Variations on a Thing
Way back in 1938, John W. Campbell, Jr. penned a paranoid little piece of science-fiction, which appeared in Astounding Stories magazine. Aptly—and rather ominously—titled Who Goes There?, Campbell crafted a short story about an unearthed, shape-shifting alien frozen in a solid block of Antarctic ice had such lasting power that it spawned two film adaptations with a third on the way. To attempt to decipher what exactly it is about Who Goes There? that has captured the imaginations of countless readers of science-fiction—and still sends blustery chills of terror up their spines to this day—would require several pages solely devoted to the subject and be completely off-topic. So then, let’s address the real focus of this critique: that of the conveyance of science in Campbell’s novella and its filmic interpretations—Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic, The Thing from Another World, and John Carpenter’s 1982 gore-fest, The Thing. Although the science behind these three versions varies, their transmittal of scientific information does not, and, in so doing, each interpretation is imbued with a sense of confusion, astonishment, and exigency. With the brandishing of such a bold and verbose claim, there better be some hard-core, empirical evidence to back it up, right? You bet’cha and I will attempt to do just that while determining whether these forms of relaying scientific fact are effective or not.
Before I become too entrenched in the psychobabbling art of critical assessment, it might be best to identify the two structural methods in which these three pieces of science-fiction are cohesively bound—regardless of their divergences in plot—to churning out the scientific method: the ‘specimen analysis and/or examination’ model and the ‘scientific briefing’ model. The former usually concerns the alien life-form itself in one of its many transmogrified manifestations while the latter encapsulates various other types of scientific evidence and evaluations that are usually extolled by authoritative figures, concerning the alien in either a direct or indirect manner. Although these two types do appear in various incarnations throughout the novella and both films, such derivations are slight and often utilized to further the overarching ambience of the media format; in other words, the names, faces, and places may change but the aforementioned models do not.
The ‘military/scientific briefing’ model makes its first appearance within the first few paragraphs of Who Goes There?, and tackles much of the gathered scientific data upfront via a regimental exposition given by Second-in-Command—and main protagonist, ‘Mac’ MacReady—which is rather cleverly treated as a rehashing of events occurring just before the opening pages of the novella: “You know the outline of the story…I [Commander Garry] am going to ask MacReady to give you the details of the story, because each of you has been too busy with his own work to follow closely the endeavors of the others” (p. 2).
During MacReady’s debriefing the other men stationed at the American post in the Antarctic, the reader learns (if he/she didn’t already know) that the “compass does point straight down here [the South Magnetic Pole of the Earth]” (p.3) and that something has disturbed this earthly magnetic precision. Furthermore, we receive a minor lesson in the elemental properties of iron while determining what the cause of the polar, magnetic disturbance is not, “it was not the huge meteorite or magnetic mountain Norris [one of the story’s scientists] had expected to find. Iron ore is magnetic, of course, iron more so—and certain special steels even more magnetic. From the surface indications, the secondary pole…was…so small that…no magnetic material conceivable could have that effect” (p. 3). MacReady continues to address the anomalous results confounding the scientists, “As a meteorologist, I’d have staked my word that no wind could blow at -70 degrees…without causing warming due to friction with the ground, snow and ice, and the air itself…but for twelve consecutive days the temperature was -63 degrees…it was meteorogically impossible, and it went on uninterruptedly” (p. 4).
While discussing the alien spacecraft’s crash-landing on Earth, we also get a lesson in prehistoric continental drift, “it’s [the spacecraft] been frozen there ever since Antarctica froze twenty million years ago…it must have been a thousand times more savage…there must have been blizzard snow as the continent glaciated” (p. 4-5). At this point, MacReady waxes the technical while discussing the material composition of the alien spaceship, the countless metallurgical experiments that ensued, and the reason the ship was ultimately destroyed: “The metal was something we didn’t know. Our beryllium-bronze, non-magnetic tools wouldn’t touch it. We made reasonable tests—even tried some acid from the batteries with no results. They [the aliens] must have had a passivating process to make magnesium metal resist acid that way…we set off the thermite bomb. The magnesium metal of the ship caught” (p. 7).
Much of MacReady’s longwinded briefing in Who Goes There? is cut from John Carpenter’s cinematic adaptation and, instead, replaced with second-hand allusions to the spaceship’s discovery by a Norwegian expedition via a videotaped recording. In the commentary, Carpenter states that he opted for the Norwegian videotape as a visual tool to explain “basically, the back story of unearthing the saucer.” And, thus, the viewer experiences the pre-recorded discoveries right along with the team at the United States National Science Institute, Station 4. Instead of MacReady surmising the American team of scientists’ findings in the novella, John Carpenter elects to layer video footage of the Norwegian expedition’s findings on the TV screen via team members MacReady, Norris, and Commander Garry vocal reactions on the silver screen; thus, enveloping the audience viewing the American science team viewing the Norwegian expedition in an expositional Droste effect. As the American team watches the videotaped images on the TV, MacReady observes, “It looks like somethin’ buried under the ice.” This is followed by Norris’s conclusion, “And look at that. They’re planting thermite charges.” Commander Garry then remarks, “Whatever it was, it was bigger than that block of ice you found.” as MacReady and Doc Copper give each other grim looks of resignation.
After locating the site of the Norwegian expedition’s findings, MacReady and Norris fly to the location of the downed alien spacecraft’s crash-landing and examine the wreckage. MacReady asks Norris, “Jesus, how long do you figure this has been in the ice?” to which Norris responds, “Well, the backscatter effect’s been bringing things up from way down around here for a long time…I’d say the ice it’s [the spaceship] buried in is 100,000 years old, at least.” This is considerably less time than that surmised by MacReady in Who Goes There? Perhaps, Norris was distracted by MacReady’s ridiculous hat. Perhaps not. Regardless of the age discrepancy of the downed alien craft, Carpenter’s alteration of the novella works well for this scene by having the viewer experience the enormity and ominousness of the unearthly craft; thereby, indirectly asserting the advanced level of intelligence the American science team is up against.
Once MacReady and company return to Station 4, he briefs the other scientists on their findings. Unlike Campbell’s confident ‘bronze statue’, Carpenter’s version of MacReady is plagued by reservation, resignation, and a healthy dose of skepticism. While some members of the American team inspect the metal scraps retrieved from the otherworldly wreckage, Mac exhales, “I don’t know. Thousands of years ago, it [the alien spaceship] crashes, and this Thing gets thrown out or crawls out, and it ends up freezing in the ice…they [the Norwegian expedition] dig it up. They cart it back. It gets thawed out, wakes up; probably not in the best of moods…I don’t know. I wasn’t there.” The level of authority Campbell’s MacReady demands by his sheer presence has been replaced with Carpenter’s version of Mac—played by Kurt Russell—who’s uncertain of and reluctant to believe in he and Norris’s findings; even though, he has witnessed firsthand the inexplicable.
Something else that is inexplicable is why Howard Hawks chose to remove all of the characters appearing in Campbell’s novella and replaced them with a new batch of flyboys and flask-burners…but that’d be an entirely different evaluation and totally inconsequential to this critique. In The Thing from Another World, we meet Air-Force Captain Patrick Hendry—played by Kenneth Tobey—who serves as Hawks’ cinematic equivalent to MacReady. Yet another inconsistency between Who Goes There? and Howard Hawks’ adaptation, the rather strategic uprooting of “the scientists holding a convention” from Antarctica to the North Pole. Perhaps, the famous producer flipped the glacial Poles on our intrepid band of scientists due to another kind of ‘cold’; one spelled ‘NSC-68’? Again, that’d be an altogether different critique and unrelated to my assessment.
With all of this in mind, it isn’t Hendry who—like his MacReady counterparts—briefs the congregating scientist on the alien spacecraft; instead, this honor is bestowed upon Dr. Carrington, chief scientist of Polar Expedition Six, who informs Capt. Hendry and co. of the previous night’s mysterious events. Even then, it appears to be below our esteemed Dr. Carrington to waste his valuable breath on these mere military mortals and has Miss Nicholson, his secretarial note-taker (and Hendry’s love interest), do the dirty work. While Carrington looks on with an ascot-wearing air, Miss Nicholson reads, “November 1st, 6:15pm. Sound detectors and seismographs registered explosion due east. At 6:18, magnetometer revealed deviation 12 degrees, 20 minutes east…Such deviation possible only if a disturbing force equivalent to 20,000 tons of steel or iron ore…had become part of the Earth at about a 50-mile radius.” Although the Poles have been reversed and the spacecraft crash-landed the night before rather than 20,000,000 or 100,000+ years prior, these scientific findings coincide with Campbell’s and actually elaborate upon them.
Carrington decides to descend from his lofty heights to relieve Miss Nicholson’s vocal chords of their duty and further elaborates, “we have some special telescopic cameras. On the appearance of radioactivity, a Geiger counter trips the release and the cameras function…this is the result.” Dr. Carrington then leads Captain Hendry over to a monitor and continues, “This first picture was taken three minutes before the explosion, or 6:12. You can see the small dot below there in the corner…one minute later, that dot is moving from west to east fast enough to form a streak…at 6:14, it’s moving upward. 6:15, it drops to the Earth and vanishes. A meteor might move almost horizontal to the Earth but never upward.” Hendry question the good doctor, “How’d you find the distance of impact?” Carrington loftily replies, “By computation,” before he focuses his attention elsewhere and has fellow scientist Ready pick up where the Dr. has left off, “It’s quite simple, Captain. We have the time of arrival of the sound waves and detectors and also the arrival time of the impact waves on the seismograph. By computing the difference, it becomes quite obvious they were caused by the traveling object and the distance from here is 48 miles.” Of course, Hendry has to adhere to his rugged workingman ethos and—whether he really comprehends what he’s just heard or not—blurts, “Well, you lost me, but I’ll take your word for it,” which would make any blue-collared pappy proud.
As Hawks’ The Thing from Another World trudges on past the snow-drifted discovery of the downed spacecraft (which had already taken place prior to the events in John Campbell’s progenitorial sci-fi masterpiece and is witnessed via video recording of the Norwegian expedition in John Carpenter’s The Thing), the retrieval of its alien passenger frozen in a block of ice, and the alien’s subsequent revivification from its icy prison, the ‘thing’ flees from the gun-toting occupants of Polar Expedition Six and, in the process, loses a limb to the pack of huskies the scientific expedition uses to get around. The aforementioned severed arm ends up on the lab slab for some good old scientific scrutiny, and this leads to the second method of relaying scientific information in all three of these works: the ‘specimen analysis and/or examination’ model.
As the gaggle of representatives from the military industrial complex, the mass media, and gender-specific stereotypes loom ‘round the council of enlarged craniums huddled over the severed arm in examination. As the scientists poke, prod, and confer with each other, one warns Dr. Carrington, “Be careful, doctor. Those barbs are sharp!” to which Carrington replies, “Seems to be a sort of chitinous substance.” Uh-oh, somebody used a big word because pressman, Ned Scott interjects, “Speak English, will ya, Doctor” before Carrington has even finished his sentence. This results in Carrington taking it down a notch for the lay people in the room and the viewing audience in the theater: “Something between a beetle’s back and a rose thorn…Amazingly strong.” Another scientist adds, “very effective if used as a weapon.”
After some quips from Scott and the boys in bomber jackets, Carrington continues, “There’s no blood in the arm, no animal tissue” then asks his fellow colleague, Dr. Stern, to look at a tissue sample under the microscope. Dr. Carrington then turns his attention to reporter Scott and addresses his statement about the Thing freezing to death from a missing limb, “No, Mr. Scott. I doubt very much if it can die, as we understand dying.” Dr Stern observes through the lens of the microscope, “No arterial structure indicated. No nerve endings visible. Porous, unconnected cellular growth.” Scott responds, “Just a minute, doctor. Sounds like you’re trying to describe a vegetable.” Carrington confirms Scott’s suspicions as Dr. Ready interjects, “That could be why Sgt. Barnes’ bullets had no seeming effect.”
Something else that appears ‘seeming’ is that Howard Hawks has elected Ned Scott as the conduit for the common man…and, apparently, the average movie-goer…unable to fully fathom the abbondanza of technical speak—which really isn’t all that technical—from the wise and withered quarters of the scientific intelligentsia. Scott half-jokingly speaks, “It sounds…as though you’re describing some form of super carrot.” The turtle-necked Carrington, never one for turning down the opportunity to present himself as a god among men, retorts, “This carrot, as you call it, has constructed an aircraft capable of flying millions of miles propelled by a force as yet unknown to us.” The confounded Scott quivers, “An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles.” At this point, both Scott’s and Carrington’s continuing dialogue becomes the focus and symbolic of the film’s attempt to address heady scientific issues to the viewers in the dark of the movie theater; Scott represents the common movie-goer seeming incapable of grasping even the most basic of scientific concepts and Carrington characterizes the Sagan-esque car-salesman attempting to make science accessible without losing its authoritative grip.
Dr. Carrington pushes Scott to “imagine how strange it would have seemed during the Pliocene age to forecast that worms, fish, lizards that crawled over the Earth were going to evolve into us.” Scott makes an objection, but Carrington pushes on, “On the planet from which our visitor came, vegetable life underwent an evolution similar to that of our own animal life, which would account for the superiority of its brain. Its development was not handicapped by emotional or sexual factors.” As if such concepts might seem unreasonable to the viewing audience, Scott austerely remarks, “Dr. Carrington, you won the Nobel Prize. You’ve received every kind of kudos a scientist can attain…I’m not, therefore, gonna stick my neck out and say you’re stuffed absolutely clean full of wild blueberry muffins, but I promise you, my readers are gonna think so.” In one fell swoop, the character of Scott has addressed the viewers and defended their communal common sense via witty quips and slang.
Carrington responds to Scott’s remarks with a half-giggling tsk, “Not for long, Mr. Scott. Not if they know anything about the flora of their own planet.” Scott, still speaking for the movie-goer who might view an advanced alien race of evolved plants as far-fetched and hard to swallow, exasperatedly questions, “You mean there are vegetables right here on Earth that can think?” As the soldiers standing behind the reporter take their leave—perhaps, lost by the plot or offended by Darwinian ideals (Chuckie D. and his theories were, and still are, never much of crowd pleaser)—Carrington replies, “A certain kind of thinking, yes. You ever hear of the telegraph vine? Or the…Is it the acanthus century plant, Dr. Stern?” Taking some of the heat off of himself, Carrington hands scientific explanation over to Stern who is ogling the severed arm through a magnifying glass that’d make Sherlock Holmes green with envy, “The century plant catches mice, bats, squirrels, any small mammals Uses a sweet syrup as bait, then holds onto its catch and feeds on it.” Scott asks, “What’s the telegraph vine?” and Stern, his hands now folded behind his head as he basks in the spotlight, replies, “The vine…can signal to other vines of the same species…vines 20 to 100 miles away. Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story, Mr. Scott. Older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.”
What is hard to overlook isn’t the fact that intelligence in plants is an old story, but that Howard Hawks & co. decided to scrap the shape-shifting alien in John Campbell’s original story for the ‘garden’ variety. At any rate, in Chapter 6 of Who Goes There?, the reader finds the ‘specimen analysis and/or examination’ model in full-swing. After being thawed awake from its multimillion-year sleep and supposedly burnt to death by members of the Big Magnet camp while attempting to assimilate then transmogrify itself into the huskies in Dogtown, resident biologist, Dr. Blair, gets the Thing’s charred carcass up on the examiner’s table for some detailed observations and a more thorough assessment. Blair speculates, “I wonder if we ever saw its natural form…it [the alien life-form] may have been imitating the beings that built that ship…I think that was its true form. Those of us who were up near the bend saw the Thing in action. The thing on this table is the result…From my observations…I think it was native to a hotter planet than Earth. It couldn’t…stand the temperature. There is no life-form on Earth that can live in Antarctica during the winter, but the best compromise is the dog. It found the dogs, and somehow got near Charnauk [the canine leader of the pack] to get him…The thing we found was part Charnauk…half-dead, part Charnauk half-digested by the jellylike protoplasm of that creature, and part the remains of the thing we originally found, sort of melted down to the basic protoplasm…Every living thing is made up of jelly—protoplasm and minute, submicroscopic things called nuclei, which control the bulk, the protoplasm. This Thing was just a modification of that same worldwide plan of Nature; cells made up of protoplasm, controlled by infinitely tinier nuclei” (54).
Blair continues to parley this biological, technical speak by attempting to parallel, “You physicists might compare it—an individual cell of any living thing—with an atom, the bulk of the atom, the space-filling part, is made up of electron orbits, but the character of the Thing is determined by the atomic nucleus. This isn’t wildly beyond what we already know. It’s just a modification we haven’t seen before. It’s as natural, as logical, as any other manifestation of life. It obeys exactly the same laws. The cells are made of protoplasm, their character determined by the nucleus” (55). Whether the character of Dr. Blair was successful in his comparison is beside the point. However, what is important is that Campbell imbues the good doctor with an air of authority, which makes the scientific information he’s relaying to the others at Big Magnet—and, ultimately, to the readers of Who Goes There?—seem believable regardless of their accuracy.
Blair also makes note that there is a distinction between the alien’s cellular composition and that of earth-bound life, “In this creature, the cell-nuclei can control those cells at will. It digested Charnauk…studied every cell of his tissue, and shaped its own cells to imitate them exactly. Parts of it…that had time to finish changing—are dog cells. But they don’t have dog-cell nuclei.” In order for the team to better understand him, Blair points to certain parts of the misshapen mass of flesh as example, “That [a torn dog’s leg]…isn’t dog at all; it’s imitation…In time, not even a microscope would have shown the difference…not microscope, nor X-ray, nor any other means. This is a member of a supremely intelligent race…that has learned the deepest secrets of biology, and turned them to its use” (55). Much of this scene from the book is successfully echoed in John Carpenter’s film adaptation.
In Carpenter’s The Thing, the viewer witnesses the aforementioned examination scene with Dr. Blair—expertly played by Wilford Brimley—as he points out, with his partially-used eraser-capped pencil, different parts of the contorted mass of otherworldly anatomy before him, “You see, what we’re talking about here is an organism that imitates other life-forms, and it imitates them perfectly. When the Thing attacked our dogs, it tried to digest’em, absorb them, and in the process, shape its own cells to imitate them.” As he wanders around the examiner’s table with his fellow scientists listening intently to his every word, he stops and points out, “This, for instance—that’s not dog. It’s imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish…imitating these dogs.” In the DVD commentary of The Thing, John Carpenter explains that he “found it really difficult to get across to the audience something that’s rather simple, which is the life-cycle of this creature that can imitate you. And one organism can become the entire world…there’s nowhere to go and it’s [the relaying of scientific information] thankless kind of stuff.”
Carpenter’s frustrations can be felt as he breaks up the specimen examination from Who Goes There? into two scenes. Instead of continuing Blair’s examination with his fellow scientists standing around, Carpenter decides to divide the novella’s scene into two separate ones: the aforementioned examination scene and a computer analysis of the alien’s cellular composition. As Blair sits in front of the computer, 8-bit graphics of the dog cells and the Thing’s cells—identified as ‘cell intruder’—blip across the monitor screen. As the Thing’s cell approaches a dog cell then proceeds to devour it, the word “assimilation” appears, followed closely behind by “assimilation complete-cell dog imitation” while Blair watches what has transpired in disbelief. The screen graphics then dematerialize and are replaced with textual scientific information, “Probability that one or more team members may be infected by intruder organism: 75%. Projection: If intruder organism reaches civilized areas…Entire world population infected 27,000 hours from first contact.”
This rather ominous news appearing across Blair’s computer monitor, also echoes part of his book equivalent’s speech from Campbell’s Who Goes There?. As team member Barclay asks, “What was it [the Thing] planning to do?” (55) Blair’s response to his question is simple, “Take over the world, I imagine. It would become the population of the world.” The fact that John Carpenter chose to utilize the burgeoning computer technology at the time, which was unavailable when Campbell wrote his novella, lends credence to the assumption that computer analysis is infallible and devoid of human error and, thusly, provides another level of authority in communicating scientific information… however dated the computer and its graphics may appear to contemporary senses. Carpenter confesses in DVD commentary that he was “trying to explain the life-cycle…the Thing takes over one cell, as you can see…we still didn’t get it quite right.” Perhaps, that’s simply the perfectionist in Carpenter rearing its ugly head. However obsolescent the technology seems, the scene is still successful in communicating scientific information.
Out of the two silver-screen adaptations of Campbell’s Who Goes There?, it’s fair to say that both Hawks and Carpenter succeed with at least one model of scientific conveyance but not both. In Hawks’ adaptation, the ‘scientific briefing’ model is much more thorough and complex than Carpenter’s equivalent; the latter relying too heavily on the visual element and not enough on the dialogue. This reliance betrays the overall fluidity of the plot, which rends confusion not only to the stupefied scientists in his film but to its viewers who are left to draw their own conclusions on more than one occasion. A little mystery is a good thing, but too much of it can be befuddling to someone unfamiliar with the plotlines of Who Goes There? and/or The Thing from Another World
Likewise, the ‘specimen analysis and/or examination’ model from The Thing from Another World isn’t as successful as John Carpenter’s adaptation. This might be partially due to the replacement of the shape-shifting alien from Who Goes There? and The Thing with that of the ‘super carrot’ in Hawks’ film. Although, the science is conveyed with a sense of authority, the scientists communicating the knowledge with an arrogance of superiority disguised as amusement over—resident ‘common man’ and ace news reporter—Ned Scott’s questions. Even if Hawks had been faithful to Campbell’s original story, the likeability factor of the character Dr. Carrington is about -50, which also happens to be the temperature of the winds at the South Polar Plateau in Campbell’s novella. Perhaps if Hawks hadn’t switched Poles on us, the frigid Dr. Carrington would’ve had a better chance of warming our hearts …but that’s just conjecture on my part. Overall, the believability of the science communicated is diminished due to aloofness, arrogance, and secrecy of most of the scientists stationed at Polar Expedition Six in The Thing from Another World.
If scientists were salesman, then John Carpenter’s down-to-earth team sell science much better than Howard Hawks’ elitist crew, led by a ‘la-de-da’ Nobel laureate, do. The level of believability is evenly matched with the likeability of The Thing’s scientists and that’s important in making science accessible to the masses. I suppose it doesn’t hurt either that Carpenter chose to fashion his film’s scientists and alien life-form after those appearing in Who Goes There? rather than replacing them like Hawks did in The Thing from Another World. Furthermore, though I don’t find the idea of plant-life evolving into an advanced sentient race, I do find it far-fetched that said race would look like a humanoid,…and a mammalian man, at that.
Moreover, the scientists in Campbell’s novella and Carpenter’s The Thing, are simply trying to survive and protect the Earth’s population from the shape-shifting alien; this in turn, portrays the scientists as fellow human beings and not some special category of high-minded individuals above humanity and with a secretive set of ulterior motives like Dr. Carrington and many of his fellow scientists in The Thing from Another World. Wanting to peacefully extend a hand in friendship to an extra-terrestrial intelligence is commendable if and only if said intelligence wishes to extend its hand—or tentacle—in return. Sacrificing the Earth’s population for the sake of scientific discovery is not only an abominable act but ultimately a defeatist one. Who will there be to reap the rewards of science breakthrough if Earth’s populations have all been consumed and assimilated by some alien invader? Dr. Carrington really needs to prioritize.
Campbell, Jr., John W. “Who Goes There?” They Came from Outer Space: 12 Classic Science Fiction Tales that Became Major Motion Pictures. Ed. Jim Wynorski. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1980. pp. 31-90.
John Carpenter’s The Thing. Dir. John Carpenter. Perf. Kurt Russel, Wilford Brimley. 1982. DVD. Universal Studios, 2004.