Twilight Zone S4 – On Thursday We Leave for Home (05/02/63)

tzonthursday0115William Benteen is in charge of 187 people on a distant rock.  They left the earth 30 years ago, according to Serling, “In search of a new millennium.”  The year is 1991, so the joke’s on them — they could have stuck around and it would have soon come to them.  After three decades, the earth has become a distant memory for many and a legend for the young.  Now they have finally received a signal that a rescue ship will arrive in one month.

As the ship gets closer, like the men of the Indianapolis, the colonists just get more tense.  A woman commits suicide — the ninth in the last six months.  At the funeral, Benteen leads them in a chant of “There’s a ship coming” over and over as sort of a hypnotic Kool-Aid.  Despite his autocratic ways, four out of five colonists recommend Benteen.[1]

A meteor shower breaks up the festivities and forces the colonists into a cave.  The meteors might be the flashiest special effects ever seen on TZ.  Through a combination of flash-bombs, camera tricks, and the crew throwing rocks at the actors, this really comes off as a great, chaotic event.  In the cave, Benteen displays his additional role as the camp doctor.  Later he is the camp counselor as he comforts kids from 6 to a creepy 30 with his stories of earth, and how they fled wars and came to this arid rock. They hear a ship landing and suddenly the soil isn’t so arid any more — they are very excited.  Hey, it’s the spacecraft from Death Ship [2] — maybe we’ll meet TV’s Oscar Madisoy!

tzonthursday0141Like the meteor shower, the close-up of the ship is like nothing seen before in TZ.  In fact, many of the sets for this episode are the best in the show’s run.  The cavernous . . er, cavern, the shanty town, the bleak landscape, the number of extras — all are on a scale never seen before.

Commander Sloan comes down the ramp of the ship and tells the group they are taking them back to earth. The group erupts in celebration.  Even Benteen is elated.  He does seem a little irritated that Sloan calls him Mr. instead of Captain Benteen.  He didn’t rule this group for 30 years to be called “Mr.”  He is further threatened when Sloan offers more advance medical care to the group, and is seen as the group’s “messiah.”

At a gathering in the cave, Benteen instructs the colonists on the dates and weights of the flight out.  Sloan takes over the gathering and takes questions from the crowd. Benteen is irritated at his loss of control.  As their caps have almost the same logo as the Miami Heat, Sloan suggests a game of baseball to get in the earth-spirit, Benteen tells the crowd it is dangerously hot and tries to engage them in a singalong instead, but is less successful than Carter Burke.  He tells Sloan that while they are still on the planet, he is in charge.

tzonthursday0181Later on the ship Benteen tells Sloan that he expects his group to stay together after the return to earth — under his watchful eye.  He has not asked their opinion on this.  He regards them as children — he must decide what is best for them. Fearing he is losing his grip on his flock, he gets the group together in the cave. As they ask about different parts of the US, he tells them they will all stay together and he magnanimously agrees to continue as their leader.

When they protest, he desperately begins to tell them how awful earth is, and how they must stay together.  They take a vote and Benteen is humiliated.  Throughout the episode, the 110 degree heat has covered Benteen in a sheen of sweat. Now it serves as further illustration of his desperation.  He attacks the ship in a futile gesture.

He watches as his people board the ship.  He just can’t leave this place that he has ruled for 30 years.  Even after they have evacuated, Benteen goes back to the cave and preaches to his imaginary flock.  Eventually, he realizes that he has been left alone on the planet and runs outside, pleading to the skies, “Don’t leave me here!”

It really is an effective, heartbreaking ending.  Unlike other TZ episodes, his desolation is not a hallucination (Where is Everybody?), there is no hint of irony or humor (Time Enough at Last), and he doesn’t even have a sexy robot for company (The Lonely).  He is alone on this planet, a man whose entire being was invested in his community.  It is surely his own fault, but this is a man who took control of a stranded bunch of colonists and kept them alive for 30 years.  The burden of that responsibility, then the sudden loss of that status would mess anyone up.  He is, at once, a victim of himself and of circumstances.  The key to the episode is that Serling keeps Benteen human.  He was controlling, but maybe necessarily so.  He didn’t deserve to live the next 40 years alone.

tzonthursday0189Serling:  “William Benteen — once a god, now a population of one.”

There are several reviews that cite this episode as being the best of the 4th season, and one of the best of the series.  Let’s not get crazy.  I would slice & dice it a little more — it is probably Serling’s best script of the 4th season.  In some ways it is not even a Twilight Zone script. There is no twist, no great irony; the ending is more horrific than usual.  It is, however, a great piece of drama that seems like it could have played on any of the dramatic anthology series in the “Golden Age.”

I set the alarm for 9 on this episode.


  • [1] Sadly, I misremembered this slogan as being for Dentyne when it was actually Trident.  Maybe I should have gone for Bactine.
  • [2] And Forbidden Planet and six other TZ episodes.
  • It is an interesting choice that the group does not seem to have buttons on their clothes, but have ties and lashes.  Our Amish are better than their Amish.
  • Early in the episode there is the most lengthy, blatant microphone shot I have ever seen in a TV show.  The mic in Kentucky Fried Movie was less obtrusive.
  • As usual on TZ, there was not a 3rd grader on the set to correct their scientific inaccuracies.  This planet is described as being a billion miles away — not even out of our solar system.
  • There was, however, a 2nd grader on set — director Buzz Kulik cast his son Daniel.  To cover up this blatant act of nepotism, Daniel’s last name is spelled Kulick in the credits, completely fooling everyone.
  • James Whitmore looks amazingly like Alan Tudyk.

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