Sept. 18, 2005
Let's Blow this
thing!: Self-Destruct Devices and Other Seminal Self-Immolations
Okay, first let me apologize for the title of this editorial.
If you know your movie quotes, you know that line was immortalized by
Han Solo just seconds before the climax to the original Star Wars, right before Luke did
precisely that, and blew up the Death Star real good. And so you
also know that it really had nothing to do with the topic of this
essay, self-destruct devices, or even the more general category of
self-immolations. The Death Star blew up because of a design flaw
exploited by a clever (and Jedi-enhanced) opponent. There was
nothing "self" about it. Still, it made for a cool title, and you
can never go wrong, when you start off with a reference to Star Wars.
Having gotten that off my chest...
Self-destruct devices. Why (you may be asking) am I writing
about self-destruct devices? Well, every now and then, worldly
events conspire in an almost eerily teleological way and an editor
finds, as if by divine fiat, that absolutely perfect opportunity to
discuss a topic he has long kept on the back burner. In an
instant, order arises out of chaos, sense from nonsense, and the editor
knows -- he knows -- that
such a perfect juxtaposition of confluent happenings will almost
never come his way again.
This is not such a time.
There is no earthly reason why I should pick this moment to
talk about self-destruct devices, except insofar as I
can't come up with anything better. And, besides, everyone likes
to watch things blow up. Myself more than the next man, I dare
say. So, onwards and upwards...
It would, I think, be safe to call the "self-destruct device" a
"pulp staple". It is one of those things which we just kind of
imagine cropping up in countless adventure tales, even if we can't
quite name those tales or fully picture them in our brains. But,
first, let's define our terms, shall we? (And, no, I don't mean
"brains".) By "self-destruct device", we mean some sort of
machine, possessed either by the hero or the villain, whose sole
purpose is to be used when all other options have failed.
Usually activated with disquieting ease (sometimes a single pressed
button will do -- What happened to the option to: Are you certain? Y
or N?), your basic self-destruct device has the ability to
effectively obliterate the main base of operations possessed by said
villain when everything else has pretty much gone south. Its use
is always pre-planned and usually vindictive.
That "base of operations" could be any structure of limited
dimensions from the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek to the planet Altair IV
in Forbidden Planet (1956) to
handy dandy personal model showcased on the predator's wrist in
Predator (1987). Size doesn't
matter, but, the bigger the base, the
bigger the boom. I think Einstein said that.
I've long wondered who was the first to introduce the self-destruct
device into fiction. What was the earliest example of its
use? No idea? Me neither. What I do know is that, for
me growing up,
"self-destruct device" meant only one thing. Star Trek!
And, indeed, I think a lot of people will tell you that Kirk and the
boys seemed to order the self-destruction of their Starship Enterprise
just about every other week. And yet, looking back, a precise
count reveals a mere three
episodes which so much as mentioned the possibility. That's right --
In "The Corbomite Maneuver", Captain Kirk pretends to possess a
self-destruct device and threatens to use it (or rather, claims it will
activate automatically) if the alien Balok attacks the
Enterprise. But that was just a bluff. In "Let This Be Your
Last Battlefield" (the one with the white-black aliens) and in "By Any
Other Name" (the one where aliens from outside our galaxy turn a
into a sugar cube, then crush the cube -- yuck!) Kirk does indeed
seriously threaten to blow up the ship with self-destruct
devices. Though, even here, "By Any Other Name" doesn't involve a
self-destructive device so much as the chief engineer jury-rigging a
way to make the Warp engines explode when certain conditions are
met. Only in "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" do we see a
honest to God, complete with
device -- a nifty device which cropped up once again (and for the last
time, obviously) in the later Star Trek movie, Star Trek
Search For Spock.
At the same time, Star Trek had competition in my young mind
after Star Trek, when I heard the phrase "self-destruct
device", I also
tended to think of...James Bond!
I have seen all of the twenty or so Bond films, most more than once,
and I couldn't tell you which plot went with which movie. Like
the Baldwins, after a
while they all just blur together. I don't know how many ended
with the bad guy
blowing up his secret base but I vividly remember the climax to You
Only Live Twice (1967) where the late Donald Pleasence [who
turned in a mediocre performance in his life~Ed.] as the evil Blofeld
has a secret rocket silo hidden beneath an inactive Japanese
volcano with a mechanical crater that slid open for rocket
launches. That underground rocket silo, it soon transpired, came
equipped with its own self-destruct device which Blofeld activates as
he, y'know, runs like a girl. This is not to be confused with
technical parlance) "exploder button" which Bond himself uses to blow
one of the rockets while in orbit. As I recall, there was none of
the admittedly faint-hope safeguards which even Star Trek saw
give its device. No special codes and authorizations and
secondary authorizations for Ernst Stavro Blofeld. No, for him
there was just a key and a big friendly switch.
That's my kind of engineering.
If my idea of the self-destruct device was fostered by Star Trek
James Bond, it was given its purest shape by Ridley Scott's and Dan
O'Bannon's sci-fi horror monsterpiece, Alien. In the
that devastatingly effective movie, Sigourney Weaver decides to blow up
the entire spaceship, eponymous alien included, while she escapes in a
craft. Her ship, Nostromo, is apparently already set up to be
turned into a giant piñata, with so many buttons and
safe-guards, it takes her forever just to start the damn countdown
counting down! Then, when (donchaknowit?) she has second thoughts
and tries to stop the countdown? It takes her so long to work all
those gizmos in reverse, she exceeds the time limit to abort detonation
by mere seconds --
sort of like finding the key to the front door just as the telephone
inside stops ringing. Man, do I hate that!
It was actually while watching Alien many years ago that it
occurred to me what a ludicrous idea a self-destruct device is.
I mean, consider that movie. The Nostromo was supposed to be a
simple freight hauler, right? Basically an outer space
dump truck. Do we routinely equip our dump trucks with
explosives? Or what about the starship Enterprise? Do we
equip our ocean-going battleships with small nukes to blow them to
crew included, when all else has failed? Maybe, but I doubt
it. In the military that's known as "negative thinking".
So, why do we imagine that, in the future, every two-bit
space taxi will have one? In Alien, I don't know which
more: that a dump truck like Nostromo comes with a self-destruct
or that they even went to the trouble of recording a voice to tell you
when you have exceeded the
time limit to terminate detonation, since, by that point, ipso facto,
the listener is basically as good as dead.
Think about it.
(I have made the point before that the sequel Aliens (1986) by
was virtually a scene by scene remake of the original Alien
movies end with a nuclear blammo, but that doesn't mean they are both
examples of self-destruct devices. In Cameron's sequel,
inadvertent gunfire striking the nuclear reactor's core causes the
whole thing to meltdown and explode. Not a self-destruct device
so much as a "hey-sherlock-what-part-of-no-guns-didn't-you-understand"
So far I've pushed the origin of the self-destruct device back to the
original Star Trek series. That was when I was a
later, I got to see 1956's Forbidden Planet. That was the
with Robby the Robot and Leslie Nielsen long before he made it big in
comedy. (Nielsen, not Robby. Robby just wasn't that
funny.) Chances are, when I mentioned self-destruct devices,
Forbidden Planet wasn't the first thing to leap to mind.
in that movie uses that phrase, but, if you think about it, that's what
we're looking it in the climax, isn't it?
You'll recall, the planet Altair IV used to be inhabited by the
super-technological alien race, the Krell. The slightly
off-kilter but nobly intentioned scientist, played by Walter Pigeon,
discovers the Krell left
behind a lot of machinery. You may think you left a bunch of
stuff behind during your last move but, believe me, that was nothing
compared to the Krell. The slightly off-kilter but nobly
intentioned scientist learns
that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing and decides it is
best to keep the Krell's super-science out of human hands. At the
same time, since he is dying in the climax (a little knowledge being a
very dangerous thing), he has to have Nielsen do the nasty deed for
him. But does he tell Nielsen what that button does? Oh
no. As calm as you please, he asks Nielsen to push on that do-dad
over there and Nielsen guilelessly crosses the room, pushes this long
stick thing into the floor, and then, only once he has returned and it
is too late to stop it, does Pigeon reveal that he has just activated a
chain reaction in the reactor that will blow up the entire
What a bastard.
I know I said before that the whole idea of a self-destruct device was
"ludicrous". What I should have said was: I used to think it was
ludicrous. Since then I learned that NASA, during its shuttle
launches, does indeed have a guy called a "Range Safety Officer" whose
job is literally to press the button and blow up the shuttle,
astronauts included, in the event it seems to be veering off course and
headed for a collision with a population centre. Why NASA and no
one else? As far as I know, regular passenger airliners don't
come equipped with an "exploder button". When you're taking the
red eye into Pearson International, I don't think there's a sweating
Range Safety Officer with his finger on the trigger, ready to blow you
to atoms should you look like you're going to fall short of the
runway. Presumably, the difference lies in the fact that NASA was
created out of the Air Force. On test ranges, there is always a
Range Safety Officer ready to blow up errant missiles. NASA just
inherited the practice.
Then there is the instance of the bloody pirate, Bartholomew Roberts,
whose crew reportedly sailed with a constant cargo of gunpowder and
standing orders to blow themselves up in the event they were about to
be taken by an enemy. When they finally were defeated and
boarded, sure enough one man set fire to the powder but, alas, the
explosion was less than was looked for, killing that man and injuring
quite a few, but leaving the ship intact and the rest of the crew to
perish of "hempen fever" -- the noose.
Similarly, faced with defeat, the Americans set fire to their own
powder at Fort Erie, Niagara Frontier, during the War of 1812, blowing
up the entire fort and killing men on both sides. So, the
self-destruct device isn't quite so "ludicrous" as I supposed.
Not very helpful, but not ludicrous either.
Returning to fiction, I'm sure there were countless examples of
self-destruct devices in the Pulp magazines, but one of the most
intriguing for my money wasn't a "device" exactly but it certainly fit
all other criteria, in that it featured a villain destroying a base of
operations in a vindictive and pre-planned way. I am referring to
the climax to the Robert E. Howard interplanetary romance, Almuric.
Almuric is unusual in many ways. Robert E. Howard is most famous
his brawny barbarian, Conan, but he was willing to try just about
anything...once. Almuric is his one and only attempt to
interplanetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In
fact, so much was this a departure, that sci-fi author David Drake
theorized it wasn't written by Howard at all, but by Howard's literary
agent Otis Adelbert Kline, who claimed to have just sort of found the
manuscript after Howard's death. [For more on that question and
my own theories regarding the matter, check out this page at Cimmerian
Collection. ~ Blair]
In Almuric, the brawny hero, Esau Cairn, does battle with a
winged Yagas who live in a city perched high on a rock citadel, where
they keep a meek race of Guras as their slaves and playthings..
In the climax, Cairn unites the fractious Guras and leads them to the
top of the citadel via a secret passage where they bloodily throw off
the yoke of oppression and, as for the Yagas, well, the yoke's on
them. (Do you want to drive? No? All right then...)
As the Guras make short work of her winged minions, the evil queen of
the Yagas unleashes one last nasty gotcha. In the middle of the
city, a doomed roof splits open and out crawls -- the mother of all
I might not consider that a legitimate example of a self-destruct
device except that we are told the queen kept her pet for precisely
that one purpose. It was born and raised to bring doom to both
herself and her enemies, which I guess sort of makes it a, heh, "Doom
Buggy". A role which it takes to with gusto:
It spread its writhing arms, and at
their touch stone walls crashed to ruin and masonry burst apart.
It was brainless, sightless -- elemental force incorporated in the
lowest form of animation -- power gone mad and run amuck in a senseless
fury of destruction.
And so it goes. In a climax that would have been right at home in a James Bond movie,
the bug gets pretty far in its program of
urban renewal but Cairn discovers its achilles heel and saves the
day. You might say, the self-destruct device has an exploder
button of its own.
Or you might not.
There's not much else to say about that (and not much that I did say, come to that), but here's a thought. I
began by asking who was the first to introduce the self-destruct device
into fiction? I'm sure you could come up with examples of your
own, but I think I've got one that beats all comers. Before Alien
and before Star Trek, before Forbidden Planet and
before the Pulp
era. Can you guess?
Click on the answer and find out
were right. And try not to get so excited you throw up.
I'll see you in a couple.
Jeffrey Blair Latta,
and Supreme Plasmate
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