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Play of the Week
Night of the Auk (2 May 1960)
Appearing as Lt. Maxmillian 'Mac' Hartman

Broadcast live on tape 2 May 1960 on independent television stations.

Synopsis by curator@jmdigitalscrapbook.com:

This dark and unusual free-verse play by Arch Oboler opens to eerie music and a close-in, full-screen view of a haunted and ravaged moonscape. We are informed via opening titles that it is "The Day After Some Tomorrow" on "A Rocket Ship Returning From Inter-Stellar Space."

As the camera draws back, the narrator (Raymond Edward Johnson) intones, "The deed is done. The Lover rushes from the place of assignation. Was it touch or deep, thrusting consummation? The answer awaits covered by the webbed hand of Night. Yet in this full-chested singing, surely there is triumph, exultation, mastery of She who nightly beckoned in pale mockery across space no longer endless."

The screen goes black and resolves on a view of the interior of a ship loudly braking for reentry into the space near our own Earth, its five crewmen strapped into supine positions on its floor, obviously suffering against the rigors of deceleration. One by one, they remove their restraints as the engine noise falls off and the ship settles into a smoother path toward home. All rush to the side of the crew's oldest member, Doctor Bruner (Shepperd Strudwick), who clearly hasn't borne the journey well. Lt. Hartman (James MacArthur) and Colonel Russell (Warner Anderson) are the first to reach his side and quickly revive him.

Lewis Rohnen (William Shatner) rushes to urge Hartman, the ship's communications officer, to send the message that their mission was a success. The first manned flight to Earth's moon has achieved its goal and is returning home. A jubilant Rohnen begins to dictate the message to Hartman, but is interrupted by Doc Bruner, who declares that the message cannot be sent without including the dreadful news that the sixth member of their crew, Major Franklin Lormer, died on the surface on the moon.

Rohnen is too full of pride and quickly waves away Bruner's objection, saying there will be time for mourning and recrimination later. As Hartman goes off to send Rohnen's message, Lt. Jan Kephart (Alan Mixon) wanders toward his own seat, pondering aloud the fact that it was really his father's pioneering science work that enabled their mission to succeed. He is clearly not pleased with Rohnen's crowing and assumption that he, the only civilian on board, is solely responsible for their triumph simply because it was his money that funded the mission. As Colonel Russell attempts to smooth Kephart's discontent, Hartman cries out that Earth had tracked their reentry and a worldwide celebration is taking place.

Doc Bruner is still preoccupied with Lormer's death and insists that the Colonel read aloud the log entries recounting what happened. It turns out that after drinking champaign to celebrate their landing on the surface of the moon, the crew had then settled down for a short nap. The Colonel had given explicit instructions that no one leave the ship. This was because Doc Bruner had taken readings and discovered the surface of the moon was so highly radioactive that no human being could survive in it.

Nonetheless, when the crew awoke a few minutes before automatic takeoff, Lormer was outside the ship. Bruner was the last to see him, running "like a man in a nightmare, his arms outstretched before him, pleading, screaming." The doctor cannot rid himself of the awful image and laments that it will torture him for the rest of his life. The Colonel rebukes him that it was Lormer's own fault, and Lormer's alone. He disobeyed his orders, pure and simple. None of the crew could have stopped the rocket's takeoff, it's all automatic. Now they simply must continue on their rendezvous with Satellite One and let everyone know their mission succeeded, despite the taint of Lormer's death.

More messages are coming in congratulating the crew. Hartman exclaims that the latest communiqué states that they will be greeted with a parade and an appearance before the joint session of government, and that Mr. Rohnen will be awarded a Medal of Honor, the highest possible achievement for a civilian. All will receive a share of a half-million-dollar prize for achieving their successful mission from the Associated Newspapers.

In a quiet moment, Kephart tells Rohnen that he actually wasn't asleep and he hints that he knows not only why Lormer left the ship, but that Rohnen had something to do with it. If Rohnen doesn't use the dead man's share of the prize money to create a scholarship fund in the name of Kephart's father, Kephart will tell everyone what he saw and heard. He points out that one of the requirements of the reward was that the ship not only land, but that a human being set foot on the surface of the moon.

Once again, Hartman interrupts with another bit of news -- Colonel Russell has been promoted to two-star General. Another toast is drunk and everyone cheers. Though the crew is celebrating, there are a number of tensions now evident: Rohnen feels that because he funded the mission out of his own pocket, he deserves full credit for its success -- his pompous attitude doesn't sit well with the four military crewmen, particularly Russell; Kephart wants some of the recognition to go to his deceased father, without whose scientific research, he maintains, the mission could not have happened; Doc Bruner is haunted by Major Lormer's death; only Hartman appears young and innocent enough to simply rejoice that they have made it through alive.

Once the ship gets into broadcast distance, the crew have been invited to speak to the world, and then receive a congratulatory address from the President (Luis van Rooten). Despite Rohnen's badgering and concern at maintaining his public image, Doc Bruner refuses to participate. He reveals to Rohnen that he believes the radioactivity they discovered on the moon is the result of an ancient nuclear war which had occurred there long before man arose on Earth. He was present when the first atom bomb was tested, and he is deeply worried that we on Earth are following the same path toward self-destruction already taken by those who inhabited the moon.

Rohnen arrogantly dismisses Bruner's speculation and sets to work on the speech he will make when his turn comes, so full of himself he doesn't perceive the unhappiness and doubt everyone else is experiencing.

When Rohnen's turn comes, his speech is filled with self congratulation and grandiose, flowery declarations that man has conquered its neighbor and established a new outpost for further domination of space. Each of the others says his piece, excepting Bruner, and then all come to attention to receive the President's congratulations.

However, partway through the President's words, the broadcast signal is suddenly lost. Rohnen flies into a rage, certain that Hartman has somehow done it on purpose to spoil his moment of glory. He goes berserk, attacking Hartman with his fists. It takes all three of the other crew to pull him off and calm him down.

As Hartman struggles to reestablish radio contact, a collision alarm suddenly sounds, and the crew rushes to strap in. Kephart lags behind, trying to watch his instruments until the final second to determine what is happening. Before he has a chance to get himself safely secured into position, Rohnen throws the switch to steer the ship out of harm's way and Kephart is thrown roughly to the deck, his neck broken.

As the crew prepares to consign Kephart's body to space, Russell confronts Rohnen, saying that he threw the switch too soon intentionally, knowing Kephart wasn't safely restrained. Rohnen declares it was accidental, that he would never have done anything to cause anyone harm, and points out that he too was injured, gesturing to his left arm, now sheathed in a sling. He cuts off further conversation by complaining that he is too full of pain to discuss anything rationally. Though doubtful, Russell lets him off the hook, at least for now.

As Doc Bruner sinks further into his depression over the apparently doomed mission, a broken transmission from Satellite One is received. After several attempts to decipher its meaning, Russell finally realizes that it is a condemnation of Rohnen's earlier speech, which some on Earth interpreted as a declaration of supremacy and a threat of domination. In fear that it presages war, they have launched their nuclear missiles and initiated a World War. Hard on the heels of this terrible discovery, Satellite One explodes in front of the eyes of the horrified crew, leaving them nowhere to rendezvous.

Flashing lights begin to appear all over the surface of Earth.

Rohnen, still consumed by his own conceit, tries to convince everyone else these are merely fireworks and signals of celebration. But even he finally concedes that they are witnessing the destruction of civilization and subsides into a fit of despair.

After a while, Russell discovers a diary Kephart had left behind. As he flips through it, the true story of Lormer's death becomes clear. He confronts Rohnen, explaining that Kephart saw it all -- how Rohnen cajoled the near drunken Lormer into ignoring his commander's orders, convincing him that Doctor Bruner had overstated the danger outside in an attempt to deny Lormer the honor of being the first man on the moon. It was Rohnen who helped Lormer into his space suit, manned the airlock for him, and then cried crocodile tears when the danger outside proved all too real.

Russell flies at Rohnen, hitting and pummeling him, knocking him to the floor. Hartman finally pulls him off, even though he and Doc Bruner are just as upset over Rohnen's deceit and sinister machinations.

As the conflict on Earth settles down and the planet takes on a look eerily reminiscent of the moon they've just left, Russell makes the appalling discovery that Rohnen, now revealed as the true coward he is, has taken a cyanide capsule and lies dead on the deck.

With their crew reduced to only three, the satellite with which they were to rendezvous destroyed, and Earth a tattered ruin, Russell, Bruner, and Hartman are left to ponder what will happen to them next.

Russell and Bruner sit with their heads together, despondently declaring they have only a few hours left and there isn't anything they can do to save themselves. Hartman breaks into their discussion, his inborn optimism still alive, and protests that they can't give up yet. Maybe someone is still left alive on Earth, maybe they can reprogram the ship to land there, maybe they can do something, anything. He rails at them to at least try.

The other two shake their heads sadly and all three are left sitting alone in their separate little corners, certain that all hope is lost.

Suddenly, Russell leaps up and makes an inspiring little speech that perhaps Hartman is right, perhaps there is a way to salvage something. He busies himself with the ship's computer, finally turning to Hartman and telling him to pay attention to whatever results the computer will produce. He enters the airlock, saying there's something he must check out below decks.

He's only gone a few seconds before Bruner and Hartman realize that he intends to sacrifice himself, and they rush to try to get him back. But it's too late, the hatch is sealed from the inside, the airlock recycles, and Russell is gone.

In the ensuing, tomblike silence, the computer suddenly comes to life, spitting out a new landing equation, based on a revised payload of only two persons. Bruner and Hartman, a fresh spark of hope in their eyes, rush to strap in as the ship comes to life, heading inexorably toward Earth and whatever uncertain future awaits them.

To view a full gallery of screen captures from this episode click here.

Click ticket to view video

Shepperd Strudwick, James MacArthur, Warner Anderson, William Shatner, Alan Mixon

James MacArthur, William Shatner

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