Science Fantasy Friday: The Day the Master Stood Still

With the new film being released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week, packaged with the classic movie for good measure, it seems like a good time to look back at how Klaatu and Gort got started.

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Reviews were mixed, but the complaint heard most often from sci-fi geeks is: it should never have been remade. True, the 1951 movie was a classic, but it wasn’t the original. That title falls to the suspense pulp Farewell to the Master, published eleven years earlier in Astounding Science Fiction.

I’m a fan of pulps, so I’ll go ahead and review it here… with spoilers.

The Original Story

In the near future, shortly after the first successful Mars mission (interesting the second space mission attempted by humans, the first accidentally going into the sun), the “time-space traveler” arrived in Washington DC.

“It appeared in the blink of an eye. It did not come down from the sky; dozens of witnesses swear to that; it just appeared. One moment it was not here, the next it was. It appeared on the very spot it now rests on.”

The featureless, green ship sat for two days, surrounded by the army and crowds of onlookers when an opening appeared and a ramp extended. A “godlike” man and a giant robot emerged. The friendly visitor in the “delicately tinted robe” introduced himself as Klaatu and his companion as Gnut.

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That’s right, Gnut, not Gort or even G.O.R.T. They may have changed it out of a desire to avoid confusion. Would that be Guh-nut or Noot?

“And then occurred the thing which shall always be to the shame of the human race. From a treetop a hundred yards away came a wink of violet light and Klaatu fell. The assembled multitude stood for a moment stunned, not comprehending what had happened. Gnut, a little behind his master and to one side, slowly turned his body a little toward him, moved his head twice, and stood still … Gnut never moved again.”

A mausoleum was built near the ship where Gnut stood, and Cliff Sutherland (the first reporter on the scene the day of the landing) made regular visits to photograph the giant green, two-eyed robot or find a new story angle. Apparently humanity had resigned itself to the fact that a powerful alien species would soon return to take its robot back, and as a world we would apologize for having offended them. Until then, mankind could just watch and wait.

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Cliff watched, day after day, until he finally realized the dirt around Gnut’s feet had been disturbed. Realizing the monster had moved at night, Cliff waited and watched. He saw the machine collect materials, build machines and fight a gorilla to the death (not really clear why the gorilla was needed, but a nice touch).

Eventually Cliff is astounded to learn Gnut has revived the dead Klaatu, even if just for a few hours. After the revived alien talks to Cliff, he dies again and the reporter asks a favor of Gnut before the robot returns wherever he came from.

“I want you to tell your master – the master yet to come – that what happened to the first Klaatu was an accident, for which all Earth is immeasurably sorry.”

In a soft voice, Gnut replies:

“You misunderstand. I am the master.”

And… that seems to be it. The whole point of the story is that humans couldn’t figure which was the servant which was the master. Not all that significant, no more than To Serve Man, anyway.

A case could be made for the Klaatu-as-Christ argument usually applied to the film versions, with Gort/Gnut serving as the more powerful God behind him. This is particularly evident with the temporary resurrection in the mausoleum before ascending into the heavens where Klaatu can retake his place as Gnut’s right-hand man. Still, the story seems very standard as far as sci-fi pulps with twist endings go.

Notice as well, the Earth never stood still.

Thoughts on the Latest Version

In a sense, changing the story for the 1951 movie made it a thousand times better, but because such drastic changes were made the first time, it set a precedent for the story that “nothing is sacred.”

That said, I appreciate the change in plot from fear of the unknown (appropriate for the 1940s) to fear of nuclear war (made sense in the 1950s) to the modern fear of environmental change, but I feel certain elements could have been executed better.

For example, in the original movie, the heroes met Professor Jacob Barnhardt, a boringly-dressed, messy-haired man identified as the smartest scientist in the world – an obvious analogue for Albert Einstein, still living when the film came out. In the new film the heroes met Monty Python. Don’t get me wrong, I love John Cleese and everything he’s done, but if this movie is meant to be contemporary, why not have the smartest man in the world play himself?

Also, repeated references are made to the power of the internet and how everyone on Earth needs to hear the message, but when the climactic moment comes, only two people on the planet earth know what happened or why – everyone else is left with confusion and chaos.

By the way, the story’s also been adapted as a radio play [Lux Radio Theater 1] and a comic book.

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