Monday, April 6, 2020

"On Thursday We Leave for Home"

Captain Benteen (James Whitmore) looks to the sky for rescue

“On Thursday We Leave for Home”
Season Four, Episode 118
Original Air Date: May 2, 1963

Captain Benteen: James Whitmore
Colonel Sloane: Tim O’Connor
Al Baines: James Broderick
George: Paul Langton
Julie: Jo Helton
Joan: Mercedes Shirley
Hank: Russ Bender
Jo-Jo: Daniel Kulick
Lt. Engle: Lew Gallo
Colonists: Madge Kennedy
                 John Ward
                 Shirley O’Hara
                 Anthony Benson

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Bert Granet
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Paul Groesse
Editor: Al Clark
Set Decoration: Henry Grace, Frank R. McKelvy
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Assistant Director: John Bloss
Sound: Franklin Milton, Joe Edmondson
Music: stock
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“On Twilight Zone next week, a most unusual and provocative story in which we call upon the talents of James Whitmore as a mayor of a town, a little mild on the face of it except when we supply the following addenda: This town is on an asteroid ten billion miles from Earth. Our story is called ‘On Thursday We Leave for Home.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“This is William Benteen, who officiates on a disintegrating outpost in space. The people are a remnant society who left the Earth looking for a millennium, a place without war, without jeopardy, without fear. And what they found was a lonely, barren place whose only industry was survival. And this is what they have done for three decades, survive. Until the memory of the Earth they came from has become an indistinct and shadowed recollection of another time and another place. One month ago, a signal from Earth announced that a ship would be coming to pick them up and take them home. In just a moment we’ll hear more of that ship, more of that home, and what it takes out of mind and body to reach it. This is The Twilight Zone.”

            Dual suns cast intense heat and perpetual daylight upon a group of weary colonists on a barren, rocky outpost in space. The colonists are the remnants and the descendants of the 113 people who arrived on the Pilgrim 1, an exploratory vessel which set out thirty years earlier to find a human habitat beyond Earth. Now they struggle to survive in this unforgiving and oppressive environment. On a rise above a cluster of makeshift shacks is a radio tower where Captain Benteen, the leader of the colony, oversees a constant monitoring of the radio channels in the hopes of hearing from a rescue ship from Earth.
            Captain Benteen did not captain the Pilgrim 1 but was merely a teenager on that ship. Over time Benteen took on the name of Captain and the role of leader and protector of the survivors. He works hard to keep spirits high but a suicide among the colonists, the ninth suicide in six months, brings morale low. Many of the colonists are ready to give up and die. On the promise of the arrival of a ship from Earth, Benteen delivers a stirring speech to the colonists in order to bring them back from the depths of despair. Their renewed hope is short-lived, however, when a meteor storm sends the group scrambling for cover inside a large cave. Several of the colonists sustain injuries.
            To take everyone’s minds off the frightening meteor storm, Benteen tells Jo-Jo, the youngest in the colony, about an Earth the boy has never seen. The colonists gather close to listen as Benteen recalls the wonders and joys of life on Earth, casting his memory back to paint a picture of Earth as a wonderful oasis.
            The meteor storm passes and is replaced by another sound, the sound of rocket engines. The colonists rush outside to witness the arrival of a ship from Earth. The colonists greet Colonel Sloane and the crew of the Galaxy 6 with jubilation. The arrival of the ship brings new hope and energy to the colonists who are grateful to leave the hot, cruel, desolate outpost.
            At first, Captain Benteen is equally joyed by the arrival of the ship. Slowly and insidiously, however, the presence of Colonel Sloane, and the ways in which the colonists look to Sloane for authority and advice, begins to drive a wedge between Captain Benteen and his authority over the colonists. Sloane is an affable, compassionate, and highly accommodating man but still Benteen feels threatened. Benteen defines himself by a singular measure, his unassailable position as leader of the colonists.     
            Benteen first attempts to reassert his authority by small measures, such as repeatedly insisting that Sloane address him as Captain Benteen, before he finds that more direct methods are required, such as forcing Sloane to break up a friendly game of baseball between the colonists and Sloane’s crew. Sloane remains accommodating, fully understanding Benteen’s need to lead and direct. He cannot sit idly by, however, when Benteen suggests that the colonists will remain together once they return to Earth. Sloane inquires whether Benteen has asked the colonists if they wish to remain together on Earth and Benteen replies by denigrating the colonists, repeatedly referring to them as children, and suggesting that he, and only he, knows what is best for everyone in the colony.
            Benteen declares his intentions of keeping the colony together on Earth at the next gathering. The colonists make it clear that they have no desire to remain together but instead intend to spread out to all parts of the United States. Benteen is shocked and dejected by this rejection of his ideal for the group. He realizes that although he still needs the colonists, to lead, to direct, to organize, they no longer need his leadership. When Benteen changes course and suggests that the colonists remain on the outpost and not return to Earth, Sloane intercedes and suggests taking a vote to determine those who wish to return to Earth and those who wish to stay. All except Benteen raise their hands to express a desire to leave.
            In desperation, Benteen attempts to damage the Galaxy 6 but is subdued by the ship’s crew. Benteen tells the colonists that they will not be getting on a ship to Paradise but rather to Hell. Benteen threatens that if they return to Earth they will die. He can see in the faces of the colonists that he has lost all of his influence over them.
            Utterly defeated, Benteen informs all that he will not be leaving with the ship. Minutes before takeoff, Sloane attempts to find Benteen in the cave system where the colonists often gathered. He calls out, pleading with Benteen to return to Earth. There will be no second chance to leave. Benteen does not respond or show himself and Sloane is forced to leave without him.
            Benteen emerges from his hiding place and listens to the rocket engines taking off. He speaks to the empty spaces as though the colonists were still there. The illusion is not strong enough to sustain him.
As Benteen speaks aloud of the Earth he realizes his terrible mistake in electing to stay behind. He rushes outside to see the Galaxy 6 ascending high into the sky on its way home. Benteen calls out with his hands lifted to the sky but he is too late, doomed by his own design to remain alone in that terrible place.      

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“William Benteen, who had prerogatives; he could lead, he could direct, dictate, judge, legislate. It became a habit, then a pattern, and finally a necessity. William Benteen, once a god, now a population of one.”

A final confrontation between
Colonel Sloane (Tim O'Connor) and Captain Benteen
            The fourth season shift to hour-long drama seemed to vex series creator Rod Serling, who largely struggled during the show’s half-season to produce the type of teleplay which marked him as the show’s most consistently brilliant writer during the first three seasons. His struggles during the fourth season likely resulted from his admitted exhaustion at the volume of writing required on the series and his temporary relocation to Yellow Springs, Ohio to teach at Antioch College. Serling showed flashes of brilliance in such episodes as “He’s Alive” and “The Parallel” but it was not until “On Thursday We Leave for Home,” the final episode produced for the fourth season, though not the final episode to air, that Serling fully tapped into the qualities which marked his unique and extraordinary talent as a dramatist. Serling went back to basics for the episode and its patchwork qualities, recycled themes, reused sets, costumes, props, and recognizable music cues, mesh brilliantly in perhaps the finest offering of the fourth season and Serling’s best script since the third season finale, “The Changing of the Guard.”

Serling combined the type of psychological tale of isolation he previously explored in such early episodes as “The Lonely” and “I Shot an Arrow into the Air” with the politics of group dynamics which informed his topical triumphs “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and “The Shelter.” Serling’s script is wonderfully shaded not only in obvious terms of character but also in narrative structure. Serling twice teased the arrival of the rescue ship from Earth, whose arrival viewers as well as colonists have taken on faith, with two devastating sleight-of-hand moments. The first is a frank depiction of suicide among the colonists which served to underline the severity of their situation and provide Captain Benteen with his first heroic moment when he brings the colonists back from despair. The second occurred just after Benteen’s stirring speech, which produced a hopeful chant among the gathered colonists, when the sounds heard above were not those of a rescue ship but of a meteor storm which injured many of the colonists and forced them to shelter inside a cave. The meteor storm sequence is a surprisingly tense and effective bit of special effects in an episode which typically opted for minimalism or recycled parts for its effects.
            These moments of establishing action further manipulate audience expectations when Benteen is given another heroic moment to calm the injured and stressed colonists inside the cave while suggesting Al Baines as the surly antagonist to Benteen’s Moses-like figure. This misdirection makes the later revelations, that Al Baines is not at all an antagonist and Benteen is far worse than a benevolent protector, all the more impactful.
            Serling grounds his script in blunt, recurring religious imagery which both illustrates the underlying problems of faith-based leadership and further explores the eroding line between that leadership and totalitarian control. Serling’s explicit introduction of a democratic measure to seal Benteen’s fate is a clear indication of the writer’s alliance to a process of fair leadership. Benteen is frequently framed as a preacher upon a pulpit looking down on gathered colonists, who are repeatedly compared to children or a flock of sheep, potent religious symbols which illustrate their involuntary indoctrination into the Church of Benteen. Colonel Sloane later completes the mental emancipation of the colonists by assuring them that when they return to Earth they can pray to any god they wish and that god will no longer have to be William Benteen.
            Benteen maintained his control over the colonists largely through restriction. He is the only source of information and therefore the final word on any matter. Al Baines’ brief role as antagonist is largely defined by his challenge to Benteen’s control of the colonists’ thoughts and behaviors. Benteen’s repeated framing of this control through restriction as necessary and beneficial, even after the arrival of the Galaxy 6, only serves to further reveal Benteen as a destructive and malign force. It only makes sense that Benteen focuses much of his wrath on Al Baines, insulting the man’s intelligence and attempting to place much of the blame for the colonists’ quiet revolt at his feet. Baines, to his credit, remains a sympathetic portrait of a liberated man whose escape from the manipulative clutches of a zealot provides him a new perspective on his aggressor. It is telling that Serling chose Baines to be the final one to speak to Benteen when Baines accompanies Sloane into the cave to try one last time to coerce Benteen to return to Earth with the rest of the colonists.
The introduction of outside sources of information is devastating to Benteen’s system of power and control. Continuing the religious symbolism, Benteen later informs Colonel Sloane that the colonists referred to Sloane (the unknown savior from Earth) as the Messiah. This occurs after Benteen fully realizes that his position as unquestioned leader is obsolete with the arrival of the Galaxy 6. The faith of the colonists has been rewarded and therefore they no longer need that faith, or the preacher of faith, to hold onto. It is Benteen’s struggle to adjust in the face of the (to his mind) adversarial other which sets his course trajectory from hero to villain to, finally, tragic figure.

            Serling leaves much of the pre-establishing action to the viewer’s imagination, producing several unanswered, though ultimately unimportant, questions, such as: What happened to the crew of the Pilgrim I? What became of the ship? Did the ship crash and its materials used to construct the makeshift shacks of the colonists’ village? How did Benteen, a teenaged boy, come to be the unquestioned leader of a group which included several people older than himself? It is interesting that Serling established that there are more colonists when the Galaxy 6 arrives than were initially on the Pilgrim I. If one assumes that some of the original passengers on the Pilgrim I died, then it is also to be assumed that the remaining survivors set about in earnest to produce children in the community, though only Jo-Jo is shown to be a young child in the group.

The C-57D from Forbidden Planet
            Much of the episode’s success emerges from the familiar sheen of recycled elements, whether the opening strains of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Eye of the Beholder” or the use of settings and props from previous episodes and notable MGM productions. The show’s debt to the look and feel of the 1956 MGM film Forbidden Planet is well-documented but perhaps no other
The Galaxy 6
episode so notably mines that film’s rich resources than “On Thursday We Leave for Home.” With some modifications, sets, props, and costumes from that film are prominently used in the episode, notably the rocky and arid setting of the outpost colony and the Galaxy 6 spaceship (the C-57D in Forbidden Planet). The crew of the Galaxy 6 also wears modified uniforms from Forbidden Planet. Many of these elements were previously seen in the earlier fourth season episode “Death Ship,” from which “On Thursday We Leave for Home” recycled the footage of the spaceship landing and taking off. Forbidden Planet also lent materials to such episodes as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” “To Serve Man,” “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,” “Uncle Simon,” and several more.

The lair of the Morlocks from The Time Machine
The colony itself, with its makeshift shacks and cramped radio tower, was built for the episode but some modifications were required to capture the crane shot which closes the episode. Initially, no roofs were placed on the sets and the crew was forced to scramble to place coverings on the shacks in order to capture that final shot without blatantly revealing the artificial
The caves from "On Thursday We Leave for Home"
nature of the set. The interior cave set, where much of the episode takes place, was also a standing set at MGM, likely (though not confirmed) a modified version of the underground lair of the Morlocks built for MGM’s 1960 production of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Rod Serling understood the necessity, even in an ensemble drama, of developing two central characters at war with one another to illuminate the larger group dynamics. In this way Serling was a truly masterful dramatist. Earlier examples include Claude Akins and Jack Weston on opposite sides of the rising panic in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” and Larry Gates as the leader of a besieged family and Sandy Kenyon as the brutish neighbor intent on the family’s destruction in “The Shelter.” Serling re-staged this dynamic in his adaptation of Henry Slesar’s “The Old Man in the Cave.” This later episode is largely an inversion of “On Thursday We Leave for Home” in that the Benteen-like character, played by Zone regular John Anderson, is the beneficent leader of a group of survivors who fall under the influence of a cruel military leader played by James Coburn.

James Whitmore’s performance as Captain William Benteen is justly celebrated as the best part of “On Thursday We Leave for Home.” I rated the performance #6 among the best performances on the series and it could have rated higher, all the way up to #1. The most impressive aspect of Whitmore’s performance is that it essentially required the actor to transition between three different characters, the heroic, benevolent leader of the colonists, the selfish, controlling zealot, and the tragic figure of a man doomed by his own stubborn insistence on being a god among men. Whitmore pulls off all aspects of the performance exceptionally well, particularly the transition from a hated antagonist to a truly pitiable figure with hands raised in supplication to the sky. It is one of the most gutting endings on the series and it achieves its effects by eliciting great pity and sympathy for a character most viewers despised five minutes previously. These moments when Rod Serling's best writing found a skilled and motivated performer through which to speak are the reasons why this sixty-plus year old television series remains one of the most watched and discussed programs in the medium's history. 
James Whitmore (1921-2009) moved from a Tony Award-winning career on stage to film work which included memorable turns in such genre material as Them! and Planet of the Apes. Whitmore returned to the stage in the 1970s and became celebrated for one-man shows portraying historical figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Will Rogers. Whitmore began on television with several appearances on dramatic anthology series where he first worked with director Buzz Kulick on Playhouse 90. Whitmore appeared on Suspense in the Charles Beaumont-scripted “I, Buck Larsen” and later on Rod Serling's existential western The Loner, in the two-part episode, "The Mourners for Johnny Sharp," and in the Ray Bradbury Theatre production of “The Toynbee Convector.” Whitmore lent his voice to Ray Bradbury’s 1962 Academy Award nominated short animated film Icarus Montgolfier Wright, co-scripted by George Clayton Johnson and also featuring the voice of Twilight Zone and Night Gallery performer Ross Martin. Whitmore won an Emmy Award for a recurring role on The Practice. His most memorable film role came relatively late in Whitmore’s career in director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shawshank Redemption. Whitmore portrayed an elderly paroled criminal whose inability to adjust to life outside of prison leads to his suicide. His performance in “On Thursday We Leave for Home” remains one of the jewels in the celebrated performer’s crown and arguably rates as his best television work.

The revelation upon a repeat viewing of “On Thursday We Leave for Home” is the exceptional performance of Tim O’Connor as Colonel Sloane, the foil to Whitmore’s Captain Benteen. O'Connor portrays Sloane as an affable, intelligent, caring, and accommodating man whose idea of leadership flies directly in the face of Benteen’s leadership ideals. O’Connor’s performance is one of restraint pushed and tested in increasing intervals by Benteen’s progressive mania of control until Sloane takes decisive action to lead the colonists away from Benteen’s parasitic influence. It is as masterful a character progression in its way as Whitmore’s Benteen. The viewer waits in vain for the crack in Sloane’s persona to appear. Even to the end Sloane attempts to do the right thing and persuade Benteen to board the ship with the others. In this way, Benteen’s fate becomes one completely of his own making, sealing his tragic arc.
Tim O’Connor (1927-2018) was a prolific television actor best known for playing figures of authority, such as military officials, but whose versatility ensured appearances on virtually every type of dramatic program. He was known for recurring roles on such soap operas as Peyton Place and Dynasty, as well as much genre work, highlighted by a recurring role on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, three appearances on Wonder Woman, including the memorable two-part episode, “Judgement From Outer Space,” inspired by The Day the Earth Stood Still. O’Connor also logged appearances on ‘Way Out (“Button, Button”), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, in the Henry Slesar-scripted “What Really Happened,” directed by Zone contributor Jack Smight, The Outer Limits, in “Moonstone” and Harlan Ellison’s “Soldier,” and Star Trek: The Next Generation, in “The Perfect Mate.” O’Connor’s most memorable genre film role came in the 1973 cult film Sssssss.
Although the episode lives and breathes through the performances of Whitmore and O’Connor, it also features an underrated ensemble of character actors who are expertly directed by Buzz Kulik. It is no easy task to direct such a large cast mostly comprised of extras with non-speaking roles but Kulik frames the sweaty, weary faces of the beaten-down colonists exceptionally well. The colonists are essential to the dynamics of the drama. Repeat Zone performers such as Russ Bender, Paul Langton, Jo Helton, and the young Danny Kulick are ably supported by James Broderick as Al Baines.  

“On Thursday We Leave for Home” contains the recognizable strengths and hallmarks of Rod Serling’s powerful style of drama: poetic, yet grounded dialogue, a strong emotional core, examinations of topical themes, complex characters, and a surprising yet challenging conclusion. One can easily imagine Serling dictating his script, playing each character in turn, adding elements and removing others, to produce his finest script of the fourth season, and unquestionably one of his finest scripts of the entire series. It comes with the highest recommendation.

Grade: A

Grateful acknowledgement to:
-The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (3rd ed., 2018)
-Audio commentary for “On Thursday We Leave for Home” by Marc Scott Zicree and Joseph Dougherty, for The Twilight Zone: The 5th Dimension (2016)
-The Internet Movie Database (

--Buzz Kulick directed eight additional episodes of the series, including “King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” “Static,” “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” “The Mind and the Matter,” “A Game of Pool,” “A Quality of Mercy,” and “Jess-Belle.” “On Thursday We Leave for Home” was Kulik’s final episode for the series.
--James Whitmore later appeared on Rod Serling’s The Loner in the two-part episode “The Mourners for Johnny Sharp.”
--Paul Langton also appeared in “Where Is Everybody?”
--Jo Helton also appeared in “The Shelter.”
--Russ Bender also appeared in “The Hitch-Hiker” and “The Fugitive.”
--Danny Kulick also appeared in “Cavender Is Coming.”
--Lew Gallo also appeared in “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”
--“On Thursday We Leave for Home” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Barry Bostwick.

--One of the most well-documented goofs on the series occurred during the filming of “On Thursday We Leave for Home” when a microphone can be seen entering the frame for an extended time during the scene in which Benteen and George discuss the community’s dwindling supplies.



  1. Excellent review. This was one of the first episodes I saw as a teenager and I remember being intrigued throughout and it having a real effect on me. It's one of Serling's very best scripts, Whitmore is absolutely remarkable (I would indeed bump him up to #1 for Best Performances) and the ending gives me chills every time. I know there are teachers who show their students classics like "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" and "Eye of the Beholder" but this one should be included as well, as there are many themes to be discussed and analyzed. Magnificent stuff! My grade is A+.

    1. Thanks! Revisiting this episode was even more enjoyable than the first time I saw it and I came away even more impressed with the performances and Serling's script. I agree that this one ranks right up there with the best of Serling's episodes but I think it gets short-changed because it is an hour-long episode and is seen less in syndication than the more familiar half-hour episodes. I agree also that this one is perfect for group discussion. There is a lot to unpack in the episode and it has that unique quality, like "Monsters Are Due," of putting the viewer right in the middle of the conflict. Thanks for reading!

    2. The hour long format was ill suited for the series. Sometimes it worked (I thought "In His Image" was excellent), but most episodes seemed slowly paced and with padded dialogue. This one definitely needed the full hour to tell the story. I also think it would make a great full length feature film. Beginning with the colonists explaining why they want to leave Earth in 1991 and their arrival there. Show how Benteen became the leader of the group as a 15 year old. How the colony grew and how the planet deteriorated into a hellhole over 30 years. The biggest problem who be finding a actor to fill Whitmore's shoes; very difficult task!