Does intelligent life exist elsewhere in the universe? The question has captivated humankind for centuries upon centuries; long before the X‑Files popularized the declaration, we’ve wanted to believe. But this curiosity-driven desire goes hand-in-hand with mortal fear: what if intelligent life does exist elsewhere in the universe, and it decides to come to Earth and exterminate us? Turn-of-the-century sci-fi master H.G. Wells tapped into that emotional current with The War of the Worlds; forty years later, Orson Welles tapped it deeper still with his adaptation of Wells’ novel, “a certain notorious radio broadcast which some of you may remember.”
That’s how Welles puts it from the narrator’s seat of Who’s Out There?, a half-hour television documentary originally broadcast in 1971. “It starts off strong with its Doctor Who-esque credits sequence,” writes io9’s Katharine Trendacosta. “Then Welles talks about becoming friends with H.G. Wells after his infamous War of the Worlds radio play. Then they interview people who had been scared by the broadcast. It gets barely more normal as it goes on. Once Carl Sagan showed up, my head exploded.”
I listened to Welles’ War of the Worlds over and over again on tape as a kid, but by that time it had already passed into the realm of historical artifact. When Who’s Out There? debuted, however, that infamous Halloween broadcast had aired less than 35 years before (Who’s Out There? itself, by comparison, aired 45 years ago), so the fright it caused remained in living memory. Even more recently, David Bowie had capitalized artistically on a new wave of outer-space fascination with “Space Oddity” in 1969 and, more directly, “Life on Mars?” two years later.
“Life on Mars?” acts as more or less the animating question of this documentary, which both examines the then-current evidence for such a phenomenon, on the Red Planet or elsewhere, and ponders why we so often assume that visitors from outer space will come with malevolent intentions. (Welles wonders aloud if it has to do with our having named Mars after the Roman god of war, and I suppose he has a point.) Still, our curiosity hasn’t gone away, as evidenced by ExoMars, the joint mission of the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency which today launches probes out to search for, yes, life on mars. If whoever’s out there won’t come to us, well then, we’ll just have to go to them.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.