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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Southern Fried Nostalgia -- Robinson Crusoe On Mars And My Childhood Journey To The Red Planet

The opening scene to the science fiction cult classic Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964).
US spaceship Mars Gravity Probe One "Eleanor M" on final approach to Mars.
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

Robinson Crusoe On Mars
And My Childhood Journey To The Red Planet  

By C.W. Roden 

Mars holds a special interest for the human race. Ancient human civilizations worshiped the Red Planet as a god. In more recent times Mars has been a major inspiration for many science fiction and fantasy writers for over the last century. It is certain to be the first planetary body beyond Earth's moon that human beings will set their first footprints. 

As a lifelong science fiction fan I've always held a profound fascination with stories and films about Mars. There have certainly been a number of influences over the years, but it all began sometime around the early part of October 1984 with an old science fiction movie and an old modular jungle gym. 

At then eight years old I was completely obsessed with two subjects: dinosaurs and space travel. My overactive imagination and tendency to daydream at off times made me sort of an oddball among my peers -- a fact that I must admit still hasn't changed all that much today. Many times I would find myself sitting alone in one corner of the playground, or classroom, with nothing but my trusty collection of dinosaur toys, a stack of library books, and my imagination to keep my company. 

Also unchanged since my youth has been my enjoyment of reading and thirst for knowledge. Whenever I became interested in a subject I would go to my local library and seek out as much information about it as my mind could soak up. These days I get my information mostly through the internet and online sources, although I still manage to find my way to the local library that I practically grew up in. In my humble opinion nothing can replace the actual weight and feel of a good book in your hands, or the smell of the ink and glue binding, or the feel of the paper at your fingertips. Screw Kindles

My obsession with the Red Planet came about sometime in the summer of 1984 when I was first introduced to the ridiculously titled cult classic science fiction film Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964) directed by the legendary Byron Haskin, the genius behind the 1953 film version of H.G. Wells' 1898 science fiction novel War of the Worlds. The screenplay for the film, written by screenwriters Ib Melchior and John C. Higgs, is based on source material from Daniel Defoe's 1719 classic novel Robinson Crusoe. The film was independently made and distributed by Paramount Pictures

The robinsonade film follows the adventures of Commander Christopher "Kit" Draper, USN, (actor Paul Mantee) -- astronaut and copilot of the US spaceship Mars Gravity Probe One (MGP-1) "Eleanor M". Draper and his commanding officer, Colonel Dan "Mac" McReady, USAF,  (actor Adam West -- before he put on the Batsuit) and a female monkey named Mona (actually a male monkey named Barney, though the credits simply refer to him as "The Woolly Monkey") are the first human explorers from Earth sent to the Red Planet.

Commander Christopher "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee) and
Colonel Dan "Mac" McReady (Adam West) aboard
Gravity Probe One "Eleanor M" examining the
surface of the Red Planet.

(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

In orbit observing Mars, they encounter a large meteor that forces a course correction that sends the trio into a the lower orbit of the Red Planet and uses up their propulsion fuel. With no means of leaving the planetary orbit, the two astronauts and monkey are forced to use a pair of attached landing vehicles to make an emergency landing on Mars and take refuge. 

Draper's lander crashes into rocks, leaving him stranded in the middle of what appears to be a fire-covered planet with roaming fireballs. With a limited supply of air and emergency supplies, Draper sets off across the barren and apparently lifeless planet in search of shelter until he can make contact with McReady, who landed nearby.  

After encountering some strange yellow rocks that appear to be like some form of coal and the source of the fires, Draper finds a shelter cave. Using a handy device called an Omnicomp (a form of computer, recorder, transmitter and receiver) Draper chronicles his time on Mars, which he admits will be brief. He realizes that the air of the planet is much too thin for humans to breathe for very long, and once his air supply runs out, he will not survive, unless he can make contact with McReady. 

Kit Draper discovers the possible source of the fires.
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

The next day he goes off in search of McReady's lander over a group of mountains (the film was shot at picturesque Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park, California, USA) and eventually finds -- to his disappointment -- both Colonel McReady's crashed lander and McReady's dead body. He also discovers that Mona has survived the crash and can tolerate the thin air of the planet. 

Rest in peace, Mac.
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)
Upon returning to the shelter cave, Draper's air runs out and he accepts his inevitable death, collapsing beside the yellow rocks he'd gathered for his fire. To his amazement, he wakes still alive to find that the yellow rocks somehow produce oxygen, possibly the source of the planet's oxygen since there is no vegetation on the planet. Draper manages to learn how to harvest breathable air from the rocks and rig up a breathing apparatus, and conserve air through moderate exertion. 

Kit Draper refilling his air tanks.
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)
His biggest problems are now food and water. The spaceship Eleanor M continues to orbit low in the planet's atmosphere, but all attempts to contact the computer and order it to land fail. The ship has no fuel to land or maneuver, and all of the supplies for the journey to Mars remain aboard. Draper himself has only enough supplies of both to last barely two weeks through strict rationing. Mona however doesn't seem to need water much, which puzzles Draper until he follows her and discovers that she has found a pool of water. Draper also finds some form of sea pods growing in the water, that contains edible sausage-like protein. 

Kit Draper (Mantee) and Mona (Barney The Woolly Monkey).(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

As the film progresses, Kit Draper encounters the same problem that Crusoe did in Defoe's novel: isolation. With only a woolly monkey for company, Draper argues with an echo of his own voice, and then later begins to hallucinate about his dead friend Colonel McReady visiting him one night after becoming sick from the cooked sausages. 

Despite the dread of being without human company, Draper makes the most of his time on Mars, building a bunch of Robinson Crusoe-type inventions, including a primitive alarm clock in order for him to wake every hour to take in boosters of air from his breather. Another interesting gadget is a primitive bagpipe that he plays Dixie on -- another nice touch this Southern boy thought. He even announces his intentions to Mona that they are going to explore this new world of theirs, since their mission to Mars was for that endeavor. 

"Oh I wish I was on Mars, hurray hurray..."
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

It is during one of these exploration trips that Kit Draper discovers a grave and the skeleton of what appears to be a human with a hole in the middle of his forehead, indicating that he was murdered. Realizing he might not be as alone as he thought, and dreading the people who might have done this, Draper removes all outside evidence that he is there, including ordering the crippled Eleanor M to self-destruct. 

A short time later, Draper witnesses what appears to be a spaceship landing nearby. Believing them to be a rescue party from Earth, he rushes out to find them, only to see that the ships are not from Earth, but rather some type of alien ship (the same ones used for the Martian invaders in Byron Haskin's War of the Worlds). 

Hey those ships look kinda familiar!
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

While observing the strange visitors, Kit Draper encounters an escaped slave (actor Victor Lundin -- best known as the first onscreen Klingon from the original Star Trek series: Errand of Mercy, Season 1, episode 26) whom Draper takes back to his cave and names Friday -- another nod at the film's source material. 

Meeting Friday (Victor Lundin).
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

As the movie progresses, we see Draper's attitude towards Friday go from one of mistrust where Draper has Friday do manual labor for him (a fact that bothered me more than a little as a kid, and apparently didn't sit well with actor Paul Mantee either) to one of sympathy when they discover that the alien slave masters slaughtered Friday's fellow slaves and friends before departing with the mined ore. Then when a falling meteor nearly kills Draper, Friday saves his life by pulling him from the choking ashes and giving him a breath pill -- which apparently helps make oxygen in the lungs and bloodstream. This act ultimately causes Draper to trust Friday more and the two walk back to the cave arm in arm, with Kit reciting from the Twenty-Third Psalm

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want..."
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

Speaking of faith, the movie has an interesting scene later on when Draper and Friday are on the run from the alien slave masters and find water. There is a discussion between the two of them about God and the nature of divine order, something that is rarely done in science fiction films these days, except maybe as a way to mock or debunk Christian faith. The scene is well done and shows a dynamic between the two characters and their growing friendship. 

Eventually, Kit is able to remove the slave bracelets the alien slave masters use to track Friday and they arrive at one of the polar ice caps of Mars. There after surviving yet another large meteor strike that buries them in an avalanche, the Omnicomp picks up a radio message from an Earth rescue ship. Kit and Friday cheer as they respond to the message, and are greeted by the surprised exclamation: "My god, a voice from Mars!" (the voice provided by director Byron Haskins himself). 

The movie ends with Draper, Friday and Mona rescued and Mars receding into the darkness of space as they return to Earth. 

Kit Draper, Friday and Mona being rescued by an Earth landing craft that apparently doesn't cast
a reflection in the water.

(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)

Thanks to the adventures of Commander Kit Draper, Friday, and Mona -- as well as the creative vision of director Byron Haskins and the people who put together Robinson Crusoe On Mars -- I developed a young boy's fascination with the solar system, particularly with Earth's small red neighbor. The idea of astronauts landing on and actually exploring Mars had the most profound impact on me. The visionary effects in the film (at least for 1964 Hollywood) including the landing craft used by the movie's main character (visionary for its time since it was portrayed several years before the famous Apollo Lunar Module was even off the drawing board) inspired me to read up on the Apollo Moon Landings and space travel theories in general. 

As a result of this film, I gathered up every library book about Mars in the junior and adult non-fiction section of my local library and soaked up every little detail about the Red Planet that I could find. After that I found the fiction stories like: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Out of a Silent Planet by CS Lewis, and certainly A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. By the time summer vacation ended, I was a regular Martian expert - well, at least I thought so at the time.  

The movie -- which I recorded from television back the days when VHS tapes were beginning to come into wide use -- became a favorite of mine. That summer I watched it until I had the dialogue memorized word for word. Even today there's a DVD copy of Robinson Crusoe On Mars from the Criterion Collection complete with extras and commentary from the actors, writers, and director that holds a special place of honor in my movie collection.

Now obviously the entire premise of a man surviving any length of time on Mars without a pressure suit, let alone finding standing water or plant life is ridiculous. Mars as we know it in today has next to no air and no atmospheric pressure tolerable for human life. The images the NASA Mariner 1 and Mariner 2 Probes sent back to Earth in 1965 showed the cratered, moon-like Martian surface devoid of the so-called canals, or ancient cities that astronomers like Lowell and Schiaparelli "discovered" around the end of the 19th century - which also inspired classic science fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs to create amazing stories about life and civilizations on the Red Planet. A decade later in June of 1976 (same month and year I was born) NASA's Viking 1 and Viking 2 probes showed just a cold, dry desert landscape with violent dust storms, rock, and lots and lots of red sand dunes. No ancient city ruins, no vast canal systems artificial or otherwise, no "little green men" or large, four-armed giants, and no nearly naked red-skinned princesses clad only in jewels (damn it!). No surface life of any kind at all. 

Of course none of that mattered at all to an eight year old small town Southern boy with a huge imagination and a tendency to daydream constantly during math classes. To that youngster, Mars was the next great frontier. 

One of my favorite places at elementary school was an ancient set of monkey bars set between the playground and a dusty red activity field where outdoor P.E. classes were sometimes held. The monkey bars themselves were gray, slightly rusty pipes set in a square shape, cubed with a pair of cubes in the middle on the top, a tunneled space inside and an opening in the front. The jungle gym was the exact shape of how my imagination envisioned a Mars Landing Module complete with cockpit and airlock. The red dirt and virtually weed free activity field looked almost exactly like the surface of Mars from the Viking landing probe photos -- minus the pine trees in the background and the blue sky. 

So thanks to a (then) twenty year old science fiction movie and my active imagination, on a moderately cool, but slightly sunny day in October of 1984, eight year old NASA Major Carl "Beau" Roden from South Carolina, USA, became the first human being from Earth to set foot on and explore the planet Mars in my unbuttoned light weather jacket, planting humanity's first footprints on the Martian surface in my worn and dirty sneakers. 

For the next four months, or so, while my other male classmates were into contact team sports, or the popular classic G.I. Joe and Transformers action figures, I was an astronaut/space explorer; a combination of Kit Draper, Neil Armstrong, and James T. Kirk, making huge scientific discoveries by collecting rock, soil and plant samples in my empty lunch containers. I even got to discover (with the help of my trusty dinosaur toy collection) the existence of miniature dinosaurs on Mars! At other times I pretended to be a castaway who crashed on Mars, writing out S-O-S in huge letters in the red dirt, or with lined up rocks big enough for rescue ships to see. Every once in awhile a couple of classmates would act as my crew members, at least for a few days before getting bored and again leaving me marooned all alone on the "Martian" surface. 

The gears of a young boy's mind turn very quickly though. By the time spring arrived "Mars" was again an activity field and taken over by the rest of my third grade class. I would soon be joining my classmates in group soccer games, where I had the distinction (usually against my will) to be goalie and collecting bumps and bruises when I was not daydreaming between goal attempts. Mars and my adventures there were soon replaced by my next big obsession, namely trying to -- and usually failing -- to be a good goalkeeper. 

Soon other obsessions and short-term life goals took higher priority in my life, not least of which was later surviving the urban jungles of Middle School and High School -- not an easy task for a tall, skinny kid who was shy, socially inept and possessed zero athletic ability to speak of outside being fairly average at kickball. 

Even so I've never quite forgotten my boyhood dreams of Mars, dreams kept alive thanks to great science fiction writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, and others. Those dreams continue to be kept alive with the growing popularity of ideas like Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct and great movies like The Martian (2015) based on an excellent robinsonade book by Andy Weir

Mars continues to invite us through fiction and science to explore its many mysteries. We know that liquid water once existed on the surface of Mars. Did life exist there, and does it still do so under the surface? If we find fossilized microorganisms there, and those organisms appear like similar ones here on Earth, then what does it say about the origins of life in our solar system and the universe? And finally the ultimate goal of human expansion into the solar system and possibly beyond. Could we build a successful colony on Mars? Build terrariums in the craters and smaller valleys of Mars and create Earth-like biospheres? Could we even develop the technology in a few hundred years to successfully terraform the planet and make it Earth-like on the surface with an atmosphere that can sustain human life? Could the Red Planet someday be a second home for humanity?

It is possibly we will actually see human exploration of Mars within the next 30 years. If so I also wonder if someone will, like Kit Draper and my highly imaginative eight year old self, be stranded there by some accident, and if they could find a way through good ole human ingenuity to survive. 

Alone on Mars.
(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures & The Criterion Collection)