July 6, 2005

Mars in Pop Culture: Radio

Historically, Mars was thought to be the most likely of the planets to harbor life. Popular culture in the form of literature, and then later radio and film, reflected such beliefs. This review examines Mars in the history of radio.

Astrobiology Magazine -- In the opening scene of the movie "Contact," radio waves take us on a journey beyond our solar system. The farther away we travel, the older the broadcasts are, until beyond a certain distance the rock music dims, the radio dramas fade out, and the deep silence of space prevails.

It makes you wonder: while SETI is looking for alien radio signals from far-off civilizations, how many aliens could be listening to our old radio broadcasts right now, and wondering what sort of civilization could produce such flights of fancy?

Radio may not be Earth's most popular entertainment medium anymore, but compared to the questionable special effects used in science fiction movies "“ especially the earlier ones -- perhaps the movie house of the mind is still the best place to enjoy imaginative tales about aliens.

This overview looks at Martians that have been riding the airwaves since radio's Golden Age.

Radio versions of "The War of the Worlds"

*On October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles became internationally famous, causing widespread panic in the U.S. by his broadcast of an adaptation by Howard Koch of H.G. Wells's "The War of The Worlds." In the play, performed by The Mercury Theater, Martians landed at Grovers Mill, New Jersey, and a growing sense of impending doom was gradually built up through news bulletins and on-the-spot reporting.

Terror across the United States due to this radio show hinted at the growing power of electronic media to invade the public consciousness and create an artificial reality that could disrupt the real world of comparative calm. Orson Welles, of course, later went on to direct highly acclaimed films including "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons." Howard Koch was later on the writer team for the movie "Casablanca."

* The Lux Radio Theater did a radio version of the 1953 movie, with Dana Andrews playing the part of Gene Barry, and set in Los Angeles. It's pretty silly, apparently.

* Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" (1978) is a musical version of the story, with Richard Burton (Justin Hayward) as the journalist narrator (singer). "Forever Autumn" by Justin Hayward (of the Moody Blues) was a big hit. The story harks back to the original and takes place in England. Also stars David Essex.

* David Ossman and Judith Walcutt did a remake of the 1938 Howard Koch script for a 50th Anniversary production. Made to sound like modern US national public radio, with well-known American radio voices including Terry Gross, Scott Simon, and Douglas Edwards, essentially playing themselves. Recorded on locations and mixed at Skywalker Ranch (Lucasfilm) studios.

* L.A. Theaterworks did a live production of the Howard Koch script in November of 1994 with some members of the Star Trek Next Generation cast in it, and starring Leonard Nimoy in the lead as Professor Pearson.

* A 3 hour BBC production (broadcast in the US on NPR Playhouse) of the original Wells story is also available. As befits the BBC, a polished adaptation.

Other Martian Radio

* NBC radio's "Dimension X" and "X Minus 1" were two radio series in the 1950s that featured stories by science fiction writers published in Astounding Fiction Magazine and Galaxy Magazine. These were adapted for radio by scriptwriters George Lefferts and Ernest Kinoy, both of whom later wrote for various TV series.

Martian radio titles included "The Martian Death March," "The Martian Chronicles" (Ray Brabury), "Mars is Heaven" (Ray Bradbury), and "The Last Martian" (Fredric Brown). Another story, "Martian Sam," was about a Martian who turned out to be an excellent baseball pitcher.


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