Culture Magazine

Philologists in Space: Forbidden Planet [Media Notes 18]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I watched Forbidden Planet last night on Netflix, most of it anyhow. I’d seen it as a child when it first came out back in 1956. It had a powerful hold on me; I was drawing pictures of flying saucers and robots for days, perhaps weeks, afterward. I bought the DVD several years ago and, yes, it was the same film I’d enjoyed in my youth and, no, for whatever reason it wasn’t so fascinating now. But last night I decided to give it another try. It lost.
But I did pick up one fascinating little bit. As you may know, the story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Prospero character has become Dr. Edwin Morbius. That’s him in the headset – the woman, however, is not Princess Leia; it's a simulacrum of his daughter:
Philologists in Space: Forbidden Planet [Media Notes 18]
His ship, the Bellerophon had become lost on a distant planet, Altair IV. Star ship C-57D went off to find out what happened.
As C-57D approaches Altair IV, they're hailed from the planet’s surface. While Morbius gives his name one of the crew looks him up on the Bellerophon’s roster:
Here it is. “Morbius, E. Ph.D., Lit.D. Expedition philologist.”
That’s right, he’s a philologist. A bit later we’re told what a philologist is:
Dr. Morbius, you're a philologist, an expert in words and languages... their origins and meanings. Yet this robot of yours is beyond the combined resources... of all Earth's physical science.
I can’t imagine a contemporary science fiction film putting a philologist in the crew of a spaceship. A linguist, yes, perhaps even a literary scholar, but a philologist? No, too old fashioned. I can imagine a philologist in a Sherlock Holmes movie, or perhaps an Indiana Jones movie. In fact, Indiana Jones’s father, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, might have been a philologist. He was described as a teacher of Medieval literature, which implies that he would have been trained in philology. In those contexts philology is just part of the musty mystique of the setting. But these days philology has all but disappeared as an academic discipline, at least in the American academy.
But not back in 1956. Philology would still have been around, and quite important. The academic study of English literature was built in part on Anglo-Saxon philology and, more generally, literary history. Interpretive criticism didn’t dominate the discipline until after World War II and its dominance wasn’t all but complete until the 1960s. Philology wouldn’t have been so covered in dust and cobwebs. The general public would not have known what a philologist was, but the term itself would have been satisfying learned and, after all, the scriptwriter, Cyril Hume, did insert a line identifying what philology was. Who knows, maybe he’d studied a bit of philology himself when he went to Yale back in the 1920s (he was born in 1900).
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The scenes and special effects don't have the level of detail possible with current CGI, but that film did raise the bar on physical realism and established aspirations. And the idea of scale, so important in the Star Wars franchise, is there in the size of the Krell machines. — Bill Benzon (@bbenzon) November 16, 2019

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