“Mars and Beyond”: We first learned about the red planet from Walt Disney in 1957

By on September 24, 2015

It seems that the idea of human beings landing on the surface of Mars is in the news every day these days, particularly because the imminent October 2nd theatrical release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian is right around the corner (that’s the one about that lonely astronaut, played by Matt Damon, left behind and presumed dead by the manned Mars crew who leave him stranded on the red planet).

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Nearly sixty years ago, though, it Walt Disney who first put it into our collective hive minds that one day humans (probably and proudly Americans, naturally) would be walking on the surface of Mars.

On Wednesday, December 4, 1957, at 7:30pm, the Walt Disney-hosted omnibus show “Disneyland” (later changed to “Walt Disney Presents” [1958–1961], then “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” [1961–1969], and “The Wonderful World of Disney” [the first era, airing 1969–1979]) aired a three-part series on the ABC network, focusing on the possibility of life on other planets, particularly Mars.

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Disney and his robot friend Garco provide a brief introduction and overview for the next three episodes (“Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon” are the first two), but it’s not until the third, “Mars and Beyond,” until we get to specifics about whether there might already be life on Mars, and whether or not humans could survive there. You can watch the clips here.

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The heavily-animated episode was directed by Ward Kimball, narrated by Paul Frees, and based on series of articles under the heading “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” that had been published during the 1950s in Collier’s magazine, specifically the 1954 two-part article “Is There Life On Mars” by Dr. Fred Whipple, and “Can We Get To Mars?,” detailing Wernher von Braun’s plans for manned spaceflight (along with Cornelius Ryan’s journalist assistance). The series was also expanded into three books: Across the Space Frontier (1952), Conquest of the Moon (1953) and The Exploration of Mars (1956).

More recently, the news seems to be focused on not so much we can even get a man (or woman) on the surface of Mars, but whether (or not) they would survive the trip there and back, for one, in a cramped capsule, and what might happen if there was a problem and they had to send up a rescue mission, which seems to be part of the focus of the Ridley Scott movie.

According to NASA officials, there’s still a lot of work to be done first before we know how safe it will be to send astronauts to deep-space destinations like Mars, since they will have to be away from Earth for 500 days or more (NASA estimates that a round-trip to Mars and back would take a little over two years).

In fact, right now, there are currently two astronauts (American Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko) who are halfway through an unprecedented year-long mission in deep space, and NASA is studying the psychological and physiological effects of the long duration they have to spend in their capsule, because we honestly don’t know yet what might happen.

We’re closer, though, than we’ve ever been before. Just a week ago, on September 17, 2015, NASA administrator and former space shuttle commander Charles Bolden was speaking at an event in Washington D.C., and said that “we are farther down the path to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history.”

We’ve been trying to get humans to Mars for over forty years now, and there have already been a spate of mostly spurious movies (TV movies and theatrical features, not to mention short films, animated and otherwise) devoted to showing astronauts having already reached the goal of walking on the red planet’s surface.

Your humble author (uh, me) even worked on one of those films, back in the spring of 1995 — it was a mostly awful CBS made-for-TV mockudrama called Special Report: Journey to Mars, which was based around the probably correct concept that a worldwide audience would sit, awestruck, watching the live 24-7 coverage of astronauts landing on Mars for the first time (in the year 2005), this time on a fictional global network called GNN (this was back when CNN was supposed to be that amazing channel we’d all be watching things like this happening in real time).

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Of course, just as the spacemen and women about about to reach their goal, the landing-computer malfunctions, an astronaut in space gets very sick and back on Earth it is discovered that big financial corporations have an interest in the failure of the mission (that sounds about right, doesn’t it?)

Despite having a terrific ensemble cast, including real movie stars like Keith Carradine as the sick astronaut (I got to know fairly well, awesome dude), the movie mostly… how can I put this? Well, it sucked.

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While it was an interesting working experience for me, logging all those hours as production assistance for all those months, in pre-production and then during the five or six-week long shooting schedule, I have to say that, ultimately, the experience didn’t lead to any further work in the movie business, not as a P.A., and I realized I didn’t really want to keep seeking it out either (I was happy that I didn’t have to end up working fourteen-hour days once the filming wrapped, frankly).

I waited to see see Special Report show up on TV for what seemed like a long, long time, and there was always a chance that it was never going to air since I remember Executive Producer Fred Silverman of Viacom Productions coming to the set one day and expressing how much he hated what he was seeing.

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You can imagine my surprise, then, on March 25, 1996, nearly a year after I’d worked those long weeks on the movie, when I was arrowing around with the remote on a commercial break during ABC’s Academy Awards telecast and saw that the CBS network had decided to air the movie opposite the Oscars, meaning that probably the only people who probably saw it were the Martians watching back home.

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The interesting thing, back in 1995, there was actually an uptick in the numbers of people who believed that the space program was important to the United States, and the only possible film at the time that could have had a hand in this was the release of Ron Howard’s epic Apollo 13, which starred Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell as the commander of the crippled spacecraft. Almost doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. Both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have expressed that they’d support and endorse a manned mission to Mars, but here we are in 2015, and we’re not there yet.

By the way, the ideas and concepts behind The Martian, — with a screenplay based on the 2011 sci-novel by new author Andy Weir — aren’t new, certainly: have a look sometime at Mission to Mars (2000), Red Planet (2000), Stranded (2001), and you can go all the way back through the hundreds of others, too, all the way back to The Angry Red Planet (1959) and beyond, for they all concern, in some way, our attempts to put men and women successfully on the surface of Mars, and have them stay there and explore, and then come back, or sometimes just stay there and live.

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Our favorite, though, just might be this short film Last Flight, directed by Damon Keen, starring Kassie Watson, as an astronaut, 200 million kilometers from home, her base in flames and her oxygen supply dwindling, trying to survive on the windswept deserts of Mars.

Keen put it up on Youtube awhile back, and it’s pretty great. Shot amidst the volcanic mountains of New Zealand, this short film explores one woman’s journey to take charge of her own destiny, in the face of seemingly overwhelming hopelessness and isolation.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://uglyradio.wordpress.com/ Richard Vachel Lindsay

    Paul Frees was the voice of god for our generation.

  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    Had he still been around, we probably would’ve cut the cord earlier…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW3uqvQ5XbA