Tomorrowland Seen Today

Through DVDs, I recently revisited some vividly remembered TV episodes of “Walt Disney Presents” with the “Tomorrowland” theme.

by Milo Miles

My easy favorite was Mars and Beyond, featuring the masterful animation of Ward Kimball. Unlike the IMDB reviewer, I’ve gotten past annoyance with the “limited animation” style. Now that it’s not regarded as the permanent future of animation, and is merely one type among many, the charms can be enjoyed. Sure, Chuck Jones’s Marvin is a more fun Martian than anything Kimball can develop in an hour, but Jones himself would be the first one to tell you Kimball had phenomenal graphic chops and imagination. (There’s loads of wonderful details that I had forgotten from more than 40 years ago — for instance, Kimball animates how H. G. Wells’s Martians would move on their home planet. Fascinating.)

Of course, Mars and Beyond must be appreciated as an artwork nowadays, not for its dated (and sometimes slightly inaccurate) science. Almost all the romance has drained from speculation about life on other Solar System worlds. One of the big shocks is to be reminded how, in 1957, Venus was considered maybe as likely as Mars to support some kind of lifeforms. The discovery that it’s a roaring inferno under its thick clouds was a major fantasy-bummer. There was a sweet symmetry between mysterious Venus and rugged Mars. Gone forever.

I had forgotten how wild and wiggy Kimball’s final animation of Martian life got (though I found it fascinating enough to tape the audio off TV during a rebroadcast). With its eerie electronic score, the sequence goes from surreal to outright psychedelic a decade ahead of its time. A small masterpiece.

And yes, it is weird to see the old Nazi-armer Wernher von Braun in his “rehabilitated” role as an American rocket scientist (I know kids reading science tracts at the time were given no clue as to his past). And the proposed atomic-electric spaceship for Mars explorations now seems like pure sci-fi — not least because it vastly underestimates the dangers of radioactivity and radioactive waste products.

Speaking of radioactivity, the other “Tomorrowland” feature I most remembered was Our Friend the Atom. I still have my copy of the corresponding book, and it’s a graphic beauty (the best kids’ books of the ’50s and early ’60s were really classy — nothing like the slick, trying-to-be-videos of today). Our Friend the Atom, however, is not just dated (though it offers an enduringly good, though pre-quantuum-physics, presentation of the discovery of atoms and then fission). The show’s turned into a bizarre curio: it reads almost like a disturbing fantasy now. Leonard Maltin, who always cuts Disney waaaaay too much slack, notes that the downside-free nuclear power presented in the program is totally wack but excuses it by noting that “Walt was an optimist.” But he was also a tool. It was very important in the ’50s to put as benign a face as possible on “nuclear power” so that people would stop thinking of “nuclear” as “nuclear weapons” and proceed to that oh-so-dangerous Ban the Bomb outlook. So atomic piles were sugar-coated as hassle-free sources of almost limitless energy. There was even the absurd suggestion of a nuclear-powered jet (good lucky to anybody within a few hundred miles of a crash site from one of those).

The program ends on a note of sickening piety which claims we must use atomic energy only in the high-minded and pure-spirited manner of the scientists who discovered it, from Democritus to Einstein. For the mainstream media, “scientists,” like Mom, the President, clergymen and Walt Disney himself, were to be presented as saintly paragons lest authority be undermined. But of course scientists like Edward Teller and von Braun have always had deep dark sides. A nearly subliminal rejected of the “sacred scientist” lie has aided the dreadful pervasive distrust and even rejection of scientific thinking that plagues our society today.

This is all part of the foundation of Profound Unreality that still surrounds all thinking about things nuclear. Such as that somehow it’s possible to forever keep Iran or North Korea from becoming nuclear-armed. Or that it’s not fundamentally looney to insist it’s almost holy for us to have nukes, but Satanic for others. Or going to the opposite extreme about nuclear energy and insisting it’s too horribly uncontrollable to be a vital fuel source (which it will have to be, someday soon).

Our Insanity the Atom is more like it.

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