Saturday, September 4, 2004

The Vanguard of Mars Part Two

On October 30, 1938 many people were convinced that Martians were invading Earth all because of a radio broadcast. The Mercury Theatre of the Air debuted on CBS in July of that year. The series brought John Houseman and Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre to radio. The concept behind the series was simple--to bring classic material to radio, performed by the Mercury troupe. The Mercury Theatre of the Air debuted with a performance of Dracula and in the following weeks adapted Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, and other classic works to the radio medium. For their Hallowe'en episode, the Mercury Theatre decided to adapt H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Howard Koch's script updated the classic novella to 1938 and moved the action to America. In fact, the Martians would land in Grover Mills, New Jersey.

The script was also positively revolutionary in that it would play out as a series of newscasts reporting the invasion of Earth by Martian tripods. Throughout "The Invasion From Mars" disclaimers were broadcast making it clear that this was a fictional radio drama. Unfortunately, many apparently missed those disclaimers. CBS's switchboards were jammed with callers concerned about the invasion. The New York Times alone received 832 phone calls. While the mass hysteria subsequently reported in the media was false--there were no suicides, no people fleeing their homes, no heart attacks--there were a large number of people who were convinced for a short time that Earth was being invaded. The Mercury Theatre of the Air's peformance of "The Invasion from Mars" perhaps proved two things. First, that people can be easily misled by a convincing radio broadcast. Second, that many people may well hold deep seated fears about invasions from Mars.

Those fears would be fed by the movies in the next several decades. Indeed, one needed to look no further than Warner Brothers cartoons for the threat of a Martian invasion. The 1948 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Haredevil Hare" marked the first appearance of Marvin the Martian. Marvin was simply referred to as "Commander x-23" in that first cartoon--in fact, he wouldn't receive the name "Marvin" until 1979--but that didn't keep the little Martian intent on invading or destroying Earth from appearing in four more Warner Brothers cartoons from 1952 to 1963.

Marvin the Martian was played more for humour than horror, but other Hollywood Martians were not nearly so funny. Nineteen fifty three saw the release of the classic movie adaptation of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. Like the Mercury Theatre's "Invasion from Mars," the story was updated, in this case to the 1950s. And like the Mercury Theatre's "Invasion from Mars," the story was also moved to America, in this case a small southwestern town. Another major change was that the Martians no longer attacked in tripods, this time using small flying ships. George Pal's War of the Worlds was a landmark in science fiction cinema and remains a classic to this day. Another classic dealing with Martians, released the same year, was Invaders from Mars. Directed by film pioneer William Cameron Menzies, Invaders from Mars is an atmospheric chiller in which a young boy comes to realise that the adults around him are slowly but surely falling under the control of invading Martians. Before Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Invaders from Mars was the ultimate expression of Cold War paranoia.

While both War of the Worlds and Invaders from Mars are unabashed classics, Martians usually didn't fare so well on film. The Angry Red Planet, released in 1960, is much more typical of most movies about Martians. In The Angry Red Planet, the first mission to Mars goes awry and it soon becomes apparent that the Martians don't want us anywhere near their planet. Far worse than The Angry Red Planet is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Released in 1964, it is often counted among the worst movies of all time. In the movie Santa Claus is abducted by Martians, who want the jolly fellow to bring some cheer to their dreary world. Not nearly so bad, though hardly good by any means, is Mars Needs Women. Released in 1967 and starring future Batgirl Yvonne Craig, Mars Needs Women features clean cut Martians who come to Earth for women because males on Mars outnumber the fairer sex by 100 to 1.

Of course, movies were not the only medium to feature Martians. Martians appeared frequently in the sci-fi comics of the Forties and Fifties, in titles such as Planet Comics and Mystery in Space. Bucking the trend of hostile aliens in the movies was a comic book character who first appeared in Detective Comics #225, November 1955. J'onn J'ozz was a Martian who was accidentally transported to Earth by Prof. Mark Erdel. Erdel died of a heart attack upon seeing the green skinned Martian and as a result J'onn was stranded on our world. J'onn, then, did the logical thing--he became a superhero, using his Martian powers (such as incredible strength and shape changing) to fight crime! Of course, not all comic book Martians were as friendly as J'onn. An underground comic book (admittedly played for humour) published from 1973 to 1980 was Commies from Mars, the Red Planet!

Amazingly, Martians have generally been a rarity on television. I can only guess at two reasons for this. The first is that for much of television's history science fiction series have not done particularly well. The second is that by the time that the networks began regular broadcasts in 1946, scientists were fairly certain that there was no intelligent life on Mars. Martians figured on many of the juvenile sci-fi shows aired in the late Forties and early Fifties, such as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Captain Video, and Space Patrol. They also found their way onto Alfred Hitchcock Presents. While Alfred Hitchcock Presents usually dealt with crime, two of its more chilling episodes dealt with the possibility of a invasion from Mars. In "The Human Interest Story," an escaped Martian tries to convince a reporter of an impending invasion from his home planet. In "Special Delivery," a father suspects that the mushrooms his son is raising are being used by Martians as a means of mind control. As a fantasy show The Twilight Zone featured Martians a bit more often. In "Mr. Dingle the Strong," the title character receives his strength from two Martians. "Will the Real Martians Please Stand Up" features a busload of people standed at a diner, trying to figure out who among them might be Martians.

Of course, the most famous Martian to emerge on television is perhaps Uncle Martin from My Favorite Martian. Airing from 1963 to 1966 on CBS, My Favorite Martian centred on reporter Tim O'Hara (Bill Bixby), who takes in the Martian of the title (Ray Walston). Tim passed the Martian off as his "Uncle Martin." In addition to advanced Martian technology, Martin possessed telekinetic abilities and could make himself invisible. Quite naturally, this created no end of problems for Tim. The series was fairly successful in its first season, sparking a cycle of ordinary people living with individuals with extraordinary abilites (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, among others). It also inspired a Saturday morning cartoon in the Seventies and a 1999 movie based on the series. Aside from My Favourite Martian, probably the biggest exposure Martians had on televison was in the syndicated series War of the Worlds, which ran from 1988 to 1990. The series was a sequel to the George Pal movie, with the Martians returning in the Eighties to invade Earth once more.

While Uncle Martin was fairly benign, other Martians could still be downright vicious. In 1962, a year before Martin crash landed to Earth, Topps released what may well be the most controversial series of bubblegum cards of all time, Mars Attacks. In a series of 54 cards, Mars Attacks depicted an invasion of the planet Earth in graphic detail. Among the gorier cards in the set were "Burning Flesh," depicting a man being incinerated by Martians, "Destroying a Dog," in which an innocent boy watches as a Martian blasts his dog, and "Human Torch," featuring a soldier on fire. The graphic nature of the Mars Attacks set of cards attracted the ire of concerned parents. While still popular, the series was swiftly pulled from store shelves. In 1988 Mars Attacks would provide the inspiration for a series of minature comic books. In 1994 Topps re-released the orignal series as well as 55 new cards. That same year Topps released their own 5 part comic books series. And, in 1996, Mars Attacks became the first bubble gum card set to inspire a major motion picture!

Mars continues to fascinate people even in the 21st century. The years 2000 and 2001 saw two movies about Mars released--Red Planet and Ghosts of Mars respectively. Already in the planning stages is Stephen Spielberg's adaptation of War of the Worlds. It's hard for me to gauge why Martians have gripped our imagination for over a century. Perhaps they represent the fears of any given time. H. G. Wells' Martians attacked Earth just as the Colonial Era was coming to an end; if Europe dared to colonise the rest of the world, why couldn't Martians do the same? Orson Welles' Martians attacked New Jersey just as the world was entering another world war. William Cameron Menzies' Martians invaded the minds of Earthlings just as Americans worried about Communism infiltrating American society. It seems possible to me that Martians could simply be a projection of whatever people fear the most at any given time. Of course, it could be that the average person realises something in his or her heart that the scientists don't seem to realise--perhaps there really are Martians and we have every reason to be afraid... Is that a tripod I hear?

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