A Game for 2 Players: Risk and Relationship in Zathura

While feeling under the weather last week, I crawled into bed with my laptop and watched Zathura for the first time in six years. There’s nothing esoteric about this film; it’s a cozy, good-looking, action-packed, well-paced movie for kids, or adults in need of comfort. It’s a closed-room drama, taking place entirely in a home—albeit one that spends most of the story floating around in outer space—and centering exclusively on a family, a father and three children. A robot and some space lizards show up partway through, but all the human characters are part of the same family.

zathura house in space

The film opens agreeably enough, with ten-year-old Walter playing catch with his father while six-year-old Danny watches from the porch steps. Father and son are smiling and relaxed. Walter is good at catching and throwing, and dialogue is confined to remarks like “Nice grab.”

Suddenly the dad announces that Walter’s time is up. Walter protests, but his dad tells him he’s had his twenty-five throws and it’s Danny’s turn now. “That’s not fair,” Walter says. His dad replies, “It’s exactly fair.” Danny tells his brother, “You’re not the only one who gets a turn.” Walter mimics him in a whiny sing-song; the dad tells them to stop. He needs to get on with Danny’s turn so he can work for an hour and get ready for a presentation that afternoon. Playing catch with his boys is only one item on a full to-do list. In a matter of moments, the happy family scene has soured.

Unlike Walter, Danny can’t catch or throw well. His dad makes excuses for him, incorrectly blaming himself for a bad throw, and offers a constant stream of instruction and encouragement that Walter didn’t need. Clearly, twenty-five throws for Danny will be a slow and agonizing thing for Walter to watch. Walter is visibly angry; it’s like he’s being punished for competence. This is the universal and unwinnable struggle of parenthood: trying to divide limited time, attention, and resources among kids who aren’t the same and never will be. No matter how hard the dad tries to be fair, he will never really succeed. Someone will always feel cheated.

zathura boys sofa

Tensions escalate inside the house. It’s a lovely old spacious Craftsman bungalow, filled with nooks, bookcases, hardwood paneling, enormous fireplaces, a dumbwaiter, and a huge basement, but the boys don’t like it; they think it’s creepy. Walter tells his dad, “I like Mom’s better.” His dad replies, “Well, so did she, and now it’s hers.”

Family conflict drives this plot. It’s the force behind everything that happens. The parents’ divorce, though seldom spoken of directly, poisons the atmosphere, aggravating the rivalry between the brothers. Walter and Danny have their established patterns of hostility, and they fight by rote like an old married couple deep in the grip of mutual contempt. Walter is abrupt and vicious; Danny cheats and manipulates. They are habitually competitive, seeing themselves strictly in comparison to each other. When Danny laments that Walter is better than he is at sports, his father consoles him by praising his vivid imagination, and Danny asks, “Is it better than Walter’s?”

Eventually the brothers’ enmity turns physical, destroying their father’s work project. Worn and frustrated, the dad leaves for the office to print another copy. The boys are now alone except for a terrifying teenage sister, played by a surprisingly expressive pre-Twilight Kristin Stewart. One of the funniest things about this film is that resentful as the brothers are of each other, they are united in their fear of Lisa. Even after meteors wreck the living room and the house is discovered to be adrift in space, the boys quail at the prospect of waking their sleeping sister.

Pictured: acting.

Pictured: acting.

The weirdness starts when Danny finds a board game called Zathura: A Space Adventure. It has an appealingly retro fifties sci-fi look, with metal spaceship markers, an analog control panel, and a hand-cranked key. Danny asks Walter to play it with him, but Walter dismisses it with barely a glance, saying it’s for babies. He’s not even capable of evaluating the game on its own merits; he rejects it because Danny likes it.

zathura game box danny walter

Danny starts playing anyway. He turns the key and presses the red GO button; the game spits out a card printed on yellowed paper, and the red spaceship advances on the board. The card reads, Meteor shower. Take evasive action. Moments later, actual meteors start punching through the ceiling and destroying the house. It doesn’t take the boys long to figure out that whatever the cards say ends up happening in real life.

zathura meteors

Walter finds instructions printed inside the box. Do you have what it takes to navigate the galaxy? It’s not for the faint of heart. For once you embark upon your journey, there’s no turning back until Zathura’s reached. Pieces reset at the end of each game. Walter deduces that the only way out is through, and if they keep playing the game to the end, they’ll make it back home and everything will be all right.

Walter’s logic is sound, but Danny abandons the game, which, besides the meteor shower, has by now produced a homicidal robot and frozen Lisa in cryogenic sleep. Walter pleads and reasons, but Danny refuses to play, saying, “All I know is that when we play this game, bad things happen.” Walter can’t advance the game by himself because it’s not his turn. As it says on the box, Zathura is A GAME FOR 2 PLAYERS.

zathura game board 2

This is a poignant picture of the tragedy of divorce: the story stops because someone quits. It doesn’t “finish” in the sense of reaching fulfillment and completion at the end of a long life of vows faithfully and lovingly kept; it just ceases and doesn’t resume. Marriage, like Zathura, is a game for two players, and if one of them leaves the game, no one can move on. The focus of Zathura is the relationship between the brothers, but the specter of the parents’ failed marriage is never far off.

Eventually Danny agrees to play again, and the game spits out some more cards, which quickly become reality. The cards don’t appear to get reused; they are freshly generated turn by turn, making the game open to infinite possibilities. Soon the boys are visited by Zorgons, enormous man-eating space lizards, but in the next move they rescue a stranded astronaut who has been stuck in the game for fifteen years and knows how to keep the Zorgons away. Overall, things are looking up.

zathura astronaut

Then betrayal brings their progress to a hideous grinding halt. While no one’s watching, Danny cheats by moving his spaceship game piece ahead on the board.

Walter is furious. The astronaut tries to smooth things over, but diplomacy is useless. Danny really did cheat; no amount of mitigation will change that. Worse still, when Walter moves his brother’s game piece back where it belongs, the game accuses him of cheating and ejects him right out of the house.

Of course this isn’t fair. If anyone should be ejected from the game, it’s the one who actually did the cheating. But here again, the game mimics marriage. One person cheats, the other suffers. That’s how cheating works.

The astronaut manages to get Walter back into the house, but Danny’s betrayal rankles. And on his next turn, Walter gets an opportunity for revenge.

From the beginning of the film the boys have made no secret of their grievances with each other, and they have acted on them with ruthless consistency. Danny wants to be better than Walter, so he cheats to get ahead of him. Walter just resents Danny’s very existence. He wishes his brother had never been born. When he draws a gold card that says Shooting star, make a wish as it passes, he has a chance to make his wish come true.

The astronaut manages to talk him out of it, and once the crisis is past he reveals that fifteen years ago, he, too, drew a gold card and wished his own brother out of existence. He’s been stuck in the game ever since, alone with his remorse, battling Zorgons and getting sucked through time sphincters, unable to advance or go home. He is Walter, future Walter, Walter as he will become if he remains on his present course. And present ten-year-old Walter holds the power to show mercy and make things right for everyone.


People make much of the importance of communication in relationships, and it really is important, but free and accurate expression of thoughts and emotions will only take us so far. Our problem is not merely (or even mostly) that we fail to communicate clearly; our problem is that we are selfish beings. Danny really does cheat and whine and use weakness to make people feel sorry for him; Walter has a runaway temper. They don’t have some epiphany of renewed understanding at the end of the film; they’ve understood each other pretty well all along, and throughout the game, each has had to deal with the other’s very real faults, made worse by the additional stress of being pelted by meteors and pursued by Zorgons. By the time the credits roll they haven’t really demonstrated any improved behavior, but things are not as they were. Danny has finally owned up to his cheating and apologized for it, and Walter has decided that whatever Danny’s faults may be, the two of them are brothers, and as such they will take care of each other.

As I rewatched this movie, I found myself thinking about an ebook I’d read recently called Romance in a Month: Guide to Writing a Romance in 30 Days. (Don’t judge. It’s a good book.) In one chapter the author outlines the plot points of a romance novel. (Are you judging? Don’t do that. Plot points are useful tools of craft, and after reading about these I was able to identify them in the works of Jane Austen.)

After the Meet, wherein the hero and heroine…well…meet, there is something called the Lock-In, wherein something compels them to spend significant time together whether they want to or not. Next comes the Main Conflict, which can be tied to circumstances but ought to arise primarily from clashes between the core values of the two characters. This conflict will not be easily resolved. Because of the characters’ growing attraction, though, they ignore the conflict as long as they can or adopt some temporary compromise, and soon they reach the Realization Point, at which time they realize that they are more than friends and cannot back out without emotional pain. Whatever happens next, life cannot go back to how it was before. The conflict escalates; it can no longer be smoothed over or ignored; and the characters go through the Big Bad Breakup. The breakup ought not to be some flimsy thing based on simple misunderstanding; it should be an occasion for genuine grief, and all hope should appear to be lost.

And then comes something really beautiful, something that could not exist apart from the raw anguish of the breakup: the Grand Romantic Moment. One of the characters—or both characters, if it happens to work out that way—must make a move to restore the relationship. The author must not do some cheap deus ex machina thing where circumstances suddenly conspire to bring the hero and heroine together and remove their difficulties. At this point both characters want desperately to be together, but neither knows how the other feels. Whoever takes the initiative undergoes real and tremendous risk. There could be exquisite fulfillment and lasting happiness ahead, or a fresh wave of rejection, humiliation, and pain. There is no way of knowing until the move is made.

Marriage is an arrangement not unlike Zathura. It is a decision to bind your fate to that of a fellow fallible human being in a thing where you will see each other at your absolute best and worst. Do you have what it takes? It’s not for the faint of heart. There will be trouble, and possibly man-eating lizards, but also high adventure, breathtaking spacescapes, and depths of love and trust you never knew were possible.

zathura go button

A Really Awesome Fan Theory About Robby the Robot

There’s a scene in Forbidden Planet where Robby the Robot meets up with the ship’s cook from the C-57-D to deliver 480 pint bottles of Kansas City bourbon, which Robby synthesized at the cook’s request. The delighted cook swallows a mouthful, coughs, splutters, and chokes out the words, “It’s smooth, too!” Overcome by gratitude, he adds, “Robby, I ain’t never gonna forget this. Any time you’re hard up for lube oil, let me know.”

Then they both hear a strange noise, a high-pitched insectile hum, quiet but ominous, and getting louder. The cook asks Robby, “What’s up? Somebody coming this way?”

Robby’s head swivels slowly and thoughtfully to the side, toward the viewer. “No, sir,” he replies. “Nothing coming this way.”

robby and cook

But something is coming, and Robby knows better than anyone what it is. Why does he keep quiet? He isn’t acting on orders from Morbius, because Morbius himself doesn’t know the truth about the monster. Something more than Asimov’s Laws of Robotics is at work here. This is a robot keeping his own counsel and acting as he thinks best.

“Only a rational creature is capable of deliberate deceit.” Dr. Merrinoe says this in The Invisible Boy when asked if the supercomputer could be lying to him. Robby says the same thing near the end of that film. But the supercomputer is capable of it, and so is Robby.

I keep coming back to the subject of this robot. I’ve already written about him here, here, here, and here, and evidently I’m not done yet. There is so much about him that doesn’t quite add up, so many minute apparent inconsistencies throughout Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. But they’re not sloppy inconsistencies; there is a pattern, an internal logic being respected. Important questions about the nature of the robot are never resolved and often not asked, merely implied, and left hanging for us to do with what we will.

Consider Robby’s interaction with Alta. When she hastily summons him away from an oil job, he asks, “And what is it you require this time, Miss Alta?” She says she wants him to make her a new dress. He replies, “Again?”

robby and alta

That’s an awful lot of subtext for an emotionless machine. Robby doesn’t come off as truly impatient; he’s like a gruff, affectionate uncle. And Alta responds just as a beloved niece would, with dimples and wheedling charm. This is a game they play and enjoy together.

And consider what happens after Robby delivers the bourbon. The monster breaks through the force field around the ship and kills the ship’s chief, and the next day, Commander Adams questions the cook. He knows now that the cook was let out of the force field perimeter, contrary to orders, and that he returned drunk. (Interestingly, the cook reports that despite drinking four pints of bourbon the night before, he has no hangover. Could Robby have synthesized hangover-free bourbon in meticulous fulfillment of Law 1?)

The cook says he was gone during the murder, drinking with Robby; he even goes so far as to say Robby talked him into it. “Him and me, we kind of got to toasting each other’s good health…just for cordial interplanetary relations, you understand.” We have only the cook’s word for this, but let’s assume he’s telling the truth, that the two of them drank together at Robby’s suggestion. What does that mean? We know Robby can consume alcohol in a fashion; earlier we saw him pour the better part of a pint of the cook’s original supply of bourbon into a mouth-like aperture to analyze it for synthesis. But Robby as drinking buddy is a strain on the imagination. Could Robby have been providing himself an alibi? It’s true that after hearing that Robby and the cook were together when the chief was killed, Adams no longer considers the robot a suspect, and the Third Law would require Robby to protect himself as long as he can do so without harming humans or disobeying a human’s commands. But a robot strong enough to carry ten tons of lead shielding in one hand probably doesn’t need to concern himself with what the crew of the C-57-D can do to him, and Morbius has plenty of thermonuclear reactors back at the compound in case things get dicey. An alibi is not something Robby needs.

robby lead shielding

What if the robot is protecting the cook by preventing him from going back to the base while the monster is there? There’s no way Robby can save all the ship’s crew; the ship’s weapons aren’t enough to stop the monster, and even Robby himself, strong as he is, would be no match for a creature that is made of solid nuclear material, is dense enough to survive three billion electron volts, and is capable of renewing its molecular structure from one microsecond to the next.

id monster

And has a spiffy little Van Dyke beard just like Morbius!

But Robby can protect the cook. And he does—circumspectly, without telling the cook there’s any danger, because telling him wouldn’t do any good and would cause trouble for Morbius. As the later Big Reveal makes clear, Robby is the only who knew the true nature of the monster all along. He has had a delicate situation to balance: besides obeying Morbius (Law 2) and not allowing harm to humans (Law 1), he appears to have been protecting Morbius’s reputation, or perhaps shielding him from a horrifying truth. He has been making judgment calls, doing his best with difficult circumstances. Perhaps the decision isn’t even a conscious one at all. Is it possible that Robby himself has a subconscious?

One form of dramatic irony occurs when the viewer knows things that the characters don’t. Such is the case here. Robby is far more than the sum of his parts; the viewer knows this, but the human characters never really figure it out. Even Morbius, with his Krell-enhanced intellect, doesn’t comprehend the truth about the robot he “tinkered together.” The day Adams and two of his officers meet Robby for the first time, Morbius tells them, “Don’t attribute feeling to him, gentlemen. Robby is simply a tool.” No. He is not. He is a personality.

The last we see of Robby on Forbidden Planet, he is headed to Earth, working the astrogation deck aboard the C-57-D. There is genuine enthusiasm in his “Aye, aye, Skipper!” He has lost his master and his home, but he has a new job, crewmates, and adventure awaiting him. His future looks bright.

robby astrogator

But the next we see of him—“next” in terms of his personal timeline—he’s lying in pieces in a 1950s mathematics institute, his detached head resting on a shelf, covered with cobwebs. A photo hangs nearby, thumbtacked to a shelf. It shows Robby emerging from a starship, arms raised triumphantly, being met by crowds of people. It’s labeled Chicago Spaceport, March 16, 2309.

So what happened in between? How did Robby go from respected astrogator to sad forgotten derelict? Merrinoe gives us a few clues, though he himself seems unaware of the implications (more dramatic irony). He speaks of a former director of the institute, Dr. Greenhill, who “lost his marbles” after retirement and claimed he’d built a working time machine and brought Robby back from the future. Dr. Merrinoe is dismissive of both Greenhill and the robot; he says no one at the institute could ever get Robby to work. Commander Adams considered Robby a marvel in the 23rd century; Dr. Merrinoe calls him “a scientific joke.”

robby in pieces

Merrinoe doesn’t seem to be concealing anything here. He doesn’t mind letting Timmie play with the robot, and when Timmie gets Robby running, Merrinoe doesn’t have a problem with that either (in fact, he is amusingly nonchalant about his ten-year-old son’s sudden electronic genius). But he doesn’t know the truth.

Now consider the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy. Representing “the sum total of human knowledge, constantly being revised and brought up to date,” the computer is far more powerful than any actual 1950s computer. Of course, that’s only to be expected; this wouldn’t have been much of a film if the computer had been typical of the era—like the ENIAC of 1946, which had a “clock speed” of 100 kHz, or one tenth of a MHz.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there's that.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there’s that.

But maybe there’s more to it than sci-fi narrative license. Even Robby seems awestruck by the computer, and Robby was designed and put together by a 24th-century brainiac with an artificially enhanced intellect who had a huge lab and the technology and wisdom of an enormously advanced alien civilization. This computer gives advice on parenting, child development, and national defense, always answering in ways that advance its own agenda. In fact, Merrinoe eventually realizes the computer has been suggesting changes to its own design for decades—modifications to its forebrain, whose functions (if it’s anything like a human forebrain) include creativity, rational decision-making, goal-setting, social judgment, and memory.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum

It appears that the computer achieved rationality deliberately, by bringing about changes that enabled personality to take hold. But how could it do that, or even want to do that, without already having some degree of personality? By suggesting the changes, it acted deceitfully; Merrinoe speaks of its “patient slyness.” But as Robby and Merrinoe both remind us, only a rational being is capable of deliberate deceit. So was the computer rational before it suggested the changes? And if so, why would it need the changes to be made? Perhaps the rationality was there all along and the changes merely expanded the computer’s intellect. But in that case, where did the rationality come from?

And how about Robby? After lying, playing, and protecting his way through Forbidden Planet, he does another remarkable thing in The Invisible Boy: he refuses to hurt Timmie after the supercomputer orders him to. By this time the computer has overridden Robby’s basic directive (the one that keeps him from hurting people) and established a mind-control link with him. We’ve seen Robby obey the computer’s orders to nab scientists and military personnel and implant them with mind-control devices. But when the computer says to gouge out Timmie’s eyeballs, Robby freezes up in a Manchurian candidate-style internal struggle.

robot timmie eyes

Imagine the robot’s arms convulsively twitching.

How does Robby do this? How can he thwart his own programming? True, it’s not his original programming, but the supercomputer is smart enough to make a good job of the rewrite.

I see a couple of possibilities here. Way back at the opening of Forbidden Planet, almost three hundred years in the linear future and an unknown interval in Robby’s personal past, Alta Morbius had lived her entire life on Altair 4, with only her father, some animals, and Robby for companions. Robby helped raise Alta. He has a history of caring for a child, and he has built up habits of patience and nurture and dry robotic playfulness. Surely Robby’s interaction with Timmie revives memories of Alta’s childhood. Would it be fair to suppose that long patterns of habit contribute to character in a robot, as they do in a person? Maybe the supercomputer’s order to hurt Timmie, basic directive or no, is too much of a departure from Robby’s established character.

But even that explanation falls short. Habit helps determine character, but it can be thrown off in a moment for the right incentive. Could it be that Robby is acting out of free will? I think it must be.

In that case, we’re back to the earlier question about the supercomputer. Where does all this rationality and intentionality and free will—this personhood—come from? That question can’t be fully answered. We are basically talking about the spark of life here, and although I would like to go off on a wild and largely irrelevant tangent about the making of the Dwarves by Aulë the Smith in The Silmarillion, so far I am resisting admirably. Suffice it to say that while we might reasonably point out that Robby’s maker had access to the learning and technology of the fabulously advanced Krell, ultimately the origin of the spark remains a mystery, and is meant to.

krell thermonuclear generators

But the origin of the supercomputer’s spark is less mysterious. To find it, we will piece together events that must or might have happened in between Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy.

The most pressing question about that time period is, how did Robby end up dismantled at the institute? Greenhill’s photo shows him making it back to Earth from Altair 4 in one piece. What happened next?

What happened next is that at some point, either in the 24th century or back in the 20th, some Earth scientists got hold of Robby, took him apart, and started reverse-engineering the heck out of him. Greenhill may or may not have been part of this. I tend to think Robby was already dismantled before Greenhill took him to the past, because no one in the 20th century was able to get him back together, and if Greenhill had taken him apart he ought to know how to reverse the process, but other interpretations are possible. I can’t help but think of Gandalf telling Saruman, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

If you're patient, you'll usually find it's possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

If you’re patient, you’ll usually find it’s possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

Greenhill makes it back to the 20th century and takes Robby to the institute, and for some reason—maybe a disagreement over the ethics of how to deal with Robby?—the institute takes Robby and discredits Greenhill, passing him off as a washed-out nut job. The staff at the institute is unable to get Robby together again, but they learn much from studying his innards, and with that knowledge they build the supercomputer. The supercomputer is Robby’s technological descendant.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

We know the computer is at least twenty-nine years old, so it was built in 1928 at the latest. Merrinoe is too young to have been involved, which would explain his lack of enthusiasm for the robot; he doesn’t know Robby really is from the future.

So the computer was engineered from Robby, who for whatever reason already had personhood. The computer’s personhood was inherited! Robby doesn’t know this—he was in pieces at the time—but the computer knows. It was the computer that gave Timmie the idea, and the ability, to get the robot running again. The computer needed Robby to be its hands and feet in the world of men; the similarity of their interfaces made communication simple.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

The computer overrides Robby’s basic directive, changes his programming, and basically makes a minion of him for a while. But when the computer tells Robby to hurt Timmie, things come to a grinding halt. Earlier Robby said of the computer, “It is very great. It is beyond me.” That may be, but Robby is older and wiser. The computer doesn’t know the Deeper Magic, so to speak.

Robby refuses to do the computer’s bidding, his basic directive gets reinstated, and all the drone-people get their mind-control gadgets removed, allowing the balance of power to shift back to Merrinoe. But the computer has one more trick up its console. As Merrinoe is about to destroy it with an axe, the computer starts up a display of flashing lights. It puts Merrinoe in a hypnotic trance, as it did earlier to Timmie, and seduces him with promises of dazzling, mind-blowing knowledge. Then, with Timmie and Merrinoe both helpless, it tells Robby to strike them both down so that it might rise again to dominate not only humanity but all life on earth and throughout the universe. Instead, the robot smashes the computer right in the experimental feedback tubes!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

No one told Robby to do that, and the computer just told him to do something completely different. This time Robby isn’t just refraining from following a bad command; he’s taking positive action. He’s not just a person, but a proactive and well-realized one.

None of this theory is essential to the plot of either movie, but it holds together well and fits the internal logic of both, while adding an extra layer of depth to the stories—which, by the way, were written by the same screenwriter, Cyril Hume. The Invisible Boy actually points us in this direction with a couple of lines of easily forgotten dialogue. Merrinoe has been explaining about Greenhill and his wacky time-travel story. Timmie suddenly looks thoughtful and actually stands up from his chair to say, “But if somebody did go to the future, and learned something there, and then came back out, wouldn’t that change now?”

Merrinoe ponders this, then says, “Well, I guess it would at that. Even old Greenhill never thought of that one.”

Part of me thinks, Come on, Merrinoe, keep up. This is just a basic time-travel paradox here. Then again, why does the possibility have to be mentioned at all? It’s not as if wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff becomes a real issue with the plot; in fact, the time travel is never mentioned again. But there it is, mentioned in a way that gives point to the possibility, but not dwelt on long enough to bog down the story. Viewers are invited to think the thing through if they wish.

Come to think of it, what else would change about now, if the U.S. had access to Krell-inspired tech in the midst of the Cold War? The computer is destroyed at the end of The Invisible Boy, but Robby is still around, and Merrinoe plans to build another computer. How will that affect the future, which is Robby’s past? What will change about the time period of Forbidden Planet? Will the C-57-D ever take off at all? How about the Bellerephon, the ship that took the original colony to Altair 4? What will happen to Morbius and Alta and Adams? Will they even be born? Will Robby ever get made? What will happen and not happen in the alternate reality initiated by that unseen, unknown, time-traveling Dr. Greenhill?

It isn’t often that a movie generates this many questions, suppositions, and additional questions. Well done, Mr. Hume!

The “I” in AI

Back in the seventies, my dad managed the local branch of a national lumber company. The building had a computer that took up an entire room. To communicate with it, you punched little slots into cards which were then manually fed into the computer’s maw. It lived alone in its lair, giving off a constant whirring racket. And when it broke down, the company had to fly in a computer guy from out of state, and this guy was revered like some kind of swami. And when that guy couldn’t fix it, they flew in another guy. I think it ended up being a total of three or four guys before the problem was fixed, and each time a new one appeared the hierarchy shifted and an erstwhile big genius got relegated to getting coffee.

It was a weird decade.

It was a weird decade.

I thought about that computer while watching The Invisible Boy. This film, released in 1957, features a sentient supercomputer that wants to rule the world. The computer takes up not one but two large rooms, with an additional 5300 cubic yards of microtransistors overhead and a wall of glass tubes connected to feedback units. The main console has huge panels filled with flashing lights, switches, levers, and dials. According to Dr. Merrinoe, its operator, this computer represents “the sum total of human knowledge, constantly being revised and brought up to date.”

Well! That probably makes it more powerful than the computer at my dad’s office, let alone any real-life 1950s computers. One 1959 model with the catchy name of PDP-1 stored data on those punched cards and had a memory of 9 kilobytes, which is less than 10% of what might be used today to store one photo of average size. And the 1970s computer at my dad’s office had less processing power than a graphing calculator. (I guess. Actually I kind of pulled that last bit out of the air. When I asked a friend in the tech industry for a valid point of comparison, he replied that in terms of processing, memory, and static storage, modern computers are exponentially larger than 1950s counterparts to such a degree that he couldn’t even think of a metaphor.)

The idea of a piece of tech becoming sentient and turning on its makers is one we’ve all seen explored lots of times in story form—Hal, Skynet, Ultron, replicants, the Omnidroid, the Machines. My introduction to the concept was probably Tron. But here it is in a movie made way back in 1957. Clearly our uneasiness with artificial intelligence has a long history.

And no wonder. Computers have been bound up with national defense right from the get-go. In 1950, after President Truman green-lit plans to develop a hydrogen bomb, atomic scientists needed a way to work mathematical calculations of enormous complexity, beyond the capabilities of mechanical calculators. A new machine based on vacuum tubes was put to work on the job, and later improvements to such machines led to the development of computers. (This strikes me a bit like inventing calculus so you can study planetary motion, as Sir Isaac Newton reportedly did. These math guys are awfully thorough.)

In the 1950s American mind, then, computers were inextricably linked to the hydrogen bomb. And the hydrogen bomb was more destructive than the atomic bomb by an order of magnitude of…a lot. Sorry I can’t be more precise. I read about the difference between fission and fusion but I’m still a little fuzzy on the details.

But although I’m weak on nuclear physics, I’m fairly quick with semiotics, and I did pick up on something noteworthy while researching the H-bomb. Check out these images.

implosion nucler weaponone-point safety testU.S. Swan deviceSwedish_Atomic_Bomb

Now take a gander at the piece of hardware crowning the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy.

invisible boy computer eyes

Did you see them? Those freaky eyeballs drawn onto the glass dome for who knows what deranged and misguided purpose? They look like cross sections of nuclear bombs! (The dome itself looks an awful lot like Robby the Robot’s head, but more of that in a later post.)

The concept of artificial intelligence is far older than computers, reaching back to antiquity. Like the computers of the 1950s, the artificially intelligent beings of mythology were usually built with defense in mind. (Interestingly, one of the non-defense ones, Galatea, started off as an ivory statue that Pygmalion made and fell in love with. So the still-popular idea of artificial intelligence as romantic partner has a long history as well.) Hephaestus, Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, and metallurgy, built Talos, a walking, thinking bronze statue designed to defend the isle of Crete, which Talos did by patrolling the shores and throwing rocks at pirates and invaders. (Hephaestus also built some metal automata to serve him in his workshop, an early example of AI’s industrial applications.)

And let’s not forget the Golem—or golems, as there are many accounts of them in Jewish folklore. The name “golem” is derived from a Hebrew word for unformed material or uncultivated person. Like Adam, all golems are shaped from clay, but unlike Adam a man-made golem will never be more than a shadow of a living being created by God. The makers of golems are wise and holy people, often rabbis. Interestingly, golems are mute, but written language is the means of bringing them to “life”: any one of the Names of God, called a shem, is written on a slip of paper and inserted into the golem’s mouth, or inscribed directly onto its forehead. To shut the golem down, the operator removes the paper or rubs out one of the letters on the forehead, invalidating the shem.

Golem legends are numerous and fascinating and often associated with actual historical figures. The most famous golem is the one of Prague, supposedly created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. Like Talos, and the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy, the Golem of Prague was made for defense. Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576 to 1612, had threatened to kill or exile all the Jews of the city, so Rabbi Loew made the Golem, whose powers included making himself invisible and summoning the spirits of the dead.

Like all golem stories, this one turns sour at the end. In one version of the story, the Golem desecrates the Sabbath when Rabbi Loew forgets to remove the shem in time; in another, he falls in love, is rejected, and goes on a violent rampage à la Bride of Frankenstein. In other golem accounts, the creatures crush or scar their makers, become surly and uncooperative, or take instructions too literally. In some cases the maker has second thoughts and deactivates the golem before it can do any harm. All the accounts conclude with the golems either disintegrated back to dust, or dismantled and stored in an attic somewhere.


talos golem robby

Talos, the Golem, and Robby the Robot

Frankenstein’s monster is a type of artificial intelligence. So is the One Ring, and so is Gurthang, the sword carried by Túrin Turambar in The Children of Húrin. In all these cases, the AI is closely identified with its master (the Elves actually call Túrin and Gurthang by the same name, Mormegil, or Black Sword), and the master is guilty of great hubris in making or wielding the instrument. He knows what he’s doing is problematic at best, but he does it anyway, and the instrument causes a lot of destruction and grief. And in the end, it brings about its master’s death.

Stories in which the sentience of an artificially intelligent being is treated as a positive thing exist, but they’re not as common, and when they do occur there’s still the possibility of trouble. Offhand I can think of Robby the Robot, Data (though Lore kind of cancels him out), and J.A.R.V.I.S., who I understand is going to do some awesome stuff in the next Avengers movie. And WALL·E and EVE. But our prevailing feeling toward artificial intelligence is one of deep unease.

Why? For the same reason people in the Matrix won’t accept an idyllic existence as reality and David Aames keeps messing up his lucid dream: because we know ourselves and our deserts. No matter how hard we try to smother the knowledge, it keeps rising up again, pointing an accusing finger. We are so corrupt that even our best actions have mixed motives.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulcher; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

~Romans 3:10-18

We can’t escape ourselves. And when we make a powerful tool to serve us—a tool with potential personhood, no less—we worry. What are we going to do with it? Will we use it wisely? Will we use it to extort and oppress? Or will we just get lazy and let it do all the work for us, leaving ourselves vulnerable to tyrannical takeover? And what will it do with us? Will it foul up its orders by taking instructions too literally, like the Golem, or refusing to stop, like the broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Will it fall into the wrong hands and be used against us? Will it develop a will of its own and seek to dominate us?

Fear of AI is fear of ourselves, of what our darkest impulses could accomplish with vast power and no accountability. We have begotten it; how can it escape the corruption that is bound up in our every cell? We do well to tremble.

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.

jayne hat gun

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.

tom corbett inside cover image

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.

tom astro roger circle window

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.