S01E14 – Third From The Sun
“Certain that a nuclear war is imminent, a scientist plots to escape with his family and closest friends in an experimental spaceship to a planet eleven million miles away.”
I’ve lost count of the number of movies and comics I’ve seen over the years that contain the same twist ending as Third From The Sun. Let’s just say it’s a pretty sizeable number. And since this episode is based on a short story by Richard Matheson published some 10 years before this adaptation hit the small screen, it’s safe to say the twist didn’t originate with the Twilight Zone either. Still, the big reveal of what planet our harried heroes are actually escaping TO and not FROM had to be relatively new to most people at the time Third From The Sun aired, so one can only imagine the impact it had.
The funny thing is, even though it’s supposed to be a surprise, director Richard L. Bare took great effort to plant visual clues that the story might not be taking place exactly where we think it is. As noted in Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion, Bare shot every scene with an extremely wide angle lens, even on close-ups, which was atypical for television productions. He also kept the camera in odd places, such as behind flashlights or underneath glass tables. Bare pulled every trick he could think of to make the viewer feel as if something was off about the whole setting. Pretty clever for a guy whose main claim to fame was directing all but four episodes of Green Acres during its 170 episode run. (I guess it really was the place to be.)
Of course, even without the twist at the end, viewers who caught Third From The Sun when it originally aired would likely still have been riveted by the subject matter. With the Bay of Pigs fiasco just over one year away, Cold War concerns were at an all-time high, so a show dealing with two couples trying to find a way to survive an impending nuclear holocaust probably touched a few nerves. I imagine audiences found it especially chilling to listen to the character of Sturka (a rather Russian sounding name for an American, don’t you think) coldly explain that by striking first, America could limit it’s own civilian casualties to a mere 35 million or so. Given the population of the U.S. in 1960, that suggested our government considered the death of 1 out of every 5 people to be acceptable losses.
Um, how about no. While it’s nearly impossible to conduct a war, even a just one, with no collateral damages, the Catechism is pretty explicit in its instruction that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” Sure, we can bomb each other out of existence, but that doesn’t mean we should. Sometimes, letting a war drag on for awhile can actually be the more moral choice if it results in fewer casualties in the long run. That’s not to say body count is the only measure. The Church recognizes that other concerns such as regional stabilization, political alliances, and economic burdens must also be taken into consideration when deciding a course of action during wartime. But civilian casualties must be in the forefront. As Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory noted during the Iraq war, “The use of anti-personnel landmines, cluster bombs and other weapons that cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, or between times of war and times of peace, ought to be avoided.” Perhaps that’s something to keep in mind during this age of drone warfare.
Twilight Tidbits: If the spaceship our intrepid travelers intend to use to make their escape looks a bit familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen it every time you watch the 1956 classic, Forbidden Planet.