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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!