September 8, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 14. Third from the Sun


directed by Richard L. Bare
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the short story by Richard Matheson
starring Fritz Weaver, Edward Andrews, Joe Maross, Denise Alexander, Lori March, and Jeanne Evans

Friday, January 8, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Third From the Sun‘s final surprise — that the titular planet is a destination rather than a point of departure — is so irrelevant to the preceding action that it hardly even qualifies as a “twist.” The only thing it twists is our assumption that we’re watching an “us” rather than a “them,” which has not been a distinctive feature of this particular story; it’s just a basic assumption made about any fiction. Memorable though it may be on first encounter, this ending is an all-purpose gimmick that can be grafted on to any story. (“If we shadows have offended / Think but this, and all is mended / That you have but chanced to view / The far-off orb of Zorbulon Two.”)

It’s a stark illustration of my thesis that the twists on The Twilight Zone serve to stanch uneasiness, not intensify it. The uneasiness that this episode stirs up — or tries to, anyway — has absolutely nothing to do with people from outer space. But you’ll come away having had the real subject matter wiped from your mind by the last 30 seconds.

What you’ve been watching up until that point is a story about the burden of having to completely jettison your nice suburban life because of The Looming Cataclysm… which is to say it’s about trying to reconcile the simultaneous complacency and terror of Cold War America… which is to say it’s about the nauseating gap between the private, emotional self and the public, rational self. Just like every other episode. Here’s Rod helpfully laying it all out for us:

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 out 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 storm. This is the eve of the end.

Take away the last two sentences (the ones that start trying to assign words to the “horror without words”) and you’ve got the heart of the Twilight Zone: only the part of the self that knows peace and comfort is free to have the nightmares accrued by the other part.

To the private self, forever yearning for leafy Binghamton, the public sphere of business and politics can feel not just cold and oppressive but genuinely unnatural, uncanny. The anti-humanism of the arms race, which serves as the motivating threat in this story, is just an extreme case of a more general bewilderment: how can this experience of reality — the sensuous immediacy of a cool drink on a porch — be the same world as that — the grim abstractions of politics? How can a newspaper’s talk about “the enemy” — not to mention “mutually assured destruction” — possibly qualify as a reference to the same reality that also contains the delicious actuality of lemonade? All those manly “big words” feel like they can’t begin to touch the physical truth of things: supper, families. Not just because of geographical distance but because of an essential difference of type: it seems like it all exists in a separate category, in a parallel mental sphere.

The story of this episode is that the one sphere encroaches on the other — lives in the physical world are upended by a threat from the world of talk. The crucial thing about the episode is that from the audience’s perspective it remains just talk all the way to the end; we’re never shown any actual attack or destruction, and our protagonists don’t witness any. It makes for lame TV, yes, but if we’re taking it seriously that’s also precisely what’s disturbing; these people have to abandon everything they’ve ever known without ever feeling the necessity with their senses. They have to act on the merely conceptual, in defiance of the soothing suburban setting, the comforts of home and family. This is the essence of anxiety: the impulse to overrule your own physical intuition that you are safe, and commit yourself bodily, by an act of willpower, to a world of danger that you know only through words.

The gradual subjugation of physical reality to apocalyptic thinking is represented by the tilted camera angles. Things are no longer themselves, in this household. They’re now part of the world of concepts.

“This world as we know it won’t exist much longer. It’s about to blow itself up,” says dad. Those big words are the full extent of the threat, but they’ve already poisoned everything. Maybe it’s that poison itself that they’re really escaping. In a sense, there’s no difference.

(After knowing the ending, you might argue that the crooked camera was actually a signal that this wasn’t Earth — but that’s effectively a denial of the intuitive sense it made all along: that the world of comfort has been denatured by anxiety.)

The tough question at the end of the episode, which the feint about Earth serves to push aside, is really: have these people done a sensible and necessary thing? Or have they just thrown away their lives out of sheer crazy anxiety, sacrificing everything on the altar of would-be rationalism? We have no way of knowing.

For me, and I imagine for many others, the greatest wound left by witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center was thinking “well, I have been hearing on the news for years about the threat of terrorism, so I have only myself to blame for being surprised by this. I always filed that kind of talk away as conceptual rather than actual, and let lemonade etc. predominate in my sense of the world. But I won’t make that mistake again.” As though being my caught off guard were an unforgivable error.

Of course, trying to take reported concepts as deeply to heart as you take your own physical reality is a terribly destructive intention — far, far more disruptive to one’s life and well-being than whatever damage I might have suffered from being “surprised” by 9/11 — which was, after all, widely attested to have been surprising.

I’ve come back around since. I see now that the grains of salt that keep rational abstractions confined to their proper sphere — and keep “a cool drink on a porch” front and center while you’re having it — are a vital talisman for well-being. Yet one more bit of advice I wish I could pass back to Rod.

Besides the tilted camera, some additional clues that the Sturka family is from another planet: they listen to art music, have modernist, surrealist and ethnic painting and sculpture throughout their house, and have what looks like a shamisen on the living room wall. The signs of being cultured on Earth serve nicely as the signs of being an alien on TV. The average audience member’s ambivalence on this point serves the episode’s purposes: if I’m into stuff that’s a little off the beaten path — like, say, science fiction — does that make me an “us” or a “them”? “A little of both,” says TV.

The Sturkas also have rather loud curtains.

My first reaction to this episode was that it was painfully thin stuff, a précis instead of a script, with leaden execution. A second viewing didn’t exactly redeem it, but it did make clearer to me that it’s more dependent on its historical moment than any other episode we’ve seen. To our eyes it plays as duller and hokier than usual because it relies on very specific real-world anxieties that we no longer share. Other episodes, for all their period aesthetics and attitudes, still tend to be about psychological universals.

I for one still fear nuclear weapons themselves — they’re terrifying! — but I don’t have the specific period fear, the Dr. Strangelove fear, the one being played to here: that the petty men who run the world are right now caught up in an unstoppable march toward total destruction. In 1960, the audience had it buzzing in their bones. When the boss, Carling, sneers “You a defeatist, Sturka?” at the beginning of the episode, it doesn’t push my buttons and make me feel defensive. In 1960 it probably would have. And it needs to for the episode to work. Carling has no discernible motivation as written; he simply represents a voice the audience is expected to already have in their heads, abusing them.

It’s worth noting that the news in 1960 was not of nuclear tests themselves — none had not taken place since 1958 — but of the ongoing contentious efforts to negotiate some form of test ban treaty, which wouldn’t come to pass until 1963. I imagine that being exposed to constant political chest-thumping about nuclear policy would be more anxiety-inducing than hearing about actual bomb tests; it’s hubris and obliviousness that are truly scary. These days we don’t say that we’re worried about “the bomb,” we we say we’re worried about who has “the nuclear codes.” Weapons are just inert things; vast explosions may be devastating, but they are, in a sense, simple. Whereas the threat posed by people and their delusions, the threat posed by an untrustworthy society, is endlessly complex and harrowing.

(That’s the appeal of post-apocalyptic fantasies, in a nutshell: having to fight zombies to survive is a small price to pay for the profound relief that comes from the destruction of society and all its infinite menace.)

Serling’s adaptation of the bare-bones Richard Matheson source adds half of the characters and most of the details, but remains otherwise pretty much faithful. And yet tone and emphasis are different just by virtue of its being on film, since film is naturally allied to the sensual outlook, and prose to the rational. In Matheson’s terse, pulpy style, which uses almost no descriptive language, ideas seem to be playing out in the abstract, flattened space of the imagination, so the philosophical tension between the world of the real and the world of talk doesn’t really come across as central. Though we do get:

“For the future of life itself,” he finished weakly. He was sorry he said it. Early on a prosaic morning, over everyday food, that kind of talk didn’t sound right. Even if it was true.

On the other hand, in Matheson’s version the twist ending actually feels significant, much more like the point of the story, since we never get to really see or meet these characters — they all remain nameless the whole time — so finding out that they’re actually a “them” feels like essential information finally revealed, rather than arbitrary pin-the-tail-on-the-episode information.

I’ll grant that, superficial though it may be, that is the ending, and to most people it will be the only thing this episode has going for it, so maybe it seems perverse of me to refuse to take it more seriously. Certainly I agree that there’s plenty worth saying about the notion of saucermen being “so much more like us than we imagine!” I just choose to save such a discussion for an episode where the script is actually about that notion. (I haven’t checked, but chances seem good that there will be one.)

My intention here is to talk about how the episodes feel and function while they’re onscreen. The saucermen topic is more like something this episode encourages us to ponder on our own time — like the patronizing “questions for book groups” in the back of trade paperbacks.

Jeanne Evans (Mrs. Riden) was director Richard Bare’s wife at the time. Bare went on to direct “virtually every episode of the 1960s–1970s CBS television series Green Acres” and died only last year, at the age of 101.

Fritz Weaver is 90 and still alive.

Music is from stock: a lot of “time passes” water-treading cues, which don’t help the drama at all. It’s mostly taken from Bernard Herrmann’s “Outer Space” and “Western” sets of library cues, plus a couple of similar items by Marius Constant and Guy Luypaerts, composed and recorded at the same time as Herrmann’s.

How did these highbrow Parisians end up writing American TV music? I believe I read somewhere — I can’t find it anywhere right now, but I’ll return and edit this if it turns out to be terribly wrong — that during a long musician’s strike in 1957, CBS decided to spend its music budget on overseas sessions, recording general-purpose library music, and music department head Lud Gluskin thought it would be interesting (and convenient) to commission a bunch of local composers to write cues for the Paris sessions. More on this when we get to the famous second season theme, which was assembled from a couple of those pieces.


  1. Two related details in the source material, which were changed for the adaption, make the short story more horrifying to me than the TV version. First, the notion that the neighbor family with their two children are essential to the escape plan because “we can’t interbreed our own children.” Yikes. Right. In the TV version, suitable breeders aren’t needed because Sturka knows that there is life on Earth already and they won’t be responsible for saving the species, or “life itself” as story-Sturka puts it. (I suspect Standards and Practices wouldn’t allow the notion of interbreeding, even if with the neighbors.) Because of that change, we lose what I think is the real “twist” horror of the story’s ending–that Sturka thinks “We’ll probably have it all to ourselves. No hatred. No war.” At that moment, we earthlings feel horror and shame–at our inability to warn them that they’re sadly misinformed: there IS hatred and war on this planet, too. “Don’t come here! You will be no better off on Earth than where you come from.” That’s a scary and sad place to stand as the reader/viewer–seeing the misguided hope and innocence of these characters who we know are doomed.

    Posted by MRB on |
  2. These are very good points and significant oversights on my part — casualties of my writing this entry several months after watching and reading the story. I rewatched the episode while writing but mostly just to confirm details, and I have to admit that I didn’t actually reread the story, remembering it simply as being “basically the same.” (Which it is, but only by comparison to, say, “What You Need,” where the original story was thoroughly different.)

    Thank you for actually reading the story fresh and reporting on it properly. If this project is ever reprinted as a scholarly monograph I will revise accordingly and you will have a place in the acknowledgements.

    Posted by broomlet Post author on |

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