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The red planet's role in pop culture
( 2004-01-16 14:42) (Agencies)

They've invaded Earth, tried to steal our air, and attacked Bugs Bunny. For Pete's sake, they've even kidnapped Santa Claus.

What is it about those Martians?

Probably more to the point, what is it about us?

The Martian ambassador shows his appreciation for Congress in "Mars Attacks!"
Even if NASA's Mars Spirit rover does find some proof of tiny organisms, life on the red planet certainly does not consist of the death-ray-armed skull-faced aliens of Tim Burton's 1996 film "Mars Attacks!"

And yet our planetary neighbor has maintained a hold on pop culture for decades.

"Mars is a place where we've projected our fears, our concerns, our dreams, our hopes," astronomer John Mosely told CNN in 1997. "Mars is many things, as it should be many things. It's a symbol as well as a planet."

Usually it has been a symbol of the Other, a shadowy representative of the unknown.

According to David Catling, a research planetary scientist in the Space Science Division at NASA's Ames Research Center and creator of several wonderful Web pages on the planet, life was suspected there as early as 1698 by Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens.

The planet was known to the ancients, and the Greeks named it Ares for their god of battle. Mars, the name we use today, was the Roman god of war.

The 19th century really kicked of Martian fascination.

In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli described "canali," or channels, on the planet, mistranslated as "canals," which led many people to believe there was life on the planet.

That same year, Asaph Hall discovered Mars' two moons, Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror), named for two sons of Ares and Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love.

Until the 1960s, life on Mars was generally imagined to be malevolent. Martians invaded in H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" (and the 1938 radio version by Orson Welles) and a slew of cheap science fiction movies.

"If you listen to old radio mysteries or read early 20th-century science fiction, the place the invaders came from was Mars," said Robert Thompson of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Television and Popular Culture.

Martian invasions, of course, were stand-ins for timely issues: immigration, race relations, and (naturally) the Red Menace of Communism.

But some works turned the idea of alienation on its head, making humanity the aggressor.

Ray Bradbury's 1951 "The Martian Chronicles" featured a Mars colonized by humans to the planet's detriment, and Robert Heinlein's 1961 "Stranger in a Strange Land" told the story of a child educated by Martians who reaches a deeper level of consciousness than humans.

With the advances of the space program, Mars began to seem less alien. The mid-'60s sitcom "My Favorite Martian" played aliens for laughs. Since then, movies and television have switched their focus to worlds galaxies away.

Mars is now almost quaint, Thompson said.

"In an era of 'Star Wars' and 'The X-Files,' Mars is like a suburb," Thompson said. "As a mythical place, [its] day has passed. Now it's wheedling its way back into our hearts as a real place."

It's a dusty, lonely place, from the looks of the rover photos. But if those pictures grab the imagination, if President Bush's announcement of a renewed space program stirs the blood, pop culture may have new images in mind.

"You can redefine the place of Mars in pop culture," Thompson said. "It's close enough to interact with."

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