Original air date – 1/8/60
In Third from The Sun (watch it here on YouTube), Will Sturca (Fritz Weaver) and Jerry Riden (Joe Maross) are two rocket scientists who learn through their access to classified information that their government is planning a preemptive nuclear strike against a rival superpower. Certain the enemy will launch a counterattack in retaliation, Sturca and Riden plan to escape with their families from certain annihilation by traveling in a rocket to another planet. Their chosen destination is 11 million miles away, a planet that can sustain life, and also a place where people are likely to exist as evident from the scientists’ detection of radio waves.
On the eve of their getaway, the two families gather for a poker game, while the hour of their escape draws near. In the middle of the games, they receive a surprised visit by their boss, Connor Carlick (Edward Andrews). Having eavesdropped on the two scientists’ conversation earlier in the day, Carlick suspects the pair is planning to save themselves by purloining a government-owned rocket.
Carlick intimates that he’s aware of their plan. As soon as he leaves, Sturca and Riden flee in near panic, piling their families into Sturca’s car to get to the spaceship before their plan can be foiled.
At the aircraft site, they discover that Carlick is already waiting for them there with a gun. Plan foiled? Not so fast –Sturca and Riden manage to subdue Carlick and knock him unconscious. They race aboard the spaceship and launch into the sky before the guards at the site can stop them.
Later, while safely drifting through space, Sturca ponders whether people like them truly inhabit the planet they approach. Riden points out the planet of their destination in the distance before them, and optimistically proclaims, “It’s the shiny one. The bright one on the right. It’s the third planet from the sun, Bill. It’s called…Earth. That’s where we are going.”
Originally written as a short story by Richard Matheson in 1950, Third From The Sun marks the beginning of two recurring themes in Twilight Zone episodes that have become hallmarks of the show. First is the undercurrent of cold war paranoia represented by a claustrophobic sense that there is no escape from human extinction as a result of misguided human endeavor, fear or folly. The second plot device that serves as a nearly universal theme of TTZ is the use of an ironic twist where the assumptions on which we have been viewing the episode are upended and reveal something about human nature, holding up a mirror that reflects a shocking image of ourselves. Some of the episodes memorable for this all-encompassing irony are The Invaders and Number 12 Looks Just Like You (or Eye of The Beholder) where we see our reflections as the aliens and as the ugly ones.