On October 30, 1938 (83 years ago today), Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on Air broadcast an infamous adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which according to some reports caused mass hysteria across the United States.
(Daily Doctor Who #341)
Of course, much of the historical research suggests that those reports were greatly exaggerated, and that while certainly there were people who were misled or confused or who even panicked due to the broadcast (much of which did present the events of an alien attack as if it were news coverage), the effect did not achieve anything like “nationwide hysteria.” After all, many people did not hear the show, many who did were not confused, many who were confused did not panic. And many who had tuned into the show late did not realize at first it was about Martians–it seems that some thought it was about a German invasion which of course was far more plausible.
The whole story is a reminder of how distorted our understanding of current events and history can become, even when viewed through the channel of apparently informative mass media.
In any case, none of this has not stopped the idea of the mass panic itself from entering into pop culture, including Doctor Who.
Now, The War of the Worlds, in case you don’t know, was an 1898 novel by H.G. Wells (himself a character on Doctor Who in the lamentable Timelash) which depicted a Martian invasion in England, in which the invaders are far more powerful than humans, but are eventually undone by earth-born germs and diseases. It was adapted for radio in 1938, for film in 1953, and then a television series in 1988. The TV series actually took the unique approach of attempting to fold all three of these previous versions of the drama into its backstory. Other versions have been created in different media, both before and since.
One of the first times I saw the legends surrounding the 1938 radio broadcast being incorporated into pop culture was in the oddball cult science fiction film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai–Across the Eighth Dimension.
I’ve written about this quirky project before, but in short part of its plot involves the idea that a whole bunch of aliens turned up in a town in New Jersey on November 1, 1938, and quickly integrated themselves into society. The characters surmise that there was a real alien invasion the day before, but then the aliens kidnapped Orson Welles and hypnotized him to declaring the whole thing a hoax.
The movie mis-dates the broadcast to October 31 (Halloween), but it’s a pretty clever and funny way of incorporating the historical event into its story.
In Doctor Who, the radio broadcast came into play in the Big Finish audio adventure, Invaders from Mars, from 2002.
Future Doctor Who scribe and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss wrote the story, which I don’t actually like very much (read my comments here). The story is an awkward mish-mash of what I guess were common radio drama tropes–alien invaders, Russian spies, American gangster, plus Orson Welles and his producer-partner John Houseman themselves (David Benson does a pretty good Orson Welles). It’s all set around Welles’ infamous broadcast, and incorporates the “mass hysteria” in the most amusing way.
The story involves the Laiderplackers…vicious aliens who turn out to be more cruel thugs than full-on invaders. In fact, their main goal is to coerce the earth into a giant protection racket. The Doctor figures this out and for a while throws them off by convincing them that bigger, badder aliens are already invading the earth, and that the Laiderplackers are just likely to get in their way. The Doctor’s evidence of this? Why, the notorious broadcast and the resulting mass hysteria, of course!
That’s right–this is a story in which the confusion about the broadcast fools actual aliens and helps to save the earth!
Like I said, I’m not a big fan of Invaders from Mars, but this plot point, as minor as it was to the overall story, was genius.