Season 4, Episode 16 (#118 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4868
Originally aired May 2, 1963
He’s their everything: leader, doctor, counselor, moral compass, father figure, priest. For thirty years he’s presided over them like a watchful shepherd and, in that time, developed into a gentle dictator of sorts. His name is William Benteen and, fifty years ago tonight, his reign came to a fitful, heartbreaking end.
Rod Serling’s “On Thursday We Leave for Home” drops us on V-9 Gamma, a desolate, lifeless planet and invites us to observe a pitiable band of colonists who have been stranded there for three decades. It’s a cruel, ugly place, with two merciless suns that never set and horrific, deadly meteor storms that arise out of nowhere. The colonists’ morale is at an all-time low, as evidenced by the latest in a string of suicides.
“Captain” Benteen is apparently the only thing standing between civilization and total anarchy. Colonist Al demands his freedom at the girl’s funeral, but is placated (probably for the umpteenth time) by Benteen’s promise that a ship is most certainly coming to save them. The crowd chants “there’s a ship coming!” over and over in a desperate form of liturgy that’s both moving and a bit disturbing (the whole Jesus-is-coming-back-someday vibe is palpable).
The funeral is interrupted by a meteor storm (man, these people can’t catch a break), forcing them to take refuge in a large cave (their usual assembly place). As their wounds are tended to, Benteen regales them with a touching description of the earth he remembers, and again promises that help is indeed coming. Then, as if on cue… a ship arrives to take them home at last.
Sparks almost immediately start to fly between Benteen and Colonel Sloane, commander of the earth ship Galaxy VI. Sloane doesn't quite recognize or respect Benteen’s authority, which is apparently unofficial (the history of the colony is vague, and one can’t help but wonder how his absolute rule over the colonists evolved in the first place); Benteen, meanwhile, is very clearly threatened by Sloane’s actual authority. It’s a bit of a power struggle, and Benteen becomes increasingly hostile and irrational as the ship’s departure date nears. It becomes very evident that, as much as the colonists have needed and relied upon him, he’s needed his power over them even more (a very telling moment comes when he tells Sloane that the colonists are essentially children who will literally die without his leadership, even after they’re safely back on earth!). As the colonists’ loyalty to him dissolves, Benteen’s grip on reality begins to dissolve as well.
The shots of the earth ship descending (and later ascending) are re-purposed from “Death Ship” and yes, it’s the beloved United Planets C-57D Space Cruiser from Forbidden Planet in its seventh and final Twilight Zone appearance, here called the Galaxy VI. We see LOTS of it here, as much of the action in the second and third acts takes place in and around the landed craft.
But the Forbidden Planet connection doesn't end there: the earth crew wears the same outfits, caps and all, as those worn in the 1956 film (we saw these uniforms, sans caps, in season three’s “The Little People” and the more recent “Death Ship”). I suppose the case could be made that this episode takes place in the same universe as Forbidden Planet, and both ships are part of earth’s interstellar fleet (for that matter, “Death Ship” could be included here as well). The barren, rocky V-9 Gamma scenery closely resembles the film’s Altair IV landscape (which was shot at MGM, where TZ was also shot, so they’re likely the same cycloramic backdrop; the same goes for season one’s “People Are Alike All Over”). Further, the Altair IV landscape may very well have inspired the more minimalist rock-studded background from TZ’s first season opening sequence.
Check out the gigantic cave set, in which the colony’s equivalents of town meetings take place. It looks familiar, but I can’t place where I might’ve seen it before. The colony’s communication tower, with its rotating telemetry dish, is impressive as well… anybody out there know where it came from?
This is Emmy-award winner James Whitmore’s only TZ role, but his work stands as one of the greatest performances in the entire series. As Benteen, Whitmore is a natural leader, alternately staid and gentle, then hard and authoritative as situations dictate. It’s apparent very early on that the colonists have survived as long as they have thanks solely to the strength of his will and determination that they do, in fact, survive. Unfortunately, he’s come to view himself as the colonists’ ultimate authority and savior (in other words, he’s bought into his own hype), which probably would've been fine had their remote bubble never been disturbed. It’s fascinating to watch the layers of delusion melt away as his hold on his people weakens, particularly in the devastating final scene. Whitmore is probably most recently remembered for his heartbreaking turn in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption.
This is Tim O'Conner’s only TZ appearance (as Colonel Sloane), but he ventured into The Outer Limits twice (“Moonstone” and “Soldier”). He’s all business here, not quite able to grasp Benteen’s resistance to what amounts to the salvation of the colonists, and he serves as a great foil against Benteen’s increasingly-irrational machinations. Genre fans will fondly remember O’Conner as Dr. Huer on TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980).
Lots of friendly and familiar TZ faces to see here. Colonist George is played by Paul Langton, who appeared in season one’s “Where Is Everybody?” while fellow colonist Julie is played by Jo Helton from season three’s “The Shelter.” The child, Jo-Jo, is played by Daniel Kulik, last seen in season three’s “Cavender is Coming” (he probably got these gigs because his father was Buzz Kulik, who directed both that episode and this one).
Lew Gallo (Lt. Engle) completes a TZ trifecta, having previously appeared in season one’s “The Hitch-hiker” and season two’s “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.” Russ Bender (colonist Hank) also appeared in “The Hitch-hiker,” as well as season three’s “The Fugitive.” And finally, Shirley O’Hara (hard to spot as an unnamed colonist; I had a helluva time spotting her) also showed up in “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” riding in that cool futuristic car (which, incidentally, was a Forbidden Planet prop!). O’Hara visited The Outer Limits twice (“The Human Factor” and “Expanding Human”).
This episode’s musical score is comprised mostly of stock cues by Bernard Herrmann and Fred Steiner; however, one particular cue by Nathan Van Cleave stands out: “Quiet Western Scene,” which is heard during Benteen’s reminisces about earth just before the rescue ship arrives, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever heard on the show. It’s never been released on any music format, but I’m happy to report it’s available in isolated form on both DVD releases (volume 38 and the Season Four Definitive Collection) as well as the more recent blu-ray release. Or… you can just listen to it right here:
“On Thursday We Leave For Home” is powerful and moving, and the tragedy that unfolds in its final scenes is frankly unforgettable. Like the best science fiction offerings on The Twilight Zone (and elsewhere), the episode uses a fantastic and alien setting to frame a very down-to-earth human tale. In a season in which Serling’s contributions were disappointingly inferior to those of his peers, he manages to deliver one of his best scripts of the entire series here. Very highly recommended.
As I scanned the episode to harvest screen captures, I made a connection that, oddly, had never occurred to me before. In some ways (more thematic than actual) this episode ends where season one’s “The Lonely” begins. It led me to imagine a sequel in which Benteen leaves the empty colony site to explore different parts of the planet, and discovers the inert body of the robot Alicia. He sets about repairing her, succeeds, and they keep one another company for the rest of his days. Yes, I’m aware that “The Lonely” takes place on an asteroid and not a planet (not to mention several other fairly irreconcilable differences between the two stories), but isn't impossibility one of the cornerstones of The Twilight Zone? I know, it’s a goofy idea… or is it…?
Seven days hence:
a bickering couple takes a cruise and has a terrible time. I mean, it’s not Carnival levels of terrible, but still…