Larry Klaes takes the helm today and tomorrow while I finish up some necessary (not space related) business. Most Centauri Dreams readers, I’m assuming, have seen Forbidden Planet, the 1956 science fiction tale that proved so influential on later depictions of interstellar travel and encounters with alien intelligence, not just in film but on radio and television. Looking at everything from the film’s original script to its effect on Star Trek and beyond, Larry connects the world of Forbidden Planet to its historical context as well as its echoes, which still resonate as we continue the exploration of our own Solar System. What can a 1950’s movie tell us about flight to the stars? Quite a lot, as Larry explains.
By Larry Klaes
The cinema has had a huge influence on modern society since the day it was introduced to the world in the late Nineteenth Century. I am referring not just to the masses being regularly entertained by “the movies” for generations on a global scale or Hollywood moguls and certain actors making huge fortunes off the film industry. I am talking about how film has shaped and reshaped our thinking on all sorts of subjects, both individually and culturally, essentially turning fiction into some form of reality.
One relatively mild example is how real exoplanets which are found to be part of a binary star system are now colloquially referred to as Tatooine worlds, named after the fictional alien desert planet introduced in Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977), which was famously shown to have two Sol-type stars in its sky. Astronomers and science fiction fans have known for centuries about the many real binary and even higher-numbered star systems throughout the Milky Way galaxy and beyond, but it was this popular-level film that no doubt introduced so many other terrestrial dwellers to this celestial concept of having more than a single sun illuminating a planet’s sky.
On an even grander scale, humanity has let the ideas of certain authors and other creative types who imagined how we would one day reach for the stars – along with all of its consequences – slowly but surely become how we plan on exploring and one day colonizing the wider Milky Way galaxy.
Among the biggest players in how we have been shaped by – and continue to shape – our own cosmic destiny is the science fiction film Forbidden Planet, released in the spring of 1956 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios.
Its portrayal of brave men exploring deep space in faster-than-light (FTL) starships, encountering strange alien worlds and meeting exotic alien cultures was not only a reflection of the science fiction literature that came before it, but had a huge influence on what came after it both in fiction and reality.
The most obvious fiction that Forbidden Planet (FP) had an influence upon was Star Trek (ST), which debuted ten years after the iconic film’s release on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television network and has lasted for over half a century now as one of the most popular and recognizable franchises of the genre. In fact there are those, myself included, who have referred to FP as the true first pilot episode of the television series. However, the series creator, Gene Roddenberry, did not publicly admit much about FP’s influence, though later research into letters he wrote in 1964 showed that the 1956 classic had indeed wielded much weight when Roddenberry was putting Star Trek together. If you want the details on this bit of history, check out the following Web site on the very early days of the series:
I bring up Star Trek because few other science fiction franchises have had as much impact on our real space efforts as the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and several fellow vessels have had. As with Forbidden Planet, the general public now has it firmly implanted in their minds that the way our species will explore the “Final Frontier”, as Star Trek likes to refer to deep space, will be in large vessels manned by organic beings (primarily humans, of course) that can achieve speeds many times that of light in order to reach alien worlds in very reasonable (for the average human life span) times. They will explore largely Earthlike planets, as that is where we terrestrially born and bound humans expect the best chances for finding alien life – and eventually colonizing other worlds – will be.
Now of course there will be adventures and dangers and dangerous adventures along the way, but eventually we brave humans will “conquer” the Milky Way galaxy, or at least the portions that are useful to us. The ETI we meet will come to understand our good intentions and want to cooperate with us; either that or they will end up battling us for galactic dominance, though some may just run away. Our ultimate goal is to form some kind of organization like the United Nations, except this will be on an interstellar scale and involve cooperative beings from all over the galaxy. These beings may be somewhat unusual looking by human standards (but not too unusual); however, their thoughts, actions, and intentions won’t be all that different from ours on a fundamental level. After all, it is assumed they are all organic beings who evolved in ways not terribly different from terrestrial life and will continue to do so in a mutually beneficial direction.
At least this is how both Forbidden Planet and Star Trek see things for our cosmic future. It certainly seems like a nice and optimistic vision, especially to its mid-Twentieth Century audiences, who were their real targets. But how realistic is it? Will we explore the stars in person in biological versions matching the way we are now in the early 21st Century? Will our interstellar vessels have the means to go FTL, be it with hyperdrives, warp drives, or some other method yet to be known? How many truly Earthlike exoworlds are there in the Milky Way galaxy, ones that we could live on without lots of assistance? Will the aliens we meet really be relatable to our brave human explorers? Will they also have evolved biologically and culturally in a similar fashion, especially when it comes to the construction and use of technology? And is our ultimate cosmic fate to become something akin to immortal demigods, or will the Universe/God “punish” us for daring to move beyond our preconceived “stations”? Or will something else emerge from Earth to become the most intelligent life form to spread into the galaxy?
These are among the main themes I will be analyzing as we examine the themes laid out by Forbidden Planet. Among these themes I will also be asking this: Is the real answer to the denizens from the third planet from Sol expanding into space lying in plain sight throughout this pre-Sputnik era cinematic masterpiece?
Our Story So Far
I think it is only appropriate and useful to start off with a summary of the plot of Forbidden Planet. While the film is now over sixty years old and based in part on William Shakespeare’s circa 1610 theatrical play The Tempest, I will still offer the courtesy, for those who may have yet to see the film, of informing you now that I will be discussing FP in detail from beginning to end, so you may want to watch Forbidden Planet for yourself before continuing to read further here.
Sometime in the 23rd Century (some sources claim the story takes place specifically in the year 2257), the twenty male crew members (average age 24.6 years) of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D have been sent from their base on Earth on a year-long journey via hyperdrive propulsion to the exoplanet Altair 4. Their mission is to learn the fate of an expedition with “a prospecting party of scientists” sent to the fourth world of the star Altair some twenty years earlier aboard the star vessel Bellerophon, as they were never heard from again shortly after landing on that planet. As the crew is getting ready to land upon Altair 4 to search for any Bellerophon survivors to rescue, they suddenly find their starship being scanned by a powerful radar beam coming from an area on the planet twenty square miles across. This is quickly followed by a radio hail from Dr. Edward Morbius, one of the scientists from the Bellerophon expedition. Morbius claims he is fine and has no need to be rescued. However, he does stress that the C-57D should leave at once before some ambiguous “planetary force” wipes them out, just as nearly all of his fellow explorers – save his wife – were brutally killed by this same mysterious force two decades earlier.
Having just traveled roughly 100 trillion miles across interstellar space, the crew of the C-57D, led by Commander John “J. J.” Adams, naturally ignore Morbius’ warning and land their entire hyperdrive-powered, flying saucer-shaped spaceship on the planet’s surface. They are soon greeted by a fast-moving ground vehicle operated by a large bipedal robot which is “monitored to respond to the name ‘Robby’.” The very strong and highly articulate machine (Robby knows 187 other languages in addition to English, “along with their various dialects and sub-tongues”) takes Adams and two of his fellow officers, Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow and the ship’s astrogator, Lieutenant Jerry Farman, to the home of Dr. Morbius, where their host is found to be cordial and even hospitable, yet continuing to insist that Adams and his men are in grave danger and must leave Altair 4 at once.
The situation becomes even more complicated when Morbius’ young, beautiful, and presumably innocent daughter, Altaira, suddenly appears and introduces herself to the landing party. Born and raised on the alien world, Altaira has never met any other human beings besides her father and is clearly intrigued by the crewmen of the C-57D. The men, for their part, behave in ways towards Altaira that would not sit well with a modern audience but would have been largely expected by those who first viewed the film in the 1950s.
As Morbius is more than reluctant to return to Earth, even temporarily, Adams finds that he needs to contact his base for further instructions. Since signaling his superiors residing nearly 17 light years distant for a relatively quick response is apparently no easy feat, the commander will have to cannibalize vitally important parts from his ship in order to make a communications relay powerful enough to do the job. As this will require several days to complete, even with Robby’s help, Adams and his fellow officers use this time to learn more about what happened to the Bellerophon crew and why Morbius, his late wife (she died of natural causes years back, according to Morbius) and his daughter Altaira appear to be immune to whatever phenomenon or creature slaughtered the rest of his expedition and which Morbius strongly feels is still lurking about nearby.
Adams and Doc Ostrow learn that Altair 4 was once inhabited by a race of highly advanced beings known as the Krell. Morbius, who has been studying what is left of their ancient civilization for the past twenty years, says they were “a million years ahead of humankind” in every way. However, the entire race was apparently wiped out in a single night some 200,000 years earlier by a mysterious catastrophic force. Despite the Krell’s disappearance so long ago, their highly sophisticated machinery left behind is still functioning deep beneath the surface of the planet. Morbius takes the two C-57D officers on a tour of some of the vast Krell technology located below his home, which is clearly far in advance of even the best human works and knowledge of the 23rd Century.
While we understand more about the Krell, the C-57D and its crew have been undergoing a series of increasingly dramatic disturbances and even murders – with Lt. Farman among the victims – by what seems to be the “planetary force” Morbius warned them of upon their arrival. Eventually, it is discovered that the force is a very powerful and invisible energy being actually created by Morbius’ subconscious and brought to deadly reality by the incredible Krell technology.
Two thousand centuries earlier, the Krell had developed instrumentalities that could convert their very thoughts into physical forms which could then be instantly transported to any place on the planet. However, these otherwise highly evolved beings had somehow forgotten that their species’ base primitive ancestry still resided deep within themselves and were also materialized by the very machinery they had hoped to use to become even more advanced. The results were a world where everyone’s secret “monsters” were suddenly let loose to act upon their primal urges and drives, rendering the entire Krell race extinct in just one night of horror and destruction.
Morbius had inadvertently tapped into that same technology early in his research, which simultaneously expanded his intelligence, allowing this “mere” philologist (a scholar of languages and the development of words) the ability to build Robby the Robot as his first act. The same instrumentality also materialized Morbius’ subconscious mind as it had with the Krell, which then murdered every other member of the Bellerophon expedition who had wanted to abandon Altair 4 and return to Earth. Now that same alien machinery was reading Morbius’ baser thoughts again to commit acts of violence on the C-57D crew in order for the Doctor and Altaira to remain on the planet undisturbed so that Morbius could continue his research and remain the sole possessor of the Krell civilization.
Yet even Altaira becomes a target for the subconscious creature’s primitive malevolence when she decides to leave with the C-57D and go to Earth with Commander Adams, with whom she has fallen in love. The Monster from the Id, as it is described more than once, eventually comes after Morbius, Altaira and Adams, who try to protect themselves in the Krell laboratory to which Morbius’ home is attached. However, the monster draws energy from the incredible power of the Krell machinery to melt its way through the multiple thick steel doors of the laboratory to reach the trio. Morbius, feeling immense guilt after finally comprehending and accepting what he has done, throws himself before the monster and is gravely injured while simultaneously causing the creature manifested from his subconscious to vanish. Dying, Morbius instructs Adams on how to cause the Krell technology to self-destruct, which will annihilate the entire planet in just 24 hours.
The C-57D then escapes into deep space, eventually reaching nearly 100 million miles from Altair 4, the distance Morbius warned them to be at for their safety. As Adams, Altaira, and the rest of the surviving crew members watch with the ship’s main viewing plate, the planet suddenly becomes a brilliant white expanding ball of light as the Krell’s thousands of nuclear reactors undergo a chain reaction and vaporize the alien world, taking all the secrets of its ancient race with it…. Except for Robby, who is now the space cruiser’s new astrogator.
As Commander Adams holds Altaira in his arms, comforting her over all she has lost, he speaks the final dialogue of the film: “Alta, about a million years from now, the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy, and your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in the galaxy. It’s true. It will remind us that we are, after all, not God.”
Two Digits Up
Judging Forbidden Planet strictly as a film, it has held up very well over these past six decades. FP has become one of the icons of science fiction from an era symbolized largely through its novels and magazine publications known as pulps, due to the rather cheap paper these magazines were printed on. It was science fiction with an emphasis on the word “science”, thanks in no small part to such pioneer publishers as Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell.
One dozen years later, another MGM production, 2001: A Space Odyssey, would become the epitome of science fiction as a working combination of both intellectual ideas and high cinematic art. 2001 was surrounded by a collection of science fiction films that used the genre to make important social commentary, which included the path-making FP. Then the industry took a step back to a much earlier era, one of swashbuckling space opera and fantasy, less than a decade after 2001 with the arrival of the first Star Wars film in 1977. While this new-yet-old type of SF cinema has dominated the theaters ever since, there have been a few recent harks back to the Golden Age such as Ex Machina and Arrival. Perhaps we are seeing the decades-old dominating influence of Star Wars finally starting to ebb, or at the least, make more room for conceptually smart and socially relevant science fiction films.
The next decade or so following Forbidden Planet saw the film being kept “alive” in the sense that several genre films and televisions series reused the spaceship model, sets, and various props – including and especially Robby – in part to save on budget expenses and perhaps even the time and effort that would be required to come up with and create original designs and other ideas. All three types can be seen multiple times in the original Twilight Zone series, which aired from 1959 to 1964, and on the television series Lost in Space, which aired from 1965 to 1968. In the latter case, both the Jupiter 2 starship and Robot B-9 were heavily influenced by FP, which is not too surprising when one learns that several people who worked on the 1956 film were also involved with LiS. In particular, Robot B-9 was designed by Robert Kinoshita, who also designed Robby. Kinoshita’s original creation even made two guest appearances on the series. Robby also made guest appearances on such varied television sitcoms as Hazel (playing a maid in a dream sequence!) and Mork and Mindy.
Ultimately, no series was as heavily influenced by and kept the main themes of FP together as well as Star Trek did. In addition to the previously mentioned themes and ideas, the original ST aired several episodes that also felt heavily influenced by its cinematic inspiration from a decade earlier.
One episode was titled “Requiem for Methuselah”, which involved the crew of the USS Enterprise encountering a mysterious man living in a hi-tech castle on a lonely planet, with his only companions being a robot servant and a beautiful, young and intelligent yet naive woman.
Among the parallels to FP with this episode, the starship’s landing party are first “greeted” by a robot, although the machine, named M4, was actually attempting to attack them for trespassing. They then meet Mr. Flint, the owner of the planet called Holberg 917-G. Like Morbius, Flint tells the crew they are not wanted on his world and to leave immediately. Once the Enterprise officers convince Flint they are on his planet only to secure a mineral called Ryetalyn that will help them fight a deadly disease that has broken out aboard their starship, Flint allows them to stay only long enough to get what they need, having M4 help them find and process the mineral to move along their efforts.
As for the young woman mentioned, Rayna Kapec, Kirk falls in love with her (a not uncommon occurrence during the series in regards to the captain and women) and she with him. Flint, who turns out to be an immortal human who left Earth decades ago, actually built Rayna to be his ideal android companion who could never die. Upset that the landing party has learned his secret and that Rayna does not love him as he had hoped, Flint does not intend to let the Enterprise leave and even gets into a physical altercation with Kirk over Rayna. Flint surrenders his efforts only when Rayna ends up “dying” after being unable to handle her newfound conflicting emotions over the two men. Flint also learns that he is no longer immortal, having left the special conditions of his home world that made him able to continually regenerate his body for millennia. Flint promises Kirk and company that he will dedicate the rest of his now mortal life to utilizing his profound knowledge and technical abilities for the betterment of humanity.
Another original ST episode, titled “By Any Other Name”, came even closer to mirroring FP, complete with guest star Warren Stevens, who played C-57D officer Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow, as Rojan, the leader of a group of alien beings called Kelvans. Hailing from the Andromeda galaxy (also known as Messier 31, or just M31) almost three million light years distant, the Kelvans are described by the Vulcan Science Officer Spock as “immense beings, a hundred limbs which resemble tentacles. Minds of such control and capacity that each limb is capable of performing a different function.” As with the Krell in FP, we never get to see what the Kelvans actually look like, as they have taken on human form in order to adapt to living on Class M (Star Trek lingo for Earthlike, not to be confused with the real astronomical stellar classification for red dwarf suns) worlds in our galaxy, for their intent is to conquer and colonize the entire Milky Way. Spock also discovers and reports that the Kelvans “have superior intellectual capacity. To achieve it, they have apparently sacrificed anything which would tend to distract them. Perceptive senses such as taste, touch, smell, and, of course, emotions.”
Just as with the Krell of Altair 4, the Kelvans of M31 are eventually undone by their efforts to abandon their more base and primitive selves when the Enterprise officers force them to confront that which they thought they had extinguished long ago. At least unlike with the Krell, the Kelvans were not ultimately destroyed by this encounter with their primitive natures and even decided to abandon their mission of conquest.
There is a third relevant original ST episode, “Shore Leave”, which has the crew of the Enterprise encountering an uninhabited but otherwise Earthlike world that seems safe and pleasant enough for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Instead, the explorers soon discover that their very thoughts are manifesting into real, solid objects and beings, with each new incarnation becoming increasingly dangerous and with no obvious way to stop them from appearing and interacting with the crew. Just as things were looking pretty dire for the landing party, a robed humanoid ETI shows up and explains that he and his highly evolved species use this planet as a sophisticated “amusement park” for themselves, operated by a huge underground complex of alien machinery where the imagined artifacts were produced from the raw materials of that world. The complex also has the ability to “repair” any injured starship officers to full health. The Caretaker, as this advanced being labeled himself, admitted that he and his people had just realized the Enterprise crew were having a rough time of things on their planet-sized park. Although the Caretaker declined to tell Captain Kirk more about his species as he felt they were not ready to encounter them, the Caretaker did allow their visitors to stay and enjoy the ability to turn matter into any form they could imagine, so long as they were very careful with their thoughts.
There are many other significant parallels between Forbidden Planet and Star Trek, but we shall discuss them for further analysis later on throughout this essay.
Much has been said about FP’s special effects, which are indeed quite impressive and hold up very well through six decades of major advancements in FX technology and techniques. Not only was the film helped by a rather generous budget from a major Hollywood studio, staff from Walt Disney Productions were also loaned to MGM to help with such sequences as the exciting and frightening encounter with the Monster from the Id when it attacks the crew of the C-57D and they fight back with various laser and atomic-powered weapons:
The other FX tour-de-force in FP is the tour Dr. Morbius takes the main starship officers on through the massive underground Krell complex, where the inhabitants of Altair 4 made both their greatest accomplishments and ultimate destruction 200,000 years earlier:
The soundtrack for FP was a landmark in film history, for there is not a trace of the standard orchestral music ubiquitous of the era. Instead, what we hear throughout the film are what its creators Bebe and Louis Barron called “electronic tonalities”, or the first electronic film score. This new approach to cinematic soundtracks does much to make FP stand out: You feel immersed in this strange future world right from the start and especially as you explore the alien planet Altair 4 and the ancient and literally unworldly creations of the Krell. These tonalities also imbue the viewer with a sense of underlying foreboding as the mysteries and growing dangers of this unfamiliar setting progress, staying with the story to the very end credits. I have little doubt these bizarre sounds were even more effective when the film first premiered. The FP soundtrack may safely be added to the list of important influences FP had on future science fiction films.
You may learn more about the Barron electronic music pioneers and their work with FP here:
The acting is very well, done, especially by the legendary Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius. As for the characters themselves, they all tend to be certain types we have seen many times before and since, especially since the advent of Star Trek. The all-male crew of the C-57D would be instantly recognizable to post-World War 2/Korean War audiences as a collection of American naval seamen with their traditional military command structure who have been serving aboard their ship with no shore leave for far too long.
With the screenwriters using the template of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, several of the main characters in FP were based on the Bard’s own creations: Dr. Morbius is Prospero, a powerful sorcerer (which he became after gathering a great deal of knowledge as a scholar) banished to a remote island with his young and innocent daughter, Miranda, the Altaira parallel. The spirit Ariel is the Robby equivalent, bound to serve Prospero after being rescued by him from a spell cast by the witch Sycorax, who once lived on the island (the Krell parallel). Finally, the creature Caliban (the offspring of Sycorax) found its counterpart in the Monster from the Id. One key difference between the play and the film is that Prospero deliberately forces a ship and its crew to be wrecked on his island, whereas Morbius wanted nothing more than the crew of the C-57D to leave him and his daughter be on their “island”, the planet Altair 4. Towards the end of both stories, Prospero and Morbius disavow their powers upon seeing the dangers and damages they cause, though only Shakespeare’s character survives his change of mind and heart.
Symbols and Stereotypes
Because Forbidden Planet is a result of the era it was created in, along with this being one of Hollywood’s first real efforts to portray the “pulp” era of science fiction, the film is ripe with characters and situations that can only be regarded as standard tropes and stereotypes which FP’s contemporary audience would not only instantly recognize but also give them some grounding in a truly alien world where even the soundtrack would have been so very foreign to their senses and expectations.
As stated previously, the officers and crew of the C-57D have far more in common with a mid-Twentieth Century American naval detail than whatever the real situation with a starship of the 23rd Century will probably be like. FP is hardly unique in that regard, however, with characters who are supposed to be of another time and place but instead looking and acting very similarly to the audiences paying to be entertained. This aspect is certainly not relegated to the 1950s: The 2009 science fiction film Avatar, which takes place in the year 2154 on an alien world named Pandora in the Alpha Centauri system, is dominated with human characters who will probably seem just as antiquated to future audiences long before the dawn of the actual 22nd Century.
Another trait the members of the C-57D possess that the Star Trek franchise would later go to town with, especially in its first incarnation, is the pushing of American values on others in the film and the viewing audience. The era of FP’s premiere was a post-World War 2 realm where the United States and its allies had recently won a major and hard-fought victory over enemy forces in Europe and Asia who had threatened to dominate every nation on Earth. As a result, America had emerged as a major geopolitical superpower. The end of this global war also saw the rise of a new one, a Cold War where the other major superpower, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had begun a massive effort to win the control and support of human civilization with its Communist ideology. Since both the US and USSR would soon possess enough nuclear weapons to render each other obsolete if not outright extinct and were continually adding to their stockpiles at an alarming rate, other ways than all-out war had to be found to conquer and dominate the world.
One effort both sides were building upon when FP arrived in theaters in 1956 was the development of rockets which would be powerful enough to lob first artificial satellites and later manned spaceships into Earth orbit and eventually beyond. Although the “shock and awe” of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was still just over a year away in their future, the American public was certainly aware of the momentum building towards what would become the official Space Age. Rockets were continually being launched from both American and Soviet soil that often reached several hundred miles in altitude, briefly breaching the shores of the Final Frontier with scientific payloads and a taste of what was promised to come.
There was also plenty of cheerleading from various military and civilian organizations who fired up public imaginations with not only real plans for initial space exploration efforts but also for space colonization and even space vacations. Chief among these forces was Walt Disney himself, who utilized the vast resources of his corporate empire to produce several highly impressive and educational animated features on America’s near future space goals. Combined with the use of that other highly popular and rapidly multiplying modern technological marvel called television, Disney aired two programs in March and December of 1955, titled Man in Space and Man and the Moon, respectively (a third program in this series, Mars and Beyond, would premiere in December of 1957, the same month that the United States made its first attempt at lofting a satellite; it failed when the rocket exploded on the launch pad). Assisted by famous rocket pioneers such as Wernher von Braun, Disney’s Man in Space series enlightened American audiences on a national scale about the space era that was literally just around the corner, right up to President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, who praised the series and used them to both educate and encourage members of his administration and the military.
Though perhaps not the direct intention of its makers, Forbidden Planet was also doing its part to promote interest and support in space exploration and utilization on the science fiction front. This effort would literally take off with FP’s essentially direct descendant, Star Trek, which would inspire millions to consider the Final Frontier as both a career goal and the destination for humanity, including real astronauts like Mae Jemison who also had a cameo on Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) and is currently the leader of the 100 Year Starship Initiative, which has the goal of “design[ing] and implement[ing] independent, collaborative and open-source projects to advance and promote the public engagement, research, development and capabilities needed for humans to reach another star.” The franchise has also enticed its fan base to perform numerous fiction-to-reality actions such as making NASA change the name of their first Space Shuttle from Constitution to Enterprise in 1976 – which is rather ironic since the USS Enterprise is a Constitution class starship in the ST canon.
To round out the reasons for FP pushing such an American agenda for the expansion into space, the film arrived towards the end of McCarthyism, or more colloquially the Communist witch hunts. Concern over Soviet global domination turned to rooting out Communist spies, sympathizers and saboteurs in the US government, industry, education and most notably Hollywood. As these things often do, this exposure and extraction of perceived enemies went to extremes, harming many innocent people and frightening the American film industry into becoming both overtly patriotic and simultaneously self-censoring.
While Forbidden Planet is not exactly in-your-face about promoting the nation that spawned it, the film clearly depicts the future as one dominated by Americans and white male ones at that. Granted, we viewers learn relatively little up front about the United Planets organization, but unlike Star Trek one decade later, one does not see even a token example of a member from a non-human species, or a non-white ethnic member of our own species, and only one prominent example of a member of the female gender. At the risk of using this excuse once too often, such things would have been expected from a Hollywood film of the era, definitely due to the cultural standards of the day but also from a strong influence by the contemporary witch hunts. However, there were a few notable exceptions: In the 1955 science fiction film Conquest of Space, produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures, one of the crewmembers for the first manned mission to Mars is a Japanese botanist whose knowledge and skills assist in saving the crew when they are stranded on the Red Planet (shades of The Martian).
Along with the aforementioned cast of characters being essentially Twentieth Century Americans in a 23rd Century interstellar setting, we also encounter characters who are somewhat unfortunately little better than stereotypes and symbols for the benefit of the plot. Thankfully this does not also render them uninteresting characters, but perhaps six decades of hindsight make it harder to just let these traits slip past, especially in a film that strove mightily to rise above its B- and lower-grade cinematic brethren. However, the characters in FP also represent something much deeper, broader and singular than perhaps even the filmmakers realized at time, one which we will examine in depth later on.
In the most prominent example, Dr. Morbius is the titular Man of Science. While he is certainly not socially awkward in the typical sense of most male nerd scientists portrayed in later entertainment media – Morbius has excellent style, taste and refined social graces even towards guests he really wishes would just go away – Morbius is more representative of the scientist as perceived and projected in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century: The strong and intelligent male authority figure.
Since Morbius is also representing the other half of science that concerned so many during the era of The Bomb, his appearance and demeanor take on the slightly satanic look that was often a Hollywood standard for portraying the Devil of Judeo-Christian lore: A middle-aged man with exquisite manners, impeccably dressed, a manicured goatee, and unsettling hints that crossing him or otherwise getting in his way will result in an unpleasant end for the instigators.
It was the post-World War 2 era where society began to question and worry about certain aspects of science and its practitioners, including and especially the invention of nuclear power, in particular its use as a weapon that could level entire cities with one strike and leave whole regions unlivable and unusable for centuries. Indeed, a full-scale nuclear war could conceivably destroy civilization and even render humanity extinct. Although the first atomic bombs had been developed with the immediate goal of stopping an enemy bent on world domination and genocide, their later development into the more sophisticated and deadlier nuclear devices by the hundreds by the arrival of Forbidden Planet – along with the growing means to deliver them to any place on Earth in a matter of mere minutes – left many with the impression that the scientists and engineers who were building these machines were more interested in seeing what their intellectual progeny could do over thinking of the long-term consequences. Not that these fears were groundless, but the scientists and engineers were also being driven by a powerful military-industrial complex also spawned by the most recent global conflict which was being ruled by its own fears, nationalism, and ever-growing piles of funding dollars.
While the makers of FP no doubt knew better than to outright criticize their government and country’s agenda against its Cold War adversaries, they did find in Dr. Morbius (just say his name out loud for the proper effect) a symbol for representing their fears of a field and its practitioners who were increasingly being seen as amoral if not directly malevolent as well as appointing themselves as the single-point arbiters of what was best for the rest of humanity. This is exactly what Morbius did with the incredibly powerful and deadly Krell technology he encountered and subsequently obsessed upon as he cut himself off from the rest of his species over the next twenty years, the very same technology that had wiped out an entire civilization in one swift blow many centuries before. The captain of the C-57D was not just following protocol when he attempted to radio home for further orders once he began to realize the full extent of what he was dealing with on Altair 4: Adams was hoping to get a wider consensus on the alien power he had come upon beyond the words and actions of a single self-appointed authority figure in the guise of the scientist Morbius.
Commander John “J. J.” Adams
In the 1954 film script, the captain of the star cruiser is described as “exceptionally young for his rank, and accordingly inclined to be just a bit starchy.” The same source mentions that Adams has “spent about a quarter of [his] life in hyper-space,” by which is presumably meant his time in the service of the United Planets as well as actually zipping FTL around the galaxy. Adams could be called a “career man” when it comes to the space service.
Adams does indeed seem to have a “by-the-book” persona and can come across as rather “hardass” on his men, especially early on with the mysterious attacks on his ship and crew. His professional and personal relationship with Lt. Farman was often particularly contentious, even more so in the parts of the 1954 script that did not make it to the final film. Adams’ rigid exterior does largely melt away once he falls for Morbius’ daughter, Altaira. Of course this is partly expected in most Hollywood productions right through today, having the leading man end up with the leading lady.
Gene Roddenberry definitely borrowed heavily from Adams’ more formal persona for the first two captains of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, in particular the portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike from the first pilot “The Cage”, played by Jeffrey Hunter. Pike was a rather humorless man, on the verge of career burnout, although like Adams he did show empathy and attraction towards the main woman character he encountered.
The commander whom Roddenberry eventually settled upon for the original series and the first batch of film versions, Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner), was less rigid and often visibly enjoyed being a starship captain, although past associates indicated that Kirk was much more studious and controlled/controlling during his years at Starfleet Academy. Roddenberry did retain in Kirk the attributes of being the youngest person in charge of a star vessel in Starfleet and falling for the leading lady in just about every episode where there was one.
There is the irony that while Adams was not considered to be anywhere near as brilliant as Morbius, especially with the latter character’s enhanced intelligence, it is the skipper of the C-57D who ends up making Morbius realize, admit, and accept just what – and who – the Monster of the Id really is (with some help from his friend Doc Ostrow). Of course as the All-American Male Hero from the warrior class of his species, Adams must be perceived as the winner, even if his rigid conformity to rules and regulations along with his limited appreciation for the wider picture of events at Altair 4 might have brought about a much different ending for our captain had these situations occurred without the more formulaic sides of the script.
Morbius’ only child, his daughter Altaira (Alta for short), is the sole human woman in the film. Granted, her role mirrors that of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, from The Tempest, but in essence her presence is to be the antagonist in a sense for the C-57D crew and her father, providing “cheesecake” for the film audience and the crop of healthy young men she is suddenly presented with after spending 19 years with only her father, Robby, and her animal friends for company.
For the relatively brief time we get to know her, Altaira appears not to take much of an interest in her father’s work on the Krell, only in looking pretty, playing with her pets in the garden, studying, and badgering Robby with constant material demands. In other words, how a young lady would be expected to act and think by mid-Twentieth Century social standards, even one who grew up in the Twenty-Third Century on an alien world 16.7 light years from Earth with only her single scientist father to learn about human behavior from.
We have evidence of the above description for Altaira from a part of the 1954 script which was released in a watered down form when FP premiered two years later. Note the following dialog between Adams and Altaira:
Adams: “What kind of work does your father do?”
Alta: “Work? Oh dear, I don’t know. He just goes into his study and – and works.”
Adams: “But you haven’t any idea — ?”
Alta: “He says I’m terribly ignorant. All he could ever get through my head is poetry, and mathematics, and geology, and physics, and chemistry, and bi—“
Adams: “–ology. But mostly on the theoretical side?”
Alta: “Well naturally — so far.”
One important factor that Altaira does provide to the themes of Forbidden Planet is being one of the more obvious examples of the constant struggle between three primary aspects of human nature – the Id, Ego, and Superego, as promoted by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis – which every prominent character in this film goes through. Captain Adams expends a rather disproportionate amount of time and effort trying to keep his men in line regarding Altaira, as they have not had “shore leave” in 378 days and are behaving as 1950s males would be expected to by a contemporary viewing audience when presented with such a situation. At the same time, Adams also tries to maintain control over his own growing attraction to Altaira, a struggle which he eventually “loses”.
Altaira is also the focus of her father, Morbius, who has kept essentially benign yet virtually complete control over his daughter’s life – under the guise of parental protection – until that starship from Earth shows up. Altaira does much to provoke and expose the “primal savage” lying beneath her father’s stately and scientific surface, both unintentionally and otherwise, especially when she ultimately decides to leave Morbius and Altair 4 for Earth with her new love and focus, Captain Adams. While any good parent finds it difficult to have their children eventually grow up and leave home to pursue their individual new lives, seldom does anyone have the phenomenal and frightening resources that Morbius has access to in order to impose his will upon Altaira and anyone else who defies him in his self-made kingdom.
Altaira is the catalyst – and one not quite as innocent and naive as she first appears to be – showing that civilized society, even a future one with advanced technology and higher knowledge, can still be undermined in a moment by the more powerful primitive urges in every human being; in this case, the need to reproduce and compete with others in the process of successfully passing along one’s genes to the next generation. Only the urge and necessity to consume food and water can compete on a basic level with reproduction for organic life forms.
One of the main players in this “mating game” is Lt. Jerry Farman, the C-57D’s astrogator, or celestial navigator. Farman becomes the primary competitor for Altaira’s affections with Commander Adams, who ultimately “loses” Altaira to Adams, despite the skipper’s initial angry protests over his crew’s reactions towards the young woman and even Altaira’s own behavior towards his men.
Farman eventually concedes the only woman on Altair 4 to Adams, the Alpha Male of the group, and is then removed completely as a romantic rival when he is later among the casualties of Morbius’ Monster from the Id during its direct assault on the United Planets cruiser and crew.
We never really get to learn much more about Farman, who in the end is replaced job-wise by Robby with no outwardly discernable sadness by the crew. However, in several deleted scenes from the film and earlier script versions, one gets the strong impression that Farman was a bit of a “hotshot” young pilot, eager to take risks such as bringing the C-57D out of hyperdrive closer to the star Altair than Captain Adams cared for. The 1954 film script version also had more verbal confrontations between Farman and Adams, most often concerning their competition for the affections of Altaira. One may also reasonably speculate that Farman hoped to one day be in command of his own starship, if not replacing Adams outright on the C-57D.
Chief Quinn and “Doc” Ostrow
We receive even less background about two other prominent crew members, Chief Quinn and Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow, the C-57D’s head engineer and medical doctor, respectively. Quinn clearly loves his job, which seems to be the primary focus of his life (shades of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott on Star Trek). In fact when Quinn is killed by the Monster from the Id early on, about the only things Adams can say regarding Quinn just after his funeral is that he was a “fine technician. A good shipmate,” with Doc adding “and that’s a good epitaph for any man.” We do, however, get one brief indication that Quinn’s libido does not respond solely to fancy futuristic machinery: When he asks Captain Adams to provide a visual scan during the ship officers’ first visit to Morbius’ home as part of a planned safety check, a distinct wolf whistle is emitted by Quinn when Adams’ belt-harnessed communicator falls upon Altaira.
In a scene that was filmed but later deleted from the final edition of FP, Adams was shown reviewing Quinn’s few personal belongings from his ship’s locker, which he ordered to be delivered to Quinn’s closest next of kin – his mother – when they return to Earth. The commentary text accompanying this brief scene says it was probably removed due to Adams’ rather clinical handling of the chief engineer’s possessions, especially in light of the fact that the man had just been brutally murdered. Apparently the cultural acceptance of macho male stoicism had its limits even in the 1950s.
Viewers of a certain age may recognize the actor who played Chief Quinn, Richard Anderson, as the character Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man television series in the 1970s. Anderson portrayed the boss of an American astronaut named Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors) who becomes an action hero cyborg after surviving a horrific crash in an experimental lifting body flying craft.
Doc Ostrow is considered to be the intellectual man of the crew. At one point Morbius even confesses that he sometimes still misses talking to such gentlemen as Doc. He does possess a certain level of both intelligence and especially maturity that appears to be lacking in the other members of the C-57D, at least the handful we get to know with any detail (the 1954 script describes Doc as being about a decade older than most of the crew). While Doc clearly finds Altaira attractive, he does not let his passions rule him in terms of overt behavior towards Morbius’ daughter, unlike the other crewmen. Indeed, Doc makes several wry observations about Altaira and Adams’ reactions to her throughout the film.
One common stereotype which Doc thankfully does not fall into is the asocial nerd label that Hollywood usually pins upon such characters, though at least on some occasions in the 1950s scientists were portrayed as the standard handsome, macho leading man: See Dr. Cal Meacham, played by Rex Reason, in the 1955 science fiction film This Island Earth as one prime example.
While Doc Ostrow bears relatively little resemblance to either Spock or Doctor Leonard McCoy from Star Trek – although both Doc and McCoy often served as older and wiser mentors to their respective young captains – Doc’s relationship with Adams could be considered the influence for the triumvirate that Roddenberry created with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy later on in ST. As happened with Farman, Doc later sacrifices himself, in some part to save Adams’ life so that his military/social superior and friend can be with Altaira. However, unlike Farman, Doc’s actions were consciously deliberate in an attempt to learn the true fate of the Krell and their connection to what was happening around them in their present.
The Everyman: Cook
On the other hand, stereotypes aplenty abound in the character of the Cook, played by Earl Holliman. Not even given a proper name, Cook (or sometimes Cookie) represents a version of the Everyman archetype who often, to this day, occupies science fiction films to make events “relatable” to the contemporary audience by featuring what the filmmakers perceive as a person generally similar to those watching their production. He (and it is most often a he) serves as an anchor to the reality of the era the film was made in. They also exist to either explain or get someone smarter than themselves to explain the particular science and other aspects of the film under the assumption that the viewers will not comprehend or realize certain things without some onscreen guidance.
Perhaps the most (in)famous member of this group was Joe Sweeney, played by Dick Wesson, in the classic science fiction cinematic masterpiece, Destination Moon. Released in 1950, this film depicted a realistic manned journey to Earth’s natural satellite, at least by the standards of the day. As the use of serious rocketry was just coming into its own after World War 2, the filmmakers assumed that most audiences would have little understanding of the various scientific and technical principles involved with such vehicles for exploring space. Making these concepts relatable fell to Joe, the mission’s radio and radar operator, who had to fill in as the fourth member of the crew at the last moment before launch. Throughout the voyage from Earth to their landing on the Moon, Joe would constantly ask – in a Brooklyn accent no less – just what was going on and why, receiving a patient and expert reply each time by the rest of the more highly educated and sophisticated lunar expedition team.
Joe had an additional trait that the filmmakers thought would make him relatable to the “average Joe” (and Jane) in the contemporary viewing audience: A strong aversion to being in the strange new situation he has found himself in and an even stronger desire to go back to the familiar world he came from. Unlike the other three men that make up the crew of the rocket ship Luna in Destination Moon, Joe does not want to explore the Moon or even go into space, as both places have “no beer, no babes, no baseball!”
Cook echoes very similar sentiments to anyone in listening range in Forbidden Planet while the C-57D is still in orbit around Altair 4 when he declares: “Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors, nothing. Nothing to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own cans!” Both characters sound like nothing less than your stereotypical mid-Twentieth Century tough guys. In Cook’s case, his motivation to explore distant alien planets probably came from a limited set of jobs available to him, although it is also possible that Cook thought life aboard a starship seeing new worlds all the time would have seemed far more glamorous and exciting to him in the imagined United Planets recruitment brochure.
Such Everymen also serve a dual purpose with their role, namely being the comic relief of the film. Cook does this virtually every time he is on screen, though it often feels rather awkward and even out of place in a story that is overall quite serious, often frightening, and literally otherworldly. Cook himself seems like an anachronism: An enlisted seaman of the 1950s on a 23rd Century interstellar voyage, doing a job that itself should likely not have been necessary in such an advanced era aboard a sophisticated FTL starship, but that will be expanded upon later. Even Cook’s usual attire seems to belong to an earlier time, especially when compared to the spiffy (if a bit drab) military-style uniforms worn by the rest of the C-57D crew (to be fair, Cook is seen wearing his dress uniform once, when he is being questioned by Captain Adams about the death of Quinn).
Cook hits most of the marks of what an audience of mid-Twentieth Century would expect from their comic relief: The “funny” accent, the various physical pratfalls, the string of rube-style questions, and the then largely acceptable comedic trait of being an alcoholic, or at least someone who certainly enjoys drinking hard liquor on a regular basis.
Indeed, one of Cook’s biggest scenes is his effort to procure some more “genuine ancient Rocket/Kansas City Bourbon” with Robby’s help, since his one remaining bottle was down to its last swallow. Robby does come through, as usual, producing 480 pints of the drink (“total 60 gallons”) in identical bottles stacked neatly in a large pile just beyond the security perimeter of the C-57D. Truth be told, it is Robby who actually does a better and smoother job of providing humor in FP, with his droll and understated comments that often seem to slip right past the human characters but not the film audience.
We can be grateful that not every comic pratfall envisioned for Cook was filmed, however. An earlier draft of the film script, dated from September of 1954, had the ship’s cook asking Robby if the robot could find him “a little female companionship,” right after his order for a resupply of alcohol. Robby returns the next day with Cook’s two requests: The sixty gallons of Kansas City Bourbon – and an adult female chimpanzee! Naturally, Cook is both shocked and insulted, protesting that he is “a human bein’, that’s what I am!” Robby responds “that from an impartial, evolutionary viewpoint, the resemblances far outweigh any mere physiological divergences.” The chimp then climbs up Cook and starts kissing him on the cheek. Cook quickly caves in to the primate’s “charms” and decides she will make “a cute ship’s pet anyway.” He even promises to “fix her up a little gymnasium right in the galley.”
Just over two decades after making Forbidden Planet, Holliman would tell the author of an in-depth article about this cinematic legend of science fiction in a 1979 issue of Cinefantastique magazine that it was “the worst film [he] ever made.” Perhaps Holliman had also not been terribly pleased with the description of his character in the 1954 script version, which called out Cook as being “distinctly of a lower type than the others.” Even his dialogue in the script was often spelled out phonetically to emphasize the amusing aspects of Cook’s pronunciations of certain words.
Nevertheless, the actor still showed up for the film’s fiftieth anniversary reunion at San Diego’s Comic-Con International in July of 2006, along with fellow cast members Warren Stevens (Doc Ostrow) and Richard Anderson (Chief Quinn).
These are the Voyages of the Star Cruiser…
There are three main non-human characters in Forbidden Planet. The most prominent is Robby the Robot, of course. His (and yes, I know that while the question of gender in Robby’s case is “totally without meaning,” the robot’s voice is distinctly male sounding and there is so much intelligence and character present, programmed or otherwise, that calling Robby just “it” feels demeaning) humanoidish appearance, manners and a combination of intellectual and physical strength in the tradition of most celluloid animatronics and androids easily draw in the audiences’ endearment, sympathies, followed by their strongest and longest-lasting memories. Conduct a random search for representative media on FP, online or otherwise, and you will almost invariably bring up images of Robby as either the primary symbol of the whole film or present in most scenes, standing out due to his uniqueness among the rest of the cast and the sets.
The other two members of this particular triumvirate are not characters in the conventional sense of the word, yet they also play their important roles in the story. One is the fantastic complex of alien Krell technology which fascinates Dr. Morbius to the point of deadly obsession. The other is the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, which, as the starship’s Captain, J. J. Adams obsesses over in his own fashion.
As would become heavily prominent with Star Trek and several other popular science fiction franchises, the interstellar vessels which transport our various casts of characters across the galaxy often take on a life and a perceived personality of their very own. ST’s United Star Ship (USS) Enterprise (registration number NCC-1701) was arguably as important and beloved and any of the organic (and inorganic) beings who served aboard her, human or alien. Numerous sets of blueprints, manuals, toys, models, and games have been devoted to and inspired by the Starship Enterprise and its variants over the decades since the franchise premiered on network television in 1966. As stated earlier, passionate ST fans even got NASA to rename their first flyable Space Shuttle Enterprise, though it never even made it into Earth orbit let alone any other part of the Final Frontier: The vessel was used primarily for testing Shuttle technologies and flight performance in the atmosphere.
Forbidden Planet’s star cruiser, named simply C-57D, may never have achieved quite the same level and volume of tributes as its much more famous descendant; nevertheless, it was a key player in shaping our cultural, scientific, and engineering concepts of what a real interstellar craft should be like.
The first and most visibly prominent example for this claim was its physical shape: A large double-domed disc, or “flying saucer” to use a term very popular in the 1950s. Less than one decade before FP came to the big screen, human society became wrapped up with the phenomenon known most popularly as UFOs, or Unidentified Flying Objects.
As World War 2 came to an end while the Cold War began to warm up in earnest, recent scientific and technological advances such as the German V-2 rocket began to provoke and inspire the populace with the following remarkable idea: Humanity might one day be able to literally reach for the stars using these tools. Therefore, it seemed plausible to expect that if there were other intelligent minds in the Universe — especially if they were older and consequently more advanced than ours – they may have already achieved interstellar travel and could pay us a visit.
Then, on June 24, 1947, nine strange objects were seen flying over and around various mountains in the Cascade Range of Washington state.
On that day, private pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying his CallAir Model A-2 airplane on a business trip when he saw what he later described as nine silvery disc-like craft weaving over and around several mountains, including Mount Rainer, the tallest peak in Washington. They appeared to be traveling at speeds much faster than any known aircraft could achieve at that time. This report, along with Arnold’s later public description that “they flew erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water,” began the modern era of UFO sightings and the term “flying saucer”. Reports of UFOs increased dramatically across the globe in short order: Many of them were also described as disc-shaped and a number of stories included witnesses seeing and sometimes even interacting with the strange, often humanoid beings that emerged from these objects.
By the time Forbidden Planet was in production in the following decade, the UFO phenomenon was deeply ingrained in the culture. Even those who thought “flying saucers” and their “little green men” occupants were nothing more than cases of mistaken identity, a major collection of hoaxes, or some form of mass hysteria leaned heavily towards the assumption that UFOs were the advanced interstellar vessels of highly evolved alien visitors studying Earth and especially its native human inhabitants. This thinking naturally permeated the various forms of science fiction media, with Hollywood being the most publicly affected. UFOs as disc-shaped FTL starships built and crewed by ETI dominated both high and low-brow science fiction cinematic offerings in the first half of the 1950s.
At the very same time, the two main Cold War superpowers were developing fairly parallel efforts to build and launch increasingly sophisticated rockets that could reach outer space, albeit briefly. While most of these rockets were being militarily purposed to carry nuclear warheads to potentially strike each other with, there was also a growing interest to use some of these same boosters for placing artificial satellites into Earth orbit and beyond, with a specially selected collection of brave human souls to eventually follow in their mechanical paths.
Following a technological evolutionary logic, if relatively primitive humans were just starting to explore nearby space using rather crude if effective machines, then species which could travel from one star system to another with unimaginably fast velocities must be doing so in vessels that would look far sleeker and perform much more efficiently than our chemically-fueled metal tubes. As no one at the time could hazard more than a very rough guess as to how many such advanced ETI might exist in our galaxy, the possibility that aliens were personally visiting Earth in shiny metallic discs on what felt like a fairly regular basis did not seem to be out of the realm of plausibility. Therefore, it only made sense from this viewpoint that a future humanity which had achieved interstellar travel would be doing so not in some antiquated and potentially explosively deadly rockets, but would instead be exploring and colonizing the galaxy in sophisticated, safe – and disc-shaped – vessels.
Thus was born the terrestrial and human-controlled “flying saucer” of the 23rd Century known only as C-57D, a space cruiser of the United Planets. Giving a vessel only numbers and letters for a name is hardly unprecedented: The World War 2 Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 (PT stood for Patrol Torpedo), last commanded by the future United States President John F. Kennedy, is a famous real world example of such a ship designation. In addition, labeling this starship with such a “mechanical” name was no doubt done to bring home to the contemporary film audience that C-57D was not just part of a (quasi?) military space fleet, but also a member of an advanced technological future where many such vessels patrolling the Final Frontier are as abundant as the naval ships that cruised the terrestrial seas during the Cold War.
One can make an educated guess that the letter C stands for Cruiser, while the D could mean the fourth vessel in the 57th series of its class. One may also guess the number 57 was used to note roughly the year when Forbidden Planet was released, 1956, moved up by one. As stated earlier, some sources say the story takes place specifically in the year 2257, offered as yet another potential piece of the puzzle.
C-57D is the very first “character” we see in Forbidden Planet, as the narrator makes a fascinating if all-too-brief background introduction to the world we are about to enter. We watch as C-57D emerges from behind and over our heads into view, plunging straight on into the starry background of interstellar space, accompanied by those ubiquitous Barron electronic tonalities and some futuristic sound effects presumably coming from the cruiser’s propulsion system. Since C-57D is clearly not moving through the void using conventional rockets, the narration explains just how the starship is getting about the galaxy as reproduced here:
“In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the Moon. By 2200 AD, they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained and later greatly surpassed. And so, at last, mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space. United Planets Cruiser C-57D, now more than a year out from Earth Base on a special mission to the planetary system of the great main-sequence star Altair.”
This narration gives us a good abstract as to how many in the West in the first years after World War 2 and during the fairly prosperous and productive 1950s predicted the direction humanity would take into space. As you can read, the filmmakers (or at least the script authors) did not expect humans to actually reach the Moon in person until the 2090s, which for someone living in any era during or past the actual 1960s would seem to be an incredibly late and off the mark choice of dates.
However, if you were living in the era just before Sputnik 1 surprised and frightened much of the West and kicked off the official start of the Space Age/Space Race in October of 1957, chances are you would not have considered anyone capable of traveling to the Moon or any other part of outer space taking place in your near future, or perhaps ever at all outside of a science fiction story. Even the famous German rocket expert, Wernher von Braun, writing in 1954 about a manned expedition to the planet Mars, thought humanity might not be ready for such a mission for at least one century, or the year 2054. Although by the first decade of the Space Age, von Braun would scale back his prediction for the first mission to the Red Planet all the way to 1982, the point is that it was primarily science fiction authors and their acolytes who thought humanity would be voyaging in the Final Frontier far sooner than most.
Thus Forbidden Planet’s narrator intoning that “men and women in rocket ships” (at least the inclusion of women as fellow space explorers was a progressive move from a time when the words “man” and especially “mankind” were meant to indicate all of humanity) would not land on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor until well over a century from the time of the film’s premiere, rather than a mere thirteen years later in 1969 with Apollo 11 as happened in our reality, shows not only how many viewed space travel as something rather far off at best but that few could truly appreciate or suspect what was coming in terms of one of the Cold War’s ultimate expressions by its two key superpower players just around their corner. After Sputnik 1 began circling Earth, transmitting its ostensively harmless and simple beeping signal to the whole globe, the majority of the public, from top government and military officials to science experts on down to the average man and woman on the street, became collectively aware to varying degrees that Forbidden Planet and its fictional brethren were no longer mere wild speculation or just another form of temporarily entertaining diversion: They were showing a now very probable path for humanity’s real future.
Thanks to contemporary science and technology, the various frontiers of Earth itself had been largely conquered (or soon would be) as far as those living in the 1950s were concerned; therefore, it only made sense that the human race’s Manifest Destiny would now extend into space, the truly Final Frontier. That several centuries hence our descendants would be exploring the strange new worlds of the Milky Way galaxy and seeking out its new life and new civilizations in amazingly advanced space vessels was not only possible but became as expected as when the first Europeans sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in wooden ships to explore and settle North and South America centuries earlier.
The opening narration as depicted in that so very useful 1954 film script version added some important descriptions which enhance our understanding both of how the FP universe came to be and the general contemporary perception of humanity’s destiny in space. I find it unfortunate that these extra details did not make it into the final version of the film almost two years later: My guess is that they took up some plot time and flow, or perhaps the filmmakers thought they were too technical for a general audience, or some combination of the two possibilities.
Here is the 1954 version of the opening dialogue. The words and phrases that were different or missing from the 1956 film are highlighted in italics:
In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in chemically-fueled rocket ships landed on the Moon. By 2200 AD, with the perfecting of atomic propulsion, they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Due to galactic distances, the fixed limits to expansion now appeared to have been reached. But at this moment – not for the first time in human history – another ancient “absolute” of science was found to have been illusory. Almost at once there followed the discovery of quanto-gravitetic hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained, and later greatly surpassed – and so at last mankind, now banded together in a single federation, began the conquest and colonization of deep space.
United Planets Cruiser C-57D, traveling at 16 times the speed of light, and already more than a year out from Earth Base on a special mission to the Fourth World in The System of Alpha Aquilae, the great main-sequence star Altair…..
Right off in the initial two sentences, we have it confirmed that humanity first explored near space with chemically-fueled rockets, just as it would during the first decades of the Space Age. Then atomic space propulsion, which was apparently being used in tandem with chemical rockets, was finally perfected by the start of the 22nd Century. Nuclear rockets were considered by many space experts to be the next logical step in the attainment of outer space after their less sophisticated chemical ancestors. In reality, while several forms of nuclear propulsion were seriously investigated early on, such as NERVA and Orion, all the space powers have remained with various chemical and solid fuel boosters to the present day, though the nuclear option has never entirely left the table and may yet become a method in some form for taking us to the other planets as FP initially imagined.
Note the next sentences in the 1954 version of the narration:
“Due to galactic distances, the fixed limits to expansion now appeared to have been reached. But at this moment – not for the first time in human history – another ancient “absolute” of science was found to have been illusory. Almost at once there followed the discovery of quanto-gravitetic hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained, and later greatly surpassed…”
First, let me applaud the makers of Forbidden Planet for recognizing that the spaces between stars in the Milky Way galaxy are indeed very far apart, so much so that even a nuclear method of propulsion would mean that a starship could take centuries to reach the nearest suns. They should also be acknowledged for knowing what a galaxy actually is, a vast stellar “island” in space composed of many suns, ranging from several million to over one trillion in number, depending upon the type of galaxy. Current estimates of the amount of galaxies in the known Universe were recently scaled up from approximately fifty billion to over two trillion. The Milky Way is categorized by astronomers as a barred spiral galaxy containing about 400 billion stars spanning 100,000 light years across and roughly ten billion years in age.
In contrast, numerous science fiction films and television series long after FP made it clear that the folks involved in those productions – among their often many sins against scientific accuracy – did not know the vast difference between a solar system and a galaxy, nor did they apparently care enough to even conduct a simple fact check. Star Trek was not among those series caught in this grievous error, perhaps thanks once again to the influence of FP?
However, even the authors of the poorest of science fiction stories of the modern era knew that the stars were much farther from Earth than even the most distantly known worlds in our Sol system. Traveling to the nearest star systems would take many thousands of years with chemical rockets. For one real-world example, the twin Voyager space probes, lofted into space in 1977 to explore the outer Sol system and then be flung into the wider Milky Way to drift among the stars indefinitely, will take approximately 77,000 years to reach the distance to (but not the actual location of) the Alpha Centauri system, 4.3 light years away. Note that the Voyagers are among the fastest space vehicles yet launched by humanity.
Even with a vessel that could move at up to 99 percent of the speed of light (Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity will not let you travel at precisely light speed, or 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum), one-way trips to Sol’s closest neighbors will still take years, plus you have to take into account the deceleration time if you actually want to stop in one of those alien systems. Since most SF stories involving interstellar travel focus on human characters, beings with life spans averaging about 80 years long at present, authors and even scientists have been looking for clever ways to get around – or literally just break through – that barrier imposed by one of the greatest theoretical physicists in history.
One of the most popular methods for getting around light speed is the cosmic wormhole, also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge, a structure capable of connecting two points in the fabric of spacetime no matter how distant in physical space. Either found naturally in space or created by highly advanced intelligences in SF, wormholes allow one to reach or communicate with virtually any place in the Universe almost instantaneously, saving so much travel and plot time. Wormholes are theoretically possible, however the Einstein-Rosen version can only last for the briefest of times before collapsing, rending them rather useless as a means of interstellar transportation. Also theoretical is the possibility for keeping wormholes stable and open using something called “exotic” matter.
The other means of avoiding the light speed barrier is the hyperdrive, probably best known to the modern general public via the Star Wars universe. As with so many other things in science fiction history, however, Forbidden Planet had its featured starship zipping across the galaxy at faster-than-light velocities over two decades before the Millennium Falcon burst out of Docking Bay 94 on Mos Eisley.
We never learn very much about the hyperdrive system on the C-57D, even though we actually get to see the drive’s main core as it is physically removed from the ship to help power that special transmitter to enable Adams to contact Earth Base, “to short-circuit the continuum on a five or six parsec level,” as it is put. We do find out that whatever is in the core is very radioactive, as Robby has to produce ten tons of special lead shielding to make a bunker strong enough to house it safely. The core also seems to be unaffected by a magnetic field, or at least the large electromagnet on the tractor used to lift and move it around.
As we have seen with the 1954 script version of the film’s opening narration, the C-57D’s hyperdrive is called quanto-gravitetic, which one may assume involves some kind of combination of gravity and quantum mechanics to create FTL propulsion. As quantum physics were relatively new to science when FP premiered and appeared to have particles often behave in ways directly opposite to those in our macroscopic world – even Einstein originally had issues with the seemingly “lawless” nature of that subatomic realm – it was undoubtedly ideal to incorporate it into futuristic technology involving vessels that needed to go at superluminal velocities. Quantum physics and mechanics terms were peppered throughout the film, along with other terminology that sounded relatively plausible in a 23rd Century setting, if not actually real. Star Trek would later apply this science fiction staple so often that it spawned its own term: Technobabble.
The interstellar vessels in Star Trek have their own version of hyperdrive known as warp drive (although the term did not originate with the franchise, I have to wonder if this wording was yet another example of series creator Gene Roddenberry once again trying to avoid seeming to go to the FP ideas and features well too often). Warp drive also avoided the pesky limitations set by physics using its propulsion technology to “warp” spacetime around a starship, creating a subspace “bubble” that allowed for FTL velocities.
Theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre conceived a version of warp drive in 1994 using plausible physics called the Alcubierre drive; however, the amount of negative energy or mass required to make it work was infeasible – because there is no scientific proof that negative energy or mass actually exist – and would not be solved by simply hoping that an ambiguous “someone” in an undetermined future would find the solution. Even an attempt by NASA researcher Harold White in a 2012 white paper to change the shape of the warp drive in order to reduce the amount of negative mass and energy did not remove the inherent problem, namely that reality is not going to just step out of the way because it may inconvenience or otherwise contradict human wants and needs – or conjure up a convenient solution also for the same reasons.
Which leads to this issue with that one particular phrase in the narration which had vanished by the time Forbidden Planet had premiered, namely: “But at this moment – not for the first time in human history – another ancient ‘absolute’ of science was found to have been illusory.”
It is true that many things humanity once thought were accurate in the field of science and related areas of knowledge have changed as our understanding and information-gathering techniques improved. That is, in fact, what science is all about: To observe and study the world, come up with hypotheses for particular phenomenon in need of explanations, test these ideas with experimentation and evidence, then come to certain conclusions once enough data and evidence have been collected. As this process is going on, it is the duty of the scientist to be as objective as possible, to consider only the evidence at hand along with information already considered to be accurate by science, and then present their conclusions to their peers based on their objective research. There the ideas and evidence are scrutinized even further to determine their scientific validity or not.
The scientific method can be a long and conservative process, but the first principle of this method, to quote theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman, “is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Feynman also said something I felt fit in quite well with the underlying concept of both hyper and warp drives, namely the literal avoidance of our reality and its physical laws so that humanity could visit Alpha Centauri at their convenience in mere hours or days, rather than years, decades, or centuries. Feynman said the following in a Sir Douglas Robb lecture at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1979:
“You’ll have to accept it. It’s the way nature works. If you want to know how nature works, we looked at it, carefully. Looking at it, that’s the way it looks. You don’t like it? Go somewhere else, to another universe where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy. I can’t help it, okay? If I’m going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to the human beings who have struggled as hard as they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like.”
One thing science does not want to do is deal in absolutes. If a previous conclusion is found to be in error based on solid data, it is replaced with the new data, not defended at all costs as if it were dogma.
Now no one should seriously assume that science’s practitioners are without various biases or flaws: Sometimes the very things that science is not supposed to be in fact do happen because of human imperfection, but the scientific method is designed to catch these issues and compensate for them. The method also recognizes that not only can phenomenon change over time and often does, but so do the techniques and technologies for measuring them, which can bring to light new information that could not have been known before.
The 1954 FP narration treated science more like religious dogma than the system which knows it can only peel away at the layers of existence in a never-ending effort to advance towards continually improving levels of accuracy. There also seems to have been a lack of deeper appreciation that the light speed barrier was not just another hurdle to overcome as humanity found new ways to move faster than ever.
This is understandable in one sense as most of the people who were involved with the film would have been direct witnesses, casual or otherwise, to the amazing technological leaps that took humans from the first crude airplanes to the dawn of the Space Age in just the first half of the Twentieth Century. No doubt one aeronautical event which had a large influence on this perception that merely increasing the velocity of a vessel would achieve literal new heights was the breaking of the sound barrier in October of 1947 by test pilot Chuck Yeager aboard a Bell X-1 rocket-engined powered aircraft. However, as explained previously, there is a huge difference between supersonic and superluminal flight, and not just in terms of miles or kilometers per hour.
The other skewed impression is not only that science operates in unshakeable absolutes but conversely that its main tenants will “naturally” be overcome by a future genius, usually a lone one bucking the system at that, who will have insights that no one thought of before and change everything for the better.
If one looks at history in a general manner as many do, for sadly they often do not go beyond the “bite-sized” single-perspective versions of our past usually doled out in school and through the popular media, it is easy to see how such a view comes about. Take the example of humanity’s historical thinking on our planet Earth’s literal place in the Universe. For many centuries the general consensus was that our globe was the center of existence, for one only had to look up at the sky, day or night, and with just a little patience clearly see that nearly everything up there constantly went around us. In the West this view was reinforced by the highest educational and political authority across the land, the Roman Catholic Church. They had adopted the thinking of two of their most respected scholars from antiquity who supported geocentrism, Aristotle and Ptolemy.
Then along came this astronomer priest named Nicholas Copernicus, who theorized this “wild” notion that would become to be known as heliocentrism that maybe it was the Sun that everything went about, including the “special” planet Earth. Copernicus’ concept would later be reinforced by an Italian astronomer named Galileo Galilei, thanks in no small part to this new invention called the telescope, and nearly at the cost of his very life by defying the Church authorities, who stuck to their literally antiquated notions about the heavens.
Of course while the basic elements of this story are accurate, the overall picture is much richer and more complex that what is usually presented. Then as now, no one operated in a vacuum and neither did the path from an Earth-centered Universe to a Sun-focused Sol system go in a seamless straight line: Politics and personal feelings were often key players in this pursuit of knowledge, for both good and ill.
It must also be noted that science as we understand and practice it was just getting its start during that era, with Galileo being among its first practitioners in the modern sense involving the use of observation and experimentation. Thus in theory at least it was easier for “absolute” ideas to be overturned in those days because the higher notions of antiquity were often grounded on philosophical thoughts reinforced by religious ideology, rather than solid physical evidence, generally speaking.
Should you want to know more about this pivotal point in human civilization, there is a wonderful multipart series titled “The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown”, which may be found on the blog The TOF Spot. It is a popular level read, but it is neither shallow nor simplistic.
So after all this you may still want to ask: Is there something better than science or different enough at figuring out the Universe in an objective manner and in the process might we learn either that FTL flight is possible and then find a way to make it happen? While one cannot say such a thing is impossible, the trick and key is finding such a method or coming up with one, plus staying as impartial as possible in the process. So far, while certain techniques and processes in science have changed over time, to say nothing of all the new knowledge we have gained along the way, the fundamentals involved figuring out our reality have remained intact after centuries of rigorous testing.
I would like to think this is the main reason why the filmmakers took out that opening narration phrase “another ancient ‘absolute’ of science was found to have been illusory” because they eventually realized how it misrepresented the actual techniques of science. Of course it could have been just as easily removed to make the introduction shorter and flow better.
You may also be asking yourself why fret over the concepts of hyperdrives and warp drives since this is, after all, science fiction. I give you these answers: For one, many people are both outright “educated” and heavily influenced by the offerings of the cinema and other entertainment media, no matter how good or bad they truly are, whether one wants to accept this or not. FP and its descendant Star Trek, along with so many other related science fiction, have long implanted in the minds of many of all intellectual stripes that this is how humanity will achieve the stars, by someone or some group in the future “naturally” developing one of these FTL drives even though physics have shown just how complex and difficult if not outright impossible they are to achieve.
This is both intellectually and culturally “dangerous” in that many viewers do not delve into the physics and technology of FTL propulsion, or slower-than-light (STL) propulsion for that matter, and therefore are trusting that Hollywood is being both accurate and honest on the subject. The other problem is that these same folks also presume that either future humans (I am looking at you, Interstellar) or altruistic aliens will one day come along and automatically give us these things, saving present humanity from all the thinking, studying, and general hard work that are otherwise required for such advances.
Now yes, there is a non-zero chance that this is indeed how we end up with some kind of FTL drive to ply the starways with. However, just how wise is it for the development of our species and civilization to pin our future on beings who we do not know with any certainty will in fact do such a thing or that they even exist at all. Waiting around for someone else to uplift us is often the road to stagnation and worse whether others dwell in our galaxy and our future or not.
Focusing on FTL drives also takes the focus of science and engineering away from the numerous STL propulsion methods that quite frankly make up in terms of actually working what they may otherwise lack in terms of speed and the dream of crossing the galaxy with the same amount of ease and lengths of time that we now do with aircraft. This is critical because while STL concepts have better chances of happening that FTL methods, they are not without their own challenges.
For example, nuclear fusion, which powers the stars and is the propulsion method of choice for robotic star probe projects such as Daedalus and its successor, Icarus, has been incredibly difficult to reproduce a controlled version of outside of hydrogen bombs. Even after decades of research and billions spent for funding, we still have not been able to maintain a controlled nuclear fusion reaction for more than a matter of seconds, and we are talking about doing this for “only” a terrestrial power plant, not a starship engine. The Breakthrough Starship concept which has received so much press of late, and rightly so, requires among its technologies a very powerful laser, more advanced than any laser which has been made so far. Even the nuclear fission pulse propulsion project called Orion, the one STL method for reaching the stars that could be built with current technology, has largely been hampered by social and political fears. I have not yet mentioned even more sophisticated concepts such an antimatter, which has one big hurdle of costing absurd amounts of money for even a single gram of its key ingredient.
So while I am not opposed to research into hyperdrives and warp drives and any other method that can exceed the speed of light for a space vessel, I am concerned when they are focused on by the public, scientists, and technologists to the exclusion of the methods that are perceived as less glamorous, when in fact these STL propulsion proposals are quite fascinating and, dare I say, “sexy” in their own right – not to mention more likely to happen. There are several good reasons why the hyperdrive design of the C-57D is left to the imagination, however they do not help us if we really do want to be exploring the galaxy via starships by the 23rd Century or even sooner. Otherwise everything we have seen on the big and not-so-big screens along with all the SF literature on the subject will remain far more fantasy than science.
Now About the Rest of the C-57D…
Although the C-57D stands out in its own way as much as Robby does in Forbidden Planet, there is much about this manned interstellar cruiser that remains a mystery for us, the viewing audience. One prominent example are the large battery of weapons the starship possesses, ranging from an apparent armory of blaster pistols and rifles to atomic cannons that can fire neutron beams loaded with three billion electron volts which can be used either in space or dismounted from the ship and put into field combat on a planet’s surface.
Now my question is why does the C-57D have so much weaponry? Is the galaxy in the FP universe that dangerous? Is the United Planets organization just really cautious when it comes to exploring deep space and ramps up their defenses as much a possible? Does a future defense contractor have a really lucrative deal going on with the UP? Is the UP more of a militaristic empire than is let on? A combination of all these possibilities perhaps? Note that in the 1954 script, Adams refers to the space cruiser as the “newest fighting ship in the service.”
The first item one might consider, based on so much other science fiction that has come both before and especially after FP, is that humans are not alone in the Milky Way galaxy when it comes to fellow intelligent creatures. As with our Universe, if these ETI are not in the habit of broadcasting their presence into the wider galaxy – or at least not doing so very loudly or often – then humanity may only run across them as we directly explore each new star system. Since each species may come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and types, along with thoughts and behaviors that could be equally as diverse as we can imagine, it may only be prudent to arm our starships with an array of defensive weaponry to be used only as a last resort.
But here is the thing: The galaxy in FP appears to be lacking in alien intelligences within the formal boundaries and explored limits of the United Planets, at least until the C-57D came upon Altair 4 and its former inhabitants, the Krell. Every being aboard the cruiser is a white human English-speaking male from Earth (and very likely American at that); there is not even a token ETI (or human woman) as was found on Federation starships from the very first pilot episode of Star Trek.
The released film version of Forbidden Planet gives some hints that non-human intelligences are unknown in and to the United Planets. Even the opening narration from the 1954 script only refers to humanity (using the older term “mankind”) when declaring just who “banded together in a single federation” to “[begin] the conquest and colonization of deep space.” In addition, recall that Cook complained upon arriving at Altair 4 about visiting yet another alien planet that indicated if many of them known to the UP were not outright devoid of substantial life, then they certainly seemed to lack a number of the basic expectations of human civilization – or at least Cook’s take on the subject.
Quoting Cook from the 1954 script:
“I’ve seen these so-called new worlds. No taverns, no dance halls – no civilization at all, not even a bingo parlor! Nothin’ for a man to do but stand off and chuck rocks at a tin can – and you bring your tin can.”
However, in an early scene that was filmed but edited out before FP was sent to the theaters (nor is it to be found in the 1954 script), the three main officers of the C-57D wonder aloud to each other why the crew of the Bellerophon has remained radio silent for the last twenty years. In the process it is made explicit by Captain Adams that humanity has yet to encounter an ETI, or at the very least one that is not already extinct.
Adams: “Did you ever ask yourself why they never sent word back?”
Farman: “Oh, they might have cracked up on landing.”
Adams: “Or they could have made man’s first contact with an alien race.” [Emphasis added.]
Doc: “You think aliens would necessarily be hostile?”
Adams: “No, they could be anything from archangels to man-eating spiders. Or a combination of both.”
This exchange also had the bonus of giving us the combined insight into how at least one branch of their society conceives of ETI and where they view aliens in terms of being either a friend or foe. Now granted, this is the perspective of one group of professionals whose training and membership in a quasi-militaristic organization no doubt skews things towards treating all unknowns as potential threats until proven otherwise. Nevertheless, when venturing into such a wilderness more wild and unpredictable than any environment on Earth, where help may literally be light years away, such a defensive posture is a logical choice.
There is one possible flaw in the above-stated logic: Would any government and/or military-industrial complex spend so much in terms of the obviously large amounts of money, time, and resources required to equip a fleet of starships with such advanced and powerful weaponry – as displayed multiple times with C-57D during the film – to deal with a threat for which up until the mission to Altair 4 there was no solid evidence of? And yes, I am assuming here that, pre-Krell, there was no evidence in the FP universe for ETI, either alive or extinct.
Now of course the economic system in the future society of FP could operate somewhat differently from our current economies. After all, it is implied that humanity works together as one big group (“banded together in a single federation”) probably based on the United Nations model and combined with the resources of our entire Sol system (which was in humanity’s reach by the start of the 23rd Century, according to the opening narration) and probably others, funding a sophisticated weapons program to guard against a hypothetical – but by no means impossible — enemy may not be an issue.
So who else might the United Planets be concerned enough about to outfit their space cruisers with atomic cannons and other such powerful weapons of the future? Again, we know rather little about the makeup and structure of the United Planets, but if it is composed only of multiple human colony worlds over a section of the Milky Way galaxy with Earth Base as its capital/headquarters, then the obvious focus would be the colonies.
Just as our terrestrial civilization requires police and military forces to maintain order, enforce laws, and quell dissent in certain cases, undoubtedly the UP would require them as well. With members as whole civilized societies being spread out on multiple alien worlds across distances measured in light years, a fleet of FTL starships carrying their own armories and piloted by a crew trained in a military fashion similar to those who serve aboard submarines would be required to maintain such a “federation”. As with the potential for some ETI being a threat to the UP, some colonies might also have the potential to cause problems for the overall governing body as dictated by human history. Even with the ability to physically reach distant star systems at superlight speeds and conduct interstellar communications in a matter of days, maintaining such an undoubtedly complex and widespread organization as a single cooperative body poses certain challenges. These would include the potential for some colonies to want to become independent and possibly uncooperative as a result, disrupting the UP whether intentionally or otherwise.
Now I do not really want to imply that the United Planets is some kind of hegemony or budding galactic empire. As has been stated before, it is hard to know very much about the UP based solely on the one film, so inferences must be made. I would like to think the UP has numerous operational, legal, and ethical similarities to the main governing body in the Star Trek franchise, the closely named United Federation of Planets (UFP), minus the abundance of non-human race members as found in the latter.
Borrowing from real history, many early maritime expeditions from Europe to the New World (North and South America) were primarily military in nature. Their missions were most often to secure territory, provide protection for their existing colonies from hostile forces both real and potential, and ensure that their colonists remain loyal to the main governing body across the seas. Some early plans for space exploration and colonization focused on such concepts as building military bases on the Moon by the two main superpowers of the Cold War to secure Earth’s natural satellite for themselves. They considered the Moon to be the ultimate “high ground” from which to launch a sneak attack, although any vessel coming from there would have taken several days to reach the home planet, thus diluting the surprise element. Even the later “peaceful” race to place the first human on the Moon, while touted as being primarily about exploration and science, existed largely due to geopolitical and military factors. The very rockets used in this endeavor and throughout the two space programs were themselves very much a product of World War 2 weapons development.
I am also basing my speculation on several contemporary sources of science fiction which may have been an influence on the filmmakers. A prime example is the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, which depicts a Galactic Empire composed solely of humans descended from the planet Earth, with no other intelligent species existing in the Milky Way galaxy.
Another example was a program from the radio series X Minus One titled “Skulking Permit”, written by Robert Sheckley. First released in the same year as FP, the plot revolves around a small human colony on some backwater exoplanet that had been isolated from the rest of humanity for over two centuries until the current governing body from Earth contacts them as part of their “reclaiming” process of all their former interstellar colonies. Once a “United Democracy”, the new rulers of humanity’s birth world emerged after some kind of major conflict as a totalitarian regime calling itself Imperial Earth. In addition to retaking the human colonies, Imperial Earth is also looking among them for new recruits as “cannon fodder” to help quash several rebellious worlds.
While there are apparently ETI in the universe of “Skulking Permit”, none are ever seen or interacted with during our brief glimpse of their reality, although the imperial government is clearly hostile to their existence and enforces a Humans First policy, much like the Terran Federation in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. They also have a form of FTL propulsion for their starships which they call Overdrive, though following tradition, no details about how it works are ever provided.
Although this story is generally light in tone on its surface – the rural agrarian folks of the planet New Delaware have gone without most of the trappings of civilization such as written laws, religion, public education, and a postal service for generations and are doing just fine – “Skulking Permit” does make some pointed comments about human society. This includes the possibility that our species may become the aggressors when we expand into the galaxy, rather than some other intelligent species as most stories on this subject depict.
You may listen to the original program here:
And read the radio play transcript here:
What’s for Lunch? And Where’s the Bathroom?
Among the many items that every manned space expedition has to address in order to succeed, there are two which must be on their itinerary: Feeding the crew and what to do with their eventual biological waste.
Addressing the latter item first, we never learn how they manage waste material aboard the C-57D, but then again neither was it something crucial to the plot. More directly, this particular issue was seldom addressed in American cinema at the time, being considered rather unseemly. Even the primary instrument most often used to remove bodily waste, the toilet, rarely appeared on film: Supposedly the first time a toilet was seen being flushed on the big screen happened in 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho. The Star Trek franchise carried on this cultural attitude in a sense as it became a running joke among fans that no one ever saw a toilet or even a bathroom on the Enterprise and wondered how the crew took care of their “business”. Some Trekkers later “took care” of this pseudo-conundrum by creating a variety of starship blueprints that depicted full bathrooms with their resident toilets.
During the flight from Earth to Altair 4, one may assume that the waste was vented from the cruiser’s plumbing system directly into interstellar space. Otherwise I cannot imagine them storing either the biological byproducts or the general trash produced by twenty healthy men over the course of a year in a vessel just 170 feet across and 40 feet high – and then do the same thing all the way back home. I also have to wonder if the C-57D contained some method of vaporizing the crew’s waste, for when the officers first visited Morbius’ home, they were familiar with the “household disintegrator beam” that Morbius demonstrated. This device may be a common way to remove waste throughout their culture, be it a home or a starship.
Ejecting waste directly into space is what has been done on many real manned space missions, though with the vast majority of these flights staying in Earth orbit since the first manned launch in 1961, they had both their biological waste and other refuse dropped into our planet’s atmosphere, where it burned up upon entry. Dumping a relatively small amount of waste in the vastness of interstellar space as United Planets starships might do may not be an issue because of the huge volumes of literally empty space between the stars. To an Earth-bound reader of the early 21st Century this may seem like a step backwards after decades of education on protecting the environment from pollution, but jetliners and maritime vessels still routinely dispose of their biological waste overboard on our far more finite ball of rock for the practical reasons of saving on space and weight. At least compared to the last century in our world, we have done some major improvements in cleaning up the environment, though the struggle is far from over.
As to the question of waste management while the C-57D was stationed on Altair 4, I would assume the UP has some kind of planetary protection protocols in place so as not to contaminate an alien world with terrestrial refuse any more than necessary, especially a planet that has never been directly visited by the UP before. This would mean that the crew’s biological waste and general trash would have to be kept stored aboard the ship until their departure, when they could “safely” dispose of it in the depths of interstellar space, assuming no other disposal methods were already in place.
I realize I am speaking about biological contamination and waste management from a 21st Century perspective in regards to a science fiction film made when “mere” terrestrial pollution social awareness for the general public, businesses, and government officials was just starting to happen. Nevertheless, there is a need to ponder these things regardless of the source for we will be exploring the galaxy in one form or another some day. There will be multiple reasons to be prudent with our “carbon footprint” both for conducting science and the ethics of interacting with any and all extraterrestrial life we may come up.
Now in regards to the food supply aboard the C-57D, somehow the UP has obviously solved the hurdle of feeding twenty adult male human beings three square meals every day for over one year (two years, actually, if you count the trip back and assume that the mission planners did not want to rely on the crew finding enough food at their destination) aboard a vessel that has nowhere to go to restock during its nearly 17 light-year journey between Earth and Altair 4. We can safely presume there were no places to make a pit stop for any reason thanks to the multiple mentions of the crew being cooped up in the cruiser for 378 days.
Correlating the information from various sources on the Internet, the average American consumes about two thousand pounds of food each year, or about six pounds of food averaging 2,700 calories each day. Of course this average American is also unconstrained in terms of where they live and move about compared to a C-57D crewmember in deep space. This same average person also devours large amounts of what would be labeled “junk” food and drinks, items that would probably be banned from the cruise for health reasons. They might even be absent from 23rd Century society in general for the same reasons, although the 1954 script describes the ship officers enjoying after-lunch cigars at Morbius’ home. We must keep in mind that in the era when FP premiered, smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes were a commonplace activity in society and their various negative health effects were just beginning to be recognized by the medical field.
Even if the crew were mandated to just two or even one meal each day, that would still require a fair deal of sufficient and balanced food to keep twenty young people alive and healthy for so long. How would they also be able to store that much food aboard the starship and still have enough room to store their other needs and equipment plus be able to move about the ship? From our views of the interior of the C-57D, the main deck appears rather uncongested in terms of containers and storage bins, so that means other parts of the cruiser would be required to hold the necessary victuals. However, that also means an even greater physical restriction on how much food could be carried aboard the vessel.
One suggestion to this problem is to produce food in pill form, a very popular trend in the 20th Century’s depiction of the future. In the 1955 science fiction film Conquest of Space, based on realistic plans for manned space missions by Wernher von Braun and others, astronauts preparing for flights into deep space had to consume all their meals in pill form. Unfortunately for FP, however, this would not explain Cook’s role aboard the cruiser, for he clearly prepares and cooks actual whole meals for the crew. Nor would it make sense even if Cook’s primary job were to dispense the food pills to the crew, for such an activity would be a waste of a crewmember on a ship where it has already been made clear that space and resources are at a premium.
Or, perhaps like today’s military, the C-57D stores the equivalent of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. These have the advantage of being both compact and staying preserved without requiring special equipment until ready for consumption. However, the fact that MREs do not require either refrigeration or special preparations would take Cook out of the loop once again in terms of serving a key purpose aboard the cruiser.
Another possibility is a food replicator. Now this one at least has some basis in the actual film. In the scenes where the ship’s officers first visit Morbius at his home and were invited to stay for lunch, this exchange occurs:
Farman: “Whatever that lunch was, it was certainly delicious.”
Morbius: “Simply some of Robby’s synthetics.”
Adams: “He’s your cook too?”
Morbius: “Even manufactures the raw materials. Come around here, Robby. I’ll show you how this works. One introduces a sample of human food through this aperture. Here there’s a small built-in chemical laboratory where he analyzes it. Later he can reproduce identical molecules in any shape or quantity.”
Adams: “Why, it’s a housewife’s dream.”
In addition to learning that the traditional woman’s role of a housewife still exists in the 23rd Century and that Farman seems to find the fare at Morbius’ place preferable to whatever he has been eating for the last 378 days aboard the space cruiser, we and the officers learn that Robby’s abilities go far beyond those of chauffer and translator to include food maker and chef. Adams et al seem more surprised and impressed by the fact that Robby can make consumables and prepare them as a robot rather than the ability to create and cook meals via a device designed for those tasks.
Now again this does not prove that there is a food replicator aboard the C-57D, only that the technology for such a device does exist in their time – unless it is somehow unique to Robby via Krell technology. We know that a galley exists aboard the cruiser along with several instances of seeing Cook with traditional culinary instruments such as metal pots and pans. Cook wears a white hat and white apron in all but one scene he is in. There is also the scene where Cook uses the excuse of rustling up “a few wild radishes or something” on Altair 4 to “brighten the boys’ mess up a bit” so he can leave the ship’s landing site perimeter and meet clandestinely with Robby to receive his order of Kansas City Bourbon. Note that earlier when Cook initially asks Robby if he can make the alcohol, he explains that it is “just for cooking purposes. I take a big pride in my duties.” Cook may be using these items to cover his true intentions, but they do reveal that there is actual food and drink aboard the star cruiser in some form or another, which Cook has to prepare for the rest of the crew on a regular basis.
One thing does seem certain: If there is a food replicator on the C-57D, it either cannot make alcohol or there is a strict regulation against producing such liquids, though paradoxically (and with the resultant accompanying concern) there is clearly no rule against drinking any alcohol a crewman might bring along on a mission, as Cook having been down to his last swallow of bourbon attests. Otherwise, Cook would not have gone begging to Robby to make some for him and risking potential disciplinary action from Commander Adams in the process. I also find it a bit ironic that while Robby is programmed not to harm a human or allow one to come to harm, he still produces a dangerously large volume of alcohol for Cook (and maybe other crewmen?). In addition, where did Cook think he was going to store/hide all those pint bottles, unless he planned on leaving these drinks right where Robby delivered them for the duration of the mission? Robby also either ignores or misses the overall lie when Cook tells him the bourbon is for cooking purposes only.
If there is one liquid which none of the human crew can do without, it is water. To store all the water needed for the mission would be even more prohibitive than the food, so some kind of recycling method has to exist on the C-57D. Might the crew have to recycle their own urine to create drinkable water, as is happening at present with the astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS)? While there has always been a degree of psychological distaste in the concept, it is a completely feasible and safe method to procure that most essential of all liquids and one that likely had to be accepted by the crew as much as they accepted giving up various degrees of personal space and privacy in order to serve aboard a starship.
The crew of the C-57D may have the advantage of not needing to worry about consumables thanks to seemingly magical 23rd Century technology, but in our foreseeable near future, real manned missions to nearby worlds in our Sol system such as Mars will not be able to do the equivalent of “warp driving” around the issue. NASA is in fact still working on how to feed a crew perhaps one-third the size of the FP star cruiser for approximately two years, coincidentally about the same duration of time as the C-57D mission to and from Altair 4. Watch this video to learn about the obstacles being tackled to keep a sufficient supply of nutritious food preserved all the way to the Red Planet and back. https://youtu.be/GGmaXX59aq8
If we are having these kinds of essential issues with journeys to places that are the equivalent of our celestial backyard, how will this affect manned interstellar missions? Again, it is easy to just assume that someone or some group in the future will solve these problems, but to paraphrase an old saying, speculation is cheap. Besides, human needs in these situations go well beyond just eating, drinking, and the maintenance of bodily waste – even for a fictional starship crew in one possible future – as we shall discuss next.