The Twilight Zone: Season 1, Episode Fifteen “I Shot an Arrow into the Air”

Original Air Date: January 15, 1960
Writer: Madelon Champion/Rod Serling
Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“I shot an arrow into the air, it landed I know not where.”

There is an amusing story behind the origins of “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.” Rod Serling was at a party when he was approached by a woman named Madelon Champion who gave him the idea for an episode. She had written the basic framework and plot-twist of a space crew that crashes onto what appears to be a remote asteroid. Serling was so infatuated with the idea that he paid Madelon $500 on the spot and gave her a writer’s credit in the episode (the only such instance in The Twilight Zone). The episode was directed by Stuart Rosenberg who later became known for his Hollywood film partnership with actor Paul Newman, including Cool Hand Luke.

“Her name is the Arrow One. She represents 4 and a half years of planning, preparations and training, and a thousand years of science and mathematics and the projected dreams and hopes of not only a nation but a world. She is the first manned aircraft into space. And this is the countdown, the last 5 seconds before man shot an arrow into the air.”
-Rod Serling

The story is about the first manned space flight from a rocket known as “Arrow One.” The eight astronauts onboard crash-land on what they believe to be a barren asteroid. Four survive (one is in poor health and he dies shortly after the crash). The likelihood of survival of the three remaining astronauts is bleak. Their names are commanding officer Donlin (played by Edward Binns who appeared in a number of classic films including 12 Angry Men, North By Northwest, Patton and others), Corey (played by Dewey Martin) and Pierson (played by Ted Otis).

“Now you make tracks, Mr. Corey. You move out and up like some kind of ghostly billy-club was tapping at your ankles and telling you that it was later than you think. You scrabble up rock hills and feel hot sand underneath your feet and every now and then take a look over your shoulder at a giant sun suspended in a dead and motionless sky like an unblinking eye that probes at the back of your head in a prolonged accusation. Mr. Corey, last remaining member of a doomed crew, keep moving. Make tracks, Mr. Corey. Push up and push out because if you stop…if you stop, maybe sanity will get you by the throat. Maybe realization will pry open your mind and the horror you left down in the sand will seep in. Yeah, Mr. Corey, yeah, you better keep moving. That’s the order of the moment: keep moving.”
-Rod Serling

Officer Corey disapproves of commanding officer Donlin’s decisions. He and Pierson venture out into the desert for some six hours but only Corey returns claiming that Pierson died. However, Donlin notices that Corey’s canteen is filled with additional water. He pulls out his gun and demands that Corey take him to Pierson’s body. When they arrive Pierson is barely alive drawing a diagram in the dirt. Corey then attacks and kills Donlin in order to confiscate more water and thereby increase his odds of survival. as he ventures onward he something curious over the horizon: telephone wires. In horror he realizes they have landed back on Earth, and that Pierson was trying to communicate via diagram that he saw telephone wires. Corey breaks down in hysterical tears: “we never left the earth… we just crashed back into it…” This episode provided the early seeds for the feature film Planet of the Apes which Roger Serling helped draft the screenplay for.

“Practical joke perpetrated by Mother Nature and a combination of improbable events. Practical joke wearing the trappings of nightmare, of terror, and desperation. Small, human drama played out in a desert 97 miles from Reno, Nevada, U.S.A., continent of North America, the Earth and, of course, the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

The Twilight Zone crew returned to Death Valley to shoot this episode amidst the craggy and barren hillsides, but this time they learned their lesson after the miserable experience of previously shooting “The Lonely” in blistering heat. This time no one passed out due to heat stroke.

I thought this was a brilliant little episode with a compelling twist. In my view, it bears striking resemblance to the work Rod Serling did for the script of the feature-film Planet of the Apes (1968).

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • The Twilight Zone Companion was highly critical of the science in this episode: “Any astronaut who crash lands on a body within our solar system that has the same atmosphere and gravity of Earth and doesn’t immediately realize he is on Earth had better go back to astronaut school.”
  • The crew revised their procedure for filming in Death Valley after all the problems they experienced when filming “The Lonely” -including the addition of a two hour lunch and packing copious amounts of water.
  • This was the only time Rod Serling purchased a random story from a stranger. “I got 15,000 manuscripts in the first five days. Of those 15,000, I and members of my staff read about 140. And 137 of those 140 were wasted paper; hand-scrawled, laboriously written, therapeutic unholy grotesqueries from sick, troubled, deeply disturbed people. Of the three remaining scripts, all of clearly poetic, professional quality, none of them fitted the show.” —Rod Serling quoted in The Twilight Zone Companion.
  • The title of the episode comes from the opening line of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song”: “I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I knew not where.”
  • The plot idea of astronauts thinking they had crashed on an unknown planet, only to discover that in fact they had been on Earth all along, would be adapted by Rod Serling in his work on the initial screenplay of the 1968 film Planet of The Apes.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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