Friday, July 19, 2013

Gene Roddenberry's Cinematic Influences

Since I've become seriously interested in the development and production of Star Trek, I've found a number of books and websites which claim that Gene Roddenberry publicly admitted the influence of a few science fiction films, particularly Forbidden Planet (1956), on the program's early development. Recently, for example, Mark Clark wrote in the book Star Trek FAQ (2012) that 'Roddenberry freely credited Forbidden Planet as an inspiration for Star Trek.' However, in all my research, the only direct quote from the writer/producer that I've found about the movie directly contradicts this sentiment. When asked by a reporter in the 1970s if the Star Trek concept had been heavily influenced by Forbidden Planet, Roddenberry replied:
Definitely not...the only time I ever thought of Forbidden Planet specifically when I was laying Star Trek out was when I said to myself that here were some mistakes they made in the film that I did not want to repeat. I think one of the obvious mistakes, and one that amazed me when I saw the show, although I generally liked [it], was the fact that you had a ship capable of interstellar travel and you had a cook aboard who scrubbed pots and pans by hand and I said, 'Hey, come on, it just doesn't fit.' At least they would have had a radar range oven or something if they had interstellar capacity! But, no, I cannot remember a single time during the planning of Star Trek that I looked at another show and said, 'I will borrow this.'
--Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages (1995), p.9
After doing some research, however, it's clear that Roddenberry either misremembered events or wasn't being entirely truthful in his answer. A memo from the UCLA files, which is reprinted in David Alexander's Roddenberry biography, sheds some light on the movie's influence:
To: Herb Solow
From: Gene Roddenberry
CC: [Pato] Guzman
Date: August 10, 1964
You may recall we saw MGM’s 'FORBIDDEN PLANET' with Oscar Katz some weeks ago. I think it would be interesting for Pato Guzman to take another very hard look at the spaceship, its configurations, controls, instrumentations, etc. while we are still sketching and planning our own. Can you suggest the best way? Run the film again, or would it be ethical to get a print of the film and have our people make stills from some of the appropriate frames? This latter would be the most helpful. Please understand, we have no intention of copying either interior or exterior of that ship. But a detailed look at it again would do much to stimulate our own thinking.
Also, would much appreciate it if you could provide me with a credit list on that picture, specifically the director, art director, special effects men, etc. Thank you.
--David Alexander, Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (1994), p.202
Looking at Forbidden Planet and 'The Menagerie' today, it's clear that, although Star Trek is far from a one to one copy of the movie (in many ways, the film's production design has more in common with the look of Lost in Space than it does with Star Trek), it certainly was influenced by the movie:

Still from Star Trek, 'The Menagerie' (1965)
Still from Forbidden Planet (1956)
Still from Star Trek, 'The Menagerie' (1965)
Planetary matte painting from Forbidden Planet (1956)
Still from Star Trek, 'The Menagerie' (1965)
Still from Forbidden Planet (1956)
Again, I don't mean to suggest that Star Trek simply copied Forbidden Planet, but Roddenberry's memo and the accompanying images certainly demonstrate that Forbidden Planet was a stronger influence on Star Trek (particularly the first pilot) than Roddenberry was willing to admit in the 1970s. Of course, there are other similarities (and I am far from the first to notice them): both Forbidden Planet and Star Trek grounded their interstellar adventures by using contemporary naval terminology, and the relationship between Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) and Dr. Ostrow (Warren Stevens) is very reminiscent of the way Kirk and McCoy would interact on Star Trek.
Still from Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Less well known than Forbidden Planet, but of similar importance to the development of Star Trek, is the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). Unlike Forbidden Planet, which was one of a number of films Oscar Katz, Herb Solow, and Gene Roddenberry ran on the Desilu lot during the development of the series, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was still in theatres when Gene Roddenberry saw it during the development process. Roddenberry first wrote about the film in a memo to Oscar Katz on July 21, 1964, prior to the film's Los Angeles release:
I would like to bring to your attention a science fiction film titled 'Robinson Crusoe on Mars'. As yet it is unreleased in this area, but it has been given excellent reviews in Variety and the Reporter and is regarded as a sleeper. Since it is unlike many of the pictures we have been seeing, dealing directly with planetary exploration and survival, it might be a good idea to screen this one if it is possible to obtain a print.
Two weeks later, on August 3, 1964, Roddenberry had seen the film and indicated as such in a memo to Herb Solow:
As mentioned, I saw the above motion picture and considered it extraordinarily good, better than anything we have run here. Suggest we get a print when possible so that Oscar can run it for himself. Also, would like appropriate department heads and personnel here to see it. Would much appreciate your office obtaining a complete credit list for this film. Many thanks.
Still from the trailer for Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
It's easy to see why the film appealed to Roddenberry from its trailer, which opens by proclaiming, 'This film is scientifically authentic. It is only one step ahead of present reality!' Roddenberry and others would make similar audience appeals, however far-fetched, about Star Trek. Unlike Forbidden Planet, Roddenberry's interest in the complete credit list of Robinson Crusoe on Mars yielded a few important behind-the-scenes hires. The film's director, Byron Haskin, was brought on as associate producer (Haskin ended up clashing with Roddenberry, and wasn't asked back for the second pilot). The superlative Albert J. Whitlock, a matte painter for the movie, did matte paintings for 'The Menagerie' as well as several later episodes. And although Van Cleave was only considered to score the first pilot (according to a December 8, 1964 note by Gene Roddenberry), his orchestrator on Robinson Crusoe on Mars was Fred Steiner, who went on to score a number of Star Trek episodes (and an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation).

In terms of casting, both films clearly had an influence on Roddenberry and others at Desilu. In an October 14, 1964 casting memo from Gene Roddenberry to Kerwin Coughlin, Paul Mantee (the lead in Robinson Crusoe on Mars), Leslie Nielsen, and Warren Stevens were all considered for the role of Captain April (later changed to Captain Pike). Likewise, in an October 30, 1964 casting memo from Roddenberry to Herb Solow, Anne Francis was listed as one of a few possibilities for the role of Vina in 'The Menagerie.' Ultimately, none of these actors would be cast in the first pilot, but Warren Stevens (Dr. Ostrow in Forbidden Planet) and Victor Lundin (Friday in Robinson Crusoe on Mars) would later be cast in guest roles in 'By Any Other Name' and 'Errand of Mercy,' respectively.

Historian's Note: During the development of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry also screened a number of recent science fiction films, including Blade Runner (1982) and Aliens (1986). The memos I have uncovered at UCLA suggest Roddenberry, Oscar Katz, and Herb Solow screened a number of films during the development of Star Trek, but Robinson Crusoe on Mars and Forbidden Planet are the only two that the archival record specifically names. I would love to know what some of the other titles were, if they've been mentioned elsewhere that I've overlooked.

Shameless Note: If you like this blog and want to support my research, consider shopping on through one of the affiliate links below. I'll receive a small percentage of any purchase you make there, as long as you check out within twenty-four hours after clicking the link.

Images from 'The Menagerie' courtesy of Trek Core.


The Gene Roddenberry Star Trek Television Series Collection (1964-1969)

Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry (David Alexander, 1994)

Captains' Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages (Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman, 1995)

Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise (Mark Clark, 2012)

Films Cited:

Forbidden Planet (1956) -- DVD Version / Blu-Ray Version

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) -- DVD Version / Blu-Ray Version


  1. Many of the synthesizer sound effects on Star Trek were very similar to Forbidden Planet, as well as Robbie the Robot's food synthesizer, the Ray guns, the names to do with the United Planets federation. No doubt Roddenberry ripped off F.P.

  2. Thanks for this interesting look at some of the cinematic influences on Star Trek. A lesser known film that strongly looks like it directly influenced Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek is the 1963 Czech film Ikarie XB-1, directed by Jindřich Polák. I'm speaking here about the original Czech release, not the AIP English dubbed film that was cut, given a different ending and a new title - Voyage to the End of the Universe. Why was Ikare XB-1 an influence on Star Trek? While films like Forbidden Planet and Robinson Crusoe on Mars have influenced alien landscapes and ship control panels, in Ikare XB-1 we see members of its "40 person international crew" not only piloting the ship, but eating in the mess hall, exercising and relaxing. There are shots in the crew mess hall that almost could have been lifted from Star Trek. Also the "bridge" is much larger than the the interiors of the other films' ships and you have different people at their stations. The DVD of Ikare XB-1 is only available in Region 2 format, but this DVD can be played on your computer. It's most definitely worth watching.

  3. The intro to TOS looks remarkably similar to the opening of Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

    1. The ship whizzing by the camera at the beginning? Yeah, there's a definite resemblance.

    2. There are musical connections between the Pilot and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, too (and, of course, the "Kirk theme" is lifted from 12 O' Clock High)

  4. Have strongly seen the evidence of Forbidden Planet myself on ST.

  5. People find what they look for. Just because Leslie Nielsen, Warren Stevens, and Arlene Francis were possibilities for casting doesn't mean it was for their Forbidden Planet work. They were all over 60s TV at the time. Indeed, Arlene Francis went on to do Honey West for a season instead.

    As for Trek "borrowing" from Forbidden Planet, here's what Al Jackson has to say:

    "I went to the Worldcon in Cleveland , labor day weekend 1966. Gene Roddenberry came and showed the first pilot (they didn’t use) at the con. Fans were impressed , since there had been no space opera like it for 10 years, since Forbidden Planet. Next day Roddenberry was in the lobby with a model of the Enterprise. Not a single soul was talking to him. So walked over to him and said “lots of that looked very familiar to me!”. He smiled and said “it should”. He started talking about all the nomenclature he borrowed. He had read Astounding in the 1940s and 1950s, FTL ‘warp drive’ , matter transmitter, lots and lots of stuff familiar to fans who read prose SF. Roddenberry did not mention Forbidden Planet probably because Forbidden Planet borrowed all it stuff from the pages of Astounding of the 1940s."

    I have great love and respect for the Fact Checkers, and I appreciate the documents they've uncovered. But restricting the analysis of Star Trek solely to cinematic influences misses most of the picture.

    (I do appreciate the observation that Lost In Space is far more the spiritual descendant of Forbidden Planet than Star Trek).

    1. Well, it's a post about a couple of films which we know from archival materials influenced the series. I don't mean to suggest this captures the whole range of influences Roddenberry might have had when he was crafting Star Trek. Obviously not.

      Regarding the point about casting, I think that's pretty fair. The actors from Robinson Crusoe on Mars and Forbidden Planet certainly found plenty of work in film and especially on television in this period. Warren Stevens was even in "The Yuma Treasure," a 1957 Have Hun - Will Travel episode penned by Roddenberry.

      We know Roddenberry screened these two movies and later considered a lot of actors from them for parts on Star Trek. Maybe they ended up on a casting list because of these movies, maybe not. This piece is nearly a decade old and I'd approach it differently today.