Original Air Date: January 10, 1964
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Robert Florey
“His loneliness must have been brand new in human experience.”
In this brilliantly sentimental episode, conceived of by Rod Serling, we begin with an astronaut who is frozen in suspended animation while aboard a spacecraft as it speeds through the cosmos.
“It may be said with a degree of assurance that not everything that meets the eye is as it appears. Case in point, the scene you’re watching. This is not a hospital, not a morgue, not a mausoleum, not an undertaker’s parlor of the future. What it is is the belly of a spaceship. It is en route to another planetary system, an incredible distance from the Earth. This is the crux of our story – a flight into space. It is also the story of the things that might happen to human beings who take a step beyond, unable to anticipate everything that might await them out there.”
In a flashback from 1987, we learn that the astronaut is a 31 year-old man named Douglas Stansfield (Robert Lansing). He is being sent on a voyage in about six months time to a new planetary system aptly dubbed “Stansfield’s Mount Everest. The system is composed of a sun and five planets and located approximately 141 light years away. During the bulk of this voyage he will be placed in suspended animation. Although he will be in his 70s when he returns to earth, his appearance will only indicate that he has aged a few weeks.
“Commander Douglas Stansfield, astronaut, a man about to embark on one of history’s longest journeys: forty years out into endless space and hopefully back again. This is the beginning, the first step towards man’s longest leap into the unknown. Science has solved the mechanical details and now it’s up to one human being to breathe life into blueprints and computers, to prove once and for all that man can live half a lifetime in the total void of outer space, forty years alone in the unknown. This is Earth. Ahead lies a planetary system. The vast region in between is the Twilight Zone.”
A month or so prior to his expedition he bumps into a woman in the hallway and quickly falls in love with her. The woman’s name is Sandra Horn (Mariette Hartley). Tragically, his impending voyage means Sandra will age considerably while Douglas will not. This episode tells their backstory through quick cuts between clips of Douglas in suspended animation aboard his spacecraft spliced with his inner monologue: “My life had been space. It had been missions, projects, and expeditions. There had been no time for intrusions that took the form of a woman’s face –a voice, a short month of a man drawing together, becoming a part of one another, reaching tentatively into that strange and mysterious pond of love, and then watching the ripples that came from it. But now I think of these things. Now they come to mind, now in the darkness and the cold, the solitude, the stillness, the loneliness. Now they come as a feeling of warmth. Sandy… where are you now, Sandy? Across the void? My dear Sandy, through the millions of miles of cold, empty space, through the vastness of a naked desert of sky and stars: I love you. I love you, Sandy.”
In another flashback, Sandy and Douglas face a tearful goodbye –they know this will likely be the last since Sandy will be an elderly woman by the time he returns.
Next we see a pair of space command bureaucrats (played by returning Twilight Zone actor Edward Binns and newcomer George Macready) who await the return of the “one of the old missions.” This is the ship of Douglas Stansfield, a man whose communication apparatus malfunctioned shortly after take-off. After about 6 months he decided to manually remove himself from his frozen state, and thus he spent the better part of 40 years alone in a cockpit speeding through space thinking mostly of Sandy. However, when he returns to earth –much to his horror– Sandy has decided to also freeze herself in awaiting his return. She has not aged a day over 26 whereas Douglas is now an elderly man. He painfully greets Sandy and bids her farewell instructing her to move on with her age and good looks. Then he silently trudges away down the corridor. While this was a bit of an underwhelming reunion, I nevertheless thought this was a powerful episode.
“Commander Douglas Stansfield, one of the forgotten pioneers of the space age. He’s been pushed aside by the flow of progress and the passage of years, and the ferocious travesty of fate. Tonight’s tale of the ionosphere and irony, delivered from the Twilight Zone.”
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Per the episode’s timeline, Commander Douglas Stansfield was born in 1956 and became an astronaut in 1976, while Sandy was born in 1961. Stansfield’s return to earth would have been in 2027.
- Actors Robert Lansing and Mariette Hartley appeared on Star Trek, though not together.
- Stock footage of the Mercury Atlas rocket is used in this episode for Stansfield’s lift-off.
- Robert Lansing later confessed his reticence for filming the semi-nude scenes in suspended animation (he wore swim trunks).