Serling’s Re-Zoning Efforts: “Third From The Sun”

No wonder The Twilight Zone is such a classic. Most of the time, you were getting scripts written by the master himself, Rod Serling. And when it wasn’t him, it was often someone like Richard Matheson.

So I hardly think it’s a coincidence that “Third From The Sun” is such a highly rated episode. After all, you have the talents of both men at work here.

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That’s not to say they collaborated in the conventional sense. I mean that, as he did with “And When The Sky Was Opened“, Serling adapted one of Matheson’s short stories.

He took the title and the basic idea — and added all the usual Serling touches to turn it into a Zone classic. As Stephen King later said of what was only the 14th episode of the first season, “It marks the point at which many occasional tuners-in became addicts.”

(Spoilers ahead, naturally. The episode can be watched on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. It’s also on DVD and Blu-ray.)

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Matheson’s story, which had first appeared in the October 1950 issue of Galaxy, is a marvel of economy. Virtually no extraneous details decorate this taut tale of a man and wife (and neighbors) determined to make their getaway from a world on the brink of all-out war.

Heck, they don’t even have names. They wake up early one day, get ready, pick up the neighbors, make their way to the launch site, board the ship, and go.

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Oh, Matheson drops in enough hints and background info along the way to clue you in about what’s going on (for the most part) and keep you reading. It’s a great little snapper, a perfect short story. But it needed something more to make it work as a TV episode.

Serling fleshed out the characters, not only giving them names, but also adding those wonderfully poetic lines he’s famous for. Consider his opening narration:

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.

What a perfect scene-setter, spoken quietly over the otherwise unremarkable sights of people leaving work and heading to their charming little homes. Things look normal, yet they’re anything but. What could be more Zone-like?

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Leave it to Serling to give us lines like this:

Jody: “Everyone I’ve talked to lately, they’ve been noticing it.”

Eve: “Noticing what, Jo?”

Jody: “That something’s wrong. That something’s … well, something’s in the air. That something’s going to happen. And everybody’s afraid. Everyone, Dad. Why?”

Will: “People are afraid because they make themselves afraid. They’re afraid because they subvert every great thing ever discovered, every fine idea ever thought, every marvelous invention ever conceived. They subvert it, Jody. They make it crooked and devious. Then too late, far too late, they ask themselves the question why.”

Another crucial element from Serling is the character of Carling, played to sly, devious perfection by Edward Andrews. His thinly veiled suspicions make it clear that he’ll eventually jeopardize the escape plan, contributing a great deal of tension to the story. Even a simple card game becomes nerve-wracking.

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There is one interesting bit that Serling didn’t carry over from the short story. As the couple dresses for their journey, the wife raises a question:

“Won’t the guards think it’s funny that … that our neighbors are coming down to see you off, too?”

He sank down on the bed and fumbled for the clasps on his shoes.

“We’ll have to take that chance,” he said. “We need them with us.”

She sighed. “It seems so cold. So calculating.”

He straightened up and saw her silhouette in the doorway.

“What else can we do?” he asked intently. “We can’t interbreed our own children.”

 

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In the Zone episode, of course, the neighbors are brought along because the two families are friends, and both men share not only jobs at the munitions plant, but anxieties about what will happen when the bombs they manufacture there are used.

But in the short story, the main couple are obviously preparing for the possibility that they’ll be landing on a world uninhabited by their fellow humans. Of course, we know they’ll soon learn that they have plenty of human company — and live bombs. As Serling puts it after we learn they’re actually Earth-bound:

Behind a tiny ship heading into space is a doomed planet on the verge of suicide. Ahead lies a place called Earth, the third 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.

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***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Hard-working, hard-playing fan of all pop culture, especially the Twilight Zone. Which led to a Twitter page. And then to a blog. And then to ... stay tuned. Yes, that's a picture of Rod Serling, not me. You can find the real me under the "Your Host" tab on my blog, along with biographical details that, while 100 percent accurate, sound kind of boastful and braggy. Sorry.

Posted on 01/24/2017, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. I don’t know why, Paul, but I always see this title and think of the episode where the earth is freezing (or melting). Not that it makes a difference, I’m sure you could explain either of them well.

    I really like this episode and the ending is amazing, especially when you consider when it aired. We were having air-raid drills and learning how we would survive in the fallout shelter in our school for weeks.

    The part where the boss is looking at the card scores, always makes me nervous, even though I know how it works out. It’s a great episode, well written, well developed and perfectly timed.

    • I don’t blame you for mixing up the episodes based on the titles, Dan. When you have a title that refers specifically to our position in the relation to the sun, why WOULDN’T you think of “The Midnight Sun”? It’s like “Long Distance Call” (the grandma/toy telephone one) and “Night Call” (the fiance calling from the grave one). I’ve seen people mix those two episodes up before, and with those titles, it’s easy to see why.

      And yes, this story really says something (like so many TZs do) about human nature. It shouldn’t be eye-opening to realize we could certainly screw up more than just this world, is it? I can imagine the times made it all the more riveting, of course. (I’m afraid it predates me — sorry!)

      And yes, that scene is so marvelously filmed and edited. TZ was such a top-flight affair, it’s no wonder the suspense is there even when we know how it will turn out. Glad you enjoyed the post!

      • I do get the two “calls” episodes messed up, and I want “Little People” to be the title of the episode with Ages Morehead. The part of this episode that still gets me is when they go to such great length to hide their conversation. Then, just as I’m about to think “these guys are paranoid” the boss shows up in the garage window.

      • Ah, yes — “The Little People” could apply to the Moorehead episode. I never even thought about that. And yes, Carling was a grade-A snitch.

  2. This episode raises some great points. And I love the line “People are afraid because they make themselves afraid.” Actually the rest of the thoughts that go with the above quote are also great. It does seem that we do tend to collectively make ourselves afraid, don’t we? Look to the darkside? Why IS that? I’m an optimist…resist the pessimists…but have to say going over to the darkside (or the Twilight Zone!) *does* make for more interesting stories! Ha!

    Great post, Paul!

    • Yes,that line is probably my favorite from this episode. There’s a lot of wisdom at work in Serling’s writings, and that one is on my short list of best quotes. It takes a lot to resist the pull to be negative, but Serling certainly showed it was possible to deal in dark subjects but do so in a way that didn’t yield to pessimism.

      Thanks for stopping by, Frank — glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Serling re-used “eve of the end” in his opening narration for “The Midnight Sun”. I quoted THAT bit on Facebook at 5 minutes to noon on Inauguration Day.

    I re-watched “Third From the Sun” a few months back. An episode that’s directed and acted to perfection. And RIP to Fritz Weaver, again.

    • Yes, it was often the “eve of the end” on TZ. So many lines that are even more applicable to our own time.

      “Third From The Sun” stands up beautifully, yes. And Weaver was quite a talent.

  4. One of the most sublimely entertaining eps. with a kicker twist ending that seems so ‘of course’ but always enthralls the viewer in spite of it.

    • Yes, like so many classic TZs, it’s a top-notch affair from top to bottom. The writing, acting, directing and cinematography are all first-rate. It holds up very well on repeat viewings.

  5. Isn’t this episode very relatable to our present circumstances on the third planet from the sun? That is why I loved the writings of Serling and Matheson. They were able to take conventional sci-fi or horror stories and turn them into parables much like the late, great, Gene Roddenberry. We need more writers like them. Of course, the acting and the direction for that time period in television history is some of the best examples of true artistry. Great post, Paul!

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