Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Originally aired: 15 May 1955
Plot synopsis: A giant spaceship drifts aimlessly through space, with the descendants of its original crew having long forgotten its true nature and mission. Based on a short story first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, in May 1941; and later in Robert A. Heinlein's short-story collection The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, in 1959.
Favourite line: 'The Ship is complete. The Ship is universal. The Ship is everywhere. The Ship is endless.'
Review: I've given less than favourable reviews to other episodes adapted from Robert Heinlein short stories (see my reviews of The Green Hills of Earth and The Roads Must Roll), but this is one which all fans of big ideas in science fiction should appreciate. Heinlein was not the first to write about so-called 'generation ships' - spacecraft designed to overcome the problem of how human beings might traverse the vast distances of space at below light speed, by having multiple generations of crew living and dying aboard - but the plot he constructs around the idea adds a clever and imaginative twist. This twist is that, as generation has succeeded generation, later ones have forgotten what the ship's original purpose was - and even that it is a space vessel at all. Instead, most have come to believe that the ship is the entire universe, unable to conceive that anything might exist beyond its walls. A further inventive idea is that the original beliefs and intentions behind the mission have over time become distorted and corrupted into a rigid religious dogma - whose adherents venerate 'the Ship' - making this a satirical story about the nature of religion as well. In addition, there is the interesting conceit that the crew's descendants have divided into two groups, with most of the ship's inhabitants having reverted to a simple, superstitious mode of life on the lower decks, while a band of 'mutants', some of whom hold heretical ideas about the ship's true nature, live in the upper ones. All this makes for an exciting and absorbing story. The episode does, though, suffer from problems common to much of Heinlein's fiction: in particular, that his characters are fairly two-dimensional and, most serious, that his stories' leads are often not especially relatable or sympathetic. Even so, this remains a very good story of ideas. (For another episode about a generation ship, which employs a very similar plot, see The Sense of Wonder.)
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Dimension X (1950 and 1951)]