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?

Friday, September 3, 2004

The Vanguard of Mars Part One

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, strange beings who landed in New Jersey tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from Mars.." {Howard Koch (writer) and Orson Welles (narrator), from the episode "The Invasion From Mars" of The Mercury Theater of the Air, based on the novella War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, first aired October 30, 1938}

In the annals of literature and film, more extraterrestrials have probably called Mars home than any other planet. Invasions from Mars have been thwarted again and again in books, movies, and TV series. Earthmen have visited the Red Planet and encountered the inhabitants there. A few Martians have even come to Earth and befriended mankind. Even today, when we are fairly certain that Mars bears no intelligent life, the average child is familiar with the idea of life on Mars.

In some respects the fact that people siezed upon Mars as the source of both friends and foes of the planet Earth seems odd to me. First, it must be considered that the planet Mars was rarely mentioned in literature prior to the 18th century. In fact, Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift, published in 1726, is one of the earliest references to the planet in the English language. It seems strange, then, that a planet that was rarely mentioned prior to the 18th century should become the planet that may well be mentioned the most in literature besides our own. Second, the prospect of intelligent life on Mars was squashed in the 1940s when spectral analysis of the planet showed that there is almost no oxygen in its atmosphere. In 1965 the Mariner probe proved beyond a doubt that there were no Martians to be found on Mars. Still, from the Forties to the Sixties, stories, books, and films continued to be produced in which there was intelligent life on the Red Planet. It seems even science could not stop the invaders from Mars.

As early as 1865 a work appeared which postulated that there was life on Mars. In Un Habitant de la Planète Mars by Francois-Henri Peudefer de Parville, the body of a Martian is carried by a comet from Mars to Earth, only to be uncovered in the United States. It was in the year 1877 that something would happen that would secure Mars' place as the home of alien invaders in literature and film. That year Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had seen "canals" on Mars through his telescope. Of course, if there were canals on Mars, then there had to be someone to build the canals. In other words, there had to be Martians. Naturally, it was not long before Earthmen were encountering Martians in fiction. In Les Aventures Extraordinaires d'un Savant Russe by Henry de Graffigny and Georges Le Faure, scientists explored the solar system, including Mars. It was on the Red Planet that the encountered winged humanoids. Of course, the French weren't the only ones voyaging to the Red Planet. In Across the Zodiac by Percy Gregg, pubilshed in 1880, a group of adventurers explored the solar system, including Mars, a utopia where the Martians possessed both advanced technology and telepathy.

While it was Schiaparelli who initially fired interest in Mars with his report of "canals (later proven to be an optical illusion)," it was American astronomer Percival Lowell who secured its place in literary and cinematic history. He published three books on the Red Planet, Mars in 1895, Mars and Its Canals in 1906, and Mars As the Abode of Life in 1908. In his observations of the Mars, he saw what he thought were deserts, seas, and vegetation. He theorised that the "canals" had been build by a long dead (or dying) Martian civilisation. Lowell's books fired the imagination of many writers.

In fact, the first book inspired H. G. Wells to write what may be the most famous work about Martians or, for that matter, an invasion from another world. In War of the Worlds, published in 1898, the Martians invaded Earth because their planet was dying. War of the Worlds would in turn inspire the notorious Mercury Theatre of the Air radioplay and the classic George Pal movie of the same name. Of course, Earthmen would have their revenge against the Martians who invaded our world in Wells' classic novella. In 1898 Edison's Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss was serialised in The New York Evening Journal. An unauthorised sequel of sorts to War of the Worlds, Edison's Conquest of Mars had Edison travelling to Mars to fight the Martians on their own ground. Although largely forgotten now, Edison's Conquest of Mars was the first work in science fiction to feature both spacesuits and ray guns!

While many writers saw Mars as a source of interplanetary invasion, others saw Mars as a source of riproaring adventure. In 1912 All-Story Magazine published Under the Moons of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was Burroughs' first sale and the first story in a series about John Carter, an ex-Confederate Army officer who finds himself transported to Mars. Burroughs' Mars (known as Barsoom by the natives) was a world of kingdoms constantly at war, where Carter had ample opportunity to prove his courage. Burroughs' Martians came in a vareity of colours, including green, red, yellow, and white; in fact, Burroughs may have been the first author to portray Martians as green. His Martians also came in a variety of shapes and sizes; indeed, his green Martians were not "little green men," but rather large creatures with six arms. Burrough's adventures of John Carter on Mars proved very successful, eventually producing 12 novels.

The John Carter series naturally fuelled interest in Mars and writers in the sci-fi pulp magazines of the mid-Twentieth Century naturally gravitated towards the Red Planet. Some followed Burroughs' lead in making Mars a place of adventure. A notable example of this is C. L. Moore's series of stories centred around Northwest Smith. Smith was an adventurer who frequently found trouble on the back streets of the cities of the dying Martian civilisation. Moore's Mars was a lot like the Old West or the cities portrayed in film noir, lawless and rather dangerous. For his part Smith was not unlike any number of Humphrey Bogart's characters, tough as nails and not always honest. Others saw Mars as a place of exploration. Stanley Weinbaum in the short story "A Martian Odyssey" realistically portrays the developing frienship between a lost Earthman and an avian Martian. In one of John Wyndham's early novels, Planet Plane (later known as Stowaway to Mars), explorers arrive in Mars to find a dying Martian civilisation. Naturally, there were also stories in which the Martians were intent on invading Earth as well.

Following the Second World War, tales about Mars and Martians became more sophisticated. Martian invaders appeared less frequently and more often than not Martians were not even humanoid. Among the most sophistictaed treatments of Mars was The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, published in 1950. While often called a novel, The Martian Chronicles might better be described as a series of interconnected short stories (many of which were published well before the book came out). Bradbury's Martians are an ancient, gentle, and wise civilisation, a far cry from Wells' invaders in War of the Worlds. Unfortunately, Martian civilisation is destroyed by a simple germ from Earth. No Martians appear in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961, but their existence is felt none the less. The sole survivor of Earth's first mission to the planet was infant Valentine Michael Smith. The Martians raised the child and as a result he not only has a Martian outlook, but many of their abilities as well. Viewing the world with a Martian philosophy of love and understanding, Smith finds himself at the mercy of a society he often finds difficult to comprehend.

While kinder and gentler Martians started appearing in science fiction stories and novels in the Forties and Fifties, they remained imperialists intent on invading Earth in other media. Indeed, H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds would give rise to the most famous radio play of all time. In 1938, on October 30, Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater of the Air would frighten radio listeners with an all too realistic sounding invasion from Mars.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

The Month of September

As a child, I was not particularly fond of September. While the temperatures would cool down in September, it was also a full month of school with the exception of Labour Day. We would not have another break until Columbus Day in October. In my later years in school, we would not have another break until Veteran's Day. And nothing much went on in September. After the Randolph County Old Settler's Fall Fair, there were no events that would interest a child for the rest of a month. As an adult I enjoy September much more than I did as a child. Of course, as a child September struck me as an odd month and it still strikes me as such as an adult. Indeed, in some ways it seems like the beginnng of a whole new year.

Today most schools begin their year in late August, although a few schools do start in early September. My parents told me that at one time this was the norm. The majority of schools started the day after Labour Day. The reason for this was quite simple. Children formed a large part of the labour force on farms, so that they needed to be available for work for nearly the whole summer. Indeed, growing up on a farm I was expected to do my fair share of the work. Anyhow, the shape of the school year was largely a product of the agricultural year.

The television season also begins in September. The networks roll out more new shows than at any time of the year and they debut new episodes of old shows. From what I remember from my broadcasting classes in college, the fall TV season has its roots all the way back to the days of radio. There have been attempts to change the fall TV season. In 1966 ABC tried to introduce what it called "the Second Season" in January. Ultimately all they accomplished was cementing the tradition of mid-season replacements. I believe I have read where Fox is trying to do away with the TV season entirely. From the performance of many of the shows they have debuted of late, it does not look like they are succeeding. As to why radio and then television began their season in the fall, I can't say for sure. I suspect the reason is that in the summer the audience for radio and television would drop off. After all, people would be preoccupied with other things in the summer. Vacations, picnics, fairs, farm work, all of these would take people away from their radios or TVs. It would then seem reasonable to debut new shows and new episodes of old shows in the fall when the audience would once again rise.

The automotive industry also introduces new car models in September. I noticed this as a child and it always puzzled me. I can understand why school starts in September, as children were needed for farm work. I can understand why the TV season starts in September, as the audience would be small in summer. But I have always wondered why new car models are introduced in the fall. After all, it seems to me that new car models could be introduced any time of year. Maybe the auto industry just felt that after a summer of wear and tear on the old jalopy, people would be ready for a new car!

Anyhow, it seems to me that more things begin again in September than they do in January, the official beginning of the year. And while no one welcomes September with the sort of celebrations seen on New Year's Eve, it does seem to me that it is the start of a whole new time. Of course, I rather doubt anyone will ever advocate moving New Year's Day to September 1...

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The New Fall TV Season

Well, with today NBC begins its new fall TV season. Of course, the other networks will follow suit in the coming weeks. I usually look forward to the new TV season and I keep an eye out for shows that might interest me. Unfortunately, it looks like there isn't much of interest debuting this season.

There are at least three spin offs premiering this season. One is the one of two new shows that even interests me a little bit. Law and Order: Trial by Jury is another entry in the sucessful Law and Order franchise. Its focus wil be the entire courtroom process. Dick Wolf has made certain that each Law and Order series is different from the others. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is very different from Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and both are different from the original series. I am then interested to see what Law and Order: Trial by Jury will be like. Unfortunately, it isn't premiering until mid-season.

The other spin off is CSI: New York (CSI: NY) for short). Although I love CSI, I am not that interested in seeing CSI: NY. While I love CSI, it seems to me that the first spinoff, CSI:Miami, isn't that different from the original series. In fact, the only major difference between the two series is the setting. It seems to me, then, that the same will hold true of CSI: NY. It will be another clone of CSI.

The other new show that interests me a little bit is Father of the Pride. It is a computer animated series from Dreamworks, the makers of the Shrek movies. It centres on the pride of white lions who perform in Siegfried and Roy's act in Las Vegas. I loved Antz and Shrek and I have faith that Dreamworks will produce a good series. It will certanly be a break from the rather mundane sitcoms that are debuting this season.

Of those sitcoms debuting this season is one of the season's three spin offs. Joey relocates the least interesting character from Friends to Los Angeles. I do not have high hopes for this series. I am one of those individuals who loved Friends the first few seasons, but believes that in its last several seasons that the show went downhill. In fact, it seems to me that Friends jumped the shark long ago. If Joey retains the level of qulaity that Friends ended with, I rather suspect it will then be a very bad show. The fact that Joey is the more of a "second banana" makes any hope I might have that the show will be anything remarkable nearly nonexistant.

Often the younger networks (the WB and UPN) will have shows that more interesting than the older networks. Unfortunately, this season that does not seem to be the case. For all that critics have claimed that this is UPN's strongest season ever, it seems to me to be one of the weakest. Among the new shows UPN is rolling out this season is Kevin Hill It is yet another, ahem, "lawyer show." Taye Diggs plays a lawyer who inherits a relative's baby girl. It seems to me that there is nothing even vaugely original about the series' concept. In fact, I rather suspect we will see more of the same sort of formulaic stories that lawyer shows have been churning out for years, with little subplots related to the baby. I may be wrong. The series may actually turn out to be good. Unfortunately, I doubt it. I do have to give them points for casting a black male in the lead. It is a sad state on televison, but there have not been that many black lead characters in dramas. And Taye Diggs is a good actor. I only wish that he had received a show with a more original concept.

Another new show debuting on UPN is Veronica Mars. The series centres on a teenage girl who assists her private eye father in his investigations. This is where I have a problem with the show. I can't realstically see a private investigator letting his teenage daughter help in investigations, at least not anything beyond helping out in the office. It would be acceptable to me if Veronica was in her twenties. Of course, I suppose it could be argued that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have been solving mysteries for decades, so that Veronica Mars may not be that objectionable. Still, I don't think it will be the sort of show that will interest me.

As to the WB, they cancelled their one truly great show, Angel. I believe Angel is one of the few spinoffs that actually exceeded its progenitor (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) in quality. It was original, well written, well directed, and well acted. Arguably, it was the best drama on television. In its place WB has simply given us more youth oriented series. Jack and Bobby has an original concept. It deals with two brothers, one who will become President of the United States. This concept sounds promising, but my fear is in its excection. I fear that it may come off as just another one of the WB's youth oriented TV shows. Indeed, this is the network that sucked the life out of the Superman legend with Smallvllle.

Anyhow, it seems to me that the key word for this TV season is "bland." There is very little originality taking place and very little in the way of remarkable programming. Indeed, I have heard that more reality series will debut this season than any other. It seems to be one of those cases in which one can only hope that next season is better.

Monday, August 30, 2004

The Educational Values of DVDs

One of the great advantages that DVDs have over VHS tapes is the number of special features or "extras" included on DVDs. In the old days a movie's theatrical trailer might be included on a VHS tape. If one was lucky, he or she might even get a "Making of..." documentary. This stands in contrast to DVDs, which sometimes have several more extras than one would get with the old VHS tapes. For the most part these extras are simply puff pieces, but in some cases one will get something more substantial and even educational.

The prime example of a DVD with extras of educational value is The Gangs of New York. Among the extras are a piece in which historian Luc Sante introduces the viewer to the Five Corners area of New York City as it was in the 19th Century, a glossary of the slang used in the area in the mid-19th century (taken from The Rogue's Lexicon published in 1859, and a Discovery Channel documentary called Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York. While none of these extras go into the depth that a good book or even a two hour documentary would on their subject, there is enough information there that the viewer could learn things he or she didn't know before.

Gods and Generals is another DVD with extras of some educational value. A piece on the autenticity of the film discusses the problems the filmmakers had in portraying the Battle of Fredericksburg. In doing so, the viewer actually learns a little bit about the battle. There is also a short documentary on Stonewall Jackson.

Of course, both Gangs of New York and Gods and Generals are based on history, but even films created from whole cloth (that is, not based on historical incidents) can have edcuational extras. The Others has a short documentary on xenoderma pigmentosum, the condition in which individuals absoutely cannot stand the light of day. A Hard Days Night has several extras which somestimes touch upon the history of The Beatles. Spider-Man includes a documentary on the history of the character.

With but few exceptions, I don't think anyone is going to learn a tremendous amount from DVD extras, but they might learn some things that they did not previously know. To me this is one of the wonderful things about DVDs. Of course, as to whether viewers actually take advantage of this and watch the docummentaries included with DVDs is another matter entirely...