Centauri Dreams’ resident movie critic turns his attention to a personal favorite from the canon of science fiction films. My own memories of The Thing from Another World go back to late Saturday night black-and-white TV, where I first saw the chilling tale as a boy. The scene where the team fans out on the ice as they try to figure out what it is that is frozen down there still puts a chill down my spine. Who knew at the time that The Thing himself was James Arness, early in his career arc toward Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon? Larry gives us all the details, including reflections on the film’s significance in its time and the questions it raises about our attitudes toward the unknown. Don’t be surprised to find a collection of Larry’s Centauri Dreams essays making its way into book form one of these days.
by Larry Klaes
Ah, aliens. For some humans, they are the conquering interstellar warriors of some tyrannical Galactic Empire. To others, they are angelic saviors just waiting to uplift humanity into the wider Cosmos. To still more, they are aloof godlike beings who are completely indifferent to anyone unlike themselves. If an alien happens to be a member of the Star Trek franchise, the chances are very good they will look, talk, and act very much like a certain primate species of the planet Sol 3 (a.k.a. Earth), with perhaps some variations to the ears and nose.
In many science fiction stories dealing with extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs), aliens can be all four of the types mentioned above. However, just as often our imagined cosmic neighbors can and do become little more than outright monsters: Creatures of the Id aimed at our basest fears who exist only to maim, extinguish, and sometimes consume unwary victims – while giving audiences visceral thrills designed to voluntarily release portions of their currency to these story makers multiple times.
This last category became the standout feature of many science fiction films, hitting their stride in the 1950s. The results range from great in a few notable cases down to quality levels that were found wanting for the majority of the rest.
One of the earliest and most memorable standouts of this genre from the mid-Twentieth Century was the science fiction/horror film titled The Thing from Another World (often referred to as just The Thing), Produced by the Winchester Pictures Corporation and released by RKO Radio Pictures, it premiered on April 27, 1951.
Given a cursory look, the main plot and overall trappings of this cinematic experience called The Thing can give one the impression of this motion picture being a standard, albeit classic, “monster movie.”
Or so it might seem…
Members of the United States Air Force (USAF) stationed at an air base in Anchorage, Alaska, are ordered to investigate a report by scientists at a remote Arctic research station of a possibly unusual aircraft that has crash-landed near the North Pole. Speculation on the craft’s identity ranges from the Canadians to the Russians, with the latter described as being “all over the pole like flies.” This is during the first decade of the Cold War, after all.
Image: The original film poster for The Thing from Another World.
The team of military airmen, the lead scientist of the research station, and a nosy journalist who is eager for a juicy story fly together to the reported crash site: They come upon not the expected terrestrial airplane in need of rescue, but instead a saucer-shaped alien spacecraft frozen in the Arctic wasteland! As the team attempts to remove the extraterrestrial vessel buried in the ice using thermite bombs, they accidentally destroy the entire ship in the process. However, the body of a lone occupant from the craft is found nearby, frozen in the ice.
The rescue/expedition team flies with their invaluable “prize” to the science research station just ahead of an approaching blizzard. There they crudely quarantine their confined “visitor”, only to have the alien being accidentally revived from its ice prison (by an electric blanket left on, no less).
Surprising the single guard on duty, the sentry uses his gun to shoot the alien multiple times, but without noticeable effect. The being subsequently escapes and proceeds to go on a rampage, injuring and killing both men and several of the station’s sled dogs.
Despite the creature’s violent and deadly behavior, which includes procuring the blood of its victims for both food and reproduction, the resident chief scientist perceives the alien as a highly evolved and therefore wiser and better being than his fellow humans: After all, this extraterrestrial life form arrived in a starship.
The scientist explains the alien’s hostile actions as a defensive response to its treatment by the equally hostile “alien” creatures from the station, along with their unwillingness to truly communicate with it. In stark contrast, the military personnel naturally and not without reason see this “thing” from outer space as a dangerous monster that threatens all their lives and possibly every other organism on Earth!
After attempting and failing to kill the alien intruder with bullets and fire, the airmen have one last plan to stop the creature before they are either slaughtered by the alien or freeze to death, as the alien has sabotaged the station’s furnaces. Their hope is to trap the alien in the generator room, where the humans are making their last stand, and electrocute the creature with a contraption rigged up along the floor.
Just as the alien enters the trap area, the lead scientist breaks ranks and rushes right up to the being, where he attempts to plead directly with the alien in order to reason with it to save its life so that the alien may in turn share its presumably superior knowledge and wisdom with humanity. The being responds by harshly knocking the scientist aside and continuing after the airmen.
The creature does step into the trap, where it is brutally electrocuted to the point of disintegration: The station and the world are saved by the menace from beyond the stars by a bunch of modern-day warriors wearing leather bomber jackets underneath their parkas.
Later on, having a news “scoop” beyond his wildest dreams, the reporter relays the events of the last two days to his very eager listeners. Ready to plunge in with the details, the reporter first gives his audience (and by proxy the film’s viewers) this warning and plea:
“Every one of you listening to my voice… tell the world. Tell this to everybody wherever they are: Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”
Let us first acknowledge what should be the obvious: That The Thing is a film with a story and characters written by and for human beings of the planet Earth; in particular, American human beings from the mid-Twentieth Century in the midst of the Cold War era who were also in the thick of dealing with anti-communist “witch hunts”.
There was also a particular mindset in terms of social conventions at the time of how men and women should be and behave, especially towards anything that was different, even in ways that did not have to be literally alien to trigger certain responses.
The alien visitor in this story could have been friendly, or at least non-hostile, without sacrificing dramatic suspense and excitement in the process. This is what took place in the contemporary science fiction film It Came from Outer Space, released in 1953: The ETI in this story were also the victims of a spaceship that crashes on Earth, yet their only intentions were to repair their vessel and return to the stars. These aliens were explorers, not conquerors. They even informed the main human character, who happens to be an astronomer, that the two species were not yet ready to meet peacefully, for it was humanity which had a lot of maturing to do.
The aliens’ take on the situation was reinforced by the fact that an angry, armed mob of humans had been coming to destroy them, certain that these uninvited “guests” from outer space had only hostile intentions for the native terrestrials. Granted, the aliens had temporarily “possessed” certain townsfolk, which made them act unusual in the process, but this was only done in order to provide camouflage so that the distant voyagers could obtain the repair tools they needed in the nearby desert community as unobtrusively as possible. Had the aliens revealed their true physical appearance to the humans, they would have automatically terrified the local populace and created an even more immediate hostile response.
The resident scientist in It Came from Outer Space had been successful in quelling the mob from destroying the aliens in his story. The astronomer even kept the ETI from killing the humans that threatened them, which they reluctantly intended to do rather than be either captured or exterminated by these comparatively primitive and savage creatures.
This was not to be in the case with the “thing” in The Thing. The deck was stacked against this alien almost from the start. The very title of the film calls the alien a “thing”, even though the lead scientist, Dr. Arthur Carrington, emphasizes repeatedly the fact that the being came to Earth in a starship from another part of the Milky Way galaxy, stating that it therefore must possess at least some superior knowledge and wisdom (the alien is even dressed in a “civilized” fashion, wearing some type of manufactured coverall uniform).
Even the 1938 short story written by John W. Campbell, Jr., that The Thing is based on was titled “Who Goes There?” and the alien in that version was far more hideous, manipulative, and deadly to the trapped men of the Antarctic research station than the one of the 1951 film (the alien in the 1938 story was referred to only as the Thing, though).
The original cinematic plans for the physical appearance of the alien were more monstrous than the result that eventually arrived in the final film version. In a screenplay draft dated August 29, 1950, the first clear sight of the alien is described this way:
“He switches on his flashlight, and centers its beam on the ice-block. As Ericson said, the ice is now almost transparent. Through it, only partially distorted, can be seen an unearthly horror. It has a bulbous head, a tiny suck-hole for a mouth, multiple eyes, no ears. Its arms are extra-long, ending in thorny clusters, rather than hands. It stares malevolently through the ice.”
Despite this and other ambitious and creative concepts developed during production of The Thing, the filmmakers had neither the special effects technology nor the budget to make the alien look both so elaborate and convincing on screen. They finally settled on a being that bore more than a passing resemblance to the famous “monster” created by Victor Frankenstein in what is considered to be one of the first modern science fiction novels: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, written by English author Mary Shelley (1797–1851) and first published in 1818.
Specifically, the alien bears definite similarities to the version which most people identify with Frankenstein’s creation, the one made for the iconic Universal Studios film, Frankenstein, released in 1931 and played by actor Boris Karloff.
This decision, intentional or otherwise, has its own allusions to our discussion theme. In the original Shelley novel, the “monster” was actually intelligent, articulate, and feeling. He only became hostile and murderous after relentless negative encounters with human beings who were frightened by his appearance. A similar situation took place with Frankenstein’s creation in the 1931 film (and initial sequels), although here the “creature” was portrayed as being less intelligent and verbose, though no less feeling. In fact, had the makers of this landmark horror film gotten their way, the “monster” would have been reduced to a purely instinctual killing machine, all for the sake of entertainment.
Image: Actor James Arness portraying the title character. Note the more than casual resemblance to the cinematic Frankenstein monster, and not just due to film production budget and contemporary FX technology restraints.
Nature versus Nurture, or You’ve Got to be Taught to Hate
As the alien was not terribly big on civilly “dishing” about itself during the film, the hapless humans trapped with it (and by proxy, the viewing audience) often had to make their own assumptions regarding the nature of their uninvited guest from the stars and its true intentions. Naturally human biases, instincts, training, and educational backgrounds play a big role in the numerous assumptions and reactions. This includes the thoughts and intentions of the script writers, both subconscious and conscious.
A big part of these guesses involve whether the alien was provoked into its hostile reactions, or did it indeed intentionally come to Earth to introduce its species as the new dominant life form for our planet. We know for a fact that the humans were already splitting off into their own camps of thought from the moment they realized that the craft which crashed in the Arctic was no terrestrial airplane, not even something exotic from their chief Cold War rival.
Image: The airmen and scientists discuss what to do with their unexpected visitor trapped in the ice – but soon their “guest” will force their hands in the matter.
When they found the alien in the ice and brought it back to the research station, the enlisted military men who were assigned to guard it repeatedly told the others how uncomfortable they felt just being near the creature, even though at first everyone assumed it was dead. This instinctual reaction led one of the sentinels to place an active electric blanket over the ice block containing the alien so he would not have to look at it – or have the being look back at him, which he swore it was doing. This event caused the frozen chunk of water to melt and subsequently release the alien – which turned out to be very much alive!
One item before we continue: It was stated in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) Goofs section for The Thing that the heat from a working electric blanket placed directly upon a large amount of ice would produce a lot of liquid water, enough to short out the blanket early on. Of course the plot required an unintentional reason for the alien to be released and active, since the USAF officer in charge, Captain Patrick Hendry, refused to have the alien removed from the ice block for any reason until he heard back from his superiors for further instructions.
One wonders what might have happened if the alien had not only been placed under more competent security, but included being monitored by the station scientists? They were in a civilian scientific research station, after all, not a military base. Instead, the being was placed in an unheated store room (a window pane was broken to make the room even colder from the outside air) and watched by shifts of lower ranking airmen – men who were trained to respond to unknowns either defensively or offensively and only follow orders.
While certainly none of the humans in this story had ever encountered an actual alien being before, these members of the warrior class were probably the least advisable people to have watch over such a life form in such a situation (and why just one person at a time, for that matter?).
When the alien did become free of its ice prison, the first reaction from the guard was to shoot it with his gun, six times in fact. We later discover that the bullets had no lasting effect on the alien, at least in the physical sense. Soon after, as the being was attempting to escape from the station, it was set upon by three of the sled dogs. The alien also survived that encounter (and killed two of the dogs outright in the process, while injuring the third badly enough that it had to be put down on the spot), but it lost an arm during the attack. No doubt by that time, if the being had any thoughts of the natives of this planet being friendly or at least non-hostile, they were utterly extinguished.
Of course the audience already “knows” that the alien is going to react negatively towards any and all terrestrial life forms it encounters. Not only is it called The Thing in the film’s title (as opposed to, say, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, like that friendly and adorable little alien in the 1982 film co-produced by Steven Spielberg), we are told and shown in various ways via the 1951 film’s trailer and marque posters that we are going to see a horror flick. The Thing is not a balanced, scientific documentary on the subject of ETI thinking, behaviors, and intentions.
Despite being quite humanoid in appearance, the alien in The Thing is revealed to be even less like a human or even what most humans consider to be a “higher” life form: When the scientists analyze the arm ripped off the alien during its battle with the sled dogs, they discover it is composed of material more like a plant than an animal.
The mammalian humans present are clearly not easily able to wrap their minds around the idea of a thinking, walking plant in general, let alone one that can build and fly a starship. This combination of ignorance, fear, and bias only makes the extraterrestrial being even more alien to most of the station residents, heightening their concerns about their “guest”.
The reporter, Ned “Scotty” Scott, and Dr. Carrington have the following conversation during this revelation, which leads to one of the most infamous lines in the film:
Scotty: “Please, doctor, I’ve got to ask this. It sounds like, well… Just as though you’re describing some form of super carrot.”
Dr. Carrington: “That’s nearly right, Mr. Scott. This carrot, as you call it, has constructed an aircraft [!] capable of flying millions [!] of miles, propelled by a force as yet unknown to us.”
Scotty: “An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles.”
Dr. Carrington: “It shouldn’t. Imagine how strange it would have seemed during the Pliocene [!] age to forecast that worms, fish, lizards that crawled over the Earth would evolve into us. On the planet from which our visitor came, vegetable life underwent an evolution similar to that of our own animal life, which would account for the superiority of its brain. Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.”
When the reporter tells the scientist that his readers would likely consider the notion of an “intellectual carrot” as too wild to be taken seriously, Dr. Carrington counters this attitude by asking one of his colleague to give several examples of real terrestrial plant species: One type, the acanthus century plant, can capture and consume a variety of small animals. The other flora mentioned is the telegraph vine, which is aptly named, as it can send signals to other members of its species many miles apart.
“Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story, Mr. Scott. Older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.”
Dr. Carrington’s fascination and unabashed admiration for the alien only grows when they discover that the being reproduces by creating seed pods from its body:
“Yes. The neat and unconfused reproductive technique of vegetation. No pain or pleasure as we know it. No emotions. Our superior. Our superior in every way.
“Gentlemen, do you realize what we’ve found? A being from another world as different from us as one pole from the other. If we can only communicate with it, we can learn secrets that have been hidden from mankind since the beginning.”
Dr. Carrington betrays his own biases here. While he is likely the only human at the research station who does not want the alien either dead or at least sent somewhere very far away from them, the scientist also assumes that just because the being came to Earth in a technologically advanced spaceship, it is therefore morally and ethically superior as well, if such concepts can be applied to a species that evolved in a different manner on another world in another solar system.
The film also betrays its own stereotypical views when it comes to scientists: Dr. Carrington is deeply impressed, bordering on envy, over how the alien makes copies of itself. Since it does not involve sexual reproduction and all the “complicated” (read messy) physical and psychological baggage that process tends to bring, at least for higher intelligence species like humans, Dr. Carrington sees the alien’s method as essentially unemotional and therefore superior. This goes along with his character’s devotion to Science with a capital S and not the more mundane pursuits and behaviors most non-scientific human beings focus their lives on – like the airmen.
The film assumes a man like Dr. Carrington will be passionate about science but otherwise unemotional and certainly not one to have physical feelings – behaviors we witness all too well between Captain Hendry and Nikki Nicholson, Dr. Carrington’s secretary. This almost makes him the human equivalent of the alien: Mentally superior, highly intelligent, aloof, and therefore potentially just as much a threat to the station and beyond as the alien, since Dr. Carrington seems more than willing to sacrifice all their lives in his single-minded pursuit of what he sees as a much higher and therefore better life form.
As the cinematic representative of Science and its practitioners, this stereotype is no fairer to the field and its professionals than the automatic assumption that a being from the stars is on Earth only for conquest and destruction rather than exploration and contact. This also goes for the film’s representation of the Air Force men, who are portrayed as being much more average in intelligence and far more interested in the baser pleasures of life that Dr. Carrington undoubtedly disdains. Their baseness includes the almost instinctual response to anything unknown with lethal force, especially an actual alien.
Even when the airmen were first on their way to investigate the crashed flying craft, which they knew almost nothing about before finding it, their general consensus was that the vehicle was probably of Soviet origin. For Americans of the early Cold War era, this could mean little else than a potential threat to their nation, whether it was a spy plane or something more elaborate like an experimental weapon. Worse, the airmen generally tended to blend into one another in terms of having any prominent individual characteristics.
Image: Our predetermined heroes on their way to meet their destinies near the North Pole.
In essence, everyone in The Thing is one level of stereotype or another, including the character of the film’s title. While this may be expected from Hollywood cinema, especially back in the day to use a phrase, it does have ramifications in terms of making audiences think certain ways, even if it is just reinforcing their already preconceived notions about certain types of people and concepts. Thus Science is represented by a man who is devoted to it and little else, be it biological urges or his fellow humans.
Oh, Dr. Carrington is constantly emphasizing how he wants the presumably superior knowledge of their visitor from the stars for all of humanity, yet he is not unwilling to endanger the lives of all the humans at the research station in order to communicate with the alien, including his own.
Dr. Carrington said the following declaration in the 1950 script draft, which was retained in a watered-down version of the final released film:
“Two of our colleagues have died and a third is dying. Those are our losses – and the battle has only begun. There will be more losses. The creature X is more powerful, more intelligent than us. We are infants beside him. He regards us as soft, vulnerable earth worms important only for his nourishment. He has the same attitude toward us as we have toward a field of cabbages.
“A new world has come to devour us. Only science can conquer it. Our minds, gentlemen – the little muscle that thinks, observes, examines and finds answers. All other weapons will be powerless.”
We get to the core of the filmmakers’ take on science as an amoral force in pursuit of its own agenda at the sake of all others during the following scenes when it is learned that Dr. Carrington is secretly growing the seed pods from the alien in the station’s greenhouse.
We observe more indications of the airmen’s views on science as amoral or at least indifferent to the safety and concerns of the wider world with this next bit of dialog from the 1950 film script draft. These scenes contain some extra useful details that did not survive into the released film, yet neither detract from nor drastically change what was shown on screen.
Dr. Carrington: “A secret has come to us, greater than any secret ever revealed to science. It must not be destroyed! It must be studied – and learned.”
Captain Patrick Henry (later changed to Hendry): “I saw it, Carrington. It’s not something to put under glass – and examine. And there are thousands more of them hatching. They’ll reproduce like weeds. They’ll tear the world apart.”
Dr. Carrington: “That doesn’t matter!”
Henry: “It kind of matters to me.”
Dr. Carrington: “Knowledge is more important than life, Captain. We have only one excuse for existing – to think, to find out, to learn what is unknown.”
Lt. Eddie Dykes: “We haven’t a chance to learn anything from that pookey Martian, except a quicker way to die, Doctor.”
Henry: “I’m ordering you back, Carrington.”
Dr. Carrington: “It doesn’t matter what happens to us! We’re not animals. We’re a brain that thinks! Nothing else counts, except our thinking. We’ve thought our way into nature. We’ve split the atom – “
Dykes: “Yeah, and that sure made the world happy, didn’t it!”
[Stage direction] The mewing [of the newborn aliens raised in the greenhouse] out of the wall speaker increases.
Henry: “I’ve ordered you out, Carrington.”
Dr. Carrington: “We owe it to the brain of our species to stand here and die without destroying a source of wisdom! Captain, I beseech you. Science, government, the Army – civilization has given us orders.”
Henry: “They’re wrong order[s]. They come from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Reporter Skeely (later renamed Ned “Scotty” Scott): “I’m with you there, Henry. In a pinch I always put my money on a little man – against all top brass.”
Dr. Carrington: “You set yourself above all human progress, above all science!”
Henry: “I set myself against an enemy, Carrington.”
MacAuliff: “Come on, Doctor. You’ve said your piece. This is one time when science doesn’t blow up the world… just to see what makes it tick.”
Note in particular the mention by Dr. Carrington about splitting the atom as one of science’s greatest achievements and the airmen’s reactions to it. The two sides were juxtaposing the benefits of atomic energy for running our technological civilization against the destructive reality of the atomic bomb. This latter item was often viewed by the general populace as a creation by science without either thought or safeguards as to whether or not it should be made – even though nuclear weapons came into existence in the United States at the demands of the government for the military: First to force the Axis powers of World War Two to surrender (and simultaneously beat them at developing such a weapon before the Allies could) and then to “balance” geopolitical power with the Soviet Union and their Iron Curtain allies.
There was also a quick comment early on in the film that Dr. Carrington is “the fellow who was at Bikini.” This is a reference to Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, which was used for conducting multiple nuclear bomb tests from 1946 to 1958. The atoll was left uninhabitable for humans due to the excessive amounts of radiation from these tests. Some of its numerous islands were outright obliterated from the powerful nuclear explosions.
These tests were performed as a major aspect of the Cold War: The nuclear weapons were, ironically, created and meant to prevent yet another global-scale war by making the possibility of a nuclear attack so devastating to Earth as to be untenable to any rational and ethical person or nation.
That the Thing looks so similar to Frankenstein’s monster as mentioned earlier only adds to the perception of science as an amoral force that delves into areas beyond where humans are considered capable of understanding or meant to be there. While the initial reasons for the alien ultimately resembling the Universal Studios film version of Mary Shelley’s monster were both technical and financial, the underlying message taken from it may have been consciously taken advantage of once the filmmakers saw the end result.
Both sides in The Thing have their points in their takes on the alien: The military men were already afraid of this being from another world even when it was presumed dead and encased in the Arctic ice when they first discovered it. That it came from another world in a vessel with unknown technologies and therefore abilities (including the underlying possibility of carrying weaponry with a similar bent) were reasons enough for them to be on alert for the worst possible scenarios of this unexpected and largely unplanned for situation. When the alien turned out to be very much alive and became free of its ice prison, their fears became confirmed and they immediately and instinctively went into warrior mode.
Dr. Carrington pointed all this out to Captain Hendry:
“Captain, when you find what you’re looking for, remember it’s a stranger in a strange land. The only crimes were those committed against it. It woke from a block of ice, was attacked by dogs and shot by a frightened man. All I want is to communicate with it.”
Captain Hendry: “Fine, provided it’s locked up.”
Of course we already know the deck is stacked against the alien being benevolent or even neutral, which makes the pleas and plans by Dr. Carrington seem naive at best and just as dangerous as a direct assault on everyone there at worst. However, it is not the scientist’s fault that he is unaware of what the filmmakers had in store for their characters.
It seems a bit much for such an intelligent man, no matter how excited he may be about coming upon what would be considered the most important scientific discovery in human history, responding to Hendry’s warning that the alien’s progeny will “reproduce like weeds” and “tear the world apart” by exclaiming “that doesn’t matter!” Unless Dr. Carrington’s illogical outburst was a combination of disdain for the Captain’s much lower level of scientific knowledge and words borne from exhaustion and an anxiousness not to lose such a unique intellectual prize. Nevertheless, it is still both excessive and irrational, especially if Dr. Carrington wants to reveal the supposedly superior wisdom and technology of the alien to the whole of the human race for their benefit. Getting his entire species wiped out in the process would rather defeat the purpose.
I think it is safe to say that Dr. Carrington’s personality is one that does not contain any serious levels of sadism, masochism, or megalomania. He has an obvious ego, of course, but this is borne of multiple earned achievements from a life-long career in science, including the Nobel Prize. As a further indication of Dr. Carrington’s overall character, it is interesting to note that someone of his stature and renown is still out working in the field – in the remote Arctic, no less – rather than a much more comfortable and perhaps even more profitable academia equivalent of a desk job, or in the corporate world, or even with the military, for that matter. His devotion to science is, if nothing else, certainly not for show but a genuine passion.
The words put into Dr. Carrington’s mouth by the scriptwriters show their biases on science and its practitioners in general. This reveals a genuine real world fear of what they don’t quite understand. In an ironic but hardly unexpected contrast for the era, the filmmakers turn to and lionize the ones whose main tasks are to monitor the region for (usually) terrestrial threats and to deal destruction and death when the situation calls for it – or even when told not to take the offensive in the particular case of this film.
These “regular Joes” are the kind our popular culture likes to measure by the “test” of who you would want to have a beer with. Whether you would want to drink beer or any other kind of liquid with either these airmen or Dr. Carrington and his cadre of scientists depends upon what kind of conversation topics and activities you prefer.
The other social hierarchy test portrayed in The Thing is who would prefer whom as a relationship partner. As the film takes place in late 1950, this naturally involves the designated Alpha Male (Captain Hendry) and the most prominent woman in the film, in this case Nikki Nicholson, who as a “bonus” happens to be Dr. Carrington’s secretary in terms of adding an extra layer of dramatic tension. Whole scenes are dedicated to establishing that the two have a form of romantic past together and will definitely upgrade to a serious relationship in the near future once this annoying ordeal with the asexually reproducing alien menace is over.
Ms. Nicholson shows definite signs of sympathy and respect for her work boss, as she constantly has to remind an increasingly frustrated Hendry that Dr. Carrington’s continually stubborn and life-threatening actions are due to his being both overexcited by the presence of an actual living ETI and very tired from lack of sleep over this major scientific discovery. However, in standard Hollywood tradition, it is made quite clear who is going to end up with whom by the time the film credits roll, though the scientist shows no non-work-related interest in Nikki or anyone else, from this planet at least.
One last point on this topic: I was made to wonder if there was originally going to be more of a romantic rivalry between Captain Hendry and Dr. Carrington over Nikki Nicholson when I read the following introductory description of the head scientist from the 1950 draft script:
“At a large flat-topped table in the room sits Dr. Arthur Carrington. He is a man of 43 with an alert, cheerful face. He is good looking, well built, soft spoken. His dominant characteristic is a smile that seems never to leave his lips. It is present always on his face like an extra feature. He is a genius of science and a man whose brain is focused like a microscope on the secrets of nature. But the intensity of his preoccupation with science is not to be heard in the easy tones of his voice. It will be seen in the things he does, in his point of view – but never in his manner. Outwardly, he seems only a good looking man full of child-like enthusiasm for a task and with a soothing, amiable way for his fellow man.”
“Captain Henry stands silently in the doorway, his eyes moodily on his scientific rival. The doctor is studying the indicator dials of a complex instrument on the table. Bill Stone greets the arrivals.”
The final result for Dr. Carrington created a character who was indeed a rival for Captain Hendry, but in a manner rather different from the usual thematic pattern.
Putting Things in Perspective
Just as the appearance and actions of the alien did with the airmen at the research station, the rapid pace of science and technology after the Second World War frightened the general public, many of whom did not really understand such concepts as nuclear physics, except to focus on the fact that one version of it could annihilate the world in large enough quantities with little warning.
They also often understood the practitioners of science even less, except for what they saw portrayed in their entertainment media. The Thing did its level best to make Dr. Carrington the catch-all example of scientists as a whole through a somewhat distorted and not entirely cloudless cultural lens.
Had The Thing been produced after October of 1957, when the Soviet Union lobbed the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit called Sputnik 1, then Dr. Carrington may have instead been turned into the true hero of the story.
That 184-pound silver ball with four radio whip antennae trailing off its sides shocked Americans into the realization that if the USSR could make an object circle the entire planet over and over with one of their rockets, then they could just as easily deliver a nuclear bomb to any part of the United States in a manner of minutes using the same technology.
American authorities at multiple levels felt it had fallen behind in educating its citizens in the sciences and technology, particularly in regards to space. Almost immediately an overhaul of the nation’s education system began with an emphasis on those subjects to close up what they perceived to be a serious gap with and lag behind the Soviet (and therefore Communist) system.
Thus my prediction that had The Thing been produced after 1957, Dr. Carrington’s high scientific knowledge and enthusiasm would have gone from being a suspicious hindrance and danger to the group to become the very qualities that literally save the day. In the actual 1951 film, he did mention multiple times how science was the only real tool that could “defeat” the alien visitor, at least in terms of understanding and communicating with the being to hopefully avoid the outcome that ultimately unfolded.
As will be discussed in more detail later on, even though Dr. Carrington would fail to sway the alien with his preferred methods, the scientific knowledge he and his colleagues did provide from their examination of the extraterrestrial did give the airmen the knowledge they needed to bring down their adversary after their more traditional weapons fell short due to the alien’s unconventional physiology.
The Thing itself may also have been turned into a more sympathetic character if the film had been released once the Space Age had begun in earnest, rather than a largely inhuman antagonist. One example of this theme was given early on in this essay with the 1953 science fiction film It Came from Outer Space. Another example comes from a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek television series titled “The Devil in the Dark”. The ETI in this case is a being called a Horta, a large silicon-based organism that is essentially a living rock.
In a future interstellar society called the United Federation of Planets (UFP), there exists far below the surface of an alien planet in its territory labeled Janus 6 a being that calls itself a Horta. This decidedly non-humanoid life form looks like a large blob of molten lava and can move through solid rock with ease thanks to a highly corrosive acid it produces from its body.
As we learn early on, this Horta has been attacking and killing dozens of the human residents of a Federation mining colony stationed on Janus 6 without seeming provocation. The being’s physical appearance and behavior has left the miners convinced that it is nothing less or more than a dangerous monster acting on instinct towards the humans which cannot possibly be reasoned with. Therefore, the creature must be exterminated before the mining facility has to be abandoned, losing access to the planet’s great stores of valuable mineral resources for the greater Federation.
Starfleet, the quasi-military organization that conducts both exploration and defense for the UFP, is called upon to stop this threat and save the miners and their operation. At first the officers of the starship assigned to handle this situation, the USS Enterprise, are led to similar thoughts about the native life form when they encounter it deep in the planet’s dim caverns. They too think the Horta is a purely destructive force that needs to be eliminated before they are all killed by it.
However, a series of events convinces the starship officers that this “living rock” is actually a highly intelligent and sensitive being. Eventually direct communications are established with the Horta. They learn that this alien is a mother who was defending her eggs, which are the thousands of silicon nodules found by the miners throughout the vast network of tunnels and chambers far beneath the surface of Janus 6. These spherical objects were being casually destroyed by the humans during their mining operations, as they did not recognize the nodules as the biological product of an ancient and highly intelligent organism – the last of its kind, in fact.
The mother Horta naturally viewed these strange alien bipedal creatures invading her world and killing her unborn children as monsters and acted accordingly.
An understanding is reached between the two species: The young Hortas who later hatched from those surviving nodules would help the human miners find all sorts of mineral deposits and with much greater efficiency, ensuring both the survival of the Horta and the continuation of the UFP colony and its importance to the galactic civilization that spawned it. Both sides also learned to tolerate and accept each other despite their initial mutually visceral reactions to the other’s wildly different physiologies.
This famous episode of the Star Trek series and many other entries from that franchise add further examples to the premise that when it comes to humanity encountering the unknown Other, the situation does not automatically have to turn into an Us-Versus-Them battle for survival with only one winner arising from the conflict. Most often it is when one of the groups make a genuine attempt to understand and communicate with the other that a non-lethal resolution has a chance to happen, while not sacrificing the entertainment demands for action and drama in the process. Writing such stories also gives our species one more roleplay example to practice with and learn from for the day when humanity finally does meet with real beings from other worlds.
Now That We’ve Got Them Just Where They Want Us
“Right, now that we’ve got them just where they want us.” – Captain James T. Kirk, quoted in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
You have read throughout this essay that The Thing from Another World was biased towards its alien (and potential ETI in general) being hostile and threatening not only to the hapless crew at the remote Arctic research station, but all life on Earth. So how did a small collection of military men and scientists, who before encountering the crashed alien starship and its lone occupant would have considered the idea of beings from other worlds to be science fiction at best, if they contemplated the concept at all, suddenly become experts on the motives of such a life form? In particular, one that the humans had destroyed its vessel through their hurried ignorance of the ship’s composition and was clearly in no mood to convey any information about itself or its actions to such comparatively primitive and violent creatures.
The answer would seem to come from human intuition, which in the case of the film’s characters, the non-scientists had the upper hand on. The airmen, being trained in the ways of military thinking and having participated in combat in World War Two just half a decade earlier were suspicious of the alien from the moment they learned that the “aircraft” the research scientists detected showed unusual flight behavior.
This was the early height of the Cold War. The airmen would have been stationed in Alaska as part of the United States presence to monitor the relatively nearby Soviet Union across the Bering Strait. They would also be there to dissuade their geopolitical rival from deciding to occupy such close American territory (Alaska had been part of the United States since its purchase from Russia in 1867, but it would not become an official state until 1959) or engage in even more elevated military actions on a larger scale.
The Korean War was also underway when The Thing took place: There is no mention of that conflict or that these men were directly involved with it. However, this early major “police action” of the Cold War heightened real world fears that things could expand beyond the Korean peninsula and trigger a nuclear response. Assuming this event was also occurring in the reality of the film, our military characters would be on alert to respond to any type of activity deemed suspicious – at least the terrestrial kind.
As noted earlier, the soldiers assigned to guard the alien while it is still in the block of ice are terrified of its appearance, with its “crazy hands and no hair” – although if the filmmakers had been able to make the alien look more like the description of the Thing in the founding 1938 story, they might have really had something to be terrified of. They can only assume anything which they see as frighteningly ugly is therefore also automatically dangerous with evil intentions.
Image: Dr. Carrington and his fellow scientists of Polar Expedition 6 studying how the Thing reproduces in the greenhouse of the Arctic research station.
Once the alien has responded to being shot by the guards and attacked by the sled dogs and then it is discovered that it uses blood for nourishment and can reproduce asexually via seed pods, it is Dr. Carrington’s secretary, Nikki Nicholson, who voices a theory as to why the alien has come to Earth in the first place.
Nikki has this discussion with her boss, which has been taken from the 1950 draft script as it adds some useful details which were left out in the final film version.
Nikki: “You’re not thinking of what’s happening in the greenhouse. You saw what one of them can do! Well, just imagine if there are a thousand, or a hundred thousand!
Carrington: “I have imagined it.”
Nikki: “And you won’t do anything?”
Carrington: “I’m doing all that can be done, Nikki – discovering its secrets.”
Nikki: “I know! And that’s quite wonderful. But what if that ship came here not just to visit the earth, but to conquer it! To start growing some kind of a horrible army. And turn the human race into – into food for it! And kill the whole world.”
Carrington: “There are many things threatening to kill our world, Nikki. New stars and comets shooting through space. Atmospheric changes. A sudden cooling of the sun. And even human wars – that may release deadly global gases.”
Nikki: “But those are theories, Arthur! This is an enemy – near us – and – “
Carrington: “There are no enemies in science. There are only phenomena to study. We are studying one.”
Nikki: “You’re not afraid?”
Carrington: “I’d be a traitor to human reason if I allowed my fears to destroy what has come to us – or let anyone else destroy it. I want you to believe in my way, Nikki – the way of the mind.”
In the dialogue where Dr. Carrington is describing other possible threats to humanity, he is more on target than they probably knew in 1950. We now know better than ever how dangerous a rogue comet or planetoid could be to Earth if one impacted our planet (the idea of one wiping out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago did not gain wide scientific acceptance until the early 1980s). Climate change and industrial pollution have certainly played a role in causing major changes to Earth’s atmosphere, not to mention the rest of our planet. If nothing else, it would be difficult for Nikki to casually cast off the idea of human wars creating deadly gasses and other weaponry that could threaten our species as just a theory, in both her time period and ours.
This dialogue also lends credence that while Nikki may be right about the alien at the research station being a real and immediate threat at least to them, in the wider context of the whole debate about the intentions of any actual ETI, natural objects in nearby space and certain real humans on Earth have much higher chances of causing disaster and death for us than beings for whom there is still no solid evidence of their existence, let alone their intentions.
In regards to Nikki’s declaration that the alien has come here to create “some kind of a horrible army” and use terrestrial life as a source of food, her response undoubtedly came from the fact that the alien can and did reproduce rather rapidly by producing seed pods from its body, then feeding the developing young inside them with human and dog blood.
The film bends us to think that Nikki’s speculation is the true intent of the alien. To take a page from Dr. Carrington calling upon real terrestrial examples of plant life that can seem to behave like animals, it could also be that the crash-landed and stranded alien might have been trying to preserve, if not its actual self, then its genetic material.
This scenario reminded me of an event that I personally witnessed when I once went salmon fishing with my family. I discovered that male salmon, when caught and pulled out of the water, do something which rather surprised me: The males shoot out a stream of sperm in what can only be described as a last ditch attempt to carry on its genes, desperate and hopeless as this gesture may otherwise seem (the things they do not tell you in most nature documentaries).
This action is very likely not a conscious response in the fish’s case, but rather an automatic survival reaction similar to the famous fight-or-flee response to danger. Perhaps the alien was doing something similar, even though of course it would have been aware of its purpose in producing seed pods. Highly intelligent and advanced or not, the alien still had basic instincts like all living creatures and acted upon them – with the survival of itself and its species no doubt being on the forefront of its list of important activities to conduct.
You could say this too is just speculation, but then again so is Nikki’s, lacking any direct confirmation or denial from the alien itself. Dr. Carrington was not wrong when he said communication is key to understanding.
Nikki, the lone major woman character in The Thing (there was one woman scientist at the research station, the wife of Dr. Chapman, but her role was small) had yet another collection of expressed thoughts in regards not just to their alien “visitor” but about the idea of ETI coming to Earth in general.
This conversation comes from the released film when the alien is still considered to be a dead specimen frozen in that block of ice:
Nikki: “What does that boogeyman in ice really mean?”
Hendry: “I don’t know, Nikki.”
Nikki: “Well, does it mean that we’ll have visitors from other planets dropping in on us? Do we have to return the call, or… Oh, jeepers.”
Hendry: “I know. Yesterday I’d said it was crazy.”
Nikki: “I’d say it’s crazy now.”
Hendry: “Forget it. Tomorrow it’ll all seem different.”
Nikki’s facial expressions and gestures during this scene make it clear that she is not very enamored of the idea that extraterrestrial beings may now be coming to Earth on a regular basis and that humanity might actually have to talk to and associate with them. The very idea itself is not one she or her companion Hendry ever took seriously until they personally found that alien ship and its living occupant in the ice. It is safe to say that these two and the rest of the non-scientists at the station have little interest in ever joining any type of Galactic Club, should one exist.
The scene itself seems mild, an almost casual conversation about a subject that would have been esoteric if not outright embarrassing for our two characters just the day before. That it is such a simple, short, and straightforward “evaluation” of the idea of ETI contact only makes it that much more palatable to the audience, who are continually conditioned to root for the “alien-is-bad” line of reasoning and its mouthpieces.
It is also interesting to note that it is Nikki who first comes up with the idea of how to dispatch the alien after bullets and even cruder methods have failed. While she and the airmen are speculating on how to stop their unwanted guest, someone asks what does one do with a vegetable. Nikki responds with: “Boil it. Stew it. Bake it. Fry it.”
This idea spark leads the men to attempt to burn it to death by dousing it in kerosene then setting it aflame. When that effort fails (in a scene that quite frankly looks like it had the potential to turn deadly for the cast and production crew in real life), they then try an electrical trap, which does succeed.
Image: The Thing as it is about to walk into what the human protagonists hope will be a successful trap to stop it from turning them all into dinner.
No one outside of Dr. Carrington even ventures the idea of communicating with the alien in any way; they only want the creature killed or otherwise destroyed by some method of brute force. The airmen did make some earlier vague suggestions about confining the alien after it escaped the ice block, which is what their superior officers wanted to be done with it, but even capturing the alien alive goes out the window once the danger of the situation escalates.
Another piece of speculation on the alien and its motives that was in the 1950 script draft but removed completely for the final film were its reasons for landing at the North Pole as opposed to anywhere else on Earth.
The scientists first speculate that the alien came from a world that was generally colder than Earth with a thinner atmosphere based on such things as its seeming lack of ears for hearing sounds (they guess that the being “receives magnetic impressions” rather than hearing and seeing as humans do, even though it definitely has eyes that appear and act like ours) and the way it can survive out in the Arctic snow storm even after it has been presumably injured multiple times and with only a thin type of coverall on its body. Also, in the final makeup form of the Thing, the being definitely has human-shaped ears located on either side of its head.
Then they and Captain Hendry come up with some ideas as to why the alien would choose to land in the frigid and desolate Arctic, presuming it did not arrive there by accident due to some technical issues with its ship:
Voorhees: “It ran out into the cold. I think our surmise that it requires a cold temperature is correct.”
Laurenz: “Obviously. That’s why the saucer tried to land in our Polar regions. They corresponded to the conditions of its own planet.”
Hendry: “There might be another reason. Its passengers could have wanted to keep their arrival secret.”
Note how the scientists are thinking about the alien’s motives based on its physiological needs first, as if it were here only to explore. Captain Hendry is thinking in terms of its strategic motives for conquering the planet. Of course the scientists could argue that the alien would want to remain hidden from humans in order to study us without causing any disruption, just like human scientists study animals in the wild using blinds and other means of camouflage in order to witness and record the true behaviors of their subjects.
On the other hand, the remote Arctic may not be the best place if the alien wanted to find a large quantity and cross-section of humanity. For that matter, the alien (and any cohorts aboard that spaceship) could have stayed in Earth orbit and monitored us remotely if exoanthropology were among its motives.
As The Thing takes place and was made years before the first human-made satellites were sent into space, attempting to watch our activities from hundreds of miles above our planet’s surface or more may not have been taken into serious consideration at the time, being thought of as too remote to learn anything useful.
In addition, the idea of sending unmanned vessels using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to explore space and other worlds, instead of ships with living, organic crews, would have been another fairly novel concept at the time. Yes, by 1951 several nations were using unmanned V-2 rockets captured from Nazi Germany at the end of World War Two to carry cameras and other basic instruments on brief forays to the edge of space. However, the idea of “marrying” a complex computer with a launch vehicle would have been difficult at best: A typical “thinking machine” circa 1950 was very expensive, had weight ranges measured in the tons, and filled up a large room. Miniaturizing computer technologies to fit inside a spacecraft on top of a rocket were another concept that would have to wait for the real Space Age to begin on Earth.
Of course the alien may have detected the electromagnetic signals (radio, television, and radar) being leaked from our civilization as a motive for coming to Earth. His species may also have been able to detect our planet’s multitude of biological life signs, which could be accomplished as far away as their home world using an advanced form of spectroscopy.
While we know the plot scales are tipped in favor of a malevolent reason for the alien being on Earth, the previous examples show it could still have come here for purely scientific exploration, its landing near the North Pole an accident as much as a planned place to study us without disturbing the natives.
Dr. Carrington may have taken the more rational and peaceful approach towards the alien, but that did not mean he was without his own biases. As we have seen multiple times over, the lead scientist insisted that because the alien arrived on Earth via a starship, it was therefore much more knowledgeable about science and technology and therefore it must be automatically wiser – with the implicit addition that the being was therefore also more ethical and moral. In addition, Dr. Carrington was rather swept away by the fact that the alien did not reproduce via “messy” sex. For him this was yet another sign that the alien came from a superior species.
As we have seen on Earth, a technologically advanced human society does not automatically indicate a kinder and gentler populace. As history has shown, it often means that the nation or culture with the better technology is simply more efficient at subduing and even wiping out any opposition. Either that or subjugating less powerful and sophisticated groups for their land, resources, and other items that might increase their position.
Even for species that do not possess any real technology, a higher-functioning brain does not therefore mean they will be necessarily more ethical or even just “nicer”. Dolphins are among the most intelligent creatures on Earth, with brains perhaps comparable to humans. Yet certain types often behave within their own species and others in ways that, were they members of human society, would immediately label them criminals.
This analysis does lead into questions of how one can (or should) judge a non-human species by human standards of behavior, especially when even humanity is often divided on what is considered to be moral and ethical, good and bad. If the alien in The Thing did come here to propagate its species on a new world, how is it different from all the organisms on Earth that have competed with other terrestrial creatures for dominance on this planet since their first microbial ancestors appeared over four billion years ago?
Imagine a situation where Earth was becoming uninhabitable for its native organisms: Would it be considered wrong for humanity to seek out another world in the Milky Way galaxy to continue ourselves and whatever other terrestrial life forms they could bring with them? What if they found a suitable world to colonize that was already occupied by its own flora and fauna, including species deemed intelligent enough to compare to humanity? What if the natives of that planet did not want any new neighbors, yet our species’ survival depended upon settling their world? Who would be in the right: The original occupiers of this planet? The would-be human colonists? Or the species that may end up best dominating that globe?
Suppose the alien in The Thing came to Earth because their world could no longer support them? Would they have any less of a right to inhabit our planet to survive than we would if we needed their world to sustain our species? Even if a species had deliberately wrecked their own world through neglect, greed, or war so that their only other choice was extinction?
Evolution is often thought of by the rule of survival of the fittest. If the species of the alien in The Thing is more suited for surviving in this Universe than humanity – and its ability to withstand extreme environmental conditions and various trauma that would dispatch a typical human in short order was witnessed multiple times – does its kind deserve to overtake the stars?
Humanity has certainly considered itself the predominant life form of Earth for ages, even to the point of proclaiming our species was divinely ordained to rule over the planet and utilize its other organisms and resources as it sees fit, since they were presumably placed there specifically for humanity. It is hardly impossible to imagine that such an egocentric view might not be unique to our species across the stars, as dominating cultures rarely think less of themselves as a whole or tend to shy away from gaining more territory and power when the opportunity arises.
If the plot situation in The Thing from Another World had been reversed, where a team of Terran military personnel found themselves on a starship that crash-landed on the world of the alien from the film: Who would the audience be rooting for as the humans undoubtedly would do their very best –indeed, whatever they had to do, if necessary – to survive on a world where the life forms would very likely react to their presence in a manner quite similar to how they reacted to the alien, especially once it had been revived and free in the Arctic research station?
Furthermore, if these humans went so far as to attempt to secure their survival by becoming the new dominant species on that alien planet, either subjugating the natives or snuffing them out, would not many consider them to be brave and audacious heroes, especially back in the era of The Thing’s first release. These humans would see the military men as warriors protecting and preserving the galaxy from dangerous aliens for our species.
That was certainly the theme in the 1997 film Starship Troopers, where a future fascist humanity is on a quest to rid the Milky Way of a nonhumanoid alien species they derisively nickname the Bugs. The few public calls to consider the situation from the Bugs’ point of view, including the possibility that we may have invaded their celestial territory first and thus their hostile response, are quickly dismissed and quelled. The leader of the Terran Federation, Sky Marshall Diennes, brings home the government’s position during a broadcast speech: “We must meet this threat with our courage, our valor, indeed with our very lives to ensure that human civilization, not insect, dominates this galaxy NOW AND ALWAYS!”
Here was Manifest Destiny taken to a stellar level. The film brings up the possibility that instead of an ETI civilization being the conquering aggressors bent on dominating the galaxy so often seen in science fiction, it could be humanity which becomes the “alien” invaders to be feared and despised by other societies across the stars.
This leads to another pertinent issue that was also tipped in favor of the human characters: Who and what would be considered either good or evil, or are these largely human judgement values that become increasingly parochial when compared on a literally cosmic scale? We naturally gravitate towards the idea that if something is beneficial to our species it is therefore good, whereas anything harmful is deemed bad or worse.
However, then how does one define something like a virus, which might be deadly to humans, yet we know that they act as they do with neither purposeful ill intent nor even a consciousness. They exist to make copies of themselves, just like virtually all known species do, just on a much more rudimentary – although certainly highly efficient – level.
Now take this perspective to a galactic scale: What if humanity or other similar types of intelligent biological life forms that may attempt to colonize the Milky Way galaxy are perceived by ETI of a very different makeup or are similar to a Kardashev Type 3 civilization, one that spans and utilizes the resources of an entire stellar island like the Milky Way, just as we generally look upon viruses.
We would not tend to see our interstellar expansion as a spreading disease because we have yet to become fully and truly conscious as a culture of the literally much wider picture. After all, humanity and the single planet it currently occupies at present are virtually microscopic in comparison to the rest of the Cosmos. Yet such a lack of cosmic awareness may not spare us from the more advanced ETI’s response to what they may well see as a form of virus infecting their society’s “body”.
Recall the quote at the beginning of this section from the 1979 science fiction film Star Trek: The Motion Picture: That first cinematic installment of the Star Trek franchise dealt with the mostly-human crew of the starship Enterprise encountering a vast alien being calling itself V’Ger. This ETI hailed from (though not originally) a planet occupied by “living machines”, also known as Artilects, or artificial intellects.
As a result, V’Ger perceived the Enterprise as a fellow living being, albeit much smaller and far less sophisticated, whereas the multiple organic creatures it found inside the vessel were labeled as “carbon units” and therefore were “not true lifeforms” so far as V’Ger was concerned. The artificial alien further thought these carbon units were actually infesting the starship like a disease, keeping it from properly functioning and undoubtedly a threat to its overall existence.
Obviously the scenario with V’Ger is a fictional one, but how often have humans dispatched other organisms they do not consider to be their equals – which is just about everything else on this planet – not only with little to no consideration, but also with the thinking that their duty to remove creatures they consider to be harmful or worse to their fellow humans.
For that matter, how often have humans committed acts of genocide against other human beings, often due to little more than minor differences in appearances and customs? There is usually a justification made for such aggressions; even slim ones can be enough to behave in ways that on an individual scale would be considered nothing less than assault and murder.
Image: The human denizens trapped in the Arctic research station prepare for their final confrontation with the Thing.
Now imagine how contemporary humanity might respond to beings that are truly alien to our world in virtually every way, and vice versa. The results may well be what we have seen in The Thing, with fear and aggression winning out over reason, logic, and overtures of peace, or at least neutrality.
At the end of The Thing, with the alien threat safely eliminated, we find the reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott finally able to broadcast his incredible story to the outside world via radio. Here he beseeches his listeners to tell “everybody wherever they are: Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!”
While one can appreciate this warning from the reporter in the context of his reality’s encounter with an ETI, one may also imagine the heightened levels of paranoia and fear that will now be growing in that human society over anything foreign appearing in Earth’s skies. Authorities will be flooded with reports of unidentified flying objects beyond the already voluminous amounts of such sightings that already existed at the time: Some sighting stories will be legitimate and useful additions to the UFO database, but many more will be either misidentifications or outright hoaxes. Throw in a Cold War that was also a hot one in certain parts of the globe, and it will likely be only a matter of time before someone shoots down a non-hostile terrestrial aircraft, mistaking it for yet another alien invader.
Then there is the possibility that the next visitors to Earth will be either peaceful or at least neutral explorers, or have other motives for traveling here that may either benefit humanity or cause no real harm, if nothing else. All that may change and become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the military panics and attacks them without provocation. Or civilians could fall victim to a mob mentality and conduct equivalent harm on anyone who is not a terrestrial native, or at least attempt to cause their demise. This attitude could even extend to other humans who show any form of support or even sympathy for those do not come from Earth.
This is why we should not and cannot leave the “discussion” about alien life and its possible motivations to science fiction media, be it from over half a century ago or now. I have often said that the general public gets its “education” about the world and various concepts from the films, television programs, and written works produced by our cultures. They often tend to take these messages to heart, whether they are accurate or not.
Some try to dismiss such media as merely harmless entertainment designed purely for profit – “it’s just a movie,” as they like to say. Yet if one is presented with a work that involves thousands of people and multiple industries to create, costs many millions of dollars to produce, and has numerous deliberate messages implanted throughout for its audiences, then it is most definitely not mere entertainment.
The Thing from Another World falls squarely into this category, despite looking like a more-or-less typical monster horror film of its day. That The Thing does look so “harmless” on its surface makes the fact that it is so biased against rational science over a more warlike stance all the more problematic. How many could honestly walk away from this film and not sympathize and side with the protective and friendly airmen over the emotionally aloof Dr. Carrington and his cold logic, even though most of his scientist colleagues at the research station did not share his fanatical attitude towards the alien, no matter where your preferences usually lie?
This is why the professional science community needs to really ramp up both their science education and outreach with the general public on the subject of alien life and the possibilities for and consequences of contact. While we cannot know how, when, where, or exactly why this event may occur one day, we can at least attempt to prepare ourselves and our species.
Being armed with knowledge and not just weapons may make all the difference, especially since it is just as plausible that our first real experience with an ETI may not resemble what Hollywood and other science fiction works have come up with – which in many cases is a good thing for our species, seeing how often they focus on malevolent aliens.
Should the science community fall short in providing the public and non-scientific authorities with guidance in this arena if a contact scenario goes awry due to the actions or inactions of either parties, scientists may find themselves being thought of and reacted to in the same way the airmen and the film audience did with Dr. Carrington.
The science community also needs to work together and push for improved methods to detect extraterrestrial life in all its possible forms. This means both an increase in SETI and METI efforts and exploring other star systems directly with interstellar vehicles. Breakthrough Starshot has made notable opening efforts in all of these areas, bringing awareness, respectability, and proper funding to fields that were often treated as either mere academic exercises or ridicule by much of the professional community.
Nevertheless, we need to be cautious about any singular organization being representative of the whole arena. Until the late 1990s, most American SETI efforts were dominated largely by radio astronomers with only token responses allowed from other fields, including ones that should have been equally as prominent considering the subject matters involved.
As a result, SETI projects in those otherwise pioneering days were focused on listening for radio transmissions from beings dwelling on Earthlike exoplanets circling yellow dwarf stars. Interstellar travel was largely dismissed as either very difficult or impossible to achieve, discrediting the concept of UFOs as alien vessels in the process. In other words, they were looking for versions of ourselves, even though other authorities and other nations involved in the SETI effort, like the Soviet Union, said that the evolutionary odds of alien beings resembling and behaving like us were slim.
Hollywood went on to reinforce this notion of aliens either appearing or at least acting like humans, often if for no other reason than the early science fiction films and television series could neither afford nor do expensive and elaborate nonhumanoid costumes and makeup.
For the fascinating and often otherwise untold history of SETI and astrobiology, please read this online thesis by Mark A. Sheridan:
The Moment of Dr. Carrington
Throughout most of the events in The Thing, Dr. Carrington has been made to come across either as a naive fool at best (he and his fellow scientists were described as acting “like kids drooling over a new fire engine” in their initial reactions to the alien) or tantamount to working with the Thing against the best interest of his own species.
Even near the end, when the airmen had set up a way to electrocute the alien into oblivion, Dr. Carrington attempted to stop them by shutting off the station’s generator powering the trap and threatening them all with a revolver if they tried to turn it on again. The scientist was quickly subdued and hustled into another room for his own safety as much as theirs.
Then the unexpected occurs: Just as the alien is walking towards the airmen, brandishing a long wooden board as a weapon for the final standoff, Dr. Carrington suddenly emerges from behind them, bursting through the group and running straight towards the alien!
The scientist moves right up to the alien and stares into its face. Probably as astonished as the airmen are by this brazen act, the intruder stands still long enough to hear Dr. Carrington plead the following directly to it:
“I’m your friend. I have no weapons. I’m your friend. You’re wiser than I. You must understand what I’m trying to tell you. Don’t go farther. They’ll kill you. They think you’ll harm us. But I want to know you, to help you. Believe that. You’re wiser than anything on Earth. Use that intelligence. Look and know what I’m telling you. I’m not your enemy. I’m a scientist who’s trying – “
Whether the alien truly understood anything Dr. Carrington was saying to it is debatable. However, it may not have mattered, as the alien decides it has had enough of this babbling member of a race that has done nothing but try to kill it: With one swing of its arm, the alien violently knocks the scientist across the corridor, where Dr. Carrington lands on the floor unconscious.
The Thing continues on its menacing path. As the alien steps into the trap, the airmen now give their own “speech” to the intruder: Thousands of volts of electricity, which burn into the being from three different angles. Screaming and flailing about, the alien slowly shrinks until it is nothing but a pile of smoldering ash. The research station – and humanity – are saved from the menace from outer space. This time.
Image: The Thing meets its shocking end at the hands of the United States Air Force.
After this it is clear that the airmen and the reporter now have a new level of respect for Dr. Carrington that before was only inclined towards his higher education and intellect compared to theirs, along with his prestigious reputation in the scientific community. Right or wrong, the scientist had proven that he was willing to put his own life on the line for what he believed in, doing something none of the others would have dared to attempt unless cornered – and certainly not unarmed!
When Scotty is giving his news report to the listening world via Anchorage, he informs his audience that “Dr. Carrington, leader of the scientific expedition, is recovering from wounds from the battle.” The scientist had received “a broken collarbone and a headache” from his one and only direct meeting with the alien. Captain Hendry gave his tacit approval by quietly responding with “Good for you” to Scotty.
This is a strong contrast to what the filmmakers had originally planned for Dr. Carrington’s final scenes. In the 1950 draft script, the climactic action and dialog largely parallels the released cut, including Dr. Carrington running up to the alien unarmed and attempting to appeal to the being’s presumably superior and therefore better nature.
However, when he pleads “I’m not your enemy – I’m a scientist – a scientist!” the following occurs:
“The Creature has paused before Carrington’s tirade as if studying him. Now, without haste, it lifts one arm, and flicks its hand at Carrington’s throat. Carrington falls to the floor almost decapitated, his last words still gurgling in his throat. The Creature steps over Carrington’s corpse and enters the tunnel. It advances five or six steps.”
In the draft script, the alien is destroyed by the electrical trap, disintegrating in essentially the same manner as it would be shown on screen. The surviving humans’ reactions regarding Dr. Carrington, however, are something rather different:
Nikki: “Dr. Carrington – what happened to him?”
Hendry: (quietly) “He’s dead.”
Skeely (Scotty the reporter): (to Henry. Kneeling over Carrington’s remains) “A clean sweep, Captain. Both monsters are dead.”
In this earlier version, Dr. Carrington is killed outright by the alien, and rather gruesomely at that. Instead of being considered brave and therefore receiving a degree of new understanding, respect, and forgiveness for his previous actions and words, the scientist (and by proxy his profession and field) is lumped in with the alien as just another type of dangerous and non-human creature in need of destruction by the brave, relatable, and very human American airmen.
Not only does this alternate turn of events leave an unpleasant feeling, especially if you were not anti-science, anti-rational, and anti-ethical to begin with, but it removes any chance of even a glimmer that The Thing was not entirely on the side of the military and their warrior stance. I will even go so far as to say that had those scenes of and about the demise of Dr. Carrington been filmed and left in the final cut, they would have diminished the opportunity for The Thing to rise above being a straightforward Grade B horror flick.
Thankfully, someone decided that Dr. Carrington was not a monster, at least certainly neither a real nor metaphorical one. As a result, not only did they give the scientist a chance to show that he was a brave and determined warrior in his own way, but also that there was at least some room for more than one viewpoint when it comes to encountering the unknown.
Dr. Carrington’s on screen life may also have been saved because the graphic nature of his initially planned demise may have been deemed too brutal for 1950 audiences. Or that they did not have the special effects budget for it. Or both.
That The Thing left the door open a bit for the scientific angle of humanity dealing with alien life is good. Science is going to be at on the front lines in any event when the day comes that our world does discover extraterrestrial beings, no matter what fashion that historic occasion takes. Civilian and military authorities, and certainly the general populace, will be turning to science and its practitioners for answers to satisfy their curiosity, but even more so to alleviate their fears.
Should the alien(s) turn out to be hostile or otherwise nonbeneficial to the welfare of life on Earth, science will be necessary to provide solutions on how to deal with the threat(s). In The Thing, it was the scientific examination of the alien’s severed arm by the research station scientists that determined the physical makeup of the being and ultimately how to defeat it. The scientists also helped the airmen and reporter overcome their incredulousness at the concept of an intelligent plant capable of conceiving, building, and flying a starship.
This is why in the end it made sense that the chief scientist would be the one to confront the Thing from another world directly, and in a manner decidedly different from the quite predictable ones the airmen had set up for the being. There had to be at least some balance and fair play at some point; otherwise, what the 1950 film draft wanted would have left all of the human characters no more redeemable than the alien who was made to be a monster from the start.
Here is a what-if thought: What if the alien had really listened to Dr. Carrington and heeded his words, stopping his attack on the station personnel? Would the airmen have also stood down? Would the alien have waited for the authorities to arrive and gone with them, probably to be intensely questioned and examined before being detained indefinitely?
In light of what we already know about The Thing, these alternative scenarios all seem rather unlikely, but they are interesting to ponder just the same. If they did happen, we would have had a very different film, perhaps even a sequel at that. Even more importantly, we would have had a form of roleplay for the possibility of dealing with an actual ETI coming to Earth to learn from our species and vice versa, something science fiction can be rather good at, when its various authors can remember to keep at least some legitimate science in their plots. We might also have had a relatively rare chance for an early example of truly thoughtful and even literate science fiction cinema, from a Hollywood “monster” movie no less.
Doesn’t Every Alien Drive a Flying Saucer?
The Thing from Another World reflects another perception of alien life that evolved in the post-World War Two and early Cold War era: The surge of reports on Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), also known as flying saucers. The latter term came from comments made by Kenneth Arnold, the man who is credited with the first modern era UFO sighting in 1947.
After that landmark and widely-publicized event, sightings of strange craft seen moving about the sky and even more elaborate related stories increased exponentially. It soon became accepted on a cultural level that these objects were the vessels of highly intelligent alien visitors coming to Earth to study and interact with humanity, despite having primarily just eyewitness accounts for evidence.
There were so many UFO sightings in those days, in fact, that the USAF set up a department to document and study this phenomenon. What would one day become best known as Project Bluebook, which lasted from 1952 until 1969, originated as Project Sign in 1947 and then evolved into Project Grudge just two years later.
Project Sign’s final estimate on the UFO phenomenon was officially stated as inconclusive, although it had initially determined that these objects were real and likely extraterrestrial in origin. Air Force officials rejected those first claims on the basis of a lack of physical evidence and dissolved Sign. Its replacement study, Project Grudge, determined that most reported UFOs were either hoaxes or misunderstood natural phenomenon, although they admitted a certain percentage could not be explained conclusively.
Image: The moment the humans realize the crashed “aircraft” was not a product of their species.
The time period that events in The Thing take place – November 2 and 3, 1950 – put them smack in the middle of the Project Grudge era. There is a scene when the alien has first been found in the Arctic ice and the airmen are putting it aboard their airplane that one of them informs Captain Hendry – with full irony given their current situation – that a recent bulletin from the Department of Defense (DoD) declared that…
“The Air Force has discontinued investigating and evaluating reported flying saucers on the basis that there is no evidence.”
“The Air Force said that all evidence indicates that the reports of unidentified flying objects are the result of:
“One: Misinterpretation of various conventional objects. Second: A mild form of mass hysteria. Third: That they’re jokes.”
Dramatically, this sets up the audience to react based on the general public’s tendency to be suspicious of and often outright reject certain declarations from those figures in authority. Even the airmen, who are trained to obey their military superiors, make more than a few disparaging remarks about the capabilities of their higher ranking officers and the Air Force organization in general throughout the film. The airmen also have a level of disdain for the authority of science, particularly with Dr. Carrington as their chief representative science scapegoat.
This attitude ties in with the earlier theme in this essay about the built-in biases of the film regarding science’s take on alien life and how the response from the military in the form of our airmen heroes is made to be the “right” one. It is a reflection of our base fears of the unknown and how our more instinctual emotions take over and tell us how to respond to them.
The scene is also very likely an ironic comment on what happened when the film’s co-producer, Howard Hawks, asked the Air Force for assistance in making The Thing. They were turned down, as the head officials felt that their public cooperation with the film would contradict the military branch’s official stand on UFOs, which thanks to Project Grudge meant that they were anything but spacecraft from other worlds with alien occupants, friendly or otherwise.
These aspects of ourselves have not changed despite progress in other areas of science, technology, and cultural awareness since The Thing was released. The film also shows how the cinema can both reflect and influence our thinking and that such media are more than “just a movie.”
As for the film’s comment that the USAF no longer had any interest in UFOs and related phenomenon, the truth in our reality is that they continued to investigate them officially through 1969 with the aforementioned Project Bluebook.
The original intent of this study was to determine just what UFOs were and why they were acting as they were reported. The Air Force also wanted to know if these objects posed any threat to the United States. There was also an underlying motive that if some of these things were actual vessels of some sort, be they of Soviet origin or elsewhere, that the continual study or even acquisition of one of them could be a boon to our knowledge in the fields of technology, engineering, and physics – with perhaps some biology thrown in as a bonus.
Project Bluebook would eventually conclude the following:
1. No UFO reported, investigated, and evaluated by the Air Force was ever an indication of threat to our national security.
2. There was no evidence submitted to or discovered by the Air Force that sightings categorized as “unidentified” represented technological developments or principles beyond the range of modern scientific knowledge.
3. There was no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as “unidentified” were extraterrestrial vehicles.
If you think these statements from the USAF made in 1969 ended the public interest in UFOs or the view that they are the vehicles of alien visitors from beyond Earth, guess again. The plot elements of an alien being arriving on Earth in a flying saucer-shaped interstellar spacecraft certainly did not stop with The Thing, as both the real UFO phenomenon and this genre of science fiction both fed off each other and grew. Whether it helped or clouded the issues surrounding extraterrestrial intelligences and their motives can be debated, but they are a prominent part of the equation for human thinking on the subject nonetheless.
Image: The only real glimpse we get of the Thing’s mode of interstellar transportation, before the starship is inadvertently destroyed during its recovery effort.
The Thing from Another World was certainly not the only science fiction film influenced by the growing UFO phenomenon in that era. Just five months after The Thing was delivered to theaters, another effort called The Day the Earth Stood Still made its debut.
This film involved a humanoid alien named Klaatu and his robot “companion” Gort, who came to Earth in a silvery flying saucer starcraft, landing on a baseball field in Washington, D.C.. Like The Thing, the alien was shot by a panicky human soldier shortly upon leaving his vessel. However, this time a bloodbath did not promptly commence and Klaatu was promptly taken to Walter Reed General Hospital as it was known until 1951 to recover.
The Day the Earth Stood Still further veered away from its predecessor when it is revealed why Klaatu and Gort were sent to our planet: They are part of “an organization for the mutual protection of all planets – and for the complete elimination of aggression. A sort of United Nations on the Planetary level….” This is quoted from the revised final draft of the film dated February 21, 1951.
This interstellar organization has devised a system of sophisticated robots such as Gort which patrol the galaxy and respond decisively to any barbaric societies that might take their aggressive ways into space. Humanity has been recognized as one of these potentially dangerous species, thus Klaatu’s mission to Earth to warn its primate inhabitants that while they do not care what humans might do to each other or their home planet so long as they stay there, if we “threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”
Klaatu leaves humanity with these words:
“Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course – and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”
This time it is not the aliens who are the aggressors, except in potential self-defense, but the humans who have not ended their tribal warlike ways and now possess the ability to send nuclear weapons into space. Whereas The Thing was primarily a cheerleader for the American side of the Cold War and its warrior caste, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a blatant warning to stop the very real concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, before it is too late.
That The Thing was more successful at the box office in 1951 in terms of financial earnings perhaps speaks more to the desire of general moviegoers to prefer what was perceived as relatively light entertainment compared to a film with a bigger production budget, a more sophisticated plot, and an Important Message to Humanity, rather than suspect the public would want warfare over peace. Or so one may hope.
Yet another counterexample of a science fiction film from the 1950s with a flying saucer starship was Forbidden Planet, released in 1956.
This time the flying saucer belongs not to the expected aliens of either malevolent or benevolent stripes but to humans of the 23rd Century as their interstellar vehicle of choice to explore and patrol the Milky Way galaxy at the behest of the United Planets. However, the intended good and bad guys of the film are more in line with the characters in The Thing: The crew of the hyperdriven starship designated just C-57D consists of a military style hierarchy on a rescue mission to Altair 4 to retrieve some research scientists presumably stranded on that remote alien world twenty years ago. There they encounter only one surviving scientist, a fellow named Dr. Morbius, his daughter, Alta, and their robot servant, Robby.
Morbius has found the still-functioning technological remains of an ancient and long-extinct civilization which called themselves the Krell. Far more advanced in virtually every way than even this future human society, the scientist refuses to relinquish control of all that he has learned from the Krell to any members of his fellow species, as he considers the rest of humanity neither ready for nor worthy of such superior knowledge.
Tensions mount as the scientist increasingly rejects the standing orders of the United Planets officers to bring back to Earth any survivors from Altair 4. They also have the unexpected complication of dealing with a strange and powerful alien technology and the need to report this discovery to their superiors.
Ultimately, the situation goes sour when Dr. Morbius unconsciously uses the Krell technology against the C-57D crew to force them to leave the planet or else. The alien instrumentality turns Morbius’ subconscious primitive thoughts into a deadly material reality, producing a literal monster from the id portion of his brain that kills several crewmen and threatens to destroy them all. The human warriors are forced to defeat Morbius and his godlike powers at the cost of almost everything, including the very planet of the Krell itself.
As with The Thing, the heroes and “good guys” in Forbidden Planet are the exclusively white, male, and American officers and crew of the C-57D. Anyone and anything else that does not fall into lockstep with these men and their ideals is labeled naive and delusional at best and a dire threat at worst. This includes the Krell, who destroyed themselves when they allowed their quest for knowledge and power to go unchecked. The starship’s captain, J. J. Adams, even “gets the girl”, Alta, in the end as his “reward”, just like Captain Hendry and Nikki in The Thing.
If you want to learn much more about Forbidden Planet, please read my two-part essay on Centauri Dreams starting here:
As an interesting comparison, the starship that the Thing arrived in from the original short story “Who Goes There?” resembles an unadorned submarine rather than the flying saucer design from the 1951 film and its much later cinematic remakes.
“Something came down out of space, a ship. We saw it there in the blue ice, a thing like a submarine without a conning tower or directive vanes. 280 feet long and 45 feet in diameter at its thickest.”
Campbell’s story was published nine years before the modern UFO “flying saucer” era. If you look at the science fiction artwork and story descriptions of spaceships in the decades before 1947, such vessels often had much in common with real aquatic submersibles. This makes sense in that a submarine and its crew traveling through the ocean has definite parallels with a manned spaceship moving through space. Submarines would have been the closest vessel type to a spaceship for those artists and authors to have a comparison with in the pre-Cold War and Space Age eras.
It is interesting to see how a cultural mindset on a particular subject can change almost wholesale, and in such a relatively short period of time.
What About Those Other Things?
You may have noticed that I have given little mention of the other film versions of The Thing in this essay. This is largely due to the fact that while the 1982 version has become rightly praised on multiple fronts, not the least of which includes the fact that it follows the original 1938 science fiction story much more closely than the 1951 film when it came to the design and actions of the alien, director John Carpenter’s vision is not nearly as focused on the deeper themes found in its cinematic predecessor and inspiration.
In essence, Carpenter’s take on The Thing is largely a successful horror film with a shapeshifting alien creature as the protagonist whose primary motivation appears to be sheer survival. The human characters trapped with it in the isolated Antarctica research station are far more focused on not being absorbed and taken over by this truly monstrous intruder and their growing paranoia over who is actually the alien in disguise.
As for the 2011 film “prequel”, it is mostly an inferior copy of its 1982 predecessor. The only real difference in terms of items and information from the other films is that the prequel created the interior of the alien’s starcraft and gives its own explanation why the vessel impacted on Earth: The ship belonged to an advanced nonhumanoid ETI species that was exploring the Milky Way galaxy to collect biological specimens for later scientific study.
One of the organisms they found and took onboard during their expedition was the Thing, which eventually broke free of its containment unit and attacked the ship’s crew while they were in the vicinity of Earth. In an attempt to destroy the alien, the ship was deliberately crashed into the planet’s southern polar continent, obviously without success.
For those of you who may still want to salvage these later cinematic takes on The Thing from the pit of straight horror entertainment with an attempt at speculation on the further motives of the alien, you are in luck.
Just one year before The Thing prequel was released into theaters, Canadian science fiction author Peter Watts took on the task of giving us the alien’s perspective on its existence and its encounters with the handful of human and canine residents of Antarctica. Titled “The Things” and both published and made into a podcast in 2010, we learn that the Thing is not some mindless feeding monster, but was instead…
“…so much more, before the crash. I was an explorer, an ambassador, a missionary. I spread across the cosmos, met countless worlds, took communion: the fit reshaped the unfit and the whole universe bootstrapped upwards in joyful, infinitesimal increments. I was a soldier, at war with entropy itself. I was the very hand by which Creation perfects itself.
“So much wisdom I had. So much experience. Now I cannot remember all the things I knew. I can only remember that I once knew them.”
The Thing soon learns from its initial encounters with these strange terrestrial creatures that they actively do not like and do not want to be “communed” with, for they are individual and largely independent entities with minds confined to one localized area of their bodies rather than throughout every cell of their beings like the Thing. This leaves the alien “ambassador” both shocked and repulsed by these “thinking cancers” as it first labels humans.
Having barely escaped being destroyed at the research station after its numerous efforts to commune with the dogs and humans there and now trapped on Earth in an ice-laden wasteland, the alien eventually empathizes with its attackers and the lonely and lifespan-limiting fate that evolution has dealt them, which it now refers to as “the things”.
As The Thing buries itself in the polar ice for preservation to await release by future discoverers, the being determines its new purpose is to bring the wondrous uplifting qualities of communing to all terrestrial organisms, for their benefit.
The alien in Watts’ story is based on the being from the 1982 film and is of course entirely from his own imagination: We are never given such a perspective in the Carpenter film. Just like the USAF airmen in the 1951 version, the men of the Antarctic research station only want to kill the alien: They have no desire to communicate with it (they would likely consider it pointless anyway) and they do not want to understand the intruder beyond acquiring the knowledge of how to eradicate it.
This is especially ironic in that about half of the men in the cast are portraying scientists. At one point a young assistant biologist named Fuchs protests the destruction of several organic samples of the alien on scientific grounds, but is quickly overruled. Most of the dialogue in the 1982 version is often too colloquial and clipped to contribute any real substance to the discussions regarding ETI for this essay.
In terms of science, primarily what one could take from the Carpenter film is to add one more cultural data point that most human beings placed in lethal danger by unknown forces will respond with paranoia and hostility that will easily turn into a mob mentality if they are facing such a threat as a group.
This lack of internal revelation is disappointing, as it would have added some very interesting and unexpected layers to the Thing, rising it and the plot above the purely horrific monster we were given. Exploring these depths might also have added some substance to the real world debate about whether or not to contact ETI and how to deal with alien life once it is found, as that type of science fiction often does.
This is why the 1951 cinematic version has more intellectual value and depth in certain respects despite dovetailing from the original Campbell story in key places and having the least emphasis on special effects for the alien due to budget and special effects technology constraints. Even with the built-in bias towards the alien being a threat to all Earth life, the opposing viewpoints shown between the scientists and the military genuinely contribute to the popular-level scientific debate found in The Thing from Another World.
You may read “The Things” story in full at either of these following Web sites, or listen to the audio/podcast versions, if you prefer:
One Last Thing…
“I hate war, for it spoils conversation.” – Bernard Le Bovier De Fontenelle (1657 – 1757), French author and member of the French Academy who wrote one of the first popular accounts about alien life and the heliocentric theory: Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, first published in 1686.
You may read the 1803 English edition online here:
Fontenelle also once said:
“Nothing can be more destructive to ambition, and the passion for conquest, than the true system of astronomy. What a poor thing is even the whole globe in comparison of the infinite extent of nature!”
We shall one day see if such a grand perspective does indeed stem the aggressive sides of intelligent species both on this world and beyond.
The following hyperlinks take you to places of information for your further appreciation of the film The Thing from Another World. You will find several other reference links throughout the essay. These links were functional at the time of this essay’s publication.
Here is the 1938 science fiction story that started it all…
Although the author of “Who Goes There?” was listed in the August, 1938 issue of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction as Don A. Stuart, his real name was John W. Campbell, Jr., who had just become the publication’s managing editor. Campbell is considered to be one of the primary shapers of modern science fiction, with a heavy emphasis on the science aspect of the genre. This is evident throughout the story, with lots of real science tidbits on a variety of subjects thrown in along the journey.
In this story, the alien had crash-landed its starship on Antarctica roughly twenty million years ago and became frozen in the surrounding ice, not the day before as in the 1951 film. Both versions have the Thing’s vessel being destroyed accidentally when its human discoverers attempt to remove it from the ice using thermite bombs.
After the Thing is found and brought to the research station for study, some of the characters in Campbell’s work actually take the time to debate whether the alien could be dangerous/evil or not. They initially conclude that a human cannot adequately judge the expressions and features of a truly alien being to determine its thoughts and emotional states.
Other characters immediately assume upon first seeing the creature that it is evil and full of hatred and fury based on the baleful gaze it projects from its three red eyes, which are surrounded by blue wormlike tentacles on its head and over its body, like the snakes of Medusa from ancient Greek mythology. They also determined at one point that the alien evolved on “a hotter planet that circled a brighter, bluer sun they came.”
Of course it turns out that the alien is very hostile and apparently hate-filled. It is also telepathic and can project thoughts to others. Once it escapes from the block of ice it was encased in, the being has no qualms completely taking over (and therefore killing) any terrestrial life forms it comes across down to the cellular level. When the Thing is finally destroyed, the survivors discover the alien had gotten quite far in building an atomic-powered anti-gravity device that would have allowed it to escape beyond Antarctica.
In 2018, a box of manuscripts donated by Campbell to Harvard University were found to include a much longer version of this story titled Frozen Hell. A very successful Kickstarter campaign made it possible for this novel to be published, first digitally as an E-book in January of 2019 with a later goal of hardcopy printed versions.
The original theatrical trailer:
The complete original 1951 film online at Archive.org:
This is a straight transcript of the released 1951 film. Sadly none of the dialog is labeled in terms of who said what and there are no stage directions:
A Web page celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the release of The Thing from Another World in 2011. A nice plot summary and lots of good stills and behind the scenes images:
Although this Web site is mainly focused on the later film versions of The Thing, in particular the John Carpenter version from 1982, some information may be found on the 1951 film. This includes the complete August 29, 1950 draft script:
If you want to read a detailed yet fascinating yet anything-but-dry analysis of alien life in all its potential forms, behaviors, and motivations that uses science fiction characters as its jumping off points, you cannot do much better than this Web site:
Comments on this entry are closed.
The lenght of this post was nothing short of epic!
I don’t disagree, but Larry’s passion and insights make up for it.
Kurt Vonnegut, in “Letters,” offering advice to writers:
“Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.”
I would only add that writers benefit knowing when an editor is helpful, indeed essential.
Great analysis LJK!
How will Gravity, Interstellar, or Blade Runner standup in 68 years? Or more to the “monster” – Predator, Alien, or Independence Day, etc.? How do these reflect our anxieties?
I think the movies you mention will only stand with the casual consumer of science fiction in the future. Interstellar tried, but it is no 2001.
I agree and said so in my 2014 review of Interstellar, among other things:
I have to strongly disagree here; the introduction of the movie ‘The Thing’ wasn’t all extraterrestrial doom and gloom. It happened to personally for me introduce the idea of stirfry of vegetables. The Thing looked like a carrot and I was introduced to the idea that you could cook carrots and still retain a crispiness to them. So it was all good.
In my follow-up essay, I discuss how the airmen missed an opportunity to improve their diets while stuck up in the Arctic by adding a variety of vegetables to their menu – alien vegetables, but still.
With the way the Thing reproduced and their working greenhouse at the research station, careful plant husbandry (and a nearby fully-charged electric grid, just in case) could have provided them the necessary “greens” indefinitely.
Now if only a fruit-based ETI would crash-land its spaceship nearby next, then their other plant-based dietary requirements would be fulfilled. Yes, they did mention the presence of strawberries at the station, but those are seasonal plus they had to be shipped in at what I am certain was no small expense.
Thought Number 487: Do you think when the Thing found the Arctic research station’s greenhouse and realized that these humans were breeding captured plants for food that that is when the undoubtedly horrified being had had enough of these horrific creatures and really went to town about them?
The humans were certainly horrified when the discovered that the Thing had strung up two of their own in the greenhouse like hunting trophies to partake of their blood. What goes around….
The theme of aliens consuming humans or other Earth-based lifeforms was something Carl Sagan mentioned in one of his books (I forget which). Sagan made the point that traveling interstellar distances in order to feed off another planet’s life seems like an unrealistic scenario for an advanced civilization that would likely have the resources and know-how to meet their needs more locally. I have also heard the argument that consumption by aliens may not be realistic from a biochemical standpoint– that is, our type of life might either have no nutritional value to them or it might be downright toxic to their metabolism. I would be curious to hear what others think on this topic (e.g. Alex Tolley)?
Delusions of infestation or contamination are among the more common forms of paranoia found in those with psychotic disorders. Even though there are reasons to be skeptical of the consumption theme playing out in the real Universe, movies like ‘Alien’ (1979) and the more recent movie ‘Life’ (2017) with Jake Gyllenhaal still scare me. Or, how ‘A Quiet Place’ (2018) starring John Krasinski and Emily Blunt?! How many of you have seen the movie “Life’ or ‘A Quiet Place’? I won’t give them away, but let’s just say these movies look at pretty scary ‘back contamination’ scenarios. How worried should we be about back contamination…could a uni-cellular or even multi-cellular unintelligent alien species overrun earth’s biosphere in the same way that a native invasive species overwhelms certain ecosystems on earth at present? The other thing about a serious enough back contamination scenario is that it could end up representing what some in the existential risk community have referred to as a ‘black swan extinction level event'.
I think the book by Sagan you refer to is The Demon Haunted World. It is my personal favorite. Science fiction is a love-hate relationship for me. When it is good, it is very very good. However, when it is bad, it is just plain horrible.
Here is Sagan’s book online:
A 12-minute audio summary here:
The full audiobook version here:
In the 1951 film, when the Thing was still encased in the block of ice and the humans were deciding whether to thaw it out or not, one scientist did bring up a concern that the Thing might be harboring some diseases that could be fatal to all. That the alien did later escape and run around the research station plus go outside, with no signs of anyone becoming ill – at least at the time – meant Earth was safe again.
Larry, great post! I could throw back a few adult beverages and discuss the finer points of Forbidden Planet until sunrise with you and I was not even born until seven years after the movie was released…
30 miles 30 miles 30 miles and in one night…monsters from the id.
Would sixty gallons be sufficient?
PS my highly emancipated daughters love the movie as well, go figure.
Thank you, Thomas. I was not around yet either when The Thing from Another World and Forbidden Planet first arrived on this planet, yet thanks to modern viewing technology that will never stop us from enjoying and chatting about them, or writing essays.
Also, you clearly raised your children right.
2001, Contact, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Aliens. My top five in order. Not that my opinion should matter.
CGI Cowboys and Indians in space is not science fiction, and technically speaking Aliens fits that description, but it was really well made Cowboys and Indians in space.
In case you would like to know my thoughts on Contact, where I focus on the 1997 but also discuss the 1985 novel it was based on, see here:
I think Contact deserves the miniseries treatment, and I say this as someone who is not a fan of most remakes. There was a lot of great material and serious food for thought in Carl Sagan’s written work that a 2.5-hour film just could not fit in.
Completely agree, they spend many days on that coral atoll at the center of the galaxy…and I want to see what an erbium dowel looks like.
Good review of my favorite SciFi B-movie.
For more context:
The Thing is tracked with Geiger counters, adding the “radiation fear” that was so prevalent in movies of that time and gave rise to the various mutant movies. The best, IMO, was Them!. There were a host of lesser movies of that era where Geiger counters were used to track the monster.
Carrington is depicted as preferring cold logic and other “inhuman” characteristics, as well as the “Ends justifies the means” ideology that was attributed to the Communists. The allegory for the Communist invasion: Invasion of the Body Snatchers depicted the pod people as devoid of emotion, and of course, they were born by asexual means. This theme of souless, unemotional, people was used in aa number of such movies, including The Invaders from Mars. Even as late as Star Trek, with the Klingons (Russians) and Romulans (Chinese), the logical, emotionless Vulcans who had a common ancestry with the Romulans, could be considered as referencing this model.
While scientists were often depicted as the villains, harking back to Dr. Frankenstein, even Dr Faustus, they were also depicted as being the heroes. It is the scientists who are the best of Earth in The Day the Earth Stood Still, again in the George Pal version of The War of the Worlds (1953), and the superior Quatermass tv series and movies. The same themes in “The Thing” are played out in “Quatermas and the Pit”, with the military being the reactive aggressors. But in that movie, the scientists, Quatermass and Roney, are clearly the heroes.
While the movies played to the trope of “evil scientist”, the SciFi that I read more usually depicted scientists as the heroes. We still see these tropes played out in our world, with issues of gene modification and other “playing god and against nature” memes.
In the Thing, Colonel Hendry is playing the “everyman” that the audience can relate to (although his drunken handsies with Nikki that she recollects would no longer be acceptable). The scientists are not well characterized, except for Carrington, who is depicted as the cause of much of the later havoc, while it was Hendry who caused the loss of that priceless spaceship and the accidental release of the Thing due to poor judgement. Despite this, Hendry is absolved of the loss of the ship by the late confirmation of his actions by his superiors, and of course, he gets the girl. So all’s well that ends well.
Despite almost 70 years since The Thing was released, we still seem to have the meme that Violence against The Other is the way to go. Usually there is some perceived justification before the [US] military let loose (can’t be see to start a war) with all the awesome firepower at its disposal. It is such a pity that so few movies ever depict scientists trying to solve the problem of communication with aliens, although Arrival is perhaps a better recent example. More usually, even if the scientists are sympathetic, the plot seems inevitably to get back to memes like “Don’t play God” or “Don’t mess with things you don’t understand” where the scientist is the proximate of the mayhem, and the charismatic action hero has to save the day, usually with some form of spectacular violence with things that go bang. It was a departure from this hackneyed plot device that made the Chinese SciFi movie: The Wandering Earth so much more enjoyable, despite its flaws.
Alex, thank you again for your wonderful insights and commentary. While I know there are films that show scientists as the heroes, even handsome heroes (This Island Earth usually comes first to mind for me), my admittedly unscientific mental survey recalls them often being depicted as either naive nerds who are just barely accepted by the larger social order or unhinged mad scientist types. For me this goes hand-in-hand with how aliens are also depicted in terms of being threats vs. friends (or saviors).
Hopefully as we keep progressing through the 21st Century with our growing technological and scientific advancements (almost everyone uses a computer of some kind and accesses the Internet these days), these hoary old tropes will change to more accurate, balanced, and open-minded ones.
Speaking of communism in The Thing, note how they have Dr. Carrington dress, especially in his winter outfits. The filmmakers were definitely trying to make a subtle connection there. While the scientist clearly does not work for the Soviet Union, they are trying to imply that his thinking and methods are unAmerican, which at that time could mean only one thing.
Looks like I have a new film to check out:
I saw this movie when I was 11 years old at the Majestic Theater in Downtown Dallas. It scared the bejabbers out of me! When I was older and interested in film and film making I can remember discussing this picture with like-minded friends. There is an interesting book by Bill Warren : Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, with a nice exposition on this movie. Even tho prominently featured as the producer it is now known that Howard Hawks has his finger prints all over this movie. As good a screen writer as Charles Lederer was , Hawks script doctored screenplay. Most noticeable is the pace of the film and crisp dialog (with the Hawks feature of people taking over one another). In years later actors in the film said that Hawks so closely supervised director Christian Nyby that the film was effectively made by Hawks. There were some other ‘look out it’s loose’ SF films , like It! The Terror from Beyond Space, 1958, …not until Ridley Scott’s Alien did we get the same scares.
Of note the other prominent visitor from another world in 1951 was The Day the Earth Stood still. With a totally different take, humans are the villains in that one, one the rare SF films of the 50’s (like It Came from Outer Space) to take that as the story backbone.
As Spaceman mentions Carl Sagan had a logical criticism, any civilization capable of interstellar flight has to have mastered it’s own survival by smarter conversation of resources.
Interstellar flight is not interplanetary flight; the technology to do star faring with facility requires a civilization with ‘smarts’, grace and wit. It’s just dumb to have ball-peen brutes master the ultra-extreme-difficulties of travel between the stars. (One argument against saucer-men being a bunch of yahoos.)
But stupid stuff can make good boxoffice …. and still does.
Hi Al! Thank you once again for your invaluable personal insights into The Thing as you have done with some many other posts here. While I did not see the 1951 version of this film until I was in college, I did see It! The Terror from Beyond Space when I was a kid and it was indeed frightening. I saw It again just a few years ago and while I am now so much cinematically braver, I admired how well done it was, especially how the crew handled their approach to stopping the Martian menace. I can definitely see how it may have influenced the making of Alien (1979).
About ETI having to be smart in order to build and operate starships in order to explore worlds in other star systems: While it would be hard to deny otherwise, my contention is that being technologically advanced does not automatically equal moral, ethical, or “good”. Such beings do not even have to be evil as we know the concept: They could cause harm through their indifference or
Sagan had a theory which he stated in Contact as well as in other writings of his that hostile societies will destroy themselves before they ever could start expanding into the galaxy. That may ultimately be true for us and beings like us, but for an alien species that evolved in a very different way in a very different (read alien) environment, the two may not cancel each other out. Our own Space Age was born from first a hot war and then a Cold one. Before World War 2, rockets were small ventures by small groups: Most of the folks with the power and funding saw little use for them.
The alien species of The Thing, despite coming from plant ancestors, seems to have followed a similar route to a certain terrestrial primate species, including the development of space travel. The Thing may have been dispassionate in certain areas as Dr. Carrington claimed, but being really unhappy about being shot at, set on fire, and having its arm caught in a door was one emotional reaction it was really good at!
This aggression not only failed to keep the Thing’s kind from developing interstellar travel, it may have been what fueled such desires in the first place. Indeed, we may find that a certain drive is necessary in order to expand beyond one’s homeworld. Apollo happened largely because of geopolitical conflict. An ETI may unite and not harm its own kind if they use their combined strength and support as a means to subjugate others, even if the only reason is to ensure they are not attacked first.
Here are my takes regarding the concept of an alien invasion…
The first one:
The second one:
Of course we could be affected by an ETI encounter in ways Hollywood usually cannot imagine. And it does not always have to be negative, as learning about and from an advanced species could be just the boost we need to get past our tribalism and parochialism.
I quite like the Pingu version.
Thanks for the link Andy. Claymation really does make every story better.
Quite the research project! A good read with lots of additional fascinating references.
I never saw the original early 50s Thing, which seems to show the superiority of script when special effects are few (or not available), I recall being somewhat awed by the ‘in your face’ special effects in carpenter’s ‘Thing’ version of ‘Who Goes There?’ This essay was a revelation.
I did see Forbidden Planet (based on Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’) and still think of that movie as at least as good as anything done since in the SF genre. Pretty much all of the Star Trek franchise is derivative of FP.
I recall enjoying reading Heinlein’s Starship troopers, then being appalled by the movie which brought out the underlying fascism of the novel, not to mention the horrific violence of its battle scenes.
The vast distances between the stars may themselves be the quarantine that permits forms of life to develop, yet we will inevitably break those barriers however long it may take.
I wonder if the Arthur Carrington’ character was named for Richard Carrington, the Victorian astronomer who observed the sunspots behind the ‘Carrington Event’ of 1859?
I want to correct something I see a lot. William Shakespeare’s The Tempest is only a framing device for Forbidden Planet. The core narrative, and it is unusual for 1956 , is prose science fiction as it had appeared since 1930. The Krell civilization is part Olaf Stapledon ,Manly Wade Wellman and those ideas as elaborated and diffused by SF writers in magazines like Astounding and it’s like, especially in the 1940s. The story is by Allen Adler and Irving Block , and adapted by screen writer Cyril Hume, from what I been able to find out , they all were familiar with written science fiction , an unusual attribute among film and TV people*. The nomenclature and the behind-the-scenes-world-building is pure John Campbell – Robert Heinlein-Issac Asimov-about 100 other SF writers of the times. First time that FTL had been used in a visual narrative ( I don’t count This Island Earth because that was a total fumble of a concept). (It seems implied in This Island Earth but not elaborated in anyway.)
Forbidden Planet was made of more elements , from the page, than The Bard.
*Note good film and TV science fiction always sprung from fans of the prose form, George Pal’s affection for H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein…Gene Roddenberry’s fondness for the pages of Astounding.
Byron: I have no idea where Dr. Carrington’s name came from, but your suggestion is a very good guess. Richard Carrington did witness a solar phenomenon that, had it happened one century later or after, could have devastated our civilization – just like the Thing may have done if it had escaped the icy polar wastes, as the airmen feared.
I can tell you that the original last name for Captain Patrick Hendry in the 1950 draft script was Henry, thus Patrick Henry, a Founding Father and hero of the American Revolution of the late Eighteenth Century best known for saying in 1775: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” The meaning and symbolism behind having the hero of the film take such a name should be obvious. Why they added the “d” in his last name later I do not know.
Al: Regarding forbidden Planet and its relationship to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, I recall (and this may have been via you) that the filmmakers made no initial connection between the two works for fear that having FP seen as an “intellectual” film via the Bard might scare away American audiences. The first real comparison of FP to The Tempest only began about five years after the film was released in 1956.
I also found this related paper online here:
I am not sure the Allen Adler and Irving Block ‘treatment’ still exists, it is known they pitched the movie as ‘Fatal Planet’ , when MGM took up the option they assigned Cyril Hume , a writer with an Ivy League background. There is no question that The Tempest is a framework. Tho I am hard put to see The Krell as a plot pivot in the Shakespeare play. The story is a mystery story , Asimov could have written it. In prose SF , by 1956, nothing unusual about ancient lost ‘technological’ civilizations but the idea sure did not occur in SF film. What struck me then about the film as it does now, as space opera, there is no Flash Gordon, no real ‘pulp’ the built world is pure John W Campbell. Even tho it did decent boxoffice no one did space opera like that for another 10 years , when Star Trek came along. Lot of old time movie fans have puzzled over that. In the prose form there was plenty of source material but Hollywood seemed oblivious.
I am told the novelization of the movie is good too.
The action in Forbidden Planet originally took place in the year 1976 on the planet Mercury!
I am going to guess a lot of Hollywood producers and executives were neither big fans nor readers of science fiction and especially its literary works, then or now.
The FP novel is pretty good. The author offered an explanation for the terran animals on Altair 4, namely that they were the creations of the same Krell manifestation technology that produced Dr. Morbius’ Monster from the Id.
In my Centauri Dreams essay on the film, I wondered how these Earth animals had survived the 200,000 and more years they were on Altair 4 since the Krell had brought their ancestors to the planet from their interstellar expeditions to our world and other star systems, one presumes.
Somehow these creatures not only survived the night when the Krell’s manifested thoughts wiped out their species but the two thousand centuries afterwards on a presumably desolate planet until the Bellerophon expedition showed up just 20 years before the C-57D followed.
Sometimes . . . when thinking about all of this . . . they may be here already and testing us somehow . . . are we worthy of the intergalactic community . . . that most likely probably exists but is cloaked from us . . but as we get more and more sophisticated science wise . . that veil is slowly lifted. I do think that if they are here . . . they want to see how we evolve as a species . . . it may take us many more generations to prove that we are peaceful and motivated to make our place in the Galaxy or they may be interested in our future machine intelligence . . it is so much fun to speculate . . . but the more we know . . science fiction usually turns out to be fact (look at all the planets discovered). This is an epic post . . . one that was greatly enjoyed . . . Bravo!!
ETI could be here in some form monitoring us on the sly, perhaps in the same way human researchers try to study terrestrial animals in the wild without making their presence known in order to see how they really behave in their natural environments.
Nevertheless, without some solid scientific evidence for such beings conducting such activities, this remains speculation on our parts.
Of course we can certainly attempt to look for them in various places and ways as have been suggested in these scenarios: The Main Planetoid or Comet Belts are places some SETI researchers have speculated that an alien observer might watch us undetected. Using nanotechnology or even smaller probing methods means they could be virtually anywhere and everywhere on Earth, literally under (or in) our noses, with us having no clue to their existence.
However, it probably would not take much effort on the part of a more advanced species capable of interstellar travel to mask their presence from humanity, either in space or on Earth. Throw in our combination of those humans who are generally skeptical or ignorant regarding such matters offset by those who are overly zealous about the local presence of alien beings, and these ETI can remain continually undetected while their subjects of study debate, argue, deny, and attempt to hide from the wider galaxy – instead of deliberately searching for them.
As for what reason and when might trigger an observing ETI to decide to reveal themselves for an initial contact, while we often think it will happen when humanity becomes truly peaceful, or starts colonizing space, or traveling to another star system (the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek likes to say hello when a species develops warp drive for their starships), we must keep in mind that we are dealing with truly alien beings who may have very different motives for a First Contact scenario.
We tend to think that extraterrestrial life will evolve in a manner similar to how life forms developed on Earth, but of course there is no guarantee, to say nothing of evidence at this time. To use a real world example, our SETI efforts have been looking for beings that develop and use technology, from radio telescopes to astroengineering projects. This is partly out of necessity based on our current limitations, but also due to an internal bias as to how all life may evolve.
As we saw in The Thing, the alien’s species had developed interstellar capabilities even though it was determined that its species came from organisms rather similar to our flora and reproduced asexually via seed pods.
We of course have no way of knowing how an actual intelligent plant species may evolve. Would they want or need to travel to other star systems, or develop space capabilities at all? Then again, as Dr. Carrington said in the film – excusing his wildly inaccurate era placement:
“Imagine how strange it would have seemed during the Pliocene [!] age to forecast that worms, fish, lizards that crawled over the Earth would evolve into us. On the planet from which our visitor came, vegetable life underwent an evolution similar to that of our own animal life, which would account for the superiority of its brain. Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.”
To give some real-world examples: Cetaceans have been on Earth for over 30 million years, starting out as land creatures and eventually moving into the water. They are much older than humanity and are now perhaps just as smart, yet we see no evidence of any elaborate tool building or starship construction. Such ideas may never have crossed their minds, or they simply see no use for them in their aquatic world.
Dinosaurs were another species that lasted on Earth for over 160 million years, eventually “becoming” birds after an object from space impacted our planet roughly 65 million years ago. While we certainly have yet to learn their full history, what we do know about dinosaurs gives no indication that they ever had any kind of a civilized society or resulting technologies, at least nothing like ours.
Violet, I am glad you enjoyed my essay and thank you for the compliment. Your comments are further evidence that even what many consider to be “just” a science fiction/horror film can stir meaningful ideas and discussions on subjects that may one day become quite real and affect every member of our species.
Maybe I’ve only seen the film once in the late 1950s in fuzzy TV on the local Saturday night horror picture show broadcast – and I was about
ten or eleven. But the last line still sticks in my mind: “Keep your eyes on the skies.” Reflections on the dual nature of UFO and Cold War anxiety since then all seemed to make sense. And yet the film, as described, had antecedents back to the 1930s with John Campbell.
I don’t know how much of a commonplace it had become, but the end reminds me of another Walter Winchell like reporter coming in for the summary line: “It was beauty that killed the beast.” King Kong is worthy of a whole ‘nother yarn. But during that film I do remember a crisp philosophizing about paleontology as the expedition’s leads tramp along the side of a dead tyrannosaur or brontosaur now morphed to the size of blue whale. And they had to speak crisply and, “Annunciate, boys, because retakes were expensive and you had to yell for the microphone.”
Did they intend to be that amusing or was it circumstantial?
On the other hand, it would take a few years before I got to see “Forbidden Planet”. But in it I couldn’t see so direct a connection with the issues of headlines: UFOs or Red scares. It seemed to borrow some from US navy story lines… But it mainly seemed to reflect the conventions of science fiction I had encountered in the country library or bookmobiles, perhaps with a romantic ending more akin to 30s pulp than the stories of the era.
One science fiction writer whom I suspect would be perfect for an era of special effects would be Jack Vance. Some have compared his prose and imagination to Borges, save that it is played out over the galaxy. But when you look at his portfolio, you discover that he did a considerable amount of writing for the small screen already. A gap in my reading of his stories was one which posed an interesting conundrum: the Earth had sent out an opera as a cultural exchange and now it was the aliens
turn to reciprocate. …
It’s funny that you mention sending an opera into space as part of a cultural exchange:
On the Voyager Interstellar Record, sent on its way into the wider Milky Way galaxy in 1977, they included Mozart’s The Magic Flute with the Queen of the Night aria, no. 14 (Edda Moser, soprano. Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor. 2:55). There is a discussion about this selection here:
The creators of the Golden Record hoped that music may break through language and cultural barriers for any alien recipients in terms of understanding humanity. That is one big reason why there is 90 minutes of international music on the LP.
Here is a plot synopsis and other information about Jack Vance’s SF novel Space Opera, first published in 1965:
Someone wrote an entire opera from the story!
For those who recall the Frankenstein films, the “monster” was often soothed and calmed by listening to music played to him, usually on a violin.
Now I wonder, basing this on my essay discussion about the Thing resembling Frankenstein’s monster in more ways than one, if music might have calmed the alien enough to communicate with him, or at least allow him to be subdued, captured, and confined.
Then again, this assumes its species has any concept of music or would be physiologically attuned to such sounds. Or if they do make and listen to music, that it would be anything we might recognize as such.
SETI and interstellar probes really need to be ramped up.
Yes one Epic and detailed movie review here Larry, as other have mentioned. It sure took me a while to fully read think about and follow up on the links and references. You have written one detailed review and also looked at the broader impact of the film on society and the role of society at the time in influencing the film. I really enjoyed it along with your review on Forbidden Planet.
Just a few comments
“This is why the professional science community needs to really ramp up both their science education and outreach with the general public on the subject of alien life”
No argument’s from me here I totally agree with you.
The Day the Earth Stood Still – I was wondering when this one would be mentioned, and you will be glad to know Ive seen this movie a few times.
“If you look at the science fiction artwork and story descriptions of spaceships in the decades before 1947, such vessels often had much in common with real aquatic submersibles.”
That’s a very interesting point that I hadn’t realized or thought about before.
I always enjoy your posts on Social media and your articles are always great to read when I see them posted. Thanks again for your time in chatting as I feel I know you a bit better on a personal level.
Keep up the good work
I still need to watch forbidden Planet too.
I am not in the least knowledgeable about “sci fi” films, but what I’ve read so far in this essay does convince me SOME movie SF is worthy of that name. For the most part, however, I don’t like what I’ve seen of TV and filmed “science fiction.” Compared to such masters of written science fiction as Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Sir Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, etc., that I read as a boy, filmed/TV “science fiction” seems so shallow, thin, superficial, and trite. And I have STAR TREK and the STAR WARS shows and movies in mind. And, yes, I include ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL as well.
When it comes to how human beings might react to a real UFO and aliens from other world, my view is that even in a short story with strong flashes of humor in it, Poul Anderson’s “Peek! I See You!” gives us more nuance and thought on how humans and non-humans might react to each other than most TV/filmed “science fiction.” In fact, I believe Poul Anderson was one of those few SF writers who wrote convincing or plausible stories featuring non-humans.
And I will be coming back to finish reading Larry Klaes article.
Your mention of that Poul Anderson SF story made me curious…
I think a lot of people would disagree that Star Trek is shallow, superficial and trite as long as one doesn’t take each episode too literally.
Kaor, ljk and Robert!
ljk: So you found the discussion the PA Appreciation blog owner and I had about “Peek! I See You!” I hope it was of some interest and leads you to read Anderson’s story. I really do believe Anderson handled speculations about how humans and non humans might interact better than did most TV and filmed “SF.”
Robert: But that is the problem, once you start seriously examining STAR TREK episodes and movies, their flaws becomes painfully apparent. No, good written science fiction handled such ideas far more convincingly.
Star Trek is entertainment so don’t take it so seriously but sometimes it leads one to consider such issues more seriously on their own.
Robert: that is a fair point, STAR TREK being simply entertainment, and that to over analyze is to treat it in ways that it was never meant for. All the same, I prefer Poul Anderson’s “Peek! I See You!” as a story in which to see some serious examination of issues relating to contacting alien intelligent life.
Steve Reina on Facebook pointed me to this article…
May 9, 2018, 05:09 pm
A Mind Without A Brain: The Science Of Plant Intelligence Takes Root
“My work is not about metaphors at all,” says Monica Gagliano. “When I talk about learning, I mean learning. When I talk about memory, I mean memory.” Gagliano, an evolutionary ecologist, is talking about plants. She’s adopted methods from behavioral experiments used to test animal intelligence and found that plants respond in a similar manner.
The results of her research suggest plants might possess intelligence, memory and learning, although the mechanisms at play may be fundamentally different from those of humans and animals. Her book “Thus Spoke the Plant” will be out this fall [of 2018].
Full article here:
If Gagliano’s interpretation of the data is correct, the scientific community may have to reckon with intelligent organisms independent of the traditional brain and nervous system model. If her interpretation of the data is correct, we may be in the early stages of waking up to a world long-populated by considerably more intelligent, sentient beings than previously acknowledged. It would be a major paradigm shift. Critics of plant intelligence emphatically insist this work is a fanciful delusion and that plant behavior is mechanistic, not intelligent.
Meanwhile, Gagliano and other plant biologists have sparked a debate about our natural world that mirrors a contentious debate in the tech world: can artificial intelligence ever become, or be recognized as conscious intelligence independent of the traditional model of a biological brain and nervous system?
To quote from the above article:
Morris: Are there other biologists who think like you?
Gagliano: There are plenty in academia. Some amazing ecologists. I call them the quiet achievers because they don’t talk too much about it, they just do it. And I like the doers. These are colleagues who are actually doing brilliant science worth getting excited about–the kind of stuff that we’ve seen in documentaries. There are not many, but they’re there, and their findings are super creative and inspiring and they certainly inspire me.
The majority, however, are not scientists. The philosophers are incredibly interested in this. They have developed a lot of the theoretical framework that we can play with. So that’s really useful. Although in general, scientists don’t seem too keen to mingle with the philosophers, so we’re missing out on that intellectual space, I think, where frontier thinking of potential possibilities can truly emerge. The little bit that I’ve combined my work with philosophers has been incredible and has given me a lot of ideas of what I could be looking at when I design my experiments. There are a lot of people in general in the humanities who are really interested in this kind of science because of the cultural implications, ethics, what does it mean to be human once you define others?
In that context, I find a lot of support. Scientifically speaking though, within my own area, it’s been really kind of lonely. Lonely because there are three kinds [of scientists] aside from the quiet achievers. There are those who are watching from a distance. They don’t dare side one way or the other. They’re just watching to see what this becomes. Then you got the guys who are openly against it. Usually, they’re quite funny because, scientifically speaking, they’re being very unscientific. They have no reason to support their claims. They have no data. They’ve done nothing to actually show, no, you’re wrong, this is not how it works–which I’m open to! I’m open to change my mind anytime. But often you get a lot of criticism with no real foundation behind it. So everyone is happy to say that you must have done something wrong or your experiment doesn’t really show this. But the best criticism to any science, experimental science in particular, is experimental science itself. So just do the experiment yourself. Do an experiment that shows me that my data and observations are wrong.
Which brings me to the third group, which is, to me, more dangerous. This group seems to be made up primarily by those who make the big claims and write grand opinion pieces. A lot of the opinion pieces on this area are straight out of Darwin’s work. Darwin wrote about all of this before. He’s got like I think seven or eight books on botany. So we don’t need another opinion piece. We need to do it. We need to test it. We need to do the science. Clearly, we all have opinions and speculating can be fun, but science is based on actual experimental work and the data that emerges from it. This is especially important for new fields of research. But [the third group] don’t tackle the real questions experimentally. If you look at what they’re doing, it’s plant physiology rebranded as a new thing that it is not. So to me, this group is dangerous because in a way it’s almost compromising the field as it’s trying to be born.
“An Intelligent carrot”
Must have had great foresight…
Jokes apart a great movie, I think I last watched it about two years ago, I must find time to watch it again.
Here is the link to the film online, which is also in the References section of my essay:
First, thank you for the definitive discussion of “The Thing from Outer Space”. If there is anyone on this site that has not seen the film or reflected on it, you have given them plenty to ponder and to explore.
And then secondly, thanks for the link to the Jack Vance story summary.
Someday I hope to sit down with the original, but my s/f consumption has dropped precipitously over the decades. There are fond memories though…
Just by coincidence, the local PBS television station ( and maybe others) broadcast a British production ( surprise?) of “The Real History of Science Fiction”. There was about an hour and a half of it. Maybe there were further segments.
The good news with respect to this topic is that “The Thing” was given a place in this history. The bad news, I think, was that “the history” concentrated on film and television. Only a couple of books or authors ( e.g., Isaac Asimov and “The Foundation” stories ) were given any due.
If I recall correctly, it was science fiction writer C. M. Kornbluth who asserted that 96 percent of everything was crap. Well, not to explore that too rigorously, but let us consider this: Movies and TV have always had a low threshold for science fiction to stand out from. Science fiction committed to print has had a higher one: arguing persuasively, consistently, integrating science and culture into a story. Movies and TV have long got by by saying that they have just flown to another “galaxy” when it would be more likely they meant that they had traveled to another star system.
…But my point is that for TV and movies 96% is of an even lower quality. And that what is obtained in video form of quality had to run a gauntlet. Waving a special effects wand does not cover everything.
So, “The Real History” is not the equivalent of “New Maps of Hell” by Kingsley Amis. But the genre still still deserves the analysis that Amis gave it decades ago. “Time passes on,” as a movie narrator said since, carrying on the narrative of a post apocalypse story that Amis was not around for a critique to provide.
Glad you are taking this on or picking up the torch.
wdk – Here is the BBC web site on The Real History of Science Fiction:
[Now available at: https://www.justwatch.com/us/tv-show/the-real-history-of-science-fiction%5D
I will have to check it out with your caveats in mind, thank you.
One could easily say that just about all genres are burdened with subpar works. There are only a limited number of truly talented artists in this world, yet the “popcorn” stuff gets the publicity and the money, with no end in sight based on what current films are box office kings.
Science fiction gets hit more because of its long reputation as kid stuff and subject matters that are deemed unworthy by those who claim to know what is worthy or not. Thankfully we have the right (for now) to like whatever we want and can make our own decisions about what is good and bad.
I continue to be amazed at the huge number of great science fiction books that have not made it to the big screen. No Ringworld, no Mote in God’s Eye, No Robinson Mars trilogy. I could go on and on. In fact very little effort has been made to take any science fiction classic novel and convert it to film has it? I may have missed a few (the Verne and Wells classics for example) but in general this still holds true. Are the concepts too thought provoking for a general audience as with the Robinson novels? We could and should have hundreds of great science fiction movies by now but all we have are Westerns in space and aliens as monsters and the all too obvious environmentalism of James Cameron. Not that I’m complaining about that idea, I endorse it but let’s have some range in our efforts. Am I being too harsh here?
No you are correct. Western science fiction tends towards the standard terrestrial style plot lines dressed up in rocket ships and aliens.
Just ask famous Polish author Stanislaw Lem what he thought of Western SF. His works borrowed far more from Eastern European philosophy. Lem also used the full power of the potential for science fiction in terms of playing with incredible ideas and commenting on our currents states as well as future possibilities:
Rock Hudson is famously reported to have left during the intermission of “2001: A Space Odyssey” complaining he didn’t understand it. The recent SF movie “High Life” has also generated some confusion. I suspect that this is a general problem with the archetypal “good SF movie”. They require some thought, and quite possibly, some science education, to enjoy them. Hollywood doesn’t want to make movies that have limited audiences, and therefore, I suspect, interesting SF movies are rare. They become another, possibly much more expensive, type of Art House movie.
Despite its current high ranking in the AFI’s 100 best movies of all time, initially 2001 was panned by a number of critics. It took time to build an audience. It now seems 2001 is now too slow moving for today’s audiences, more used to Star Wars.
I think tv did a better job with SF. I am particularly thinking of the BBC’s “Out of the Unknown” series in the 1960s and 1970s, of which only a number of episodes still survive. In the US, I particularly liked “The Ray Bradbury Theater” production of a number of his short stories. I only wish we had such series for other authors. I do have a fuzzy copy of Asimov’s “Little Lost Robot” done for an old British SF tv series. It would be so much better done today, with better sets and robots.
Or let alone Westerns in space we now have cowboys with aliens on Earth (Cowboys and Aliens). Come on, we should be able to do better than that. I hear a sequel is on the way as well. Sigh….
I thought Cowboys and Aliens (2011) was at least going to be fun, which it certainly had the potential for. It did not even manage that.
C&A was also a box office “financial disappointment”, so I am surprised they would bother with a sequel for financial reasons alone.
“While scientists were often depicted as the villains, harking back to Dr. Frankenstein, even Dr Faustus, they were also depicted as being the heroes. It is the scientists who are the best of Earth in The Day the Earth Stood Still, again in the George Pal version of The War of the Worlds (1953), and the superior Quatermass tv series and movies. …”
When “War of the Worlds” came out I did see it as a very small child and several times since. It is still quite the film to me, taking advantage of sight masterfully, considering the resources available circa 1952 or ’53.
But watching it decades later, and prior to this discussion, I would have to say that there is something of a setup about for the scientists of George Pal’s Pacific Science Institute. By doing the analysis and setting up to drop the bomb from the flying wing ( alien looking itself), Pal let
the martians defeat them completely. That part, to me, was about hubris as sure as if in an ancient Greek play. They were shocked. And for them it was now game over.
What could be done after that, I guess is another story, something that
I don’t think H.G. Wells addressed with a sequel, but as an essay in the
ruins in the English country side between the story’s narrator and an
English pastor. Guerilla war at best.
As for the film, I would have liked to have seen what would happen if
Earth’s defenders had detonated a land mine under a shielded craft…
From what I could tell, it would have worked. But I’m rooting for the home team.
In the original H. G. Wells novel from 1896, the humans did have a few small victories against the Martian war machines, but for the most part they were losing the war. Not only were the Martians frying humans and destroying villages and cities left and right, they also used a type of poison gas and were transplanting the native flora and fauna with something from their world called the Red Weed that grew everywhere like… weeds.
The only thing that ultimately defeated the Martian invaders were our germs, put there by God in His Wisdom. Going with the thinking of the time in regards to planetary evolution, Mars was further out from the Sun in its solar orbit than Earth and therefore had cooled and formed from the birth nebula of gas and dust sooner. Thus life on Mars had started earlier than on our world and was more evolved as a result.
As an admittedly lifelong resident of Earth, I find it hard to imagine any world where organic creatures naturally evolved that their own versions of microorganisms would not exist or ever become extinct without all the other native “higher” organisms dying off as well, for that matter.
Not only are single-celled creatures the most ancient and abundant of all known lifeforms on our planet, they are also the most hardy and durable of all organisms. In addition, while some microbe species are indeed deadly, many others are not just beneficial to Earth life, including humans, but actually essential to our overall functioning.
Even if you go with the scenario that Mars no longer had microbes, would the advanced Martians not even have records of such creatures having once lived on their world and be on the lookout for them the moment they arrived on Earth to take the necessary precautions? Or just test the native terrestrial plants and animals for any potential threats?
In regards to your comment about a sequel to The War of the Worlds, at the end of the novel, astronomers witnessed the Martians sending ships to the planet Venus in an apparent effort to colonize that world. As the second world from Sol was considered to be less evolved than Earth, probably harboring only dinosaur-like creatures and giant ferns amidst strange alien swamps and jungles, presumably it would be easier for the Martians to take over.
Perhaps they would even have learned their lessons from their failed invasion of Sol 3 and made plans to attempt a redo in the future, launching their assault from the closer Venus. Well, that planet has a deeper gravity well, so maybe not.
Anyway, there is your potential sequel.
Whoops, I forgot to make it clear in the second paragraph above that because Mars was more evolved biologically, the thinking was that there were no more microbes on the Red Planet. Therefore the otherwise advanced Martians had no idea about tiny germs when they arrived on Earth to take it over.
Then I go into my commentary on why I have trouble with this scenario from the viewpoint of a person with 21st Century knowledge of evolution, microbiology, etc.
To tie this back into The Thing, it is obvious that the title character was apparently neither harmed nor even bothered by our microbial defenders, at least while it was alive. The alien could also sustain itself and reproduce on our terrestrial mammalian blood, even though our biochemistries should have been poison to it as has been pointed out elsewhere in this thread.
Just speculating here, but there is the possibility that the species of the Thing was not only advanced enough to master interstellar travel, but they may have also practiced some genetic engineering so that their galactic travelers could adapt to and withstand all sorts of alien environments to make colonizing the Milky Way easier. If we do not explore and settle the galaxy with our machine proxies, humanity may do the same some day with genetically modified descendants.
Note how the Thing could handle extreme cold, bullets, fire, dog pack attacks, and a door being slammed on its arm.
Another thought: The Thing was compared to a terrestrial plant by the scientists at the Arctic research station. While they said as much that it was the closest analogy they could think of with the sample they had (the Thing’s severed arm, which it later grew a new one in its place), what they were likely witnessing was genetic engineering in action.
This would explain so much as to how the alien endured so much and kept going. Plus how it could utilize human and dog blood for food and reproduction despite being so biologically alien to our world.
If we send our biological selves into the Cosmos, we are not going as we are now if we want to survive and thrive out there. We will be genetically enhanced.
Funny how Star Trek was so against both genetically enhanced humans and artificial intelligence with a consciousness as methods for expanding into the galaxy right from the start. Wishful pro-contemporary human thinking or a lack of imagination for a series that was supposed to be progressive, take your pick.
At what point do we cease to be human and become constructs.
Humanity must always adapt and evolve to new situations if it wants to survive and thrive. We now know that Earth is not the entirety of existence by a long shot.
Whether we decide to stay in our cradle or move outward, we will need to change, especially if we want to continue our technological society with a global population heading towards eight billion individuals with no plateauing or end in sight.
Will these changes make us not human, if that is the concern here? No, just different and hopefully better. Be sure to ask yourself how you define “human” first and compare it to what we once were and whether that was good or bad.