Thursday, January 08, 2015

Escaping a Doomed Planet

In an unidentified place and time, war was in the air, and a worker at a highly secure plant and his friend, a test pilot, were plotting to hijack an experimental spaceship to escape what looked like certain nuclear carnage.

They put two and two together, really. The plant worker had noticed that a large number of H–bombs had been produced recently, as if in anticipation of a major conflict.

I don't think anyone ever said the word "nuclear" in the episode of the Twilight Zone TV series that first aired on this night in 1960, but that was the implication. In 1960, I'm sure that was on most viewers' minds.

The big problem for the people in the episode was a security officer who appeared to have gotten wind of their plan.

Fritz Weaver played the plant worker who tried to keep everything on track and succeeded — until the very end when they had to board the ship rapidly to make their escape.

Weaver was something of a fixture on the Twilight Zone, one of the actors who made multiple appearances. In addition to this episode, he also appeared in one of Burgess Meredith's classic Twilight Zone episodes, then appeared in an episode of the revived Twilight Zone series in the 1980s.

What I always found interesting — and, sometimes, amusing — about Twilight Zone's depiction of spaceships was how roomy they were. That was necessary, I suppose, to accommodate those massive computer systems capable of navigating space — but hardly practical, given the energy that would be needed to propel it into space. So spaceships in Twilight Zone episodes always resembled the flying saucers one can see in cheap sci–fi flicks — like the ones Ed Wood used to make — but bore little actual resemblance to the real spaceships being launched by NASA.

It's a reminder of how primitive the thinking was in those days, how little ordinary people understood about space travel or computers.

I had a friend when I was a child who probably knew more than most adults about space travel. I remember once when he pointed out something to me that we saw on TV that gave what he thought was clearly a false impression of space travel. It probably wasn't as obvious to most people as he probably thought it should be, and my memory is that there were times when many adults doubted what he said. Even so, he knew what he was talking about.

Mind you, we were only about 7 years old at the time.

Given the relative naivete of most Americans when it came to outer space, it probably wasn't hard for this episode to elicit gasps from viewers — when it was revealed that Weaver and the rest of the refugees from their doomed planet were on their way to Earth, the third planet from the sun.

Hence, the title ... "Third From the Sun."