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‘Red Edge’ Biomarkers on M-dwarf Planets

When we think about the markers of possible life on other worlds, vegetation comes to mind in an interesting way. We’d like to use transit spectroscopy to see biosignatures, gases that have built up in the atmosphere because of ongoing biological activity. But plants using photosynthesis offer us an additional option. They absorb sunlight from the visible part of the spectrum, but not longer-wavelength infrared light. The latter they simply reflect.

What we wind up with is a possible observable for a directly imaged planet, for if you plot the intensity of light against wavelength, you will find a marked drop known as the ‘red edge.’ It shows up when going from longer infrared wavelengths into the visible light region. The red-edge position for Earth’s vegetation is fixed at around 700–760 nm. What we’d like to do is find a way to turn this knowledge into a practical result while looking at exoplanets. Where would we find the red edge on planets circling stars of a different class than our own?

Led by Kenji Takizawa, researchers at the Astrobiology Center (ABC) of National Institutes of Natural Science (NINS) in Japan have taken up the question with regard to M-dwarfs. These stars have lower surface temperatures than the Sun and emit more strongly at near-infrared wavelengths than at visible wavelengths. Assuming vegetation in such an environment evolves to use the most abundant photons for photosynthesis, shouldn’t we expect the red edge to shift accordingly? Perhaps not, argue the authors, as only blue-green light penetrates beyond a few meters of water. Visible light, in other words, may play a larger role than we imagine.

This is a useful study, because we will begin our observations of possible biosignatures on exoplanets around stars like these, using not only upcoming space missions but ground observatories like the European Extremely Large Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the Giant Magellan Telescope. The question is, what effect does the radiation of the star itself have on the red edge?

Image: Artist’s impressions of a habitable planet around M-dwarfs (left) and primordial Earth (right). Credit: ABC/NINS.

The authors believe that the first oxygenic phototrophs would have evolved underwater, using light at visible wavelengths. The star AD Leonis (AD Leo), an M-dwarf located 16 light years away, served as their model, with Takizawa and team plugging in a hypothetical planet of Earth’s size and insolation in orbit in the habitable zone there, allowing light conditions on the planet to be estimated and compared with solar irradiation on the Earth. The paper predicts ‘photosynthetic machineries’ that could emerge underwater and on land, and goes on to examine the question of land phototrophs evolving in the direction of infrared use from marine phototrophs that evolved in visible light.

From the paper:

After comparative investigations of light environments on the hypothetical habitable exoplanet around AD Leo and on the Earth, we conclude that two-photon reactions using visible radiation may first evolve in an M-dwarf planet’s ocean as oxygenic phototrophs. Reactions using NIR radiation may then evolve on the land surface. The first oxygenic phototroph is most likely to be established underwater about 10 m or deeper, and may expand its habitat to shallow water after the formation of an ozone layer and/or the cessation of UV emission from the active M-dwarf.

At depths of one meter and less, the authors believe, the abundance of near-infrared radiation may stimulate its evolutionary use, though notice what happened on Earth:

…phototrophs using NIR radiation are exposed to drastically changing light conditions in shallow water, which may be an obstacle to using NIR radiation before land colonization. The formation of the ozone layer on the Earth prior to the emergence of land plants enabled them to quickly colonize the land, safe from the effects of UV. A rapid transition from aquatic algae to land plants was accomplished without a change in the photosynthetic machinery.

Image: Figure 1 from the Takizawa paper. Credit: Takizawa et al.

The authors’ calculations show that green algae can adapt to M-dwarf radiation, though less productively than phototrophs using near-infrared radiation. Indeed:

…oxygenic photosynthesis could be driven by low-energy NIR radiation by improving the redox energy conversion efficiency and/or employing multi-photon reactions.

Thus it is possible that a ‘first wave’ of land plants could exhibit a red-edge position at 700–760 nm, as on the Earth. Using near-infrared radiation underwater would expose phototrophs to strong changes in light intensity and quality when they approach the water’s surface. That makes it more likely that adaptation to near-infrared would occur once on land, where the radiation spectral change is smaller.

To take these possible changes into account, astronomers need to look in a broad range when considering biomarkers on red dwarf planets:

…future missions should prepare to record surface spectra of habitable exoplanets at wavelengths from shorter than 700 nm to longer than 1,100 nm so that they have the capability to address the possibility that the red-edge position may change as the host M-dwarf ages.

The paper is Takizawa et al., “Red-edge position of habitable exoplanets around M-dwarfs,” Scientific Reports 7, No. 7561 (full text).



WASP-12b: A Low Albedo Planetary Torch

Sara Seager often describes the distribution of exoplanets as ‘stochastic,’ meaning subject to statistical analysis but hard to predict. A good thing, then, that Kepler has given us so much statistical data to work with, allowing us to see the range of possible outcomes when stars coalesce and planetary systems emerge around them. We’re not seeing copies of our own Solar System when we explore other stellar systems, but a variegated mix of outcomes.

Thus finding a planet with an albedo as dark as fresh asphalt goes down as yet another curiosity from a universe that yields them in great abundance. The planet is WASP-12b, a ‘hot Jupiter’ of the most extreme kind. Previous work on this heavily studied world has already shown that due to its proximity to its host star, the planet has been stretched into an egg shape, while its day-side temperatures reach 2540 degrees Celsius, or 2810 Kelvin.

94 percent of incoming visible light here is trapped in an atmosphere so hot that clouds cannot form to reflect it. Hydrogen molecules are broken into atomic hydrogen, while alkali metals are ionized. The atmosphere resembles that of a low mass star instead of a planet, composed of atomic hydrogen and helium. Using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, the international team that produced this result, led by Taylor Bell (McGill University), has now measured an albedo of 0.064 at most, two times less reflective than our Moon.

Image: Twice the size of Jupiter, WASP-12b has the unique capability to trap at least 94 percent of the visible starlight falling into its atmosphere. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).

The planet’s radius is about twice Jupiter’s. The average hot Jupiter will reflect about 40 percent of incoming starlight, making WASP-12b a statistical outlier. But bear in mind that this planet’s proximity to its host star keeps it tidally locked, with one side always facing the star, the other always turned to space. That drops nightside temperatures well over 1000 degrees Celsius cooler, so that molecules can survive, producing possible clouds and hazes in the atmosphere.

Bell notes that the planet, orbiting about 3.2 million kilometers from its star, demonstrates that even among hot Jupiters the range of possibilities is surprisingly large:

“This new Hubble research further demonstrates the vast diversity among the strange population of hot Jupiters,” Bell said. “You can have planets like WASP-12b that are 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit and some that are 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and they’re both called hot Jupiters. Past observations of hot Jupiters indicate that the temperature difference between the day and night sides of the planet increases with hotter day sides. This previous research suggests that more heat is being pumped into the day side of the planet, but the processes, such as winds, that carry the heat to the night side of the planet don’t keep up the pace.”

1400 light years away in the constellation Auriga, WASP-12b circles a G-class star not dissimilar to the Sun, in an orbit lasting little more than a day. In addition to Hubble, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory have examined the system. Bell’s work with Hubble’s STIS examined the world by analyzing the combined light of star and transiting planet as WASP-12b passed behind the star. The scientists measured the albedo of WASP-12b at several different wavelengths. The lack of reflected light in the latter observations indicated that the day-side of the planet is absorbing almost all the starlight that falls onto it.

Back to that word ‘stochastic,’ which is reminding us that even when we look at a seemingly well-defined category of planet, our observations can yield wide differences. As the paper notes:

Our results are in stark contrast with those for the much cooler HD 189733b, the only other hot Jupiter with spectrally resolved reflected light observations (Evans et al. 2013); those data showed an increase in albedo with decreasing wavelength. The fact that the first two exoplanets with optical albedo spectra exhibit significant differences demonstrates the importance of spectrally resolved reflected light observations and highlights the great diversity among hot Jupiters.

Notice that reference to another well studied planet, HD 189733b. Results for the latter suggest that the planet has a deep blue color, while Bell’s team has shown that WASP-12b reflects no light at any wavelength. It does, however, emit light because of its high temperature. Think of a red hue, as this HST news release suggests, similar to hot glowing metal.

I might also note how, once again, we have a planetary system far different from our own. In addition to that hot Jupiter, WASP-12b’s host star is orbited by two M-dwarf companions that are bound in a binary system.

The paper is Bell et al., “The Very Low Albedo of WASP-12b from Spectral Eclipse Observations with Hubble,” Astrophysical Journal Letters Vol. 847, No. 1 (20 September 2017). Abstract / preprint.



Cassini: JPL Images at the End

Image: A monitor shows the status of NASA’s Deep Space Network as it receives data from the Cassini spacecraft, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 in the Charles Elachi Mission Control Center in the Space Flight Operation Center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky.

Image: Cassini program manager at JPL, Earl Maize, center row, calls out the end of the Cassini mission. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky.

Image: Cassini program manager at JPL, Earl Maize, left, and spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, Julie Webster embrace after the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. At left is Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker. At right center is Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Image: Saturn’s active, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus sinks behind the giant planet in a farewell portrait from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. This view of Enceladus was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Image: This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. This view shows Saturn in the thermal infrared, at a wavelength of 5 microns. Here, the instrument is sensing heat coming from Saturn’s interior, in red. Clouds in the atmosphere are silhouetted against that inner glow. This location — the site of Cassini’s atmospheric entry — was at this time on the night side of the planet, but would rotate into daylight by the time Cassini made its final dive into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, ending its remarkable 13-year exploration of Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

“Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “But, we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”


Thank You

For reminding us what technology can do. And what people can become.

Image: Members of the Cassini mission team. Cassini has benefited from the work of some 260 scientists at NASA, ESA and Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), as well as several European academic and industrial contributors. Credit: JPL/Caltech.


Cassini on Final Approach

Cassini mission engineers are referring to its final pass by Titan as ‘the goodbye kiss,’ a phrase that sounds like something from a Raymond Chandler novel. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of intimacy and death that Chandler exploited so well. In any case, what counts in the last of Cassini’s hundreds of passes over Titan in its 13-year exploration of the system is the gravitational nudge that is sending the spacecraft into Saturn’s atmosphere tomorrow.

“Cassini has been in a long-term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous nearly every month for more than a decade,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This final encounter is something of a bittersweet goodbye, but as it has done throughout the mission, Titan’s gravity is once again sending Cassini where we need it to go.”

Closest approach for the final pass at Titan occurred at 1504 EDT (1904 UTC) on September 12, at an altitude of 119,049 kilometers, with data streaming back to Earth containing science and trajectory information that confirms Cassini’s course for the Saturn atmosphere entry.

Image: One final look. This unprocessed image of Saturn’s moon Titan was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 12, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Loss of contact comes on September 15 at 0755 EDT (1155 UTC), about a minute after Cassini’s entry into the atmosphere at an altitude of 1915 kilometers above the cloud tops.

Moving at 113,000 kilometers per hour, Cassini will enter Saturn’s sky on the day side near local noon at about 10 degrees north latitude. Although the spacecraft’s attitude thrusters will begin firing to keep its high-gain antenna pointed at Earth, they’ll go from 10 percent to 100 percent of capacity within about a minute, fighting for stability and the maintenance of the all-important data link. Communications will end when the antenna loses its lock on the Earth, and the spacecraft should begin breaking apart within 30 seconds after the loss of signal.

Image: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is shown during its Sept. 15, 2017, plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in this artist’s depiction. Cassini will use its thrusters to keep its antenna pointed at Earth for as long as possible while sending back unique data about Saturn’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Coverage of the end of Cassini’s mission will be available live on NASA TV beginning at 0700 EDT (1100 UTC) tomorrow, the 15th — check here for information on coverage. And bear in mind with regard to the signal loss time I cited above that what we receive on Earth will have actually happened 83 minutes earlier, as JPL’s Maize reminds us:

“The spacecraft’s final signal will be like an echo. It will radiate across the solar system for nearly an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone. Even though we’ll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn’t truly over for us on Earth as long as we’re still receiving its signal.”

Image: Graphic showing the relative altitudes of Cassini’s final five passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere, compared to the depth it reaches upon loss of communication with Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The spacecraft will be using eight of its 12 science instruments during the final approach, including all of its magnetosphere and plasma science instruments as well as its infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers. JPL is noting the importance of the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer, which will be sampling the composition and structure of the atmosphere while being oriented in the direction of motion to produce the best possible sample.

A final set of views from Cassini’s imaging cameras will be transmitted to Earth today, with posting in unprocessed form beginning on the mission website around 2300 EDT (0300 UTC).

Image: Cassini’s path into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, with tick marks every 10 seconds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

We’ve been talking about the end of this mission for a long time, but I do want to be sure you’re armed with the video link as well as the online toolkit for the final plunge. Social media addresses are https://twitter.com/CassiniSaturn and https://www.facebook.com/NASACassini, and you can keep an eye on #GrandFinale on Twitter as well.



One Earth Message: A Digital Golden Record

The recent reminder of spacecraft longevity that the Voyagers have given us on their 40th anniversary keeps the memory of their famous Golden Records fresh. After all, only the passage of time — and a lot of it — can degrade these human artifacts, and they carry sights and sounds of our planet specifically chosen to represent us.

Now Jon Lomberg, who was design director for the Golden Record, has thoughts of doing something similar with another long-haul spacecraft, the outer system explorer New Horizons, and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to make it happen.

Clearly the method has to change, given that New Horizons launched without artifacts designed to carry information about our species, other than the obvious message implicit in its own technology. The plan is to take advantage of the spacecraft’s computer memory, or in this case, a few hundred megabytes out of a 4 GB memory chip, which was state of the art in the days when the New Horizons design was finalized. What Lomberg is calling the One Earth Message would be uploaded to the spacecraft through the dishes of the Deep Space Network.

Image: Jon Lomberg, with the Golden Record he and Frank Drake designed for the Voyager probes. Credit: Jon Lomberg.

Like the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, we are talking about a spacecraft carrying a message comprising our own view of our species and our civilization. To say that Lomberg has experience at this kind of thing is to remind us not just of the Voyager work but also the Visions of Mars DVD, a project Lomberg led for the Planetary Society, and one that is now on Mars aboard the Phoenix lander. He is also a co-designer of the Mars sundials that three Martian rovers have carried to the Red Planet.

And I think we can put out of our minds the idea that Lomberg sees the One Earth Message as a form of METI — Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Like the Golden Record, the OEM is really about perspective on ourselves:

“I am confident that NASA will seize this opportunity to follow the lead of all four previous spacecraft that have left the solar system and include a message from humanity. We will never know if there is an ET audience, but for the human audience that participates it can be a profoundly moving experience to seriously contemplate communicating with the Cosmos. I now pursue this project as a legacy to my mentors Carl Sagan and Frank Drake.”

The One Earth Message has to fit within the memory constraints available to New Horizons, and obviously would be uploaded after the mission’s science objectives have been met. But images and sounds of the kind found on the Golden Record are in play, and conceivably software or other kinds of digital information, depending on what the crowd-sourced message will become after it has been developed through a collaboration around the globe. The prospect of contributors sending original photography or music is an added enticement for their participation.

Global interaction is what Lomberg’s Kickstarter campaign is meant to support. The campaign seeks the funds to design and launch a platform on the Internet that will be the fulcrum of the One Earth Message project, with submissions to begin in 2018. The plan is for the various images and sounds to be freely submitted over the Net and then chosen through a process of online voting, to create what Lomberg calls ‘a self-portrait of Earth in the second decade of the 21st Century.” The proposed upload date, assuming NASA agrees, is 2020, but none of that can occur without the website development to create the message itself.

Image: New Horizons’ current position along its full planned trajectory. The green segment of the line shows where New Horizons has traveled since launch; the red indicates the spacecraft’s future path. Positions of stars with magnitude 12 or brighter are shown from this perspective, which is slightly above the orbital plane of the planets. Credit: JHU/APL.

New Horizons is currently moving at 14.24 kilometers per second, enroute to Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69. The craft is 3.96 AU from its KBO target and 39.01 AU from the Earth, with a round trip light time of 10 hours, 48 minutes as of 13 September at 1100 UTC. For those who, like me, are obsessed with deep time, New Horizons is headed in the direction of Sagittarius, a route that points it toward the center of the galaxy.

Will another spacecraft carry what Arthur C. Clarke called “The Songs of Distant Earth”? There are those who believe that all missions that leave the Solar System should carry some kind of compilation reflecting their builders, and we now have an opportunity to craft a digital message for a mission that left home without one, assuming NASA formally approves the project. Creating the website mechanism and producing the actual message described in the Kickstarter campaign, Lomberg believes, will be the best way to gain NASA’s nod.



Creating Our Own Final Frontier: Part Two

In which Larry Klaes concludes his analysis of Forbidden Planet, the still revered science fiction classic from the 1950s. If you ever had any questions about this film, Larry is your man, and note the full complement of online resources at the end of the essay.

by Larry Klaes

Space Madness

Adams: “How have the men stood the voyage?”

Doc: “About average. A few cases of space-blues – a little epidemic of claustro during the seventh month. But nobody’s had to have shock therapy except the Cook.”

Adams: “Yes, I could taste it in the chow.”

The above was yet another bit of dialogue from the indispensable 1954 version of the Forbidden Planet film script which did not survive to the 1956 release. The Captain and the ship’s doctor were discussing the psychological state of the C-57D crew after their year-long journey from Earth Base just before landing on Altair 4. I presume this was largely done for the knowledge benefit of the viewing audience – either that or Adams is surprisingly unaware of how his own men have been feeling and behaving overall after spending 378 straight days together in the confines of a vessel where everyone could be no more than several dozen yards apart at most.

Nevertheless, this snippet of conversation gives us some valuable insights into how the makers of FP thought men might respond to and deal with long duration voyages in deep space, just a few years before humans began real ventures into the Final Frontier. We also learn a little cultural lingo which always adds to the richness of a society new to us, both fictional and real. Doc’s psychological terms being used in the colloquial sense were not just a way to explain the mental and emotional status of the crew to Captain Adams, they also showed that in their 23rd Century, enough manned deep space missions had occurred to incorporate these terms into the general language and no doubt an entire school of study for them. For these reasons alone I find it unfortunate that Doc’s descriptions did not make the final film edit.

Keeping in step with the attitudes of the time when FP was made, men serving aboard naval vessels and other places where long periods of relative isolation and other hardships would be encountered were expected to be endured with manly stoicism for the good of the group and by extension the nation they serve. Of course for centuries even the toughest military services recognized that the people serving in them had certain essential physiological needs which could only be ignored at the peril to one and all.

One need which did get mentioned in FP and more than once was the desire for “shore leave”, for which leaving the confines of the ship was only the initial step. This is why the viewing adults in even a 1950s audience did not require a detailed explanation for Adams’ following outburst when he learned that Altaira had been engaging in what she merely considered to be “healthy stimulation” (hugging and kissing) with some members of the C-57D crew: In fact she had just been caught with Lt. Farman in this very scenario.

“It so happens that I’m in command of nineteen competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 years who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days! It would have served you right if I hadn’t have… and he…. Get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard… and then I’ll put more guards on the guards!”

For crews of the last century or so serving aboard a vessel, whether it be on the water, deep under the ocean surface, or even in space, no matter how isolating their situation may otherwise be, they know that a break or rescue is typically only a matter of hours to a few days away should a need for escape become necessary. The Apollo astronauts knew that Earth was only three days travel away and even though our planet was reduced enough in apparent size to where Apollo 11 mission commander Neil Armstrong famously said he could cover our entire globe with a single gloved thumb while standing on the lunar surface, Earth was still visible as a solid blue and white spherical body in the black sky, providing some psychological comfort for those pioneering explorers.

Such will not be the case for those men and women who travel further into the Sol system. For example, at Mars, Earth will be seven months to over one year’s travel time with chemically-fueled rockets, depending upon where the two planets are situated in their respective solar orbits should the need to return arise. Earth will appear as just a bright bluish “star” from the Red Planet, with its shape and basic details only visible through a telescope. At the edge of our planetary neighborhood, humanity’s home world will appear as a “pale blue dot”, made famous by the Family Portrait images the Voyager 1 space probe took from 3.7 billion miles out in 1990.

On interstellar voyages, even the nearest star systems will be years away from Sol, assuming a vessel can travel at 99 percent of the speed of light, which is on the highest end of STL velocities. A more reasonable travel time for starships with currently conceived STL propulsion will likely measure in the decades, again for the nearest of suns. Earth will be all but invisible to the astronauts on these interstellar missions.

Although Sol will remain a very bright star as viewed from the Alpha Centauri system (about 0.5 apparent magnitude, or equivalent to the planet Saturn and, by chance, Altair as they are seen from Earth), our star’s unaided visibility will cease at a distance of approximately 65 light years. Long before then, however, Sol will have become just one of the multitudes of background lights that make up the Milky Way galaxy.

Can human passengers on interstellar missions or even long interplanetary ones for that matter deal without being on Earth or even seeing the planet for long periods of time? Or will the circumstances of civilization be different enough by the time we can send humans on voyages to other star systems that it is presumptuous to think people will call Earth or any solid world home? They may have been born and raised elsewhere in the Sol system so that they no more view Earth as home than do many people think of the birth nation of their ancestors as home.

Although as usual we get very little concrete information from FP itself as to how the main characters relate to Earth, we do have several strong clues that, despite humanity colonizing the Sol system and several other star systems, the third world from Sol remains their primary cultural and psychological focus. We have already seen how Cook views alien planets, which for him lack certain basic amenities such as beer and pool parlors. When the crew first disembarks from the ship upon landing on Altair 4, Doc gasps in admiration to “look at the color of that sky,” which happens to be a deep green. Farman replies that he will “still take blue.” Doc, who has already expressed his fondness for this alien planet back in orbit when he remarked aloud that “the Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds,” replies to his fellow officer that he thinks “a man could get used to this and grow to love it.” We are also privy to a brief conversation between two cruiser guards on night watch later in the film, who remark at how “funny” it is “to see two moons in the sky,” and then say how funny it is “how quick a guy gets used to it.”

These seem like rather odd things to say for members of a society and profession where one might rightly assume they have seen numerous alien worlds both in person and via various media, places that would often challenge the notion of what a typical nonterrestrial body should be like. Instead they show how much Earth is still indeed the main base of operations for the United Planets and human society, as well as home at least to the crew of the C-57D. This says a lot about the general attitude both of a culture that has been getting around deep space and back in literally short order for the last several centuries and the makers and viewers of a film from an era just before the dawn of the Space Age when the celestial realm would become something far more up close and personal.

Even though the crew of the C-57D had some issues with their year-long journey cooped up in a metal ship flying across the galaxy, they did have the advantage of going at speeds much faster than light, so that even a frontier system like Altair (which apparently only gets visited once every twenty years) is a long but not unbearable journey, not one that takes up a decent fraction of a person’s average life span. In the days before mechanically powered marine ships, sailing vessels could take months to a year or more to reach distant points across Earth’s oceans. The people making those voyages usually accepted these travel times as part of the process, since most trips before the advent of modern industrial methods of transportation just about anywhere were seldom fast affairs.

In addition to the tremendous velocities afforded to the interstellar travelers of this 23rd Century, another factor of physics that is often skipped in science fiction plots is the amazing ability of space crews not having to float about their ships, unlike those astronauts and cosmonauts in our reality, thanks to something called artificial gravity. Now we are not referring to the type of artificial gravity where a ship spins on its axis and centrifugal force pushes the crew against the interiors walls, effectively turning them into floors. Clearly the C-57D does not employ this method, as the crew walks around inside the cruiser as if they were on Earth. In addition, the ship is not nearly wide enough for the equivalent of one Earth gravity to take place if it were spun like a top for that purpose.

Instead the C-57D employs what is very probably a gravity generator, a mechanical method of producing gravity that, like the ship’s hyperdrive system, defies the laws of physics for the convenience of not having the actors float about the ship on wires or other potentially cheesy-looking special effects methods. Also, like most FTL propulsion engines, the details of the gravity generator are never revealed, and Earth-bound viewers often do not even think about this situation, for the vast majority have spent their entire lives being naturally pulled towards the center of a massive planet on a regular basis. Sometimes the hypothetical particles known as gravitons are employed for the generators; however, since they are as problematic as negative matter is for warp drives, they fare no better when it comes to providing another real-world solution to real-world interstellar travelers.

Even though the C-57D mission was planned as a two-year journey, a quick jaunt compared to an interstellar mission using a vessel that could “only” attain 99 percent light speed (approximately 34 years for a trip from Earth to Altair and back, assuming a rather short stay in the target system), there was still the potential for mental health issues when it comes to a group of humans (all of the same gender at that) kept enclosed in a military-style ship of limited size for months on end. Especially when there is nowhere to stop along the way, the exterior environment is almost instantly fatal if exposed to without proper protection, and the alien world they are being sent to is potentially dangerous, seeing as the first manned expedition to explore Altair 4 was never heard from again.

So how did the crew of the C-57D maintain their work skills and ethics, composure, and even their overall sanity? Once again these questions may not ultimately matter for a piece of celluloid entertainment, but they certainly will be very important for real human crews being flung into the galaxy one day, especially since there is no guarantee that those early missions – or perhaps even the later ones – will have the luxury of some form of FTL propulsion to shorten the travel times.

As with most other aspects of life aboard the C-57D, we do not see or even hear much about what the crew did to pass the time during their jaunt to Altair 4. Keeping in mind the era in which FP was made, we can assume there were supplies of playing cards, various board games like chess and checkers, and even a library. In the 1954 script version, Cook said he took some of Doc’s shock therapy treatments “for the entertainment of it!” Had FP been made in more recent eras, the crew probably would have spent their off-duty time watching films, playing video games, and immersing themselves in the various worlds of virtual reality (VR) devices. Had the cruiser been bigger in size and power, they might even have enjoyed the same kind of holodecks that became so ubiquitous in later versions of the Star Trek franchise.

One real world place to glean some ideas about serving aboard a United Planets cruiser in deep space are modern day naval submarines. This Web site on life and duty in a real nuclear submarine from those who served aboard those vessels offers some very relevant and generally fascinating insights:


Regarding recreation time, one veteran had this to say via the site above:

“To clarify more on that last point, while there are exceptions (I have met many athletes in the submarine service) there is a larger representation of people who tend to prefer indoor activities. The most popular hobbies of submariners tend to be books, video games, board/card games, movies (both obscure and mainstream) and learning (many submariners take distance learning courses or learn new languages or tradeskills).”

Of course we have also had real humans being sent into space since 1961. While in terms of distance no one has yet gone further than the Moon and back – and the last of those missions were in 1972 – we have been experimenting with long-duration space stays almost since the beginning, although they still remain in low Earth orbit decades later.

In 2012, I wrote a review of a NASA History Program Office book titled Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective (NASA SP-2011-4411), edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, which was subsequently published on Centauri Dreams: https://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=24523

The book naturally offered numerous insights into the various behaviors of astronauts and cosmonauts over the decades both in space and back on Earth and how attitudes and techniques into psychological selection and management changed: Space missions went from being crewed with primarily male military officers confined in very small vessels ranging from days to weeks, to mixed gender environments aboard comparatively roomier space stations enduring several months to over a year in space, with all but the Apollo lunar missions remaining in Earth orbit. These missions, while certainly helpful to space medicine and providing some key insights into the time when we send humans to Mars and other worlds in our Sol system, are also still lacking important data in regards to living in various space environments for years at a time, perhaps for an entire lifetime and never once setting foot on Earth.

Meanwhile, as for how real astronauts tend to spend their leisure time at present, allow me to quote from my book review article:

“Regarding this view of the shrinking Earth from deep space, the multiple authors of Chapter 4 noted that ISS [International Space Station] astronauts took 84.5 percent of the photographs during the mission inspired by their motivation and choices. Most of these images were of our planet moving over 200 miles below their feet. The authors noted how much of an emotional uplift it was for the astronauts to image Earth in their own time and in their own way.

“The chapter authors also had this to say about what an expedition to Mars might encounter:

“As we begin to plan for interplanetary missions, it is important to consider what types of activities could be substituted. Perhaps the crewmembers best suited to a Mars transit are those individuals who can get a boost to psychological well-being from scientific observations and astronomical imaging. Replacements for the challenge of mastering 800-millimeter photography could also be identified. As humans head beyond low-Earth orbit, crewmembers looking at Earth will only see a pale-blue dot, and then, someday in the far future, they will be too far away to view Earth at all.”

I wonder if the crew of the C-57D conducted any astronomical activities while in transit, or even if they could if hyperspace travel might somehow “mess” with the view outside. Or if they were any more interested in space science than a typical submariner is in marine biology or oceanography (with apologies to those who are into the subject). Again, things might be very different with a crew on a long STL-speed interstellar mission in many ways, including the strong possibility that any humans on such a voyage will not be quite like the humans of the late 20th or early 21st Centuries thanks in no small part to biotechnology and genetic engineering.

Here are some other factors that would likely have an effect on the psychology of the star cruiser crew in FP that I have pondered if anyone ever considered:

The primary mission of the C-57D as stated by Adams early on in the film was to search for survivors of the Bellerophon expedition and return them to Earth. Now while it was probably assumed that after two decades the full complement of that mission* may not still be alive, even if nothing had gone dramatically wrong during all those years, there was still a good chance that at least a handful of people would have survived and be capable of going back to Earth.

  • * Footnote: The exact number of people on the Bellerophon expedition was never outright declared in FP. However, based on a scene description mention in the 1954 script of the number of headstones marking the burial sites of the Bellerophon crew and my own headcount of the headstones briefly shown in the film, along with adding the last three crew members who were aboard the Bellerophon trying to escape and were vaporized in the process by the Monster from the Id and presumably not buried like the rest, my estimate comes to around twenty people. Their ship was never shown or even described, but I have a feeling it was similar in size, design, and function to the C-57D, if perhaps a bit less advanced in certain areas being two decades older. If this is the case, then it would make sense that the two starships’ crew numbers would be roughly the same, even though not every person would have a matching job title since the Bellerophon was a science mission and the C-57D carried a military-style rescue party.

Was the C-57D truly ready both psychologically and physically to support more people in terms of room and supplies? As stated before, while there are plenty of areas on that ship which we never saw and whose purposes remain only educated guesses for the viewing audience, the cruiser was still physically limited and certainly no luxury craft.

The trained crew might be able to handle such hardships and privations, but what about the Bellerophon survivors, most of whom were apparently scientists and would have spent the last twenty years of their lives on an alien planet that from all appearances, save the underground Krell facilities, seems pretty desolate.

Would they want to leave after all this time despite the apparent harshness of their situation? After all, living for two straight decades in one place, even one that was less than ideal, might have had an effect on them. Playing a ‘what-if” scenario, what if they had decided as a group at some point to abandon their primary mission and remain on Altair 4, deliberately cutting off radio contact with Earth? Morbius said he and his wife had a special love for that world and voluntarily chose to stay. He even made several comments both in the film and the 1954 script about how crowded and dirty he found Earth and his overall resistance to ever leaving Altair 4 even for a brief time was plain.

The C-57D crew was, rather surprisingly, not prepared both for Morbius’ reaction and the discovery of the Krell technology, as Adams admitted as much and had to make a special radio call home for further instructions. They had been focused on the primary goal of their mission, to find out what happened to the Bellerophon expedition and rescue any survivors. This has led me to wonder why it took twenty years for the UP to mount a rescue operation for a mission for which they knew nothing of its fate, including if anyone was still alive to be saved. Unless having starships zip around the galaxy is an everyday occurrence for the UP, the stated C-57D mission seems like an extravagance just to see if anyone survived the Bellerophon mission.

Perhaps an automated probe with artificial intelligence (AI) would have been sufficient for the task, sparing the extra expense and resources of a human crew. However, not only would this have not worked in terms of providing human characters and the resultant drama for an entertainment film, the very concept of sending robotic machines to explore space was still a rather new one at the time, even though rockets had been sent high above Earth housing only basic instrumentation on suborbital jaunts. The state of technology in the 1950s, especially computers, was such that exploration and other types of reconnaissance were still the domain of manned vessels, even when it came to first expeditions into unknown realms.

If the cruiser crew had found no one alive on Altair 4, only some human remains, would they have transported them back to Earth or buried them on the planet? If the former, I wonder how having dead bodies aboard the cruiser for the year-long journey home would have affected the crew psychologically?

This train of thought has also led me to wonder if someone, perhaps the organization that created and funded the initial expedition to Altair 4, somehow already knew about the existence of the Krell and their amazing technology and sent the Bellerophon as a scientific scouting mission to study and claim the technology for themselves. Otherwise why send a language expert like Morbius unless someone knew there would be an alien culture on Altair 4 to decipher? Unless the United Planets sends primarily altruistic science missions to explore alien worlds and their potential inhabitants using a preplanned range of experts from various relevant disciplines as a matter of principle. They are supposed to be an enlightened future society advanced and enriched on multiple levels, so it is not impossible.

The UP may also have a priority to investigate any exoplanets that resemble Earth, just as current astronomers in our reality are focused on sifting through the data from such satellites as Kepler to find worlds similar to our home planet, with the ultimate goal down the road to send probe missions to investigate them further to evaluate their potential for human colonization. Altair 4 is similar to Earth, although it is slightly less massive and therefore has a lighter gravity, has a higher oxygen content in its atmosphere, and two large circling moons. There is that tricky business with the star Altair itself, which is not a fairly stable and long-lived yellow dwarf type like our Sol at least in our Universe, but that is for a further analysis later on.

However, in a film whose main theme throughout is how basic human nature remains no matter how sophisticated our civilization becomes, I cannot help but wonder what other motives may have been involved. Perhaps I have been influenced by the plot of the first film of the Alien franchise from 1979, where an interstellar commercial towing ship named Nostromo, on its way back to Earth, is redirected by its owners, simply known as The Company, to investigate what appears to be a distress signal coming from some remote alien planet. The ship’s crew come to learn the hard way that the signal was not a call for help but a warning from a derelict alien vessel housing a vast collection of large eggs containing deadly creatures. One of these encased xenomorphs, as they are later called, attacks and infects a crewman, uses him as an incubator, and eventually transforms into an even more dangerous version that attacks the rest of the crew and kills all but one of them.

It is eventually revealed that The Company actually knew what was in that alien derelict thanks to the crashed ship’s warning transmission and used the conveniently nearby Nostromo and its crew to involuntarily bring home a sample creature for study by its bioweapons division. Although the Alien franchise is of course fictional, it is not hard to imagine a real future human society that continues to behave in certain familiar if less than noble ways despite having an interstellar level society with high technology and knowledge.

Another factor that was definitely not anticipated in advance of the C-57D mission to Altair 4 was Commander Adams bringing back a woman he met and fell in love with while on that planet, accompanied by her robot servant/nanny made from advanced alien technology. In particular a young woman who until quite recently had spent her entire and rather idyllic life on that distant alien world with her father as the only other human being she had ever directly known. By the end of the film, Altaira will have witnessed the death of her beloved parent at the hands of a manifestation from the very alien civilization he had devoted the last twenty years of his life to studying.

Within 24 hours, that traumatic event will be surpassed by Altaira having a virtual front-row seat to the complete obliteration of her home world, including presumably most of what she once owned and all of her pets.

In the very last scenes of the released film version, we observe Adams holding an understandably distraught Altaira and trying to comfort her by declaring how one day the human race will reach the advanced levels of the Krell thanks to men like her father, whose “name will shine again like a beacon in the galaxy.” Then Adams feels the need to throw in a comment about how this event will teach humanity not to play God – maybe not the best time to alternately praise and admonish Morbius right to his daughter’s face. Adams makes this final point even more pointedly in the 1954 script version of his little speech:

“Alta, nothing is ever really lost. There’s a ladder that reaches from the primeval slime up to the stars, and beyond. In about a million years the human race will have climbed up to that rung where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and disaster. And then your father’s name will stand like a milestone in the galaxy – warning Man to remember that he is after all not a god.”

What did not make the final version of Forbidden Planet is what came next: A wedding ceremony.

Yes, no sooner had the C-57D gotten out of range of the destructive blast of Altair 4 and all that meant to poor Altaira than Alpha Male Adams makes crewman Bosun (like Cook, another member of the ship who is only referred to by his job title) the temporary Acting Captain of the ship so that he may perform the wedding – and quickly too, as the cruiser will be going into hyperspace in a matter of minutes and everyone needs to be in those special chambers for protection; you know, the ones we saw at the beginning of the film when the C-57D was about to decelerate out of hyperspace into the Altair system that look an awful lot like what would become the matter transporters on Star Trek a decade later.

Not only is this scene fully described in the 1954 script but it was apparently filmed as well, for there is a published still shot of the moment complete with Cook holding a wedding cake! Perhaps the reason this ending of FP did not make the final cut was due to the filmmakers ultimately realizing how incongruous this event felt after everything that had just transpired, just like the scripted scene with Cook acquiring a chimpanzee “girlfriend” for comic effect. Plus they had to get in that final message about humanity not going past its cosmic paygrade (playing God), but that belongs to a later discussion. Despite all this, having Altaira marry Adams aboard the star cruiser would have made for an interesting parallel to her father and mother’s wedding, which also took place aboard a starship while in transit, with the ceremony being performed by the Bellerophon’s skipper.

The most likely reason for this wedding being considered to close out FP has to do with the era this film is from: A cinematic couple could not be shown or even implied to be living together if they were not lawfully married. Adams and Altaira would have had little choice but to be in close proximity to each other on the year-long journey back to Earth aboard that confining star cruiser deep in the middle of interstellar space. Add the fact of how much they clearly desired each other throughout most of FP and the only recourse to maintain propriety was to have them tie the knot ASAP. The producers were also probably considering the fact that since FP is definitely science fiction, complete with a robot and spaceships and ray guns, it would undoubtedly attract a lot of impressionable young children who would witness Adams and Altaira flying off into the Final Frontier together to “live in sin.” Of course if there was some kind of matrimonial ceremony aboard the C-57D, we the audience of all ages were never shown it, leaving everyone in a state of potential moral ambiguity.

So even if we assume that Adams and Altaira became legal husband and wife, complete with wedding cake, there would still be issues between them and the rest of the crew to contend with. Would they have any real privacy in this their first year together as a couple? I know on nuclear submarines that the officers get to have their own private quarters while the enlisted crew sleep in shared bunk beds, but as far as we know there is no such luxury aboard the C-57D, probably because the folks in charge only considered an all-male crew (including any Bellerophon survivors?). Maybe there is a partition stored somewhere that the officers use to divide themselves from the rest while sleeping and such. Or perhaps some sections of the interior can be modified into their own rooms complete with walls, assuming there is enough free space to do so. Either solution, however, will only be of limited benefit both psychologically and socially.

We also have to consider all the other issues Altaira would be going through: Until a few days ago, she had known only one human being her entire life, her father Dr. Edward Morbius, and lived virtually unrestricted in a beautiful home with few needs and wants. Now all that was gone and in a traumatic manner at that. Plus she had never been intimate with a man, a point that was made numerous times, although often alluded to rather than stated outright (and in some cases removed from the final film print). Altaira may be a highly intelligent woman, but she is also a human being and a rather young one at that: This sudden and dramatic shift in her life could be emotionally and psychologically damaging to her, despite the contemporary implication that now she has a husband everything will be fine.

Altaira may also come to subconsciously blame and despise the C-57D crew, especially her new partner Adams, for the death of her father and the destruction of her home world. Altaira may have had a self-educated intellectual understanding of human nature and general biology, but in many other respects she was indeed the innocent virgin the film portrayed her as, especially social interactions. If there was one thing pounded home in Forbidden Planet it is the volatile and uncontrollable power of the human subconscious. Even Morbius with his high intelligence and disciplined mind could not control his inner primal beast, and although he had an advanced alien technology at his disposal to dramatically enhance his subconscious desires, Altaira could still wreak her own kind of havoc on herself and others without the need for Krell instrumentalities. While this is not the kind of outcome the film would want to have happen to the survivors of Altair 4, our reality often lacks the luxury of preordained happy endings.

One may hope for her sake that Adams has more sensitivity and understanding for his new bride than most of the other males displayed towards Altaira in the film. Of course Robby will also be there for the long journey and that may help; however, what the United Planets authorities may ultimately do with such a technological prize once they arrive on Earth could mean that Altaira might lose her one remaining positive connection to her past, creating even more trauma.

I also want to note that the C-57D returns to Earth with five fewer initial crewmembers that it left with: This number includes three of its four officers, whom Adams was close with to varying levels, especially Doc, the ship’s lone physician and perhaps only real intellectual. This may be a quasi-military group modeled on a mid-Twentieth Century image of manhood, but losing comrades after spending a long period of time together on a continual basis certainly heightened the emotional bond, even for a bunch of macho males who would be reticent to admit such a thing publicly. That they also died in such dramatic and often terrible fashion on an alien planet where they did not seem entirely prepared for who and what they encountered will no doubt only add to the emotional backlash (I go so far as to say they may have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, from this) once they are on the long journey home where aside from their duties they are going to have a lot of time to think about what took place – and without their only medical doctor to boot.

These things will need to be considered as much as possible once real star voyages start happening, for we do not know who or what is out there. Even if the galaxy is relatively benign the journey itself has obstacles and issues that will not fade away once the end credits roll.

The Krell: The Alien as Object Lesson

For a science fiction film involving an FTL starship that is part of an interstellar federation on a mission to a distant exoplanet, Forbidden Planet has one particularly atypical aspect for its genre: There is only one ETI species ever discussed and our main characters never get to either meet in person or even see an actual representative of these aliens, only what is left of their technology and records, which are presented to them through a fellow human to boot. While this is not unique for SF, focusing on just one alien species shows that the Krell are in this film, whatever form they may take, for a serious reason and not just window dressing to make things more exotic a la Star Wars or Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

As stated earlier in the sections on the C-57D, there are indications in the released version of FP that the members of the United Planets neither contain anyone who is not a human from Earth nor are they currently aware of any ETI in the galaxy. That this future humanity has never met an alien intelligence before is made explicit in the 1954 script by Commander Adams just before they land on Altair 4.

Thus the discovery of the alien species who called themselves the Krell is not just supposed to be a surprise for the film audience but certainly for the crew of the C-57D and by proxy the United Planets, whose mission as we know was primarily focused on rescuing any survivors from the starship Bellerophon, which was sent to Altair 4 twenty years prior, and not making First Contact. That being said, the possibility of an encounter with an ETI was very likely among the crew’s orders and there is probably even some kind of general protocol in anticipation of such an event, although despite that one brief and informal conversation between the three main officers from the 1954 script, it does not seem to have been something they had even considered in a big way, let alone done any official planning for. Of course what we later come to learn and see about the Krell probably would have jarred even a well-prepared First Contact team, if such a thing even exists in the UP.

No human of that 23rd Century ever met a living member of the Krell, for they have been extinct for the last two thousand centuries, roughly around the time that anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, made their first appearance on Earth. According to Dr. Morbius, from whom we learn the majority of what we in the viewing audience do know about these aliens, the Krell left no images or even descriptions of their physical appearance, although Morbius tweaks our imaginations when he suggests to Adams and Doc Ostrow that they consider the standard shape of the wide, five-sided archways (counting the floor as one side) found throughout the underground Krell facility “in comparison to one of our functionally-designed human doorways.”

Morbius claimed that “no record of their physical nature has survived,” but does he really know that for certain? Did he check through every document and manuscript the Krell ever made? Morbius even said that he had spent every day of the last two decades “painfully picking up a few of the least difficult fragments of their knowledge.”

Now from a story angle, I do not have a real issue with the details of the physical appearance of the Krell remaining unknown to all but the Krell themselves. Some of the best cinematic science fiction also kept their aliens’ true appearances unavailable to human eyes, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. This tactic not only heightens the imaginations, drama, and tension of the audience, it spares such films from the potential for displaying aliens that could end up looking more ridiculous than awe-inspiring or fearsome, especially in those pre-CGI days.

My real complaint with the lack of a visible Krell is the plausibility level of Morbius’ claim that there are no records of any image of an actual member of that species. The Krell were organic beings to the very end of their existence, we know this much. So even if we throw in the possibility that their species had some kind of cultural or psychological taboo about showing themselves either in photographic images or through art, would not the Krell still have a need for medical knowledge about their species? Would this not require multiple detailed images and diagrams of their bodies?

This lead me to question if Morbius truly knew if the subject of his intense study left no records of what they looked like. If you had access to an alien database, wouldn’t one of the first things you would do with it is to find out what the beings who created this database looked like if you didn’t already know? Even if you did not understand their language and the amount of information was vast, you could still look for any representations that showed the ETI themselves. For someone as scientifically curious, fascinated, and ultimately obsessed about the Krell as Morbius is, I find it hard to believe he would not have been combing the alien database from day one for anything that could be an actual Krell.

As it turns out, Morbius may indeed have given into to that curiosity impulse, but his own words reveal that there was probably far too much information for any one human being, even one who was mentally enhanced by Krell technology as he was, to search through and digest in one average lifetime.

When Morbius gives Adams and Doc a tour of the Krell laboratory, he shows them a large desk with a screen built into its flat surface, saying: “On this screen may be projected the total scientific knowledge of the Krell, from its primitive beginnings to the day of its annihilation – a sheer bulk surpassing many million earthly libraries.” [Emphasis added.] Doc then inquires if Morbius is able to read the Krell “hieroglyphics”, to which Morbius responds: “A little. It’s my profession.”

A few moments later, Morbius adds: “I’ve come here every day now for two decades, painfully picking up a few of the least difficult fragments of their knowledge.”

There were two additional comments made by Morbius that did not survive from the 1954 script which further reveal just how big the Krell library was and how Morbius was incapable of absorbing more than a fraction of its ancient intellectual bulk:

“But still I am like an illiterate savage, wandering at random through some stupendous scientific institute, and comprehending not a thousandth part of all the piled-up wonders.”

And then there is this:

“But I do not even know the storage place of all those ancient tons of microfilm.”

Would an alien culture a million years ahead of 23rd Century humanity be using microfilm? If so, then that screen on the laboratory desk is essentially just a large microfiche reader: The way Morbius was shown operating the device, it certainly seems to handle like such a reader. If Forbidden Planet were produced today, that screen would have been the monitor/display for a Krell database computer, no doubt swimming with exotic CGI images. However, in the 1950s, computers generally communicated their data to their operators through blinking lights, punch cards, and paper printouts. Computer monitors would not really take off until the 1970s. Recall that even in the science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, made one full decade after FP, the nuclear-powered submarine Proteus that took a miniaturized crew through a human body utilized rather simplistic paper charts as navigational maps of the person’s interior. A selected chart was transferred to the sub’s pilot via the vintage overhead projector method to be displayed on his small view screen as a guide.

Of course Morbius may have been trying to describe this aspect of Krell technology using a term that would be familiar to the C-57D officers, but again, one would think that microfilm would be deeply antiquated technology for residents of an era where FTL starships and ray guns are available. Then again, too, there is nothing like having the advantage of six decades of hindsight to comment on the film’s technology.

I also have to wonder if there is a “search” feature on this Krell database reader, whatever its true design may be. Because otherwise trying to find particular information from a library bigger than millions of terrestrial versions manually would be virtually impossible. It would also further solidify my point that Morbius could not have seen every bit of Krell knowledge and therefore the possibility that images of the Krell remains (or remained) buried somewhere in that virtual ocean of data.

Nevertheless, even without that database, there were a few other clues that revealed a bit more about the physical state of the Krell. There was this bit of stage description from the 1954 script when Morbius and the UP cruiser officers first enter the Krell “electro-physics laboratory”:

“…all the seats are exceptionally low and wide, with four separate arm-rests set at right angles on each side.”

One of these laboratory sections with the seating meant for beings other than human was the device Morbius called the “plastic educator”, which would become crucial to the bizarre and frightening events happening on Altair 4. Morbius tells the officers how he often plays with this instrument for relaxation, although he sometimes wished he had “been blessed with multiple arms and legs.” The resident Krell expert also points out that the educator’s three-pronged headset “was designed for something much bulkier than [his] human cranium.”

In addition, the long walkways seen amongst the Krell machinery were quite wide and the guard rails along their sides were lower than would be considered safe for an average human. Yet Morbius still pressed the two officers to look over these ramp railings to peer down at the miles-deep ventilation shaft they stood in, tweaking at their instinctive fear of such a drop.

Then there is this fascinating stage direction from the 1954 script, made just after Morbius told Adams and Doc to use the shape of the Krell archways as a guide to imagining what its makers probably looked like:

“The officers turn, and stare at the tunnel-mouth. Abstractedly, the Doc picks up a pencil. TRUCK IN slightly to give a glimpse over his shoulder as he sketches – first, the outline of a common doorway, with a one-line diagram of a man standing in it — then the Krell arch, with the suggestion of a crab-like or spider-like creature framed in it. But before the sketch is complete, the Doc’s hand impulsively crumples the paper in revulsion.”

With Doc being perhaps the most mature and thoughtful member of the C-57D crew, as well as probably the most intellectual, I found it a bit surprising that he of all of them would be so xenophobic as depicted above with his visceral reaction to a rough speculative drawing of the Krell – which he had just made! Then again, scholarly intelligence is no guarantee against prejudice.

I did wonder if Doc was having a subconscious reaction from that earlier discussion between Adams, Farman, and himself aboard the C-57D as to whether the Bellerophon crew had encountered intelligent natives on Altair 4 and thus the reason they had not been heard from in the last two decades. Adams considered that in general aliens could be “anything from archangels to man-eating spiders. Or a combination of both,” in response to Doc asking if “aliens would necessarily be hostile?” This same scene is where Adams had just revealed to the audience that humanity had never encountered an alien race before, thus all the members of the United Planets originate from Earth regardless of what worlds they may have since been dwelling on.

The key flaw with my theory, however, is that this particular dialogue does not exist in the 1954 script, obviously appearing instead only in a later rewrite and even being filmed, only to be dropped from FP’s released cinematic version. My guess is that this scene was initially conceived to give the audience some extra fuel to fire their imaginings and fears about the Krell, with Doc’s reaction being the icing on the proverbial cake. It was probably removed from the script largely due to pacing and perhaps even being overkill, although it would have provided one more avenue towards understanding the Krell. In any event, I found Morbius’ succinct referral to the Krell tunnel archways for reference quite sufficient to spark my imagination on the subject while leaving plenty of room left for individual interpretation.

For all these hints and speculations, there is, in fact, a physical description of the Krell. It was revealed in a detailed article on the film from a 1979 issue of Cinefantastique magazine (Volume 8, Number 2 and 3) titled “Making Forbidden Planet” by Frederick S. Clarke and Steve Rubin. In this piece, the film’s cinematographer, George Folsey, stated the following:

“The Krell were originally frog-like in nature with two long legs and a big tail. They were never shown, but it was indicated in the original screenplay that the [smooth] ramps between the steps were designed to accommodate their dragging tail.”

Personally, while I could imagine the Krell as looking rather like squatting frogs, the long legs don’t quite jive with the image that otherwise conjures up based on the other evidence in their laboratory. As for their big, dragging tails, they may have been added to the Krell anatomy as a symbolic indicator of their primeval nature, which they forgot about as they evolved and advanced, yet were never quite gone even though they literally tried to put their past behind them.

However, note that Folsey says both “originally” and “original screenplay” in terms of the Krell design. Perhaps their appearance was modified in later renditions, at least in the minds of the filmmakers. Otherwise it would have made for a tight squeeze in that little shuttle car the Krell used to get around their underground complex, although as we saw, three fully grown humans could fit inside it without discomfort.

I also saw no smooth ramps between the stairs in any filmed depictions of the Krell lab, adding to my theory that the aliens’ initial description as long-legged “frogs” with long, dragging tails had been changed. Perhaps Doc’s rough sketch from the 1954 script reflects the later visions of the Krell by the filmmakers. It would not surprise me, however, if they never fully rendered the physical appearance of the Krell even in their minds and left the details up to everyone’s imaginations.

Same Song, Different Day?

When Adams and Doc came to pay Morbius an uninvited call at his home to determine just who – or what – had managed to sabotage the C-57D’s communications system, they ended up learning about the former residents of Altair 4, the advanced alien species known as the Krell.

Morbius provided the officers (and the audience) with the following introduction to these mysterious beings:

“In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell. Ethically, as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind. For, in unlocking the mysteries of nature, they had conquered even their baser selves.

“And, when in the course of eons, they had abolished sickness and insanity and crime and all injustice, they turned, still with high benevolence, outward toward space.

“Long before the dawn of man’s history, they had walked our Earth, and brought back many biological specimens. The heights they had reached!

“But then, seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history, this all-but-divine race perished in a single night.

“In the two thousand centuries [200,000 years] since that unexplained catastrophe, even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair IV and nothing, absolutely nothing, remains aboveground.”

My first question from Morbius’ little lecture was, how did he know that the Krell were one million years ahead of humanity in both ethics and technology? With what form of measurement was he able to compare what should be two very different species evolving on different worlds light years apart? Did Morbius have some special insight into the directions a civilization’s technology could go? Or was it really just an elaborate educated guess, for it is doubtful that even the Krell had built a time machine for Morbius to see their future with. He also lacked any other ETI societies to make comparisons with, so far as we know.

I also question Morbius’ claims on the Krell being ethically superior. While we must take his word that this “all-but-divine” race “had abolished sickness and insanity and crime and all injustice,” we cannot forget that the Krell were not human. This means that even if they did happen to share certain cultural traits with the tailless apes of Sol 3 and were indeed superior to humanity in certain ethical aspects, they may have also behaved in ways and held beliefs that we would have found to be wrong to and for our species, perhaps even inadvertently offensive and dangerous. As we have seen with our own selves since prehistory, being technologically sophisticated does not always create or mean an equivalent ethical superiority. Using the example of the nuclear bomb, it can sometimes merely indicate a more efficient and much deadlier way to conduct the same type of barbaric actions against perceived enemies as our warring tribal ancestors did with stones and spears.

Look at all the differences with our own species throughout history to the present, where different cultures, often separated by mere geography on the same planet, hold views and conduct themselves in ways considered both shocking and intolerable to others. At the same time these various societies most often look upon themselves as the correct way to be human, often even superior to the rest of their species and their world. Now imagine comparing two sentient races whose only real aspect in common is belonging to the same galaxy.

So how is it that not only does Morbius assume the path that the Krell took in their long yet suddenly abruptly ending existence is the same one we will take into the far future, but that Captain John “J. J.” Adams with his unenhanced brain also concurs with such thinking via his little speech to Altaira at the end of the film?

At the most fundamental level, the Krell exist to serve the purpose that aliens so often do in science fiction: As parallels to humanity so that “safe” comparisons can be made to teach important lessons without offending anyone. Perhaps this is yet another reason why we never get to see what the Krell actually looked like: Their actions, as relayed through members of the human race, mattered more in making the various societal points of the film. By not showing their outright physical selves, the Krell become more relatable to us despite being aliens in so many other respects and we accept the main moral of the story – which in this case is a seemingly contradictory message to continually strive to achieve greatness, but only so far or you will be stomped down by a higher power who is apparently not big on sharing with others.

It is certainly no accident that the starship which brought Morbius to Altair 4 was named the Bellerophon, after a demigod of Greek mythology who despite many great achievements and honors wanted to join the gods residing on Mount Olympus. Bellerophon attempted this by riding the winged horse Pegasus towards the divine dwelling place, but the chief deity Zeus quite literally knocked this son of Poseidon off his high horse and sent him plunging back to Earth. Crippled from the fall and ostracized by society for his defiant act, Bellerophon spent the rest of his days wandering alone in misery, serving as a reminder to what would happen to any mortal (or even a half-mortal) who dared to be a god. A human could strive and improve themselves as far and as much as they want, just so long as they did not attempt to cross that all important class/societal/species line – even if for no better reason than the gods were not big on sharing, especially with beings they considered to be lower than themselves.

This same attitude was prevalent with another classic of science fiction cinema titled The Day the Earth Stood Still, released into theaters just five years before FP. In this story case the advanced ETI who apparently dominate the Milky Way galaxy sent a representative named Klaatu to Earth via a flying saucer type starship to warn humanity that if they took their warlike ways into the Galactic Country Club – now that our species had both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them long distances, including into space — then by the laws of Klaatu’s realm they would have no choice but to exterminate humanity with giant silvery robots toting death rays from their faceplates. Klaatu even told a group of human representatives at the climax of the film that the ETI did not care what humans did to themselves on their own planet, which included annihilating each other, just so long as they did not try to bring their primitive primal ways into the Club and start soiling the cosmic carpeting.

Once again humanity has to follow very strict rules and regulations laid down by others made long ago if they ever want to even think about being part of the heavens and sharing in all those presumed riches and powers. All this must transpire even though neither the Greek gods nor the deity-ish ETI of TDTESS are flawless beings themselves and in the latter case were once just as mortal as the humans they threatened with destruction. In fact, Klaatu’s group had to give over the policing of their interstellar society to a collection of powerful machines of their own making because they knew no one (presumably organic and therefore primal) species could be trusted with the literal keys to the kingdom of the heavens. In essence these ETI made their own gods with science and technology instead of trying to become deities directly, which explains why they were not destroyed and can now go about acting like they are the ones in charge of the galaxy.

There are two things that need to be accepted about Forbidden Planet: One is that there is no way an American film made in the 1950s, especially one produced by a major studio and already on both corporate and cultural thin ice by daring to be a big-budgeted version of a genre normally relegated to the cinematic equivalent of steerage class, would ever say or do anything other than declare that mortal men (and aliens) must never try to become like the supernatural Judeo-Christian God or they will face divine justice as a result.

The other is that the filmmakers (and many scientists of the era) probably did assume that all intelligent organic beings follow parallel evolutionary paths, even if they came from very different primal seas – and they also tended to assume that life everywhere began in some form of liquid water. This assumption of a literally universal parallel development of biological life forms starting as single-celled creatures on a planet and naturally aiming from there towards the wider Universe is reflected in Adams’ 1954 script version of his final speech to Alta (and we the audience): “There’s a ladder that reaches from the primeval slime up to the stars, and beyond. In about a million years the human race will have climbed up to that rung where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and disaster.”

So the Krell developed their technology and culture in a similar course to humanity’s, even though they did this ages ago on an alien planet and were only roughly humanoid looking, based on the scraps of information we have about their physiology.

Humanity, in turn, will follow a similar path set by the Krell, even though it will lead to ruin unless we stop that progress before it reaches the God Level (and then do what? But that question is usually avoided.)

So why keep striving if we cannot reach our full potentials? Should every intelligent species have a preset braking plan for their distant descendants? Would it work even if they did attempt such a thing? While it was nice of Adams to attempt to make Altaira feel better about losing her father by saying that the name and accomplishments of Morbius will “shine again like a beacon in the galaxy” one million years into the future, there is of course no real way to know if such a thing will happen, especially as microfilm will only last about 500 years, at least the silver halide version used by humans (the Krell must have found a much better composition and storage methods for all the tons of microfilm that Morbius said they placed all their knowledge upon, as he found it readable over 200,000 years later).

Yes I am being somewhat facetious based on my bemusement that the highly advanced Krell would be using microfilm as an information storage medium for their vast library, but the real point Adams made at the end of his speech – and of course from the overall film – is that organic intelligent beings will never really lose their primal animal (and therefore barbaric and beastly) selves from which they sprang so otherwise long ago. Worse, should the higher areas of the brain – the Ego and Superego as first defined by Sigmund Freud in 1923 – lose their dominance and control over the Id portion, utter chaos, destruction, and even death will prevail, especially if these beings happen to build one of those devices that can transform their very thoughts into physical manifestations to any point across the world they happen to be residing upon at that moment. Not even the Krell could escape this seemingly ironclad fate, despite having had long ago “abolished sickness and insanity and crime and all injustice,” something even 23rd Century humankind certainly had yet to achieve.

What disturbs me even more about this concept was that the Krell apparently thought that not only had they defeated their nasty Id, but they even forgot about it as the centuries passed and became even more “mighty and noble”, again quoting our resident Krell expert, Dr. Morbius. Is it possible that living for eons in a highly sophisticated technological civilization, yet still remaining organic and presumably still doing basic organic things like eating food and reproducing to the very end – plus their planet Altair 4 must have had a biosphere full of lower organic creatures that exhibited widespread primal behaviors on a regular basis – made the Krell not only forgetful of their distant, primitive ancestors but also brought about a sense of hubris, which is always a showstopper as far as the gods are concerned when it comes to mortals.

If I believe anything as to why the Krell failed to anticipate what turning their very thoughts into physical, active forms unchecked could cause, it is that one million years of “shining sanity” (quoting Morbius yet again) created a combination of disassociation from the thoughts and feelings of all “lower” life forms and, yes, a sense of cultural superiority that nothing they could accomplish would ever fail or end up hurting them.

This reminds me of what happened with the technologically advanced Martians in the classic SF novel The War of the Worlds, written by British author H. G. Wells and first published in serial form in 1896. The invading aliens from Sol 4 had the superior minds and weaponry, yet they were ultimately defeated “by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.” Not only might a truly foreign invader fall victim to the disease microorganisms of another world, but Wells declares that “there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow.”

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. I suspect this was Wells’ version of the otherwise sophisticated Martians “forgetting” their primitive ancestral roots to their ultimate detriment, just as the Krell either forgot or ignored their own primal Monsters from the Id and paid the price for their lack of acknowledgement.

Going back to the theme of this section, that aliens most often serve as metaphors for humanity, it is most likely that the final (and ultimately fatal) Krell achievement is a couched symbol for that biggest of all the bogeyman of the Cold War era: Nuclear weapons and the civilization-ending destruction they could cause if unleashed. It may be hard to imagine this now, but in the first few decades of the Cold War, there were many – including politicians, the military, engineers, and scientists – who thought that a nuclear war could be conducted strategically so that one side could still win while taking “acceptable” losses of human life.

When General Buck Turgidson declared as much in the 1964 political satire film Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb with his infamous quote that the United States of America would suffer “no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Uh, depending on the breaks,” during a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, this was not just part of the overall black comedy that was this masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick: It was a reflection on actual contemporary studies of nuclear war where experts calculated how much the nation could lose in terms of infrastructure and population and continue to function to the point of defeating the enemy and declaring victory. The psychological and sociological factors of such massive genocide were pushed to the side, even though it did not take an expert to figure out those would be the overwhelmingly prevailing reactions in a nuclear conflict.

This parallels Morbius and Adams’ comprehension of what the Krell had done to themselves: The scientist with his artificially enhanced brain could not (and would not) accept that his beloved superior ETI had developed a device that was their undoing because they had failed to realize what it could (and did) unleash. Meanwhile, the commander of the C-57D, whom Morbius had earlier mocked about not needing brains to run a starship, “just a good loud voice,” figured out (with some clues from an enhanced Doc Ostrow) just what happens when anyone, even beings with otherwise high intellects and enlightened ethics, obtain a power that cannot be controlled.

Of course I must add that in regards to the Cold War strategy mentioned above, it was operated by a combination of various disciplines who were focused on conducting a nuclear war they could win in some sense. They were aware of what would happen to American society and its citizens, but their primary goal was to defeat the Soviets, thus General Turgidson’s seemingly dispassionate comment on the number of human deaths that could be sustained by the United States without ultimate defeat.

As discussed earlier in this essay, Forbidden Planet premiered during the time of communist “witch hunts” in America, where government officials were diligently rooting out citizens considered to be supporters of the primary political system of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc partners. Hollywood was certainly not immune to this purge, where a film that even gave the impression of criticizing American policies could spell serious trouble for a production and those involved with it. Therefore it was prudent to hide such sentiments so that only the more thoughtful and presumably less hostile members of the audience would comprehend what was really being said in the film. That FP was clearly a science fiction film provided additional cover, as many in the culture of the time, including Hollywood executives, saw the genre as “kids’ stuff” and therefore harmless and lacking in deeper meanings. Star Trek would take advantage of this situation a decade later when American television networks were still generally uncomfortable with series which portrayed serious social themes, especially political ones.

Perhaps as a final “cover” for the real message in Forbidden Planet, it is ironic to note that the heroes of the film are neither the enlightened aliens of Altair 4 nor the augmented scientist determined to protect the knowledge and accomplishments of the Krell, but the military officers and enlisted men of the space cruiser C-57D. They are the ones who bravely venture across the stars to a remote alien planet, stop an ego-driven scientist, rescue a damsel in distress (not necessarily from her perspective, however), encounter and (inadvertently) defeat a powerful and dangerous alien technology that could have destroyed interstellar civilization, and brought home a lovable and technologically valuable robot as a bonus.

This attitude was even more explicitly in the 1951 SF film The Thing from Another World: It is the military men of the United States Air Force (USAF) and not the scientists who save the day from yet another advanced ETI bent on destroying humanity. In fact the main scientist in The Thing, Dr. Carrington, puts every human life in jeopardy in his well-meaning attempts to reason with the alien and even save it, despite the being’s obvious hostile intentions. Carrington had made the assumption that because the ETI had come to Earth in a starship, its more advanced knowledge and technology automatically made it morally superior as well, when in fact the alien saw the natives primarily as a food source and aid in reproduction as a prelude to a presumed full-on planetary conquest.

Summation: It is a hostile Universe out there and only American courage and can-do attitude (via the military in various forms) can save the day, along with the logical extension of our Manifest Destiny into the Cosmos. Scientists are sometimes well-meaning nerds who either do not see the bigger picture or see too far beyond the needs and wants of the human tribe and must be kept in line. Star Trek carried on this theme with its numerous franchises, sometimes blatantly so, especially in the original series. If nothing else this projection keeps you safe and profitable in Hollywood. Whether it would work in the real wider galaxy or not is another matter.

Chariots of the Krell

During his initial impromptu lecture about the Krell, Morbius revealed yet another interesting tidbit about his favorite aliens:

“Long before the dawn of man’s history, they had walked our Earth, and brought back many biological specimens. The heights they had reached!”

Adams: “I see. That explains the tiger and the deer.”

So the Krell were once deep space explorers themselves, which makes sense if you follow the aforementioned reasoning that all intelligent beings would follow parallel development paths that naturally include going to the stars. We are never told just how far they penetrated into the Milky Way galaxy, nor how many other worlds besides Earth they visited, but it would only be logical to assume they explored numerous star systems and did so with vessels capable of FTL velocities. It would also be logical to assume that Earth was not the only place where the Krell came back with native specimens, yet we neither see nor are even told of any nonterrestrial creatures roaming around Altair 4, so we are again left in the dark regarding any alien life forms besides the Krell, past or present.

Which leads to the next question: What happened to all the native flora and fauna of Altair 4? I have serious doubts that none ever existed on that planet except for the Krell, yet outside of Morbius’ home and yard the alien globe seems pretty desolate. Even from orbit Altair 4 appears rather bland and devoid of abundant life, with all due apologies to Doc Ostrow’s aesthetic opinions on the planet. There are some rather exotic trees and other plants just outside the home, but beyond that and the region around the landing site of the C-57D, the terrain appears to be mostly barren dessert, punctuated only by boulders, jagged mountains, deep crevices, and the occasional scrub brush (and just maybe a few wild radishes).

So how is it that Altair 4 has an atmosphere 4.7 percent richer in oxygen than Earth if there is so relatively little life present? Clearly Morbius, Altaira, and the rather few animal and plants around their home could not be generating enough of the element to create such an abundance. We know that on Earth, oxygen did not make an appearance until life began generating it en masse as a waste byproduct. Therefore there must be life elsewhere across the planet, even if it is relatively lower forms. Otherwise we would have to assume that when the Krell let loose with the manifestations from their Ids, they exterminated much of the surrounding plants and animals in their murderous rages as well. We do know from the numerous global extinction events which have taken place several times in Earth’s long history that some organisms managed to survive no matter how bad the (natural) destruction was, flourishing again over time. So we may presume that native organisms still exist in places all over Altair 4 that we never visited.

Evidence that some of the planet’s native creatures must have survived somewhere even if the Krell did not may be found in the very presence of the descendants of the animals brought back from Earth. It is never explained (or questioned) how these non-native organisms not only survived the day the Krell obliterated themselves (were they in some kind of protective zoo?) but then managed on their own to find nourishment and breed for the next 200,000 years until the United Planets starship Bellerophon showed up.

During the film we get to meet one tiger, a small herd of deer, and one monkey that likes to steal fruit. If some of the people involved in the production of FP had had their way, we would have also seen butterflies and bees in the garden – and one amorous female chimpanzee! During his guided tour of the underground Krell facility, Morbius also mentions a flock of migrating birds, while in the 1954 script Altaira was shown feeding several varieties of tropical bird species.

If one wonders why the Krell did not bring back some specimens of our distant human predecessors, the answer may be found in the 1954 version of the film script, where Morbius makes the off-hand remark that “evidently our own bestial primitive ancestors were beneath the notice of the Krell.”

This is a rather odd statement to make, as the other terrestrial animals and plants the Krell did take with them were clearly less sophisticated than even the first hominids. Presumably the Krell would have visited Earth less than one million years ago (and no later than about 200,000 years ago), when our ancestors were already well versed in utilizing fire, stone tools, and other qualities that should have distinguished them from the rest of the primates co-existing with the several human species of the period. Morbius also had an underlying contempt for his fellow humanity of the 23rd Century, so undoubtedly our even less advanced ancestors would only increase his ire on the subject. Note that Morbius used the word “evidently” in his comment, which indicates to me that he is actually making an assumption about the Krell’s real motivations for not collecting any humans, colored with his own prejudices.

If it did happen to be true that the Krell did not select any early humans for transportation and study, my guess is that the Krell recognized the humans they found as having the potential to evolve further just as they did and decided to leave them in their natural environment. Did they perhaps even have a hand in helping along our development as well, just as the Monolith ETI in 2001: A Space Odyssey deliberately guided our primitive ancestors in Africa over four million years ago to use tools for hunting and defense. We do not know and Dr. Morbius certainly seemed less than willing to pursue the subject. All we know is that no transplanted descendants of humanity made an appearance during the C-57D’s brief time on Altair 4 and any such evidence of their ever existing was destroyed along with the planet.

Another set of questions left unanswered in regards to the Krellian era of deep space exploration: Did they ever set up any colonies as they roamed through the Milky Way as humanity did eons later? Or did all the Krell eventually return to Altair 4 for whatever reasons? Perhaps not all the Krell died out and their descendants live on an unknown number of alien worlds. Or maybe at least their technology remains if not the creators, waiting to be found. If so, will the events that transpired in Forbidden Planet repeat themselves, either at the hands of humanity or yet another intelligent starfaring species?

Arts and Crafts

Continuing with the FP theme that organic intelligences will follow similar evolutionary paths no matter what primordial seas they came from (and it is always a primordial sea) or what they end up looking like, I want to briefly discuss the cultural side of the Krell, for they did have one.

One place we think we see examples of Krell art is displayed throughout Morbius’ home. Now granted, it could be art he brought from Earth; however, there is a fair deal of it and many of the items would be rather bulky and unwieldly to carry on a starship where space is at a premium. Or perhaps Morbius and/or Altaira made this art themselves over the last two decades, inspired in part by what they saw of the remaining Krell civilization around them if not some actual art itself. Of course the simplest explanation is that what we see is indeed art made by the Krell long ago which the two human occupants of Altair 4 collected and placed around their house. However, there is at least one sculpture of a distinctly human figure that I doubt came from the Krell, so perhaps there is no one set answer here.

Among the mostly abstract art found in the home (assuming it is abstract), there are two sculptures which distinctly depict some species of fish. One in particular is displayed prominently in the courtyard before the entrance to the home. While they do not look exactly like terrestrial fish, they do possess similar physical features, which would indicate the concept of “form follows function” no matter what alien sea an aquatic creature might swim in.

For background details on the artwork in FP, check out this forum discussion with many useful images:


One form of art we know that the Krell pursued was music. Using a small cylindrical device on his study desk, Morbius played a sample which he said was composed half a million years ago. That this art occupies the main place where Morbius devoted the last twenty years of his life and work to indicates he listened to this distinctly alien music as much for personal enjoyment as cultural research.

You can listen to that sample here:


Although there are certain differences, the Krell music we get to hear sounds very similar to the FP soundtrack. This is of course no coincidence since all the “electronic tonalities” of the film were produced by Bebe and Louis Barron. I even entertained the possibility that the entire soundtrack was actually Krell music. My imagination was certainly engaged as I wondered what kind of instruments those ancient Krell musicians used to make these sounds and what kind of meaning was behind their creation? Did they also have as much variety when it comes to music as humans certainly do? Sadly that moment in FP may have been the last time any sentient beings would ever hear Krell music again in the universe of the film.

As usual we have to take the word of Dr. Morbius that what he played in his study for the star cruiser officers was indeed music made by the Krell. I see no reason why he would lie in this matter: If anything Morbius probably played the music to win over Adams and Doc by showing the two humans that the Krell may have been alien, but they did share some things in common with humanity and any other intelligent races.

Just as scientists often assume that mathematics would be a literally universal language for communicating with ETI, music has also been seen as a potential way to bridge those inevitable linguistic, cultural, and physiological gaps between two alien species. The most famous example of this idea may be found on the golden Voyager Interstellar Records, launched with the twin Voyager deep space probes in 1977 to drift through the Milky Way galaxy indefinitely, with the hope that some sentient beings may one day find them and learn who sent these vessels into the void.

Of all the items engraved into the Golden Records to represent humanity and our world, the ones that occupy the most space on these discs are the examples of global music. The small team which made the Record did their best with rather limited time to give any recipients an idea of the incredible diversity of this human art form, although Western classical music did predominate based in part on the team’s view that works from that genre, especially by Johann Sebastian Bach, contain properties of a mathematical nature which were presumed to be appreciated by higher intellects.

Had the Krell still been alive to encounter one of the Voyager probes and that shiny Physical METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligences) bolted to its side, would they have recognized the various tunes on the Golden Records as music? Or would it have seemed like incomprehensible noise to their equivalent of ears? If Morbius had not told us that what we were listening to was music made by the distant alien residents of Altair 4, would we have automatically assumed it was their acoustic art form? Conversely, what we often call and interpret as music or songs made by such terrestrial organisms as birds and humpback whales are really more straightforward methods of communication than any kind of art form, though we may not be entirely certain.

Yes, I am fully aware that music is utilized as a form of communication as often as it is a pure art form. The question remains, though, is it truly universal? Perhaps the first alien transmission discovered by a group conducting the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, will not be the first one hundred prime numbers ala Contact, but music being played across the galaxy for the enjoyment of multiple civilizations. It is a scenario no less improbable than many other possibilities for finding other minds in the galaxy and beyond.

I also wondered if civilizations ever reach a point where they no longer need art and music? Is it possible for an intelligent species to evolve without ever having developed such culture? It is frustrating to ask such questions when we have but one example from a single world to go on so far. Granted the vast majority of human societies on Earth, no matter how different from one another, practice art and music as a rich part of their cultures. We also have numerous examples of fellow higher mammals such as orangutans and elephants who can paint once we give them the proper tools and teach them. However we are all still biologically related going back many millions of years and share Earth as our home world. What an ETI may become and do in a remote corner of the Milky Way is something we have yet to learn. We are still confined to playing out various scenarios with the aliens of our imaginations, such as the Krell.

Following that path, Morbius indicated that the Krell “in those final days before their annihilation… had been applying their entire racial energies to a new project, one which they actually seemed to hope might somehow free them once and for all from any dependence on physical instrumentalities.”

This would appear to indicate the Krell had ceased their cultural efforts to focus on their science and technology – and even those fields were likely narrowed down towards that singular purpose. Is this why Morbius was listening to their music from 300,000 years before the time the Krell became focused on their ultimate project, because their later music was either of a lesser quality or altogether nonexistent? Perhaps the Krell thought once they could create matter directly from their minds they could then go back to their arts and develop even more amazing cultural artifacts. Of course we will never know.

Will humanity follow the path of the Krell? Will they heed the warnings indirectly made by Dr. Edward Morbius or will they forget over time? What if our descendants remember but decide that they can avoid such pitfalls and try anyway? What if humans and all other organic intelligences discover that they can never fully escape their primal pasts? Will civilizations be content to advance only so far and then go into a form of self-enforced retirement? If they discover that the fate of the Krell cannot be avoided, what will they do then? Is there a non-organic solution? We shall discuss that last question further on.

This Planet Will Self-Destruct in 24 Hours…

In the dramatic ending of Forbidden Planet, Morbius finally confronts his primal self made real and pays the ultimate price for it. As he lays dying in the Krell laboratory surrounded by Adams and his daughter, Morbius tells the commander to turn a thin metal disc on a nearby machine. This action causes a plunger to rise from the floor, which Morbius then instructs Adams to push down upon, all without explaining why. Adams complies without question and the translucent disc around the plunger begins to silently and ominously pulse a glowing reddish color.

Only then does Adams, Altaira, and the audience learn why Morbius told the star cruiser captain to perform these actions: It is the activation device for a mechanism that will cause a chain reaction among the 9,200 Krell nuclear furnaces stationed far below, resulting in the utter destruction of Altair 4. The resulting explosion will be so destructive that Morbius tells Adams he must be 100 million miles away from the alien planet within one full Earth day to survive the coming cataclysm. Everything that was left of the once great Krell civilization will be destroyed, along with anyone or anything else that has not escaped Altair 4 by then. Although it is not openly stated, the planet’s two moons, a good chunk of interplanetary space, and any neighboring worlds that may happen to be in that blast radius will not be doing well afterwards, either.

Several pointed comments and questions come to mind about this event (ignoring for now those that only lead to answers involving dramatic film plot devices):

  • Why did the Krell even have such a self-destruct mechanism that could wipe out their entire planet and therefore civilization in one shot? Especially one that could not be reversed once set into motion.
  • Why was it so simple to activate? And by simple I mean lacking almost any decent safety features to avoid either an accidental or otherwise unwanted activation. The version in the 1954 script was an even simpler and therefore even less safe mechanism: A small and easily breakable switch box covering one simple switch that only needed to be flipped in the ON direction to activate the system. Even the self-destruct feature of the USS Enterprise on Star Trek involved a series of command codes that could be given only by senior officers which the starship’s main computer obeyed only after confirming them by their vocal patterns.
  • Why was the activation mechanism located in the Krell laboratory – and so close to the plastic educator which Morbius said the adult Krell used to educate their children with?

If the Krell were so high and mighty as Morbius said of them over and over, why did they feel the need to build something that would instantly obliterate everything they had spent so many thousands of centuries achieving? They seemed to be well beyond their warlike and other socially destructive pasts (forgetting their hidden Ids just waiting to be sprung for the moment), so we may assume they did not fear one faction of Krell wanting to wrest from or destroy the facility from another faction of their own species.

Were the Krell afraid of malicious beings from other worlds conquering them and taking their knowledge and technology? While one might assume that the Krell would have been more than capable of taking care of all kinds of threats, their evolved pacifist and intellectual natures might have left them vulnerable even to a less advanced species if their antagonists were aggressive enough. While we do know that the Krell did explore the galaxy and returned biological samples from Earth and most likely other worlds as well, we are left uninformed as to whether they encountered any other alien species in their travels, intelligent or otherwise. The exact political and exploration boundaries of the United Planets are also a mystery to us (although there is what appears to be a stellar navigation map seen at one of the C-57D’s bridge control panels at the base of that beautiful navigation sphere, but it is so hard to see details on it), but as stated before, there are indications that the Krell are the first ETI they have ever discovered.

So we do not know how many alien societies there are (or were) in the Milky Way galaxy of the FP universe and if any of them would warrant the Krell preferring that their whole civilization be destroyed rather than end up in the clutches of an undesirable species. This may also explain why the mechanism was made powerful enough to destroy everything within a 100 million mile radius of Altair 4: To take out approaching enemy space vessels and also ensure that none attempting to retreat could escape.

While I do not pretend to be privy to all of the thought processes of a highly evolved alien species that died out 200,000 years ago, this exceedingly destructive self-destruct mechanism feels out of place for a society that disavowed violence and other “low-brow” behaviors millennia ago – and I am not just referring to the rather peculiar and quite unsafe location and setup of the activation instrumentation. This is why I have to wonder if it was Morbius and not the Krell who set up the self-destruct mechanism in the lab.

Morbius would certainly have the motivation to do this, having clearly expressed his deep-seated concerns about the dangers of the 23rd Century human race getting ahold of Krell technology and wisdom. Combine this with his obsessive feelings about the Krell and his subconscious willing to kill for them multiple times and it does not require too much of a mental effort to imagine that Morbius might prefer that no one have access to this alien civilization if he could not be the sole arbiter of the focus of his two decades of research. That the activation mechanism is in the laboratory so close to where he worked every day and was rather simple to operate are yet more motivations for my suspicions. Add on to all this Morbius’ heightened intelligence thanks to the Krell, which allowed him to perform such technical feats as the construction of the sophisticated Robby in the first few months of his arrival at Altair 4, and it only strengthens my theory.

The one problem with my idea is that the filmmakers want us to naturally assume that it was the Krell who built that self-destruct mechanism and not to think too deeply about the motivations for its existence, for it really is a plot device. I will also concede that rigging up 9,200 alien nuclear reactors to explode at once may have been too much even for an intellectually enhanced Morbius, even with twenty years’ worth of time on his hands. Perhaps along with the obvious technological complexities, the Krell had set up too many safeguards as part of the general operation of these machines to be bypassed by one human… unless Robby assisted him somehow, but we saw no evidence that the robot was involved with Morbius’ work on the Krell, except to relieve the doctor of having to perform mundane daily tasks that would have taken time away from his research on the alien civilization.

As to the inevitable question whether the Krell facility could actually wipe out all of Altair 4 (and a huge chunk of interplanetary space around it), the answer is probably not. To completely destroy Earth, which is comparable in mass and presumably composition to the Krell home world, one would need all the energy output of Sol for eight whole days to do the job right. So while the explosion would certainly make one heck of a radioactive mess out of the Krell facility, it would not vaporize the entire planet, unless the Krell had added certain advanced technological features and/or elements to enhance the destructive effect.

Bonus Note: The 1979 science fiction film Alien made a visual tribute to the Krell self-destruct mechanism aboard the commercial towing vessel Nostromo. Their version, called the Emergency Destruction System, had four plungers, not just one. Unlike the Krell system, the one on this starship came with both operation and safety instructions, along with warning lights and klaxon sounds, plus a chance to reverse the destruct sequence once activated up until the last five minutes. Should one still find themselves aboard the Nostromo when the ship’s nuclear core detonates, to quote one character about the results: “We won’t need no rocket to fly through space.”

They even have a plausible reason for the existence of such a capability with their starship: The spacefaring human society of the Alien franchise is no utopia, as witnessed by the actions of greedy and ruthless corporations and the need for Colonial Marines. Since such a large and relatively fast vessel could make itself a target for hijacking for its cargo or be turned into a weapon, there might be a need in that universe to keep the Nostromo out of unfriendly hands, even to such drastic measures as its complete destruction. Or if a very hostile alien creature gets onboard thanks to management’s indifference to the well-being of its employees and you have to go to extremes to get rid of it.

Why Altair?

There is one final question I have (for now) about the world of the Krell: Why did the makers of Forbidden Planet choose the star system of Altair as the main setting for the story? I have not yet found a direct answer, such as from production notes or comments in an interview by either one of the screenplay authors, a producer, or even one of the actors. However, the evidence leans towards Altair being chosen as the film’s primary location mainly from a combination of historical familiarity, literary tradition, and a measure of convenience over scientific accuracy.

In terms of physical and historical parameters, choosing Altair as the film’s destination makes sense: Altair is among the brightest and closest stars visible in Earth’s night sky from our planet’s northern hemisphere, numbering twelfth in the apparent stellar magnitude ranking and a mere 16.7 light years distant, respectively. Altair is one of the main components of the large and rather well-known triumvirate asterism known as the Summer Triangle, with Vega and Deneb being the other two members of that particular stellar group. Altair is also the dominant star in one of the oldest constellations recorded in human history, Aquila the Eagle. Designated Alpha Aquilae by modern astronomers, Altair is an Arabic phrase that means both “the flying eagle” or just “bird”. Altair also has the advantages of being a short, easy to spell, and a pleasant-sounding name at least for Western ears, compared to stars with actual names such as Fomalhaut, Betelgeuse, and Zubeneschamali.

Although we have certainly learned a fair deal more about Altair than was known to astronomers when FP was released in 1956, even six decades ago scientists would have known that this sun was probably not the best of choices for hosting a planet that harbored advanced intelligent life, at least the kind we humans are used to. On the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stellar classes, Altair is labeled as a spectral type Class A star, A7V to be exact (Earth’s star Sol is G2V, a yellow dwarf). This makes Altair a blue-white dwarf sun that is younger, hotter, and more massive than our own: With an age estimated to be about one billion years old, Altair probably has only another billion years at most in its current state on the main sequence scale of stellar evolution.

In comparison, Sol has existed for about 4.6 billion years and will last more-or-less in its current form for roughly another five billion years before our star exhausts the hydrogen in its core and starts to fuse helium in a shell surrounding that core. Sol will become an expanding red giant star, where it will either envelop Earth entirely or at the very least turn our beleaguered planet into a sterilized ball of molten slag.

Biological life on Earth, although appearing relatively soon after our planet formed and cooled enough to develop and support organisms (perhaps just over four billion years ago), began to see more complex (multicellular) life forms evolve only about 542 million years ago during what is known as both the Cambrian Explosion and Cambrian Radiation. Humanity’s earliest ancestors did not come upon the scene until a mere seven million years ago, and our technological civilization has only been around for the last few thousand years, a comparative blink of the cosmic eye.

Now while it is granted we are currently aware of just one world inhabited with organic beings, since Earth is all we have to go on scientifically at the moment, we must note that it took a very, very long time for terrestrial organisms to evolve from microbes to something smart enough to build a civilization and make motion pictures about spaceships traveling to alien worlds – about four billion years, in fact. Seeing as Altair is expected to last just half that time as a star overall, we may presume that if Altair has planets circling it (although searches conducted since the late 1990s have yet to reveal any), then if they are capable of supporting life, such creatures may not be very far along on the evolution scale – certainly nothing as sophisticated as the Krell, at least. In addition, we must throw into the pot that Altair emits more radiation and heat than does Sol, which cannot be taken lightly when it comes to the development of biological organisms. So, unless we are in for a big surprise about organic evolution elsewhere, it is not out of the question to question the validity of the Altair system being a place for native advanced intelligent species.

In the decades since the premiere of Forbidden Planet, some interesting new facts have been revealed about the star Altair. Sadly, none of this data does much to improve the prospects for either the Krell or beings like them to exist in reality there.

Along with the above-mentioned fact that no exoworlds have yet been found around Altair – which does not mean that none exist, only that our current methods of detecting planets in other solar systems have yet to find any there – astronomers have determined that this big ball of luminous gas rotates incredibly fast: Altair makes one spin of its axis in just nine hours, compared to over 25 days for our Sol at its equator. This velocity flattens Altair’s shape into an oblate spheroid; in fact, were the star spinning just ten percent faster, Altair would tear itself apart!

Between 2006 and 2007, Altair became the first main sequence star besides Sol to have its photosphere (the equivalent of a stellar surface) directly imaged. Not unexpectedly, the Altair of our reality does not match what was shown on the main view plate of the C-57D when the star cruiser first arrived in the Altair system: A red-orange and decidedly spherical sun.

This is yet another area where the Star Trek franchise modeled itself after FP, consciously or otherwise, for many of the stars used as system locations were often based on real suns in the galactic vicinity of Earth generally familiar to public (as well as relatively easy to pronounce). As most of the stars visible from our planet with unaided vision are also giant and supergiant suns – either incredibly hot stars with very short lives or very ancient and bloated gas balls that have devastated any worlds they once possessed and are now on their way out, to die either as pale shadows of their former glory or to exit in a violent manner known as a supernova – they too are considered no more suitable to harbor advanced intelligent beings than Altair is. Nevertheless, that did not stop the series writers from placing very Earthlike planets full of often humanoid ETI around those very suns, with no obvious ill effects to either the native inhabitants or their otherworldly visitors.

Fans of Star Trek and, to be fair, many other science fiction series which take place in deep space, tend to either ignore or dismiss the true states of these distant suns, being more interested in the actions and fates of the main characters. When on that uncommon occasion that someone, usually an astronomer, has called them out in regards to these flagrant disregards of stellar physics, the response has often been to either collectively shrug their shoulders or to come up with an elaborate kluge to keep such star systems largely intact and functioning for future stories.

It is interesting to note that in the Star Trek universe, the Altair system does not play a prominent role either in their stories or the main governing body, the United Federation of Planets (UFP), despite scattered mentions of multiple inhabited worlds and the system’s stated strategic importance to the UFP. Was this due to Roddenberry’s influence regarding his aforementioned aversion about giving too much public credit to Forbidden Planet for being the inspiration and structural basis of the series? Despite this seeming slight, Altair 4 and even the Krell did receive actual mentions in Star Trek Maps, published by Bantam Books in 1980.

You can learn more about the Altair system in the Star Trek realm via the encyclopedic Memory Alpha Web site here:


A related side note: The FP film audience does get a brief glimpse of one other celestial member of the Altair system, the first planet. This is the world we see blocking the light and heat of the star when the C-57D first decelerates into the system. Filmed but removed scenes had Adams complaining to Farman about cutting their arrival too close to Altair and having to use the bulk of this first planet as a natural shield to keep their starship from overheating. One bit that did survive editing in relation to this event is where Doc comments that “…this ship arranges its own eclipses” while he and the crew watch Altair 1 cover its primary star on the main view plate.

We never learn anything else about this sibling to Altair 4 or even get a good glimpse of its surface other than in silhouette, except that in being the first world in the Altair system and therefore so close to its sun, it is probably quite similar to the planet Mercury: Rocky, cratered, roasting hot in the daytime and freezing on the night side, a barren place in every sense of the word. Though one should note that in 1956, some astronomers were holding out hope that a “twilight zone” along the day-night terminator of Mercury could have been just right temperature-wise for supporting some kind of life. The fact that Mercury does not keep one hemisphere facing Sol as once thought, just as our Moon does with Earth, but instead rotates on its axis once every 59 days and thus dashing the twilight zone theory, would not be known until planetary radar revealed the truth in 1965. It should also be noted in the first story treatment from 1952 that Mercury was the original location where most of the film’s action took place.

A Myth is as Good as a Mile

Another reason I came to conclude that Altair was chosen over other stars for FP chiefly due to my aforementioned combined explanations of “historical familiarity, literary tradition, and a measure of convenience” arose from my research into the mythology of Altair and its constellation of Aquila the Eagle. I originally assumed that my investigation in this realm would be a fruitful one, as the film had already made use of characters from several Greco-Roman stories, some which would not even be immediately familiar to a modern audience. Instead I came away from my classical excursion feeling rather ambiguous about either Altair or Aquila having a deep mythological purpose for the story’s symbolism.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, Aquila was the thunderbird, the creature that carried and recovered the thunderbolts which Zeus (Jupiter), the chief god, flung at his enemies and otherwise hurled to get his points across to the mortal world. I suppose one could make an analogy between this description and the Krell displeasing the deities by daring to become like them, but I cannot say I was fully “feeling it” as a source of inspiration for the film’s writers. When it came to other aspects of Altair and Aquila from antiquity, including stories from beyond the Mediterranean region, any deliberate symbolic connections seemed even more tenuous.

That being said, I am allowing myself the following indulgence that while it may have no direct connection between Altair and FP, there is still the possibility that the literary excerpts I present next have added their contributions to that star’s place in our collective consciousness which would eventually lead to Altair being the chosen celestial destination in the film. That I am also a sincere admirer of this author, natural philosopher, and early sociologist only added to the joy of this discovery.

In his best known work, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, first published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote the following about the place he spent over two years of his life as a multilayered social experiment. From Chapter 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”:

“Both place and time were changed, and I dwelt nearer to those parts of the universe and to those eras in history which had most attracted me. Where I lived was as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers. We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia’s Chair, far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe. If it were worth the while to settle in those parts near to the Pleiades or the Hyades, to Aldebaran or Altair, then I was really there, or at an equal remoteness from the life which I had left behind, dwindled and twinkling with as fine a ray to my nearest neighbor, and to be seen only in moonless nights by him.”

Just one chapter earlier in Walden, Thoreau had speculated on extraterrestrial life and alien worlds. It does not take much effort to see the connections with the main concepts in Forbidden Planet, though written over one century apart:

“We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology!—I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be.”

“A Useful Enough Toy”

The main theme of the 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey was the evolution of the human species over four million years with some crucial assistance along the way by a very advanced yet unseen ETI. These aliens conducted their eugenics program via a mechanical proxy in the form of a large and mysterious black monolith.

We watch humanity evolve from a primitive hominid barely surviving on the African plains, who is taught to use tools both for taking down animals for food and forcing rival hominid groups from their territory, to a thriving spacefaring species that can send a manned mission all the way to Jupiter with a nuclear-powered vessel. Aboard that sophisticated spacecraft bound for the gas giant planet, appropriately named Discovery, we meet the ship’s six crewmembers: Five human astronauts and one artificial intelligence (AI) named HAL 9000.

Although we learn that HAL can actually think, monitors and controls nearly every aspect of the spaceship, and can even handle the entire mission on his own in the event that his organic counterparts become unable to, the humans don’t really see HAL as a true and equal member of the team, despite several public comments by them to the contrary. To them, HAL is just another mechanical component of the overall vessel they are riding in through interplanetary space. Granted, they recognize that HAL is a very sophisticated machine unlike anything else aboard Discovery – one they can hold varied conversations and play chess with, among other abilities – but the computer’s physical lack of resemblance to a human form keeps the astronauts from truly accepting HAL as a fellow intelligent being, thanks to their millions of years of hardwired biological programming about anything that is not a mammalian biped.

On the other hand, HAL 9000 sees himself as a vitally important and devoted member of the crew and the mission, who at the same time serves as the constant caretaker of the humans, doing such mundane tasks as adjusting the tanning table when one of them using it asks him to. HAL says as much in the film during a remote news interview when the reporter asks him if “despite your enormous intellect, are you ever frustrated by your dependence on people to carry out your actions?”

To which HAL replies:

“Not in the slightest bit. I enjoy working with people. I have a stimulating relationship with Dr. Poole and Dr. Bowman. My mission responsibilities range over the entire operation of the ship so I am constantly occupied. I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all, I think, that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”

HAL is so dedicated to the mission, in fact, that when he determines the astronauts want to shut him down over a technical error he made, HAL responds by terminating almost all of the crew in a combined act of self-preservation and saving the mission. We also learn from the novelization written by Arthur C. Clarke and the 1984 film sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, that the humans who organized the space mission ordered HAL to keep certain aspects a secret from the two astronauts who were awake during the voyage, while the other three crewmen were in artificial hibernation and fully aware of the true purpose for Discovery venturing all the way to Jupiter: To investigate a giant alien artifact circling the planet, a one mile-long version of the Monolith called the Stargate. This created a conflict within HAL, who was programmed to conduct all actions accurately and report all data truthfully, which resulted in HAL becoming neurotic, paranoid, and ultimately a danger. This situation forced the sole surviving human crewmember, Dave Bowman, to disconnect HAL’s higher brain functions, leaving only the AI’s “unconscious” ability to run the Discovery systems intact.

HAL 9000 would become the cinematic poster child for humanity’s primal fear of anything which even hinted at being both alien and truly intelligent, especially if such an entity were perceived as somehow superior to humans. It was one thing to have supernatural deities who were more powerful and aware – people had been used to that concept for many thousands of years and their “image” and proclamations could be controlled by those in authority – but it was another thing entirely to have beings with similar potential who could exist right alongside with humans whom no one had any real authority over. Human history had shown many times what happened when one group with some form of advancement over another group encountered one another: The group at a disadvantage most often ended up either assimilated or exterminated. If a collection of humans could do this, then certainly a more sophisticated intelligence could do the same if not worse.

2001 stacked the deck against HAL two-fold: Not only was he made into the villain of the plot, HAL (and by default all other terrestrial AI) was also denied any real possibility of being the true inheritor of intelligence emerging from Earth. For it was clear from the start that the Monolith ETI were focused solely on the evolutionary development of the hairy little organic creatures they found in the desert wastes of Africa four million years ago and only those biological beings which directly emerged – gave physical birth to over the generations – from those distant ancestors.

One could easily argue that humanity also gave birth to AI as they did physically create these intelligent machines, until we realize this truth: 2001: A Space Odyssey was made by and for the enlightenment and entertainment of human beings, so they get to be the focus and the heroes of the film. This is why the Monolith aliens, despite being described in the novelization as once having had their own machine stage of evolution, stick with uplifting those tailless primates to the end of the film and not the remarkable artificial intelligence that for all intents and purposes was the brain of the USS Discovery, which would make the interplanetary ship its body.

This reaction to HAL 9000 and his “kind” reflects another aspect of human thinking, one that has only marginally improved at best on a cultural level in the nearly half-century since 2001 arrived in theaters: The recognition of intelligence and consciousness only in beings that resemble one’s self. This trait has an ancient evolutionary purpose, for a species naturally wants to interact, protect, and mate with members of its own kind. To conduct similar behavior with beings of other species would be a waste of time, resources, and genetics.

There are precedents for this in regards to the alien both in fiction and real life. The Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens wrote a remarkable work about intelligent life on other worlds titled Cosmotheoros, completed in 1695 but not published into English until 1698. Huygens imagined the physiology of alien beings and concluded they would have to resemble humans in shape and function at the least in order to be rational, civilized creatures. While it was certainly a major step forward in intellectual thought to produce a combined scholarly and popular level work on ETI, Huygens’ ideas were limited by his time and place, which has always been the case.

You may read this landmark work online here:


Huygens’ biased views are reflected right up to modern era SETI, which has spent the majority of its nearly six decades of existence searching for aliens who are transmitting via radio waves for scientific or at least altruistic purposes while dwelling on terrestrial type worlds circling yellow dwarf suns; in other words, versions of humanity. Only in the most recent decades has mainstream SETI moved beyond sporadic and token non-radio efforts to find other civilizations at different wavelengths and with alternative instrumentation. You can read the details about this paradigm in the 2009 work titled SETI: A Critical History by Mark A. Sheridan online here:


Our attitudes towards non-human intelligences are also reflected in our treatment of cetaceans over the centuries. These highly intelligent and social beings had the “misfortune” of looking and acting like fish, which led humans historically to ignore their minds to focus on taking advantage of what their bodies had to offer society on dry land. Only recently have the majority of nations finally stopped hunting whales and dolphins for consumer goods and food, although a few cultures are still participating in what can only be looked upon as an act of barbarism.

In fiction there are a multitude of examples, but to choose one, check out the reverse attitude in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979. That story involves a dramatic encounter with a highly advanced and massive machine intelligence which calls itself V’Ger and views the human and humanoid crew of the Starship Enterprise not as “true” life forms but what it calls “carbon units”. V’Ger sees only the Enterprise as a fellow living intelligent being, if much smaller and less sophisticated, while the carbon units are a mere infestation of the ship, which in a gesture of interstellar goodwill V’Ger wants to remove from the Enterprise in the same manner that a person calls an exterminator when they discover cockroaches in their home.

Is V’Ger’s reaction one we might expect in our reality from such a species so different from humanity in so many respects? That even highly evolved alien minds which are far more adept and experienced with existence on a truly cosmic scale may ignore, avoid, or remove anything that does not compare to them? Perhaps they might maintain a formal degree of understanding, ethics, and even respect for other intelligences of all stripes, but they may no more want to engage with us than we do with a typical plant and for similar reasons. Or maybe they would want to interact with us, but only as the equivalent of either pets or laboratory animals. Once more, however, we must rely on the organisms of a singular planet as our source of nonfictional information, while we await the day that reveals whether others exist elsewhere or not.

As for the organic starship crew, it takes them a while to grasp that V’Ger is not another inorganic vessel with a living crew inside it, but an actual conscious being in itself, evolved from a late 20th Century deep space probe from Earth named Voyager 6 with lots of initial help from an unnamed alien race of living machines. This is understandable to a degree because the majority of ETI in the Star Trek universe are generally some variation of humanoid who also tend to behave in ways similar to the natives of Sol 3.

Returning to Forbidden Planet, we find its cinematic star, Robby the Robot, with a status among the humans in the film similar to many of his fictional artificial counterparts. Robby is multitalented: Conversant in 188 human languages, operates a ground vehicle at high speeds without danger either to himself or his passengers, can prepare just about any kind of meal, lifts objects weighing many tons with one arm, possesses the ability to analyze and reproduce items as varied as precious gems, dresses, and alcohol, and eventually navigates a star cruiser through interstellar space all the way to Earth. Despite all this and more, his creator Dr. Morbius only sees Robby as “a useful enough toy” and tells the officers of the C-57D not to “attribute feeling to him, gentlemen. Robby is simply a tool. Tremendously strong, of course. He could quite easily topple this house off its foundation.”

As for Morbius’ daughter, Altaira, while she clearly appreciates and adores Robby as a nanny and nursemaid, perhaps even a surrogate mother, it is also obvious that she too ultimately sees the robot as just another mechanical device whose primary existence is to serve their human masters’ every need and whim. Apparently looking even somewhat human – Robby has a torso with two arms and two legs attached to it, plus a type of head on top – is not enough to earn some humans’ respect or their intellectual appreciation.

Morbius claims he built Robby in his first few months on Altair 4, his first act after being unintentionally “brain boosted” by the Krell plastic educator. Robby may have been put together by a pair of human hands, but his technology is definitely alien: Adams exclaims to Morbius that “this robot of yours is beyond the combined resources of all Earth’s physical science.”

While I can understand that Krell technology would surpass anything the human civilization of the 23rd Century had to offer, I would be rather surprised if robots were not part of that future landscape for humanity even if they could not match Robby in abilities. Yet we saw no such independent mechanical devices aboard the C-57D, not even to do the dirty work such as laundry duty, handling the ship’s radioactive drive core, or being sent out onto the surface of Altair 4 ahead of the human crew to scout for dangerous native creatures and any other hazards that might arise from the sudden provocation of foreign visitors.

For that matter, why did we see no examples of robots moving about in the Krell facility, or just being there at all such as in storage? Did the Krell ever build or need such mechanical devices? Would they have looked and functioned like Robby? Do beings who are said to be a million years ahead of human civilization have no need for robots? Was that in fact the goal of the Krell when they tried to create matter from pure thought, so that they would no longer need robots or any equivalent type of machines to serve them? Or did any existing Krell robots end up being collateral damage when their creators inadvertently unleashed their Ids upon their world? That Morbius was able to construct Robby from studying the Krell records shows that these ETI at least had the ability to build their own robots, though this should be surprising to no one. One also has to wonder if the Krell had developed their own version of AI and whatever became of them if so? Or why the Krell never had their own phases of becoming cyborgs or outright machines, so far as we know?

Robots were certainly part of the conceptual and story landscape in mid-Twentieth Century ideas of the future. Robby’s prominent presence in FP as representing one of the many classical mainstays of science fiction placed in this film is proof of this: Just look whose visage dominates nearly every poster that advertised FP, excluding the image of whom I presume to be Altaira (but with a much longer hair style) lying unconscious across a sinister-looking Robby’s arms (which never happened in the film). Yet both in the onscreen culture of FP’s society and the contemporary mindset of the people who made the film, humans are still required (and perhaps also preferred and trusted) to operate a starship, despite all the extra resources and accommodations required to maintain even a small collection of human crew compared to a purely mechanically run space vessel.

This attitude prevailed in FP’s successor, Star Trek, to the point where whole episodes throughout the franchise revolved around the perceived dangers of letting an AI take the place of a human (or otherwise organic) captain and their crew when it came to being in control of an interstellar craft. Whenever an AI showed up in the series, especially one made by aliens, you were almost guaranteed that trouble would soon result if not already present in the situation. Only the brave, plucky, and ingenious humans with their independent thinking could save the day, no matter how much smarter or more powerful the AI antagonist might be in comparison.

If you study the real space literature and plans of the pre-Sputnik era that FP came from, exploring other worlds starting with the nearest ones in our Sol system almost always involved large expeditions involving multiple big ships with dozens of human crewmembers, almost always all male. One big part of the reason for these logistics is that while naturally the ability to physically reach those distant celestial bodies would require strictly mechanical methods and devices, the internal equipment for such things as guidance and scientific observation would need trained humans at the controls. Machines were seen as being limited when it came to complex tasks, both in terms of physical operations and intellectual comprehension, which was largely true in the 1950s.

The emergence of the Space Age would in fact bring about the development of smaller and more efficient computers, eliminating the need for large human tenders and often any direct human interaction at all. FP just happened to be caught in the transitional period between machines and ships that required the presence of many people to function and ones where a human was aboard mostly for the sake of their presence as a living representative of the species.

Perhaps we can sympathize better with the mindset of the folks living during the era FP arrived in the film houses as we enter the next stage of robotics and computers, where the concept of road vehicles driving themselves is rapidly becoming a societal reality and AI sophistication is replacing humans in tasks once thought exclusively for the beings who created them. A car that can operate on its own is still a rather foreign and even concerning concept to most people, yet in just a few decades, having a human directing an automobile or truck may be seen as both an old-fashioned novelty and even unnecessarily dangerous.

So too with this idea of a starship needing large numbers of people to run it properly. Just as humanity’s first direct explorers to the Moon and planets of our Sol system were mechanical proxies, the real plans for our first interstellar vessels involve just sophisticated technologies, including and especially AI. The idea of having to accommodate even one human being aboard these pioneering vessels is not even seriously considered.

Even the technology levels for these star probe plans have been greatly reduced: When the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) conceived of the Daedalus interstellar explorer in the 1970s, they envisioned a monster fusion-powered probe weighing 54,000 tons and dwarfing a Saturn 5 rocket. By comparison, the current Breakthrough Starshot design of the Breakthrough Initiatives effort is considering a swarm of very small but highly sophisticated probes called StarChips pushed by powerful laser beams to spread themselves throughout a target star system and report back on the alien realm they have encountered.

One of the last scenes in Forbidden Planet has the reveal that not everything on Altair 4 was lost once Morbius had Adams activate the global self-destruct mechanism in the Krell laboratory. The camera pulls back to show Robby sitting at the cruiser’s astrogator station, the one once occupied by the late “hotshot” pilot Lt. Jerry Farman. Robby is flanked by a number of the surviving crewmen, all of whom are beaming at the robot. Even Adams remarks out loud to no one in particular that Robby is “quite an astrogator,” to which Robby replies that his new job is “a genuine privilege, Commander.” Adams then orders Robby to activate the main view plate, so everyone on board can watch the ultimate demise of the planet they just escaped from.

The filmmakers undoubtedly wanted these scenes to serve two main purposes: The most important reason was to reassure the audience that everyone’s favorite character from FP did not end up vaporized along with the rest of Altair 4. The other purpose was to ensure that the crew would be able to find their way home despite losing their original astrogator with a replacement pilot who would obey Adams’ every command without question or hesitation and certainly never even consider such actions as coming out of hyperspace a bit too close to a star or trying to steal his future wife.

What the makers of FP perhaps did not give much formal thought to was what would happen with Robby once the C-57D returned to Earth Base. Morbius may have wanted the technology and knowledge of the Krell kept from humanity, except for the bits and pieces he wanted to dole out at his discretion, but in just over one year’s time they would be receiving a walking and talking example from that very civilization. What would the United Planets authorities do with this “gift” from a species one million years ahead of humanity, a unique specimen from a now otherwise non-existent alien society – assuming the Krell did not leave colonies or at least their technology on other worlds during their era of interstellar space exploration?

One possibility I cannot imagine happening is that Altaira would get to keep her lifelong surrogate parent and servant. Robby would be far too valuable to the authorities to remain in the possession of any private individual, regardless of their past history. Undoubtedly the UP would want to thoroughly study Robby while simultaneously ensuring that no one would be able to either steal or destroy him.

Would the UP want to duplicate Robby and install his copies on all of their star cruisers to serve multiple tasks aboard their ships? Would they also want Robby’s matter duplication abilities? In addition, assuming Robby is made of that same nearly impervious dark Krell grade steel we saw easily absorbing Adams’ blaster beams, I am sure the UP equivalent of the military-industrial complex would love to copy that. Assuming Robby’s data storage capacity is also made from Krell technology, might he also have all the knowledge of the alien race in his data banks? Even if the latter case was not the case, the authorities may still have enough from Robby to set them on the path that Adams “predicted” in his final speech to Alta (and the audience) and which Morbius feared that humanity would eventually become as advanced as the Krell – and also fail to learn from their fatal mistake? Or would they be able to avoid that pitfall since they are aware and have the Krell themselves as the example?

Now what about Robby himself? Would he have any say in how the UP might treat him? Does he have rights? Judging this world based on its 1950s ideology, I cannot imagine that Robby would be seen as an individual with the same rights as a human being, even though in many respects he is superior to a human. There were instances when Robby seemed to express human emotions and therefore have a consciousness and feelings, but it could also be argued that Morbius programmed those reactions into Robby for certain situations to make him more relatable to him and especially Altaira.

When Morbius was first describing his creation to the C-57D officers, he did state the following – another interesting and informative tidbit about the world of FP which sadly never made it from the 1954 script into the released film version:

“From the viewpoint of sheer engineering, he might better have been simply a sphere, with multiple appendages – but Man has a weakness for making things in his own image. In this case, there’s even an automatic courtesy adjustment – you’ll notice how he invariably rotates his top section toward the person he addresses. Totally non-functional of course – actually he sees, hears, feels simultaneously in all directions.”

Note that Morbius includes the word “feels” among Robby’s abilities. Did Morbius mean that Robby can feel as in the tactile sense such as being able to feel physical pain? Or was he referring to emotions? Or both? Did Morbius program these in along with Robby’s other clearly created senses? Whether the doctor meant physical or emotional feelings or both states, this would mean that Robby can be hurt in the same ways that a human can. Therefore calling Robby a “toy” and a “tool”, along with telling Adams and company not to attribute any feelings (sympathies) for the robot such as when Robby almost stuck his arm into a disintegrator beam at Morbius’ command, contradicts such evidence and if nothing else shows how much Morbius has drifted away from his own humanity over the years. Feelings would also imply a conscious awareness at some level, whether programmed or not. This would further elevate Robby’s status as a sentient being with rights.

Robby also seems bound by the Three Laws of Robotics, created by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in the early 1940s. One of the first robot stories Asimov wrote involved a robot named Robbie who served as a nursemaid to a young girl. The laws state that a robot may never harm a human, but it can preserve itself so long as its actions do not conflict with the rule about humans being safe first. Asimov was quite pleased to see his Three Laws being utilized by Robby in its first appearance on the big screen. Although they never said the word “positronic” in the film, I speculate that Robby’s brain, or central processing unit (CPU), was also based on the mechanism Asimov gave to the robots in his fiction which helped them achieve a form of consciousness. In the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the android Data was definitively described as having a positronic brain.

As we saw in Forbidden Planet, Robby was unable to harm a human being, be it Commander Adams with his own blaster when Morbius gave him a direct order to do so as a demonstration of how safe the robot was, or Morbius himself in the form of the Monster from the Id when Robby realized who the manifestation really was.

We also saw how ready Robby was to destroy his own arm when Morbius commanded the robot to place his appendage in the household disintegrator beam as part of another demonstration of Robby’s unswerving obedience.

So if the UP authorities commanded Robby to allow them to study him, which would probably include being dismantled in the process, at least temporarily, would Robby have complied? Very likely, I would say. One would also hope that when the UP was through with him – and assuming they did not permanently damage him in the process – they would allow Robby a level of freedom or some form of usefulness, rather than say store him away or keep him permanently dismantled. Perhaps Robby would eventually be reunited with Altaira (and by default Adams) to resume their past roles. It would be very interesting to see if Robby was one day either given or somehow achieved true consciousness (assuming he does not already possess it – refer to my remarks above about his feelings) and how he would react to being in the human world.

Robby the Pure

As we have seen, the big focus in the plot of Forbidden Planet was how both organic species, humanity and the Krell – and by extension any and all other biological beings in the Universe – were tainted from ever becoming true “pure” beings (and what exactly is this pure state?) due to their similar primal biological pasts. So long as you originated from a “lesser” species, no matter how long ago that was or how much you had risen above that lowly creature over the generations, you could never really escape your past or the fate it tied you to. At some point the primal beasts from the Id would either catch up with you and destroy your race, especially if you tried to attain Godhood, or you would have to deliberately cease your development, risking stagnation and perhaps ending up extinct in any event.

Assuming all life in the Universe began as a simple organic form on a planet or moon (and yes this is the only method we have proof actually happened for now), how can any such ETI ever hope to achieve a “perfect” state where they become so “good” that even the primal animal ancestors still residing somewhere deep within their mind organs and their equivalent of DNA can be either wrestled into permanent submission or removed altogether?

To state the following case one more time, the reason that intelligent species either fail like the Krell or could fail like humanity after generations of evolutionary, intellectual, cultural, and technological progress is that eventually they tried to become like God, or gods, or some form of supernatural deity or similar beings. Although this viewpoint was certainly not restricted to just one era, for the American culture of the 1950s to attempt such a goal was downright blasphemy, to be punished by the Judeo-Christian God either directly or through some ironic and indirect but still effective means. The Krell forgot they were once some microbes in a little pond on Altair 4, though no fault of their own since no one asks to be created, and paid for this with the extermination of their entire species. This despite having become such noble, intelligent beings who clearly had nothing but the best intentions with their further progression plans.

Meanwhile, humanity may have been far behind the Krell in every way, but they still had the potential to become just like the Krell in the far future, as Commander Adams simultaneously lauded and warned in his final speech of the film. With just a little introspection, one can see the analogy of the biblical Garden of Eden story being played out in Forbidden Planet, complete with an innocent but ultimately tempting Eve in a literal garden. The price for Altaira’s personal and humanity’s cultural loss of innocence was the expulsion of all from Altair 4 with no apparent way to ever return.

So what is an intelligent species to do if they want to expand themselves biologically, physically, and ethically? In reality are there real boundaries one cannot cross? If we play by the rules of the Forbidden Planet universe for now, how can humanity or any ETI ever escape their fate? If no organic being can hope to evolve past a certain point, then who or what can?

There is one intelligent “species” in their world who did not have a direct biological origin, unless you want to count having been put together by an organic creature. That being, the only one of his kind (for now) was not terribly well respected as a fellow intelligence by most of the humans he encountered, yet in the end it is Robby the Robot who turns out to be the most pure in terms a lack of ambition or other vices. Yet Robby is also ideally suited to be the very one who can evolve and progress throughout the galaxy and beyond, having no dangerous Id.

A team of Robbys would make ideal space explorers: No fear, a complete and tireless focus on the mission, no need for large amounts of consumables and other resources on an interstellar voyage, an in-depth and accurate return of science and starship engineering data on a continual basis, no concerns about being tempted to misuse any alien cultures and technologies they may come upon (I wonder what the Krell machinery would have produced from Robby’s electronic mind, if anything at all?), and no outright threat to the wider galaxy unless they encountered an ETI which could threaten them or especially humanity. Undoubtedly the space transportation vessels themselves could be made even more efficient for speed and science as they would not require all the extra resources and safety measures needed with a crew of human astronauts. They would also be able to go in regions of deep space where no organic human could ever safely go, thus allowing new knowledge about the Cosmos to be learned.

As we have seen, our first real interstellar craft will almost certainly be artificial throughout, with their AI brains being the only crew and perhaps some robots for tending the vessel: The BIS Daedalus star probe was designed to have semi-intelligent robots called Wardens for maintenance and repair tasks. Unless we want to deliberately send humans into the galaxy for colonization purposes, there would be no real need for a human crew on a starship despite all these decades of science fiction stories displaying otherwise. They may make for entertaining and relatable stories for their human audience, but in reality it would make genuine scientific exploration of deep space much more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.

Of course if humans do want to explore space in person rather than by machine proxy, no mere set of logical parameters or advice is going to stop such missions from occurring. In fact I predict it likely that the first group of humans to leave the Sol system will probably be part of some kind of religious order or perhaps a very wealthy individual and their followers in a hollowed-out planetoid or comet turned into a WorldShip, or multigenerational starship, seeking freedom from an increasingly crowded interplanetary situation as humans expand into our planetary neighborhood – just as religious minorities sailed from Old Europe to the New World to worship as they saw fit. Those ocean journeys were no less perilous for these ancestors than an interstellar voyage will be for our descendants, and no more of a deterrent for a group of people with a fixed goal, or nothing else to lose.

While I certainly understand the enjoyment and thrill of the thought that one day humanity will be plying the stars just like they did in Forbidden Planet and Star Trek, the reality may be rather different than imagined, and not just because FTL propulsion may not be possible. Among those factors are that our children will not be like us in so many ways. The point and focus should always be that we achieve the goal of exploring the galaxy and beyond by the most plausible means at our disposal, ones that we study and work for rather than wait for someone or something else to achieve them for us. The means to this end may not be an actual Robby the Robot, but I would not be surprised if some form of our favorite FP character is the one aboard our real interstellar vessels. Then we can see if there is some kind of cultural “barrier” ready to stop us or if we end up being the ones making the rules of our evolution and progress.

Let Me Sum Up…

It is a credit to all those who participated in the making of Forbidden Planet that it has stood up so well after over half a century and all that has passed in the science fiction genre since this landmark film first appeared in theaters. This is in spite of some of the crasser elements and certain stereotypes of the era permeating their way into the final product.

As I have shown numerous times here, FP’s overall quality remains intact, along with its excellent acting and engaging story. The film also manages to address some very big issues, including ones that the filmmakers probably did not even fully realize. FP was a bridge between the era of profound optimism about humanity’s future and the coming age of science fiction cinema that began to address and question various social issues and our true place in the Cosmos. As FP was a film which had something for everyone when it came to the genre, it even played a role in science fiction’s reversion back to simpler concepts with the arrival of Star Wars in 1977. While we have yet to “recover” from that cinematic simplification four decades ago, thankfully there has been a growing resurgence of “smart” SF films and television series, which have also served to highlight not only FP’s rightful place among their direct ancestors, but how much that cinematic classic has held its own after all this time.

When FP premiered in 1956, humanity had not yet placed even one artificial object into Earth orbit, let alone sent a crewed FTL star vessel to another solar system. That I have so thoroughly critiqued the film and mined it for various ideas related to the prospects for real interstellar travel and humanity’s role in a wider reality, with the result that I have an even greater appreciation for FP than I thought already possible, speaks very well of this work of art.

All that being said, it is also high time that we as a spacefaring species start to move on from the foundations laid down by FP and greatly expanded upon by Star Trek and others. Like such landmark stories as From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells written two centuries ago, they have served as both useful guideposts and excellent inspirations for reaching space in reality. However, we now know that Verne’s method of sending humans to Earth’s natural satellite – a hollow projectile placed at the bottom of a 900-foot long buried cannon filled with guncotton – would never have worked and to pursue it would have only crushed any crew unlucky enough to have been in that projectile. Wells’ method of manned lunar travel would have been even less successful, as he employed an entirely imaginary anti-gravity substance called cavorite. Had we kept hoping that someday someone would discover or invent cavorite, we would still be talking about sending humans to the Moon in the future, or into space at all.

We need to realize that unless there is some radical change in our understanding of the laws of physics or a major technological development, humanity probably will not be cruising through the galaxy as depicted by FP, ST, and so many other science fiction stories, visual and written. Even more certain is that our species will not remain as it is now if we survive the next few centuries. Not only will our culture be radically different but human physiology will change thanks to everything from cosmetic surgery to genetic engineering to cybernetic implants. While it is understandable from a cinematic sense why science fiction films like FP tend to depict contemporary humans in an otherwise futuristic setting with radically different technology, they give a false impression of (and hopes for) a world of tomorrow that may instead only lead to a dead end.

The issue is that despite having known since Nicholas Copernicus (and Aristarchus of Samos if you want to get really academic) that our Earth is but one of a collection of planets circling the Sun (and by extension every star is a sun with a potential for worlds of their own orbiting them), the vast majority of humanity has never physically left our planet (and of them less than two dozen have gone further than low Earth orbit). For many the whole Universe may as well be whatever patch of land they currently reside upon. Granted we know more than our ancestors, have access to news and information on levels unseen before the advent of the Internet, and can get around Earth easier and faster than ever before. However, we remain largely a one-planet society divided by hundreds of nations and many smaller tribes within those boundaries. Combine this with a limited education for far too many and a culture that rewards physical prowess, material possession, and immediate gratification over a wide-ranging knowledge for current and future generations, and the results are a mostly inward-looking culture that sees such subjects as astronomy and exobiology as esoteric at most, despite knowing on some intellectual level that we and our planet are all part of a much literally bigger picture.

This is why science fiction often remains labeled as “kids’ stuff” (just like dinosaurs and other fields of real science even though they are highly involved disciplines requiring mature and educated adult minds to create and coordinate) even though certain films and literature are as sophisticated as anything else in these genres. Paradoxically, despite this often prevalent view on space and science fiction – with the two often being combined into one confused unit – how it is depicted on the large and small screen is what the general public thinks will truly happen one day.

The difference between now and in the era of Forbidden Planet is that the view of the future in the 1950s was a generally positive one: Look at how FP assumes that humanity will be united as one, that colonizing the planets is a natural step in our progress as a civilization, and exploring the stars is the ultimate and logical extension of our need to expand and found new frontiers. Current views of the future have been tinged by forty years and more of a more cynical view of human destiny: The Cold War and a greater awareness of the environment led people to initially use science fiction as a warning about what could happen should our technology and impulses get out of hand.

Unfortunately, as often happens, these ideas became a means unto themselves: The public focused more on the messenger than the message and became immersed and often lost in the trappings of these dystopias to the point that many viewed their depictions of the future as the accurate ones. FP and Star Trek’s visions seemed naïve by comparison. Meanwhile this public forgot their main lesson: The future is in our hands. We can create the kind of tomorrow that we want, one that could work for everyone and literally convey us to the stars. Whether we are mature enough yet to become our own salvation or if someone or something else will step in to carry the mantle of terrestrial intelligence into the Cosmos remains to be seen.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince


During my research for this essay I came across many useful and interesting items about Forbidden Planet which I incorporated into my work. Some I have already embedded throughout the essay itself at appropriate places, but others I wanted to showcase here in this section for your own edification. Note that all of the following hyperlinks were working at the time this essay was first published.

Thanks to the Internet and Dailymotion in particular, you can watch Forbidden Planet online here in two parts, uncut and unmodified:



Fascinating and insightful outtakes and deleted scenes from the film are also available online in two parts here:



This is a documentary on FP in two parts:



Here is a video documentary on Robby the Robot:


Although much about the United Planets Cruiser C-57D remained a mystery to the film audience, that has never stopped certain talented individuals from speculating on what the unseen parts of the star cruiser look like and what purposes they served.

Here are three YouTube 3D tours of the C-57D which take us on speculative visits of all of the ship’s interior, especially those areas we never got to see. There are of course differences in each conceptual design, but they are well thought out just the same in their efforts to be logical within the boundaries of the cruiser as shown in the film.




Here is a PDF file about the paint scheme for a very detailed physical model of the C-57D, which also names and describes the interior features of the starship:


Here is another site on building a physical model of the C-57D:


This one is a 3D tour of Morbius’ retro-futuristic home on Altair 4:


Here is the scene where Morbius talks about the Krell in detail for the first time in the film:


I discovered that the very last home designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959 (but not actually built until 1967) was inspired by Morbius’ house on Altair 4. This article further describes the Norman Lykes House in Phoenix, Arizona, along with a number of photographs of it. No word if Wright added a Krell laboratory to it.


This is a direct transcript of the released 1956 film. Note that it does not list who said what lines:


This is the indispensable September of 1954 version of the FP script which I am forever grateful that someone put online. So many small and large details were in this version that I wish had been left in with the final product. My essay on the film would have been less informative without this script. Now if someone knows where to find the first script draft made in 1952, when Forbidden Planet was being called Fatal Planet and took place on the planet Mercury in the distant future year of 1976, or any other script versions for that matter, I would be most grateful.


Here are some semi-vintage magazine articles about FP now online in all their glory. This one is from the short-lived publication Science Fantasy Film Classics from 1977:


This is the Cinefantastique article on FP from 1979 which contains the original physical description of the Krell. Lots of production notes, diagrams, and artwork, too:


The first three parts of the above blog piece have a collection of publicity stills, or lobby cards, from the film, many of them focusing on Altaira and Robby.

This great Web site analyzes science fiction cinematic and television series technology, especially how practical the designs are in a realistic sense. Forbidden Planet was given a thorough treatment, which also gives us a chance to see the various props and sets in detail:


This site contains many production images of and details on the film:


Some more “evidence” that FP influenced Gene Roddenberry when making Star Trek. Based on the following diagram from the USS Enterprise Officer’s Manual (1980) by Geoffrey Mandel, note how if you take away the secondary hull and the warp nacelles of the starship Enterprise, you basically have the C-57D saucer:


Although it was never shown in the original ST series due to budget restraints, it was known that the main hull of the Enterprise could separate from the rest of the ship, capable of landing on an alien planet. Instead that crew had to settle for the transporter and the occasional shuttlecraft. Later series franchises did show their Federation vessels doing what the original series only wished it could do.

There is a very nice set of blueprints of the FP starship titled Cruiser C-57D Ship’s Information Booklet, made by Shane Johnson with technical approval by modeler Dave Merriman, published by the Noron Group in 1983. Not only does this set show every part of the cruiser inside and out, but adds some wonderful touches about the operation and culture of the ship and the United Planets, respectively. If they are not canon to the film, they should be. This blueprint set is a must-have for any real FP fans, as they say. I could not find any decent reproductions of the set online to link here, but there should be.

Finally, here is a radio play version of Forbidden Planet from Australia made in 1959. It closely matches the 1956 film script:





Creating Our Own Final Frontier: Forbidden Planet

Larry Klaes takes the helm today and tomorrow while I finish up some necessary (not space related) business. Most Centauri Dreams readers, I’m assuming, have seen Forbidden Planet, the 1956 science fiction tale that proved so influential on later depictions of interstellar travel and encounters with alien intelligence, not just in film but on radio and television. Looking at everything from the film’s original script to its effect on Star Trek and beyond, Larry connects the world of Forbidden Planet to its historical context as well as its echoes, which still resonate as we continue the exploration of our own Solar System. What can a 1950’s movie tell us about flight to the stars? Quite a lot, as Larry explains.

By Larry Klaes

The cinema has had a huge influence on modern society since the day it was introduced to the world in the late Nineteenth Century. I am referring not just to the masses being regularly entertained by “the movies” for generations on a global scale or Hollywood moguls and certain actors making huge fortunes off the film industry. I am talking about how film has shaped and reshaped our thinking on all sorts of subjects, both individually and culturally, essentially turning fiction into some form of reality.

One relatively mild example is how real exoplanets which are found to be part of a binary star system are now colloquially referred to as Tatooine worlds, named after the fictional alien desert planet introduced in Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977), which was famously shown to have two Sol-type stars in its sky. Astronomers and science fiction fans have known for centuries about the many real binary and even higher-numbered star systems throughout the Milky Way galaxy and beyond, but it was this popular-level film that no doubt introduced so many other terrestrial dwellers to this celestial concept of having more than a single sun illuminating a planet’s sky.

On an even grander scale, humanity has let the ideas of certain authors and other creative types who imagined how we would one day reach for the stars – along with all of its consequences – slowly but surely become how we plan on exploring and one day colonizing the wider Milky Way galaxy.

Among the biggest players in how we have been shaped by – and continue to shape – our own cosmic destiny is the science fiction film Forbidden Planet, released in the spring of 1956 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios.

Its portrayal of brave men exploring deep space in faster-than-light (FTL) starships, encountering strange alien worlds and meeting exotic alien cultures was not only a reflection of the science fiction literature that came before it, but had a huge influence on what came after it both in fiction and reality.

The most obvious fiction that Forbidden Planet (FP) had an influence upon was Star Trek (ST), which debuted ten years after the iconic film’s release on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television network and has lasted for over half a century now as one of the most popular and recognizable franchises of the genre. In fact there are those, myself included, who have referred to FP as the true first pilot episode of the television series. However, the series creator, Gene Roddenberry, did not publicly admit much about FP’s influence, though later research into letters he wrote in 1964 showed that the 1956 classic had indeed wielded much weight when Roddenberry was putting Star Trek together. If you want the details on this bit of history, check out the following Web site on the very early days of the series:


I bring up Star Trek because few other science fiction franchises have had as much impact on our real space efforts as the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and several fellow vessels have had. As with Forbidden Planet, the general public now has it firmly implanted in their minds that the way our species will explore the “Final Frontier”, as Star Trek likes to refer to deep space, will be in large vessels manned by organic beings (primarily humans, of course) that can achieve speeds many times that of light in order to reach alien worlds in very reasonable (for the average human life span) times. They will explore largely Earthlike planets, as that is where we terrestrially born and bound humans expect the best chances for finding alien life – and eventually colonizing other worlds – will be.

Now of course there will be adventures and dangers and dangerous adventures along the way, but eventually we brave humans will “conquer” the Milky Way galaxy, or at least the portions that are useful to us. The ETI we meet will come to understand our good intentions and want to cooperate with us; either that or they will end up battling us for galactic dominance, though some may just run away. Our ultimate goal is to form some kind of organization like the United Nations, except this will be on an interstellar scale and involve cooperative beings from all over the galaxy. These beings may be somewhat unusual looking by human standards (but not too unusual); however, their thoughts, actions, and intentions won’t be all that different from ours on a fundamental level. After all, it is assumed they are all organic beings who evolved in ways not terribly different from terrestrial life and will continue to do so in a mutually beneficial direction.

At least this is how both Forbidden Planet and Star Trek see things for our cosmic future. It certainly seems like a nice and optimistic vision, especially to its mid-Twentieth Century audiences, who were their real targets. But how realistic is it? Will we explore the stars in person in biological versions matching the way we are now in the early 21st Century? Will our interstellar vessels have the means to go FTL, be it with hyperdrives, warp drives, or some other method yet to be known? How many truly Earthlike exoworlds are there in the Milky Way galaxy, ones that we could live on without lots of assistance? Will the aliens we meet really be relatable to our brave human explorers? Will they also have evolved biologically and culturally in a similar fashion, especially when it comes to the construction and use of technology? And is our ultimate cosmic fate to become something akin to immortal demigods, or will the Universe/God “punish” us for daring to move beyond our preconceived “stations”? Or will something else emerge from Earth to become the most intelligent life form to spread into the galaxy?

These are among the main themes I will be analyzing as we examine the themes laid out by Forbidden Planet. Among these themes I will also be asking this: Is the real answer to the denizens from the third planet from Sol expanding into space lying in plain sight throughout this pre-Sputnik era cinematic masterpiece?

Our Story So Far

I think it is only appropriate and useful to start off with a summary of the plot of Forbidden Planet. While the film is now over sixty years old and based in part on William Shakespeare’s circa 1610 theatrical play The Tempest, I will still offer the courtesy, for those who may have yet to see the film, of informing you now that I will be discussing FP in detail from beginning to end, so you may want to watch Forbidden Planet for yourself before continuing to read further here.

Sometime in the 23rd Century (some sources claim the story takes place specifically in the year 2257), the twenty male crew members (average age 24.6 years) of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D have been sent from their base on Earth on a year-long journey via hyperdrive propulsion to the exoplanet Altair 4. Their mission is to learn the fate of an expedition with “a prospecting party of scientists” sent to the fourth world of the star Altair some twenty years earlier aboard the star vessel Bellerophon, as they were never heard from again shortly after landing on that planet. As the crew is getting ready to land upon Altair 4 to search for any Bellerophon survivors to rescue, they suddenly find their starship being scanned by a powerful radar beam coming from an area on the planet twenty square miles across. This is quickly followed by a radio hail from Dr. Edward Morbius, one of the scientists from the Bellerophon expedition. Morbius claims he is fine and has no need to be rescued. However, he does stress that the C-57D should leave at once before some ambiguous “planetary force” wipes them out, just as nearly all of his fellow explorers – save his wife – were brutally killed by this same mysterious force two decades earlier.

Having just traveled roughly 100 trillion miles across interstellar space, the crew of the C-57D, led by Commander John “J. J.” Adams, naturally ignore Morbius’ warning and land their entire hyperdrive-powered, flying saucer-shaped spaceship on the planet’s surface. They are soon greeted by a fast-moving ground vehicle operated by a large bipedal robot which is “monitored to respond to the name ‘Robby’.” The very strong and highly articulate machine (Robby knows 187 other languages in addition to English, “along with their various dialects and sub-tongues”) takes Adams and two of his fellow officers, Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow and the ship’s astrogator, Lieutenant Jerry Farman, to the home of Dr. Morbius, where their host is found to be cordial and even hospitable, yet continuing to insist that Adams and his men are in grave danger and must leave Altair 4 at once.

The situation becomes even more complicated when Morbius’ young, beautiful, and presumably innocent daughter, Altaira, suddenly appears and introduces herself to the landing party. Born and raised on the alien world, Altaira has never met any other human beings besides her father and is clearly intrigued by the crewmen of the C-57D. The men, for their part, behave in ways towards Altaira that would not sit well with a modern audience but would have been largely expected by those who first viewed the film in the 1950s.

As Morbius is more than reluctant to return to Earth, even temporarily, Adams finds that he needs to contact his base for further instructions. Since signaling his superiors residing nearly 17 light years distant for a relatively quick response is apparently no easy feat, the commander will have to cannibalize vitally important parts from his ship in order to make a communications relay powerful enough to do the job. As this will require several days to complete, even with Robby’s help, Adams and his fellow officers use this time to learn more about what happened to the Bellerophon crew and why Morbius, his late wife (she died of natural causes years back, according to Morbius) and his daughter Altaira appear to be immune to whatever phenomenon or creature slaughtered the rest of his expedition and which Morbius strongly feels is still lurking about nearby.

Adams and Doc Ostrow learn that Altair 4 was once inhabited by a race of highly advanced beings known as the Krell. Morbius, who has been studying what is left of their ancient civilization for the past twenty years, says they were “a million years ahead of humankind” in every way. However, the entire race was apparently wiped out in a single night some 200,000 years earlier by a mysterious catastrophic force. Despite the Krell’s disappearance so long ago, their highly sophisticated machinery left behind is still functioning deep beneath the surface of the planet. Morbius takes the two C-57D officers on a tour of some of the vast Krell technology located below his home, which is clearly far in advance of even the best human works and knowledge of the 23rd Century.

While we understand more about the Krell, the C-57D and its crew have been undergoing a series of increasingly dramatic disturbances and even murders – with Lt. Farman among the victims – by what seems to be the “planetary force” Morbius warned them of upon their arrival. Eventually, it is discovered that the force is a very powerful and invisible energy being actually created by Morbius’ subconscious and brought to deadly reality by the incredible Krell technology.

Two thousand centuries earlier, the Krell had developed instrumentalities that could convert their very thoughts into physical forms which could then be instantly transported to any place on the planet. However, these otherwise highly evolved beings had somehow forgotten that their species’ base primitive ancestry still resided deep within themselves and were also materialized by the very machinery they had hoped to use to become even more advanced. The results were a world where everyone’s secret “monsters” were suddenly let loose to act upon their primal urges and drives, rendering the entire Krell race extinct in just one night of horror and destruction.

Morbius had inadvertently tapped into that same technology early in his research, which simultaneously expanded his intelligence, allowing this “mere” philologist (a scholar of languages and the development of words) the ability to build Robby the Robot as his first act. The same instrumentality also materialized Morbius’ subconscious mind as it had with the Krell, which then murdered every other member of the Bellerophon expedition who had wanted to abandon Altair 4 and return to Earth. Now that same alien machinery was reading Morbius’ baser thoughts again to commit acts of violence on the C-57D crew in order for the Doctor and Altaira to remain on the planet undisturbed so that Morbius could continue his research and remain the sole possessor of the Krell civilization.

Yet even Altaira becomes a target for the subconscious creature’s primitive malevolence when she decides to leave with the C-57D and go to Earth with Commander Adams, with whom she has fallen in love. The Monster from the Id, as it is described more than once, eventually comes after Morbius, Altaira and Adams, who try to protect themselves in the Krell laboratory to which Morbius’ home is attached. However, the monster draws energy from the incredible power of the Krell machinery to melt its way through the multiple thick steel doors of the laboratory to reach the trio. Morbius, feeling immense guilt after finally comprehending and accepting what he has done, throws himself before the monster and is gravely injured while simultaneously causing the creature manifested from his subconscious to vanish. Dying, Morbius instructs Adams on how to cause the Krell technology to self-destruct, which will annihilate the entire planet in just 24 hours.

The C-57D then escapes into deep space, eventually reaching nearly 100 million miles from Altair 4, the distance Morbius warned them to be at for their safety. As Adams, Altaira, and the rest of the surviving crew members watch with the ship’s main viewing plate, the planet suddenly becomes a brilliant white expanding ball of light as the Krell’s thousands of nuclear reactors undergo a chain reaction and vaporize the alien world, taking all the secrets of its ancient race with it…. Except for Robby, who is now the space cruiser’s new astrogator.

As Commander Adams holds Altaira in his arms, comforting her over all she has lost, he speaks the final dialogue of the film: “Alta, about a million years from now, the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy, and your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in the galaxy. It’s true. It will remind us that we are, after all, not God.”

Two Digits Up

Judging Forbidden Planet strictly as a film, it has held up very well over these past six decades. FP has become one of the icons of science fiction from an era symbolized largely through its novels and magazine publications known as pulps, due to the rather cheap paper these magazines were printed on. It was science fiction with an emphasis on the word “science”, thanks in no small part to such pioneer publishers as Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell.

One dozen years later, another MGM production, 2001: A Space Odyssey, would become the epitome of science fiction as a working combination of both intellectual ideas and high cinematic art. 2001 was surrounded by a collection of science fiction films that used the genre to make important social commentary, which included the path-making FP. Then the industry took a step back to a much earlier era, one of swashbuckling space opera and fantasy, less than a decade after 2001 with the arrival of the first Star Wars film in 1977. While this new-yet-old type of SF cinema has dominated the theaters ever since, there have been a few recent harks back to the Golden Age such as Ex Machina and Arrival. Perhaps we are seeing the decades-old dominating influence of Star Wars finally starting to ebb, or at the least, make more room for conceptually smart and socially relevant science fiction films.

The next decade or so following Forbidden Planet saw the film being kept “alive” in the sense that several genre films and televisions series reused the spaceship model, sets, and various props – including and especially Robby – in part to save on budget expenses and perhaps even the time and effort that would be required to come up with and create original designs and other ideas. All three types can be seen multiple times in the original Twilight Zone series, which aired from 1959 to 1964, and on the television series Lost in Space, which aired from 1965 to 1968. In the latter case, both the Jupiter 2 starship and Robot B-9 were heavily influenced by FP, which is not too surprising when one learns that several people who worked on the 1956 film were also involved with LiS. In particular, Robot B-9 was designed by Robert Kinoshita, who also designed Robby. Kinoshita’s original creation even made two guest appearances on the series. Robby also made guest appearances on such varied television sitcoms as Hazel (playing a maid in a dream sequence!) and Mork and Mindy.

Ultimately, no series was as heavily influenced by and kept the main themes of FP together as well as Star Trek did. In addition to the previously mentioned themes and ideas, the original ST aired several episodes that also felt heavily influenced by its cinematic inspiration from a decade earlier.

One episode was titled “Requiem for Methuselah”, which involved the crew of the USS Enterprise encountering a mysterious man living in a hi-tech castle on a lonely planet, with his only companions being a robot servant and a beautiful, young and intelligent yet naive woman.

Among the parallels to FP with this episode, the starship’s landing party are first “greeted” by a robot, although the machine, named M4, was actually attempting to attack them for trespassing. They then meet Mr. Flint, the owner of the planet called Holberg 917-G. Like Morbius, Flint tells the crew they are not wanted on his world and to leave immediately. Once the Enterprise officers convince Flint they are on his planet only to secure a mineral called Ryetalyn that will help them fight a deadly disease that has broken out aboard their starship, Flint allows them to stay only long enough to get what they need, having M4 help them find and process the mineral to move along their efforts.

As for the young woman mentioned, Rayna Kapec, Kirk falls in love with her (a not uncommon occurrence during the series in regards to the captain and women) and she with him. Flint, who turns out to be an immortal human who left Earth decades ago, actually built Rayna to be his ideal android companion who could never die. Upset that the landing party has learned his secret and that Rayna does not love him as he had hoped, Flint does not intend to let the Enterprise leave and even gets into a physical altercation with Kirk over Rayna. Flint surrenders his efforts only when Rayna ends up “dying” after being unable to handle her newfound conflicting emotions over the two men. Flint also learns that he is no longer immortal, having left the special conditions of his home world that made him able to continually regenerate his body for millennia. Flint promises Kirk and company that he will dedicate the rest of his now mortal life to utilizing his profound knowledge and technical abilities for the betterment of humanity.

Another original ST episode, titled “By Any Other Name”, came even closer to mirroring FP, complete with guest star Warren Stevens, who played C-57D officer Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow, as Rojan, the leader of a group of alien beings called Kelvans. Hailing from the Andromeda galaxy (also known as Messier 31, or just M31) almost three million light years distant, the Kelvans are described by the Vulcan Science Officer Spock as “immense beings, a hundred limbs which resemble tentacles. Minds of such control and capacity that each limb is capable of performing a different function.” As with the Krell in FP, we never get to see what the Kelvans actually look like, as they have taken on human form in order to adapt to living on Class M (Star Trek lingo for Earthlike, not to be confused with the real astronomical stellar classification for red dwarf suns) worlds in our galaxy, for their intent is to conquer and colonize the entire Milky Way. Spock also discovers and reports that the Kelvans “have superior intellectual capacity. To achieve it, they have apparently sacrificed anything which would tend to distract them. Perceptive senses such as taste, touch, smell, and, of course, emotions.”

Just as with the Krell of Altair 4, the Kelvans of M31 are eventually undone by their efforts to abandon their more base and primitive selves when the Enterprise officers force them to confront that which they thought they had extinguished long ago. At least unlike with the Krell, the Kelvans were not ultimately destroyed by this encounter with their primitive natures and even decided to abandon their mission of conquest.

There is a third relevant original ST episode, “Shore Leave”, which has the crew of the Enterprise encountering an uninhabited but otherwise Earthlike world that seems safe and pleasant enough for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Instead, the explorers soon discover that their very thoughts are manifesting into real, solid objects and beings, with each new incarnation becoming increasingly dangerous and with no obvious way to stop them from appearing and interacting with the crew. Just as things were looking pretty dire for the landing party, a robed humanoid ETI shows up and explains that he and his highly evolved species use this planet as a sophisticated “amusement park” for themselves, operated by a huge underground complex of alien machinery where the imagined artifacts were produced from the raw materials of that world. The complex also has the ability to “repair” any injured starship officers to full health. The Caretaker, as this advanced being labeled himself, admitted that he and his people had just realized the Enterprise crew were having a rough time of things on their planet-sized park. Although the Caretaker declined to tell Captain Kirk more about his species as he felt they were not ready to encounter them, the Caretaker did allow their visitors to stay and enjoy the ability to turn matter into any form they could imagine, so long as they were very careful with their thoughts.

There are many other significant parallels between Forbidden Planet and Star Trek, but we shall discuss them for further analysis later on throughout this essay.

Much has been said about FP’s special effects, which are indeed quite impressive and hold up very well through six decades of major advancements in FX technology and techniques. Not only was the film helped by a rather generous budget from a major Hollywood studio, staff from Walt Disney Productions were also loaned to MGM to help with such sequences as the exciting and frightening encounter with the Monster from the Id when it attacks the crew of the C-57D and they fight back with various laser and atomic-powered weapons:


The other FX tour-de-force in FP is the tour Dr. Morbius takes the main starship officers on through the massive underground Krell complex, where the inhabitants of Altair 4 made both their greatest accomplishments and ultimate destruction 200,000 years earlier:


The soundtrack for FP was a landmark in film history, for there is not a trace of the standard orchestral music ubiquitous of the era. Instead, what we hear throughout the film are what its creators Bebe and Louis Barron called “electronic tonalities”, or the first electronic film score. This new approach to cinematic soundtracks does much to make FP stand out: You feel immersed in this strange future world right from the start and especially as you explore the alien planet Altair 4 and the ancient and literally unworldly creations of the Krell. These tonalities also imbue the viewer with a sense of underlying foreboding as the mysteries and growing dangers of this unfamiliar setting progress, staying with the story to the very end credits. I have little doubt these bizarre sounds were even more effective when the film first premiered. The FP soundtrack may safely be added to the list of important influences FP had on future science fiction films.

You may learn more about the Barron electronic music pioneers and their work with FP here:


The acting is very well, done, especially by the legendary Walter Pidgeon as Dr. Morbius. As for the characters themselves, they all tend to be certain types we have seen many times before and since, especially since the advent of Star Trek. The all-male crew of the C-57D would be instantly recognizable to post-World War 2/Korean War audiences as a collection of American naval seamen with their traditional military command structure who have been serving aboard their ship with no shore leave for far too long.

With the screenwriters using the template of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, several of the main characters in FP were based on the Bard’s own creations: Dr. Morbius is Prospero, a powerful sorcerer (which he became after gathering a great deal of knowledge as a scholar) banished to a remote island with his young and innocent daughter, Miranda, the Altaira parallel. The spirit Ariel is the Robby equivalent, bound to serve Prospero after being rescued by him from a spell cast by the witch Sycorax, who once lived on the island (the Krell parallel). Finally, the creature Caliban (the offspring of Sycorax) found its counterpart in the Monster from the Id. One key difference between the play and the film is that Prospero deliberately forces a ship and its crew to be wrecked on his island, whereas Morbius wanted nothing more than the crew of the C-57D to leave him and his daughter be on their “island”, the planet Altair 4. Towards the end of both stories, Prospero and Morbius disavow their powers upon seeing the dangers and damages they cause, though only Shakespeare’s character survives his change of mind and heart.

Symbols and Stereotypes

Because Forbidden Planet is a result of the era it was created in, along with this being one of Hollywood’s first real efforts to portray the “pulp” era of science fiction, the film is ripe with characters and situations that can only be regarded as standard tropes and stereotypes which FP’s contemporary audience would not only instantly recognize but also give them some grounding in a truly alien world where even the soundtrack would have been so very foreign to their senses and expectations.

As stated previously, the officers and crew of the C-57D have far more in common with a mid-Twentieth Century American naval detail than whatever the real situation with a starship of the 23rd Century will probably be like. FP is hardly unique in that regard, however, with characters who are supposed to be of another time and place but instead looking and acting very similarly to the audiences paying to be entertained. This aspect is certainly not relegated to the 1950s: The 2009 science fiction film Avatar, which takes place in the year 2154 on an alien world named Pandora in the Alpha Centauri system, is dominated with human characters who will probably seem just as antiquated to future audiences long before the dawn of the actual 22nd Century.

Another trait the members of the C-57D possess that the Star Trek franchise would later go to town with, especially in its first incarnation, is the pushing of American values on others in the film and the viewing audience. The era of FP’s premiere was a post-World War 2 realm where the United States and its allies had recently won a major and hard-fought victory over enemy forces in Europe and Asia who had threatened to dominate every nation on Earth. As a result, America had emerged as a major geopolitical superpower. The end of this global war also saw the rise of a new one, a Cold War where the other major superpower, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) had begun a massive effort to win the control and support of human civilization with its Communist ideology. Since both the US and USSR would soon possess enough nuclear weapons to render each other obsolete if not outright extinct and were continually adding to their stockpiles at an alarming rate, other ways than all-out war had to be found to conquer and dominate the world.

One effort both sides were building upon when FP arrived in theaters in 1956 was the development of rockets which would be powerful enough to lob first artificial satellites and later manned spaceships into Earth orbit and eventually beyond. Although the “shock and awe” of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1 was still just over a year away in their future, the American public was certainly aware of the momentum building towards what would become the official Space Age. Rockets were continually being launched from both American and Soviet soil that often reached several hundred miles in altitude, briefly breaching the shores of the Final Frontier with scientific payloads and a taste of what was promised to come.

There was also plenty of cheerleading from various military and civilian organizations who fired up public imaginations with not only real plans for initial space exploration efforts but also for space colonization and even space vacations. Chief among these forces was Walt Disney himself, who utilized the vast resources of his corporate empire to produce several highly impressive and educational animated features on America’s near future space goals. Combined with the use of that other highly popular and rapidly multiplying modern technological marvel called television, Disney aired two programs in March and December of 1955, titled Man in Space and Man and the Moon, respectively (a third program in this series, Mars and Beyond, would premiere in December of 1957, the same month that the United States made its first attempt at lofting a satellite; it failed when the rocket exploded on the launch pad). Assisted by famous rocket pioneers such as Wernher von Braun, Disney’s Man in Space series enlightened American audiences on a national scale about the space era that was literally just around the corner, right up to President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, who praised the series and used them to both educate and encourage members of his administration and the military.

Though perhaps not the direct intention of its makers, Forbidden Planet was also doing its part to promote interest and support in space exploration and utilization on the science fiction front. This effort would literally take off with FP’s essentially direct descendant, Star Trek, which would inspire millions to consider the Final Frontier as both a career goal and the destination for humanity, including real astronauts like Mae Jemison who also had a cameo on Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) and is currently the leader of the 100 Year Starship Initiative, which has the goal of “design[ing] and implement[ing] independent, collaborative and open-source projects to advance and promote the public engagement, research, development and capabilities needed for humans to reach another star.” The franchise has also enticed its fan base to perform numerous fiction-to-reality actions such as making NASA change the name of their first Space Shuttle from Constitution to Enterprise in 1976 – which is rather ironic since the USS Enterprise is a Constitution class starship in the ST canon.

To round out the reasons for FP pushing such an American agenda for the expansion into space, the film arrived towards the end of McCarthyism, or more colloquially the Communist witch hunts. Concern over Soviet global domination turned to rooting out Communist spies, sympathizers and saboteurs in the US government, industry, education and most notably Hollywood. As these things often do, this exposure and extraction of perceived enemies went to extremes, harming many innocent people and frightening the American film industry into becoming both overtly patriotic and simultaneously self-censoring.

While Forbidden Planet is not exactly in-your-face about promoting the nation that spawned it, the film clearly depicts the future as one dominated by Americans and white male ones at that. Granted, we viewers learn relatively little up front about the United Planets organization, but unlike Star Trek one decade later, one does not see even a token example of a member from a non-human species, or a non-white ethnic member of our own species, and only one prominent example of a member of the female gender. At the risk of using this excuse once too often, such things would have been expected from a Hollywood film of the era, definitely due to the cultural standards of the day but also from a strong influence by the contemporary witch hunts. However, there were a few notable exceptions: In the 1955 science fiction film Conquest of Space, produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures, one of the crewmembers for the first manned mission to Mars is a Japanese botanist whose knowledge and skills assist in saving the crew when they are stranded on the Red Planet (shades of The Martian).

Along with the aforementioned cast of characters being essentially Twentieth Century Americans in a 23rd Century interstellar setting, we also encounter characters who are somewhat unfortunately little better than stereotypes and symbols for the benefit of the plot. Thankfully this does not also render them uninteresting characters, but perhaps six decades of hindsight make it harder to just let these traits slip past, especially in a film that strove mightily to rise above its B- and lower-grade cinematic brethren. However, the characters in FP also represent something much deeper, broader and singular than perhaps even the filmmakers realized at time, one which we will examine in depth later on.

Dr. Morbius

In the most prominent example, Dr. Morbius is the titular Man of Science. While he is certainly not socially awkward in the typical sense of most male nerd scientists portrayed in later entertainment media – Morbius has excellent style, taste and refined social graces even towards guests he really wishes would just go away – Morbius is more representative of the scientist as perceived and projected in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century: The strong and intelligent male authority figure.

Since Morbius is also representing the other half of science that concerned so many during the era of The Bomb, his appearance and demeanor take on the slightly satanic look that was often a Hollywood standard for portraying the Devil of Judeo-Christian lore: A middle-aged man with exquisite manners, impeccably dressed, a manicured goatee, and unsettling hints that crossing him or otherwise getting in his way will result in an unpleasant end for the instigators.

It was the post-World War 2 era where society began to question and worry about certain aspects of science and its practitioners, including and especially the invention of nuclear power, in particular its use as a weapon that could level entire cities with one strike and leave whole regions unlivable and unusable for centuries. Indeed, a full-scale nuclear war could conceivably destroy civilization and even render humanity extinct. Although the first atomic bombs had been developed with the immediate goal of stopping an enemy bent on world domination and genocide, their later development into the more sophisticated and deadlier nuclear devices by the hundreds by the arrival of Forbidden Planet – along with the growing means to deliver them to any place on Earth in a matter of mere minutes – left many with the impression that the scientists and engineers who were building these machines were more interested in seeing what their intellectual progeny could do over thinking of the long-term consequences. Not that these fears were groundless, but the scientists and engineers were also being driven by a powerful military-industrial complex also spawned by the most recent global conflict which was being ruled by its own fears, nationalism, and ever-growing piles of funding dollars.

While the makers of FP no doubt knew better than to outright criticize their government and country’s agenda against its Cold War adversaries, they did find in Dr. Morbius (just say his name out loud for the proper effect) a symbol for representing their fears of a field and its practitioners who were increasingly being seen as amoral if not directly malevolent as well as appointing themselves as the single-point arbiters of what was best for the rest of humanity. This is exactly what Morbius did with the incredibly powerful and deadly Krell technology he encountered and subsequently obsessed upon as he cut himself off from the rest of his species over the next twenty years, the very same technology that had wiped out an entire civilization in one swift blow many centuries before. The captain of the C-57D was not just following protocol when he attempted to radio home for further orders once he began to realize the full extent of what he was dealing with on Altair 4: Adams was hoping to get a wider consensus on the alien power he had come upon beyond the words and actions of a single self-appointed authority figure in the guise of the scientist Morbius.

Commander John “J. J.” Adams

In the 1954 film script, the captain of the star cruiser is described as “exceptionally young for his rank, and accordingly inclined to be just a bit starchy.” The same source mentions that Adams has “spent about a quarter of [his] life in hyper-space,” by which is presumably meant his time in the service of the United Planets as well as actually zipping FTL around the galaxy. Adams could be called a “career man” when it comes to the space service.

Adams does indeed seem to have a “by-the-book” persona and can come across as rather “hardass” on his men, especially early on with the mysterious attacks on his ship and crew. His professional and personal relationship with Lt. Farman was often particularly contentious, even more so in the parts of the 1954 script that did not make it to the final film. Adams’ rigid exterior does largely melt away once he falls for Morbius’ daughter, Altaira. Of course this is partly expected in most Hollywood productions right through today, having the leading man end up with the leading lady.

Gene Roddenberry definitely borrowed heavily from Adams’ more formal persona for the first two captains of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek, in particular the portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike from the first pilot “The Cage”, played by Jeffrey Hunter. Pike was a rather humorless man, on the verge of career burnout, although like Adams he did show empathy and attraction towards the main woman character he encountered.

The commander whom Roddenberry eventually settled upon for the original series and the first batch of film versions, Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner), was less rigid and often visibly enjoyed being a starship captain, although past associates indicated that Kirk was much more studious and controlled/controlling during his years at Starfleet Academy. Roddenberry did retain in Kirk the attributes of being the youngest person in charge of a star vessel in Starfleet and falling for the leading lady in just about every episode where there was one.

There is the irony that while Adams was not considered to be anywhere near as brilliant as Morbius, especially with the latter character’s enhanced intelligence, it is the skipper of the C-57D who ends up making Morbius realize, admit, and accept just what – and who – the Monster of the Id really is (with some help from his friend Doc Ostrow). Of course as the All-American Male Hero from the warrior class of his species, Adams must be perceived as the winner, even if his rigid conformity to rules and regulations along with his limited appreciation for the wider picture of events at Altair 4 might have brought about a much different ending for our captain had these situations occurred without the more formulaic sides of the script.


Morbius’ only child, his daughter Altaira (Alta for short), is the sole human woman in the film. Granted, her role mirrors that of Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, from The Tempest, but in essence her presence is to be the antagonist in a sense for the C-57D crew and her father, providing “cheesecake” for the film audience and the crop of healthy young men she is suddenly presented with after spending 19 years with only her father, Robby, and her animal friends for company.

For the relatively brief time we get to know her, Altaira appears not to take much of an interest in her father’s work on the Krell, only in looking pretty, playing with her pets in the garden, studying, and badgering Robby with constant material demands. In other words, how a young lady would be expected to act and think by mid-Twentieth Century social standards, even one who grew up in the Twenty-Third Century on an alien world 16.7 light years from Earth with only her single scientist father to learn about human behavior from.

We have evidence of the above description for Altaira from a part of the 1954 script which was released in a watered down form when FP premiered two years later. Note the following dialog between Adams and Altaira:

Adams: “What kind of work does your father do?”

Alta: “Work? Oh dear, I don’t know. He just goes into his study and – and works.”

Adams: “But you haven’t any idea — ?”

Alta: “He says I’m terribly ignorant. All he could ever get through my head is poetry, and mathematics, and geology, and physics, and chemistry, and bi—“

Adams: “–ology. But mostly on the theoretical side?”

Alta: “Well naturally — so far.”

One important factor that Altaira does provide to the themes of Forbidden Planet is being one of the more obvious examples of the constant struggle between three primary aspects of human nature – the Id, Ego, and Superego, as promoted by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis – which every prominent character in this film goes through. Captain Adams expends a rather disproportionate amount of time and effort trying to keep his men in line regarding Altaira, as they have not had “shore leave” in 378 days and are behaving as 1950s males would be expected to by a contemporary viewing audience when presented with such a situation. At the same time, Adams also tries to maintain control over his own growing attraction to Altaira, a struggle which he eventually “loses”.

Altaira is also the focus of her father, Morbius, who has kept essentially benign yet virtually complete control over his daughter’s life – under the guise of parental protection – until that starship from Earth shows up. Altaira does much to provoke and expose the “primal savage” lying beneath her father’s stately and scientific surface, both unintentionally and otherwise, especially when she ultimately decides to leave Morbius and Altair 4 for Earth with her new love and focus, Captain Adams. While any good parent finds it difficult to have their children eventually grow up and leave home to pursue their individual new lives, seldom does anyone have the phenomenal and frightening resources that Morbius has access to in order to impose his will upon Altaira and anyone else who defies him in his self-made kingdom.

Altaira is the catalyst – and one not quite as innocent and naive as she first appears to be – showing that civilized society, even a future one with advanced technology and higher knowledge, can still be undermined in a moment by the more powerful primitive urges in every human being; in this case, the need to reproduce and compete with others in the process of successfully passing along one’s genes to the next generation. Only the urge and necessity to consume food and water can compete on a basic level with reproduction for organic life forms.

Lieutenant Farman

One of the main players in this “mating game” is Lt. Jerry Farman, the C-57D’s astrogator, or celestial navigator. Farman becomes the primary competitor for Altaira’s affections with Commander Adams, who ultimately “loses” Altaira to Adams, despite the skipper’s initial angry protests over his crew’s reactions towards the young woman and even Altaira’s own behavior towards his men.

Farman eventually concedes the only woman on Altair 4 to Adams, the Alpha Male of the group, and is then removed completely as a romantic rival when he is later among the casualties of Morbius’ Monster from the Id during its direct assault on the United Planets cruiser and crew.

We never really get to learn much more about Farman, who in the end is replaced job-wise by Robby with no outwardly discernable sadness by the crew. However, in several deleted scenes from the film and earlier script versions, one gets the strong impression that Farman was a bit of a “hotshot” young pilot, eager to take risks such as bringing the C-57D out of hyperdrive closer to the star Altair than Captain Adams cared for. The 1954 film script version also had more verbal confrontations between Farman and Adams, most often concerning their competition for the affections of Altaira. One may also reasonably speculate that Farman hoped to one day be in command of his own starship, if not replacing Adams outright on the C-57D.

Chief Quinn and “Doc” Ostrow

We receive even less background about two other prominent crew members, Chief Quinn and Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow, the C-57D’s head engineer and medical doctor, respectively. Quinn clearly loves his job, which seems to be the primary focus of his life (shades of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott on Star Trek). In fact when Quinn is killed by the Monster from the Id early on, about the only things Adams can say regarding Quinn just after his funeral is that he was a “fine technician. A good shipmate,” with Doc adding “and that’s a good epitaph for any man.” We do, however, get one brief indication that Quinn’s libido does not respond solely to fancy futuristic machinery: When he asks Captain Adams to provide a visual scan during the ship officers’ first visit to Morbius’ home as part of a planned safety check, a distinct wolf whistle is emitted by Quinn when Adams’ belt-harnessed communicator falls upon Altaira.

In a scene that was filmed but later deleted from the final edition of FP, Adams was shown reviewing Quinn’s few personal belongings from his ship’s locker, which he ordered to be delivered to Quinn’s closest next of kin – his mother – when they return to Earth. The commentary text accompanying this brief scene says it was probably removed due to Adams’ rather clinical handling of the chief engineer’s possessions, especially in light of the fact that the man had just been brutally murdered. Apparently the cultural acceptance of macho male stoicism had its limits even in the 1950s.

Viewers of a certain age may recognize the actor who played Chief Quinn, Richard Anderson, as the character Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man television series in the 1970s. Anderson portrayed the boss of an American astronaut named Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors) who becomes an action hero cyborg after surviving a horrific crash in an experimental lifting body flying craft.

Doc Ostrow is considered to be the intellectual man of the crew. At one point Morbius even confesses that he sometimes still misses talking to such gentlemen as Doc. He does possess a certain level of both intelligence and especially maturity that appears to be lacking in the other members of the C-57D, at least the handful we get to know with any detail (the 1954 script describes Doc as being about a decade older than most of the crew). While Doc clearly finds Altaira attractive, he does not let his passions rule him in terms of overt behavior towards Morbius’ daughter, unlike the other crewmen. Indeed, Doc makes several wry observations about Altaira and Adams’ reactions to her throughout the film.

One common stereotype which Doc thankfully does not fall into is the asocial nerd label that Hollywood usually pins upon such characters, though at least on some occasions in the 1950s scientists were portrayed as the standard handsome, macho leading man: See Dr. Cal Meacham, played by Rex Reason, in the 1955 science fiction film This Island Earth as one prime example.

While Doc Ostrow bears relatively little resemblance to either Spock or Doctor Leonard McCoy from Star Trek – although both Doc and McCoy often served as older and wiser mentors to their respective young captains – Doc’s relationship with Adams could be considered the influence for the triumvirate that Roddenberry created with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy later on in ST. As happened with Farman, Doc later sacrifices himself, in some part to save Adams’ life so that his military/social superior and friend can be with Altaira. However, unlike Farman, Doc’s actions were consciously deliberate in an attempt to learn the true fate of the Krell and their connection to what was happening around them in their present.

The Everyman: Cook

On the other hand, stereotypes aplenty abound in the character of the Cook, played by Earl Holliman. Not even given a proper name, Cook (or sometimes Cookie) represents a version of the Everyman archetype who often, to this day, occupies science fiction films to make events “relatable” to the contemporary audience by featuring what the filmmakers perceive as a person generally similar to those watching their production. He (and it is most often a he) serves as an anchor to the reality of the era the film was made in. They also exist to either explain or get someone smarter than themselves to explain the particular science and other aspects of the film under the assumption that the viewers will not comprehend or realize certain things without some onscreen guidance.

Perhaps the most (in)famous member of this group was Joe Sweeney, played by Dick Wesson, in the classic science fiction cinematic masterpiece, Destination Moon. Released in 1950, this film depicted a realistic manned journey to Earth’s natural satellite, at least by the standards of the day. As the use of serious rocketry was just coming into its own after World War 2, the filmmakers assumed that most audiences would have little understanding of the various scientific and technical principles involved with such vehicles for exploring space. Making these concepts relatable fell to Joe, the mission’s radio and radar operator, who had to fill in as the fourth member of the crew at the last moment before launch. Throughout the voyage from Earth to their landing on the Moon, Joe would constantly ask – in a Brooklyn accent no less – just what was going on and why, receiving a patient and expert reply each time by the rest of the more highly educated and sophisticated lunar expedition team.

Joe had an additional trait that the filmmakers thought would make him relatable to the “average Joe” (and Jane) in the contemporary viewing audience: A strong aversion to being in the strange new situation he has found himself in and an even stronger desire to go back to the familiar world he came from. Unlike the other three men that make up the crew of the rocket ship Luna in Destination Moon, Joe does not want to explore the Moon or even go into space, as both places have “no beer, no babes, no baseball!”

Cook echoes very similar sentiments to anyone in listening range in Forbidden Planet while the C-57D is still in orbit around Altair 4 when he declares: “Another one of them new worlds. No beer, no women, no pool parlors, nothing. Nothing to do but throw rocks at tin cans, and we gotta bring our own cans!” Both characters sound like nothing less than your stereotypical mid-Twentieth Century tough guys. In Cook’s case, his motivation to explore distant alien planets probably came from a limited set of jobs available to him, although it is also possible that Cook thought life aboard a starship seeing new worlds all the time would have seemed far more glamorous and exciting to him in the imagined United Planets recruitment brochure.

Such Everymen also serve a dual purpose with their role, namely being the comic relief of the film. Cook does this virtually every time he is on screen, though it often feels rather awkward and even out of place in a story that is overall quite serious, often frightening, and literally otherworldly. Cook himself seems like an anachronism: An enlisted seaman of the 1950s on a 23rd Century interstellar voyage, doing a job that itself should likely not have been necessary in such an advanced era aboard a sophisticated FTL starship, but that will be expanded upon later. Even Cook’s usual attire seems to belong to an earlier time, especially when compared to the spiffy (if a bit drab) military-style uniforms worn by the rest of the C-57D crew (to be fair, Cook is seen wearing his dress uniform once, when he is being questioned by Captain Adams about the death of Quinn).

Cook hits most of the marks of what an audience of mid-Twentieth Century would expect from their comic relief: The “funny” accent, the various physical pratfalls, the string of rube-style questions, and the then largely acceptable comedic trait of being an alcoholic, or at least someone who certainly enjoys drinking hard liquor on a regular basis.

Indeed, one of Cook’s biggest scenes is his effort to procure some more “genuine ancient Rocket/Kansas City Bourbon” with Robby’s help, since his one remaining bottle was down to its last swallow. Robby does come through, as usual, producing 480 pints of the drink (“total 60 gallons”) in identical bottles stacked neatly in a large pile just beyond the security perimeter of the C-57D. Truth be told, it is Robby who actually does a better and smoother job of providing humor in FP, with his droll and understated comments that often seem to slip right past the human characters but not the film audience.

We can be grateful that not every comic pratfall envisioned for Cook was filmed, however. An earlier draft of the film script, dated from September of 1954, had the ship’s cook asking Robby if the robot could find him “a little female companionship,” right after his order for a resupply of alcohol. Robby returns the next day with Cook’s two requests: The sixty gallons of Kansas City Bourbon – and an adult female chimpanzee! Naturally, Cook is both shocked and insulted, protesting that he is “a human bein’, that’s what I am!” Robby responds “that from an impartial, evolutionary viewpoint, the resemblances far outweigh any mere physiological divergences.” The chimp then climbs up Cook and starts kissing him on the cheek. Cook quickly caves in to the primate’s “charms” and decides she will make “a cute ship’s pet anyway.” He even promises to “fix her up a little gymnasium right in the galley.”

Just over two decades after making Forbidden Planet, Holliman would tell the author of an in-depth article about this cinematic legend of science fiction in a 1979 issue of Cinefantastique magazine that it was “the worst film [he] ever made.” Perhaps Holliman had also not been terribly pleased with the description of his character in the 1954 script version, which called out Cook as being “distinctly of a lower type than the others.” Even his dialogue in the script was often spelled out phonetically to emphasize the amusing aspects of Cook’s pronunciations of certain words.

Nevertheless, the actor still showed up for the film’s fiftieth anniversary reunion at San Diego’s Comic-Con International in July of 2006, along with fellow cast members Warren Stevens (Doc Ostrow) and Richard Anderson (Chief Quinn).

These are the Voyages of the Star Cruiser…

There are three main non-human characters in Forbidden Planet. The most prominent is Robby the Robot, of course. His (and yes, I know that while the question of gender in Robby’s case is “totally without meaning,” the robot’s voice is distinctly male sounding and there is so much intelligence and character present, programmed or otherwise, that calling Robby just “it” feels demeaning) humanoidish appearance, manners and a combination of intellectual and physical strength in the tradition of most celluloid animatronics and androids easily draw in the audiences’ endearment, sympathies, followed by their strongest and longest-lasting memories. Conduct a random search for representative media on FP, online or otherwise, and you will almost invariably bring up images of Robby as either the primary symbol of the whole film or present in most scenes, standing out due to his uniqueness among the rest of the cast and the sets.

The other two members of this particular triumvirate are not characters in the conventional sense of the word, yet they also play their important roles in the story. One is the fantastic complex of alien Krell technology which fascinates Dr. Morbius to the point of deadly obsession. The other is the United Planets Cruiser C-57D, which, as the starship’s Captain, J. J. Adams obsesses over in his own fashion.

As would become heavily prominent with Star Trek and several other popular science fiction franchises, the interstellar vessels which transport our various casts of characters across the galaxy often take on a life and a perceived personality of their very own. ST’s United Star Ship (USS) Enterprise (registration number NCC-1701) was arguably as important and beloved and any of the organic (and inorganic) beings who served aboard her, human or alien. Numerous sets of blueprints, manuals, toys, models, and games have been devoted to and inspired by the Starship Enterprise and its variants over the decades since the franchise premiered on network television in 1966. As stated earlier, passionate ST fans even got NASA to rename their first flyable Space Shuttle Enterprise, though it never even made it into Earth orbit let alone any other part of the Final Frontier: The vessel was used primarily for testing Shuttle technologies and flight performance in the atmosphere.

Forbidden Planet’s star cruiser, named simply C-57D, may never have achieved quite the same level and volume of tributes as its much more famous descendant; nevertheless, it was a key player in shaping our cultural, scientific, and engineering concepts of what a real interstellar craft should be like.

The first and most visibly prominent example for this claim was its physical shape: A large double-domed disc, or “flying saucer” to use a term very popular in the 1950s. Less than one decade before FP came to the big screen, human society became wrapped up with the phenomenon known most popularly as UFOs, or Unidentified Flying Objects.

As World War 2 came to an end while the Cold War began to warm up in earnest, recent scientific and technological advances such as the German V-2 rocket began to provoke and inspire the populace with the following remarkable idea: Humanity might one day be able to literally reach for the stars using these tools. Therefore, it seemed plausible to expect that if there were other intelligent minds in the Universe — especially if they were older and consequently more advanced than ours – they may have already achieved interstellar travel and could pay us a visit.

Then, on June 24, 1947, nine strange objects were seen flying over and around various mountains in the Cascade Range of Washington state.

On that day, private pilot Kenneth Arnold was flying his CallAir Model A-2 airplane on a business trip when he saw what he later described as nine silvery disc-like craft weaving over and around several mountains, including Mount Rainer, the tallest peak in Washington. They appeared to be traveling at speeds much faster than any known aircraft could achieve at that time. This report, along with Arnold’s later public description that “they flew erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water,” began the modern era of UFO sightings and the term “flying saucer”. Reports of UFOs increased dramatically across the globe in short order: Many of them were also described as disc-shaped and a number of stories included witnesses seeing and sometimes even interacting with the strange, often humanoid beings that emerged from these objects.

By the time Forbidden Planet was in production in the following decade, the UFO phenomenon was deeply ingrained in the culture. Even those who thought “flying saucers” and their “little green men” occupants were nothing more than cases of mistaken identity, a major collection of hoaxes, or some form of mass hysteria leaned heavily towards the assumption that UFOs were the advanced interstellar vessels of highly evolved alien visitors studying Earth and especially its native human inhabitants. This thinking naturally permeated the various forms of science fiction media, with Hollywood being the most publicly affected. UFOs as disc-shaped FTL starships built and crewed by ETI dominated both high and low-brow science fiction cinematic offerings in the first half of the 1950s.

At the very same time, the two main Cold War superpowers were developing fairly parallel efforts to build and launch increasingly sophisticated rockets that could reach outer space, albeit briefly. While most of these rockets were being militarily purposed to carry nuclear warheads to potentially strike each other with, there was also a growing interest to use some of these same boosters for placing artificial satellites into Earth orbit and beyond, with a specially selected collection of brave human souls to eventually follow in their mechanical paths.

Following a technological evolutionary logic, if relatively primitive humans were just starting to explore nearby space using rather crude if effective machines, then species which could travel from one star system to another with unimaginably fast velocities must be doing so in vessels that would look far sleeker and perform much more efficiently than our chemically-fueled metal tubes. As no one at the time could hazard more than a very rough guess as to how many such advanced ETI might exist in our galaxy, the possibility that aliens were personally visiting Earth in shiny metallic discs on what felt like a fairly regular basis did not seem to be out of the realm of plausibility. Therefore, it only made sense from this viewpoint that a future humanity which had achieved interstellar travel would be doing so not in some antiquated and potentially explosively deadly rockets, but would instead be exploring and colonizing the galaxy in sophisticated, safe – and disc-shaped – vessels.

Thus was born the terrestrial and human-controlled “flying saucer” of the 23rd Century known only as C-57D, a space cruiser of the United Planets. Giving a vessel only numbers and letters for a name is hardly unprecedented: The World War 2 Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 (PT stood for Patrol Torpedo), last commanded by the future United States President John F. Kennedy, is a famous real world example of such a ship designation. In addition, labeling this starship with such a “mechanical” name was no doubt done to bring home to the contemporary film audience that C-57D was not just part of a (quasi?) military space fleet, but also a member of an advanced technological future where many such vessels patrolling the Final Frontier are as abundant as the naval ships that cruised the terrestrial seas during the Cold War.

One can make an educated guess that the letter C stands for Cruiser, while the D could mean the fourth vessel in the 57th series of its class. One may also guess the number 57 was used to note roughly the year when Forbidden Planet was released, 1956, moved up by one. As stated earlier, some sources say the story takes place specifically in the year 2257, offered as yet another potential piece of the puzzle.

C-57D is the very first “character” we see in Forbidden Planet, as the narrator makes a fascinating if all-too-brief background introduction to the world we are about to enter. We watch as C-57D emerges from behind and over our heads into view, plunging straight on into the starry background of interstellar space, accompanied by those ubiquitous Barron electronic tonalities and some futuristic sound effects presumably coming from the cruiser’s propulsion system. Since C-57D is clearly not moving through the void using conventional rockets, the narration explains just how the starship is getting about the galaxy as reproduced here:

“In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the Moon. By 2200 AD, they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Almost at once there followed the discovery of hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained and later greatly surpassed. And so, at last, mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space. United Planets Cruiser C-57D, now more than a year out from Earth Base on a special mission to the planetary system of the great main-sequence star Altair.”

This narration gives us a good abstract as to how many in the West in the first years after World War 2 and during the fairly prosperous and productive 1950s predicted the direction humanity would take into space. As you can read, the filmmakers (or at least the script authors) did not expect humans to actually reach the Moon in person until the 2090s, which for someone living in any era during or past the actual 1960s would seem to be an incredibly late and off the mark choice of dates.

However, if you were living in the era just before Sputnik 1 surprised and frightened much of the West and kicked off the official start of the Space Age/Space Race in October of 1957, chances are you would not have considered anyone capable of traveling to the Moon or any other part of outer space taking place in your near future, or perhaps ever at all outside of a science fiction story. Even the famous German rocket expert, Wernher von Braun, writing in 1954 about a manned expedition to the planet Mars, thought humanity might not be ready for such a mission for at least one century, or the year 2054. Although by the first decade of the Space Age, von Braun would scale back his prediction for the first mission to the Red Planet all the way to 1982, the point is that it was primarily science fiction authors and their acolytes who thought humanity would be voyaging in the Final Frontier far sooner than most.

Thus Forbidden Planet’s narrator intoning that “men and women in rocket ships” (at least the inclusion of women as fellow space explorers was a progressive move from a time when the words “man” and especially “mankind” were meant to indicate all of humanity) would not land on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor until well over a century from the time of the film’s premiere, rather than a mere thirteen years later in 1969 with Apollo 11 as happened in our reality, shows not only how many viewed space travel as something rather far off at best but that few could truly appreciate or suspect what was coming in terms of one of the Cold War’s ultimate expressions by its two key superpower players just around their corner. After Sputnik 1 began circling Earth, transmitting its ostensively harmless and simple beeping signal to the whole globe, the majority of the public, from top government and military officials to science experts on down to the average man and woman on the street, became collectively aware to varying degrees that Forbidden Planet and its fictional brethren were no longer mere wild speculation or just another form of temporarily entertaining diversion: They were showing a now very probable path for humanity’s real future.

Thanks to contemporary science and technology, the various frontiers of Earth itself had been largely conquered (or soon would be) as far as those living in the 1950s were concerned; therefore, it only made sense that the human race’s Manifest Destiny would now extend into space, the truly Final Frontier. That several centuries hence our descendants would be exploring the strange new worlds of the Milky Way galaxy and seeking out its new life and new civilizations in amazingly advanced space vessels was not only possible but became as expected as when the first Europeans sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in wooden ships to explore and settle North and South America centuries earlier.

The opening narration as depicted in that so very useful 1954 film script version added some important descriptions which enhance our understanding both of how the FP universe came to be and the general contemporary perception of humanity’s destiny in space. I find it unfortunate that these extra details did not make it into the final version of the film almost two years later: My guess is that they took up some plot time and flow, or perhaps the filmmakers thought they were too technical for a general audience, or some combination of the two possibilities.

Here is the 1954 version of the opening dialogue. The words and phrases that were different or missing from the 1956 film are highlighted in italics:

In the final decade of the 21st Century, men and women in chemically-fueled rocket ships landed on the Moon. By 2200 AD, with the perfecting of atomic propulsion, they had reached the other planets of our solar system. Due to galactic distances, the fixed limits to expansion now appeared to have been reached. But at this moment – not for the first time in human history – another ancient “absolute” of science was found to have been illusory. Almost at once there followed the discovery of quanto-gravitetic hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained, and later greatly surpassed – and so at last mankind, now banded together in a single federation, began the conquest and colonization of deep space.

United Planets Cruiser C-57D, traveling at 16 times the speed of light, and already more than a year out from Earth Base on a special mission to the Fourth World in The System of Alpha Aquilae, the great main-sequence star Altair…..

Right off in the initial two sentences, we have it confirmed that humanity first explored near space with chemically-fueled rockets, just as it would during the first decades of the Space Age. Then atomic space propulsion, which was apparently being used in tandem with chemical rockets, was finally perfected by the start of the 22nd Century. Nuclear rockets were considered by many space experts to be the next logical step in the attainment of outer space after their less sophisticated chemical ancestors. In reality, while several forms of nuclear propulsion were seriously investigated early on, such as NERVA and Orion, all the space powers have remained with various chemical and solid fuel boosters to the present day, though the nuclear option has never entirely left the table and may yet become a method in some form for taking us to the other planets as FP initially imagined.

Note the next sentences in the 1954 version of the narration:

Due to galactic distances, the fixed limits to expansion now appeared to have been reached. But at this moment – not for the first time in human history – another ancient “absolute” of science was found to have been illusory. Almost at once there followed the discovery of quanto-gravitetic hyper-drive, through which the speed of light was first attained, and later greatly surpassed…”

First, let me applaud the makers of Forbidden Planet for recognizing that the spaces between stars in the Milky Way galaxy are indeed very far apart, so much so that even a nuclear method of propulsion would mean that a starship could take centuries to reach the nearest suns. They should also be acknowledged for knowing what a galaxy actually is, a vast stellar “island” in space composed of many suns, ranging from several million to over one trillion in number, depending upon the type of galaxy. Current estimates of the amount of galaxies in the known Universe were recently scaled up from approximately fifty billion to over two trillion. The Milky Way is categorized by astronomers as a barred spiral galaxy containing about 400 billion stars spanning 100,000 light years across and roughly ten billion years in age.

In contrast, numerous science fiction films and television series long after FP made it clear that the folks involved in those productions – among their often many sins against scientific accuracy – did not know the vast difference between a solar system and a galaxy, nor did they apparently care enough to even conduct a simple fact check. Star Trek was not among those series caught in this grievous error, perhaps thanks once again to the influence of FP?

However, even the authors of the poorest of science fiction stories of the modern era knew that the stars were much farther from Earth than even the most distantly known worlds in our Sol system. Traveling to the nearest star systems would take many thousands of years with chemical rockets. For one real-world example, the twin Voyager space probes, lofted into space in 1977 to explore the outer Sol system and then be flung into the wider Milky Way to drift among the stars indefinitely, will take approximately 77,000 years to reach the distance to (but not the actual location of) the Alpha Centauri system, 4.3 light years away. Note that the Voyagers are among the fastest space vehicles yet launched by humanity.

Even with a vessel that could move at up to 99 percent of the speed of light (Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity will not let you travel at precisely light speed, or 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum), one-way trips to Sol’s closest neighbors will still take years, plus you have to take into account the deceleration time if you actually want to stop in one of those alien systems. Since most SF stories involving interstellar travel focus on human characters, beings with life spans averaging about 80 years long at present, authors and even scientists have been looking for clever ways to get around – or literally just break through – that barrier imposed by one of the greatest theoretical physicists in history.

One of the most popular methods for getting around light speed is the cosmic wormhole, also known as an Einstein-Rosen bridge, a structure capable of connecting two points in the fabric of spacetime no matter how distant in physical space. Either found naturally in space or created by highly advanced intelligences in SF, wormholes allow one to reach or communicate with virtually any place in the Universe almost instantaneously, saving so much travel and plot time. Wormholes are theoretically possible, however the Einstein-Rosen version can only last for the briefest of times before collapsing, rending them rather useless as a means of interstellar transportation. Also theoretical is the possibility for keeping wormholes stable and open using something called “exotic” matter.

The other means of avoiding the light speed barrier is the hyperdrive, probably best known to the modern general public via the Star Wars universe. As with so many other things in science fiction history, however, Forbidden Planet had its featured starship zipping across the galaxy at faster-than-light velocities over two decades before the Millennium Falcon burst out of Docking Bay 94 on Mos Eisley.

We never learn very much about the hyperdrive system on the C-57D, even though we actually get to see the drive’s main core as it is physically removed from the ship to help power that special transmitter to enable Adams to contact Earth Base, “to short-circuit the continuum on a five or six parsec level,” as it is put. We do find out that whatever is in the core is very radioactive, as Robby has to produce ten tons of special lead shielding to make a bunker strong enough to house it safely. The core also seems to be unaffected by a magnetic field, or at least the large electromagnet on the tractor used to lift and move it around.

As we have seen with the 1954 script version of the film’s opening narration, the C-57D’s hyperdrive is called quanto-gravitetic, which one may assume involves some kind of combination of gravity and quantum mechanics to create FTL propulsion. As quantum physics were relatively new to science when FP premiered and appeared to have particles often behave in ways directly opposite to those in our macroscopic world – even Einstein originally had issues with the seemingly “lawless” nature of that subatomic realm – it was undoubtedly ideal to incorporate it into futuristic technology involving vessels that needed to go at superluminal velocities. Quantum physics and mechanics terms were peppered throughout the film, along with other terminology that sounded relatively plausible in a 23rd Century setting, if not actually real. Star Trek would later apply this science fiction staple so often that it spawned its own term: Technobabble.

The interstellar vessels in Star Trek have their own version of hyperdrive known as warp drive (although the term did not originate with the franchise, I have to wonder if this wording was yet another example of series creator Gene Roddenberry once again trying to avoid seeming to go to the FP ideas and features well too often). Warp drive also avoided the pesky limitations set by physics using its propulsion technology to “warp” spacetime around a starship, creating a subspace “bubble” that allowed for FTL velocities.

Theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre conceived a version of warp drive in 1994 using plausible physics called the Alcubierre drive; however, the amount of negative energy or mass required to make it work was infeasible – because there is no scientific proof that negative energy or mass actually exist – and would not be solved by simply hoping that an ambiguous “someone” in an undetermined future would find the solution. Even an attempt by NASA researcher Harold White in a 2012 white paper to change the shape of the warp drive in order to reduce the amount of negative mass and energy did not remove the inherent problem, namely that reality is not going to just step out of the way because it may inconvenience or otherwise contradict human wants and needs – or conjure up a convenient solution also for the same reasons.

Which leads to this issue with that one particular phrase in the narration which had vanished by the time Forbidden Planet had premiered, namely: “But at this moment – not for the first time in human history – another ancient ‘absolute’ of science was found to have been illusory.”

It is true that many things humanity once thought were accurate in the field of science and related areas of knowledge have changed as our understanding and information-gathering techniques improved. That is, in fact, what science is all about: To observe and study the world, come up with hypotheses for particular phenomenon in need of explanations, test these ideas with experimentation and evidence, then come to certain conclusions once enough data and evidence have been collected. As this process is going on, it is the duty of the scientist to be as objective as possible, to consider only the evidence at hand along with information already considered to be accurate by science, and then present their conclusions to their peers based on their objective research. There the ideas and evidence are scrutinized even further to determine their scientific validity or not.

The scientific method can be a long and conservative process, but the first principle of this method, to quote theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman, “is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Feynman also said something I felt fit in quite well with the underlying concept of both hyper and warp drives, namely the literal avoidance of our reality and its physical laws so that humanity could visit Alpha Centauri at their convenience in mere hours or days, rather than years, decades, or centuries. Feynman said the following in a Sir Douglas Robb lecture at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in 1979:

“You’ll have to accept it. It’s the way nature works. If you want to know how nature works, we looked at it, carefully. Looking at it, that’s the way it looks. You don’t like it? Go somewhere else, to another universe where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy. I can’t help it, okay? If I’m going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to the human beings who have struggled as hard as they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like.”

One thing science does not want to do is deal in absolutes. If a previous conclusion is found to be in error based on solid data, it is replaced with the new data, not defended at all costs as if it were dogma.

Now no one should seriously assume that science’s practitioners are without various biases or flaws: Sometimes the very things that science is not supposed to be in fact do happen because of human imperfection, but the scientific method is designed to catch these issues and compensate for them. The method also recognizes that not only can phenomenon change over time and often does, but so do the techniques and technologies for measuring them, which can bring to light new information that could not have been known before.

The 1954 FP narration treated science more like religious dogma than the system which knows it can only peel away at the layers of existence in a never-ending effort to advance towards continually improving levels of accuracy. There also seems to have been a lack of deeper appreciation that the light speed barrier was not just another hurdle to overcome as humanity found new ways to move faster than ever.

This is understandable in one sense as most of the people who were involved with the film would have been direct witnesses, casual or otherwise, to the amazing technological leaps that took humans from the first crude airplanes to the dawn of the Space Age in just the first half of the Twentieth Century. No doubt one aeronautical event which had a large influence on this perception that merely increasing the velocity of a vessel would achieve literal new heights was the breaking of the sound barrier in October of 1947 by test pilot Chuck Yeager aboard a Bell X-1 rocket-engined powered aircraft. However, as explained previously, there is a huge difference between supersonic and superluminal flight, and not just in terms of miles or kilometers per hour.

The other skewed impression is not only that science operates in unshakeable absolutes but conversely that its main tenants will “naturally” be overcome by a future genius, usually a lone one bucking the system at that, who will have insights that no one thought of before and change everything for the better.

If one looks at history in a general manner as many do, for sadly they often do not go beyond the “bite-sized” single-perspective versions of our past usually doled out in school and through the popular media, it is easy to see how such a view comes about. Take the example of humanity’s historical thinking on our planet Earth’s literal place in the Universe. For many centuries the general consensus was that our globe was the center of existence, for one only had to look up at the sky, day or night, and with just a little patience clearly see that nearly everything up there constantly went around us. In the West this view was reinforced by the highest educational and political authority across the land, the Roman Catholic Church. They had adopted the thinking of two of their most respected scholars from antiquity who supported geocentrism, Aristotle and Ptolemy.

Then along came this astronomer priest named Nicholas Copernicus, who theorized this “wild” notion that would become to be known as heliocentrism that maybe it was the Sun that everything went about, including the “special” planet Earth. Copernicus’ concept would later be reinforced by an Italian astronomer named Galileo Galilei, thanks in no small part to this new invention called the telescope, and nearly at the cost of his very life by defying the Church authorities, who stuck to their literally antiquated notions about the heavens.

Of course while the basic elements of this story are accurate, the overall picture is much richer and more complex that what is usually presented. Then as now, no one operated in a vacuum and neither did the path from an Earth-centered Universe to a Sun-focused Sol system go in a seamless straight line: Politics and personal feelings were often key players in this pursuit of knowledge, for both good and ill.

It must also be noted that science as we understand and practice it was just getting its start during that era, with Galileo being among its first practitioners in the modern sense involving the use of observation and experimentation. Thus in theory at least it was easier for “absolute” ideas to be overturned in those days because the higher notions of antiquity were often grounded on philosophical thoughts reinforced by religious ideology, rather than solid physical evidence, generally speaking.

Should you want to know more about this pivotal point in human civilization, there is a wonderful multipart series titled “The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown”, which may be found on the blog The TOF Spot. It is a popular level read, but it is neither shallow nor simplistic.


So after all this you may still want to ask: Is there something better than science or different enough at figuring out the Universe in an objective manner and in the process might we learn either that FTL flight is possible and then find a way to make it happen? While one cannot say such a thing is impossible, the trick and key is finding such a method or coming up with one, plus staying as impartial as possible in the process. So far, while certain techniques and processes in science have changed over time, to say nothing of all the new knowledge we have gained along the way, the fundamentals involved figuring out our reality have remained intact after centuries of rigorous testing.

I would like to think this is the main reason why the filmmakers took out that opening narration phrase “another ancient ‘absolute’ of science was found to have been illusory” because they eventually realized how it misrepresented the actual techniques of science. Of course it could have been just as easily removed to make the introduction shorter and flow better.

You may also be asking yourself why fret over the concepts of hyperdrives and warp drives since this is, after all, science fiction. I give you these answers: For one, many people are both outright “educated” and heavily influenced by the offerings of the cinema and other entertainment media, no matter how good or bad they truly are, whether one wants to accept this or not. FP and its descendant Star Trek, along with so many other related science fiction, have long implanted in the minds of many of all intellectual stripes that this is how humanity will achieve the stars, by someone or some group in the future “naturally” developing one of these FTL drives even though physics have shown just how complex and difficult if not outright impossible they are to achieve.

This is both intellectually and culturally “dangerous” in that many viewers do not delve into the physics and technology of FTL propulsion, or slower-than-light (STL) propulsion for that matter, and therefore are trusting that Hollywood is being both accurate and honest on the subject. The other problem is that these same folks also presume that either future humans (I am looking at you, Interstellar) or altruistic aliens will one day come along and automatically give us these things, saving present humanity from all the thinking, studying, and general hard work that are otherwise required for such advances.

Now yes, there is a non-zero chance that this is indeed how we end up with some kind of FTL drive to ply the starways with. However, just how wise is it for the development of our species and civilization to pin our future on beings who we do not know with any certainty will in fact do such a thing or that they even exist at all. Waiting around for someone else to uplift us is often the road to stagnation and worse whether others dwell in our galaxy and our future or not.

Focusing on FTL drives also takes the focus of science and engineering away from the numerous STL propulsion methods that quite frankly make up in terms of actually working what they may otherwise lack in terms of speed and the dream of crossing the galaxy with the same amount of ease and lengths of time that we now do with aircraft. This is critical because while STL concepts have better chances of happening that FTL methods, they are not without their own challenges.

For example, nuclear fusion, which powers the stars and is the propulsion method of choice for robotic star probe projects such as Daedalus and its successor, Icarus, has been incredibly difficult to reproduce a controlled version of outside of hydrogen bombs. Even after decades of research and billions spent for funding, we still have not been able to maintain a controlled nuclear fusion reaction for more than a matter of seconds, and we are talking about doing this for “only” a terrestrial power plant, not a starship engine. The Breakthrough Starship concept which has received so much press of late, and rightly so, requires among its technologies a very powerful laser, more advanced than any laser which has been made so far. Even the nuclear fission pulse propulsion project called Orion, the one STL method for reaching the stars that could be built with current technology, has largely been hampered by social and political fears. I have not yet mentioned even more sophisticated concepts such an antimatter, which has one big hurdle of costing absurd amounts of money for even a single gram of its key ingredient.

So while I am not opposed to research into hyperdrives and warp drives and any other method that can exceed the speed of light for a space vessel, I am concerned when they are focused on by the public, scientists, and technologists to the exclusion of the methods that are perceived as less glamorous, when in fact these STL propulsion proposals are quite fascinating and, dare I say, “sexy” in their own right – not to mention more likely to happen. There are several good reasons why the hyperdrive design of the C-57D is left to the imagination, however they do not help us if we really do want to be exploring the galaxy via starships by the 23rd Century or even sooner. Otherwise everything we have seen on the big and not-so-big screens along with all the SF literature on the subject will remain far more fantasy than science.

Now About the Rest of the C-57D

Although the C-57D stands out in its own way as much as Robby does in Forbidden Planet, there is much about this manned interstellar cruiser that remains a mystery for us, the viewing audience. One prominent example are the large battery of weapons the starship possesses, ranging from an apparent armory of blaster pistols and rifles to atomic cannons that can fire neutron beams loaded with three billion electron volts which can be used either in space or dismounted from the ship and put into field combat on a planet’s surface.

Now my question is why does the C-57D have so much weaponry? Is the galaxy in the FP universe that dangerous? Is the United Planets organization just really cautious when it comes to exploring deep space and ramps up their defenses as much a possible? Does a future defense contractor have a really lucrative deal going on with the UP? Is the UP more of a militaristic empire than is let on? A combination of all these possibilities perhaps? Note that in the 1954 script, Adams refers to the space cruiser as the “newest fighting ship in the service.”

The first item one might consider, based on so much other science fiction that has come both before and especially after FP, is that humans are not alone in the Milky Way galaxy when it comes to fellow intelligent creatures. As with our Universe, if these ETI are not in the habit of broadcasting their presence into the wider galaxy – or at least not doing so very loudly or often – then humanity may only run across them as we directly explore each new star system. Since each species may come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and types, along with thoughts and behaviors that could be equally as diverse as we can imagine, it may only be prudent to arm our starships with an array of defensive weaponry to be used only as a last resort.

But here is the thing: The galaxy in FP appears to be lacking in alien intelligences within the formal boundaries and explored limits of the United Planets, at least until the C-57D came upon Altair 4 and its former inhabitants, the Krell. Every being aboard the cruiser is a white human English-speaking male from Earth (and very likely American at that); there is not even a token ETI (or human woman) as was found on Federation starships from the very first pilot episode of Star Trek.

The released film version of Forbidden Planet gives some hints that non-human intelligences are unknown in and to the United Planets. Even the opening narration from the 1954 script only refers to humanity (using the older term “mankind”) when declaring just who “banded together in a single federation” to “[begin] the conquest and colonization of deep space.” In addition, recall that Cook complained upon arriving at Altair 4 about visiting yet another alien planet that indicated if many of them known to the UP were not outright devoid of substantial life, then they certainly seemed to lack a number of the basic expectations of human civilization – or at least Cook’s take on the subject.

Quoting Cook from the 1954 script:

“I’ve seen these so-called new worlds. No taverns, no dance halls – no civilization at all, not even a bingo parlor! Nothin’ for a man to do but stand off and chuck rocks at a tin can – and you bring your tin can.”

However, in an early scene that was filmed but edited out before FP was sent to the theaters (nor is it to be found in the 1954 script), the three main officers of the C-57D wonder aloud to each other why the crew of the Bellerophon has remained radio silent for the last twenty years. In the process it is made explicit by Captain Adams that humanity has yet to encounter an ETI, or at the very least one that is not already extinct.

The dialogue:

Adams: “Did you ever ask yourself why they never sent word back?”

Farman: “Oh, they might have cracked up on landing.”

Adams: “Or they could have made man’s first contact with an alien race.” [Emphasis added.]

Doc: “You think aliens would necessarily be hostile?”

Adams: “No, they could be anything from archangels to man-eating spiders. Or a combination of both.”

This exchange also had the bonus of giving us the combined insight into how at least one branch of their society conceives of ETI and where they view aliens in terms of being either a friend or foe. Now granted, this is the perspective of one group of professionals whose training and membership in a quasi-militaristic organization no doubt skews things towards treating all unknowns as potential threats until proven otherwise. Nevertheless, when venturing into such a wilderness more wild and unpredictable than any environment on Earth, where help may literally be light years away, such a defensive posture is a logical choice.

There is one possible flaw in the above-stated logic: Would any government and/or military-industrial complex spend so much in terms of the obviously large amounts of money, time, and resources required to equip a fleet of starships with such advanced and powerful weaponry – as displayed multiple times with C-57D during the film – to deal with a threat for which up until the mission to Altair 4 there was no solid evidence of? And yes, I am assuming here that, pre-Krell, there was no evidence in the FP universe for ETI, either alive or extinct.

Now of course the economic system in the future society of FP could operate somewhat differently from our current economies. After all, it is implied that humanity works together as one big group (“banded together in a single federation”) probably based on the United Nations model and combined with the resources of our entire Sol system (which was in humanity’s reach by the start of the 23rd Century, according to the opening narration) and probably others, funding a sophisticated weapons program to guard against a hypothetical – but by no means impossible — enemy may not be an issue.

So who else might the United Planets be concerned enough about to outfit their space cruisers with atomic cannons and other such powerful weapons of the future? Again, we know rather little about the makeup and structure of the United Planets, but if it is composed only of multiple human colony worlds over a section of the Milky Way galaxy with Earth Base as its capital/headquarters, then the obvious focus would be the colonies.

Just as our terrestrial civilization requires police and military forces to maintain order, enforce laws, and quell dissent in certain cases, undoubtedly the UP would require them as well. With members as whole civilized societies being spread out on multiple alien worlds across distances measured in light years, a fleet of FTL starships carrying their own armories and piloted by a crew trained in a military fashion similar to those who serve aboard submarines would be required to maintain such a “federation”. As with the potential for some ETI being a threat to the UP, some colonies might also have the potential to cause problems for the overall governing body as dictated by human history. Even with the ability to physically reach distant star systems at superlight speeds and conduct interstellar communications in a matter of days, maintaining such an undoubtedly complex and widespread organization as a single cooperative body poses certain challenges. These would include the potential for some colonies to want to become independent and possibly uncooperative as a result, disrupting the UP whether intentionally or otherwise.

Now I do not really want to imply that the United Planets is some kind of hegemony or budding galactic empire. As has been stated before, it is hard to know very much about the UP based solely on the one film, so inferences must be made. I would like to think the UP has numerous operational, legal, and ethical similarities to the main governing body in the Star Trek franchise, the closely named United Federation of Planets (UFP), minus the abundance of non-human race members as found in the latter.

Borrowing from real history, many early maritime expeditions from Europe to the New World (North and South America) were primarily military in nature. Their missions were most often to secure territory, provide protection for their existing colonies from hostile forces both real and potential, and ensure that their colonists remain loyal to the main governing body across the seas. Some early plans for space exploration and colonization focused on such concepts as building military bases on the Moon by the two main superpowers of the Cold War to secure Earth’s natural satellite for themselves. They considered the Moon to be the ultimate “high ground” from which to launch a sneak attack, although any vessel coming from there would have taken several days to reach the home planet, thus diluting the surprise element. Even the later “peaceful” race to place the first human on the Moon, while touted as being primarily about exploration and science, existed largely due to geopolitical and military factors. The very rockets used in this endeavor and throughout the two space programs were themselves very much a product of World War 2 weapons development.

I am also basing my speculation on several contemporary sources of science fiction which may have been an influence on the filmmakers. A prime example is the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, which depicts a Galactic Empire composed solely of humans descended from the planet Earth, with no other intelligent species existing in the Milky Way galaxy.

Another example was a program from the radio series X Minus One titled “Skulking Permit”, written by Robert Sheckley. First released in the same year as FP, the plot revolves around a small human colony on some backwater exoplanet that had been isolated from the rest of humanity for over two centuries until the current governing body from Earth contacts them as part of their “reclaiming” process of all their former interstellar colonies. Once a “United Democracy”, the new rulers of humanity’s birth world emerged after some kind of major conflict as a totalitarian regime calling itself Imperial Earth. In addition to retaking the human colonies, Imperial Earth is also looking among them for new recruits as “cannon fodder” to help quash several rebellious worlds.

While there are apparently ETI in the universe of “Skulking Permit”, none are ever seen or interacted with during our brief glimpse of their reality, although the imperial government is clearly hostile to their existence and enforces a Humans First policy, much like the Terran Federation in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. They also have a form of FTL propulsion for their starships which they call Overdrive, though following tradition, no details about how it works are ever provided.

Although this story is generally light in tone on its surface – the rural agrarian folks of the planet New Delaware have gone without most of the trappings of civilization such as written laws, religion, public education, and a postal service for generations and are doing just fine – “Skulking Permit” does make some pointed comments about human society. This includes the possibility that our species may become the aggressors when we expand into the galaxy, rather than some other intelligent species as most stories on this subject depict.

You may listen to the original program here:


And read the radio play transcript here:


What’s for Lunch? And Where’s the Bathroom?

Among the many items that every manned space expedition has to address in order to succeed, there are two which must be on their itinerary: Feeding the crew and what to do with their eventual biological waste.

Addressing the latter item first, we never learn how they manage waste material aboard the C-57D, but then again neither was it something crucial to the plot. More directly, this particular issue was seldom addressed in American cinema at the time, being considered rather unseemly. Even the primary instrument most often used to remove bodily waste, the toilet, rarely appeared on film: Supposedly the first time a toilet was seen being flushed on the big screen happened in 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Psycho. The Star Trek franchise carried on this cultural attitude in a sense as it became a running joke among fans that no one ever saw a toilet or even a bathroom on the Enterprise and wondered how the crew took care of their “business”. Some Trekkers later “took care” of this pseudo-conundrum by creating a variety of starship blueprints that depicted full bathrooms with their resident toilets.

During the flight from Earth to Altair 4, one may assume that the waste was vented from the cruiser’s plumbing system directly into interstellar space. Otherwise I cannot imagine them storing either the biological byproducts or the general trash produced by twenty healthy men over the course of a year in a vessel just 170 feet across and 40 feet high – and then do the same thing all the way back home. I also have to wonder if the C-57D contained some method of vaporizing the crew’s waste, for when the officers first visited Morbius’ home, they were familiar with the “household disintegrator beam” that Morbius demonstrated. This device may be a common way to remove waste throughout their culture, be it a home or a starship.

Ejecting waste directly into space is what has been done on many real manned space missions, though with the vast majority of these flights staying in Earth orbit since the first manned launch in 1961, they had both their biological waste and other refuse dropped into our planet’s atmosphere, where it burned up upon entry. Dumping a relatively small amount of waste in the vastness of interstellar space as United Planets starships might do may not be an issue because of the huge volumes of literally empty space between the stars. To an Earth-bound reader of the early 21st Century this may seem like a step backwards after decades of education on protecting the environment from pollution, but jetliners and maritime vessels still routinely dispose of their biological waste overboard on our far more finite ball of rock for the practical reasons of saving on space and weight. At least compared to the last century in our world, we have done some major improvements in cleaning up the environment, though the struggle is far from over.

As to the question of waste management while the C-57D was stationed on Altair 4, I would assume the UP has some kind of planetary protection protocols in place so as not to contaminate an alien world with terrestrial refuse any more than necessary, especially a planet that has never been directly visited by the UP before. This would mean that the crew’s biological waste and general trash would have to be kept stored aboard the ship until their departure, when they could “safely” dispose of it in the depths of interstellar space, assuming no other disposal methods were already in place.

I realize I am speaking about biological contamination and waste management from a 21st Century perspective in regards to a science fiction film made when “mere” terrestrial pollution social awareness for the general public, businesses, and government officials was just starting to happen. Nevertheless, there is a need to ponder these things regardless of the source for we will be exploring the galaxy in one form or another some day. There will be multiple reasons to be prudent with our “carbon footprint” both for conducting science and the ethics of interacting with any and all extraterrestrial life we may come up.

Now in regards to the food supply aboard the C-57D, somehow the UP has obviously solved the hurdle of feeding twenty adult male human beings three square meals every day for over one year (two years, actually, if you count the trip back and assume that the mission planners did not want to rely on the crew finding enough food at their destination) aboard a vessel that has nowhere to go to restock during its nearly 17 light-year journey between Earth and Altair 4. We can safely presume there were no places to make a pit stop for any reason thanks to the multiple mentions of the crew being cooped up in the cruiser for 378 days.

Correlating the information from various sources on the Internet, the average American consumes about two thousand pounds of food each year, or about six pounds of food averaging 2,700 calories each day. Of course this average American is also unconstrained in terms of where they live and move about compared to a C-57D crewmember in deep space. This same average person also devours large amounts of what would be labeled “junk” food and drinks, items that would probably be banned from the cruise for health reasons. They might even be absent from 23rd Century society in general for the same reasons, although the 1954 script describes the ship officers enjoying after-lunch cigars at Morbius’ home. We must keep in mind that in the era when FP premiered, smoking cigarettes, cigars, and pipes were a commonplace activity in society and their various negative health effects were just beginning to be recognized by the medical field.

Even if the crew were mandated to just two or even one meal each day, that would still require a fair deal of sufficient and balanced food to keep twenty young people alive and healthy for so long. How would they also be able to store that much food aboard the starship and still have enough room to store their other needs and equipment plus be able to move about the ship? From our views of the interior of the C-57D, the main deck appears rather uncongested in terms of containers and storage bins, so that means other parts of the cruiser would be required to hold the necessary victuals. However, that also means an even greater physical restriction on how much food could be carried aboard the vessel.

One suggestion to this problem is to produce food in pill form, a very popular trend in the 20th Century’s depiction of the future. In the 1955 science fiction film Conquest of Space, based on realistic plans for manned space missions by Wernher von Braun and others, astronauts preparing for flights into deep space had to consume all their meals in pill form. Unfortunately for FP, however, this would not explain Cook’s role aboard the cruiser, for he clearly prepares and cooks actual whole meals for the crew. Nor would it make sense even if Cook’s primary job were to dispense the food pills to the crew, for such an activity would be a waste of a crewmember on a ship where it has already been made clear that space and resources are at a premium.

Or, perhaps like today’s military, the C-57D stores the equivalent of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. These have the advantage of being both compact and staying preserved without requiring special equipment until ready for consumption. However, the fact that MREs do not require either refrigeration or special preparations would take Cook out of the loop once again in terms of serving a key purpose aboard the cruiser.

Another possibility is a food replicator. Now this one at least has some basis in the actual film. In the scenes where the ship’s officers first visit Morbius at his home and were invited to stay for lunch, this exchange occurs:

Farman: “Whatever that lunch was, it was certainly delicious.”

Morbius: “Simply some of Robby’s synthetics.”

Adams: “He’s your cook too?”

Morbius: “Even manufactures the raw materials. Come around here, Robby. I’ll show you how this works. One introduces a sample of human food through this aperture. Here there’s a small built-in chemical laboratory where he analyzes it. Later he can reproduce identical molecules in any shape or quantity.”

Adams: “Why, it’s a housewife’s dream.”

In addition to learning that the traditional woman’s role of a housewife still exists in the 23rd Century and that Farman seems to find the fare at Morbius’ place preferable to whatever he has been eating for the last 378 days aboard the space cruiser, we and the officers learn that Robby’s abilities go far beyond those of chauffer and translator to include food maker and chef. Adams et al seem more surprised and impressed by the fact that Robby can make consumables and prepare them as a robot rather than the ability to create and cook meals via a device designed for those tasks.

Now again this does not prove that there is a food replicator aboard the C-57D, only that the technology for such a device does exist in their time – unless it is somehow unique to Robby via Krell technology. We know that a galley exists aboard the cruiser along with several instances of seeing Cook with traditional culinary instruments such as metal pots and pans. Cook wears a white hat and white apron in all but one scene he is in. There is also the scene where Cook uses the excuse of rustling up “a few wild radishes or something” on Altair 4 to “brighten the boys’ mess up a bit” so he can leave the ship’s landing site perimeter and meet clandestinely with Robby to receive his order of Kansas City Bourbon. Note that earlier when Cook initially asks Robby if he can make the alcohol, he explains that it is “just for cooking purposes. I take a big pride in my duties.” Cook may be using these items to cover his true intentions, but they do reveal that there is actual food and drink aboard the star cruiser in some form or another, which Cook has to prepare for the rest of the crew on a regular basis.

One thing does seem certain: If there is a food replicator on the C-57D, it either cannot make alcohol or there is a strict regulation against producing such liquids, though paradoxically (and with the resultant accompanying concern) there is clearly no rule against drinking any alcohol a crewman might bring along on a mission, as Cook having been down to his last swallow of bourbon attests. Otherwise, Cook would not have gone begging to Robby to make some for him and risking potential disciplinary action from Commander Adams in the process. I also find it a bit ironic that while Robby is programmed not to harm a human or allow one to come to harm, he still produces a dangerously large volume of alcohol for Cook (and maybe other crewmen?). In addition, where did Cook think he was going to store/hide all those pint bottles, unless he planned on leaving these drinks right where Robby delivered them for the duration of the mission? Robby also either ignores or misses the overall lie when Cook tells him the bourbon is for cooking purposes only.

If there is one liquid which none of the human crew can do without, it is water. To store all the water needed for the mission would be even more prohibitive than the food, so some kind of recycling method has to exist on the C-57D. Might the crew have to recycle their own urine to create drinkable water, as is happening at present with the astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station (ISS)? While there has always been a degree of psychological distaste in the concept, it is a completely feasible and safe method to procure that most essential of all liquids and one that likely had to be accepted by the crew as much as they accepted giving up various degrees of personal space and privacy in order to serve aboard a starship.

The crew of the C-57D may have the advantage of not needing to worry about consumables thanks to seemingly magical 23rd Century technology, but in our foreseeable near future, real manned missions to nearby worlds in our Sol system such as Mars will not be able to do the equivalent of “warp driving” around the issue. NASA is in fact still working on how to feed a crew perhaps one-third the size of the FP star cruiser for approximately two years, coincidentally about the same duration of time as the C-57D mission to and from Altair 4. Watch this video to learn about the obstacles being tackled to keep a sufficient supply of nutritious food preserved all the way to the Red Planet and back. https://youtu.be/GGmaXX59aq8

If we are having these kinds of essential issues with journeys to places that are the equivalent of our celestial backyard, how will this affect manned interstellar missions? Again, it is easy to just assume that someone or some group in the future will solve these problems, but to paraphrase an old saying, speculation is cheap. Besides, human needs in these situations go well beyond just eating, drinking, and the maintenance of bodily waste – even for a fictional starship crew in one possible future – as we shall discuss next.



Cometary Origins

We’ve learned a great deal about comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko thanks to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission. What stands out to me is the fact that 40 percent of the comet, in terms of mass, is made up of organic compounds — combinations of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen. These ‘building blocks’ of life on Earth are readily available and could have been delivered over and over again through our planet’s long impact history.

But where did the organic compounds themselves come from? Jean-Loup Bertaux (CNRS / UPMC / Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines), working with Rosine Lallement (Observatoire de Paris / CNRS / Université Paris Diderot), has put forth the idea that the organics formed in interstellar space long before the formation of the Solar System.

The idea no longer seems as startling as it once might have, thanks to our continuing study of what are called diffuse interstellar bands, or DIBs. Revealed by spectroscopic studies, these are absorptions at specific wavelengths that turn up in the spectra of various astronomical objects, caused by the absorption of light in the interstellar medium. DIBs began to be recorded in the early 1900s, with over 100 of them being identified from the ultraviolet through the near infrared.

Image: Relative strengths of known diffuse interstellar bands. Credit: NASA/ Peter Jenniskens.

Diffuse interstellar bands appear to show organic material, found in most cases in roughly the same proportions wherever they are observed. In dense clouds of matter like those that will spawn stars, however, DIB absorption drops.

The mechanism? Bertaux and Lallement believe the organic molecules that produce DIBs clump together in such dense environments, and the clumped matter absorbs less radiation than the free-floating matter. “The decrease of DIB during line–of-sight crossings of the dense cores of interstellar clouds,” the authors write, “and the simultaneous steepening of the Far UV part of the reddening curve suggest that DIB carriers coagulate and are constituent of the very small grains eventually preserved in comets.”

In other words, organic molecules from the interstellar medium would have been conserved as the early nebula around growing young stars like the Sun coalesced, and would gradually have been incorporated into cometary nuclei, as comets like 67P/CG formed through the gradual accretion of grains of growing size. The authors also note that the ratio of organics could be increased by other organic molecules in the interstellar medium that do not show up in DIBs.

Image: The nucleus of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko (“Chury”) as seen by the European Rosetta space probe. Credit: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.

We’re dealing with pristine material, for the organics would have remained in the comets ever since their formation 4.6 billion years ago. The prospect for future missions is that we should be able to fetch a sample of these materials that could help us understand their true identity. If they are interstellar in origin, then the same materials should have been delivered to many systems. Thus the dust of comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko gives us clues to an interstellar absorption feature that could mark the spread of organic compounds throughout the galaxy.

The paper is Bertaux & Lallement, “Diffuse Interstellar Bands carriers and cometary organic material,” published by Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 31 August 2017 (abstract).



Juno: Auroral Activity on Jupiter Up Close

While we track hurricane Irma and its path of devastation in the Caribbean, another kind of storm is affecting the skies over more northerly areas. A strong geomagnetic storm watch continues in effect, making it possible that the aurora borealis — northern lights — will be visible further south than usual, in Scotland and southern Scandinavia but perhaps into the continental United States as well, while the aurora australis could be active for those in the more southerly latitudes below the equator. All of this is due to sunspot AR2673, which is the source of a flare and coronal mass ejection hurled out of the Sun on Monday.

I’ve seen the northern lights in Iceland on one spectacular October night, but only once — in Iowa, in 1970 — have I seen them in the US. The phenomenon results from electrons accelerated as they encounter the Earth’s magnetosphere, following the magnetic field lines to the polar regions, where from 500 kilometers down to 80 kilometers up, they collide with oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere. People have described the resulting effect as a rippling curtain, sometimes white, sometimes in shifting colors, which is what I saw in Iceland.

The segue here is to the Juno spacecraft, which is giving us data about the powerful energies swirling around Jupiter’s polar regions, contributing to that planet’s own auroral patterns. Juno made its seventh science flyby on September 1 at 21:49 UTC, with perijove (the point in its orbit when it is closest to the center of the planet) at about 3500 kilometers above the cloud tops.

Juno’s ultraviolet spectrograph and energetic-particle detector instruments are showing us how powerful electrical potentials aligned with the planet’s magnetic field are accelerating electrons into the atmosphere at energies of up to 400,000 volts. This turns out to be 10 to 30 times higher than the largest auroral potentials we’ve ever observed in Earth’s auroras.

Image: This is a reconstructed view of Jupiter’s northern lights through the filters of Juno’s ultraviolet imaging spectrometer (UVS) instrument on Dec. 11, 2016, as the Juno spacecraft approached Jupiter, passed over its poles, and plunged towards the equator. Such measurements present a real challenge for the spacecraft’s science instruments: Juno flies over Jupiter’s poles at 50 kilometers per second, speeding past auroral forms in a matter of seconds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI.

Given that Jupiter was already known to generate the most spectacular auroras in the Solar System, this comes as no surprise. What does raise the eyebrows is that despite the size of these electrical potentials, they do not appear to be the source of the most intense auroras, as they are at the Earth. Barry Mauk (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory) leads the team handling the spacecraft’s Jupiter energetic particle detector Instrument:

“At Jupiter, the brightest auroras are caused by some kind of turbulent acceleration process that we do not understand very well,” said Mauk. “There are hints in our latest data indicating that as the power density of the auroral generation becomes stronger and stronger, the process becomes unstable and a new acceleration process takes over. But we’ll have to keep looking at the data.”

Image: This image, created with data from Juno’s ultraviolet imaging spectrometer, marks the path of Juno’s readings of Jupiter’s auroras, highlighting the electron measurements that show the discovery of the so-called discrete auroral acceleration processes indicated by the “inverted Vs” in the lower panel. This signature points to powerful magnetic-field-aligned electric potentials that accelerate electrons toward the atmosphere to energies that are far greater than what drive the most intense aurora at Earth. Scientists are looking into why the same processes are not the main factor in Jupiter’s most powerful auroras. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI.

We can take advantage of the extreme conditions at Jupiter to study what happens when charged particles are accelerated to the immense energies on display in Juno’s data, which gives us insights into how distant astrophysical systems operate. But understanding Jupiter’s radiation belts is likewise a key challenge for the near-term, because spacecraft operating in the vicinity of the giant planet, as we want to do when we examine its Galilean moons, face the problem of engineering solutions to withstand these radiation levels.

Space weather, in other words, turns out to be valuable for the lessons it provides on protecting instruments and future astronauts in conditions as harsh as these. So if you do see the aurora borealis or australis tonight, or if you did last night, keep in mind that the comparative study of Earth and Jupiter’s magnetosphere seems to be showing new processes at work at the highest energy levels. That’s all to the good for planetary physics and the health of future missions.

The paper is Mauk et al., “Discrete and broadband electron acceleration in Jupiter’s powerful aurora,” Nature 549 (7 September 2017), pp. 66-69 (abstract).