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The Twilight Zone (Episode #118): “On Thursday We Leave for Home” (airdate 5/2/63)
The Plot: A group of settlers who landed on a desert planet thirty years ago wait for a rescue ship they believe is due any day. Their leader promises an Earth full of bounties, but when the ship actually arrives he begins to have second thoughts about letting them go.
The Goods: 113 interplanetary settlers arrived on V9-Gamma in 1991 in the hopes of creating a new home for humanity to thrive, but the dry, dusty planet with its dual suns beating down would have none of that. Instead, the group was forced to struggle to survive while they waited for a rescue ship. Now, thirty years later, a radio communication has alerted them to the imminent arrival of that very ship.
The group, now numbering over 180, has come close to losing faith in a rescue. Some have grown weary of the daily grind while others have given up on life and committed suicide, but through it all Captain William Benteen has kept them in line. Well, except for the ones who killed themselves. For three decades he’s been their leader, their confessor, their disciplinarian, their shoulder to lean on, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
But when the ship finally arrives and they’re given just a few days to get themselves organized for the trip home, Benteen finds himself at a crossroads. If they all return to earth will any of them remain under his watch? His protection? His control?
“William Benteen. Once a god, now a population of one.”
The drama and suspense of this story are played out beautifully across its running time as we are witness to the group’s depressing and mundane existence, their incredible joy at the ship’s arrival, and the spark of true thoughts lighting up each of their minds as they consider the fears and freedoms inherent in returning to Earth. Glimpses of it are present on almost everyone’s face, but it’s Whitmore’s Capt. Benteen who bears the brunt of it inside and out. His initial happiness is infectious, and it’s easy to see why and how he’s remained leader for three decades. But then his own fears begin to creep in, fears of not only losing control and the respect of his followers, but of what’s waiting for them back home.
He’s not lying to his people when he warns them about the hatred and jealousies and pains to be found on Earth, but he’s clearly playing them up a bit. You can see in his eyes that these are real memories and fears, but you can also see and feel that his biggest concern will be losing the authority, power and platform that he now holds. There’s no real bad guy in this episode, although Benteen teases the possibility of doing something horrific. Instead, there’s just an old man, terrified of a change that could very well leave him alone with no one to order around and no one to listen to his stories.
The question becomes what will he do with that fear? Will he succeed in spreading it throughout the others to the point where no one returns to Earth? Will he do something drastic that forces everyone’s hand?
This being The Twilight Zone my mind feared the worst, and I expected him to disable the ship to the point where return was impossible and his people and the ship’s crew were stuck on this burning rock for the remainder of their lives. I even entertained the very dark possibility that Benteen might kill his people, a la Jim Jones, rather than have them leave his control for an uncertain fate. (It was an impossible long shot, but the earlier suicide whose feet we see swinging in frame gave me a morbid hope.) Past episodes like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” also prepared me for the possibility that fear would turn the settlers against their would-be rescuers resulting in some murderous tragedy.
But in the end Rod Serling’s script takes a far simpler and far more devastating turn. Benteen feared loneliness as well as a loss of power, and in protest against those twin possibilities he instead ensures them as his fate. He’s now eternally alone, and there’s no one left to question his power let alone respect it.
Suspense and drama aside, it’s at times heart-wrenching to watch Benteen’s struggle, and while Serling gets credit for writing the script it’s Whitmore who brings the man’s dreams and fears to life. He’s alternately charismatic and frightening, ecstatic and frightened, and curiously the role and performance are a reminder of one he’d give thirty one years later in The Shawshank Redemption. Brooks Hatlen, his character in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, is once again a man who’s grown accustomed to living in small, tight knit community where he lives by a strict set of rules and commands at least a modicum of respect. But when he’s released from prison he’s left facing a world that no longer makes sense. It’s all too much to bear, and he makes a choice that in the end is similar to the one he makes in this episode. His life ends, as he feared, alone.
Just two episodes ago I declared “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” to be the best of season four, but I’ve already been happily proven wrong. This season, for all its problems due to the doubling in length of the episodes, has been somewhat of a revelation to me. It occurs to me that until now my lifetime of Twilight Zone viewing has been via syndication on TV. Half-hour time slots filled with 23-minute entries in Rod Serling’s classic series… which means these episodes from season four have never entered the rotation. Before now I’ve never sought the show out on DVD, so this entire season is new to me, and while the first several eps were fairly unmemorable at best these last few have been just the opposite.
That said, “On Thursday We Leave for Home” has not only become my favorite ep of the season, but it’s also become a strong contender for my favorite of the entire series.
What do you think?
The Trivia: Once again, and for the seemingly hundredth time, the UFO seen in the episode is recycled footage/props from the film Forbidden Planet.
On the Next Episode: “A couple with a troubled marriage end up on a ship voyage with a group of elderly passengers.”
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.