Saturday, November 26, 2011

"Third From the Sun"

Fritz Weaver and Edward Andrews
“Third From the Sun”
Season One, Episode 14
Original airdate: January 8, 1960

Cast:
William Sturka: Fritz Weaver
Eve Sturka: Lori March
Jody Sturka: Denise Alexander
Jerry Riden: Joe Maross
Ann Riden: Jeanne Evans
Carling: Edward Andrews

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (teleplay based on the short story of the same name by Richard Matheson).
Director: Richard L. Bare
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: Harry Wild
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we’ll give you a lesson in astronomy, but the kind of lesson not taught in schools.  Fritz Weaver, Edward Andrews and Joe Maross appear in ‘Third from the Sun.’   This is a story that takes place on the eve of doomsday.  We hope you’ll join us on the Twilight Zone.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s 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.”

Summary:
            William Sturka is a scientist at an industrial plant that makes nuclear bombs for the military.  He’s standing outside of the plant enjoying an end-of-the-day smoke when he is joined by a coworker named Carling.  Carling tells Sturka that within forty-eight hours the military is going to launch a full-scale nuclear attack on its enemy.  Carling seems to be delighted by this information.  Sturka remarks that Carling should not be zealous about the deaths of millions of people.  Carling calls him a defeatist for making such a statement, and Sturka abruptly says goodbye and walks away.
            As soon as he arrives home Sturka tells his wife, Eve, that they have to leave in order to escape a nuclear holocaust.  He informs her that he has been planning for this day for several months.  He tells her that he has already made preparations with Jerry Riden, a pilot for an experimental spacecraft that can supposedly travel tremendous distances, to steal the aircraft and pilot it to another planet.  Sturka, his wife and their daughter, Jody, are to leave with Riden and his wife in the spacecraft later that night.  Jerry and his wife will come over to play cards and when they think the time is right they will all make a run for it.
            Later that night Jerry and his wife arrive at Sturka’s to play cards.  A few hands into the game Carling unexpectedly arrives at the door.  His presence makes everyone uncomfortable, a fact he seems to relish.  He casually rambles on about nothing in particular while making it very clear to the group that he knows about their plan.  He excuses himself politely and leaves.  After he is gone the group decides that the time to leave is now.  They all gather into one car and drive to the site where the spacecraft is being held under military surveillance.
            Once they arrive at the site, however, Carling appears out of the darkness aiming a revolver at them.  He tells Riden and Sturka that he is going to turn them into the authorities.  He asks the women, still in the backseat of the car, to step out and tells the two men to get in.  Jody slams the car door into Carling and the two men take the gun away from him and knock him unconscious.  The group races across the airstrip and begins to board the ship as military personnel attempt to apprehend them.  Finally, they are able to make it inside and take off safely, leaving their doomed planet behind them
            Several hours later Riden shows Sturka where they are going.  It’s a planet with an atmosphere similar to their own and it’s inhabited by people that appear to be a great deal like them.  It is the third planet from the sun; a planet called Earth.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“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.”

Commentary:
            I think the thing that made The Twilight Zone the show that it was is that it didn’t employ a large roster of writers.  I believe from its inception Serling had a clear idea of what he wanted the show to look like, how he wanted it to feel, the themes he wanted to discuss.  But Serling was untried as a fantasist and realized he would need writers who knew the genre well and who could also recognize and adapt quickly to the style of the show.  Living in Los Angelos during the 1950’s and 60’s, Serling would have found himself surrounded by a hall of fame of twentieth century speculative fiction writers.  Ray Bradbury tells a story of having Serling over to his house for dinner one evening and sending him home afterwards with a lumbering stack of books by contemporary fantasists, telling him that The Twilight Zone would be found within the pages of those books.  Reading voraciously, Serling gave himself a crash course in twentieth century American fantasy.   Initially, he wanted to approach many different writers to freelance stories for the show.  But eventually he settled on only a select few who would become regular writers.  And because he had confidence in these writers to produce stories that fit the milieu of The Twilight Zone he gave them artistic authority to write whatever they wanted.  This would set up a nice dynamic for the series as one that could discuss many different themes and ideas but somehow formulate them into one universal approach.
Richard Matheson is a writer whose work seems tailor-made for a show like The Twilight Zone.  In the introduction to his Collected Stories (Wiater, ed.  Dream/Press, 1989) Matheson describes the underlying motif in virtually all of his early fiction in this manner: the individual isolated in a threatening world, attempting to survive.  Matheson’s fiction is heavily concerned with psychology and even though much of it is fantasy he takes a realistic approach in exploring how people react to their surroundings.  His characters are usually incredibly flawed individuals, fraught with disillusionment and crawling with paranoia.  Rod Serling often described the most devastating type of fear as a fear of the unknown that affects only one person, a fear which that person cannot share with anyone else.  If this would be a central theme of The Twilight Zone then a writer like Matheson would seem an obvious choice for the series.  For those not familiar with his work outside of Zone I would point them in the direction of stories like “Mad House,” “Disappearing Act” and “Legion of Plotters,” all of which are available in his collection Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Tor, 2002), to get a feel for how substantial his influence on the program was.  Matheson is widely recognized as the writer who shaped the modern horror story, bringing it out of decaying aristocratic castles and into suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls.  Matheson wasn’t the first writer to do this but he was the first to make it a defining characteristic of his fiction.

Richard Matheson
Matheson was born in New Jersey in 1920 and raised in Brooklyn.  After seeing combat as an infantry soldier in World War II he arrived in Los Angeles in 1951 after receiving a journalism degree from the University of Missouri.  Unable to find work as a journalist he worked various jobs at night and wrote short stories during the day.  He published his first story, “Born of Man and Woman,” in the Summer, 1950 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and it brought him instant attention (“Third from the Sun” was his second published short story, appearing in the October, 1950 issue of Galaxy).  Over the next decade he would continue a prolific stint as one of the leading new writers of American popular fiction.  By the time his work began appearing on The Twilight Zone in 1959 he had already published six novels, two collections of short stories, and had seen his classic science fiction novel The Shrinking Man made into a film by Jack Arnold, for which Matheson wrote the screenplay. 
In Los Angeles Matheson fell in with several highly regarded literary communities, most notably a group of writers that would collectively be known as “The Southern California School of Writers,” (taken from a quote by Los Angeles Times critic Robert Kirsch) or simply “The Group.”  The Group played a significant part in the history of The Twilight Zone because almost all of the show’s writers including Beaumont, Johnson, Bradbury, Jerry Sohl, John Tomerlin and even Serling himself to a certain degree, were connected to it.  Other writers often placed within this circle are Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, William F Nolan, and Ray Russell.  The Group found in each other the creative drive to produce the best work possible.  Their spirited enthusiasm had an indelible impression on their work and out of this camaraderie came several masterpieces of American popular fiction.  Many contemporary writers of speculative fiction cite these authors as major influences on their work and it is to the discredit of the publishing industry that so many of their works are no longer in print.



From left: Charles E. Fritch, Chad Oliver, Beaumont, Matheson, and Nolan
Circa, 1954

“Third From the Sun” is Rod Serling’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story of the same name.  Unlike “And When the Sky Was Opened,” Serling’s incredibly loose adaptation of Matheson’s story “Disappearing Act,” this teleplay is more faithful to its source material.  Serling simply fleshed out the plot a little, adding a villain and changing the time frame to build suspense.  Matheson’s story takes place on the morning of the family’s departure.  The character’s are not given names and are referred to only by title (i.e. wife, daughter, son, neighbor).  It’s almost a slice-of-life type vignette that paints a scene of what a family’s last breakfast on Earth would look like.  It’s a good story but there is not enough there to turn it into a half-hour teleplay without adding other elements.
Matheson has said several times that he wasn’t happy with this adaptation, although he is famous for being extremely demanding of people who attempt to adapt his work.  One can’t really fault him for this.  His work is rarely adapted faithfully and even more rarely is it adapted well.  His vampire novel I am Legend (1954) is considered by many to be one of the seminal works of American dark fantasy.  Yet it has been adapted for the screen three times and all three times the filmmakers strayed away from the original concept somehow which resulted in a watered-down version of Matheson's novel.  The reason the man is so particular about other people adapting his work might have a lot to do with the way he writes.  Matheson is a very deliberate writer.  His style is terse and to the point.  His short fiction moves fast and his sentence structure is simple and concrete.  Even in his novels he rarely elaborates into ornate detail unless it’s absolutely pertinent to the story.  He seems to write stories scene for scene how he imagines them in his head, without the expositive gibberish that many writers saturate their fiction with.  I don’t think he leaves much room in his stories for other people’s interpretations.  This isn’t a bad thing.  It’s just the way he writes.
Much like the previous episode, “The Four of Us Are Dying,” “Third from the Sun” immediately grabs the viewer’s attention with its inebriated camera angles and its uncomfortable close-up shots.  This episode marked The Twilight Zone directorial debut of Richard L. Bare who would direct a total of seven episodes of the program including the fan favorites “To Serve Man” and “Nick of Time” (Bare would later make a name for himself by directing an astounding 166 episodes of Green Acres and with his landmark 1971 book The Film Director).  “Third from the Sun,” however, would remain his crowning achievement on the show for it is masterfully directed.  Aiding him in this venture was Director of Photography Harry Wild with his only contribution to the series.  The elaborate trick shots and eclectic style of this episode is a practice in the art of deception by the filmmakers.  The twist at the end of the story is a simple one that could have been easily detected by an audience had the director’s approach been too aggressive.  By the same token this episode would feel dishonest if Bare didn’t play by the rules and gave no underlying setup for the payoff at the end of the story.  There has to be some evidence that this is foreign planet that we are seeing.  Bare pulls this off brilliantly by employing the use of wide angle lenses which cloak this alien world in a blanket of disorientation.  Subtlety is key here.  This is executed brilliantly due to the exceptional camerawork of Harry Wild which pulls the viewer’s attention away from the intricacies of this episode.  There is one shot in particular during the famous poker scene in which Wild is shooting the cast from underneath a glass table. 

Fritz Weaver, Edward Andrews and Joe Maross in the classic poker scene.
The actors also deserve a nod.  Each turn in convincing performances but the two that resonate the most with me are Fritz Weaver as William Sturka and Edward Andrews as the militant Carling.  This is the first of two episodes for Weaver who also stars in the season two episode, “The Obsolete Man,” in one of the most memorable performances of the entire series.  He’s fantastic here as the conscientious Sturka who is at once an empathetic character, the voice of man’s guilt in the horrible world that he has helped create.  But the man who steals the show is Edward Andrews.  This is also the first of two episodes for Andrews who would also star in the unfortunate season five episode “You Drive.”  Here he plays the kind of role that he was notorious for.  Carling could have been a bland, vanilla flavored, disciplinary villain had the wrong actor played the part.  On the surface there is really not much too him.  His visceral attributes are found not so much in what he says but in the way Andrews says it and in the uncomfortable atmosphere that seems to cling to him wherever he goes.  A good example of this is during the aforementioned poker scene when Andrews enters Sturka’s home while he and Riden are mapping out their escape route.  If you really listen Andrews doesn’t say anything threatening during this scene but yet the threat is there, radiating from him.  In a very chilling gesture Andrews gently picks up the men’s poker scores right from underneath Riden’s fingers which coincidentally has their evacuation plan on the other side.  Here he doesn’t say anything at all and doesn’t have to, as his purpose is quite clear.
If “Third from the Sun” is big on atmosphere then it’s quite small on plot which is its only downfall.  I should admit that I have never really cared for the payoff at the end of this story.  It’s always been a bit too unbelievable for me.  But both the original source material and its small screen adaptation are examples of taking a very thin concept and turning it into something much greater, a practice that would become a defining characteristic of this program.  Even if an ending seemed flat and predictable it often didn’t matter because the story that came before it held enough philosophical insight and the characters were emotionally compelling enough that it struck at the heart of the audience and made them care about what was happening.  Which is what great art should do.

Grade: B

Notes:
Galaxy Science Fiction
October, 1950
First issue
--“Third From the Sun” was originally published in the October, 1950 issue of Galaxy.  It was also published in Born of Man and Woman (Chamberlain Press, 1954) Matheson’s first collection of short stories (a truncated edition of his this collection was published by Bantam Books in 1955 with “Third From the Sun” as the title story).  It was also published in Twilight Zone: the Original Stories (Greenburg, Matheson, Waugh, eds.  MJF, 1985) and can currently be found in his collection Duel (Tor, 2003).
--For anyone wanting a complete bibliography of Matheson’s work you should check out The Richard Matheson Companion (Wiater, Bradley, Stuve, eds.  Gauntlet Press, 2007).  (a trade paperback edition was published in 2009 entitled The Twilight and Other Zones: the Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson).  It’s a collection of essays honoring Matheson by those who have known him best throughout his career.  William F. Nolan has a great biographical essay in it entitled “The Matheson Years: a Profile in Friendship.”  It’s brief but, in typical Nolan fashion, quite thorough.


--For more information on The Southern California School of Writers I would recommend reading Christopher Conlon’s amazing essay, “Southern California Sorcerers,” available in California Sorcery (Cemetery Dance, 1999), an anthology featuring stories by the Group edited by William F. Nolan and William Schafer.  Conlon also edited He is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson (Gauntlet Press, 2009) featuring original stories inspired by Matheson’s work from many of today’s leading fantasists.  It also includes Matheson and Beamont's collaborative screen adaptation of Fritz Lieber’s novel Conjure Wife which was filmed by Sidney Hayers in 1962 as Burn, Witch, Burn.
--Fritz Weaver gives a topnotch performance in the exceptional season two episode, “The Obsolete Man,” written by Rod Serling.
--Edward Andrews also stars in the season five episode, “You Drive,” written by Earl Hamner, Jr.
--Joe Maross also stars in the season three episode, “The Little People,” written by Rod Serling.
--Richard L. Bare’s television credits also include many episodes of Petticoat Junction, The Virginian, Cheyenne, Maverick and Green Acres.
--Serling named two of the characters after his daughters, Jodi and Ann.

--Brian Durant

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this excellent rundown, and especially for mentioning our RICHARD MATHESON COMPANION. May I suggest that those interested in his screenwriting work on THE TWILIGHT ZONE and elsewhere, as well as adaptations of his work by other writers, also check out my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (McFarland, 2010)?

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  2. Thank for the kind words Matthew. And yes, I would absolutely recommend RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN as the definitive reference guide for anyone wanting to know anything about his work in film and television. It’s a fantastic book. Thanks for checking out our blog!

    Note:
    I also recently reread Mr. Bradley’s introduction to NOIR which is an omnibus of Matheson’s early crime novels that was released by G&G books in 1997 (with a paperback edition released by FORGE in 2005). It contains a lot of information about Matheson’s early years as a writer including his history with the Fictioneers. I would definitely check it out.

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  3. I wasn't too crazy about this ep the first two or three times I watched it, as it came off as too cold and clinical. As I've viewed it again recently it's improved and I'm now inclined to agree that it's a cleverly made above average early entry from the first season.

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  4. I agree with you all the way, John. I didn't think much of this episode the first few times I saw it for that same reason. I also didn't think much of the twist. But in reviewing it here I discovered what a well-made film it is. Bare and Wild are really on their game in this episode. Thanks for reading!

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