone. (Or hey, maybe this is on that parallel planet Earth from And When the Sky was Opened and they don’t have a moon?) Bottom line is they think they are trapped on an asteroid and they don’t have enough water to survive more than a few days. Corey is so selfish he’d rather kill his crew than to die. Personally, not knowing what we might find, I’d be far happier to have companionship, but that’s just me. Karma gets the better of Corey after he shoots his Colonel, rupturing the canteen with that water inside it, making it a completely pointless murder anyway, but then Corey makes the real whopper of a discovery: he never left Earth. They crashed right around the area where they film the series! And he just murdered his two crewman … for absolutely nothing.
Assuming Corey was actually qualified for this mission, he was obviously a part of the team on the way up, but when things came crashing down, Corey forgot to keep being good to the people he partnered with and it will likely result in court martial and jail time. At best, an insanity plea might get him off but have him locked up anyway. It’s interesting watching this episode now because my friends and I have been talking about The Walking Dead and Y: The Last Man and the question came up about society’s ability to function without law. The question was really around whether or not man would self-govern and if the weak would be cast out by the strong. Would the brainy folks have sway, or would the brawny ones? Does fear really get the better of us? I mean, these are all good questions but what made it so interesting watching this is we see the answer in microcosm. Oh, sure, just because it happens on such a small scale, doesn’t mean it would necessarily mirror on the larger, but we see a mini-society fall apart because of fear. The Colonel is a rational man and tries to keep things together, but he’s also not thinking straight when he lowers his guard knowing Corey is dangerously unstable. So unstable that he’ll tell his crew how hot it is but not think to disrobe even a little, continuing to wear a body suit and scarf all day! And that precious water? He sure doesn’t mind spilling it all over his clothing. Jerk, I tell you. But if the colonel took action sooner, maybe the deaths could have been avoided. In situations like this, you see why the captain is held accountable for the actions of his crew.
Growing up, my family often talked about “core beliefs”; those ideas that are at the heart of who we are. People who share those core beliefs can triumph over nearly anything. Corey clearly did not share the core beliefs with his crew and as a result, 7 of the 8 men died, 2 at his hands, and now he has to live with the burden of that. It’s apt that he seems to breakdown at the end, when he realizes what Pierson was drawing; an incredible revelation that I never forgot. He’ll have the rest of his life to live with the knowledge of what he’s done and ponder the lesson of Ralph Kramden. But that will be of little solace to him, nor should he be allowed to find comfort after what he’s done. No peace of mind for this coward, not even in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Fear can be a dangerous emotion, perhaps more dangerous even than the things we fear. In this episode of The Twilight Zone, fear leads astronaut Corey to commit acts of murder, because he thinks that’s what he has to do in order to survive for a few more days on a barren asteroid, with limited amounts of water left. Mind you, on more than one occasion we see him drinking water so clumsily that it runs down his chin and neck, so it might last a bit longer if he didn’t drink like a toddler.
It’s fairly obvious that Corey isn’t the brightest button in the box, and one wonders how he ever got the job of being amongst the first men in space. And it’s not just that he hasn’t got two brain cells to rub together; he’s relentlessly negative as well, spending most of his time reminding everyone about what a bad fix they’re in, before finally bumping off anyone who is drinking any of the precious water he wants to dribble down his chin.
The idea that Corey is the kind of man who could be chosen for this assignment is one of several things that make this a hard episode for which to suspend our disbelief. We also have a group of astronauts landing on “an uncharted asteroid”, which has a breathable atmosphere, the same gravity as Earth, and a climate that is at least survivable for a while, if uncomfortable. But it’s important to remember when this was made. This was a time when the “first manned aircraft in space” could be the subject of speculation and fiction, and astronauts landing in a desert and jumping to the conclusion that they are on an astronaut that hasn’t been noticed before, despite being in the same orbit as the Earth, was an idea that probably didn’t seem in the least bit outrageous to viewers at the time.
That doesn’t make it very fun to watch, though. Corey is a jerk right from the start, so most of the episode is marking out time until he becomes the last man standing and stumbles upon the twist ending. Seeing somebody who should clearly have been tied up within the first few minutes of landing for everyone else’s safety, allowed to continue his madness unchecked isn’t all that fun to watch, and relies on frustrating things happening, such as Donlin figuring out that Corey is a murderer and then deciding to go off on a trek with him to find the victim’s body, and then leaving his gun lying around, just to make absolutely sure he suffers the same fate. There is so much padding here, despite the short running time, that Rod Serling even has to stick in an extra bit of narration; once Corey has nobody left to talk to, Serling has to do a bit of chatting to his own fictional creation just so somebody is saying something.
Luckily, the twist makes the frustrating journey to get there all worthwhile. It’s cleverly signposted by Pierson’s drawing in the sand, which I have to admit I couldn’t figure out either, but it makes perfect sense once you know what it is. Despite the silliness of an unknown asteroid being close to the Earth and having a breathable atmosphere, I really don’t think the twist ending is one that many viewers would have guessed at the time, and probably not many guess it even today. I’m not sure about 1960, but endless sci-fi shows have conditioned us to accept Death Valley as an alien planet, a bit like quarries being synonymous with alien planets in Doctor Who. When the twist is that Death Valley is… Death Valley after all, it almost feels like a fourth wall break, as if we’ve pulled back from that Doctor Who quarry that’s supposed to be Skaro to reveal some lorries being loaded up with aggregates and some workmen leaning on their shovels and having a cup of tea. So it’s a surprisingly effective moment, and drives the point of the episode home very strongly: it was fear of being in the “jungle where only the tough animals survive” that drove Corey to murder, not the “jungle” itself. Then again, the fact that he was a moron who couldn’t drink without dribbling might have played a part too. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Hitch-Hiker