The Twilight Zone

Season 3 Episode 16

The Cold Equations

Aired Friday 8:00 PM Jan 07, 1989 on CBS
out of 10
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Episode Summary

The Cold Equations
A rescue pilot on the frontiers of space is faced with unpleasant prospects when he finds an innocent stowaway on his ship.

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  • The ethical dilemma created by the laws of physics - mass and momentum - cannot be escaped. A life must be taken or all will die. But whose life?

    This is a great episode. Even if the engineering should have permitted a larger margin of error, the math and physics make the dilemma impossible to resolve without taking a life - someone's, but whose? The "innocent" stowaway who should have known better? The captain who should have checked the small spacecraft before launch? The colonists who are infected and need the medications which the spacecraft is bringing to them? Even self-sacrifice on the part of the captain is ruled out. Would you pull the handle which propelled the stowaway into the coldness of space? If not, your decision would cost the lives of several more. If so, are you committing murder, or is it the ethical thing to do? Watch and enjoy this adaptation of Tom Godwin's 1954 classic sci-fi tale.moreless
  • Very possibly the only hard science fiction ever seen in TZ

    While both the original and 1985 Twilight Zone zones are often listed in the science fiction category, the truth is that both series were fantasy, with a smattering of science fantasy at best. That is to say, sometimes they had stories that involved spaceships or aliens. This episode, though, can be considered hard science fiction -- fiction that can be plausibly projected from existing science, with no deviations into the supernatural or humanoid aliens with thinly veiled human emotions and motivations. It makes no wild leaps into flying cities in space, teleportation, alternate dimensions or time travel. The only flaw, and a forgivable one, is that the ship, supposedly designed to be as light as possible, is far too spacious, wasting precious material creating large compartments and artificial gravity. It would have been better to have a small, confined space similar to the space capsule in the 1975 TV movie, "Stowaway to the Moon." Perhaps a second flaw in the plot device of the computer not knowing that the ship was overweight at liftoff but only when they're in deep space.

    In point of fact, this (along with "Stowaway") is one of the very few pieces of hard science fiction ever seen on television. The only downside is that this makes it a poor match for the Twilight Zone. And yet, I like this episode far more than first season episode, "The Beacon." That, too, was a straight drama without any on-screen supernatural aspects or trademark TZ twist at the end. Maybe it's because this was ruthlessly logical. Both characters acted exactly as we would expect them to in the real world. And both had the very best of intentions. It's just that sometimes, the hard choices have to be made, the "cold equations" calculated. It's an unpleasant truth, and the ending is fittingly heartbreaking.moreless
Terence Knox

Terence Knox

Thomas Bartin

Guest Star

Christianne Hirt

Christianne Hirt

Marilynn Le Cross

Guest Star

Barclay Hope

Barclay Hope

Gerry Cross

Guest Star

Trivia, Notes, Quotes and Allusions


  • TRIVIA (0)

  • QUOTES (2)

    • (Opening Narration)
      Narrator: On the frontier, any frontier, there can be little margin for error. Just as the first covered wagons making their way across the American desert had a finite supply of food and water, so too on this even vaster frontier are there laws that must be strictly observed. Thomas Barton has been piloting Emergency Dispatch Ships for five years. He nas never been faced with this particular law of the frontier, until now. Thomas Barton is about to discover firsthand that there are limits, even here in the boundless reaches of the Twilight Zone.

    • (Closing Narration)
      Narrator: In the darkness, Thomas Barton hurtles toward his destination with the realization that there is room for emotion on the wilder frontiers of the universe. Emotion and the memory of a girl who had not known sometimes it takes a human life to balance the cold equation in the black geometry of the Twilight Zone.

  • NOTES (1)