Shiny Shelf

Leslie Neilsen

By Mags L Halliday on 29 November 2010

You’d be forgiven for not knowing it but Leslie Neilsen was not just a white-haired deliverer of deadpan lines. He was also the romantic lead in one of the most seminal SF films of the 1950s.

‘Forbidden Planet’ is off the scale. It blew its budget retelling Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ as a space exploration story. Morbius (Walter Pigeon) lives on a remote planet with his daughter, Altaira (Ann Francis), and Robbie the Robot. When a patrol ship from Earth arrives, captained by Neilsen’s Commander Adams, Altaira is fascinated by the strangers and wants to learn about human relationships from them. Things start to go wrong, and they are all threatened by a powerful invisible monster – a monster from the id.

The film is a template for SF/F TV. Robbie the Robot, based on the character Ariel from the play, is a character in its own right. That’s the first time an on-screen robot is more than just a prop or monster. Robbie paves the way for C3PO, K9, Hal and – of course – Marvin the paranoid android.

‘Forbidden Planet’ also has one of the first electronica soundtracks in cinema, creating an eerie off-world soundscape. The radiophonic workshop could have produced it (and on ‘Doctor Who’, for a couple of decades, they did).

Unlike most of the seminal SF films of the 1950s, it’s in colour and is not about America being invaded. The enemy is within (just as it is in the best Cold War B-movie, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’) but it’s not a red threat. Instead, the enemy is our own unthinking and animalistic impulses.

The plot is reused all over the place, including three times in ‘Doctor Who’ alone (‘The Rescue’, Planet of Evil’ and ‘Kinda’). There are not one but two comic shop chains named after it, and a camp musical (‘Return to the Forbidden Planet’).

And then there’s Neilsen as the Commander. He plays it straight, despite the potential comedy of the lines. Watching him, you’re seeing Captain Kirk a decade before William Shatner quirked his first eyebrow and showed a naive girl what this human thing called kissing was.

So, if you want to crack open a DVD to remind yourself of Neilsen’s skills as an actor, don’t just stick to his comedy work (‘Police Squad’ etc). Dust off ‘Forbidden Planet’ and see the template for modern space SF.

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