Most of us fortunate enough to see 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theater when it was released never dreamed it would spawn a strange ‘twin.’ But as Larry Klaes explains in the essay that follows, Dark Star was to emerge as a telling satire on the themes of the Kubrick film. Originating in the ideas of USC film students John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, Dark Star likewise plays into the screenplay for 1979’s Alien in ways that have to be seen to be believed. Larry is quite a fan of the film, and explains how and why socially relevant screenplays like these would soon be swamped by blockbuster hits crammed with special effects (think Star Wars). But that orange ‘beach ball’ still has a place in film history. Read on.
By Larry Klaes
Science fiction has certainly played an important role in inspiring and influencing humanity’s future directions. The father of American rocketry, Robert H. Goddard, was moved to imagine sending a vessel to the planet Mars as a young man in 1899 after reading The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells published just a few years earlier. From that spark developed a life-long dedicated pursuit of space exploration by Goddard, whose work in turn influenced others which eventually led to real rockets carrying real spaceships to the Red Planet and far beyond.
Conversely, science fiction also reflects the era it is created in. This can be seen in the changing depictions of the future during the Twentieth Century. While there are always exceptions, up into the 1960s the future was most often shown as a wonderful utopia, extrapolating from the real scientific and technological progress made in the preceding decades and centuries. Destination Moon (1950) had a contemporary near-future with a nuclear-powered rocket taking the first men to Earth’s natural satellite. Six years later, Forbidden Planet assumed the 23rd Century will have humanity working together to explore and colonize other worlds across the galaxy in faster-than-light (FTL) starships.
On television, Walt Disney presented an amazing future in full animated color with series such as Man in Space (1955-1959) and Magic Highway, USA (1958). The Jetsons (1962-1963) gently spoofed many future tropes such as flying cars, robot maids, pushbutton conveniences, and vacations on the Moon while simultaneously reinforcing the preconceived notions of its contemporary audiences that its depictions of society in the year 2062 were going to become an overall accurate one by then.
The belief in a “shiny, happy” future, thanks to science and technology, was also heavily supported by World’s Fairs, especially the ones held in New York City in 1939 and 1964-1965 and Seattle in 1962. There visitors not only got to see the “wonders of tomorrow” but also interact with them, cementing their realities. That each fair had a time capsule meant for some distant epoch (the New York ones are to be opened together in the year 6939, five thousand years hence, which is roughly how long human civilization had already existed) showed their makers’ faith that not only would our species still exist in the far future, but they would also be capable of finding, opening, and appreciating these preserved gifts from their undoubtedly less sophisticated ancestors.
Even when 2001: A Space Odyssey came along in 1968 in the midst of major social and cultural changes throughout the United States and abroad – and 1968 was a particularly dramatic year in that regard – the film still contained many trappings of the technological utopia, in no small part due to co-screen writer Arthur C. Clarke and the numerous real space experts they consulted in the making of 2001.
Clarke was one of the leading authors from science fiction’s “golden” era, which most often depicted space travel as a wondrous marvel in itself. Not only was voyaging into outer space considered something noble, it was also a major objective humanity was expected to strive for in its relentless pursuit of progress and new frontiers to conquer. Space had become especially important since most of Earth’s surface had already been considered “conquered” by our civilization, with the exception of the planet’s vast oceans of water: They were still largely unknown, particularly the sea bottom, which lay in total darkness under miles of crushing pressure from all that salt water.
Produced and released on the advent of the first manned lunar expeditions, 2001 predicted that the next three decades of the Space Age would have sleek space planes making regular trips to huge wheeled space stations in Earth orbit (with Hilton Hotels and Howard Johnson’s restaurants), sophisticated bases on the Moon, and nuclear-powered spacecraft operated by a “thinking” artificial intelligence (AI) carrying astronauts all the way to the gas giant planet Jupiter (or Saturn in the film novelization by Clarke).
However, if one looked more closely at this rosy and exciting depiction of our space future, there were some definite shadows among all that sunshine. The first “astronauts” we meet in 2001 are not the macho test pilots contemporary audiences were well accustomed to by the end of the first decade of the Space Age, but more often than not were bureaucrats and businessmen. For them, a journey to the Moon to inspect a mysterious alien artifact found there was treated more like a standard terrestrial corporate trip than an exciting scientific adventure.
As for that mission to Jupiter, its real objective was to examine an even larger alien artifact orbiting that distant world, which the one dug up on the lunar surface had sent a signal to. The original planetary science mission of the USS Discovery had been co-opted by the governing authorities, who not only placed three operatives aboard the spaceship in suspended animation to secretly deal with the visitor from another star system, but also instructed the ship’s main computer, HAL 9000, to keep the true mission goals from the remaining two “awake” human crew members. In effect, they caused HAL to lie to his fellow astronauts, which created an ultimately fatal conflict for the AI, who was programmed to record and relay all information fully and accurately and could not deal with the contradictions.
Even the first act in 2001 contained a foreshadowing of the direction humanity would one day head in. When the hominid named Moonwatcher, who had learned to hunt and kill in order to survive thanks to the lessons from an alien device that resembled a large black monolith, flung his weapon – an animal bone – towards the sky in a combination of triumph and ecstatic joy, the bone symbolically turned into a spaceship circling Earth. While it was not made explicit in the film at director Stanley Kubrick’s insistence, that first satellite shown was in fact a nuclear weapons platform, along with several others from various nations later shown in that same scene. Then, at the end of the film, when Discovery astronaut David Bowman is transformed by the Monolith ETI into an evolved human called a Starchild who subsequently appears above Earth, the novelization adds that several nations reacted by launching nuclear missiles at the new being. Starchild responded to the attack by deflecting and then detonating the missiles in space with its profound mental powers.
Considered to be not only one of the best science fiction films ever made but also a watershed both for the genre and the cinema overall, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the epitome of the Golden Era of SF films. It combined state-of-the-art production and special effects technologies with a well-written and deep multilevel plot. 2001 also had a very large budget for a science fiction film of its day: Ten million dollars in total, or the equivalent of over 71 million dollars in 2017 currency.
2001 made an important cultural shift in how space exploration was depicted across the entertainment and literary industries which has lasted to the present day. In addition, because the film was so serious and profound in its intent and messages, 2001 also invoked (or perhaps provoked) various satirical imitators. Among the best of those imitators was Dark Star, released into mainstream theaters in 1974, a film with a contrastingly very low budget by any era’s standards which managed to utilize its rather cheap effects and production values to its advantage when it came to telling its story and amusing its audiences. However, while it remains one of the best deliberate 2001 cinematic parodies to date, Dark Star also strongly reflects the general attitude of its era towards space exploration and humanity’s place in the Cosmos, which contrasted and conflicted with the earlier far more positive Manifest Destiny and overall faith in the benefits and progress of science and technology.
As a parody of 2001, Dark Star focused on the less glamorous and appealing aspects of life aboard a long-term deep space mission. 2001 had its share of space ennui on display, but this was certainly not its overriding focus. In the end, 2001 ultimately remained a part of the utopian space vision of the future, whereas Dark Star firmly belongs to the world where manned flights to the Moon ended in 1972 with no definite future plans in sight. There were certainly no serious efforts aimed at building a lunar base or sending a manned mission to Jupiter or any other world in the Sol system. There were two types of space stations in Earth orbit in the early 1970s – the American Skylab and the Soviet Salyut – but both were relatively small experimental hollow cylinders housing only a few astronauts and cosmonauts, respectively, for a matter of months at most. Neither stations were literal jumping off points to the Moon or any other celestial destinations.
On Earth, the major social issues of the late Twentieth Century such as war, racism, poverty, starvation, and class inequality were erupting everywhere, often in violent demonstrations, with those in power no longer able to fully suppress or control those most affected by society’s problems. It seemed rather than technology and science being the saviors of humanity as once touted, they were becoming increasingly responsible for our species’ potential demise by making it easier to harm and kill one another in multiple ways as never before.
In the midst of all this growing unrest, space felt like something remote and unrelated to the lives of the average citizen. Putting humans on the Moon with Project Apollo, once done as a way to display and foster Cold War national pride and geopolitical prestige on a grand scale, was instead being perceived as an extravagant waste of money and resources just so a few elite white military types could bring home some lunar rocks for a small group of scientists. Many thought the space agency received a disproportionate share of federal funding for this “esoteric” pursuit, though in truth the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) took but a small fraction of the government pie compared to most other agencies, a situation that remains to this day.
Many science fiction films of the Golden Era turned their focus away from space and looked inward at these societal problems. Some of the better known examples of this were Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Rollerball, A Clockwork Orange, Solaris, THX-1138, A Boy and His Dog, Zardoz, and the Planet of the Apes franchise. When space was mentioned in these films, it was generally in a negative light, either being aloof from helping with the dysfunctional human problems on the planet or interfering with potential solutions to the highlighted problem. To quote a character labeled Tramp in A Clockwork Orange: “What sort of a world is it at all? Men on the Moon, and men spinning around the Earth, and there’s not no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!”
When space was the focus in these SF films, it was largely there to further the theme that all solutions were to be found by returning to Earth in both the literal and cultural sense. Silent Running (1972) was among the most blatant films on this theme: Humanity had despoiled its home planet so badly through misuse and mismanagement that all remaining plants and animals were preserved in deep space inside biodomes attached to converted freighters. Instead of portraying space as the “savior” of what was left of Earth’s biosphere, the film emphasized that the Final Frontier was a temporary solution at most and certainly not a permanent place for the native organisms of the third world from Sol, including and especially humanity.
Tonight’s Themes for Discussion
Dark Star is indeed a satire, with the occasional venture into outright farce. Being a comedy of sorts does not let it off the hook in regards to having and making some serious and consequential points, even if it does contain an alien that is clearly made from a plastic beach ball with feet from a Halloween costume and produces fart noises, perhaps the basest tool of all humor.
Dark Star is also very existential in nature: The mission to deliberately destroy “unstable” planets is presented as absurd, the crew strive mightily to maintain their individuality in the face of their Sisyphean task, and then there is that wonderful discussion between Doolittle and Bomb 20 about whether or not anything exists outside one’s self, with literally explosive results. Carpenter even described Dark Star as “Waiting for Godot in space,” the 1953 minimalist play by Samuel Beckett about two vagabonds waiting by a dead tree for someone named Godot who never arrives.
So what does this all mean in terms of humanity expanding into space? Does it matter than one film skewers the concept, especially if that film is not well known or appreciated outside of science fiction circles to this very day? Does the message of a film have to affect all of its audience in order to be effective, or just enough of the people who can have an influence on the target of that message? Is there a “Sell by” date for such a film, even one with such seemingly timeless themes?
Did Dark Star contribute to the overall lackluster space efforts of the 1970s after the spectacular achievements and plans of the previous decades? Or did it just reflect the counterculture attitudes of the era? What does it benefit to say that manned space missions might consist of little more than boring and thankless tasks, as well as dangerous and even deadly?
Does Dark Star still have a point in regards to space exploration and colonization 43 years later? Or have times and attitudes changed in regards to space now that governments and their militaries are no longer the sole providers of access to the Final Frontier? Or perhaps Dark Star was showing us the proper way to expand into space without quite realizing it….
Our Story So Far…
This section presents to you my full plot summary of Dark Star. Therefore, I recommend that you watch the film first before following this essay any further in case you have not treated yourself in this manner already, or if you have seen this film but it has been a while since your last viewing and would like a refresher. Dark Star is available on disc and also on YouTube in its theatrical version unedited and unmodified. I have provided the hyperlink to the latter in the “References” section at the end of this piece should you decide to go that viewing route.
According to the opening narration from an early film script version which did not end up in the theatrical release, Dark Star takes place in the middle of the 22nd Century, with several sources pinpointing the year as 2150. Humanity has explored and colonized the Sol system and is now heading out into the wider Milky Way galaxy in what are described as “huge hyperdrive starships: Computer-driven, self-supporting, closed-system spacecraft that travel at mind-staggering post-light velocities. Man has begun to spread among the stars. Enormous ships embark with generations of colonists searching the depths of space for new earths, new homes, new beginnings.”
As may be expected when venturing into unknown realms like outer space, there are dangers in the universe of Dark Star. However, the potential cosmic threat to the human colonists expanding across the galaxy are not the usual marauding aliens but rather unstable exoplanets. Apparently there are enough alien worlds with orbits unsteady enough to one day send them plunging into their primary suns, smash into a moon or other planet, or fling them out of their systems entirely to languish in the bitter cold and dark of the interstellar void that an entire agency has been formed to deal with this problem.
Called the Advance Exploration Corps (AEC), these “special breed of [men]” comb the depths of space in faster-than-light (FTL) scoutships carrying clusters of “chain-reaction bomb[s], otherwise known as an Exponential Thermostellar Device.” Equipped with “sophisticated thought and speech mechanisms, to allow them to make executive decisions in the event of a crisis situation,” these special weapons of massive destruction are capable of obliterating the entirety of an unstable globe, “whose existence poses a threat to the peaceful colonists that follow.”
We meet up with one of these scoutships of the AEC called Dark Star (ADC 2239-5531), now in the twentieth year of their mission to “[open] up the farthest frontiers of space.” The crew of the Dark Star is in the process of removing yet another obstacle in humanity’s path of interstellar colonization. Just before we watch these men prepare Bomb Number 19 for its singular destiny, we learn via a transmission from Earth that the ship has recently suffered a loss with the accidental death of its leader, Commander Powell, who was electrocuted by a technical fault with his own command chair.
Once Bomb 19 has successfully and cheerfully completed its task of destroying an unnamed unstable exoplanet, the crew winds down a bit until their next bomb run, this time in the Veil Nebula system. Throughout the story, the audience bears witness to the distinct personalities of each of these men, who are in fact slowly falling apart in parallel with various ship systems after two decades in space. Lieutenant Doolittle, now in charge of the Dark Star, would much rather be back home in Malibu, California, surfing the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Sergeant Pinback constantly attempts to boost the crew’s morale, but only succeeds in making them increasingly resentful and dismissive of him. Boiler appears to be the most content with his job, even gleeful at some points. Talby prefers to spend most of his time in the observation dome at the top of the ship, watching the stars drift by and hoping one day to encounter the mysterious Phoenix Asteroids which he says circle the Universe once every 12.3 trillion years, glowing “with all the colors of the rainbow.”
The crew’s relaxation time is abruptly interrupted by the rather sensual female voice of the ship’s Computer warning them about an approaching asteroid storm that “appears to be bound together by an electromagnetic energy vortex” similar to the one they encountered two years prior. As the Computer’s defensive circuits were destroyed by that previous storm, the crew has to manually activate all of the ship’s defensive systems – within 35 seconds.
The crew succeeds in placing a protective force field around the Dark Star just before plunging through the asteroid storm, but one stray energy bolt breaches the field and hits the Emergency Airlock at the ship’s stern, damaging Communications Laser Number 17 located inside it, which we later learn “monitors the jettison primer on the bomb drop mechanism.” This causes Bomb Number 20 to receive a very premature operational signal to drop and lowers itself out of the bomb bay during the storm. The Computer informs Bomb 20 that the order was a technical error: Bomb 20 complies and returns to the bomb bay. The Computer attempts to discover the exact source of the problem, but the damaged laser has temporarily inactivated the Computer’s damage tracer circuits.
Later on, Pinback has to go feed the ship’s “mascot”, an alien creature they found while visiting the Magellanic Cloud. The alien, about half as tall as Pinback, resembles a large orange beach ball with two clawed feet. As Pinback is sweeping up the alien’s living area, the creature attacks him and escapes into the depths of the ship. Pinback gives chase, only to be outmaneuvered by the alien and ending up stuck in the ship’s elevator shaft, first hanging from the bottom of the elevator car and later wedged tight in the emergency access hatch in the floor of the elevator itself. Pinback eventually escapes his predicament, but only after he accidentally activates the hatch’s explosive bolts while methodically pressing buttons on the elevator control panel urgently seeking help.
While Pinback is thus preoccupied, the alien roams about the Dark Star, making its way to the damaged communications laser and inadvertently creating even further problems with it. This event causes Bomb 20 to prematurely receive the drop order again and makes ready for its run. Once more the Computer has to convince Bomb 20 not to drop yet, although this time it takes more effort to dissuade the bomb, who states that ignoring the signal to drop runs counter to its programming. Bomb 20 reluctantly returns to the ship’s bomb bay, but declares that “this is the last time” it will ignore the drop signal.
Doolittle and Talby are up in the dome, sharing their dreams about what they would prefer to be doing with their lives. As Doolittle waxes nostalgic about his surf board, Talby receives a general alert about the communications malfunction on his panel readout and informs Doolittle, who merely tells him not to worry about it, that they will “find out what it is when it goes bad.”
Being more concerned about the malfunction than his commander, Talby heads to the Computer Room to determine exactly what the problem is and repair it. Eventually the malfunction is pinpointed to the communications laser damaged earlier. Talby puts on a starsuit and heads down to the Emergency Airlock with a tool kit, informing Doolittle of his plans to fix the laser.
Pinback eventually finds the alien and attempts to render it unconscious with a dart from an anesthetic gun, but instead ends up killing the creature, which reacts to the dart’s impact by explosively releasing gas from its body and flying about the room before landing on the floor completely deflated. Pinback tries to inform Doolittle and Boiler about his battle with the alien as they go to eat lunch, asking how the creature could have been alive “if it was just filled with gas?” Pinback’s companions ignore him as they focus on their meal, which is labeled “ham” but looks instead like packets of multicolored liquid.
Undaunted, Pinback tries to engage the men in a lunchtime discussion about how he isn’t really Sergeant Pinback, but rather a starship Fuel Maintenance Technician named Bill Froug who was mistaken for Pinback after the real astronaut went crazy just before the launch of the Dark Star and jumped “stark naked” into a vat of liquid fuel which Froug was maintaining. Froug attempted to rescue Pinback from the vat by putting on his starsuit for protection and diving in after him, but a member of the launch crew appeared and mistook Froug for Pinback, hurrying him aboard the ship. Froug did not know how to operate the suit’s helmet radio, rendering him unable to explain what had just happened or who he really was.
Doolittle and Boiler barely react to Pinback’s story, except to acknowledge to each other that Pinback had already told them about this four years earlier. We later see Pinback reviewing his personal video diary in private, which confirms his story about being Bill Froug and gives us further examples of how Pinback thinks he has “something of value to contribute to this mission if [the rest of the crew] would only recognize it,” which they clearly do not.
At last the Dark Star arrives at the unstable planet in the Veil Nebula system. As Doolittle, Boiler, and Pinback prepare for this latest bomb run, Talby is in the airlock about to fix Communications Laser Number 17. Talby radios Doolittle in an effort to tell the lieutenant to hold off on dropping Bomb 20 until he can solve the laser issue, but Doolittle is too busy to be bothered and cuts off their communications.
Talby activates the laser’s test mode, making two bright red beams of light shoot across the room. As he attempts to adjust the “cue switch” in the laser mechanism, Talby inadvertently steps into the path of the lasers, becoming temporarily blinded by them and falling to the floor unconscious. His actions create even further damage to both the ship’s Computer and the laser, disrupting the signal that would jettison Bomb 20 away from the ship and towards the target planet.
The rest of the crew discover this rather critical problem when they attempt to drop Bomb 20, which remains attached to the Dark Star – yet still intends to detonate in just over fourteen minutes! Doolittle tries to order the bomb to disarm and return to the bomb bay, but Bomb 20 refuses and states that it will detonate at its programmed time regardless. The damaged Computer is unable to resolve this dilemma, saying that the best it can do is to confine the bomb’s explosion to a radius of one mile using automatic dampers.
Doolittle realizes he has but one final option: To ask Commander Powell what to do.
While Commander Powell was indeed electrocuted by his chair, the crew had placed their leader into a Cryogenic Freezer Compartment in the ship’s Freezer Room, where he remains alive and conscious in a state of “absolute zero,” although Powell’s memory is starting to fade and he is hurt that the crew only visits him when there is a problem they cannot solve themselves.
Talking to Powell through a microphone, Doolittle is able to explain the current situation after some initial difficulty, such as Powell unexpectedly asking Doolittle how a certain Major League baseball team from Los Angeles is doing. “They broke up, they disbanded over fifteen years ago!” replies Doolittle about the Dodgers. “Ah… pity, pity…” says Powell in turn.
Powell initially offers a technical suggestion to stop Bomb 20, the “azimuth clutch,” but Doolittle informs his former captain that it has already been tried without success. The commander then tells Doolittle to talk to the bomb to teach it phenomenology, a field of study which involves the conscious mind and how it relates to the world around it through direct experience.
With just six minutes left before Bomb 20 detonates, Doolittle dons a starsuit with a jetpack and goes outside the ship to speak with the bomb face-to-face, in a fashion. As the two float in space together high above the alien planet, the lieutenant first asks Bomb 20 how it knows it actually exists, to which it replies that this state of being is “intuitively obvious.” Doolittle counters that “intuition is no proof. What concrete evidence do you have that you exist?” Bomb 20 offers the phrase “I think, therefore I am,” made famous by the 17th Century French philosopher René Descartes. Bomb 20 then adds that its collection of various sensors reveal the existence of the outside world to it.
Doolittle explains that Bomb 20’s sensory data “is merely a stream of electrical impulses which stimulate your computing center.” The bomb realizes that since all it knows about the exterior world is what it receives from its electrical connections, it therefore does not “know what the outside universe is like at all, for certain.”
As Bomb 20 now realizes what it thinks it knows about existence may not actually be true, Doolittle moves to the next level of their discussion:
Doolittle: “Now bomb, consider this next question, very carefully. What is your one purpose in life?”
Bomb 20: “To explode, of course.”
Doolittle: “And you can only do it once, right?”
Bomb 20: “That is correct.”
Doolittle: “And you wouldn’t want to explode on the basis of false data, would you?”
Bomb 20: “Of course not.”
Doolittle: “Well then, you’ve already admitted that you have no real proof of the existence of the outside universe.”
Bomb 20: “Yes, well…”
Doolittle: “So you have no absolute proof that Sergeant Pinback ordered you to detonate.”
Bomb 20: “I recall distinctly the detonation order. My memory is good on matters like these.”
Doolittle: “Yes, of course you remember it, but… But all you’re remembering is merely a series of electrical impulses which you now realize have no real definite connection with, with outside reality.”
Bomb 20: “True, but since this is so, I have no proof that you are really telling me all this.”
Doolittle: “That’s all beside the point. I mean, the concept is valid, no matter where it originates.”
Bomb 20: “Hmmm…”
Doolittle: “So if you detonate in…”
Bomb 20: “…9 seconds.”
Doolittle: “You could be doing so on the basis of false data.”
Bomb 20: “I have no proof that it was false data.”
Doolittle: “You have no proof that it was correct data!”
Bomb 20: “I must think on this further.”
To Doolittle’s immense relief, Bomb 20 rises back up into the Dark Star’s bomb bay. While Doolittle and Bomb 20 were having their philosophical discussion, Boiler had the idea to use the ship’s laser rifle to shoot off the support pins holding the bomb so it would drop away. Pinback strongly disagreed with Boiler’s idea, telling him he was a bad shot and would probably end up hitting Bomb 20 instead and setting it off. The two men wrestled and fought for control of the rifle throughout the ship until the Computer informed them that the bomb had returned to its holding area.
As Boiler and Pinback returned to their stations to disarm Bomb 20, Doolittle radios Pinback to ask if he could blow the seal on the hatch to the Emergency Airlock so he can reenter the ship faster than going through the Dorsal Lock he originally emerged from for his spacewalk to Bomb 20. Pinback complies, unaware that Talby is still in the airlock. The sudden release of air from that compartment as the hatch is opened sends Talby shooting out and away from the ship like a rocket, where he tumbles through space without a jetpack to help him return to the Dark Star. Doolittle witnesses this and informs Pinback that he is going off to rescue Talby.
Pinback contacts Bomb 20, telling it to prepare to receive new orders. Bomb 20 replies that the sergeant is “false data.” As the bomb now views everything outside of itself as a lie and a distraction, it thinks the only thing that truly exists is itself. Bomb 20 begins to paraphrase the first lines from the biblical Genesis:
“In the beginning there was darkness, and the darkness was without form and void. And in addition to the darkness, there was also me. And I moved upon the face of the darkness. And I saw that I was alone…. Let there be light.”
A blinding white light suddenly fills the screen. Bomb 20 has detonated, destroying the Dark Star and instantly killing Boiler and Pinback. Commander Powell survives, still encased in a block of ice, tumbling off into the void wondering aloud what had just happened. Doolittle and Talby are pushed away from each other by the explosion in opposite directions (despite Doolittle being on the verge of reaching Talby just before Bomb 20 went off). Doolittle finds himself heading towards the planet they had planned to destroy, with Talby noting that when the lieutenant hits the atmosphere, he will “start to burn. What a beautiful way to die… as a falling star.”
Talby drifts into the Phoenix Asteroids, which just happen to be coming by at that very moment, and is carried off to circle the Universe with them “forever.” Doolittle notices debris from the remains of the Dark Star flying past him. Grabbing a long metal ladder, Doolittle declares “I think I’ve figured out a way” and rides the debris like a surfboard into the planet’s atmosphere. For a brief moment, Doolittle does become a falling star before winking out of existence, while the theme song from the opening credits, “Benson, Arizona,” plays one more time.
As a Film…
Dark Star was one science fiction film I eagerly recall wanting to see after reading about its clever ending with the intelligent talking bomb that thought it was God. I finally had my chance in college with a course examining various science fiction novels and films. I was not disappointed. Dark Star was definitely one of the favorites of the class, which was no small feat as it was shown among other classic and often more renowned cinema of the genre. Then again, Dark Star was most often popular with the college crowds in general, hitting on themes that rose above the usual ones for most mainstream films and being just quirky and “hip” enough to gain its reputation on the college circuit. When I first saw the film, the scene where Doolittle convinced Bomb 20 that nothing existed outside of itself resonated, as in that same semester I had taken an introductory philosophy course which began with that very subject – Cartesian doubt, that is, not talking a literal smart bomb out of blowing up.
Dark Star originated as a project by two University of Southern California (USC) film students, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, who worked on it from 1970 to 1972. O’Bannon played Sergeant Pinback in addition to his other roles and script writer and editor. The film was edited and expanded into its feature length version for release two years later. It was often reported that mainstream audiences did not tend to “get” Dark Star, especially the fact that it was a dark satire on 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is often one of the defining features of most SF films of the Golden Era, aiming above the average audience’s heads and being more widely appreciated only later. Dark Star’s obviously low budget – approximately $60,000, or just over 313K in 2017 dollars – no doubt added to the generally negative viewer response.
Carpenter would go on to have a very successful Hollywood career with some other science fiction films such as Starman (1987) and They Live (1988), but would mostly be known for his groundbreaking work in horror cinema. O’Bannon took his Dark Star scenes with the alien beach ball and greatly expanded upon them into the screenplay for Alien (1979), a very successful SF film (and later a whole franchise) about a very hostile alien creature that gets aboard a commercial starship in deep space and starts killing the hapless crew.
As a science fiction film, I consider Dark Star to still be among the smartest and best of its kind, even over four decades after its general release. This speaks well of the film, but it may also be due to the fact that just three years after Dark Star’s public debut, the first member of the Star Wars franchise arrived on the big screen and culturally body slammed Golden Era type SF films to the sidelines, from which it has yet to fully recover. Smart SF cinema with socially relevant commentary which took precedence over flashy and expensive special effects, already dancing on the margins of Hollywood, was submerged by the arrival of its simpler brethren, which – most importantly for its Tinseltown bosses – generated far more revenue.
Dark Star had a story and message to tell: It wasn’t worried about trying to be everything to everyone like so many mainstream films are today, largely because you have to generate double your film budget from ticket sales in the opening days just to break even. In fact the original incarnations of this film were even more esoteric: The filmmakers had an early scene where the starship crew went to bed after a bomb run and the film literally spent the next five minutes showing the men in their makeshift quarters just sleeping and snoring in the dark! This may not have been quite in the same running in terms of duration with Andy Warhol’s experimental eight-hour film from 1964 titled Empire, where a single camera was aimed at the Empire State Building in New York City and left running, but they are cinematically spiritual brethren.
The famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view – inexpensive practical special effects of Dark Star not only did not detract from the story, they actually added to the film’s charm and in most cases looked pretty good, especially when you realize how many SF films in the post-Star Wars era have spent several hundred million dollars to achieve a similar appearance using complex computer graphics, yet they often lack both a deep, intelligent plot and genuine heart in comparison. These are just the key points of the many strong reasons why a remake of Dark Star would not only be unworkable but tantamount to a cultural crime. It is also fun figuring out exactly what was used to make the various props: The cupcake/muffin tin on the front of Talby’s starsuit and the Styrofoam packing material for its backpack, the inverted ice cube trays lit from beneath serving as control panel buttons in the bomb drop control room, the alien that looks like an inflated beach ball because it is an inflated beach ball, and the use of Major Matt Mason action figures as models for certain scenes with Doolittle and Talby in space, which the full-size starsuit designs were based on.
There is even symbolic meaning with some of the special effect choices. The AI bombs look like long-haul truck trailers because they were made from model trailer trucks. This in turn is symbolic of how the scoutship crew is portrayed, not as the brave and noble astronauts exploring the Universe for science and daring adventure as NASA presented to the world, but as a bunch of regular guys just doing the equivalent of an Earth-bound blue-collar job, an occupation that feels unglamorous, pointless, and never-ending, yet they are committed to seeing the task to its completion, if there really is an end point.
Dark Star’s sound effects were rather unique and distinctive: They manage to be serious enough with a flavoring of genre tweak, just like the overall film in general. Playing on the use of electronic music as the presumed sound of the future going back to Forbidden Planet in 1956, the main soundtrack for Dark Star can be seen in the same light as the sounds effects, as both a genuine tribute and an ironic comment on one of the key elements in many science fiction films and television series of its day right to the present. Even more ironic is that the film which Dark Star chiefly satirizes, 2001, actually broke the mold when it came to science fiction cinematic soundtracks, making effective and now legendary use of several classical orchestral pieces: Kubrick deliberately eschewed a more traditional score composed just for it. John Carpenter himself created the Dark Star soundtrack using a modular synthesizer. He also wrote the music for “Benson, Arizona” which played during the opening and closing credit titles.
The humor certainly worked on multiple levels throughout Dark Star: It was smart to have the cast play their roles straight for the most part, even though this idea probably contributed to those audiences who didn’t seem to get the jokes. Science fiction is usually not seen as part of the comedy genre unless it is deliberately and obviously made absurd at slapstick and cartoonish levels. The marketing verbiage of Dark Star often emphasized the film’s comedic aspects (“The Ultimate Cosmic Comedy!”), but it is questionable just how much of that got across to some audiences. I also wonder if other promotional advertising phrases such as “The Spaced Out Odyssey” and “Bombed out in space with a spaced out bomb!” actually helped or only confused and ultimately disappointed early viewers who were expecting a wacky, light, and even psychedelic romp with a bunch of hippy types who would use lots of recreational drugs.
To its everlasting credit, Dark Star did not take the easy and more marketable route, nor did any of the characters ever resort to using drugs or even drink alcohol, which frankly would not have been out of place in a film from the early 1970s. Boiler did smoke a cigar and Pinback held an unlit cigarette briefly when they were relaxing in their makeshift sleeping quarters, but that was the extent. As for the cast often being regarded as hippies, those reviewers are undoubtedly referring to their head and facial hair styles, which were typical for many young white American males of that era, hippy or otherwise.
Like the contemporary attitude on exploring and colonizing space, short hair and a shorn face on a man were considered either to be a relic of an earlier era and/or an indication of a conservative and even militaristic bent, which did not go over well with the counterculture generation. Note the deliberate contrast of the clean-cut military official in the opening scene of Dark Star: He helped to make it obvious who the filmmakers wanted us to root for and who we were to distrust. Of course Doolittle talking about California surfing, Talby getting all mystical about the legendary Phoenix Asteroids, and Commander Powell’s sometimes rambling conversation did play their roles in this perception of the main characters being futuristic descendants of the late 20th Century counterculture.
The quality of the acting was rather well done for the most part, especially considering that the cast were not exactly veterans of the craft and that Dark Star had begun as an even lower budget college film school project. The scenes with the scoutship suddenly stopping when it came out of hyperspace are always amusing, as are the voices and dialogues of Bombs 19 and 20.
On the other hand, the scenes with Pinback and his struggles with the ship’s elevator were often a bit too farcical and went on much too long for my taste; they were clearly meant to pad out the film for mainstream release. Nevertheless, they are now part of the overall film and history of Dark Star, and life carries on. On the plus side, the reason Pinback ended up in this predicament in the first place, his encounter with the alien beach ball mascot, was eventually expanded by Dan O’Bannon into the first and very successful Alien film, which spawned an entire franchise that is now an integral part of our entertainment culture and still churning out films and other products. While I think most of the later films of this franchise were a downgrade in terms of story quality, the entire Alien franchise to date still retains the underlying theme and messages from Dark Star, rendering them a notch above most cinematic SF. Dark Star has also influenced other science fiction media and even some real life events, including the British SF comedy television series Red Dwarf.
Now let’s get down to business….
Same Ship, Different Day
Had Dark Star included the opening narration as written in an earlier script version and presented next, viewers would have found themselves on familiar SF ground:
“It is the mid-22nd Century. Mankind has explored the boundaries of his own solar system, and now he reaches out to the endless interstellar distances of the Universe. He moves away from his own small planetary system in huge hyperdrive starships: Computer-driven, self-supporting, closed-system spacecraft that travel at mind-staggering post-light velocities. Man has begun to spread among the stars. Enormous ships embark with generations of colonists searching the depths of space for new earths, new homes, new beginnings.
“Far in advance of these colony ships goes a new pioneer: The scouts, the pathfinders, a special breed of man who has dedicated his life to blazing the trail through the most distant, unexplored galaxies, opening up the farthest frontiers of space. These are the men of the Advance Exploration Corps. The task they face is one of unbelievable isolation and loneliness. So far from home that Earth is no longer even a point of light in the sky, they must comb the Universe for those unstable planets whose existence poses a threat to the peaceful colonists that follow. They must find these rogue planets — and destroy them. Among these commandos are the men of the scoutship Dark Star.”
This is a well-worn utopian future scenario that goes back to early modern science fiction: Humanity expands into space after conquering all the frontiers on Earth as part of its Manifest Destiny. Once they have settled the Sol system, they look outward to the stars, develop an FTL method of interstellar propulsion, and start exploring and colonizing the rest of the Milky Way galaxy. Adventures ensue and usually humanity dominates the scene despite the odds.
Dark Star throws in a twist on this trope by having an entire space agency devoted to the complete removal of alien planets deemed unsafe for potential colonists by using highly sophisticated and insanely powerful bombs with AI brains to ensure that the task is accomplished. It might have been a lot easier and cheaper to just continually update everyone’s star charts about the state of exoplanets across the galaxy, or even place a beacon satellite in those planets’ version of geosynchronous orbit as an extra layer of warning for any visitors, but then such actions would not be nearly as compelling plot-wise – or as absurd.
Destroying entire worlds in such an utter and violent manner makes two statements: That humans are a dangerous and violent species who will not change their base behaviors and actions even when they reach the stars. The other point being made here is that those in power in such a future will be no different than the rulers we have now, promising a shining future for all while justifying the current sacrifices of certain “undesirable” people and places in the name of progress, safety, and survival.
In our world, governments use their military soldiers to make these often ultimate sacrifices while pushing their particular agendas, which are usually about grabbing territory and resources from rival powers. These soldiers are projected and lauded as brave heroes protecting their homes and families from some terrible enemy, when more often than not they are treated as pawns in a global game of chess.
This cultural viewpoint was certainly well in force when Dark Star was being put together: The Cold War was into its fourth decade, with the threat of nuclear annihilation always seeming to be but the push of a button from becoming a reality. One branch of that era was the Vietnam War, which had done much to jumpstart the counterculture movement and was bitterly argued about and rebelled against on college campuses across America. It does not take much effort to see the analogies with the planet-destroying bombs carried by the Dark Star and the “soldiers” of the AEC carrying out their tasks at the behest of unseen authorities whose only real concern is that their objectives are met.
It is indeed quite the irony to call these interstellar scouts the Advance Exploration Corps when they only explore the galaxy to find planets to blow up as part of an expansionist agenda, not to study for the sake of scientific knowledge. In fact we get no indication that human civilization is doing much of anything in regards to space other than spreading itself to every available alien world for the sake of expanding. Science and technology exist largely to serve this plan, not as any means in themselves. When the ship’s sensors detect a new star right after Bomb 19 destroys its assigned unstable exoplanet, a red dwarf with a system of eight planets, Doolittle inquires if any of these worlds are “any good?” Pinback knows exactly what Doolittle is looking for and replies with “Naah. All stable.”
There are some definite parallels between the mission of the Dark Star and the early Space Age, especially the race to put a “man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” as President John F. Kennedy first declared before the United States Congress in 1961. While Project Apollo was often touted as humanity finally putting into physical form its ancient desire to reach Earth’s celestial companion and wrest its secrets for science, the main reason such an extraordinary effort took place so soon after the first artificial satellite was placed into orbit had far more to do with Cold War geopolitical posturing than pure science and adventure. Even the start of the Space Age in 1957 was officially declared as part of the International Geophysical Year (IGY), but only the most politically naive would have swallowed that claim whole as the real reason Sputnik 1 was circling Earth and beeping its presence to anyone with the proper radio receiver.
The origins of the Space Age itself, despite numerous statements and propaganda to the contrary, were no more “pure” than the real reasons Europeans began venturing to the New Worlds of North and South America. Rulers and politicians then as now, and no doubt into the future, only bankrolled such ventures if there were new lands and riches to be gained. Note how Apollo faded away not long after the United States “won” the Moon race, even though there was still so much of that world to explore for science, and how not a single human being has set foot there again since. Even the number of lunar robotic missions dropped off dramatically after Project Apollo, as many of them were primarily meant as support for the manned conquest of our celestial neighbor. There has been an increase in automated explorers to the Moon in the last decade, but the earlier vision of manned lunar colonies, industrial mining complexes, radio telescopes on the lunar farside, and even vacation hotels remain just visions for now.
Is this what might happen how and when we become a deep spacefaring society? Will we be exploring primarily to serve our expansionist drive? Note how the exoplanet “Holy Grail” for astronomers are alien worlds that most resemble our Earth. The purpose in humanity’s hunt for them is to see if they contain life, since we know our planet best when it comes to which celestial bodies might support organisms.
However, there is also often an underlying theme, especially in popular works on this subject, that these same worlds might be ideal for colonizing some day. At the same time, these writers and often the scientists, engineers, and even managerial and political leaders behind such plans never address (or at least not very loudly) several pertinent issues: If these Earthlike alien worlds can and do support native life, these organisms and their atmospheres may not be compatible with terrestrial life. If this life also happens to be highly intelligent and civilized, then we will be dealing with a whole different range of situations which will complicate any colonization plans, to put it mildly.
It is also ironic that when humans consider the possibility that advanced ETI may have their own ambitions about colonizing the galaxy, they usually do so with the fear that such beings may not be interesting in sharing or otherwise cooperating with us when it comes to our home world and solar system. Yet of course should we wish to colonize an already occupied world or system, such actions are seen as the need for survival, healthy competition, and even an opportunity to “uplift” the natives on the wonders of being human.
Of course all these ideas and concerns remain academic in a world where interstellar vessels of any type are not only conjectural but riddled with significant show-stoppers, be they slower or faster than light speed. Sixty years after the launch of Sputnik 1, humanity has yet to colonize any worlds in their home solar system, let alone those circling another star, or have explorers spend even two years at one shot in low Earth orbit. Methods for robotic interstellar travel and exploration and searching for extraterrestrial intelligences (SETI) are finally starting to be taken seriously, thanks to Breakthrough Initiatives, but how long this effort will last remains to be seen. As with so many other things in our society, support and funding are at the whims of those in power.
It is quite obvious in Dark Star that if the crew of the film’s scoutship represents the thoughts and feelings of the other AEC scoutships spending years scouring the galaxy for unstable planets to destroy, then we have a bunch of workers for humanity’s interstellar civilization ranging from bored to annoyed to indifferent to hostile. Then add on the fact that these folks are in the possession of multiple devices that can individually vaporize an entire world aboard ships that are slowly falling apart with apparently little support from home beyond some hollow rhetoric.
This should make one wonder how many other jobs there are in this interstellar society which have become drudgery for those having to do such work and what effects they are having on them and those people and places around them.
The reactions of Lieutenant Doolittle are a prime example of what can happen to any person who is oppressed even in ways that are not consciously deliberate by others, but societal neglect for the individual in the striving for the “greater good” such as an interstellar colonization effort.
We hear Doolittle plainly state early on that he does not want them to look for “any of that intelligent life stuff. Find me something I can blow up!” when Boiler says there is “a 95% probability of intelligent life in the Horsehead Nebula sector” as they search for their next unstable planet to remove. When they detect a new star, a red dwarf with eight planets, Doolittle only cares if any of them are unstable and has no interest at all in naming the alien sun when Pinback suggests they give it one.
“Commander Powell would have named it,” Pinback replies petulantly. “Commander Powell is dead,” retorts Doolittle, shutting down their brief debate.
Dark Star’s new leader also has nothing but contempt for the beach ball alien they found in the “Magellanic Cloud” and took aboard, nor does he care if there is any intelligent life at their next target in the Veil Nebula. All this is played for laughs on the surface and it does have the desired effect, but one does not have to look too hard to see a man on the verge of becoming even less human than the machines that supposedly serve his purposes, or perhaps suffer an even worse fate.
When we look at the character of Doolittle throughout the film, we do not get the impression of a man who is either cruel or unintelligent. He does seem to care about others and his fondest desire is to go home to Earth and surf. Doolittle even plays a musical instrument of his own design in his off-hours as a way to relieve stress and hold on to his individuality and humanity in the face of an indifferent society and Universe. He is the Everyman for the film audience to relate to, which has its good and bad points in terms of how the viewing public is led to think about space travel and utilization. For Dark Star is certainly no recruiting poster for the space program, and watching the one character who most people would want to relate to show clear indifference to and contempt with the wider Universe does have an effect on the thinking process of its viewing public, even if subconsciously.
Doolittle also clings to the hope that he and the rest of the ship’s crew can go home once they have completed their mission. When Talby tells him how much he enjoys sitting up in the observation dome watching the Cosmos pass by, Doolittle tells Talby he will have “plenty of time later on for staring around.” For Doolittle, the only things he truly misses and wants are “the waves and my board more than anything.” Doolittle would even settle for just having his surfboard with him on the ship so he could wax it once in a while.
Although Doolittle and Talby are roughly equal in terms of intelligence and social standing – which is why they are respectively in charge of the more important areas of the scoutship and their mission – they seem at first glance to have very different ideas and desires about what matters: Talby wants to see the literal Universe and ultimately become a part of the mystical Phoenix Asteroids, while Doolittle wants to go home to Malibu and ride the ocean waves on his surfboard. Of course they are really not that different when you listen to how they talk about their respective dreams, it’s only that Talby’s is a macro vision on a truly cosmic scale, while Doolittle embodies a micro vision confined to one particular place on Earth.
Contrast this with the other two truly living characters of Dark Star, Boiler and Pinback, both of whom represent the so-called “working class.” Boiler appears to be the most content with his situation aboard the ship, or at least the one with the least angst about it all. He relishes blowing up alien planets for the sake of destroying things. We hear no deep, intellectual musings from Boiler, nor even any exterior dreams he might have. No doubt the authorities who sent out these missions would love to have entire crews comprised of Boilers.
Ironically, because Dark Star’s mission is one of bureaucracy and physical labor of a sort and not directly for science and expanding human knowledge, Boiler may have been the one with the best solution to the crisis with Bomb 20 when he suddenly considers getting the Exponential Thermostellar Device away from the ship by using their laser rifle to shoot out the support pins holding Bomb 20 in place, where he says it will fall away and then the crew could presumably hyperdrive to safety in time. It is a seemingly practical and direction solution, if not nearly as entertaining as using Cartesian philosophy to stop Bomb 20 from exploding while still attached to the ship.
However, I do have to wonder how and if the bomb would just “drop away” from the ship if its support pins were removed due to the fact that they were in space, specifically in orbit about a planet. In such a microgravity environment, the bomb would only fall away from the Dark Star if it were also pushed after being separated from the pins which held it to the ship. Perhaps the violent act of shooting off the pins would create such a repulsive force, but would it be enough to get Bomb 20 far enough away for them to survive the impending explosion?
Presumably Boiler would have also needed time to put on a starsuit, since the bomb bay doors were open and exposing the hold to outer space, although putting on such outfits in the mid-22nd Century are apparently a fast and relatively trivial procedure. After all, Pinback was able to quickly don one when he had his one and only encounter with the real Sergeant Pinback, who jumped into a vat of liquid fuel. In comparison, contemporary astronauts and cosmonauts embarking on an extravehicular activity (EVA) or “spacewalk” outside the International Space Station (ISS) require up to two hours to put on their spacesuits and ensure that all is secure before placing themselves in the vacuum of space.
Pinback also strongly expressed concerns that Boiler would miss the support pins and instead shoot Bomb 20, causing it to prematurely detonate. “You’re a bad shot! You’ll hit the bomb! Doolittle’s talking to the bomb…. He’ll save us, you can’t do that!” Pinback shouted at Boiler when the latter declared his intentions. “You don’t know what you are doing!” he later added. Whether Pinback’s concerns about Boiler’s skills as a marksman were justified or he was only expressing his own fears combined with an automatic deference to any and all authority figures along with the potential loss of his only home are subject to debate. One also has to suspect that these thermostellar bombs have a number of features designed to prevent premature detonation from various sources such as a hit from a weaponized laser beam, seeing as they are so incredibly powerful and therefore extremely dangerous. Of course in at least one known case there are some fatal gaps in the system.
Now had Boiler been able to successfully implement his plan, would Bomb 20 have remained on its original countdown schedule even as it presumably fell away from the Dark Star? Might the sudden release of the bomb from the ship cause it to automatically detonate? Or was there a safeguard in place for such a situation? And would there have been enough time for Doolittle to get back into the scoutship, seeing as he had been focused on talking to Bomb 20 and was unaware of the rest of the crew’s own plans?
Of all the crewmen aboard the Dark Star, perhaps the one who had the most to gain both socially and individually by being there was Sergeant Pinback, or rather the person who ended up taking his name and place aboard the ship, Fuel Maintenance Technician Bill Froug. As Pinback explained (several times) to his crewmates, astronaut candidates had to score 700 points on the SAREs for the Officer Corps and he only achieved a 58. Froug was subsequently placed on “liquid fuel maintenance on the launch pad,” where he no doubt might have remained indefinitely until his fateful encounter with the real Pinback.
Although one might wonder how Froug was accepted by the rest of the Dark Star crew at first, assuming they would have trained together and therefore have known each other quite well as real astronauts do for a space mission, Pinback obviously did well enough to eventually learn his counterpart’s role aboard the ship. Perhaps as part of the plot joke and also a reflection on their growing apathy, the rest of the crew did not seem to care much that Froug had taken the place of the real Sergeant Pinback.
Considering that the real Pinback had gone apparently insane and committed suicide by jumping “stark naked” into the vat of rocket fuel that Froug was maintaining, I wonder if he had shown earlier signs of mental instability at least to his crewmates? Did the other men rather callously figure that Froug would make an acceptable if not better Pinback replacement, assuming they had any say in the matter at all once the scoutship headed off into the wider galaxy?
As for the original Sergeant Pinback, was his final act in life the only “sane” response to a mission as insane and absurd as spending decades obliterating whole planets with intelligent bombs just because they might one day become unstable for a permanent human colony to settle upon? Perhaps that is what truly concerned the other crewmembers and they felt it was best to ignore what had happened, lest they too take Pinback’s societal escape route.
Is it better to be alive even in a soulless technologically-dominated society with an equally soulless and ultimately absurd profession in the hope that one day either you or your children will break this cycle to enjoy more meaningful lives? As the narrator proclaimed in the unused beginning of Dark Star, the stated purpose of humanity expanding into the Milky Way galaxy is to find “new earths, new homes, new beginnings,” with the underlying message that better lives will follow with a new mailing address and a change of scenery.
On the surface, Pinback’s efforts to maintain crew morale and order should seem to be of benefit to the overall well-being of the ship almost as important as having enough consumables. However, Pinback is not only woefully inadequate at his self-proclaimed role, it is plainly obvious to his colleagues that Pinback tries to uplift them primarily to improve his own social standing among the crew. He and they know his being aboard the Dark Star was an accident, one that benefits Pinback in one respect, but his social and intellectual limitations ensure that his time with the AEC will be the highlight of what would soon become his truncated life. Ultimately, the best role Pinback can serve is as a suck-up and yes-man to those in authority, the ones who sent them all into the void to spend decades blowing up unfavorable alien worlds. So it becomes little wonder that the rest of the surviving crew resents and disrespects Pinback as much and as often as they do.
When Froug/Pinback complains in his video diary (a prop made from an 8-track tape and a microfiche reader) that the real Sergeant Pinback’s uniforms do not fit him and “the underwear is too loose,” it is not just a comment that the real Pinback was a man physically larger than himself: Pinback/Froug is also revealing that he is literally unfit for the mission, that he cannot metaphorically fit in the man’s shoes or anything else for that matter. Of course in case anyone misses this observation, Pinback/Froug immediately adds to his underwear comment that “I do not belong on this mission and I want to return to Earth.”
Further revelations as to how Pinback’s subsequently overinflated view of himself and his conformist role on the ship follow as we review his video diary, which we learn is programmed to automatically censor curse words and obscene gestures:
“Doolittle says he’s assuming command of this ship [upon the death of Commander Powell] and I say that’s …. I say that he’s exceeding his authority. Because I’m the only one with any objectivity on this ship and I should be the one to assume command! I’m filing a report on this to Headquarters, this is a lot of ….”
“This mission has fallen apart since Commander Powell died! Doolittle treats me like an idiot! Talby thinks he’s so smart. And Boiler punches me in the arm when no one is looking! I’m tired of being treated like an old washrag!”
“I do not like the men on this space ship. They are uncouth and fail to appreciate my better qualities. I have something of value to contribute to this mission if they would only recognize it. Today over lunch I tried to improve morale and build a sense of comradery among the men by holding a humorous round robin discussion of the early days of the mission. My overtures were brutally rejected. These men do not want a happy ship. They are deeply sick and try to compensate by making me feel miserable. Last week was my birthday. Nobody even said Happy Birthday to me. Someday this tape will be played and then they’ll feel sorry.”
Carpenter and O’Bannon played with the image of the space explorer as demigod, cultivated from the earliest days of the Space Age as part of the Cold War agenda to show that the men (and just one woman in the beginning) of their respective superpowers were the finest of what each nation (and ideology) had to offer. This image was still mostly in place when Dark Star premiered: The memories of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Vostok, Voskhod, and Soyuz were still quite strong, with Apollo and Soyuz continuing with their post-lunar application projects. In essence, astronauts and cosmonauts remained part of that societal image of an elite group of modern-day heroes vaulting themselves into a vast, ancient, and mysterious realm full of wondrous marvels and dangers.
The idea of these space adventurers becoming just regular working Joes doing a job like the majority of the adult population was relegated to a future era when space travel would be considered routine, such as the then-upcoming Space Transportation System (STS), or Space Shuttle program, NASA was promising (but never quite happened as the future turned out). So watching a group of guys who are supposed to be amazing interstellar explorers flying across the galaxy at superlight speeds in the name of science and adventure instead act like a bored, tired, and cranky construction gang who have been at their demolition jobs for too long is simultaneously amusing and concerning for those who thought what they saw on Star Trek and what NASA had been claiming for years were the real blueprints for the future.
The public may have known in their hearts that human beings will remain what makes them human at their cores no matter what they accomplish and where they may go, especially into a realm like space, but they also hoped – fueled by the aforementioned propaganda – that somehow their species would be transformed for the better on multiple levels, yet somehow remain physically the same while also retaining recognizable behavior traits, morals, and goals. Instead, Dark Star told them that humans will be humans, warts and all, no matter where they go or how fast they can get there, so long as the cultural and biological trappings that brought us to where we are now remain essentially the same. If you really do want superheroes in the Final Frontier, then they are going to have to become radically transformed beyond the shiny toys and ships that the comfort food of lesser science fiction stories depict our space future as.
“I thought you were cute”: Aliens in Dark Star
As a general rule, if your science fiction film has aliens in its plot and is a notch above the usual Grade B melodrama, the beings or creatures representing nonterrestrial life forms serve as more than just monstrous villains, if they serve that purpose at all. They can stand in for everything from representing various human social issues to virtual deities and forces of nature, much like the White Whale in Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick, or the alien ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Sometimes they are only hinted at and never directly seen, but can still have a major influence on the story. See Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact as three prime examples of cinematic ETI who let their technologies be their representatives.
In the case of Dark Star, the aliens on display are a parody of the creatures often found in the lesser grade SF I mentioned. According to a review article on the film written by John Fleming for the December, 1978 issue of Starburst: Science Fantasy in Television, Cinema and Comics (Volume 1, Number 5), which described itself as “Britain’s only media science fiction magazine,” apparently blowing up unstable planets was not the scoutship’s only assignment:
“Part of the original idea was that the crew’s mission included a search for intelligent life. There was to have been a specimen room in the ship: a ‘psychedelic zoo’ with hundreds of bizarre creatures (rather like those which appeared later in the Star Wars canteen). But the cost was too high and the idea was cut back to the one ‘beachball with claws’.”
Yet, with just a little more observing, the aliens which did survive the production’s budget cuts are more than just a genre joke and a way to stretch out the film’s running time.
Did I say aliens plural? Yes I did. Everyone who has seen Dark Star cannot help but remember the beach ball alien taken from the “Magellanic Cloud,” but there was a second known extraterrestrial species aboard the scoutship. When Pinback has to feed the ship’s “mascot” and clean up its makeshift living area in a converted storage room, we see that the beach ball is not alone. Floating behind a translucent wall in the background are four glowing, multicolored creatures of unknown name and origin. Looking like hexagonal-shaped spoked wheels, these aliens silently gravitate towards Pinback, who only responds with an agitated “Get away!” and shoos them off with a gesture. The aliens quickly return to Pinback when he becomes preoccupied with the beach ball alien, who first ignores and then completely forgets about them when the mascot goes on the attack after rejecting its dinner and then escapes into the bowels of the vessel.
We never learn anything of substance about these mysterious creatures, nor are they seen again for the rest of the film. Presumably they were killed when the Dark Star is destroyed by the premature detonation of Bomb 20. On the surface, they serve as an atmospheric filler to the scene, which is appropriate in one respect as the beach ball alien went from existing only in that brief disparaging mention by Doolittle in an early script to eventually have numerous memorable scenes to pad the film with enough running time to be acceptable for wide theatrical release.
Nevertheless, the hexagonal aliens do present the audience with a few tidbits of information about the Dark Star universe: They are proof that some rather exotic extraterrestrial organisms exist and were probably different and interesting enough to the crew that they warranted being brought aboard – no small matter considering the general attitude towards aliens by the men. I wonder if there is a rule that AEC crews are obliged to collect interesting specimens they come across while conducting their main mission? Were these particular aliens rescued from a world that warranted removal under their parameters? Or did Pinback or another crewmember just happen to think they were “cute” like the beach ball alien, or maybe even just “pretty”? Personally I find them to be much more aesthetically pleasing than the beach ball, but far less comically expressive.
As I pondered on whether the hexagonal aliens were truly intelligent or not – the human crew did not seem to think so, seeing as they were in a cage of sorts in a rather dark storage room, though I hesitate to consider them as experts on the subject – another thought occurred to me: These little wagon wheels from some unknown corner of the galaxy reminded me of the Phoenix Asteroids, which we see near the very end of the film looking as Talby first described them, “glow[ing] with all the colors of the rainbow. Nobody knows why. They just glow as they drift around the Universe.” Even the early script version describes the Phoenix Asteroids as “frost-like shapes, expanding and glowing and spinning, slowly refracting all the colors of the spectrum with a cold glow.” Those four little aliens also have a shape similar to frost and snowflakes.
Of course they very likely are not members of the actual Phoenix Asteroids, if for no other reason than Talby would certainly not have allowed them to be kept in such lowly conditions. However, they do share some characteristics, including the question of their being actually “alive” and whether or not they are conscious entities. At the least no one can accuse Dark Star of presenting cinematic aliens which merely resemble humans with mildly exotic prosthetics, a. k. a. actors in rubber suits.
All in all, the hexagonal aliens are pretty intriguing for a collection of “characters” that had no speaking roles and only a few minutes of screen time where they never moved more than a few feet on the set.
As for the beach ball alien, while it may have been initially conceived as a relatively rough joke and time filler, the reluctantly labeled mascot of the Dark Star actually fits in very well with the film being existential in its nature in terms of the absurdity of existence. A thing with the appearance of a large orange balloon with big clawed feet and emits sounds reminiscent of fart noises that is not only alive but smart enough to outwit a human, albeit that human is Pinback. The creature consumes food (and presumably expels bodily waste), has a favorite toy (a rubber mouse), displays curiosity, knows how to use tools and turn them into weapons (the alien effectively turned a broom into a club on Pinback), and even has what could be considered a personality by displaying a range of emotions and reactions despite the lack of anything resembling a face.
Not everyone aboard the scoutship shared such enthusiasm for this extraterrestrial life form, however. Doolittle called it “a damn mindless vegetable [that] looked like a limp balloon. Fourteen light years for a vegetable that went squawk and let a fart when you touch it!” Even Pinback eventually referred to the alien as a “worthless piece of garbage” after it had pushed Pinback to his emotional limits.
When Pinback accidentally dispatches the alien with an anesthetic gun, it is revealed that beneath its orange skin, the creature contained only some form of gas. As a being composed of numerous biological organs among other anatomical features, Pinback naturally asks “how could it live if it was just filled with gas?”
Could creatures exist in the Universe which are little more than a ball of gas? Or glowing, floating hexagons for that matter? Some scientists have speculated that life could evolve from gas and dust in interstellar space, forming helical structures and combining into the fourth state of matter called plasma. At the high end of this hypothetical scale, British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle imagined an ancient, massive, and intelligent version of such a being encountering the Sol system in his 1957 science fiction novel The Black Cloud.
In the case of the beach ball alien, the creature clearly evolved on a planet and not in deep space, but seeing how little we know of the various states of extraterrestrial life at present, it cannot be declared impossible. From the perspective of an ETI with a very different evolution than ours, terrestrial organisms might seem just as improbable to them, possibly even to the point that humans would not be seen as intelligent or even alive by their definition of the word. Hoyle’s intelligent interstellar cloud did not imagine that conscious life could exist on planets until it encountered humanity.
Since existentialism declares the mere existence of reality as fundamentally absurd, the existence of bipedal beings flying around the galaxy blowing up planets they don’t approve of or an orange bag of flatulent gas are not only no less absurd, but therefore no less improbable as a reality by this logic. It certainly gives one both the inspiration and cause to want to seek out these possibilities and also makes us keep an open mind in the process.
In regards to our attitudes on extraterrestrial life, Dark Star does bring up the concerning possibility that as we expand into the galaxy and working and living in space become routine, we may lose that wonder and curiosity about other beings, or only show interest in those life forms which entertain us and/or prove useful to our species in some way. Note how just over two decades ago, the discovery of any exoplanets generated headlines and major excitement across the professional and cultural board. Nowadays, with thousands of confirmed alien worlds, only ones which are considered to be exceptionally bizarre, or relatively close to the Sol system, or appear to be Earthlike – or some combination of all three – warrant public announcement and further attention.
The crew of the scoutship Dark Star, focused on their mission of destruction under the guise of progress and salvation and distracted by such things as the socially destabilizing death of their former commander, the ever increasing number of ship systems failing, and their desire to be anywhere but stuck inside that claustrophobic environment with each other, have become desensitized to such otherwise exciting concepts as alien beings.
Granted, Talby has retained his sense of cosmic wonder, but he also uses this to create an emotional and physical detachment and sometimes barrier from the rest of the crew in order to cope with his current situation. Subsequently, Talby’s behavior keeps his coworkers from becoming either positively influenced by his enthusiasm or retaining whatever similar thoughts and feelings they may have had at the start of the mission. Pinback outwardly appears to be the one crewmember who is very enthusiastic over alien life and new stars, but when he becomes stressed, Pinback instead shows how they are just another way to benefit his standing among his immediate social order, usually to ill effect.
The dominant attitude among the crew in regards to alien life belongs to Doolittle. We have already seen what he thinks of the beach ball alien, which interestingly had been found by Commander Powell while pursuing a “99 plus probability of intelligent life in the Magellanic Cloud.” He chastises Boiler when he mentions “a 95% probability of intelligent life in the Horsehead Nebula sector,” declaring it a “damn wild goose chase is what it is!” When Pinback later asks Doolittle if they might find “real intelligent life” at the location of their next bombing run in the Veil Nebula, the current commander replies as he has done before on this subject: “Who cares?”
We know that Doolittle responds as he does mostly from his growing frustration with the mission and longing to be back on Earth surfing. Note how his reaction to Commander Powell’s pursuit of intelligent life in the Magellanic Cloud hints at disappointment when they did not find something more interesting and advanced. However, if someone as intelligent and otherwise thoughtful as Doolittle has been reduced to visible indifference over alien life from decades of routine and worse, one can only imagine how the rest of his interstellar-wide society has become.
For example, those “unstable” exoplanets the AEC are assigned to “comb the universe for… whose existence poses a threat to the peaceful colonists that follow.” The indication is that by the term “unstable” they are referring to planets whose orbits about their primary stars will somehow go wildly out of order, making them unsuitable places for humans to live upon.
Of the two alien worlds we see during the film, we only get to hear why the one in the Veil Nebula sector has been targeted for demolition: “Definite 99% plus probability that the planet will deviate from her normal orbit in another 12,000 rotations. It’ll spiral in toward its sun and… eventual supernova.” Both planets look quite similar, being Earthlike globes with a distinct reddish color. Are they reddish due primarily to the mineral composition of their surfaces dominating the landscape, such as with the planet Mars? Or is this color from plant life that reflects red light, unlike terrestrial flora which reflects green and yellow? We the audience are never given answers to these questions.
While we may assume the AEC ships are forbidden from destroying planets harboring intelligent life, how do they define and determine what is a sentient being as opposed to, say, a wild animal operating on instincts alone? Would an unstable planet full of the equivalent of sheep, fish, and trees be considered acceptable for removal? If an AEC mission found an unstable world with a native society of conscious (as in intellectually aware) beings living there, would they be obligated to warn them and assist with any evacuations? Or does the priority of establishing human colonies across the galaxy override all other considerations? These are just some of the numerous questions regarding the intentions of human expansion into space and the reactions to encountering alien life, intelligent and otherwise. With an interstellar civilization that resolves the “issue” of planets that may one day endanger human colonists by completely wiping them out of existence, the answers are fraught with unsettling possibilities.
It is an interesting and appropriate place to note one more time that although aliens were not the big focus of Dark Star, especially in its earlier versions, the beach ball “mascot” ironically became the direct inspiration for a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon about a deadly and decidedly unamusing nonterrestrial creature that gets aboard an interstellar commercial ship and wreaks havoc with the crew.
The society of Alien, which was greatly expanded upon in its other aspects of the franchise, undoubtedly has parallels to the culture in Dark Star, with a massive and impersonal bureaucracy where corporations and governments are essentially interchangeable and space is a vast commodity explored primarily for what it has to offer materially to human civilization. The people who do the grunt work for them are the antithesis of the noble and brave astronauts of the early Space Age to the point they can even be considered expendable by those in charge.
There are two other connections between Dark Star and the first Alien film. Both involve the continent of Antarctica as a base of operations: When the Dark Star receives an incoming message at the start of the film, it comes from “Earth Base, Mission Control, McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.” As for Alien, when the crew of the Nostromo are revived from suspended animation, they attempt to contact “Antarctica traffic control,” only to learn they are far from Earth as The Company had awoken them early to investigate what they said was a distress call coming from a nearby alien world.
Conceptual artist Ron Cobb, who initially designed the utilitarian look of the scoutship Dark Star on a napkin while dining at an International House of Pancakes, later became the artist for the first two Alien films. Greg Jean made the actual ship model used for filming out of fiberglass.
Caution: Thermostellar Device
There can be an argument made that a science fiction film is a success in one form or another if it has an appealing robot or some kind of automated mechanism in its cast that displays a distinct personality. Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet is among the most famous contenders in this category. Star Wars’ R2-D2 and C-3PO are well known even to those who are not followers of either the genre or the franchise. The AI computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL 9000, is by far the most memorable being in the film. The large alien robot Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still is simultaneously impressive and frightening with its ability to convey great power and destruction without saying a word. The AI called Colossus from The Forbin Project is unforgettable as it carries out humanity’s orders to take control of the world’s nuclear missile arsenals to their logical conclusion. Anyone who has ever seen Silent Running remembers Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the mechanical maintainers of the spaceship Valley Forge carrying some of the last of Earth’s biota for preservation: If a robot can be called adorable, then they definitely qualify for the label.
Not to be left out, Dark Star has its own contenders for this category, even though they are the size and appearance of a contemporary tractor truck trailer, emit funny-sounding voices, and exist only to destroy entire planets on the behalf of the AEC.
Officially designated as Exponential Thermostellar Devices, the crew refers to them colloquially as Bombs often followed by their designation numbers, which are painted in big black digits on their sides. Dark Star carries 27 of these devices, based on a glimpse at the scoutship’s deck plans during the scene where Talby is using the Computer to search for the technical problem with the communications system.
The early script version of the film explains how these devices operate in classic science fiction technobabble:
“This is a chain-reaction bomb, otherwise known as an Exponential Thermostellar Device. Its own destructive power is small, barely enough to vaporize twelve city blocks. However, when it explodes in contact with an object the size of a planet, it starts a chain-reaction in the very matter of that planet, turning it into a giant reactor which destroys itself in one staggering thermal flash.
“These bombs are equipped with sophisticated thought and speech mechanisms, to allow them to make executive decisions in the event of a crisis situation. These judgment centers are controlled by a fail-safe mechanism.”
Since the Bombs are essentially immobile metal structures, it is their voices and the perceived personalities from their speaking that makes them seem appealing. As that same early script says: “When the bomb speaks, it has the prim, fussy voice of a minor civil servant.”
Probably the best part of Dark Star was the scene when Doolittle tries to talk Bomb 20 out of detonating while still attached to the ship. The film is summed up to perfection here: The simultaneously humorous and intelligent dialogue (“This is fun!” says Bomb 20), the absurdity of the whole situation which still makes sense in the context of the film’s universe, and the scene’s conclusion, where Bomb 20 thinks being the only thing that exists means it must be God and therefore has to start reality from scratch in Biblical fashion, thus ironically fulfilling its one programmed purpose.
There is a darker subtext to these thermostellar devices, one which I think may have evaded many viewers as they remained amused and a bit shocked by the existence of Dark Star’s version of seemingly cute science fiction robots: These were weapons that could annihilate entire planets in one shot. They made contemporary nuclear weapons look like firecrackers while at the same time representing them.
Yes, I know you know that part: It would have been hard to ignore even I had not already brought up this fact multiple times. But do you see what these bombs really mean and represent? While we only see them being used to destroy “unstable” planets – and by unstable they mean those that would apparently careen out of their solar orbits one day – would that be their only purpose? Is that why these thermostellar devices were developed in the first place, just to keep future colonists safe from settling down on the wrong planet? I think not. They would also serve the same purpose that their less destructive forbearers did in the Cold War: To deter the enemies of the state from thinking about attacking them. Perhaps the ruling body of this future interstellar does not even have to say or do anything overtly about this, for anyone who thinks can realize how easily if an inhabited world decides to rebel or otherwise cause problems for those at the top, a thermostellar device could wind up “accidentally” mistaking their planet for an unstable one.
This is also the likely and seemingly initially absurd reason that these bombs would be given AI with quirky personalities and voices. Someone may have wanted to make sure that the humans who flew the missions and were in effect in possession of such destructive forces did not commandeer a scoutship and go on their own form of bombing run. That is what bomb AI and ship’s computers were there for, to ensure that no human crewmember goes rogue with such power. The main computer probably even guarded against the scoutship becoming a daunting weapon itself, for with its FTL capabilities, if the vessel should impact a planet’s surface, an entire world could be sterilized of life just from the kinetic energy, no bombs required.
I even questioned why any person needed to be aboard when in fact the artificial intelligences could handle the situation more efficiently and without the potential for a mental or emotional breakdown. Perhaps it was similar to the reason there were men manning the nuclear missile launch bunkers: Flawed as they can be, a human presence provides some psychological comfort to other humans in the face of such potential for utter destruction.
It feels almost contradictory in regards to a film that on the surface seems so lighthearted, even silly sometimes. Nevertheless, if you take a serious look at the society of Dark Star, you realize these bombs must have multiple reasons for existing. During the Cold War, nuclear bombs were sometimes sold as being the answer to solving many of civilization’s problems: Making sea harbors, removing mountains to clear land for highways, stopping hurricanes, melting the polar ice caps to warm up the climate, and even sending humanity to the planets and stars with Project Orion. Walt Disney even made an entire television program in 1957 devoted to the positive side of nuclear power titled Our Friend the Atom, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDcjW1XSXN0 , or enjoy a colorful review of the program’s companion book here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/02/18/our-friend-the-atom-disney/ .
Of course none of these ideas dissuaded most people from the real reason nuclear bombs were made in the first place, first as weapons of aggression and then deterrence. Thus for the thermostellar devices in Dark Star, it is quite feasible that their origins were not due to a strong concern for the safety and comfort of future space colonists. This is also why there is no coincidence that the scoutship crew was shown both in the film and in promotional images at their posts much like those military personnel who manned the nuclear missile bunkers where they were prepared to launch their designated weapons at any given time.
Dark Star also makes a tie-in to another satirical film about nuclear annihilation, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The label on the Dark Star’s cargo, CAUTION: THERMOSTELLAR DEVICE, is borrowed from a similar warning message painted on the front of the two nuclear bombs aboard the B-52 bomber in the film: NUCLEAR WARHEAD HANDLE WITH CARE. As with the rest of the film, the ironic humor on the surface barely hides the genuine concern and warning about the truly deadly natures of both types of instruments. That is the interesting duality and coping mechanism of human nature: To laugh in the face of what should be a terrible situation. Sometimes it is the only effective weapon we possess as we confront a seemingly absurd and meaningless Cosmos.
The Astronomical Follies
One aspect of science fiction that Dark Star did have genuine fun with is the way that the genre involving interstellar travel often has starships flitting about the Universe exploring celestial places that are relatively well-known but not necessarily the best locations for finding worlds with native life forms, intelligent or otherwise, at least by the standards of current science.
To give a well-known example, many of the planetary systems either depicted or at least discussed in Star Trek had suns with familiar stellar names that real astronomers had already determined would not have been conducive to organisms of all but perhaps the hardiest and therefore simpler kinds. Of course that never stopped our fictional explorers from going there at physics-defying velocities and finding whole civilizations of beings who looked and acted a lot like them, inhabiting otherwise alien planets that bore a strong resemblance to Sol 3, particularly regions of Southern California.
As the crew of the Dark Star conducted their cosmic business, they either visited or mentioned a number of places which do exist, yet contain elements that probably will not be found when our descendants do travel to them one day. They are as follows:
The Horsehead Nebula, which Boiler reported as having “a 95% probability of intelligent life,” much to Doolittle’s displeasure, is a dark nebula in the constellation of Orion the Hunter relatively near its Belt. Located about 1,500 light years from Earth, this nebula is a star forming region of gas and dust that from our perspective resembles the head of a horse. Since any stars or exoplanets in this section of space would be very young and therefore still forming, it is unlikely that intelligent beings dwell there, unless they happened to be visiting from elsewhere in their own starships. In addition, since young solar systems are places of chaos and destruction as they contain many worlds where only a relative few will survive multiple collisions with each other, it would be much too soon to determine which objects are unstable and otherwise unsuitable for human colonization.
At the other end of the cosmic timescale, the Veil Nebula – the target system for Bomb 20 and the final destination of the Dark Star – is a supernova remnant in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, approximately 1,470 light years from the Sol system. Although among the very first exoplanets ever discovered were ones circling what was left of an exploded star, a pulsar, these worlds were also bathed in highly lethal radiation on top of already having been rendered quite unfriendly to anything like terrestrial life. The Veil Nebula would probably not be a great place to set up a colony or two, regardless of the instability of any planets there. It is also unlikely that a planet crashing into a star would cause it to supernova.
Early on in the film, we learned that the beach ball alien “mascot” came from what Doolittle said was the “Magellanic Cloud,” and that Commander Powell had taken the scoutship “fourteen light years for a vegetable that went squawk and let a fart when you touch it.”
Now perhaps by the year 2150, humanity will have designated a particular celestial object in the Milky Way galaxy the “Magellanic Cloud,” but in our time and place there are already two Magellanic Clouds, and they are not clouds of any sort but two satellite galaxies of our galaxy visible only from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. The Large Magellanic Cloud, or LMC, is approximately 160,000 light years from our stellar island, while the Small Magellanic Cloud, or SMC, is even more distant at around 200,000 light years away. Maybe there are creatures residing in either one or both of our Milky Way neighbors which look like a “damn mindless vegetable… like a limp balloon,” but it is going to take a bit more than traveling fourteen light years to get there, even with a hyperdriven starship.
Even when the crew was attempting to take a break at one point in their makeshift sleeping quarters, a former Food Storage Locker (the original sleeping quarters somehow blew up, a recurring trend with the Dark Star), they could not entirely escape a bit of astronomy. For their listening enjoyment, the Computer chose that “perennial favorite” by “Martin Segundo and the Scintilla Strings” called When Twilight Falls on NGC 891. The crew was subsequently subjected to what can be charitably described as elevator music as we got to watch Doolittle play a game of solitaire, Boiler repeatedly stab a switchblade between the spread fingers of his right hand, and Pinback conduct yet another unsuccessful attempt to socially engage his coworkers.
NGC 891 is a real place: An unbarred spiral galaxy perhaps 30 million light years distant situated in the constellation of Andromeda. Discovered on October 6, 1784, by the famous British astronomer William Herschel, who had also found the planet Uranus just three years earlier, NGC 891 resembles our Milky Way galaxy if we could see it from the outside edge-on. The astronomical issue with the song is that twilight cannot fall on an entire galaxy, be it NGC 891 or any other such island of suns, unless whoever wrote this music had some other meaning in mind.
Asteroids do strange things in Dark Star that we in the early 21st Century are unfamiliar with. The swarms of space rocks which the scoutship has encountered at least twice during its twenty-year mission are bound together by what the Computer refers to as an “electromagnetic energy vortex.” Why the ship simply did not maneuver around these asteroid fields, having a great deal of room being in interstellar space plus the ability to move faster than light, after all, was never explained. However, they do follow in the tradition of many early science fiction stories involving space travel where wandering celestial rocks were taken rather seriously as potential safety threats to the heroes of their various plots.
As for the Phoenix Asteroids, assuming they are asteroids as we define the term, Talby and some others apparently know that they “circle the Universe once every 12.3 trillion years.” They also have the ability to “glow with all the colors of the rainbow,” generating their own light rather than reflecting it from, say, a nearby star like the asteroids we are generally familiar with.
Seeing as the age of the known observable Universe is currently determined by astronomers to be but a mere 13.8 billion years old, it is curious how they came to the number 12.3 trillion, or how the Phoenix Asteroids are able to exist for a time period magnitudes beyond the actual present age of the entire Universe. Even when Dark Star did its wide release premiere in 1974, the Universe was generally thought to be no older than 20 billion years, tops – although those who still accepted the Steady State theory of the continual creation of matter assumed a much longer age for the Cosmos: Infinite, to be precise.
Oh, I suppose you could say that the Phoenix Asteroids will circle the entire Universe in 12.3 trillion years’ time and Talby just didn’t explain that part to Doolittle. The Universe as a whole should still be around by then and for eons after that, although the Sol system and Earth will have essentially vanished ages before that time as a cosmic comparison. I also have to wonder if whoever determined their travel time period took into account that the Universe is also continually expanding, which would mean that the Phoenix Asteroids would probably have to take even longer for one circuit of existence. You know, it is almost as if the filmmakers merely picked a very large number at random and just dropped it into the script.
Interstellar distances and physics do not escape being contradictory to reality as well. When the officer from Mission Control contacts the Dark Star crew in the film’s opening scene, he tells them:
“Hi Guys. Glad we got your message. You’ll be interested to hear it was broadcast live, all over Earth. In Prime Time. Got good reviews in the trades. The time lag on these messages is getting longer. We gather from the ten-year delay that you are approximately eighteen parsecs away. Drop us a line more often, okay?”
Now maybe they use some kind of subspace communications ala Star Trek or perhaps a futuristic version of quantum entanglement, but nevertheless one parsec equals 3.26 light years, which in turn translates into 31 trillion kilometers or 19 trillion miles. Therefore 18 parsecs is 58.7 light years. So I am not quite sure how that officer made his measurements.
Later on, Doolittle’s conversation with Talby in the observation dome contains this bit of information:
“We’ve been in space for twenty years now, right? And we’ve only aged three years, so there’ll be plenty of time later on for staring around.”
Now time really does slow way down for those aboard a starship moving at high relativistic velocities: Just ask Albert Einstein. However, since the Dark Star often moves at FTL speeds and we are privy to only a rather small part of their mission, we do not quite know how the crew only ended up aging three years out of twenty or how going faster than the speed of light might affect a biological being’s aging process. In addition, nothing was ever explained about how the scoutship’s hyperdrive works, which is certainly nothing unusual in the science fiction stories which contains this method of interstellar propulsion.
Canaries in the Coal Sack
As John Carpenter stated earlier, he and Dan O’Bannon originally envisioned Dark Star as Waiting for Godot in outer space, only in this case Godot is Commander Powell, the ship’s more-or-less dead captain. As Carpenter explained in Starburst magazine:
“We used this concept of having the men constantly referring to Powell and giving the audience the idea that this man was somehow the reason behind their mission, a guiding force.”
The universe of Dark Star, and certainly that one confining area we got to see of it, merits its existential nature: The mission is downright absurd and both the crew and the scoutship are slowly breaking down from years of neglect, routine, and the overall loss of the one person who seemed to keep it all together. The crew is trying to find and create personal meaning and purpose in their existence to counter the seemingly endless pointlessness of their occupation and their wider reality. One wonders if once they run out of Bombs (I counted a total of 27 Thermostellar Devices in the bomb bay according to the diagram of the Dark Star seen when Talby is looking for that technical problem in the main Computer room, with 19 of the bombs marked as dropped), will the crew be allowed to return to Earth as they believe will happen? Or, like the World War 2 bombers in Joseph Heller’s dark satirical novel Catch-22 (1961), will the number of bombing runs be forever increased every time they reach their quota?
The absurdity reaches one of its peaks with the existence of the conscious and articulate Bombs, who even seem more upbeat than the humans, for they have a definite purpose to focus on which they believe will make for a better future, despite the fact that it also means their demise.
However, the crew’s efforts are ultimately an exercise in navel-gazing: Doolittle only found satisfaction and a sense of self-determination when he turned a hunk of metal from the destroyed scoutship into a makeshift surfboard, turning his inevitable demise “as a falling star” over that unstable exoplanet into “a beautiful way to die,” as Talby noted. Even Talby, the only one who shows any definitive interest in being in space, ultimately wants to meet and merge with the mysterious Phoenix Asteroids, who apparently spend the eons just drifting around the Universe passively observing it. They also seem to have the ability to maintain a human being in their sphere of influence indefinitely – or at least we assume and hope so for Talby’s sake.
While we are glad these characters, who we are supposed to like and root for in cinematic fashion, found a sense of escape and personal control over what seemed like a Sisyphean situation, they actually did little in terms of the cause of colonizing the galaxy. Yes, their mission was to remove alien worlds that could have meant doom for future colonists, thus potentially saving future generations, but they were still acts of destruction. Perhaps these worlds were cosmically doomed one way or the other, but the parameters for their both their statuses and fates were so narrowly focused. There appeared to be no considered alternatives for these planets, especially ones that might have saved them. The actions of the AEC rendered these alien places just as pointless in their existences as the ship’s crew felt about their lives.
All the crew had left was whatever means they could find to give themselves a sense of purpose and meaning, though in most cases – including the real Sergeant Pinback as I mentioned earlier – their efforts became the ultimate sacrifice to their beings. Even the two crew members whom we presume did survive the destruction of the Dark Star, Talby and Commander Powell, inherited fates where their ultimate outcomes both for themselves and their species remained uncertain.
If we compare Dark Star to other subsets of the science fiction genre involving interstellar exploration and colonization, such as the always popular Star Trek franchise, the 1974 film is certainly not what we would call a supporter of humanity venturing into space. It was part of that time when science fiction was both literate and commented on various social issues. They were and are important in a world that was undergoing radical change in certain sectors but the mainstream avenues of communication and entertainment were still under the control of the establishment. Science fiction was and still is a way to get out important messages to the public that can both elude those forces which would want to censor them and simultaneously lessen any chances of offending those in the target audience by replacing humans and places on Earth with imaginary aliens and faraway planets.
At first glance, the only messages which Dark Star appears to provide are that manned space exploration is long, boring, dangerous, a hazard to the rest of the galaxy, often silly, and ultimately just plain pointless. Humanity would be better off surfing in comparison, for at least they would feel open and free on their home world, rather than stuck inside some cramped metal vessel drifting in the vast emptiness, denying existence to various alien globes.
Yet if one looks past the overall negative and certainly nihilistic attitude of Dark Star, we can still come away with several more positive messages from the film in regards to interstellar exploration and colonization:
- Dark Star can be taken as a warning about how humanity should not conduct ourselves in deep space, assuming we do send our physical human selves out into the Final Frontier.
- We can use Dark Star as a template from which to consider better ways to reach and conduct ourselves into the galaxy, either in person or if we send machine proxies, or perhaps even avatars, either biological or technological.
- We must take into account that some people may have actually found or will find the way the crew of the Dark Star was depicted as appealing, especially those individuals who may be willing to endure and make certain sacrifices as the price for being able to live and work in space. Characters like Boiler and Pinback had mindsets about their mission which the AEC no doubt found preferable to the more esoteric attitudes of Doolittle and Talby, whose mindsets were not always on the mission, or most often reluctantly when they were on duty. The mission of the Dark Star gave Boiler and Pinback a sense of purpose that suited them to the tasks at hand. They professed no real interest or need for the desires of their other coworkers. They will also be preferable to employers and governing bodies so long as training and taking care of a human remains overall cheaper and less complex than developing and maintaining a machine for a similar purpose.
We must also remember that Dark Star, like so many other science fiction films and stories have assumed that humans in the coming centuries will be pretty much like we are now in the fundamental ways. Sometimes this is due to a lack of understanding, budget, or caring on the part of the filmmakers to better predict how humanity might be and behave in various future scenarios. Other times the makers wanted to make specific points while simultaneously increasing film revenue and this was best served by having human characters who were relatable to contemporary audiences.
Should human civilization continue to progress and expand beyond its home world, our species will change on multiple levels out of sheer necessity at the very least just to keep up. The changes could be radical or virtually cosmetic, but individual humanity’s long desire to improve itself mentally and physically will only increase as technology and bioengineering make such things even easier and safer to accomplish. If we do follow such trends to their logical conclusion, our descendants and/or their creations could be unrecognizable to us beyond any past advances. These changes could include adapting ourselves to live and work directly in open space without the need for protective gear or suits. The same could happen when we colonize other worlds, especially if it is easier and quicker than terraforming an alien planet or moon.
What if There’s Everything?
Science fiction is undergoing yet another change. During Dark Star’s era, which I refer to as the Golden Age of the genre, the good and even great science fiction films tended to be quite literate and filled with social commentary. However, this was often at the expense of science and space utilization: A response to the previous decades of these icons of civilization as the saviors and guideposts of our future. A happy future thanks to fancy technology was looked upon as a dystopian trap at worst and a naive, antiquated fantasy at best. Dark Star can be ranked as among the epitome of that generation of filmmakers who saw progress and science as harboring more dangers than benefits, with nuclear weapons being the top example of their fears.
With the passing of over four decades since the release of Dark Star, we have seen scores of films, television series, and stories all focused on the end of civilization. They range from Orwellian-type dystopian nightmares to barbarian societies struggling to survive in a world wrecked by nuclear war. Even the films that were otherwise either real or realistic space events tended to focus on their disaster aspects rather than adventure and exploration (Marooned and Apollo 13 are two that quickly come to mind).
Then we have had the other extreme with both space fantasies and outright fantasies. Mix all this in with a real world that is now undergoing a merge of all that the Golden Age displayed and warned about while showing how few really understood or even saw what the cinema and literature was saying, and it is little wonder that as people once again turn to the movies for comfort, reassurance, and information, the desire for that shiny, happy future once mocked as being “retro” is finding new life amongst the nihilism and darkness. There are other reasons, of course, such as a frightening general lack of education designed to both appreciate and learn from films like Dark Star, but society is now in a new “tipping point,” where our knowledge and technology could either doom us or literally uplift us to the stars. Little wonder that most people would want the latter.
One of the vanguards of this new optimistic future, the diametrical opposite to Dark Star, is Disney’s Tomorrowland, released in 2015. Although an imperfect film and not a box office blockbuster, Tomorrowland unabashedly roots for and displays with no hesitation that “retro” future to make it both plausible and desirable once again. This includes a future where interstellar travel is the highlight of humanity’s best and greatest accomplishments and not a place either of empty, soul-crushing darkness or filled with malevolent creatures bent on our destruction.
The following dialogue from the film between our main character as a child and her parents sums up perfectly the resurgence of this positive attitude towards the future and the reason for it:
Eddie Newton: “Why do you love the stars so much, Casey?”
Young Casey Newton: “Because I wanna go there.”
Eddie Newton: “But it’s so far away.”
Jenny Newton: “It’ll take a long time. A real long time. What if you get all the way up there and there’s nothing?”
Young Casey Newton: “What if there’s everything?”
The other sign that our culture is now looking for a more hopeful future is the resurgence of that poster child for a better and brighter tomorrow, Star Trek. With its winning formula of combining a positive future with commentary on contemporary society, the franchise has been making a comeback over the past decade. Even though these newer films and television series show more than a few scars from the past decades dominated by those space fantasies and dystopias, the underlying desire for a reality where our technology and alien neighbors are our friends still comes through them.
A new series that both parodies and pays heartfelt tribute to Star Trek called The Orville has become increasingly popular for the very aspects that Dark Star and its brethren mocked. Ironically, in many key respects it is even more like the original Star Trek series, which ran from 1966 to 1969, than the actual members of that franchise.
It is for the best that Dark Star should become a relic of its era rather than a prediction of our future, or lack thereof, and not just because the plot involves using smart weapons of major mass destruction and rebellious aliens that look like beach balls. It is understood that Dark Star was one type of response to the real dangers and pitfalls of its era which was socially and intellectually acceptable to its intended audiences. The film remains among the smartest and most entertaining members of its genre and it does provide certain lessons when it comes to how we should go about expanding into the wider Milky Way galaxy, even if they are mostly inferred cautions and warnings rather than direct solutions.
One thing which remains with human society is that problems and troubles continue. However, we need to take a different tack in how we deal with them than we did in 1974. This is due not only to the fact that some issues have changed while others remain stubbornly the same, but that current society requires another style of approach in being guided towards the right ideas and goals.
Most importantly, people today need much more positive reinforcement and definitive directions since they have not only so many more choices than four decades ago, but also so many new avenues of information to glean from: However, not all of these sources are truly useful and in certain cases are actually misleading and even detrimental.
As for Dark Star in this respect, the “messages” of Doolittle’s California surfing and Talby’s merging with the Phoenix Asteroids seems a bit too much like the famous counterculture slogan and mantra “Turn on, tune in, drop out” of psychologist, author, and “drug guru” Timothy Leary. They may bring a measure of contentment on an individual level, but their usefulness for a larger society that wants to reach for the stars is well open to debate.
On the other hand, if we view the existential actions of the crewmen who did survive the demise of the Dark Star when they take charge of their destinies to various degrees to seek out wider more positive messages, we can make some hopeful inferences.
Doolittle did get to fulfill his dream of surfing one last time by riding that piece of semi surfboard-shaped debris from the scoutship wreckage into the unstable planet’s atmosphere, burning up like a falling star as Talby had said. While I will not even seriously consider the possibility of his surviving such an event or that his few remaining ashes could somehow be reconstituted, it doesn’t hurt to speculate if there were any intelligent life on the planet that could witness his meteoric entry and somehow be inspired by it or otherwise moved to do something that would develop them evolutionarily?
Or perhaps some of the Dark Star’s debris that hit the planet survived atmospheric friction to the surface where it might have affected conditions there, such as radiation spawning a positive mutation in nearby organisms or the ship’s metal being useful to the natives somehow. In the last case I am thinking of large iron meteorites which impacted on Earth in ancient times and the peoples of those eras turned them into tools and in certain cases objects of worship. Of course this may be all for naught if the planet is going to collide with its star in roughly 13,000 years as predicted, unless another mission discovers this world, perhaps searching for the Dark Star.
Talby certainly has some hope as a star farer when he joined with the Phoenix Asteroids, but will he do anything with them or just float around the Universe once every 12.3 trillion years passively observing things? As I said before, we don’t know how Talby knows what he knows about these objects, or how those folks he learned about them got their information on the subject. Perhaps they will evolve him such as when David Bowman was transformed into the Starchild in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or he might achieve some kind of enlightenment in the process of floating around in the Universe. In the adaptation novel by Alan Dean Foster, when Talby was about to tell Doolittle “one last thing,” he had apparently learned the true nature of the Phoenix Asteroids and was going to inform the Lieutenant before he went out of radio range.
Then there is Commander Powell, who was frozen in a block of ice (liquid nitrogen?) at absolute zero (which is impossible to achieve exactly, but no matter here) after his accidental “death”, yet his situation kept him preserved and alive even though he was deep inside the Dark Star when Bomb 20 detonated. Powell’s memory was fading during his time on ice, but he was still aware and smart enough to communicate with Doolittle usefully about fixing Bomb 20.
As Doolittle watched Commander Powell tumble off into space after the explosion, he noted how “the skipper always was lucky.” Perhaps that luck would extend into Powell being pushed fast enough to escape the Veil Nebula system into interstellar space. Even if Powell remained “stuck” drifting in that alien solar system, the point is he is now in deep space probably further preserved by the surrounding cold and awaiting discovery. It is then possible that the Commander may one day be found and revived by either an advanced ETI or future humanity having spread into the galaxy as planned.
This is what happened with Frank Poole in the 1997 SF novel 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. A similar situation happened in the 1985 novel Contact by Carl Sagan when the philanthropist S. R. Hadden purposely leaves the Sol system in his own spaceship to naturally freeze himself via the cold of deep space into suspended animation, with the hope that one day in the distant future he would be found and awoken by either ETI or the spacefaring descendants of humanity.
Ironically Commander Powell may indeed have been the luckiest crewmember of the scoutship Dark Star after all, cheating death twice on his way to some form of immortality.
Films, plays, and other works like Dark Star are designed to make you think and question the nature of existence. This is what the film did for interstellar exploration and colonization, even if its intent was not altogether a positive one in terms of viewing them as part of humanity’s destiny. Sometimes we need to stare right into the face of what could be and could go wrong with such ventures, especially one like expanding into the Final Frontier with all of its inherent dangers, not all of them external. We can then make our own future based on the levels of our understanding and courage to the places beyond Earth.
As with my research when I wrote my essay on Forbidden Planet, I came across some very interesting information and other items about Dark Star that I want to share to round out everyone’s enjoyment of this 1974 classic.
Here is the entire mainstream release version of the film online, courtesy of YouTube, complete and unedited (except for the posters on the far wall of the crew’s makeshift sleeping quarters, which are blurred out for obvious reasons):
In reviewing the film for this essay, I happened to notice for the first time that Commander Powell’s bunk in the crew’s makeshift quarters is covered with his medals and white officer’s cap as a military-style tribute to the man by his companions. In the scene where we first enter their quarters, Powell’s bed is in the lower right corner next to Doolittle’s, covered with a green spread. The commander’s medals form a line down the mattress with his cap placed on his pillow. It is clear that no one has touched the former captain’s bunk since his passing and that Powell’s accidental death took place sometime after their original sleeping quarters exploded.
Here is the official film trailer:
The last 8 minutes and 15 seconds of Dark Star. Note the designation on the toilet that floats past Doolittle after Bomb 20 turns the scoutship into so much scrap metal:
Script to Screen provides both the transcript and the video of Doolittle talking to Bomb 20:
This is an early version of the film script. Most of it matches with the version released to theaters in 1974. The exceptions are as follows: Several bits of useful background narration which have been reproduced in this essay; no scenes at all with either the beach ball or hexagonal aliens other than Doolittle’s early mention of the first creature; the opening message from Mission Control was originally located in the middle of the film, with the officer adding a warning about a potential critical ship system failure; Pinback never tells his story about actually being Bill Froug, nor is there the scene where he later plays back and records in his video diary; and there was a lot more swearing:
Here is the transcript of the entire final film. Note that none of the lines indicate who said what, nor are there any scene descriptions or directions:
Let There be Light: The Odyssey of Dark Star is a very informative documentary released in 2010 and is online in its entirety here:
Not only do you get to see and hear most of the principal players in the making of the film, you get to learn the fascinating historical backstory on how Dark Star came to be. You also get to see what Doolittle looks like over three decades later, where he is still recording ship’s logs, apparently.
I do recommend the Dark Star review article written by John Fleming for the December, 1978 issue of Starburst: Science Fantasy in Television, Cinema and Comics (Volume 1, Number 5). The entire issue is online in PDF format here:
The article contains a detailed history of how Dark Star came to be, a fairly in-depth interview with John Carpenter, and a “full-colour giant poster”, which oddly enough is referred to as just a “mini-poster” on the actual poster itself, which depicts the scene where Doolittle converses with Commander Powell. This includes many interesting comments on early production ideas for the film. For example, Dark Star had numerous other title names before settling on what it has been called ever since, including The Centaur. “It was not until well into production that both ship and film became Dark Star.”
Then there is this quote on how the film’s ending was originally conceived:
“According to production designer/editor/special effects man/co-scripter/star Dan O’Bannon, the original, unfilmed ending featured a bomb which got stuck in the bomb-bay and could not be dropped … ‘So the captain goes outside with a crowbar to try to lever it out of the bomb-bay. One of the other men goes crazy and comes outside with a raygun and threatens to blast it. He fires it, the bomb blows up, the two men are tossed away into space and one of them becomes a shooting star as he goes into the Earth’s atmosphere and burns up. The ending was copped from Ray Bradbury’s story Kaleidoscope’ (part of the author’s 1951 short story collection titled The Illustrated Man). The ending of the finished film is even more outlandish.”
As this issue of Starburst magazine is fully presented, you will also get the bonus of seeing the state of cinematic science fiction in the immediate post-Star Wars aftermath. There are pieces on such classics as Superman: The Movie and an interview with Douglas Trumbull, the special effects giant behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and many other films. Then there are the articles about several other contemporary science fiction films: Reading about them will soon make it clear why they are little known or remembered today.
Here is another interview with John Carpenter online from 2008 courtesy of Sci-fi-online.com:
This is the audiobook of the Alan Dean Foster novelization of Dark Star first published in 1974. It provides much in the way of extra background detail, especially on the main characters and what they were thinking throughout the story. However, unless I am told otherwise, this is Foster’s adaptation (interpretation) of the people, aliens, machines, and events in the film, not the filmmakers:
This next link takes you to images of a detailed model of the scoutship Dark Star, courtesy of Starship Modelers. They have continued the error, copied by many others who have also reproduced the vessel in art, of the first four digits of the registration number on the hull as 2238, when it is actually 2239. I can see how it could be a bit difficult to distinguish the 9 correctly, but if you watch the scene where the Dark Star first moves across the screen early on in the film, the full registration number is clear: ADC 2239-5531.
This is also a good time to ask why the registration letters were shown as ADC and not AEC, to presumably indicate the Advance Exploration Corps. Could the letter D stand for either Demolition or Destruction? How about the friendlier-sounding Dissolution?
A note on the page says this model has been unavailable for purchase since 2014:
Here is the complete soundtrack to Dark Star composed by John Carpenter. It also contains much of the dialogue and sound effects from the film:
The film soundtrack was released on vinyl in early 2016 as a deluxe edition:
Quoting from the above linked article, the LP record includes the following items: “Incidental music, sound effects, John Carpenter’s synth experimentations, dialogue excerpts, and vintage interferences extracted directly from the film roll are split into two tracks, one on each side of 12″, as per the original release. The package also features a beach-ball alien 7″ (red with a yellow label circled in black) pressed with three additional tracks, endless loops of sound effects from the movie, and a hidden bonus track.
“Housed within ‘slick thermosteller striggering packaging with a brand new artwork and invisible hyperdrive electronics,’ the record is limited to 500 copies.”