The Black Hole by Alan Dean Foster
“They were themselves and yet something strange and new… a unified mindthing… Dimly they/it perceived the final annihilation of a miniscule agglutination of refined masses — the Palomino. It was gone, lost in an infinite brightness. They/it remained, content and infinite now as the white hole itself.”
The Black Hole was Disney’s 1979 attempt to surf the wave of sci-fi knock-offs that arrived in the wake of Star Wars. A loose riff on Jules Verne’s Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the story involves some explorers aboard the space-crate Palomino stumbling upon a mad scientist living alone at the edge of the titular void, on a ship (the Cygnus) run by faceless automatons. He claims his crew deserted him before he could embark on a whacky experimental attempt to navigate inside the black hole, but it turns out he’s lying, and the “robots” are the zombie-cyborg remains of his shipmates.
A huge tentpole investment for Disney, it’s bizarrely sombre for a kids film. Like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released the same month, it looks as much to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for inspiration as it does to George Lucas’ breezy adventure. This was Disney’s first film released with anything stronger than a U rating, which meant that characters could say “damn” and “hell”, and that Anthony Perkins could be eviscerated by a giant crimson robot with wrist-mounted death-whisks.
But it’s also too throwaway to satisfy as “serious” sci-fi. It began as a screenplay called Space Probe One, hastily dusted off and given, along with a hefty FX budget and a bombastic John Barry score, to director Gary Nelson, who had previously had a success for Disney with Freaky Friday. It’s safe to infer that the original script was a more adult-oriented, wannabe hard-SF idea that was retrofitted to make it family friendly. That “streamlining” involved removing most of the science, adding a cute, comedy robot sidekick for the good guys (the aphorism-spouting VINCent, voiced by Roddy McDowell), but not fundamentally changing the story. So it ended up a kids’ film about a death ship parked at the edge of an existential meltdown. Roger Ebert deemed it “a talky haunted house melodrama,” and called out its failure to actually do anything much with the black hole itself. The science-defying, mind-bending possibilities of the phenomenon as a plot device are largely wasted, and it’s instead left to swirl quietly offscreen as the vague threat of a journey into the unknown — or certain death.
What’s chiefly memorable about the film is its monumentally bizarre ending. We’ll get to that later…
Until that climax, Alan Dean Foster’s adaptation doesn’t much diverge from what’s on screen, and doesn’t do much to flesh out the characters or beef up their speech-bubble dialogue. But what it does do, quite successfully, is shore up some of the science around the black hole, its gravitational pull, the Cygnus’ resistance of that, and the process of travelling faster than light; Foster gives humankind “Supralight Drive” technology.
He also makes sense of some things that, on screen, can seem questionable (or daft), or are easy to miss. The book opens with Harry, Ernest Borgnine’s character, who we immediately learn is that most essential of spaceship crew members, a journalist. In the film, unless you’re sharp enough to read correctly into his early exclamation about stumbling on an extraordinary story, this is a detail that’s completely lost until, forty minutes in, mad Doctor Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) asks him what newspaper he writes for. Until then he’s just a non-specific spaceship guy doing non-specific spaceship stuff. But the novel jumps straight in with him recording a Star Trek style log about the Palomino’s “deep-space life-search” mission. It’s Christmas Eve. “Ship and personnel are tired and discouraged, but both are still functioning as planned. Man’s long search for life in this section of our galaxy is drawing to a close.” So we immediately learn the Palomino’s mission too: on screen it’s buried in a throwaway line spoken by Yvette Mimieux’s Doctor Kate McCrae.
Foster makes explicit the reason why the Cygnus is a glass cathedral while the Palomino is a jalopy, despite both having left Earth with the same purpose. The Cygnus is described as “The Great Pyramid of our time and Reinhardt its Cheops,” but Reinhardt is also likened to “the Barnum of interstellar exploration.” Reinhardt’s hubris led to the creation of a grand folly, and the failure of his mission led to drastic cutbacks to Earth’s space programme and the determination that future ships should be purely functional rather than crazily opulent.
Non-crew Harry’s sudden ability to fly the Palomino when he tries to flee on his own is put down to most of its systems being automatic (plus “after eighteen months of spare time he’d managed to thoroughly study the basic controls.”) And Foster takes the time to invent a reason exactly why Reinhardt’s stormtrooper robots would be given downtime and a recreation room (where VINCent plays laser tag at tiresome length). It’s in order to avoid circuit corruption: “mind-machinery… required exercise and use other than that programmed for it — much as did man’s.” Another whimsical Foster addition is the robot bees pollinating the biodome. He doesn’t mention where they spend their off-hours.
Reinhardt’s massive henchbot Maximilian, we learn, is a machine of a type banned on Earth. “Freely mobile robots of such obvious strength were… too dangerous to be allowed.” There’s no Asimov’s Law in this universe, so there’s nothing to prevent him murdering Perkins, although the sequence in the book is actually milder than the film’s: he’s neatly “drilled” by a laser beam, rather than suffering Maximilian’s blender attachments.
Kate and Captain Dan (Robert Fortser’s character) are revealed to be in a relationship, but the business of Kate’s ESP remains strangely matter-of-fact and under-explored. VINCent says a bit more about the botched ESP experiments sending robots into black holes, the idea being that they would maintain psychic connections with their human partners from the other side. In the film VINCent says the robots melted, but he doesn’t elaborate, as he does in the book, that the ESP-linked humans “collapsed mentally” as the robots did physically. The implication remains that, in the future, ESP is just a normal way for some crew to communicate with on-board equipment. Reinhardt gets an extra line pondering this recent development. “It was only a matter of time before biophysics matched the strides made by its inorganic counterparts,” he muses.
Foster does, however, run with Kate’s ESP as a way to climax the novel, which he does completely differently to the events as depicted in the film. A contemporary interview with Nelson reveals why this is: during production, The Black Hole’s conclusion was so top secret that it didn’t even exist. “There is not, and never was, a definitive ending written,” Nelson told Mediascene’s Jim Steranko in 1979. “Even the credited screenwriters did not write the actual ending we have on the film. They took the story up to the last seven minutes and stopped.” So, far from changing the ending according to his own whim, Foster was working from an incomplete screenplay that he was forced to conclude on his own, not knowing what the production would eventually opt for.
His results are fair enough, because he couldn’t possibly have guessed. Nelson’s ultimate resolution — if it’s supposed to be what’s really happening, as opposed to a just a death fugue in Reinhardt’s mind — lurches clumsily from the scientific to the metaphysical. As the Sygnus drifts inexorably into the black hole, Reinhardt is crushed beneath a giant falling screen as the bridge of his ship crumples around him. And suddenly we’re in Hell. Reinhardt, floating weightless in cloudy red space, is apparently fused with Maximilian, his panicked eyes looking out through the robot’s eye slit. We then see Maximilian in silhouette against a red sky, standing on a rocky outcrop in the middle of a flaming landscape. Reinhardt’s robed zombots shuffle, monk-like, heads bowed, across a stone bridge. A glittering stained glass window appears, which then becomes an arched, glass corridor, down which a white-glowing, long-haired, robed figure, spectrally transparent, flies at some speed towards the light at the end.
It’s, shall we say, a peculiar choice. Going into a black hole could have given us anything. What we get is one of those album covers that Bill and Ted talked about. And yet it is an idea seeded through the film. Harry references Dante’s Inferno in the opening scenes, and First Officer Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) says something about devils with pitchforks. But rather than Dante we end up with Milton. Reinhardt has already made the choice to reign in Hell (lording over his ship and crew of dead men) rather than serve in Heaven (return home as ordered, his mission unaccomplished). So the final vision is a morbid irony: he gets his wish, but at the cost of being trapped in a metal sarcophagus, presumably for eternity. Unless that’s him flitting down the silver hallway, in which case his purgatory was exceptionally brief.
Cut back to “reality” and our heroes, attempting escape in a probe ship, end up sucked into the void anyway. Cue a lot of spinning and echoing flashback voices, some distorting lenses, some John Barry, and they emerge from the “white hole” of the other end, their intact craft sailing towards an unknown planet with a sun behind it in partial eclipse. The implication is that further adventures in an unimagined new universe are in store.
Foster doesn’t do any of that. In his version we last see Reinhardt watching the “tiny figures” of the Palomino crew boarding the probe, and cursing his luck as he’s sucked out of the collapsing ship into space. As in the film, the crew on the pod then find it pre-programmed and heading into the hole. But after that, Foster wraps things up in fewer than two pages, likely influenced by Kubrick’s ambiguous “Star Child” ending of 2001. Amid the destructive madness of the collapsar, Kate uses her ESP to create a hive mind of the crew, and they’re all transmogrified into, as Bill Hicks described his own utopian vision, “one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively”.
“On a beach was a grain of sand,” Foster writes. “The sand was part of a continent, the continent a component of a world, the world a speck of substance in the sea of infinity. They were part of that world, part of every world… their substance had become dispersed. An atom of Charlie to a nine-world system, a molecule of Kate to a local cluster of stars, a tiny diffuse section of Holland spread thinly over a dozen galaxies… Their thoughts spanned infinity, as did their finely spread substance, and they now had an eternity in which to contemplate the universe they had become…”
The brevity of the sequence in the novel is surprising, but it’s no more insane than Nelson’s alternative.
Alan Dean Foster is arguably the godfather of the novelization, as well as a prolific author of original fiction. His film and TV tie-in work includes books in the Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Terminator and Transformers franchises, plus adaptations of John Carpenter’s Dark Star, The Thing and Starman, Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans, and Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. His 80-odd other novels include the multi-volume Spellsinger fantasy and Humanx Commonwealth sci-fi series. Somehow he also finds time to be a champion power lifter. He lives in Arizona.
About the Novelization Station project…
I’ve always had a soft spot for novelizations. As a kid, growing up pre-VHS, they were a way to re-experience films I’d enjoyed. As I got a bit older they became a way to “see” films that I wasn’t old enough to access. And into adulthood I continued to find them weirdly fascinating as warped, parallel universe versions of the things they were supposedly adapting: sometimes based on much earlier screenplays than the ones that were ultimately filmed, and sometimes crazily extrapolated and embellished by the authors themselves. They were — and still are — both hack work and a definite craft. My first major published magazine feature, more than a decade ago now, was an investigation of why they still exist when you can buy the DVD. In the age of Netflix, I still think that’s an interesting question.
They’re a niche interest and they’re not much studied, so my intention here is to create a platform to talk about them. I’m planning to focus on one book a week. I’m using the American spelling of “novelization” for SEO reasons, and I will not be worrying about spoilers. Length and format of these pieces will vary, I think, depending on what there is to say. I’ve got my own list, but if there’s anything you’d like to see covered, give me a shout below the line or on Twitter and I’ll very likely oblige.
Arriving next: The Spy Who Loved Me.