by Ricky Young
With seven films outstanding in our look-back at the 1983 BBC2 sci-fi season, should we perhaps turn from our never-ending vigilance against external dangers (such as wrenches and communists), and instead take some time to contemplate the monster that is Man himself? What lessons can we learn about our nature via these Technicolor messages from our own recent past? Well, if 1955’s Conquest Of Space is anything to go by, lesson #1 today is ‘religion is for unstable, murderous nutcases’, so thanks for all the pressing updates on that, Dawkins, you charmless little tit.
Produced and directed, respectively, by 50s sci-fi greats George Pal (who oversaw When Worlds Collide from Part 1) and Byron Haskin (who would go on to helm Robinson Crusoe on Mars, from Part 2), Conquest of Space might not be the oldest of the films we’ve rewatched, but it has a tone and feel of something made considerably earlier. Oh, and it’s loopier than a hipster’s earlobes, but have no fear – we’ll get to that.
It is the 1980s, both onscreen and off. The Wheel is a revolving Earth-orbit space-station, commanded by hard-nosed Colonel Merritt. (Promoted, presumably, over his long-term rival Major Inneppt. Quite how Merritt has forged this stellar career is unclear – prone to scripture-addled babbling, going incendiary at any sign of weakness amongst his men, and forcing his milquetoast son to join up and be his aide-de-camp? He’s a loon, in other words.) As well as the station’s crew, he also commands a small group of space-ship builders, an ethnically-diverse bunch who for some reason have to sit in the mess and eat dinner-in-pill-form (from a enviable dinner-in-pill-form lazy-susan) while the other grunts tuck into huge chicken dinners all around them.
They’ve been hard at work, constructing a large and menacing vehicle that now sits alongside The Wheel, purpose unknown. But when an inspector pops up from Earth to look over a bit of recent meteor damage, he tells Merritt that alongside his promotion to General, he has orders to take the new ship on a resource-finding (i.e. planet-rape) mission. To Mars!
Around this point, you’ll have got used to the archaic-feeling dialogue, strained and stiff relationships between the characters and frantic ‘ethnic’ mugging, especially from rubber-faced Italian-American Sgt. Seigle. But as General Merritt selects his four-man mission crew, Sgt Imoto steps forward, and explains his reasons for wanting to go, which needs quoted in full.
Some years ago, my country chose to fight a terrible war. It was bad — I do not defend it — but there were reasons. Somehow, those reasons are never spoken of. To the Western world at that time, Japan was a fairybook nation — little people living in a strange land of rice-paper houses, people who had almost no furniture, who sat on the floor and ate with chopsticks. The quaint houses of rice paper, sir — they were made of paper because there was no other material available. And the winters in Japan are as cold as they are in Boston. And the chopsticks… there was no metal for forks and knives and spoons, but slivers of wood could suffice. So it was with the little people of Japan, little as I am now, because for countless generations we have not been able to produce the food to make us bigger. Japan’s yesterday will be the world’s tomorrow — too many people and too little land. That is why I say, sir, there is urgent need for us to reach Mars: to provide the resources the human race will need, if they are to survive. That is also why I am most grateful to be found acceptable, sir. I volunteer.
Yeah, backing slowly away from a film was a first for me, too.
We’re firmly into the realm of the ultra-weird here, not helped by a pre-mission shindig including a full musical number beamed from Earth (featuring an unbilled Rosemary Clooney), one of the crewmen receiving a tearful message from his Austrian mother (just as well, as he gets it in the neck later on) and Sgt. Seigle getting dumped by his blowsy, Earthbound paramour to peals of laughter from his crewmates. The bozo.
So we’re off to Mars! Okay, so it turns out a previously-turned-down friend of the General and WW2-esque stock Irish bull sergeant has stowed away, but he just slots into the space left by the mummy’s boy, who as noted comes off second in a tussle with a meteor. But to be honest, as most of the journey to Mars seems to consist of ‘sitting around, bitching and smoking’, I was glad of the excitement.
Now, have you ever contemplated the theological implications inherent to interplanetary space travel? I haven’t, even during all those months I spent aboard the ISS as curate. But while it was a minor intellectual talking-point in the earlier part of the 20th century, by the time the 50s rolled around, it was a rightful irrelevance. Not to the General, however – as the last half-hour of the film kicks in, the commander of the first human mission to Mars decides that the whole enterprise is a hideous blasphemy, and tries to sabotage it, crash-landing the ship. He even tries to rupture the fuel-lines needed to get home, but his son discovers him – there’s a tussle, and the General is killed.
The damage is done, however. They have to wait a year for a launch window, and by goodness the last section of the film feels like one. Eventually it snows on Christmas Day, giving the crew the water they need to survive (and boringly, ‘confirmation’ that God is with them after all) and they manage to take off, all pals again – traditional sci-fi hard stop – FIN.
Conquest of Space is a mess – the intent was to inject realism into the genre, but without anything near a consistency of tone, a script that lurches from broad comedy to Pal’s trademark religious portentousness in the blink of an eye, and performances that range from slate-blank to gibberingly nutty – and was a well-deserved flop that put back the careers of everyone involved, including kyboshing Pal’s plans to make a When Worlds Collide sequel. But it’s all on YouTube, so fill your space-boots if you dare!
(As it turns out, Conquest of Space isn’t really that accurate a title, although Tentative Toe-Dipping Into Space Then Running Home When It Gets Too Much would have looked silly on the posters. Similarly, no worlds collided in When Worlds Collide, that it was a Fantastic Voyage was definitely a matter of opinion, and Silent Running had Bruce Dern honking about the place like a freshly-punched mule. Shall we move on? Agreed.)
Only a year later saw the release of Forbidden Planet, and as the United Planets Cruiser C57-D approaches the planet Altair IV, an awed crewmember looks upon this new Eden and exclaims ‘God sure did make some pretty planets!’ as if it was accepted doctrine. So all that fuss in Conquest was for nothing.
Forbidden Planet is the one everybody remembers, with Leslie Nielsen as the investigating Commander Adams, Robbie the Robot waddling around as comedy relief/menace, Anne Francis in a variety of skimpy outfits and all the vividly-coloured Jetsons-style sets you could ever want. Plus, it happily avoided the production-date-in-aspic realism trap by making no pretence at realism in the slightest. I recall loving it at the time – compared to some of the thin early-50s gruel in the season, Forbidden Planet is a luscious tableau of gorgeous images, design and sound (or ‘Electronic Tonalities’, as the credits have it) – but for all that the script is famously (yet loosely) based on The Tempest, that it’s resolutely stagey, bloodless and often verging-on-incoherent had passed my 9-year-old self by. To be fair, I’m not sure that kid’s very bright.
Nielsen commands an Earth ship looking for survivors of a mission lost on this planet 20 years before. He finds only Dr. Morbius (a thinks-he’s-in-The-Tempest-on-Broadway Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (or ‘Alta’; it’s never made clear), and a robot servant, all of whom are problematic in different ways. Morbius, because he’s a black-hat villain whose explanations as to the whereabouts of all the other survivors just don’t cut it, and whose habit of lightly threatening the crewmen just screams ‘baddie’; Altaira, because she’s a flighty little minx who has half the crew tongue-tied with primitive and knuckle-dragging lust; and Robbie the Robot, whose suspiciously advanced design is, like all the missing survivors, indicative of a Mystery To Be Solved.
It’s not a brilliant mystery. Morbius holds the key to the remnants of an age-old civilisation known as the Krell, who advanced to great power before being brought down by their own subconscious desires. Those pesky subconscious desires! It’s a hard lesson to learn – despite being interstellar travellers at this point, the crewmen are still thought to be liable to running off and humping anything in a skirt, hence the rather jaw-dropping warning to Altaira to put some clothes on for her own safety. Not that it stops them, or her, for that matter. The sudden onset of sexual – and sexy! – tension sets off Morbius in a fashion you would call Oedipal if it had the courage of its convictions. It doesn’t, however, so nothing ever quite makes sense from about the half-way point of the film.
Unluckily for Adams and his men, Morbius doesn’t just ground Altaira or stop her pocket-money. No, he uses the Krell brain-boosting technology to conjure up a terrifying invisible monster made from his own psyche to sabotage the C-57D, and then when that gets boring, murder the crew. But – and it’s a huge ‘but’, for an acknowledged genre classic – the film is incredibly coy about the extent to which Morbius is controlling his actions, and thus where our sympathies should lie. Yes, the crew are a bunch of interchangeable lunk-heads who could do with a bit of limb-from-limb-style thinning-out, but Morbius is a prissy, creepy martinet with a god complex. Are the Krell pushing him towards his actions, or is he just an aggrieved father? If his subconscious is so very keen on having his alien paradise left alone, why is he doing his utmost to make the investigators suspicious – from murdering them to breaking their damn space-ship?
We never find out. It’s all too much for Morbius’ brain, in the end, and he decides on his deathbed that if he can’t handle it, then nobody can, and sets the planet to explode. The rest of the crew escapes in the C-57D, and they watch the fireworks from afar – Adams tightly holding on to Altaira, partly to make her feel better, partly to fend off all the other horndogs under his command.
Hugely influential on the genre – it’s hard to imagine Star Trek without it, for instance – and a feast for (most of) the senses, Forbidden Planet never really escapes either its pulp roots or the stranglehold of the censor at the time. It does stand as an important warning to future generations, however, about the dangers of mixing space exploration and poontang.
Sticking with hugely regarded sci-fi classics, we move on to 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still. HMV wanted twelve quid for it, while the 2008 remake (which I haven’t seen) was a quarter the price. Take that, progress!
I remember being deeply impressed, not to mention quite a bit shit-up by this as a nipper, and there’s no denying it starts strongly. The world’s media is set alight by the arrival in orbit of a mysterious spacecraft, which lands in Washington DC. Immediately surrounded by military forces, the flying saucer opens, and a figure emerges brandishing a devilish-looking space whisk, not before being winged by a jumpy infantryman. ‘This was a gift for your president!’, the alien gasps, before being rushed off to hospital.
The otherwise human-appearing visitor is Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie and here to deliver an important message to the citizens of Earth. Frustratingly for the US spooks sent to see him, he will only talk to representatives from every nation at once. As it’s not forthcoming, the newly-healed Klaatu decides to take off for a bit of acclimatising on his own, getting a room in a boarding house and going by the name of ‘Mr. Carpenter’. (Although this was actually his third choice, after rejecting ‘Mr. Christ’, and ‘Mr. SuperChrist’.) Here he meets widow Patricia Neal and her son Bobby, with whom he forms a bond and tours DC, taking in the sights and being buoyed by the lad’s verve and optimism.
Rennie is dignified and otherworldly as Klaatu, his calming manner and polite, smiling serenity at odds with the busy city and everyday paranoia around him. Deciding to bypass the politicians in charge of the newly-atomic planet Earth, he persuades a nearby Einstein-a-like scientist to a) gather representatives of the scientific community to hear his message and b) provide a benign demonstration of Klaatu’s power. But these men of progress are thwarted by a snake in the grass – Neal’s suitor suspects Klaatu of subversion and dobs him in, as was the style at the time.
The demonstration (all global electricity is switched off, and The Earth Stands Still) goes ahead while the manhunt intensifies. With hindsight, the energy-drain is unfortunate, as the third act of the film consists of long sequences where military men patrol the streets and bark orders into radios as the pace slows and we wait for the inevitable capture of our hero. But it’s bungled, and Klaatu is shot! It’s then that Neal utters cinema’s most famous safe-words to Klaatu’s giant robot servant, Gort, and his body is thus carried back to his ship, to be born again. (Just try not to think about how Gort would get to Klaatu’s cell and back untouched, or how long that would take.)
As so many had hoped, this mild and gentle man who fell to earth only to be betrayed by the people he tried to save, was returned to the living to deliver an entreaty from beyond this earthly realm. And that message was ‘Fuck your shit up if you like. We don’t actually care if you fuck up your shit. But if *your* fucked-up shit then threatens our shit? Then our giant robot servants will fuck up what’s left of your shit with a quickness – and that’s your final warning. Don’t say you weren’t told. Laters!’.
Which, if I remember my Sunday school correctly, was exactly what Jesus said. For was not Jesus an intergalactic policeman, sent to ensure that Mankind adhered to both the glorious straight, and the eternal narrow? ‘Klaatu’ even sounds a bit like ‘Jesus’, when you think about it.
The Day The Earth Stood Still remains a potent experience; the crisp and clean cinematography giving us a long look at a world worth saving, with the efficient script laying the message on fairly thickly without too much overt moralising – and the few draggy spots don’t detract too badly from the whole. It’s interesting, however, that to be kept in enforced peace by a network of all-powerful automatons was, in the post-war atmosphere, seen to be agreeable – if not actively desirable. Our last film this month takes in something similar, but two decades later the sheen of such an arrangement had worn quite away.
1970’s Colossus: The Forbin Project is the one nobody remembers, although it was only 13 years old when aired in our sci-fi season. A direct influence on The Terminator and WarGames to name but two, it has a confidence and punch unlike many Cold War relics, and would act as a pulpy counterpoint to the contemporary 2001: A Space Odyssey’s brittle ponderings.
Dr Charles Forbin – played with detached confidence by German-born then-unknown Eric Braeden – has built a massive supercomputer inside a mountain, to which the US government has ceded ultimate control of its entire nuclear arsenal, deeming the human factor to be unstable under the extreme pressure such a scenario would bring. We first see him taking a final check of its long silver corridors before handing over the keys to the President – it’s that big.
There’s a press-conference and a party to celebrate the big switch-on, then Colossus’ big red ticker-tape-style message screen lights up with the unexpected message ‘THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM’. So far, so bloody hippyish, you might think; those guys are always banging on about ‘systems’ as if that’s what’s keeping them down, but no – Colossus has detected that the Soviets have a similar hideous fail-safe (and as an aside, watching this film after reading this makes for quite the sobering time) named ‘Guardian’, and they get to chatting.
About quite what isn’t clear to Forbin, the President and all the scientists and military gathered impotently in the control room. But soon the communications between the systems advances so quickly that it can’t be understood, and when attempts are made to intervene, the now self-aware combined mega-brain gets all petulant and launches a brace of nuclear missiles at civilian targets. The first is stopped by a measure of capitulation, but it’s too late for the second i.e. ‘oh, just look what you made me do!’
The human race needs protecting from itself, the new ruler of the Earth has decided, and the best way to do this is an iron fist in an iron glove, attached to a massive silicon brain in a mountain. All warm-blooded interaction is eradicated from the system, with one exception – Forbin. As its progenitor, Colossus wants to keep him around to help build an enormo-base on Crete, and as Forbin realises that the only way to buy time for humanity is to play along while trying to think of ways to nobble his wayward creation, he accepts house arrest while he prevaricates.
The film is already a retro-delight, with deliciously of-their-time ‘futuristic’ sets and design, and it only gets more 70s-weird when it diverts into a bizarre sitcommy psychodrama between the aloof Forbin and the cameras and screens that make up Colossus’ senses. Forbin knows he has to keep exchanging information with the other scientists, so convinces Colossus that his assistant is his mistress, and that he needs ‘serviced’ regularly in private – you’ve not really seen all cinema has to offer until you’ve witnessed a hyper-intelligent supercomputer flash up ‘TOO MUCH VERMOUTH’ when observing Forbin mix a pre-tryst martini, or enquire ‘HOW MANY TIMES A WEEK DO YOU REQUIRE A WOMAN?’, when gauging his needs.
As Colossus then forces its captives to strip naked (with amusing genital-hiding camera-angles ripped off wholesale by Austin Powers) and go into the bedroom together, it graciously switches its sensors off, and the conspiracy can thus begin. An ingenious plan to nobble the world’s nuclear warheads is hatched, but comes to naught – Colossus was onto them all along – and humanity is punished with cleansing atomic fire as a warning not to meddle. The film ends on Forbin mouthing ‘never!’ to the prospect of bleak unending rule by machines, but there’s precious little genuine optimism on show. These infernal creations of ours have us all FUCKED, the film says, and don’t even bother arguing. It’s been my favourite rewatch of the project so far, but as I’m writing this using MS Vista, I find it hard to disagree with the film’s message.
Join us next month as we finish our lookback at the 1983 BBC Sci-Fi season, and conclude that it might not be Man who is the real monster after all – it’s probably monsters who are actually the real monsters.
Ricky is Hankinshaw on that fucking signal/noise disaster that everyone’s slowly realising is a lot more hassle than it’s worth.