Three years before President Kennedy officially declared America’s participation in The Moon Race, with the safe return to Earth as/at the finish line, and a moon landing ( before the Soviets) as the prize, Rod Serling wrote an episode of The Twilight Zone in which three early astronauts (who were, in the course of their voyage, offline for 24 hours) return to Earth, are hospitalized for observation, and one-by-one wink out of existence along with any single shred of evidence that any of them ever existed.
It’s a very strange little tale I’ve revisted several times this morning because each of the special features replays the story with voiceover by Serling — then leading actor, Rod Taylor — then director, Douglas Heyes — then Leonard Rosenman’s score. It’s a strange little tale that stands up to revisting, with wonderful bits of individual personality packed into every scene, deft directorial flourishes, intelligent camera magic, and counterintuitive headfakes that provoke the viewer to think about what the episode “really means”. Four days of principle photography, no time for rehearsal and preparation; just remarkably engaging performances in a classic production that plays quite brilliantly (for me) 52 years later, despite the disruptive oversight of Rod Taylor’s elbow in the mirror in Jim Hutton’s hospital bedroom, an incredibly insignificant execution error.
To be, or not to be; is that a rhetorical question? What might it be like to be one of three intrepid Musketeers, three pals who have returned from a fateful, harrowing journey (like Apollo 13) to find that one of your number has been completely erased from demonstrable existence? (and you’re the only person on Earth who remembers [including his parents] that he ever existed ) and know with a sudden (terrifying and strangely euphoric) certainty that you’re next? Shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, with innovative deepfocus effects, reminiscent of Citizen Kane, and a tale told from the middle to the beginning that culminates in no explanation, whatsoever.
Along the way, from beginning to end, there are tasty little references to the ambivalence of taxpayers to The Space Race, the emblematic inutility of pioneering (celebrity) astronauts, and the myopic/pragmatic view of progressive space exploration as a monumental media ripoff…all of which contrast sharply with the retrospective significance of innumerable threads of incalculable importance that made the 20th Century bizarre and indispensible. I’d like to take a look at Richard Matheson’s short story on which Serling’s screenplay was based, and the script from which the director deviated, and the actors must have contributed mightily.
I really really like this one.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”
Speech at Rice University, Houston, 12 September 1962