Leslie Nielsen's Bold Trek to a Forbidden World

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Long before Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, there was Commander J.J. Adams of United Planet cruiser C57D who dared to visit the Forbidden Planet.

Is this story line from a lost Star Trek prequel? Well not exactly. It’s from the 1956 film “Forbidden Planet” starring Leslie Nielsen as Commander Adams. In reverence to Nielsen, who passed away on Nov 28 at age 84, I had to wistfully show my astronomy class the film’s opening scenes.

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You’ll likely identify Nielsen with the 1980 disaster film parody “Airplane,” or the “Naked Gun” detective parody films from the late 1980s and early 90s.

But in 1956 he played a dashing 30-year old starship captain who steals the heart of mini-skirted Ann Francis, who is stranded on the Forbidden Planet with her father, played by veteran actor Walter Pidgeon.

A decade later producer Gene Rodenberry shamelessly stole the best elements of this sci fi classic for his Star Trek television series. Rodenberry did have the vision to put a diverse crew on the starship Enterprise, while Nielsen had a crew of paramilitary space sailors cooped up in his 50′s saucer-ship.

The Forbidden Planet story was taken from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” where the planet Altair IV substitutes for the play’s remote island that is home to a shipwrecked father and daughter.

Rodenberry’s original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” was somewhat parallel to the Forbidden Planet script. The Enterprise goes to rescue stranded colonists on yet another planet that winds up being declared off limits.

Now, 54 years after Forbidden Planet’s debut, we have powerful enough telescopes to tell us if Altair was the right destination for Nielsen and his space explorers.

The star pumps out 11 times the sun’s energy. Appropriately, enough Nielsen and his crew begin to sweat upon entering the Altair system.

In reality, no planets have yet been found orbiting this rapidly spinning egg-shaped star. The star is so hot that the habitable zone for an Earth-like planet would stretch from the distance of Neptune to the average distance of Pluto from the Sun.

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The star is only a few hundred million years old and is more massive and hotter than the Sun. This means that Altair will exhaust its core of hydrogen fuel in less than 1 billion years and expand into a red giant star.

Therefore, Altair is no place to go looking for an extraterrestrial civilization, assuming it takes several billion years to evolve advanced life forms.

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Nielsen didn’t find living aliens either. The vanished beings, called the Krell, managed to wipe out their civilization overnight though the construction of an omnipotent machine. This movie plot offers an ominous solution to the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we have not been visited by advanced beings. The Krell reached a technological pinnacle that totally backfired on them. Perhaps this is not uncommon among advaced civilizations.

Photo Credit: MGM