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What can aliens mean in SF texts? 

 

Learning episode 5:  

 

Purpose and use of this learning episode: comparing 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' & 'Mr Dingle the Strong' - different uses for different aliens

 

The notes, below, were given to secondary students as their fifth learning episode in the 'enemy within' theme area. Two short films were used in electronic form as allowed through local Copyright laws. .

 

The learning episode starts with the films given out on CD-ROM to those studying as flexible learning (compliant with Copyright guidelines) and shown in the classroom using a computer and overhead projector for others. The discussion occured in the myclasses Forum area and some images and links from the original have been changed for the changed copyright guidelines for this space, outside the government school intranet, as noted in the page 'about the mySF Project'.

 

Image of alien for enemy within le5Index

Forum topics for discussion

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Humour in SF - 'Mr Dingle the Strong'

Resource List

Readings and Links

Ongoing readings and links

 

The points at the start of these notes are to be discussed in the Forum area. You are asked to jump to the Forum area, using the link here and making a comment in the appropriate Forum thread. Please remember, your participation in discussions is expected in this study, as part of your overall participation.

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Forum topics for discussion:

 

 

'The Day the Earth Stood Still' seemed to offer peace to humankind on the basis of stopping our natural aggressive instincts. These instincts would be stopped by dispassionate robots to enforce peace. This raises the fundamental question, 'What price peace?' Is peace worthwhile if we lose our freedoms?

 

In both texts ('The Day' and 'Mr Dingle') the aliens are seen as not only superior in technology and intelligence, but also in their use of science. Should scientists run the world?

 

As in earlier films studied, it is advanced technology that threatens humankind's future. Is 'The Day' essentially anti-technology?

 

Comedy in SF. What are the best films (eg 'Back to the Future', 'Red Dwarf', 'Coneheads' or 'Galaxy Quest') for comic SF?

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Notes on 'The Day the Earth Stood Still':

 

A number of Science Fiction critics have stated that the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the four most important Science Fiction films of all times. The influential website and fanzine, 'Science Fiction Studies', notes that the film is the fourth most widely assigned film in SF courses (SFS, 1996). In The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction the editor, George Mann notes that the film is "is a landmark genre movie that changed the face of SF cinema and injected a certain degree of intelligence and dignity".

 

Mann states that The Day the Earth Stood Still helped reinvent the SF genre, presenting it as "serious and rational." (Mann, 2001:354-355) Mann goes so far to say that "The Day the Earth Stood Still ...remains a benchmark by which all other alien movies are judged."

 

Wikipedia devotes several pages to the film, including several entries for the main characters of Klaatu and Gort, as well as an entry linked to the writer of the original short story, Harry Bates, who wrote 'Farewell to the Master'. Links to these pages can be found, below. Most interesting, perhaps, is a Wikipedia link to a list of films, bands, and intertextual references to the famous phrase used to save the world in the film "Gort, Klaatu birada nikto!"

Apart from establishing stereotypes such as the alien spaceman's silvery costume, the glowing flying saucer and the blinking lights of the spaceship's command consoles, the film seems to offer some interesting ideas to the viewer in mySF. These might be called the Fascist Alternative and the Messiah Descends.

 

The Fascist Alternative

Klaatu comes to Earth to bring a message and to offer support and friendship. After he is shot by a nervous military man, Klaatu goes undercover using stolen clothes and the name Mr Carpenter to learn more about Earth people. He learns more than enough it seems to decide that he needs to talk with scientists of the world, rather than the hopelessly befuddled politicians. As with other texts, here again the scientist becomes a hero, a device used infrequently except in SF.

 

After Carpenter/Klaatu is riddled with machine-gun fire, dies and is revived by a Perspex tube and the Almighty Spirit (see section below on the Messiah Descends) a solemn warning is given to Earth: either control human hostility or suffer extermination. The very large, silver robot travelling with Klaatu is Gort in the film version and he has the power to destroy the Earth, all on his own. He is a sort of a universal police operative and wherever he finds violence and aggression it is punished by vaporization.

 

The choice is clear to Earth. Either the squabbling and bickering, even using nuclear weapons is stopped before humans reach out into space, or the Earth will be reduced to a smouldering ruin, at the hands of coldly calculating machines with amazing weapons. The Fascist Alternative is a device used in the film and the original story (where the robot is the superior being and Klaatu just a spokesman) to offer Peace with severe restrictions in human behaviour, or complete destruction through unbeatable force.

 

Many SF critics have debated this idea of an enforced peace and the theme is repeated in later texts, including novels and films. Superior beings with greater intelligence and technology can enforce their will on humans compelling peace and a change in basic human behaviour and the question is, 'What price peace?' Would most people prefer a world without war, violence and aggression at the cost of their personal liberty, all watched over by machines of cold and calculating logic?

 

The Messiah Descends

 

The second major theme of The Day the Earth Stood Still is said to be the use of a Messiah figure, as noted by the Wikipedia references and by Mann in his Encyclopedia (2001). As Mann notes,

 

"The religious analogies of the movie are clear. Klaato arrives in a bright chariot from the stars and attempts to inform humanity of the means of their redemption. His words at first fall on deaf ears, so he assembles a small group of confederates to aid him in his quest. However, one of them betrays him, and he is executed by the authorities, only to rise again to deliver his message to a race now stunned by his dignity and power. He then disappears into the ether to leave humanity to ponder his words without question. Klaatu is an alien reinvention of the Messiah, a Christ arrived from the star to teach us how to live" (Mann, 2001:355) .

 

The use of the name Carpenter by Klaatu when he assumes a human persona is said to be deliberate, ehoing Jesus Christ's profession as a carpenter. Klaatu's death and resurrection does seem to indicate his Godlike powers, but the film is careful to note at his resurrection that it was only the Almighty Spirit that could bring people back to life after death, not the technology onboard the flying saucer or Gort. The film's own focus on this religious element is unusual in SF and does seem to indicate the many parallels between Klaatu and Christ.

The idea of Godlike aliens coming to help Earth but receiving pain and death recurs in many SF texts and Mike Alsford's book What If?: religious themes in Science Fiction (2000) notes these with links to philosophy and the Christian traditions, for those students wishing to pursue this theme. Examples are said to include several episodes from Star Trek, ET, and CS Lewis' writings in the SF genre.

 

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Humour in SF - 'Mr Dingle the Strong':

 

Also studied in Week 5 was the short episode from the very popular SF television series The Twilight Zone. The episode chosen for its unusual treatment of aliens was 'Mr Dingle, the Strong', directed by Brahm in 1961. A still from that episode can be seen, above, showing the two headed Martian scientist with his radar attachment, very reminiscent of the Star Trek treatment of the Borg, twenty years later.

 

While The Twilight Zone was a very popular television series that used many fine SF writers (see the entry in the Wikipedia article, below), this episode 'Mr Dingle, the Strong' was not chosen to represent good SF writing. Instead, the episode seemed to showcase the comic acting talents of the main characters and some outlandish costumes and obvious satire of human behaviour.

 

'Mr Dingle, the Strong' was used to show a consistent use of aliens in popular SF, for comic effect.

The mySF Project does not spend enough time looking at comedy in SF even though there are outstanding examples from My Favorite Martian, through to the several Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the excellent Galaxy Quest that used satire and intertextual references with the best-known female alien slayer, Sigourney Weaver. The film Coneheads is a direct satire of aliens in SF but is, alas, outside the realm of our study here.

Using aliens as a comic device is also found in many writings from the early days of SF through to current times but again this is not a major focus for the mySF Project.

 

While the Enemy Within theme of the mySF Project looks at the uses of aliens as devices to comment on social situations and problems, it is acknowledged here that the aliens can have many other purposes, including for comic effect.

 

A short list of recommended readings for comedy in SF can be found from the Boskone 30 Convention Report (1993) by Evelyn Leeper, found here. A listing including television shows, films and literary series can be linked from the Wikipedia entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_science_fiction

 

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Resource List

 

Brahm, J. (Director). (1961). ‘Mr Dingle, the Strong’. The Twilight Zone. Episode 55. Aired March 3, 1961. Written by Rod Serling. CBS International. DVD Version. 1999.

 

SFS (1996) 'Addendum. The Films most widely assigned'. Science Fiction Studies. No 70, Volume 23. Part 3. November, 1996. Retrieved 1 June, 2006 from http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/70/addendum70.htm

 

Wise, R. (Director). (1951). The Day the Earth Stood Still. Written by Bates, H. (DVD). Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 2003.

 

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Readings and links:

 

 

Wikipedia page entry for 'The Twilight Zone'

 

Wikipedia page on the main alien character of the 'The Day', Klaatu/Carpenter

 

Wikipedia entry, believe it or not, for the immortal lines, 'Gort, Klaatu birada nikto!'. There are several references from Star Wars, Darkwing Duck, Army of Darkness and several bands. An SF lover's trivial pursuit dream.

 

Parts I & II of 'Farewell to the Master' by Harry Bates, upon which was based 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

 

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Ongoing readings and links:

 

 

Electronic text of 'The Father Thing' by Phillip K Dick

 

Electronic text of Damon Knight's 'Stranger Station'

 

Electronic text of Octavia Butler's 'Bloodchild'

 

Podcast 1 of overview of Aliens in SF, 5M mp3 file for download and playing

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