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When Klaatu Returns: The Day the Earth Stood Still Revisited
When Klaatu Returns
By Robert Sprackland, Ph.D.
Excerpted from Klaatu's Judgment, a manuscript in progress.
On a spring day in 1951 a spacecraft arrived on Earth carrying an envoy from "the other planets." The very human-looking alien, Klaatu, bore a message intended for all the peoples of the Earth, a message upon which depended the fate of the planet. Klaatu set out to mingle and learn something of the nature of human aggressiveness, but fearful authorities sought him out and shot him dead. Shortly afterwards, Klaatu was resurrected by his formidable giant robot companion, Gort. Finally, and all too briefly, the understandably annoyed Klaatu addressed a hastily gathered audience of intellectuals.
Earth, he said, had begun experimenting with atomic power and space travel. If humans continued on their historical course and brought the threat of atomic war off their small world, they would threaten the peace of the other planets. "This cannot be allowed," Klaatu warned, and "if you threaten to extend your violence," there would be no choice left but to reduce the world into "a burned out cinder."
"We shall be waiting for your answer," he declared. "The decision rests with you."
With that he and Gort returned to their spaceship and left.
What would happen next? There seems little doubt that Klaatu would submit a detailed situation report upon returning home. That report would probably not reflect favorably upon human beings.
I am not Klaatu, but a humble transcriber of a warning that has been delivered by someone who holds great hope for humanity. Heed it well, for your life depends upon it.
"Your life depends upon it"! What a well-worn cliché, the perennial threat made by one against another, a threat that implies a life or death choice. But this warning is no cliché; it must be taken literally, precisely as written. Yes, the decisions that we make may well affect when and how we will die, but they will certainly affect the course and opportunities of our lives. Will we live in eternal fear of terrorists in the mists, or have the financial security to care for our families? Will our world be a democracy, autocracy, theocracy, or something else? Will we begin cleaning the air and water, or suffer life-long symptoms of pollution-induced illnesses? Will our moral and ethical leaders finally focus on the extraordinary virtues and possibilities found in the human heart, or will they continue to present propaganda about "our" inherent superiority over others, all the time issuing marching orders to Hell under the guise of earning one's way into Eternal Glory?
Heed these words - our lives do depend upon it. Many people know this to be true, and some have taken Klaatu's warning to heart. Klaatu himself remains the most eloquent single character from the world of science fiction when it comes to succinctly setting forth the indictments of humanity against itself, and of the possible ignominious end that awaits "a once proud civilization." Among the greatest of the warning messages are three of particular note, all as pertinent and timely in the early 21st century as they were in the 1950s and earlier.
The War of the Worlds, by Herbert George Wells, was first published in 1898. When Wells wrote his book, Britain had the largest empire in the history of humanity, stretching across Asia, Africa, Australia, and North and South America. The British Empire was first among colonizers, whereby powerful and technologically advanced nations occupied and subsumed weaker and technologically simpler ones. Among the leading political beliefs of the time was Manifest Destiny - the idea that "advanced" peoples had the right to "care for" their simpler and more "savage" brethren:
"The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High -- the Sacred and the True."
John L. O'Sullivan on Manifest Destiny, 1839
After all, went the justification, if we don't do it then perhaps one of our competitors will. Besides, colonial lands were typically taken because of resources they could offer that could make their lords more powerful or richer, or both. Resources could include gems and precious metals, spices, places to put advance military bases, or cheap human labor. Most ruthless of the colonial powers were Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands, in whose wakes the eventually freed colonies were left with atrocious living conditions that spawned disease, war, and hopelessness rarely seen in the history of mankind. Half a century after the colonial masters withdrew, the former colonies are largely failed states ravaged by internecine wars, lethal poverty, and a level of hopelessness that a living being in the "civilized" world cannot begin to fathom. Even nations that were not particularly bent on colonialization were players in shaping a colonial world; the United States had instigated and was waging a war against Spain.
When Wells penned his story, the world was on the edge of a grand explosion of new technology. The first airplane would not be invented for six more years, and no one had yet dreamed that a laser-type weapon could become a reality. In 1898, an invasion by Martians was an incredibly new idea, and a very frightening one, too. The late 1800s was a time of many new astronomical discoveries, among which was the claim that Mars had "canals." This unfortunate choice of English words came from a poor translation of the Italian astronomer's words, for the Italian word meaning "channel" - a natural path for water caused by erosion - is nearly identical to the English word "canal." Canals, by definition, are constructed pathways for water, so the world began to accept and marvel at the idea that there were intelligent Martians. Wells was a scientific man, schooled for a time by no less a Victorian giant than Thomas Henry Huxley, who was Darwin's champion and grandfather to a family of similar geniuses.
Like some of Wells's other books, an imaginary author whose name we never learn tells the story in The War of the Worlds. Though a few other writers-including Wells himself-had written science fiction stories, Wells gave us the first account of intelligent beings from another planet and the first story of warfare between planets. Or so it seemed. In fact, Wells was using the Martians as metaphor for European colonial armies, using their great technological advantages to overwhelm and ultimately destroy a weaker intelligence. The Martians were the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, or British themselves, while the humans were the Zulus, Hindus, Papuans, and Indians.
To get an idea of the feelings behind Wells and like-minded people, consider the way we, a reading audience, would react to his opening paragraph from The War of the Worlds:
"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."
To bring my intent to a fine point, let us re-read that same opening as if "we" were the Tasmanian aboriginals of the 1850s, and the Martians are the British who are colonizing Australia (replaced words in bold face):
"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this island was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than ours and yet as mortal as us; that as Tasmanians busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a hunter with his keen eyes might scrutinise the transient footprints that swarm and multiply across a favored hunting site. With infinite complacency Tasmanians went to and fro over this island about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the too-tiny-to-hunt prey do the same. No one gave a thought to the lands as sources of Tasmanian danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of hostile peoples upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most Tasmanian men fancied there might be other men upon distant shores, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of ocean, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this island with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us."
Even after the passage of forty years, the possibilities of the invaders depicted in The War of the Worlds remained plausible to much of humanity. On Halloween night in 1938 (the same year Superman made his first appearance), a producer named Orson Welles (no relation to H. G. Wells) broadcast a realistic live radio play based on Wells's book. It was so real that many people in New York and New Jersey thought it was an actual news broadcast. From coast to coast, Americans looked to the skies to see invading spaceships, or scanned the horizon for signs of a nearby town set ablaze by the Martians.
In 1951 came the first of the modern science fiction films. The Day the Earth Stood Still was very loosely based on the short story "Farewell to the Master," written by Harry Bates for the October 1940 issue of Astounding magazine. The screenplay stands as a completely new story, though both share a central character named Klaatu. The important features of the story have been recounted in the introduction to this volume.
When The Day the Earth Stood Still was released to theaters in 1951, neither the United States nor Soviet Union had launched spacecraft yet-that wouldn't start for seven more years-but people worried about the possible invention of terrible new weapons that could attack from orbit. The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first movie in which the central character was the alien, and the first science fiction film that wasn't about "bug-eyed monsters" that came to earth to eat people. The story is told from Klaatu's perspective, which is also a departure from earlier works, including the Bates original. The giant robot makes a dramatic appearance, but his real role is not disclosed until the end of the movie. The phrase that Klaatu teaches the woman helping him get to his spaceship, "Klaatu barada nicto" (presumably meaning something like "go to plan B"), has become one of the most famous in all of science fiction.
The main point of the story is that Klaatu, representing "the other planets," has been sent as an emissary to tell Earth that it is not alone; that it would be welcomed among its peaceful neighbors; but it must abandon war and all forms of violence before setting off into space. If not, a ship like Klaatu's and a robot-policeman like Gort will turn the Earth "into a burning cinder... the choice is yours." Most of the film depicts Klaatu's time among humans, blending in and trying to understand something of this highly technological but culturally backward species. Klaatu admits that he has no tolerance for stupidity, and we can easily imagine him, had he come in 1960 and visited the United Nations, cutting short the Soviet Premier's tirade with the words "Oh, Mister Krushev, put your shoe on and sit down!"
Five years later, Hollywood took another chance on a science fiction film with a serious storyline and no "bug-eyed monsters." This time, though, the point of view returned to humans. Forbidden Planet, based on a story by Irving Block and Allen Adler and filmed in 1956, was also produced before the United States and Soviet Union started their "space race." Many aspects of the film are very similar to the Star Trek TV series that would air ten years later. The spaceship has the ability to travel faster than the speed of light, the ship and crew's weapons are energy beams, and the rescue ship is manned by a naval-based group of men. The Captain Kirk-like leader of the group was played by actor Leslie Nielsen, who was not only a very close friend of the actor who would eventually play Scotty on Star Trek, but go on to make his name as a comedian. The story is a futuristic version of a Shakespeare play called "The Tempest," and involves castaways and a powerful, mysterious "force." One of the characters is named Morbius, which is Latin and means a disease or something deadly. Robby, the robot, has a sometimes-comical part, but he is very important to the story's main message.
In Forbidden Planet, the crew of a spacecraft from Earth is sent to investigate the fate of a colony that had settled on the planet Altair IV two decades earlier. When they arrive, they are met by survivor, Dr. Edward Morbius, his daughter, an unbelievably complex robot, and the remains of a long-dead civilization. Using machines from the underground city, Morbius had long ago accidentally increased the capacity of his brain, such that he could unconsciously tap into and control the limitless power still available from the alien technology. However, his subconscious mind is still "a savage" and uncontrollable, and he uses it - unknowingly - against the rescuers and his daughter when she decides to leave with them to see Earth for herself. Only by sacrificing himself to the horrible monster created by his own subconscious id does Morbius save his daughter and the survivors of the rescue party.
What Morbius realized only at the very end was that the primitive subconscious we all retain from our earliest ancestors was something we could not control. When we slept, or our emotions were aroused, those primal urges gained strength. But most people keep their primal id selves in check, so what caused the homicidal beast from Morbius's subconscious to become manifest? The long-dead Krell civilization had been working on technology that would eliminate the need for them to depend on physical efforts: instead, the thoughts in their minds would be made real by the use of a huge super-reactor and computer system. The machine would provide whatever power was needed to make the thought of any individual able to accomplish any task. When Morbius increased his "IQ" on the Krell machine, he also unknowingly connected his mind to the super machine. Only near the end of his life did Morbius understand that the Krell had actually succeeded in building their machine, and it immediately obeyed the subconscious-and primal-thoughts of every Krell. Hence, the once great and benevolent race disappeared in a single night.
In Forbidden Planet, the lesson of the Krell and their technology is a familiar story. Do we, the "wise" civilizations, build and employ technologies far faster than we can understand them and insure our ability to "pull the plug" if things go awry? Has anyone yet found a way to un-invent the machine gun, tank, or nuclear missile? Are we, today, much different from the fictional Krell?
We have seen three very different story lines. An invasion by overwhelming colonizers, a firm warning to live peacefully or die, and the ability to jeopardize everyone around you with the greed and lustfulness that lies deep in each one of us. Yet in each case there is a common and clear message, summed up colorfully by cartoonist Walt Kelly: "We have met the enemy, and they is us!" In The War of the Worlds, the Martians are metaphors for colonizing European nations, while in the other stories the authors provide no refuge for people to hide from their own actions. In each story, human actions and not aliens are the villains. In each story line, the most important message comes down to this:
Wherever we go or whatever we do, we humans are always our own worst enemy. Given the state of our world and civilization, we really need to learn to hasten the business of becoming friends with ourselves, because even if we never receive a threat from "out there," we have a great many serious threats to handle here and now. What will we do?
"We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."
Copyright© 2008 by Robert George Sprackland, Ph.D.