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Nothing can wound or undo mankind faster or more completely than man himself.
That's what the best and most quintessential The Twilight Zone episodes built their narratives on, resulting in a unique mix of parable and drama. "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air" is one of those episodes, a cautionary tale wrapped in landmark sci-fi trappings that resonates with audiences long after the end credits roll.
Rod Serling used "Arrow" and other episodes of his classic television series to capitalize on the early 1960s fascination with space exploration. America was in the midst of the space race against the Soviet Union, and, to a degree, this classic episode explores the potential worst-case-scenario cost of the sacrifices necessary to be first. The toll that takes comes early on, as a U.S. spacecraft crashes seemingly on a mysterious desert world soon after it launched.
Only four members of the eight-person crew survived: Commander Donlin, Crewmen Corey and Pierson, and an injured man named Hudak, who is clinging to life by very thin threads. But there are no threads thinner than those that tether the other three officers to their supposed "better," moral selves. (We have several questions, though, about how any of these quickly unhinged astronauts passed the psychological profiling and screening process.)
Low on water and with no sign of rescue anytime soon, Donlin, Corey, and Pierson's survival instincts increasingly come into conflict with their morals. Soon, Corey abandons his concern about the well-being of his dying colleague, as he can't see any long-term benefit to sharing their limited water supply with a man who will die shortly.
Once Hudak dies and they bury him (along with a piece of their conscience), things go to a very Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with the men turning on each other and struggling for water. Eventually, Corey — after attacking Pierson, stealing his water, and leaving him for dead — shoots and kills Donlin and sets off on his own. He crests a mountain ridge on this alien world and sees a familiar sight:
A sign for Reno. Followed by telephone poles.
He painfully, tragically, realizes he and his dead crew members were on Earth all along (a twist Serling would re-purpose for the original Planet of the Apes movie).
"Arrow" arguably gave the show the episodic template that would help define it: Drop audiences late into "insert sci-fi-y event here" and watch characters struggle to deal with that in a way that is more harmful than the thing they fear or don't understand. The choices Corey made put him on a discovery that serves as almost a karmic punishment. It's like The Twilight Zone as a place put that last stop there at the end of Corey's "Choose Your Own Adventure" morality play full of selfish, murderous choices whose consequences can never be undone. No matter where he thinks he crashed. Watching the episode, you think, "If only they trusted each other more, if only they did this instead of that, then — maybe — they would have been saved."
Corey's sobs at the end of the episode, pleading through tears for forgiveness from those he killed, is, ironically, as wasteful as the water he and his former shipmates initially feared using on Hudak. There's no saving oneself from this corner of The Twilight Zone. Because you put yourself there.
With a clean premise perfectly executed, "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air" is one of the best episodes ever produced for television. And while Twilight Zone often found success in dramatizing humankind's failures to overcome (or, at the very least, resist) their lesser impulses for a greater good or purpose, the show also found a way to underline its tragedies with a sense of hope. For while there's no saving oneself from a corner of The Twilight Zone like the one Corey put himself in, you can hopefully learn from his choices how not to suffer the same.
That's why this is a perfect episode of the show: It lets you choose that which the characters couldn't — with their fates serving as a warning to better save and ensure ours.