Original Air Date: January 8, 1960
Writer: Richard Matheson/Rod Serling
Director: Richard L. Bare
“A lot can happen in forty-eight hours…”
Based on Richard Matheson’s 1950 short story of the same name (which first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine), Rod Serling adapted the teleplay for “Third From The Sun” to fit The Twilight Zone and he stayed mostly true to the original. Richard Matheson’s zany and paranoid characters highlight some of the best inner conflicts in The Twilight Zone. He once described the summum bonum of his writing philosophy as follows: “the individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive.” And this guiding principle holds true for much of his work in The Twilight Zone. This episode was the first of Richard L. Bare’s seven episodes he directed, and cinematographer Harry Wild filled in for George T. Clemens on this episode, offering a unique perspective that I found to be quite striking.
“Quitting time at the plant. Time for supper now. Time for families. Time for a cool drink on a porch. Time for the quiet rustle of leaf-laden trees that screen over the moon. And underneath it all, behind the eyes of the men, hanging invisible over the summer night, is a horror without words. For this is the stillness before the storm. This is the eve of the end.”
Will “Bill” Sturka (played by Fritz Weaver) is a scientist who works at a covert military base developing large numbers of atomic bombs. They are preparing for imminent nuclear war (note: this episode was released a little over a year before the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion). In an effort to escape certain death, Sturka and his friend Jerry Riden (played by television actor Joe Maross) spend months prepping an spacecraft to bring their families along and escape the planet. However, just as they attempt to escape their boss their weasel-faced creepy boss, Carling (played by Edward Andrews) keeps checking on them. He makes it clear that government crackdowns are common for men working in top secret positions.
“You ever think, Sturka, there may be people on those stars too?”
The whole episode beautifully builds tension. Great beads of sweat drop off the men’s faces as they mask their plans beneath a facade of politeness. Meanwhile their boss Carling appears seemingly out of nowhere, offering ominous veiled warnings. There is one particularly memorable scene that is shot from beneath a glass coffee table showing the men’s escape plan, their nervous faces, and Carling’s eyes looming down over them. The whole episode is a nervous hand-wringer.
When Carling finally leaves their home Sturka and Riden decide they must depart that night wit their families. When they arrive at the base, their inside contact is waiting for them -a shadowy man who flashes a light at them. When he steps forward it is revealed to be none other than Carling. After a brief standoff they get into an altercation with Carling and subdue him before running onto the base, overpowering several guards, and commandeering their escape craft.
A short time later we see both families safely fleeing their planet. They wonder if there really is another planet out there populated with humans just like them. As the twist is revealed, Riden looks over at Bill and replies “It’s the third planet from the sun, Bill. It’s called ‘Earth.'”
“Behind a tiny ship heading into space is a doomed planet on the verge of suicide. Ahead lies a place called Earth, the 3rd planet from the sun. And for William Sturka and the men and women with him, it’s the eve of the beginning in the Twilight Zone.”
This episode flips the standard “space invader” narrative on its head, in that it is actually an episode about escape. We often wonder what other forms of life may be lurking in the outer reaches of an infinitely expanding space. Who’s to say there are not others just like us wondering the exact same thing?
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Both Fritz Weaver and Edward Andrews appear in later Twilight Zone episodes as well.
- Stock footage of the alien spaceship was used from Forbidden Planet (1956), a film which was used again and again throughout the series.
- Rod Serling named two of the characters in this episode after his daughters, Jodi and Anne.
- The Earth is said to be 11 million miles from the planet in the episode, even though in reality the planet Venus is 24,600,000 miles from Earth.
- The odd music playing when Sturka goes home is actually a piece called “Teddy’s Blues” by French avant-garde Jacques Lasry. Lasry wrote the song for his son Teddy. Lasry had formed a musical group with his wife and their music was featured in Jean Cocteau films, and one of their unusual instruments was featured in this episode (there are several little clues in the show that suggest the men are not on planet Earth).