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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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Ratings
Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

The Thing From Another World
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Thing From Another World (***) by Charles Lederer, loosely based on the story "Who Goes There" by John W. Campbell, Jr.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (***) by Edmund H. North, loosely based on the story "Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates
In politics, I'm a warm, fuzzy liberal. In entertainment, I often prefer fiction by conservatives. Entertainment needs conflict. As a liberal, I believe that all men and women and small furry creatures from Arcturus have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Where's the conflict? A conservative knows, as Paul Harvey keeps reminding us, "It is not one world." Aliens are not to be trusted. "Watch the skies." Hence, conflict, and rousing action. The deeply conservative The Thing is more fun than the deeply liberal The Day the Earth Stood Still, because The Thing has action, while The Day the Earth Stood Still has too many shots of various vehicles driving, or not driving, about.

Both The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still are big budget 1951 black and white SF films from major studios. In both films, a flying saucer with a single alien passenger lands on earth. In both films, a panicky soldier shoots the alien. In both films, the military want to control the alien while scientists want to learn from him. The big difference is that in The Thing the military is right; in The Day the Earth Stood Still the scientists are right.

Both films draw obvious parallels between aliens and communists, but this was not much remarked upon at the time. Because they were science fiction, they could say things that "serious" films could not. More interesting to me is the way people at that time thought about aliens. We did not know then what a barren place our solar system was. A near future meeting between man and alien seemed a real possibility. When I was in college, I argued with my roommate about life on other planets. I found the idea hopeful and exciting. He thought I was crazy. Obviously, if we made contact with aliens, there would be total war. The Thing portrays his point of view. The Day the Earth Stood Still portrays mine.

In The Thing, we know the minute we see him that the scientist is not to be trusted. First, he has a neat little beard. Only commies and their intellectual fellow travelers who pollute our universities with their silly notions of world peace wear beards. Next, he has long hair -- his hair comes almost down to his collar! That kind of haircut in the fifties caused men to say, "I can't tell if it's a boy or a girl." Third, he is too well dressed, in a white turtleneck and a blazer. Fourth, he is polite. Real men trade good-natured insults. Worst of all, he doesn't smoke or drink or chase women. The hero in The Thing makes a big point of how much he drinks, is continually lighting a cigarette, and indulges in a bit of innocent bondage with the scientist's pretty secretary. (There is a woman scientist, but of course nobody shows the slightest interest in her.)

Other ways in which our hero shows his manliness include not understanding complicated scientific explanations, such as the difference between the speed of sound and the speed of a shock wave traveling through the ground, and not knowing hard words like "chitin". He understands the important things. Aliens are the enemy. We have nothing to learn from aliens. The only good alien is a dead alien. A rousing battle ensues, highly entertaining.

My only real objection to the film is the speech by the scientist where he expounds on the uselessness of emotion and the superiority of detached intellect. Everyone else in the film is a recognizable human being, but the scientist is a character from literature. I never met a scientist who did not delight in human emotions.

Several times during the film the sensible characters refer to the scientists as children. Only children are curious and ask questions. Adults outgrow that. The only interests proper for adults are, in ascending order of importance, cigarettes, whiskey, women, camaraderie, and work. And the most important work is killing aliens.

The Thing opened in theaters in April of 1951. The Day the Earth Stood Still had roughly three months of pre-production, followed by a 42-day shoot, and was in theaters two weeks later, in September of that same year. If Julian Blaustein walked out of the first showing of The Thing with his liberal blood aboil and got to work right away, he could have gotten his answer to The Thing into theaters by September. I don't have any evidence for this connection and it is a tight fit.

The message of The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of peace and brotherhood. The message of the advertising poster is that alien robots lust after Earth women. On the DVD, a long "making of" featurette from 1985 details some of the small battles between liberals and conservatives on the set. The casting director wanted to fire Sam Jaffe because of his allegedly communist sympathies. Zanuck said "Keep him." On the other hand, the censors insisted that the scene where Mr. Carpenter rises from the dead be reshot. Klatuu must affirm that only the Almighty can raise people from the dead. This began a long tradition in 50s SF films where the good guys affirm their belief in God. Another tradition honored in The Day the Earth Stood Still, a tradition that goes back at least to King Kong, is that the secretary heroine screams when she sees the monster. The plucky secretary heroine in The Thing doesn't scream.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still, civilians say the soldiers as like children. Only children quarrel needlessly instead of devoting their lives to more constructive activities.

For all their menace, The Thing and Gort each kill exactly two people. The Thing kills two scientists, Gort two soldiers. The Thing is ugly. For all its liberalism, the alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still is good looking. We were still more than a decade away from the horta, the first sympathetic ugly alien in visual SF.

Both films remove the clever science fiction twist that made the short stories memorable. Filmed SF was a long way behind written SF. Still is. Much cutting edge visual SF is based on the work of 50s writer Philip K. Dick.

Next column, our Fall preview issue.

Copyright © 2003 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.


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