Going slightly off-topic today. Technically, Spaced Invaders isn’t an adaptation, but it owes its existance to the Orson Welles radio broadcast, The War of the Worlds. The radio play itself is an adaptation, based on the HG Wells story and transplanted to the United States.
The Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds was a live broadcast in an age where radio was the entertainment system of the masses. Breaking news could be aired without too much trouble, allowing critical events to be heard far and wide shortly after they occurred. The War of the Worlds presented itself, at first, as just another music program, featuring a live orchestra. However, news kept interrupting the show, first of meteor strikes, then of oddities occurring. The station is then commandeered by the US Army to help broadcast their own messages. The audience is then treated to calls for help from a soldier as alien machines march forward unrelentlessly. The act ends with the soldier asking, “Is anyone there?” as background sounds fade. The rest of the radio play, for listeners who hadn’t panicked, picked up with a survivor, played by Welles, wandering the blasted countryside and finding other people who had also survived the onslaught. One man turned insular, not trusting anyone. Others weren’t as distrusting. The reveal of the fate of the Martian invaders showed that they were still vulnerable, if not to the mighty weapons of war that mankind fielded, than to the tiny bacteria and viruses omnipresent in our air.
I mentioned “panicked” above. Listeners who hadn’t paid attention at the beginning or assumed that Mercury Theatre wasn’t on air for some reason got a shock when the Martian attack began, all from the view of soldiers on the front line. Confirming a news story today is easy; there are multiple TV channels including twenty-four hour news channels, radio stations, and online news papers, all capable of updating as news breaks. Even social media will explode with news as it happens*. In 1938, radio was it. Tuning a radio station in took some effort, so changing the station to get a second feed meant time lost. Few people would see a need to change the station during breaking news**. Someone turning the radio play on after it had started would have no idea that what he or she was hearing was a work of fiction. With tension building in Europe, the breakout of a war was a strong possibility. The reaction was unprecedented and became breaking news itself. The War of the Worlds is memorable, thus it became a classic radio play.
As with so many other classics seen over the run of Lost in Translation, The War of the Worlds was remade and adapted to other media. There has been two movies, one in 1953, the other in 2005, and a TV series in 1988. The radio play has been influential, leading to works like the 1983 NBC TV movie, Special Bulletin, and the 1989 movie, Spaced Invaders. The latter was a comedy, released in 1990, starring Royal Dano, Douglas Barr, and introduced Arianna Richards. The cast comprised of solid comedy character actors. Douglas Barr was best known from his work on the TV series, The Fall Guy, as the sidekick to Lee Majors’ bounty Hunter, Colt Seavers.
The movie begins with the Imperial Atomic Space Navy Battle Group Nine. The admiral in charge has been replaced because of how poorly the Martian fleet is faring against the Arcturans. A new edict is in place; all Martian ships, no matter the size, are to be equipped with an Enforcer Drone, to ensure that all orders are carried out to the letter. A Martian who fails to follow those orders to the letter will, like the admiral was, be subject to “disciplinary termination”.
In the space between the orbit of Mars and Earth, a small scout ship carries our little green heroes – Captain Bipto, the commanding officer; Lt. Giggywig, the second in command; Blaznee, the ship’s pilot; Dr. Ziplock, the ship’s scientist, and Corporal Pez, the designated redshirt. They pick up a broadcast of The War of the Worlds, mistake it for a cry for help from the pathetic humans, and decide to go help the invading forces. Even the ship’s Enforcer Drone agrees with this plan of action, provided that it succeeds. Failure, as always, would result in a disciplinary review.
The source of the “distress call” is traced to Big Bean, Illinois, an agricultural town celebrating both Hallowe’en and the opening of their new exit on the Interstate. The town’s deputy, played by Fred Applegate, waiting for the town’s first speeder, finds it, clocking at 3000mph, well over the speed limit. The speeder crashes on the Wrenchmuller farm and the group, except Blaznee, exit the ship. Bipto takes the lead thorugh fields to a long black patch on the ground. Pez is volunteered to cross it, but he refuses, citing that the patch could be a minefield. Fortunately, Ziplock has a solution, a mechanical scout launched from a mortar. Shortstuff, as the robot gets named, walks out on to the long black patch and promptly fails to explode. Bipto takes the lead and boldy strides on to the patch, where he gets hit by a Cadillac. Giggywig immediately takes command, and orders the rest of the Martians to march on.
Mr. Wrenchmuller (Dano), the owner of the farm where the Martian ship crashed, is facing the loss of his farm. The crops were terrible this past season, and he’s about to lose the only home he knows. The crashing of the Martian saucer gives him a bit of hope. If he can get photos or even capture a live Martian, he could get the money to save his home. With the help of his dog, he sets up a booby trap to catch a Martian.
The invaders find a group of small humans being loaded into a car. The trick-or-treaters include the sheriff’s daughter Kathy (Richards), who dressed as an Alien, and Brian, played by JJ Anderson, who is dressed as a duck. Kathy and her father are new to Big Bean, and neither have quite integrated into town culture yet. The Martians try to threaten the Earth scum, but Mrs. Vanderspool, the evening’s chauffeur played by Patrika Darbo, thinks the costumes are adorable and doesn’t recognize the weapon that she shoves up from Giggywig’s hands. The weapon still discharges, into Giggywig instead.
The Cadillac that hit Bipto goes to the town mechanic. The car’s owner, Klembecker, leaves the Cadillac behind and picks up his truck. Vern, the mechanic, removes the roadkill from the Caddy’s front grille and gets to work repairing the vehicle. Bipto recovers from his injuries, and takes Vern as prisoner. The mechanic is turned into Verndroid, Bipto’s loyal servant, doing everything the Martian bids.
The deputy manages to track the speeding spaceship to the Wrenchmuller farm. Still dazed, he falls back to basics and starts writing tickets – no headlights, no taillights, no license plate, no wheels, and going 2945mph over the speed limit. Blaznee, well aware of the traps set out by Wrenchmuller, gets the deputy to step back to realize just what is happening and to set off one of the traps. The deputy has a moment of clarity just before the bale of hay hits him.
Kathy, who may be the most on the ball person in Big Bean, finds Shortstuff and discovers that the three new kids in alien costumes are really Martians. She covers for them, calling them her surfer cousins from California. Giggywig is still dazed, but Ziplock and Pez get into the tasty ritual they’ve lucked into. Kathy lets Brian in on the secret, that the new kids are invaders, so that she has some help keeping an eye on them. Giggywig recovers, though, and threatens Mrs. Vanderspool again, this time launching a missile. Rightfully upset, Mrs. Vanderspool kicks Giggywig, Ziplock, and Pez out of the car. Kathy says she should go, too, and drags Brian with her. Brian isn’t happy with this; he has to share any candy he gets with his younger sister and his bag is only half full.
Back on the ship, while Blaznee is making repairs, he hears the end of the “distress call”. He gets a sinking feeling, one that gets worse when the Enforcer Drone mentions that there will be a mission review after they leave the planet. Blaznee heads out, more to escape the Drone than anything else.
The townsfolk are starting to piece things together. Wrenchmuller, with photos of the ship, speeds to town to tell people about the invasion. The deputy recovers and heads to town as well. The sheriff tries to keep the calm, but Giggywig makes his television debut. Giggywig has found a target to attack to cow the townsfolk. His first target, though, riles the locals; the new exit is destroyed. The second target, though, lets the townies know exactly where he is. Giggywig has Ziplock and Pez set up a heat ray to attack what he thinks is a missle silo. The attack backfires, and Giggywig hits the emergency summons for the ship.
The rest of the Martians eventually realize that what they heard was fiction, there was no Martian attack on Earth, and that they messed up badly. The ship’s hyperdrive malfunctions, requiring it to return to zero gravity before it implodes, making Big Bean some other universe’s problem. The Enforce Drone decides that the crew needs to be subjected to disciplinary termination. The sheriff listens to Kathy, and, after a call to Strategic Air Command that goes nowhere, becomes the voice of sanity and helps the Martians with their ship. He realizes, with Kathy’s help, that they’re more a danger to themselves than to Big Bean. To quote Kathy, “They’re not evil, just stupid.” By the end, the Martians are back in space. They had to dump everything to achieve orbit. The last item dumped helped out Mr. Wrenchmuller, providing the fertilizer needed to give him a crop to sign over, saving his farm.
Spaced Invaders is a comedy at its heart, and doesn’t try to overreach. The creators, though, did toss a few little details for flavour. The opening credits have Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War, from The Planets. There are off-hand references to the TV series, My Favourite Martian, including Bipto’s line, “What in the name of my Uncle Martin…” Giggywig marches out at the co-op like George C. Scott did in Patton. The movie may not be in any great movie lists, but it is a fun watch.
As to The War of the Worlds, the radio play appears every so often, acting as counter-point and as punctuation to what is happening in the movie. The movie takes the ideas in the radio play and twist them. What if the Martians weren’t competent? What if the human townsfolk weren’t cowed by Martian weapons? What if the heat ray was used on a corn silo? It’s not a faithful adaptation of the radio play or even of HG Wells’ original work, but Spaced Invaders uses those works to create its own fun story.
Next week, The Bionic Woman.
* With social media feeds like Twitter and Facebook, it’s best to find another source. The general populace isn’t known for wise decision making.
** This still happens today. When major news breaks, people tend to flip to their preferred news provider, be it television, online, or radio. NBC experience this in 1983 while airing the TV movie, Special Bulletin. The movie was set up as a news broadcast, though with fake network names, about a terrorist threat that involved a nuclear bomb. Even with disclaimers, people were fooled into believing that the movie was a real news broadcast, thanks to the use of videotape and the actors adding verbal tics before speaking.