With Star Trek now celebrating its fiftieth Anniversary, and with yet another Star Trek feature released earlier this summer that pays further tribute to Gene Roddenberry’s vision and legacy (as well as the cherished memory of the original Mr. Spock, the late, great Leonard Nimoy, and the young and tragically ill-fated new Chekov, Anton Yelchin), it’s time for many of us Trekkies and sci-fi fans alike to look back at an older classic that is more than half a century old – and still just as influential. In fact, the majority of fans of the genre have gone on record agreeing that the subject of this essay is, with the possible exception of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (1948), the biggest inspiration for Roddenberry’s original Star Trek television series. Coincidentally, it also happens to rank as one of the most inspired and best (if somewhat loose) cinematic adaptations of a work by the Bard of Avon himself, William Shakespeare.
Given that we have been treated to more than a century of film and television variations of the Bard’s work, people generally understand that Shakespeare’s influence has not only been immense, but also that his work is open to flexible adaptation. I myself have done a little Shakespeare, participating in stage readings of Romeo & Juliet (as Friar Lawrence), The Tempest (as Alonso), Much Ado about Nothing (as Borachio) and my favorite, Twelfth Night (as Malvolio), for the annual “Bard-A-Thon” back in September of 2008 and ’09, held by the North Carolina Stage. I even saw a remarkable satirical Nazi-Stalinist interpretation of Julius Caesar at the Diana Wortham Theatre by New York’s Aquila Theater Company in February 2008, complete with all the totalitarian police-state trappings (including machine guns and helmets). Clearly Shakespeare’s work can go beyond the Globe Theatre approach to encompass an evolving world view as we move through history. In other words, and with all due respect to the Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando films of the 1940s and 50s, the Bard is ripe for reinterpretation of all kinds.
Had he actually lived to see his play The Tempest become the source for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Forbidden Planet (1956), old Bill would probably have been taken aback by the possibility that this play alone would be used as a prototype for Trek and all the other imitations that have followed (Babylon 5, Space: 1999, etc.). Granted, he would probably have had the same reaction to his Romeo & Juliet spawning the Broadway musical and Academy Award-winning Robert Wise 1961 film of West Side Story, and Akira Kurosawa’s film versions of Macbeth and King Lear – Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) respectively. But Forbidden Planet is unique in the way it applies the Bard’s elements of fantasy, humor, poetry and profundity to the sci-fi genre in American filmmaking during the early Cold War era, paving the way for other sci-fi epics of even greater scope that would include Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the original Star Wars (1977).
It all started with Irving Block, a special-effects artist for vintage sci-fi gems and B-movies like Rocketship X-M (1950), Kronos (1957) and The Giant Behemoth (1958). While at a cocktail party, he was struck by a vision inspired by The Tempest – but set in space – and immediately scribbled the idea down on a napkin. He later fleshed out a story with co-writer Allen Alder that went as far as to combine the Bard’s play with the psychoanalytical theory of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Although the heads at the studio generally balked at the idea of doing sci-fi, viewed back then as low-brow, they were impressed by the pitch of the writers, originally (and aptly) called Fatal Planet, which was more adult in nature and philosophically focused, and went ahead with the idea, with studio veteran Fred M. Wilcox (Lassie Come Home) directing and Cyril Hume writing the screenplay, with the title changed for greater commercial appeal.
Set in the year 2257, the story concerns the crew of the saucer-like United Planets Cruiser C57D, sent to the fourth planet in the Altair system light-years from Earth to check on the progress of the colony that previously landed via spaceship Bellarophon. To their shock, they find it was wiped out two decades ago, save for three survivors: the Prospero-like Morbius (Walter Pigeon in his most iconic role, and only five years away from being the original Admiral Nelson from Irwin Allen’s film, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), his Miranda-like daughter Altaira (Anne Francis of TV’s Honey West, whose character in the film is frequently called “Alta”) who has never seen any other man except her own father, and their Ariel-like robot manservant, the 187-language-speaking Robby. The commander of the crew, the stern Frederick dead ringer J.J. Adams (played by then-newcomer and now-late Leslie Nielsen, long before his years doing comedy in films like Airplane and The Naked Gun, although he has several humorous moments here as well), along with Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow (played by Warren Stevens, a seasoned veteran character actor of classic TV series including Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel and Bonanza, and who had previously appeared opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1954s The Barefoot Contessa), have reason to believe that a cover-up is happening, following a series of mysterious and dangerous events involving attacks on both their ship and crew by an unseen entity.
When confronted in his rather cozy and futuristic house, Morbius reveals the cause of the Bellarophon colony’s destruction. Millions of Earth years ago, the planet Altair-4 was ruled by a highly evolved civilization, the Krell, who in intending to use their power and technology for noble, ethical means, had attained the ability to transmute their thoughts into physical reality… including their worst nightmares, which resulted in their undoing 200,000 Earth years earlier. It is later revealed that Morbius, having experimented with the technology twenty years ago upon discovering it in a vast, subterranean and still-active Krell plant lying below his home, was attempting to replicate the full power of the Krell, but had unwittingly repeated the tragic effect. When the members of the original Earth colony chose to return home, the Caliban-like “Monster from the Id”, spawned from his own dark and tortured subconscious, destroyed them. The same thing begins to happen again once Altaira, who has fallen for Adams, decides to leave for Earth against her father’s wishes. Morbius’ 20-year loneliness has resulted in a relationship with his daughter that has begun to border subconsciously on incest, thereby putting the entire ship crew, and most particularly Adams, in danger.
Forbidden Planet has often been regarded and screened as family fare – it was in my mid-teens in South Carolina that I first saw this film with my mother and younger brother on a special widescreen version in VHS. I was completely blown away the first time I saw the film, although it is true that it has campy, comic interludes which tend to mar its more serious intentions and seem better suited for the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of old (as Ostrow lightly remarks at one point upon viewing Altair-4 on the viewing screen onboard C57D, “The Lord sure made some beautiful worlds.”). The ship’s alcoholic cook (western film character actor Earl Holliman) and Robby provide a lot of family friendly moments as well.
Nonetheless, it has endured, not just on the basis of its story, cast and charm but also its unsettling nature, delivering a fantastic, forward-thinking scenario exploring the possibility of a new form of life, whilst also warning of the dangers within the human psyche. While this may be a conservative viewpoint, namely in saying that we should not play God even when given special powers that we intend to use for the greater good, it also takes a more liberal, progressive stab at the post-McCarthyite conservatism that still infected the United States during the Cold War, attacking in subtext the even greater dangers of sexual repression and isolationism. Who ever knew that any “family film” of this period could be so dark in its approach, regardless of its colorful Hollywood artifice?
The structure of Forbidden Planet’s plot would be recycled continuously for each episode in the original Star Trek series, and in many of the spinoffs and imitations that succeeded it: A crisis in space – in most cases, one involving the loss of a colony or an attack on a alien race– leads to an investigation by a interstellar crew onboard a faster-than-light spacecraft of Earth origin, who are first confronted with a mystery that leads to a vast discovery – usually an advanced form of alien life or technology – that is often accompanied by a dangerous adversary or obstacle, and which is eventually resolved with an analogy relating to the most profound aspects of the human condition, usually involving the clash between barbarian and civilized virtues. Like time and space, human nature is regarded as a “final frontier” because, regardless of past and current breakthroughs in human psychology, we have barely scratched the surface. And the deeper we probe – that is to say, the further we go into the vastness of the unknown – we stumble across hidden abysses that fully amaze, shock and, more importantly, utterly transform us.
The fact that Forbidden Planet was released prior to the launching of Russia’s Sputnik the following year gave it even more forward-thinking status in anticipating the Space Race. Those who beheld Forbidden Planet during its initial release would never have anticipated that one year later, the world would soon be taking instant leaps into the cosmos that would include space walks, a landing on the moon, the construction of space stations, shuttles and advanced satellites, and the landing of probes on the outer worlds. If anything, the intelligent, adult manner in which all of this is handled in Forbidden Planet was enough to set the template for continuing treatments of the human condition in science-fiction that had been largely absent in previous films, and which Star Trek itself would attempt in its original incarnation.
Additionally, as far as visual and sound components are concerned, the film broke all kinds of barriers. Shot in CinemaScope, the Oscar-nominated effects, including the lavish mattes and models of space and the Krell power plant, and animated effects like those used to reveal the Id Monster, hold up surprisingly well thanks to the efforts of the production design team, and animator Joshua Meador, an artist working for Walt Disney who had helped supervise the iconic imagery of Fantasia (1940). Everything from laser blasts, electric shield shocks and the vast landscape of the planet were hand-drawn, although the best effects are saved for the suspenseful scene during the climax, in which the unseen Id Monster begins melting its way through a metal door three walls thick as it closes in on the main characters. Like the Blob going through a movie projection booth, this scene still scares the living daylights out of me today. The moody electronic score by Bebe and Louis Barron – also Oscar-nominated – would set the tone for synthesizer composers including Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and filmmaker John Carpenter (who referenced this film along with Howard Hawks’ The Thing in his 1978 Halloween). And the C57D saucer, land terrain speeder and other technological elements would be re-used for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone while inspiring generations of futurists and genre visual artists alike, including the spacecraft of Star Wars.
My favorite technological element and character from the film, of course, remains Robby the Robot, a literal bubbly bucket of bolts who is benign, serves coffee, and would rather self-destruct than harm a human being. Designed by Robert Kinoshita – who later went on to make the B9 robot from Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space – he has a wonderful sense of humor which anticipates C3PO and R2D2, combining the chatty nature of the former with the sense of loyalty and courage of the latter. My favorite line spoken by him is in response to one character’s observation about Altair 4’s atmosphere: “I hardly use it myself, sir – it promotes rust.” And later, rather sardonically, when the nubile Altaira asks him to synthesize a new and more appropriate dress to please Adams: “Again?!” He even goes so far as to synthesize 60 gallons of Kansas City whiskey bourbon for the ship’s cook, with the exact same taste and no hangover to follow! Robby was truly the first true robot superstar since the evil Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and would have an afterlife going beyond Forbidden Planet, including his own low-budget film vehicle follow-up, The Invisible Boy (1957), and guest appearances on TV including The Twilight Zone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Columbo, The Monkees and The Simpsons. He would also later appear in films like Gremlins (1984) and Earth Girls Are Easy (1988), as well as commercials for AT&T and General Electric, eventually being inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame at the Carnegie Science Center in 2004. (I even have a miniature version of Robby, with movable arms, on my desk shelf!).
Science fiction aside, Forbidden Planet is also a work of Gothic horror, in that it offers new variations on some of the themes of the unknown and oft unseen that have haunted our human conscience for centuries. The Monster from the Id can be perceived quite easily as a futuristic poltergeist, and the planet of Altair-4, along with Morbius’s “House of Tomorrow” and the Krell Machinery below, are together a variation on the haunted house which has been abandoned for some time, usually regarded with ill feeling and which eventually must be explored and its mysteries solved. And with the theme of the subconscious proving to be far more powerful than any futuristic technology of terrestrial and alien origins, the film points out that it is often the human monsters – and in particular, the mind – that are the scariest and most dangerous, even more so when human beings progress to the point that the darkness within them is either suppressed or forgotten, emerging just as the most evolved principles of humankind are at their peak. The Krell – and the tortured Morbius – are symbolic victims of the inability of humans to confront their worst fears and darkest desires until it is too late.
Forbidden Planet is a true classic and cinematic landmark, frequently referenced, imitated and parodied. The film was quite rightly inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2013 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It took years before the sophistication it attempted and encouraged would be surpassed, and its place in the pantheon of brilliantly conceived sci-fi cinema is assured. It is notable, however, that this hit of 1956 was released alongside another science-fiction classic that provided an equally strong (and even darker) social commentary on the nature of the human condition – but that’s a film for another essay.