Anne Francis Stars in Forbidden Planet

Thanks for that lyric, Rocky Horror Picture Show. But guess what else? So does Leslie Nielsen.

Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis
Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis

Sometime last month, I caught the last half of Forbidden Planet on TCM. I’ll admit, the main reason I checked it out was to see a young Leslie Nielsen. But there was opportunism at play, too. I knew I should have better knowledge of a movie considered a sci-fi classic; no better time to correct that deficit than a Sunday afternoon spent ironing clothes.

But first, Leslie Nielsen. I’m so sad he’s not around anymore. Tim and I quote him on a near daily basis. We could probably do an impromptu staging of the six episodes of “Police Squad” on demand, and without a script. Throw in Airplane, and the Naked Gun movies, and the memory of Leslie Nielsen is never far from us.

I’m really grateful to the Zucker brothers (and Jim Abrahams) for this: I’m sure they had to recognize that the brilliance of Leslie Nielsen’s comedy was due in no small part to his history of straight roles. I loved The Poseidon Adventure when I was a kid (the original one from 1972). I especially love seeing it now and watching Leslie Nielsen play the captain of the doomed ship, straight as all get out. The movie is funny enough in an ironic way; you don’t need Leslie Nielsen to be funny.

So there’s something to be said for the power and influence of what has come before. More on that in a bit.

Leslie Nielsen in Forbidden Planet was something to see. His hair was still brown. And I could picture him on breaks during filming—playing pranks, riffing on all the sci-fi props (and the stilted dialog). But the movie itself? As Frank Drebin might say, “Well.”

I can’t lie; I found the movie a little painful to watch with 21st century sensibilities. Here’s a starship full of white males with names like “Adams,” “Strong,” “Grey,” and “Youngerford.” On the planet: an eccentric old scientist with a great, booming voice, but a face that looked like he’d been on too many benders. (Sorry, Walter Pidgeon—I don’t know anything about your history, but you looked pretty rough in that movie). And then, the scientist’s daughter, the single female in the cast, who was (of course) blond and nubile. The only way that type of casting would fly today is if it was meant to be meta and ironic.

But here’s where I get to the influence of the past. Apparently, the plot of Forbidden Planet is a sci-fi update of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which is an interesting factoid in itself. But what I loved was the number of creatures, concepts and plot points that I recognized from later science fiction. Forget Robby the Robot—what about the murderous creature that could only be seen in an electrical field? I recognized it from one of my favorite “Jonny Quest” episodes, “The Invisible Monster,” who could only be seen when paint was thrown on it. And God, was it terrifying to behold. Forbidden Planet must have been an influence for that episode.

And what about the genesis of the creature itself? Apparently, it was the cast-offs of a bunch of aliens, who shed all their bad mojo to become all enlightened and stuff. Which brought me immediately to one of the best / saddest “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes ever, “Skin of Evil.” The Skin of Evil was some bad mojo cast off from a bunch of aliens into a black, tarry morass named Armus (who killed Tasha Yar! – that’s the sad part).

Before seeing Forbidden Planet, that episode had always made me think of Stephen King’s short story “The Raft.” In which a murderous oil slick of unknown origin terrorizes some college students stranded on a raft in the middle of a lake.

Which brings me to this: I guess inspiration can take many forms. In my own fiction writing, I’ve had “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” Logan’s Run, The Police song “Miss Gradenko,” a scene from Mockingjay (the book), and countless other little points of thought swimming through my head as I try to get a story to take shape. At times I’ve wondered how transparent those references may be, or if I’m somehow “cheating” by letting those little points influence me.

Forbidden Planet helped me realize that those little points—those fictions—were most likely influenced by other works themselves. Whether it was “The Tempest” or “Wagon Train”—plenty of folks have gone before me, borrowing from the past to create some really great, new, things.

Makes me feel a little more hopeful about my own writing.

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