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Tabula Rasa

A Comparison of This Island Earth With its Pulp Origins

by Rick Kennett

  • This article first appeared in Metaluna #30, 1989

This Island Earth was released in 1954, but its origins go back to the pages of the SF pulp Thrilling Wonder Stories of the late 1940s. In this magazine the film began life as a serialized set of three novelettes by Raymond F. Jones, featuring brilliant young scientist/engineer Cal Meacham: "The Alien Machine" in the June 1949 issue, "The Shroud of Secrecy" in the December 1949 issue, and "The Greater Conflict" in the February 1950 issue.

"The Alien Machine" reads very much like the first quarter of the film, except that although Meacham arrives at Ryberg Instrument Corporation by jet as he does in the movie, though unlike the opening of the movie version, here there's no flame-out of his plane nor sudden rescue by a mysterious green ray.

Meacham, plant engineer at Ryberg, receives a catalogue made of metallic paper from an unknown firm calling itself Electronic Services Unit 16. In this catalogue he finds lists of strange electronic components necessary for the building of an 'Interociter'. He builds it, and on completion the Interociter proves to be an elaborate communications device when 'the greyish screen of the viewing tube brightened.

Waves of polychrome hue washed over it. It seemed as if an image were trying to form, but it remained out of focus, only a wash of color. "Turn up the intensifier knob,' a masculine voice said suddenly. "That will clear your screen."' Meacham does so, and the image of a man 'of uncertain late middle age' appears. The man does not identify himself, but tells Meacham that the building of the Interociter was an aptitude test prior to his recruitment into the Peace Engineers, a name not explained further than, "Our motives are sure to encompass whatever implications you can honestly make of the term."

Intrigued by their advanced technology, Meacham agrees to join them. The man self-destructs the Interociter by remote control. Next day a black pilotless plane arrives at Ryberg's landing field at noon. Meacham boards it and takes off into the unknown.

#

Up until now the film's few deviations from the original story are basically for dramatic effect: the rescue of Cal Meacham in his disabled jet by the green ray; the Interociter man being identified as "Exeter", a man with a peculiarly bulging forehead who fires rays from the device to destroy the metal-paper catalogue; the arrival of the pilotless plane, not at high noon but on a pre-dawn landing field, in darkness and thick fog.

The second installment, "The Shroud of Secrecy", is where the differing natures of film and the written word begin to show themselves.

The story opens with Meacham landing at a large industrial complex run by the Peace Engineers just outside Phoenix, Arizona. He is met by the plant's psychiatrist, Dr Ruth Adams, a woman with unexplained fear in her eyes. She takes him to see Dr Warner, the man Meacham had spoken to on the Interociter. Although he is the Head of Operations, Warner explains that the real boss is a Mr Jorgasnovara who Meacham will probably meet someday. In the meantime, Meacham is put in charge of the Interociter assembly plant.

On a tour of the complex, Meacham meets an old friend, Dr Ole Swenberg. That night Swenberg and Ruth Adams visit Meacham in his quarters. They tell him they suspect the Peace Engineers is a front for something sinister, though what exactly they don't know. Meacham disagrees, and refuses when they ask him to do some spying; partly because they have no concrete proof, but mainly because the Peace Engineers is the type of set-up he's been looking for all his life, fed up with working on developments that leads either directly or indirectly to military applications.

Six months later Ole Swenberg has an apparent nervous breakdown, babbling about seeing something in the sky and about hearing Jorgasnovara thinking. Dr Adams tries to help, but Swenberg is taken away and it's later put about that he has left the Peace Engineers. After another talk with Dr Adams, Gal Meacham finally believes in her suspicions that all is not as it seems with the Peace Engineers. The next day he is taken to meet Mr Jorgasnovara.

Jorgasnovara is essentially the film's "Exeter" with a clumsy name. Everything else remains the same: high domed cranium, cheek bones wide, sloping just a little to a square jaw. He tells Meacham that the Peace Engineers have been around since the seventeenth century and that their purpose is to withhold scientific knowledge until such time as the world is ready for it. It was the Peace Engineers, Jorgasnovara tells Meacham, who kept the atom bomb from being used in the First World War.

Some time later, while secretly working along similar lines of Interociter modification to what Ole Swenberg had been when he had his breakdown, Meacham also hears Jorgasnovara thinking, transmitting his thoughts as he communicates with someone whose replies Meacham can't hear. That night he and Ruth Adams see Jorgasnovara loading Interociters aboard an ellipsoid-shaped craft which takes off vertically, travelling faster than the eye can follow.

#

For economy and practicality considerations, as well as for reasons peculiar to a commercial film, the movie has deviated somewhat from the original story line by this time.

The movie Meacham lands at an undisclosed place in Georgia and is met by Dr Ruth Adams, here promoted to an atomic scientist and an old flame of his. She takes him to see Exeter, the head of this un-named group of scientists who are all, Meacham notices, specialists in attempting to transmute base elements into atomic fuel. Whereas the Peace Engineers is a large industrial complex employing over 500 scientists, here Exeter's group consist of a dozen (at most) living and working in a mansion atop a hill.

Dr Adams and another scientist, Dr Steve Carlson, conspire with Meacham as in the written story, but here he falls in with their plans at once. A few days later Exeter communicates via the interocitor with his superior, The Monitor, a white-haired man with a similarly bulging cranium, who tells him, "Our ionization layer is failing, rapidly. We may need transportation. Are you prepared to leave?" Exeter answers, "We have been since your last communication, although Meacham and Adams are achieving positive results. Can you give us another time period?"

"Impossible," says The Monitor. "But it is hoped you will be able to complete the project here. Bring them!"

So far so good. But now several dollops of muddy thinking fall on the script, plop!

No one but Exeter and his assistant, Brack (another head-bulger) know of The Monitor's orders. So it's really without a shred of motivation that Meacham, Adams and Carlson suddenly hare off in a car for parts unknown. Why? Exeter departs, leaving Brack in charge. He uses the Interociter ray to fire at the fleeing scientists. Along the road Dr Carlson decides they're sitting ducks in the car and that their only chance is to make for the airfield on foot. He lets out his two passengers then drives off. Brack gives the car a direct hit with the Interociter ray. The car explodes and Carlson, a scientist valuable to Exeter's project, is killed. Why? From out of nowhere Dr Engelborger, another of Exeter's scientific team, comes stumbling across the fields, yelling out in German. Before you can count eine, zwei, drei, Interociter-happy Brack zaps him to smoke. Why? Reaching the airfield, Meacham and Adams take off in a small plane. As they do so Exeter's hilltop house explodes, killing the rest of the scientists. Why?

Strange lights and sounds issue from the nearby hills. A flying saucer emerges from the countryside, overflies the plane and draws it inside with a green beam. The saucer quickly pulls away from Earth.

Meacham and Adams are taken to a spacious control centre where Exeter tries to explain what has happened. "I can assure you we mean no harm," he tells them.

"Like Steve Carlson and Engelborger?" Meacham replies angrily. "Like the others in that house?"

"What happened was beyond our control."

"What happened was mass murder!"

"We're not always masters of our souls, Meacham."

"That's a nice little phrase, coming from you!"

"I learnt it on Earth."

A nice little exercise in word-play which is really a clumsy piece of white-washing that goes nowhere in excusing Exeter. Mass murder has indeed just been committed, and with less rationale than the average Toho monster has in stomping on Tokyo.

"I won't ask you to condone what we've done," Exeter continues. "All I ask is that when you understand the plight of my people you'll try to have more sympathy for our deeds."

This makes no sense. When we do learn of his race's problems later on, Exeter's words still make no sense, and neither do the killings which by then have been forgotten by both the characters and the audience.

The saucer is heading for Metaluna, Exeter's home world far beyond the solar system. He tells Meacham and Adams that they must be made ready to withstand Metaluna's greater atmospheric pressure. This is good use of science, unfortunately foiled by the way it's handled. The crew is converted a few at a time so that for a while, in the single atmosphere within the saucer, those who have been adapted to a high pressure atmosphere impossibly exist with those not yet adapted. In reality the crew would have to convert together, simultaneous with the ship's atmosphere altering to suit the destination.

To convert to Metaluna's atmosphere, Doctors Meacham and Adams grip magnetic handles while glass tubes are lowered over them and filled with gas. Inside the tubes their bodies become transparent, revealing first their circulatory systems then the skeletons. The process complete, they rejoin Exeter as they approach Metaluna.

The viewscreen shows two flaming meteors heading for the saucer. They're destroyed by defensive rays. The meteors are directed by another alien race, the Zahgons, who are at war with Metaluna.

The saucer passes through a layer of ionized molecules which serve as Metaluna's defence against the Zahgon meteors. This ionization layer, Exeter explains, is failing due to Metaluna's shortage of atomic fuel. The planet's surface is a cratered wasteland. Beneath this lifeless surface the people of Metaluna now live. The saucer enters a crater opening, descends to the lower level and docks at the top of a diagonal tower. Meteors constantly impact and explode all around as Exeter takes the two Earth people to The Monitor Structure by means of a shuttle car which travels along a transparent tunnel.

The Monitor explains that as soon as the two Earth scientists have succeeded in synthesizing uranium to sustain the ionization layer, his race intends to relocate to Earth. They are unable to complete the synthesizing project themselves as all their scientists are dead and major laboratories destroyed.

"We hope to live in harmony with the citizens of your Earth," says Exeter.

"In harmony?" says Adams doubtfully.

"Our knowledge and weapons would make us your superiors, naturally," says The Monitor, and after making some racist remarks about "you Earth people" he orders Exeter to take them to the Thought Transference Chamber.

Outside The Monitor's throne room Exeter tries to tell them that no harm will come to them.

"Do you believe him, Cal?" asks Adams.

"In this place I wouldn't believe my grandmother!" Meacham replies and slugs Exeter.

As they try to escape they're confronted by a mutant, a humanoid insect with sharp pincer claws and a bulging, exposed brain. Suddenly a direct hit on The Monitor Structure kills the mutant. . . . and incidentally The Monitor as well. Meacham and Adams make their way back to the shuttle car. Exeter catches up and offers to help. They have little choice but to accept.

A wounded mutant is guarding the saucer. It grapples with Exeter until Meacham clubs the monster down. The three board the saucer, unaware that the mutant has managed to crawl inside as well. They lift off as Metaluna's ionization layer fails.

Escaping into space they witness the planet turn into a sun under the impact of thousands of Zahgon meteors. Exeter, Meacham and Adams enter the pressurization tubes to recondition themselves to Earth's atmosphere. The process is almost complete when the tottering mutant appears in the control room. A moment later Ruth Adams' tube opens, and suddenly we have the classic public image of science fiction: the architypical helpless screaming female being menaced by the architypical Bug-Eyed Monster. Exeter and Meacham still stuck in their tubes, watch as the mutant chases Ruth around the control room, possibly with dishonorable intentions. Then the pressure change gets to the monster. It collapses and dissolves.

With the saucer back in Earth's atmosphere, Exeter tells the two scientists that they can return by means of their small plane still parked in the cargo bay. They reluctantly leave him, aware that the saucer has depleted its power. Their plane drops clear. As they watch, the saucer burns up and plunges into the sea. Roll credits.

#

Except for the names Cal Meacham and Ruth Adams, and the occasional mention of an Interociter, the third novelette, "The Greater Conflict", has virtually nothing in common with the film. It begins with our two scientists (Ruth Adams now sporting a diamond engagement ring) driving to Los Angeles to talk with errant friend and scientist Ole Swenberg, now working in an obscure little factory making car radios. Swenberg is evasive about his abrupt departure from the Peace Engineers. Meacham swipes one of the car radios Swenberg builds and finds it composed of Peace Engineers components — electronics far in advance of known technology.

Back in Arizona at the Peace Engineers plant, Meacham tinkers again with the Interociter and again hears Jorgasnovara transmitting his thoughts to an unknown listener. But now mental images come with the thoughts. Meacham sees wave after wave of space battleships in combat with a growing darkness which threatens to overcome the galaxy. From this he concludes that the Peace Engineers, in conquering space, made enemies out there and are now fighting an interstellar war on behalf of mankind.

In an unexpected call on the Interociter from Swenberg, Meacham learns that his friend also knows about the war. It was his overhearing of Jorgasnovara receiving a direct report from a battle sector and the realization of the sheer scope of the conflict that nearly drove him mad. Jorgasnovara had given Swenberg the chance to continue with the Peace Engineers outside the Arizona plant by putting him in charge of that little factory in California making 'car radios'. Swenberg admits he doesn't know what these devices really are. His previous attitude of secrecy and evasiveness, he explains, was because he thought Meacham and Adams were spying on him for Jorgasnovara. The two men agree that the Peace Engineers must be stopped and their private war exposed.

Ole Swenberg arrives a few days later at the plant for a conference. But he first goes directly to see Meacham and Adams. It's decided that Swenberg lay his cards on the table with Jorgasnovara and try to get to the real truth behind the Peace Engineers. Swenberg goes to meet Jorgasnovara. Later, when his friend does not reappear, Meacham decides something has gone wrong and stuffs a suitcase with the Peace Engineers' strange electronic components, intending on taking them to Washington to expose Jorgasnovara and his interstellar war.

Then Ruth Adams calls from her office, saying she has been suddenly re-assigned to another plant and must leave right away. Meacham runs down to the airfield, just in time to see a pilotless plane taking her away.

Later that night, Meacham continues his plan to expose the Peace Engineers. He takes a manually controlled plane from the airfield and makes for Washington. But before long a flying saucer overtakes the plane and draws it up inside. Humanoid beings take him to a cabin. All he is told is the saucer's destination: The Moon.

The saucer lands at a spaceport on the far side of the moon. Here Meacham meets Ruth Adams and Ole Swenberg. They are soon joined by Jorgasnovara. He explains that what they know is only part of the truth. There is an interstellar — indeed, intergalactic — war being fought. But not by Earth. And the Peace Engineers is not a human organization. He draws a comparison to the then-recently fought Pacific war where natives and islanders who had little or no comprehension of the conflict, were employed by both sides to build roads, airstrips, clear jungle, etc. Earth's unwitting contribution to this greater conflict is in the manufacture of Interociters and similar items of communications equipment; minor components which Jorgasnovara compares to 'push-buttons'.

Meacham says, "There is one question. What is right? Do you have it? Is there any reason why we should help you rather than your enemy, whoever they may be?"

For answer Jorgasnovara hands the three humans each a helmet with cords leading to an instrument panel. These helmets give them the vision of a planet where there are "small cities and vast fields of pleasant color and the world was peopled by creatures not greatly variant from Earthmen. A sense of peace and contentment filled them as they looked upon that scene."

But this idyllic view is blotted out by a sudden darkness that freezes the planet's inhabitants with "an un-named terror".

The three watching Earth people feel "the incalculable evil and death that was in the blackness that shrouded the planet. Time was condensed and eons became seconds and they looked upon the world again. This time it was like an anthill in the wake of a flaming torch. Crisped and blackened, everything that represented sentience and growth and living hope had died. Through all the eons of time life would never again flourish upon that world."

The next vision is of streams of titanic warships flowing through the cosmos to fight equally titanic battles. This convinces the three humans that Jorgasnovara and his race are fighting on the side of Good. "Meacham knew that the things he'd seen were true. He knew that Jorgasnovara had not lied, that his people were combating a vast force that would destroy the hope of endless races of sentient life on countless planets."

Thus convinced, Cal Meacham, Ruth Adams and Ole Swenberg are returned to the Peace Engineers plant in Arizona, happily resigned to making 'push-buttons' for the rest of their lives.

#

As a story, the film runs better and is visually exciting, though the need for this aspect sometimes leads it into contradiction. It also raises one or two philosophical questions which it then immediately drops. The three novelettes are less sensational: no mutants, no Monitor, no Thought Transference Chamber, no Zahgon meteor attack, not even a planet called Metaluna. It raises some questions about war which it tackles in a clumsy way. It asks: Why help this bunch of aliens fight that bunch of aliens? A good question, not often asked in the SF of the time. But the answer is glib and naive, and in the end side-steps the question completely. That vision of ultimate evil, shrouding darkness and all, has the deck stacked completely in the favour of Jorgasnovara's race. There's also the point of Cal Meacham who at the beginning is a confirmed pacifist, fed up with the way the military converts technology to its own ends. But by the last page of the final installment Meacham is knowingly working for the war effort of an alien race that Jorgasnovara admits will eventually win, with or without Earth's help. What are we to make of this?

#

This Island Earth is an exciting looking film that lacks depth of conviction whenever it raises questions on just about anything. The three novelettes that form its basis have more to say, but look limp in contrast to the movie, and definitely run out of steam by the end, despite the great revelation. It finishes with a distinct feeling of 'oh-hum'.

The people of Metaluna seem a nasty sort: homicidal Brack at the controls of the Interociter ray; the autocratic Monitor, obviously the last of a line of planetary dictators, eager to relocate to Earth to continue his ruling position. Even the noble Exeter has his dark side, carrying out his leader's murderous orders with only an occasional weak protest. Perhaps it was just as well they all died before they obtained the secret of transmuting base elements into atomic fuel.

Perhaps the Zahgons were right after all.

 

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