Monday, January 24, 2011

Book to Movie: Third from the Sun

Book to Movie: Third from the Sun
The Twilight Zone, Season 1, episode 14
Original air date: January 8, 1960
Writer: Rod Serling based on the short story by Richard Matheson
Director: Richard Bare

In 1959, Rod Serling took Richard Matheson’s early work, Third from the Sun and rewrote it for the television series, The Twilight Zone. In doing this, Serling took a rather pedestrian story by Matheson and made it into a masterpiece of television.

Serling injects an antagonist – a coworker (or perhaps supervisor) that is curious about what William Sturka (played ably by Fritz Weaver) is up to in his avionics project. He’s also a fount of information on the latest political developments as civilization heads toward its ultimate war. This coworker is nettlesome, irritating, and smug.

Serling also injects an accomplice. He is a test pilot who has flown the spacecraft and knows how to fly. Together, they plot to get their families off of the planet before war can claim them.

Their nettlesome coworker drops by as they plot their final moves. He drops innuendo and intimidates them. The tension in the scene, shot from bizarre angles is some of the most discomforting dramatic television I’ve ever watched. After he finally leaves, the families collect a few belongings and head for the base where their spaceship is stored.

Finally, as the families approach the base (or plant) their coworker is there to try to waylay their plans. The families make a mad dash to the spaceship, fighting of the guards. They take off and head toward the third planet from a distant sun – a planet they call Earth.

Serling and director Richard Bare create some nice sets as well that make for a more complex tale than the brief one told by Matheson. Sturka (who is not named at all in the short story) and his buddy work at a place similar to Los Alamos. The opening scene is a guard, checking employees in, reading off their departments – “germ warfare, chemical warfare. . .” That sets a creepy tone.

Science fiction aficionados will recognize the interior of the space ship as that of the space ship in Forbidden Planet.

In reading the notes that come with this and every Twilight Zone episode, one learns of the symbiotic relationship that existed between Serling, Matheson and writer Charles Beaumont. The three of them formed the nucleus of what would become perhaps the best written television show in television history. Matheson adapted many of his short works and drafted original scripts, with Serling and Beaumont to serve as critics and cowriters.

The Twilight Zone is one of the few television shows I consider to be true masterpieces of the small screen. In an age of small budgets and primitive special effects, writers such as Richard Matheson, Rod Serling, and Charles Beaumont weaved tales that capture our imagination without one saccharine piece of eye candy. That is a rare talent in television.

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