"Night of the Auk", by Arch Oboler, was originally a play that flopped on Broadway, running for only 8 performances in 1956. It had a top-flight cast, including Claude Rains, Christopher Plummer, Wendell Corey and Dick York. This drama's title is irrelevant to the point of meaninglessness: no auks are ever mentioned in the story. Apparently the title alludes to the great auk, an extinct species of bird that was wiped out by human explorers.
Arch Oboler was roughly the radio equivalent of Rod Serling: like Serling, Oboler was at his best in the anthology format, writing intelligent dramas that veered towards dark fantasy and horror. Oboler and Serling both wrote screenplays and stage plays, but both men achieved significant success in only one medium: Serling in television, Oboler in radio.
The 1960 TV production of "Night of the Auk" is a refit of the Broadway play, with a couple of additional characters in the form of talking heads on the spaceship's viewscreens. The action takes place aboard the first manned spaceship to the moon. William Shatner, interestingly, does NOT play the ship's commanding officer (that's Warner Anderson). Shatner plays the arrogant (Shatner? Arrogant?) millionaire industrialist -- wealthy from birth -- who has financed the first manned lunar expedition and has come along for the ride. Shatner's Canadian compatriot, Christopher Plummer, played this role during the brief Broadway run.
When the drama begins, the ship has already reached the moon and is now heading back to Earth. The mission was not a complete success: one member of the six-man expedition died on the moon, and his shipmates left him there. Now, on the way home, the five remaining spacemen make a terrible discovery: the ship has only enough oxygen left for TWO crewmen to reach Earth alive. Three of the men must stop breathing very soon, or else all five will run out of air long before the ship reaches Earth. Unless three men are willing to do the gentlemanly thing and commit suicide for the sake of their shipmates, someone will have to commit multiple murder to ensure his own survival.
This is an interesting premise, which might have made a good play. Unfortunately, Oboler queers the pitch by adding a subplot full of Deep Moral Significance. While the ship was on the moon, a nuclear war has begun on Earth. Now, while the crewmen are arguing over which three of them should sacrifice themselves to save the other two, they also hear transmissions from their Earth base, describing events back home. An all-out nuclear holocaust has already begun, and the entire human race have been doomed by the radioactive fallout. Well, gents, it really doesn't matter which two of you get home alive, does it?
SPOILER ALERT. Incredibly, Oboler misses his own point: eventually, three of the remaining crewmen DO die (one of them by suicide), and we're meant to consider it a happy ending that two men will get home alive instead of all five men dying. But, really, what are they going home to? If anyone cares: the two "survivors" are James MacArthur (good performance) and Shepperd Strudwick, in the roles played on Broadway by Dick York and Claude Rains.
The direction (by someone I've never heard of) is pretty bad, even by the standards of 1960 television with its static camera work. The set, depicting the control room of the spaceship, is imaginatively designed on a small budget. I can't recommend "The Night of the Auk" unless you want to see William Shatner die aboard a spaceship.
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