And so back to The Twilight Zone for its peculiar fourth season. I’ve picked just five installments from this year, which was held back as a midseason replacement and given instructions to expand from thirty minutes to an hour. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen any of the stories from this season. It may not have been in the syndicated package that we got in Atlanta in the early eighties, unless some wiseguy decided to break them into two-parters.
Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship” is really good, although amusingly dated in design. It’s set in the far-flung future of 1997, with humanity looking for colony planets. Oddly enough, I was thinking about how television in the sixties kept using the image of flying saucers as what Earth ships would look like, such as the Jupiter 2 in Lost in Space, which would begin production a couple of years after this story, and looked it up. Would you believe that show was also set in 1997? Did people then really think we’d be colonizing other worlds in flying saucers in just thirty years?
The crew, played by Jack Klugman, Ross Martin, and Fred Beir, find a crashed saucer on a distant planet, and learn to their horror that it is their own ship, and their dead bodies are in the control cabin. I think the hour-long format worked really well for this premise. I was thinking ahead of how they’d resolve this problem in time travel, fitting everything that I could into the expected Twilight Zone boxes, and was pleasantly surprised by new complications as they emerged, including a wild moment where Ross Martin’s character not only hallucinates that he’s back home with his wife, played by Mary Webster, but his body completely vanishes from the flying saucer.
We enjoyed talking with our son about the plot complications. He’s savvy enough with science fiction to have understood the problem probably better than some of the teevee audience in 1963, and we thought we had some good ideas for the characters to avoid their grisly fates. Then the script went and messed with our solutions, almost as though Richard Matheson wanted to make certain nobody was going to second-guess him!