Ikarie XB-1: an early 1960’s space travel movie that boldly went where no space travel movie went before

Jindrích Polák, “Ikarie XB-1” (1963)

A compelling early 1960’s science fiction gem from the old Czechoslovakia is this lavish effort by Polák that details the day-to-day lives of a crew flying a craft at close to the speed of light to Alpha Centauri in the year 2163. A planet has been detected in that star system that holds the promise of supporting Earth-borne life and this is the goal that consumes the crew’s attention and the movie’s running time. For a supposed pro-Soviet propaganda piece this movie has a small amount of capitalist bashing. There’s not much of a definite plot: after the film’s first thirty minutes which consist of introducing various members of the 40-strong crew as they go about their work, the story settles into three set pieces. In the first piece the crew of Ikarie XB-1 discover a derelict spacecraft and despatch two men to investigate; the men report that the abandoned ship is from Earth in 1987. The men discover there are still active nuclear weapons on the ship and try to escape. In the second set piece the Ikarie XB-1 passes near a dark star whose radiation affects the crew badly and causes a kind of sleeping sickness; this piece leads into the third set piece in which a crew member Michael (Otto Lackovic), who had ventured outside the Ikarie XB-1 to fix something while the ship was passing the dark star, becomes deranged from too much dark-star radiation exposure and becomes a threat to the ship’s mission and the crew’s lives as he starts damaging some of the robots and the ship’s technology.

The interior sets of Ikarie XB-1 are the film’s main highlight: the design of the control and flight rooms where crew members sit and pilot the ship is very “modern” for the period with plenty of artistic flair, light and space even in the corridors as well as the main function areas. A canteen, a gym and a swimming pool area Costumes are deliberately utilitarian apart from a ballroom dancing scene where the women wear 1960’s fashions and the men wear uniforms meant to be futuristic tuxedos. Admirably women as well as men have responsibility for piloting the ship, controlling interior air flows, temperatures and pressures, and monitoring people’s health and well-being though when it comes to making final decisions that could spell the difference between life and death, the older men still have the upper hand over everyone else, male and female alike. The crew’s response to Michael’s depression and rampage is sane though their capture of him isn’t necessarily recommended: the people in charge try to keep track of his location and where he is moving to, and send one – yes, one! – unarmed man out to fetch him and take him to the sick bay! Perhaps the brave man knows some form of self-defence like the Vulcan neck nerve pinch that isn’t mentioned in the film.

As if to provide a wry kind of balance, the exterior sets that show the ship flying through space are very cartoony and amateurish in a film that otherwise presents interstellar travel intelligently and treats its audience as educated and cultured. Viewers may wonder why animation wasn’t used instead to show the ship – perhaps the film’s budget didn’t allow for it. The budget did allow for a music soundtrack that includes some unusual and electronically produced sounds and tunes by famed Czech composer Zdenék Liška and this together with various sound effects that simulate noises from outside the ship as well as inside is another major highlight which contributes mightily to the overall serious and sometimes melancholy mood.

The main dangers faced by the crew suggest a questioning or inquiry into the nature of human interaction in and with space: how humans can create a new and isolated society and how they can co-exist in that society especially during emergency situations when they can only rely on themselves for help. Before the major set pieces take place, the film focusses on a love triangle that fizzles out when the two Romeos discover their lady love already has a husband, and on a couple who discover they’re expecting a baby. As everyone knows, when a film features a pregnancy the baby has to appear and “Ikarie XB-1” obliges with a bonny cutey near the end. Happily the movie never falls into sentimentality or soap-opera territory: everyone on board behaves sanely and properly, even during the party scene where couples dance sedately and people sniff little sticks of fragrance that remind them of Earth. The ship’s science officer is allowed eccentric foibles like bringing a useless robot Patrik on board and refusing to take his vitamin drinks which a woman engineer constantly urges on him. Another crew member brings his piano on board. Given the kind of mini-society the film-makers seemed to have in mind when developing the script, viewers shouldn’t be surprised if other crew members brought along enough musical instruments that they could constitute a full orchestra capable of playing all the major 19th and 20th century symphonies and concertos. The implication is that thanks to the triumph and spread of Communist socialism, all humans have become peaceful and reasonable. Of course this means strong characterisation is not the film’s strong point. Even the encounter with the dark star and its insidious radioactive effects isn’t enough to reduce everyone to a state of “capitalistic” greed and self-indulgence leading to competition, violence and murder. The film might have been more interesting and have a richer sub-text if the dark star had affected the crew in that way: the phenomenon would come to represent the crew’s collective unconsciousness – what Freudian psychoanalysis calls the id – that they haven’t come to terms with and which they must do to survive; but then “Ikarie XB-1” wouldn’t have been approved by the Czechoslovak government censors.

Communist propagandistic bluster in the movie appears in the scene in which the two cosmonauts explore the derelict ship and even there the film suggests that it was the dead capitalist crew’s inability to co-operate and settle disputes amicably that indirectly led to its demise. (And having military generals pilot the derelict craft wasn’t such a good idea either.) The society of “Ikarie XB-1” is proof enough of Communism’s success; whenever problems are encountered, whether from outside or inside, its inhabitants try to deal with them intelligently and resourcefully.

As is, the movie isn’t exciting drama for the general public but it’s a bold attempt to portray a futuristic society that deliberately isolates itself from the rest of humanity and Earth in order to fulfill a grand ambition to reach out to the stars and connect with other sentient life. It’s an interesting paradox, that to contact other intelligences, some of us need to separate ourselves (forever perhaps) from the rest of humankind. “Ikarie XB-1” attempts in a limited way to explore some of the ramifications that might arise when a society willingly detaches itself from all other people to pursue a narrow agenda. The full-length feature format is a restricted medium for studying the problems such a society and its individuals might have so it’s no wonder that when American producer and script-writer Gene Roddenberry had a similar idea about a group of pioneers travelling in space and dealing with emergencies, crises, setbacks and humdrum life generally – the Internet is awash with speculation that he was inspired by “Ikarie XB-1” – he chose the format of a TV series to flesh out his vision. Thus was “Star Trek” born.

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