The Strange Career of Robby the Robot

I’ve been on something of a 1950s sci-fi kick lately. This post from Mockingbird is probably what started it. After reading it, I filled my Amazon wish list with Mockingbird’s recommendations, and Amazon gleefully took it from there with that whole “people who bought X also bought Y” thing. I’m now pretty well set for a couple of months’ worth of classic sci-fi viewing.

I started with Forbidden Planet (1956), and a terrific starting place it was. Among other things, it introduced me to Robby the Robot. My 50th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition came with lots of bonus Robby the Robot material: Robby’s second film, The Invisible Boy (1957); an episode of The Thin Man (1958) where Nick Charles takes Robby on as a client; and a whole feature just on Robby. This robot has had a long and impressive career, appearing on The Gale Storm Show, Goodyear Theatre, Invasion of the Neptune Men, Hazel, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Twilight Zone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, Columbo, Hollywood Boulevard, Ark II, Space Academy, Project U.F.O., Wonder Woman, Mork & Mindy, Likely Stories, Vol. 3, Gremlins, Earth Girls Are Easy, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and Stacked. In 2004 he was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame. And for a cool $32,000, you can have a life-size fully animatronic pre-programmed remote-controlled Robby the Robot of your very own.

Something about Robby clearly resonated with 1950s audiences, and the appeal has held steady over time.

Why? Well, for starters, Robby is just cool. He’s powerful, but endearingly awkward-looking, and shaped something like a mid-century washing machine. (Robert Kinoshita, the artist who came up with him, actually used to design washing machines before coming to work for MGM.) At seven feet Robby towers over his human companions, but he’s still close enough to human size to be relatable. He’s dry, but shows glimmers of rudimentary wit and affection.

But Robby isn’t just a swell guy; there’s power and possible menace in that gun-metal Michelin Man body. As Morbius explains in Forbidden Planet, Robby is capable of toppling a house off its foundation, and The Invisible Boy shows his physical structure to be proof against bazookas and flamethrowers. The contrast between his potential for destruction and his constant readiness to be of service is part of what makes him so fascinating. There’s a stark duality about Robby, which reflects how 1950s Americans viewed technology in general.

robby washing machine tub comparison

Nowhere is this duality more evident than in the gap between how Robby actually comes off in movies and TV, and how he’s shown in film posters and teasers. On the one hand you have the helpful, personable robot that people like, and on the other you have this.

forbidden planet poster bigger

See that face grinning malevolently under the transparent dome, sort of like an electronic version of an evil clown? Robby’s face looks nothing like that. And at no time in the movie does he carry an unconscious voluptuous woman in his arms. This is just spurious, sensational stuff on the part of MGM’s marketing department.

Here’s one from The Invisible Boy.

movie poster the invisible boy bigger

The most accurate thing about this poster is the line of missiles encircling the robot. The rest is hogwash. Robby never runs; he has a ponderous, rolling gait, and his legs aren’t all bendy like in the image. See that outstretched claw rendered enormous by foreshortening? And the helpless child writhing in the merciless grip of the other claw? More marketing fabrications. Robby’s hands are actually small for his size, totally incapable of grasping a ten-year-old boy around the waist. Notice the tagline: THE SCIENCE-MONSTER WHO WOULD DESTROY THE WORLD! That’s actually a pretty good description of the film’s real villain, the supercomputer, but Robby looks better on a poster.

Of course it’s not unusual for movie posters to play fast and loose with plot and character integrity, but there is obviously something being tapped into here. People liked Robby; that was one reason MGM made a second movie with him and loaned him out for guest appearances. But at the same time there was something about him, or about robots in general, that made people uneasy.

The nice-robot-or-deadly-menace ambiguity shows up in actual film and TV footage as well. Here’s a screen shot from “Robot Client,” Robby’s episode on The Thin Man.

screen shot the thin man 1.1

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? The robot didn’t kill the guy he’s carrying, but at this point the audience doesn’t know that.

screen shot the thin man 2.2

Here’s another screen shot from “Robot Client.” Nora isn’t being harmed by the robot either. She’s actually helping prove his innocence, though you can see from her face that she’s not real keen on the idea. The whole scene with the robot carrying Nora is drawn out an uncomfortably long time, with lots of edgy shots of Nora and some wobbly-camera ones from her point of view. It’s pretty effective suspense.

screen shot forbidden planet robby doctor 2

That one’s from Forbidden Planet. Again, Robby didn’t hurt this guy; he’s about to set him gently down on the sofa. But there’s a lot of tension to be milked from the sight of the robot carrying a helpless human.

teaser the thin man robot shadow

Here’s the teaser to “Robot Client.” The image of the robot’s shadow looming over the unsuspecting man is terribly evocative—though, again, misleading in terms of plot, as Robby didn’t actually hurt this guy either.

invisible boy robot shadow allerton

Here’s another robot-shadow-over-human shot, this time from The Invisible Boy. Prior to this scene, in an effort to get his robot playmate to lighten up and help him pull off more dangerous stunts, Timmie took Robby to the supercomputer to have his basic directive—the one keeping the robot from harming or permitting harm to humans—overridden. The supercomputer craftily suggested this so it could take control of the robot and use him to implant mind-controlling transistor assemblies into the brains of various scientists and military personnel, which is what Robby’s about to do here. So in this case the robot really is about to harm someone, but not of his own volition, and contrary to his original programming.

invisible boy robot shadow other guy

Another robot shadow shot. This guy is about to get a transistor assembly implant, too.

screen shot the invisible boy robby shadow

And here we have a robot shadow over little Timmie himself. (It’s a bit harder to make out here, but that circle on Timmie’s face is one of Robby’s spinning sensors.) The supercomputer has just ordered Robby to gouge out Timmie’s eyeballs or something, but Robby is resisting. (How did Robby manage to resist? You may well ask. I’m going to address that subject in a later post.)

The Robot Ambiguity Problem might be boiled down to a few questions. Is the robot a tool, or an independent agent? If a tool, then whose, and for what purpose? If independent, then is he good or evil, helpful or harmful?

These questions are variously addressed in Forbidden Planet, The Invisible Boy, and “Robot Client.” FP and TIB should be considered more or less jointly, since Robby plays the same character in both (sometime in between the two films he went from the 24th century to the 1950s through some glossed-over time travel). In FP, Dr. Morbius insists that Robby is just a tool, incapable of emotion or independent action, but we don’t really believe him. Dry as Robby is, he shows hints of emerging personhood in his relationships with humans; he’s playful with Alta, protective of Morbius, and just plain excited to be working astrogation on the deck of the C-57-D. Perhaps most tellingly of all, he lies to the ship’s cook, though intentional deceit is supposed to be impossible for a non-rational being. The human characters either don’t notice or don’t remark on Robby’s nascent personality. Similarly, in TIB Robby is considered a tool—he even describes himself that way—but demonstrates what appears to be a moral will. In fact, after he spends some time in the tool-in-the-wrong-hands category, his moral agency is what saves the day. His personhood actually trumps his toolhood. But, again, nobody notices; Timmie is the only witness to Robby’s moral struggle, and Timmie doesn’t understand what’s happening.

In “Robot Client,” Robby the actor plays a different character, also confusingly named Robby. Like FP/TIB Robby, RC Robby is described as a mere tool; Dr. Nyles calls him “an overgrown instrument panel.” Unlike FP/TIB Robby, who talks and walks around on his own, RC Robby is remotely controlled by human operators, and his “voice” is just the voice of whichever operator happens to be speaking into the mic at the moment. This Robby comes closest to being a genuine mindless tool—though even here, a couple of scenes cast mild doubt on whether the operators are in complete control.

RC Robby was created for the purpose of handling radioactive materials in atomic plants, doing work that would be impossible for humans. But Dr. Nyles’s housekeeper, Mrs. Creavy, doesn’t consider him a tool. She insists that he’s not only independent, but downright evil; she calls him “a monster, a death machine.” Some incidents appear to back her up: one scientist is assaulted, another is killed, and Robby is present both times. But it turns out Robby was being framed. A third scientist, Dr. Hartwick, committed the crimes and made it look like Robby did it. He also planted the seeds of Mrs. Creavy’s distrust. His goal is for Robby to be dismantled forever.

So what did the robot ever do to him? Well, this is where the episode gets interesting. From Dr. Hartwick’s point of view, Robby really is just a tool—a very sophisticated tool—and to him, that’s the horror of the thing. By using a radiation-proof robot, people will be able to carry out tasks in atomic plants far more efficiently than otherwise, leading to arms proliferation and ultimately causing the deaths of millions. In Dr. Hartwick’s mind, a morally independent robot that clubs people to death is less horrible than a true tool of a robot that advances nuclear technology.

Nuclear energy was a touchy subject during the 1950s. Many, like Hartwick, feared that the development of nuclear power would lead to arms proliferation or deadly accidents. In his this-is-what-I-did-and-why-I-did-it monologue near the end, Hartwick comes unglued, ranting maniacally, wide-eyed and shrill. For most of the episode his fear and hysteria have been concealed, which could also be said of the 1950s as a whole, but now the mask is off.

the thin man hartwick

It doesn’t stay off for long, though. Hartwick is apprehended and that’s the end of it. The episode concludes with Robby, remotely controlled, vacuuming the floor while simultaneously walking a dog. Nick goofs around with the mic, pretending to be advertising the robot as a helpful tool for housewives; Nora plays along, eagerly asking to buy one. The dog barks; the robot vacuums; everyone laughs. Hartwick’s concerns, which were legitimate enough in themselves, aren’t addressed at all, even to be refuted.

And there’s that duality again, glossed over and unresolved.

Technology in the 1950s represented security and prosperity but also the potential for large-scale horrific violence. It could make our lives easier one day and wipe us out the next. After the war, with the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brooding in the American subconscious, U.S. scientists had gone to work on a new nuclear weapon. The hydrogen bomb was capable of far worse devastation than the atomic bomb, which was certainly devastating enough. Many scientists who had supported the development of the atomic bomb, including Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project, opposed the hydrogen bomb, but the prevailing thinking was that the Soviets would certainly develop one, so we had better do so as well to keep ourselves safe. The U.S. carried out a successful test of a hydrogen bomb in 1952 at Enewetak Atoll; the Soviets followed with a detonation in their very own Siberia in 1953. This episode of The Thin Man aired in 1958. Reading accounts of the decade, there is a real sense of escalation, of reaction triggering more reaction, of spiraling out of control while putting on a brave face.

This duality is neatly contained in the person of the robot. It’s fitting, I think, that so physically strong and imposing a character should have a shape that resembles a household appliance. Just like us, Robby is capable of a wide range of duties, from national defense to flower arrangement. He can clean the house or topple it over, walk the dog or plant a mind-control transistor in your brain, whip up an evening gown or develop nuclear fusion. And because he’s anthropomorphic, he binds fear of technology to fear of ourselves. We have our own dualities; we are capable of good and evil, and the tech is our creation, begotten in our image. The strange career of Robby the Robot is not unlike our own.

robby flower arrangement

Cold War Hysteria and Wacky Hijinks Abound in ‘The Invisible Boy’

The Invisible Boy is an odd, fun, occasionally darkish science fiction film that shifts wildly between lighthearted Leave It To Beaver mirth and chilling techno-anxiety, much like the fifties themselves. One minute you have little Timmie getting up to boyish antics like taking a ride on the enormous kite made for him by his robot friend or using his temporary invisibility to prank the neighborhood bully, and the next you have a room full of dead-eyed human drones solemnly doing the bidding of an AI menace bent on world domination. It’s easy to dismiss the film for its unevenness of tone and crazy-quilt plot; certainly it doesn’t compare to Forbidden Planet, the science fiction classic to which it is a very loose sequel (having spent $125,000 on Robby the Robot for Forbidden Planet, MGM decided to get its money’s worth by making another movie with the robot). But The Invisible Boy is entertaining and even insightful in its own wacked way. The key to making sense of it is to view it in the context of its time.

timmie on kite

The name of the film is misleading; Timmie’s invisibility doesn’t last long and isn’t a major plot point. Mostly this movie is about a supercomputer that achieves sentience and wants to rule the world. The film was released in October 1957. Something else was also released in October 1957: Sputnik, the Russian satellite whose launch threw the U.S. into a malaise of fear and uncertainty so intense, and with such far-reaching results, that it might rightly be called a crisis.

There are striking parallels between the Sputnik crisis and The Invisible Boy. This couldn’t have been intentional; the U.S. didn’t even know about Sputnik until after it was launched, and the filmmakers couldn’t have anticipated it or the public turmoil that would follow. But the same cultural climate produced both crisis and film, and a very tumultuous climate it was.

Though the actual launch of Sputnik was a gut-punch of shock to the American public, the idea of a satellite was nothing new. Both Russia and the U.S. had been announcing plans to launch satellites for years. But once Sputnik was up, the American imagination went wild. What was it there for? Was it spying on us? Were the Soviets using it to gather targeting information for ballistic missiles? In reality, Sputnik was just a modest little 22-inch aluminum sphere with four trailing antennae and a radio beacon; it beeped for a while and then fell from orbit only three months after launch. But the same rocket that launched Sputnik was capable of sending a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world within minutes, as the troubled American public well knew.

The Invisible Boy opens with some Pentagon officials preparing to consult a supercomputer about the launch of a space platform—a satellite, like Sputnik, but much bigger. Fear of the Soviets (referred to throughout the film as “our friends across the Pole”) pushes the whole enterprise, but the real enemy turns out to be the very technology designed for defense. The supercomputer, built and operated by Dr. Tom Merrinoe and housed in an underground mathematics compound, has been secretly biding its time for years, suggesting changes to its own design that have allowed it to achieve personality. Now it plans to get itself onto the space platform and carry out world dominion from Earth’s orbit.

space platform

 

Dr. Merrinoe takes his visitors to the computer, which spouts figures and probabilities as glibly as See Threepio. First, it tells them their fuel estimates for the launch are low by 29.7%. The general is shocked. How could their scientists have made such an error? (They didn’t; the computer needs the extra fuel to get its hefty self launched aboard the satellite.) The men consider checking the computer’s work, but it would take weeks just to get a print-out of its computations, and they want the satellite up in four days; so they decide to take the computer’s word for it, trusting mechanized calculation over human judgment. There is a sense of urgency and reckless one-upmanship throughout the proceedings; the people are afraid, and the computer knows it, and uses that fear to gain power.

Then the general asks, “What odds our friends across the Pole will start an atomic war the moment they learn of this project?” The computer answers, “If discovered before launching, probability of armed attack 91.6%. If discovered after launching, probability of peaceful negotiation 87.3%.” The general replies in all seriousness and without a moment’s hesitation, “Good.”

invisible boy missiles

So far, the supercomputer’s evil plan is working just fine. But to actually get itself into space, it’s going to need the help of someone who can walk around, and for that it must worm its way into Dr. Merrinoe’s home life.

At the dining table with his family that evening, Tom Merrinoe hunches over some ponderous book, his eyes glued to the pages; his ten-year-old son Timmie reads a comic book. Mary Merrinoe asks her husband, “Well, did you have a tiring day at the computer, dear?” This at least gets him talking. But the thing that really perks him up is when Timmie, in an effort to deflect attention from his soup-slurping, asks, “What’s a computer?” His father gives far more of an answer than Timmie bargained for, beginning with the soup course and ending while the family is eating dessert, by which time Timmie is clearly dying to get back to his comic, and even Mary is looking a little glazed. Interestingly, Dr. Merrinoe ends his lecture by addressing the question—which no one at the table has asked—of whether a computer is capable of thought. He concludes that it is “a philosophical and semantic paradox, and therefore impossible.” Little does he know.

After dinner Merrinoe drills his boy on fractions. As Timmie sits despondently on the piano bench without pencil or paper or visual aids of any sort, Dr. Merrinoe asks, “How many twenty-fourths are there in one and a quarter?” Timmie replies, “Three? Seventeen. Forty-four? A hundred?” His father chastises him for guessing, then asks, “How many twenty-fourths are there in just one quarter? Six, obviously!” Baffled, Timmie says, “Honest?” “Of course!” says his father. Then Timmie asks, “Why?” His father answers, “Because that’s the way it is! Always was, always will be. The science of mathematics!”

Of course this is true. Mathematics has the stark, bold beauty of self-evidence. Nothing is subjective or open to interpretation (at least as far as I got with it; I don’t know what goes on with those super-duper upper-level math folks at their fancy rarefied math conferences). “Six twenty-fourths equals a quarter” just is. It’s not a mere convention, like with grammar, where the rules could just as easily have been different. It is, and it will continue to be, no matter what people think of it or whether they comprehend it. But that is not the answer you give to a child, and it’s not the way anyone learns fractions.

Merrinoe has forgotten this. He has truly lost touch. What’s even sadder is that the moment when Timmie asks why actually looks like a teachable moment, but it passes and is lost.

Finally Timmie is dismissed. Merrinoe laments to his wife, “He’s already ten years old, and he can’t even play a decent game of chess.”

invisible boy chess

One of the most significant outcomes of the Sputnik crisis was a new American obsession with education. The nation was plagued with self-doubt. The Soviets had beaten us to the punch with Sputnik 1, and a month later followed it up with Sputnik 2. Our first satellite, Vanguard 1, failed; its launch vehicle exploded on national television. Bested and shamed at being out-scienced by Communists, America reasoned that if we were going to compete against the Soviets, we had better start cranking out some engineers, and robust new education programs were introduced with that aim in mind.

Dr. Merrinoe, filled with similar worries, consults the supercomputer about Timmie. He knows this is a sad misuse of government resources, but he is desperate. The computer, again preying on fear, diagnoses a case of maladjustment caused by Dr. Merrinoe himself. It can fix the situation, but only if it has direct contact with Timmie, alone. And Merrinoe agrees. His anxiety over his son’s education is so great that he asks an artificially intelligent being for parenting advice, then turns the boy over to it for unsupervised tutoring.

The computer’s session with Timmie begins with a straightforward lesson on chess. Then things get weird. Before long, Timmie is in a hypnotic trance. He learns to play chess, all right, well enough to beat his father in six moves. He also learns a great deal more. Suddenly he wants to play with Robby the Robot.

This Robby is the same character as in Forbidden Planet. A time-traveling Dr. Greenhill brought him back from the 24th century, but no one at the institute was able to get him running, and he now lies in pieces, his cranial dome covered with cobwebs.

robby in pieces

Timmie picks up a screwdriver and in short order has Robby running just fine. Like Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet, Timmie has had his intellect enhanced by a computer; and, also like Dr. Morbius, one of the first things he does with his new brain power is tinker together a robot.

As in Forbidden Planet, Robby is a likable character, earnest but understated, and fun to watch as he lumbers noisily about with his head sensors spinning. He follows Timmie around the institute one day. It’s lunchtime; the conference room is full of scientists at tables, reading or doing calculations while eating and drinking, just as Timmie’s dad does at home. Timmie, with his robot trailing behind, wanders from one scientist to the other, plainly longing for attention; but the men are underwhelmed, even grumpy. Here is a seven-foot talking robot walking around, and all they can do is grouse about the noise! Clearly the spark of scientific wonder has been lost. Science is serious business to these guys; they don’t have time for robots from the future, much less children. The words “invisible boy” take on real poignancy here.

The robot is the computer’s link to the physical world it has to manipulate to get satellite-born. After overriding Robby’s basic directive to not permit injury to humans, the computer uses him to plant mind-control electrodes into scientists and military personnel with high security clearance. Once taken over, the people continue to look and act normal until they’re found out; the movie’s creepiest moments are when the faces of the human drones suddenly go sinister and cold. There was a genuine fear of espionage in 1950s U.S., and the film reflects this. After the Soviets conducted successful nuclear tests in 1949, many Americans believed Soviet spies had had passed nuclear technology secrets from the U.S. to Russia. Merrinoe’s Pentagon visitors warn him that the Russians (“our friends”) might slip through air defense, visit the institute, and “hack of some of your basic units. Enough to make one of these computers for themselves. That’s their way of inventing things, isn’t it?”

In the end, after everyone else on the project has been taken over by the computer, it’s Merrinoe, Robby, and Timmie who save the day. Merrinoe refuses to give the computer the numeric code that will enable it to be dismantled and loaded onto the satellite, even when the computer threatens to use Robby to torture Timmie. But Robby, ordered to get on with the torture, resists the computer’s control to the point of visible internal struggle. And Timmie, seeing the robot in distress but not fully understanding the situation, reinstates Robby’s basic directive with the flip of a switch—not to save himself, but out of compassion for his friend.

robby directive

The film ends happily, but with a few loose ends. The computer is destroyed (though Merrinoe immediately begins plans to build a new one), the human drones are expected to recover their senses (though who knows, really), and Robby becomes a beloved member of the Merrinoe household (though several implied questions as to his potential personhood, as well as that of the computer, are left unaddressed and indeed unasked). Timmie presumably keeps his enhanced intellect, and Merrinoe expresses no regret over letting his son get mind-zapped by a supercomputer; on the contrary, he seems pleased that Timmie wants to learn all he can and come work with him one day. Balance of a sort has been restored. Given the time period, this is probably all the resolution that can be expected.

Mind-Blowing Tech No Match for Monster on ‘Forbidden Planet’

Forbidden Planet is special for many reasons. It’s the first science fiction film to show humans traveling in a starship of their own making to an interstellar world far from Earth. It marks the cinematic debut of Robby the Robot, who went on to enjoy a rich film and television career and even has his own IMDb page, and stars a young Leslie Nielsen in a serious role as a rational and believable leading man. Considered one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s, it had a huge influence on later science fiction, particularly Star Trek. The story is well crafted and richly layered, exploring humanity’s potential for both intellectual achievement and sinful degradation. Besides all that, it’s wonderfully entertaining, with beautiful special effects, solid acting, and a clever, thoughtful script.

forbidden planet bigger still

The film came out in 1956, smack-dab in the middle of a decade when science fiction was growing in popularity as space travel began to look really achievable. It was an optimistic time, but with an undercurrent of anxiety. Wages were high, but the arms race kept people on edge; school children practiced “duck and cover” drills in case of nuclear bombing. While Americans loved their technology and the prosperity it made possible, they also feared its potential for destruction. This ambivalence provides much of the tension in Forbidden Planet.

The film is often compared to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are striking similarities between the two. A man with secrets, grudges, and mysterious powers—a magician of sorts—is marooned on a strange world with a daughter who’s been raised in such profound isolation that the sight of any man other than her father is cause for marvel. They have two servants—one good and reliable, non-human but anthropomorphic, and another of questionable origin, a violent savage not above murder. And when visitors arrive from the magician’s world of origin, things quickly hit the fan.

commander adams and crew

The film opens with Commander Adams and crew coming to Altair 4 to check on some colonists who settled there twenty years earlier and haven’t been heard from since. While his ship is still in the atmosphere, Adams is contacted by someone on the planet who tells him everything’s perfectly all right now, we’re fine, we’re all fine here now, thank you, so just move along. When Adams refuses to abandon his mission, his contact on the planet grudgingly permits the ship to land but says he won’t be answerable for the safety of ship or crew.

The contact turns out to be Dr. Edward Morbius. He’s a philologist, a specialist in language and linguistics—no doubt a useful person to have in a party of space colonists, but not one you’d expect to thrive alone on a hostile alien world. Morbius is the sole survivor of the original party. All the others—except his wife, who died later of natural causes—were mysteriously and violently killed by an invisible being not long after arrival, and Morbius fears that Adams’s crew will suffer the same fate. Morbius himself, and his daughter Alta, are “immune” to the creature’s rage.

The name Morbius suggests the Latin “morbus,” meaning mental illness; it was later reused for an unstable renegade Time Lord in an episode of Doctor Who. It’s an apt enough name in Dr. Morbius’s case. Dressed in black from head to toe, sporting a widow’s peak and a neatly trimmed beard, living on a fortified extraterrestrial compound with mind-blowing technology, a robot servant, and a free-roaming tiger, the guy is bound to have some supervillain tendencies at the very least.

dr. morbius

Robby the Robot, played by himself, is a delightful character with a dry wit, a plodding gait, and a talent for replicating things at a molecular level. He appears to be programmed with at least the first two of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: he will not harm a human, and he obeys all his master’s commands except when doing so would violate the first law. When the two do come into conflict—when obeying a command would harm a human—the dilemma sends Robby into a temporary electro-sizzling paralysis.

robby the robot dilemma

Both Morbius and Prospero have a second, less tractable servant. In The Tempest, it’s Caliban; in Forbidden Planet, it’s a mysterious, deadly presence, referred to at first as the Planetary Force and later as the Monster. In both film and play, there is some question as to just what this troublesome being is. Caliban is in fact a man, though a coarse and unwashed one, but characters who see him for the first time always express some doubt. He is so weird-looking and bad-smelling that humanity doesn’t want to claim him. Like the Monster, he’s driven by primitive and violent impulses beyond his own comprehension.

In both stories, the master-servant relationship is uneasy, even torturous. Both Caliban and the Monster are referred to as devilish in origin; both are closely associated with dreams. Both have masters who would like them to just go away. At one point Morbius cries out in anguish to the Monster, “Stop! No further! I deny you! I give you up!” But giving it up is easier said than done. Morbius can’t just renounce the darkness and make it go away. It’s as systemic to him as sin itself.

Morbius’s compound sits above an underground laboratory built by the planet’s former inhabitants, the now-extinct Krell. Before their mysterious disappearance, the Krell developed a machine capable of harnessing the imagination to make material projections. It was an incredible intellectual achievement, but exacted a terrible cost. (Imagine a tangible demonstration of Luke 6:45.)

krell lab

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that wisdom can’t save us. Wisdom is an excellent and praiseworthy thing, as the Bible makes clear elsewhere, but we don’t have all the wisdom, and our sin makes us incapable of properly exercising whatever wisdom we have. It is only power that can save us—Christ’s power over sin.

Often we pretend that knowledge is the only issue. When speaking of someone who is smart but morally compromised, we often add, “Well, I guess he isn’t that smart”—as if it’s only lack of information or comprehension that makes people behave badly, and smart people are never selfish or violent or perverse. We speak euphemistically of “bad decisions” rather than sin. We don’t want to acknowledge that our problem is deeper than ignorance; we want to believe that pure pragmatism can govern our behavior, molding it into something benign and harmless that will never bother anyone. But even if we could be governed that way, we wouldn’t want to, not really. Not making waves, not getting into trouble, isn’t enough for us. We want the twisted excitement of the forbidden. Bland security is boring, a sated inactivity where our darkest impulses are not satisfied.

Who among us doesn’t have something evil lurking in the heart, waiting for the right opportunity to be brought forth? And if the power existed to give physical form to everything the mind could imagine, who wouldn’t have just cause for fear?

Forbidden Planet addresses these questions deftly and thoughtfully, without ever bogging down or getting too heavy. The issue that so preoccupied American society in the 1950s—man’s uneasy relationship with technology—turns out to be a portal to something even more terrifying: man’s relationship with himself.

The Space Cadets and Me: Revisiting my Sci-Fi Roots

I was about ten years old when I came across a hardback early-edition copy of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. The first title in the series, Stand By For Mars!, was one of the offerings at a yard sale I’d been taken to by my grandmother, and probably the first really stellar yard sale find of my life. The book was published in 1952, a year when the words space cadet could still be uttered in snark-free sincerity. The cadets were officer candidates studying at the Space Academy, where they hoped to earn rank in the prestigious Solar Guard. In Tom Corbett’s world, space cadet was a title of honor for someone with lofty goals who’d worked hard, survived the cut, and made a commitment to years of dedicated study in pursuit of a life far outside the confines of the commonplace. I remember being surprised and a little hurt when I later learned of the term’s contemporary meaning as someone out of touch with reality, but then it always was a shock when something I’d picked up from books turned out to be in conflict with the world at large. Whenever feasible, I’d quietly continue to regard the book-truth as the higher authority. Out of touch with reality? Maybe my identification as a space cadet was more thorough than I realized.

How can this be anything but awesome?

How can this be anything but awesome?

Ah, the fifties. I wasn’t around for them myself; I was born in 1969, the year of Woodstock and fringed vests, a groovy year. But I’ve seen movies and ads from the preceding decade; I’ve heard some of the music and read some of the books. It was a different time, the fifties—a time of flared skirts, fitted waists, and elegant necklines for women; tailored suits, shined shoes, and unironic bow ties for men; and carefully sculpted hair for both genders. Women put on hats and gloves to go shopping and got more dressed up for a day of housework than I typically do for church. The military was strong, the economy was booming, and the suburbs were filling fast with gridlike housing developments which look like dystopian nightmares to us but represented comfort and security to those who built and lived in them.

Pictured: sheer terror.

Pictured: sheer terror.

I don’t mean to trivialize or romanticize the era or the generation. My grandparents and their contemporaries had been through plenty, with one world war in recent memory, another in recent history, and a depression in between. It was harrowing stuff, and people bore scars, physical and otherwise. The Civil Rights Movement was getting underway and exposing some ugly truths about American society, and the Cold War was a constant undertow of anxiety. Still, for all that, it was an optimistic time, and the Tom Corbett books are very much a product of that optimism. Tom and his unit-mates, Astro and Roger (yes, those are their actual names; just take a moment to revel in that), are fifties boys through and through, in spite of their futuristic escapades: clean-cut, decent, and upstanding for the most part. Astro and Roger have sad back-stories, but even their angst is pretty wholesome. Nowhere to be seen are the bleak economic prospects and moral ambiguity of Captain Malcolm Reynolds’ ’verse, much less his remarks about who has or has not been taking hold of his plow. I say again, it was a different time.

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Very different indeed.

The adjective space is liberally used throughout the Tom Corbett books; the cadets wear space boots, carry space bags, eat spaceburgers, and even refer to girls as space dolls. Ingenuous is the word for it, but it’s not the only word I want here. Is there a term for the sort of anachronism that inevitably occurs when something is old-fashioned and (inaccurately) futuristic at the same time? I reach for that word when the books refer to the jungles of Venus, the deserts and canals of Mars, and various high-tech but strangely analog devices. The 1950s vision of the casually space-faring future is out of sync with our vision of it, and out of sync with our technological present day. While on leave in Atom City, the cadets order their restaurant meals (broiled dinosaur on Venusian black bread) remotely via microphone. And when Space Academy command finally locates them at that restaurant after a frantic search, a waiter brings a portable teleceiver to the table, plugs it into a floor jack, and spins some dials. There is no touch screen, no GPS. The smart phone, and the Star Trek communicator, were still a long way in the future, at least for the author.

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I’m not mocking here. Speculative fiction is…well, speculative, and to fault a writer for not accurately predicting all future technology would be a rather jerk-like use of the historian’s fallacy. Carey Rockwell (probably a house name for a group of authors) and technical adviser Willy Ley made guesses based on information available to them at the time, and though I am no expert I think they did a good job. The take-off and landing sequences seem reasonable and well thought out to me, with constant coordination and adjustment between the engine room, the astrogation center, and the control deck; the tech talk is easy to follow and sounds convincing. I like the frequent references to the astral chronometer, as much a marvel to Corbett and his fellow spacemen as John Harrison’s marine chronometer was to ocean navigators of the 18th century.

Put THAT on your spaceship dashboard.

Put THAT on your spaceship dashboard.

As a kid I only read Stand By For Mars!, the first book in the series. I don’t remember ever seeing any of the others or seeing another copy of that one. I never read the comic books or saw the TV show, or even knew of their existence until recently. But I certainly read the heck out of the book I had. It’s cozy. I like how the boys take aptitude tests at the Academy to get assigned to their various stations, and I like their personality conflicts and eventual loyal friendship. They’re a mixed bag: Astro, the engineer, a tactile learner, big, good-natured, uncomfortable with books but able to work out creative on-the-fly solutions to practical problems; Roger, the astrogator and radar man, brilliant, touchy, cocksure, secretive, unstable; and Tom on control deck, the leader, the guy who sees the big picture and has to sift through information and conjecture, risk and reward, as well as keep peace between the other two, balancing their personalities just as he balances the Polaris during landing and take-off. Running a spaceship is hard work, mentally and physically, and at the end of a long day of field exercises, overhauling the Polaris, or lacing a copper satellite with explosive charges while broiling inside their space suits under the heat of Alpha Centauri, the cadets relax together in the ship’s galley over sandwiches and hot tea or cocoa.

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This was my formative science fiction. My earliest sci-fi stories (not that they’re much to get excited or analytical about) show as much of Space Cadet influence as of Star Wars. But whenever I mention the books, no one knows what I’m talking about. They’ve been out of print for a while, but most of them are available on Project Gutenberg, and I bought a Tom Corbett Megapack for $0.99 for my Nook. Now I’m making my way through the series, all but the first of which are new to me, and I feel like I’m catching up with old friends. Though still students, the boys seem to spend little time in the classroom these days; they’re always getting pulled out on special assignment. So far they’ve carried out a rescue mission on a disabled ship, been marooned on a Martian desert, and blown a copper satellite all the way from Alpha Centauri to Earth. There were even a couple of murders of minor characters. I was interested to see that Roger, though he’d shaped up considerably by the end of the first book, is still a loose cannon, with a tendency to mouth off and start fistfights, jeopardizing missions and endangering the rest of the crew. Tom and Astro know this, but by golly Roger is their loose cannon, and they never swerve in their loyalty to him. Early in Book 2, Danger in Deep Space, Roger commits negligence at his post while trying to get on with a girl.

That Roger! Incorrigible.

That Roger! Simply incorrigible.

There’s an accident and an investigation, and Roger, afraid he’ll get drummed out of the Academy and end up on a prison asteroid, breaks parole and takes up with some space tramps. Like all the villains so far, these guys are obvious malefactors—bad-tempered, not too bright, and clearly up to no good. But the big reveal of the evil plan in Book 3, On the Trail of the Space Pirates, actually took me by surprise. It was original and clever, in fact too clever for the duo of unambiguous surly villains; perhaps they will turn out to be only the henchmen of some yet unseen mastermind. To find out, and to recover the stolen technology whose loss puts the entire solar system at risk, the boys and their Academy commander, Steve Strong, must go undercover as smugglers on the seamy sides of various spaceports. Strong advises the cadets as to how to project the right seedy, unscrupulous image—though Roger, it must be said, gleefully takes to the part like a natural-born miscreant, with little to no need for directorial input. However, Strong also cautions them to stay away from alcoholic Rocket Juice and drink lightly sweetened Martian Water instead.

tom corbett space pirates

That’s as far as I’ve gotten for now. Still to come are Books 4-7: The Space Pioneers, The Revolt on Venus, Treachery in Outer Space, and Sabotage in Space. That’s the whole series except for Book 8, The Robot Rocket, which is unavailable due to rights issues. What happens in The Robot Rocket?! I may never know. Wikipedia hints that at some point in the series we may lose Roger (to what? death? disability? disgrace?), so I’m a little anxious as I progress through the books. As part of my megapack I also received three bonus novels: Rip Foster in Ride the Gray Planet, by Blake Savage; Star Born, by Andre Norton; and The Secret of the Ninth Planet, by Donald A. Wollheim. All were published in the fifties. While searching for the Tom Corbett books, I discovered the radio show, the TV show, the comic book series, and this fan site. Apparently someone also wrote some Manga Tom Corbett comics, but these are not regarded as canon. There were even some musical recordings inspired by the stories, performed by the Space Cadet Marching Band and released by Golden Sound Records.

This is a thing.

This is a thing.

The fan base appears small, but I’m pleased to have finally come across it. These are good books, wonderfully representative of their time, and they shouldn’t be forgotten. Look them up! Buy them! And settle in with some sandwiches and hot tea in your very own galley for an evening of retro futuristic fun.

Skydrop

We have a fair amount of cactus at our place. The prickly pears are easy to spot and easy to stay away from, unlike the spindly, many-branched icicle cactus, which will break off in one-inch segments, transport itself telekinetically through the air,  and adhere to your person if you so much as pass within three feet of it. But cactus of any kind is problematic. All the animals get into it; the horses get quills stuck in their mouths while grazing, and they are not real keen on letting you pull these out. So Greg declared that any cactus within our yard, horse paddock, garden, and future chicken enclosure would have to go.

You cannot simply plow this stuff under and expect it to go away. It will sprout and regenerate and multiply like the vengeful undead from any remaining tissue fragments, as we learned to our sorrow the first year we had a garden out here. Well do I remember the repeated painful shock of reaching into the soil to pull up a weed by the roots, only to wrap my hand around a mass of underground zombie quills with an ambitious new root system. The determination of these plants is wonderful, as is their abundance of unspecialized cells, but I would prefer to admire them theoretically and from afar.

A few days ago I noticed a small cactus plant not far from the back porch steps and decided to dig it up. It was a prickly pear cactus, with a total surface area less than that of my hand; I figured a small garden trowel would suffice to uproot it. The trowel sufficed, all right, but one of the fronds grazed the backs of my fingers, leaving about a dozen little quills. I dropped the cactus into a bucket, went inside, and tweezed the quills out of my fingers. Then I got a shovel from the shed and went back outside. I’d noticed another, larger cactus plant and thought I might as well dig it up too.

A shovel may not be the best tool for this job, but it worked for me. Daniel has been going at them with a pick-axe and, more recently, with Greg’s new Father’s Day hoe, which shears off the roots just below the surface of the soil.

I ended up filling four buckets with cactus. I kept seeing another little patch, and another, and another. It was satisfying work; even though I knew there was plenty more cactus eradication left to be done, the individual plants were easy to uproot. I used the shovel to pack them tight in the buckets. A black widow spider came crawling out of one displaced plant; I quickly dispatched it with the shovel’s blade.

I dug up all the cactus patches in the immediate area and emptied the buckets onto the burn pile. Last winter was nice and wet, good for burning, and I hope this winter will be too. Burn bans are solemn law, and we respect them. Nobody wants to be the moron that burns the county down. But on days when the ban is lifted, Greg makes a delightful blaze of all the mesquite limbs and old weed stalks and such, and there is much rejoicing. In the morning only a layer of ash remains where once was a pile of unsightly, clothes-snagging, tire-puncturing, skin-scratching vegetative debris. It feels so restful to walk freely through areas that used to be choked with tangles of brush and thorns.

After dumping the cactus, I put the shovel away in the shed, because that’s how you do it. And as I was walking back to the yard gate I saw a glint of blue in the dirt near the collapsed remains of the old barn, commonly called the Shack.

We have found all kinds of stuff near the Shack–bits of glass, scraps of wire, pieces of rusted metal. Sometimes we find nice things, like an old plowshare, usable hand tools, a weathervane topper shaped like a horse, and a random letter E. None of the rest of the alphabet has ever turned up, but the E is now adorning Emilie’s room, along with the little metal horse. Sometimes we find baffling or terrifying things, like disembodied dead-eyed doll heads (many of these). The various items just surface from time to time, especially after rain, like some bizarre volunteer crop. We never know what interesting/useless/creepy thing we’re going to find next.

You're welcome.

You’re welcome.

What I found that day was a marble, clear and blue as a drop of June sky. I brought it inside, washed it up, and rubbed some oil on it to smooth out any surface imperfections. If I hadn’t dug up any cactus that day, maybe I never would have found it. Maybe a horse would have stepped on it and pushed it back into the ground, or knocked it over to the trash bin a few feet away.

And maybe God sent it to me as a bit of encouragement, a drop of sky in a broader sense. I tend to place great metaphysical significance in found objects–metaphysical in the sense of that which comes after the physical. That might be silly of me, but we are not strictly rational beings. And God knows the importance I place on my various rocks and sticks and bits of lichen and such, and I believe he has used them to gladden and encourage me before.

There’s a lot more cactus to be dug up, and a lot more mesquite to be chainsawed and weeds to be pulled and fence to be built. The work just goes on and on, and the land is constantly trying to take back what we’ve tamed. But we are making progress–good, substantial, satisfying progress. And the skydrop is in my study now, nestled against a white candle on a cut-glass saucer, reminding me of the gentian-colored bluebonnets we get at our place every spring and of the blue-eyed grass I loved in North Texas and still miss. There is disorder and sorrow and trouble in the world, but God has not abandoned his creation. He will restore all things beautifully in his time.

skydrop

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it.

Isaiah 45:8

 

Small Talk at the Feed Store

The two bags of horse feed had been loaded into the trunk of my daughter’s Honda Accord at the drive-through feed store, and there was nothing left for the employee to do but take my payment and give me my hand-written receipt. But I had chosen to write a check, and this threw a kink into the works by drawing the transaction out longer than expected. The employee struck me as a taciturn fellow but seemed to consider it his duty to break up the prolonged silence.

He ventured a remark on the weather. I believe his exact wording was, “Hot.”

It was an abrupt, hasty little syllable, and I was a bit surprised at being addressed, but I readily agreed. It was indeed hot.

Another silence fell. I said, “Scorpions been comin’ into the house.”

He agreed in turn. Hot, dry weather makes the scorpions head indoors, and everyone around here knows it.

After another pause, he said, “Demon.”

“What’s that?” I asked. For a moment I thought he was suggesting that scorpions were of demonic origin, which is an idea of some merit, but not one I personally hold to.

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Revelation 9:10–“And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.” Well, well.

“Spray ’em with Demon,” he elaborated. In an intuitive flash I inferred that Demon must be the name of an insecticide.

“I just step on ’em,” I said. I may or may not have felt a bit smug. Scorpions, snakes, spiders, they just don’t scare me like they do some people.

The guy nodded admiringly.

“Or let the cats catch ’em and eat ’em,” I added.

“Tough cats,” he said.

“Yep,” I said. It’s true. One cat in particular, a three-legged fellow we had years ago, was the scorpion-eatingest cat I ever saw. His energy and industry were really admirable, and much appreciated, as he was providing a valuable service to the family.

This guy.

This guy.

I considered mentioning this cat now but decided not to. A three-legged cat who catches and eats scorpions isn’t something you just toss into the conversation and move on. A cat like that requires explanation, exclamation, counter-remarks, and so on. It’s all very tiring and time-consuming.

“Well, I have to spray for ’em,” the guy said. He sounded almost apologetic, bested in valor by my cats. “I’m allergic to ’em.”

“Mmm,” I said sympathetically.

And with that, my check was written. I handed it over, the guy gave me my receipt, and we were good to go. The social contract had been fulfilled.

The guy scuttled off, and I got back in the Honda. The driver’s side window was down. No sooner had I shut the door than a second employee appeared from I know not where.

“Sorry, you sorta sneaked up on me,” he said sheepishly through the open driver’s side window. “What can I get for you?”

“Oh, I’m already taken care of,” I said. “You’re good.”

“Oh, okay,” he said. He walked off, then said over his shoulder as an afterthought, “Thank you.”

I did not reply with an automatic-but-inappropriate “Thank you!” I started the car and drove off, feeling successful on the whole, and took the feed home where we both belonged.

Times of Refreshment, With Quacks of Joy

The specter of drought is always present in Texas, even when we’re having plenty of rain. During those rare times when it rains to the point of inconvenience, and we comment on it, we’re always quick to add, “Not that I’m complaining!” A rural Texan being swept off in a torrent of floodwaters would probably feel compelled to say, “Well, we did need the rain.”

Lately we’ve been dealing with not just the specter but the reality of drought. Even the oak trees, stalwart and hardy, are showing signs of stress. There’s not much grass for the horses or cattle, and the big stock pond, which Greg filled with catfish and perch a few months back, has gotten low.

Weather is cyclical, but not in the sense of things repeating themselves in strict and tidy patterns. Averages are just averages, not some sort of natural law, and things deviate farther and more frequently from the expected norm than we’d like. When Greg was a boy that big stock tank never went dry; now it frequently does. It’s sad to see the water receding from dry banks and getting dark and scummy in the low center before vanishing altogether in a damp bit of cracked black clay.

This morning I woke at 4:30 to let the dogs out. I stood a moment with the front door open, wondering what that sound was. When a drought goes on long enough you actually forget the sound of rain.

We had no social plans for Memorial Day, no cookouts to be rained out. I had knitting projects and plenty of yarn; Greg had a number of jobs around the place that could be accomplished just as well in rainy weather. His big outbuilding has become a catchall for tools, horse tack, gardening supplies, random trash, and cats. With a fresh breeze and plenty of animals for company, he knocked out some repair projects and tidied up. It’s now possible to reach the feed bin without first performing a contortionist’s act around the four-wheeler.

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And we like for feed to be easy to reach.

I decided I’d had enough of knitting directly from twisty yarn skeins and dealing with the resulting tangles. I looked online, found instructions for how to make a center-pull yarn ball, and got to it. One of the skeins was already pretty messed up; untangling it took a lot longer than getting it into ball form. Well, that’s a lesson for next time: wind the yarn right away. We don’t start out knowing everything in any discipline. We learn as we go.

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Mmm, yes. Quite.

I, too, had plenty of animal company. Dogs and cats contribute little of a positive nature to the process of winding yarn, but they are willing and enthusiastic participants. Ginny the Chihuahua stayed especially close. Rain worries her; she likes to be snug against a person, preferably under a blanket, during storms. She would have liked it if I had settled down on the sofa with my knitting, but I had to get my yarn in shape first. I put two chairs back to back, spread out the tangled yarn on the dining table, worked some out, wound some it around the chairs, stopped to untangle again, and wound some more. Wanting to be as near me as possible, Ginny sat on one of the chairs. Later, when Daniel came home, he saw the whole set-up from across the room and thought for a moment that I was lashing Ginny to the chair like a little prisoner.

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From that angle, an easy mistake.

I worked with the windows open, and what sounded at first like quacks of delight coming from the direction of the creek turned out to be exactly that. The ducks were glad of the rain too. They quacked steadily for hours. Once I had my yarn taken care of I stood outside on the back porch a while and just listened.

Today is Memorial Day. The whole idea behind memorial, behind memory, is calling to mind things that aren’t happening anymore, things that ought to be remembered. Like the weather, life has its cycles: loss and renewal, dearth and plenty, sacrifice and reward. And as with weather, the patterns aren’t predictable or tidy. Sometimes the one doing the sacrificing doesn’t get to reap the reward. Sometimes your allotted days don’t allow you to hear the dissonance resolved or to see the purpose and beauty emerge in a design that looks like chaos. Hope is what bridges the gap—the hope that God is good and will make all things right, in this life or in the life to come.

The young nation of Israel that wandered through the wilderness in the book of Exodus gets a lot of flack from modern churchgoers, but I wonder which of us in the same circumstances would do better or as well. They didn’t know how the story would end; the God of Abraham was still largely an unknown quantity to them. They had a promise and the testimony of some compelling miracles, yes, but the future was still the future, not an accomplished fact. God allowed them to run out of water, to experience genuine privation, to have real cause for fear and doubt. If he hadn’t, they’d have had no opportunity to demonstrate faith.

Faith is a challenge by definition. It means hanging in there on the strength of a promise, often when everything around you looks like a reason to give up. I know a lot of people right now who are clinging to faith and longing for times of refreshment. I pray that those times will come, and soon, for all of us.

The rain came down steadily for most of the day, and more is expected for the rest of the week. Greg drove by the stock tank and said it’s looking good. He may get to go fishing in October after all.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

~Genesis 8:22

 Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it.

~Isaiah 45:8

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