Thursday, February 6, 2020

From War of the Worlds into Star Trek

I think the history of science fiction is evolutionary: there have probably been few really radical events. In 1953, Paramount Pictures released The War of the Worlds, a big-budget adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel of 1897 (magazine serial) and 1898 (hardbound book). In the movie version the Martian tripods no longer walk. Instead they glide, and there isn't anyplace they can't go as they rain terror upon the people of Earth. These ships may have seemed an innovation, but they had precedent in magazine science fiction. More importantly, they would have brought back only recent memories of death from the skies for people then living in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, from Great Britain to Japan to Pearl Harbor. I think there's a third influence, though, one that came from a place where real life--or supposed real life--meets the science-fictional (and Fortean) imagination. You can see that, I think, through a series of images:

If you take the head and neck of the Loch Ness Monster from the famous photograph of 1934 . . .

And attach it to the top of the supposed "disk"--the first flying saucer as described by Kenneth Arnold in 1947 and published in the book The Coming of the Saucers by Arnold and Raymond A. Palmer in 1952 . . .

You kind of get the Martian ships from The War of the Worlds (1953).

These were designed by Albert Nozaki (1912-2003). There may have been an influence in his designs of the flying wing- or lifting body-type aircraft, too.

Now that's not to say that the makers of the movie were directly influenced or inspired by these previous visual sources, but few imaginations operate in a vacuum or in isolation (thus few really radical events).

The evolution continued into another Paramount production of the 1960s:

Here in the Klingon battlecruiser from Star Trek, the boom of the head and neck are rigid and attached to the front of the ship. (Note that the top part of the head is shaped like a flying saucer.) There are also pods like the wingtip fuel tanks or missiles of real-life aircraft. (Remember that the Vietnam War was going on at the time and images of aircraft would have been in the daily news.) The general shape of the hull or fuselage is more or less the same, though, as in the previous Martian ship.

The Martian ship and the Klingon ship both have a biomorphic appearance. This works well not only in visual terms but also for storytelling purposes, for the ships become almost like characters in themselves rather than just cold, hard, inanimate machines. I remember when I was a kid playing with Star Trek models and toys and thinking of them almost as animals, with a head, neck, body, and limbs. The Romulan Warbird even has animal art on its underside, a depiction of a bird in flight. The Romulan ship is probably the least biomorphic of the three main ships in the original series. The addition of the art helps to make it more relatable as a living thing, thus as a kind of character . . .

With its rounded leading edge and notched trailing edge, the Romulan ship also resembles an alternative version of the first flying saucers, here shown on the cover of the first issue of Raymond A. Palmer and Curtis Fuller's magazine Fate, from the spring of 1948. (Having worked on airplanes, I see these ships in terms of aircraft instead of as naval vessels.)

The head and flexible neck of the Martian ship from The War of the Worlds reappeared on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise in the form of the gooseneck viewer shown in the first pilot for the show, "The Cage," from 1966 . . .

As for the Enterprise itself, we should remember that it is made up three main sections: the engine nacelles and booms (behind), the secondary hull or fuselage (below), and the primary hull or fuselage (in front), also called the saucer section. Yes, if you take away the rest of the ship, the primary hull is simply the flying saucer of the popular imagination, which originated not in real life as some people might think or hope, but in science fiction.

The designs were by Matt Jeffries (1921-2003), an aviator, aircraft draftsman, and flight engineer who served in World War II aboard bombers over Europe. He, too, thought of his creations in terms of aircraft designs.

Star Trek was heavily influenced by the science fiction of the 1940s and '50s, but it was also influenced by the flying saucer culture of the time. Science fiction was likewise influenced by flying saucer culture, and vice versa. Both can be traced back to The War of the Worlds, but there is another possible lineage, too. Before long I'll write about the progenitor of that alternate line of descent. Hint: you have already seen the adjectival form of his name in this posting.

Text and captions copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

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