MY FAVORITE MARTIAN
_THE INFLUENCE OF THE SHOW_
In the Fall of 1963, science fiction entertainment seemed confined to the glut of alien attack movies of the 1950s. And while War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Broadwayís Visit to a Small Planet did make a mark in the mainstream, people who yearned for science fiction relied either on the classic works of Verne and Wells, or on contemporary books by Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury. Readers also had the sci-fi pulp magazines, and kids had comic books that recorded the adventures of Superman, Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes, among others. Humorous science fiction satire for young people had just begun with the 1961 "Matthew Looney" books and the now infamous "Mars Attacks!" cards, unapologetically gory, had just been issued. On the small screen, science fiction was deftly handled in black and white on The Twilight Zone, a program deservedly lauded, though somewhat unsettling for younger viewers. But it is an anthology series, without recurring characters and another equally dark anthology program, The Outer Limits, is set to join the 63-64 Fall TV schedule. Given all these elements, it is fair to say that in the realm of pop culture at that time, life from outer space invariably meant odd-looking beings with ultimately hostile intentions. In fact, the over-all connotation at the mention of Martians or any other type of alien life was that of fear.
It was into this framework that the unexpected happened. The premiere of My Favorite Martian brought to television a unique lead character, the antithesis of media beliefs about space life. For this Martian, a congenial professor of anthropology who had been observing Earth for hundreds of years, knew more about the history of our culture than we did. Human in appearance, a Renaissance man of sorts with a superior intellect that included a complete knowledge of our greatest artistic and literary achievements, and possessing a scientific background thousands of years beyond our own civilization, he was still, nonetheless, basically benevolent and engagingly witty.
To solidify the mix, he is befriended by a young reporter who rescues him from the site of his damaged spaceship and who eventually grows to look upon the visitor as an uncle. Each week Tim OíHara demonstrates his loyalty by helping to keep the Martianís presence on Earth a secret, even though it means foregoing his own chance for the biggest journalistic scoop of all time. The warm friendship between the two underscores their comedic adventures here on Earth.
The show benefited by having a premise that generated several built-in storylines. The first and foremost dealt with keeping the Martianís identity a secret and then came tales of his different attempts to get back to the Red Planet. These plots were strengthened by being played out against a third theme that focused on having the characters get to know each other.
The construction of these stories included using a different slew of dramatic devices. On a number of occasions, the Martian directly addressed the audience through the "fourth wall", something previously done on The Burns and Allen Show and Dobie Gillis. Also, in contrast to always following the routine situation comedy formula of wrapping up an episode problem in 23 minutes, the "Martian" writers sometimes created a new problem, usually derived from the apparent resolution of the plot, and left it for our heroes to solve just as the episode ends.
While the series has always been associated with imaginative special effects, viewers in the mid-sixties would be hard-pressed to find another comedy series that offered a comparable dose of high-brow references. Quotes ranging from Shakespeare to Ben Jonson to Robert Burns regularly appeared in the scripts along with historical facts, information about classical music (Mendelssohnís "Midsummer Nightís Dream", Beethovenís First and Ninth Symphonies and Bachís Goldberg Variations) as well as art history. (It is revealed that "La Gioconda" is the real title of "The Mona Lisa".) The dialogue routinely had vocabulary sophisticated enough to send youngsters to a dictionary or to the nearest adult to get a definition.
In the matter of language, an interesting moment came in an episode televised on March 28, 1965. It dealt with Timís former High School English teacher finally being honored at her retirement. Played to perfection by the inimitable Doris Packer (Mrs.Chatsworth Osborne Sr.on Dobie Gillis), the outstanding but cold-mannered Miss Pringle is overcome as she receives her gold watch. To mask her emotions, she quips, "ÖDamn thing probably doesnít even keep timeÖ" marking the first occasion that the "d" word was ever heard on a situation comedy. Whether or not it had been an ad-lib is academic to the fact that an envelope had been pushed a bit.
Receiving widely agreeable praise from TV critics across the nation, the show rose steadily in the ratings, ranking usually in the lower top ten and reaching #5 with a rating of 31.8 for February 1964. It achieved a rank of #10 among all shows for the 63-64 TV season.
It is hardly coincidental that the 64-65 TV season had the appearances of Bewitched, My Living Doll, The Addams Family and The Munsters, all programs which might not have seen the light of airing had not MFM done so well in the ratings and thereupon opened the door for this type of genre. And while "Martian" did have its own derivative moments from The Twilight Zone and Topper, (both of which get a mention during MFMís first season), it is worth noting that the 64-65 fantasy/sci-fi series and their subsequent imitators freely copied My Favorite Martianís gimmicks and even plot lines throughout their own runs.
It reached a point that in the first episode of MFMís third season, set in 1849 Missouri thanks to the Martianís time machine, Martin and Tim each have their hands tied by outlaws, and, unable to use his levitation finger, the Martian remembers a possible way to escape from something he had seen on television. Holding up his wrists, he wriggles his nose (as on Bewitched) and the ropes fly apart, causing him to resolve, "Tim, Iíll never knock your Earthly television programs again."
In fact, the use of time travel as a staple in the plots of TV sci-fi and fantasy was first seen on a weekly basis in My Favorite Martian. And to make a distinction in the way it was handled, when Leonardo DaVinci is brought to 1966 by the Martianís time machine, the genius inventor arrives speaking only Italian and must take the time to teach himself English from a dictionary. On Bewitched, DaVinci is magically summoned to the 20th century and arrives speaking fluent English.
But being science fiction, My Favorite Martian took efforts to inject some scientific facts into its scripts. Among many examples include the acronym for LASER being correctly defined as "Light Amplification By Stimulated Emission of Radiation". The size of an electron (only 1/1837 that of a proton) is stated, along with a mention of the "M" and "N" shells of an atom. A theory of combining cobolt (Martin correctly gives its atomic weight as 58.94) with silicon is postulated. Quantum Physics is touched upon with the mention of Pauliís Exclusion Principle and Einsteinís Simplified Field Theory. ("I simplified it for him," says the Martian.) One Martian moon (Phobos) does indeed rise and set three times a day, as Martin tells Tim, but even if some facts stated about the fourth planet didnít coincide with what we knew to be true, the Martian does refer to the "red night" on Mars 13 years before Viking photos confirmed it.
Time and again, the writers tried to incorporate some sort of scientific basis for the Martianís gadgets and inventions. In one instance, Martin correctly tells how magnetism is created by lines of force, and, he explains, by inducing "lines of space" into an object, the magnetism is erased. Another time he explains the operation of the futuroid camera by revealing that both time and space are straight lines and can be made to intersect to show a future event. Dubious as these and other pseudo-scientific statements may have been, the Star Trek franchise has had no trouble in justifying many sorts of wild phenomena in their shows with the use of their own affectionately named "techno-babble" explanations. It would seem that in its own way, "Martian" attempted to do as much.
Yet, over time, My Favorite Martian proved to be more than just a series that featured gadgets and special effects. It served as an allegory against prejudice. Its title has become a catch-phrase that seems to surface whenever the media reports on actual exploration of Mars and the on-going search for life in the universe. It is used within the Hollywood industry as a benchmark for the new "high-concept" projects that attempt to rework premises first seen on the original series.
But central to the ultimate success and appeal of the show are the performances of Ray Walston and Bill Bixby. Enjoyably supported by Pamela Britton as the delightfully daffy landlady Mrs. Loralee Brown, Walston and Bixby capitalized on their energetic chemistry and created characters that maintained a core of truth regardless of whatever out-of-this world situations the plots contained. Many of the episodes called for sustained two-character scenes in the apartment and each week Ray Walston and Bill Bixby delivered both fast-paced and character-driven performances. Ray Walston, much acclaimed at that time for his Tony award-winning Broadway credits and accomplished film appearances, achieved a convincing portrayal of a superior alien stranded on Earth by investing the character with just the right balance of intellect, subtle humor and skillfully crafted reactions. Perfectly cast opposite him, Bill Bixby brought his own genuine warmth to the role of Tim OíHara, along with his impeccable style of comedic timing and movement. Together, they elevated their dialogue from the written script, bringing class to the comedy and a teamwork that endures.
The effect of the series on a generation should not be discounted. For the first time, viewers were shown a weekly alternative to the stereotyped images of monsters from outer space in the form of a likable, intelligent character who happened to come from Mars, and as a result, we saw the beginning of a collective loss of fear of "Martians". The series told stories that often contained a moral or two and in the realm of popular entertainment, that is quite a satisfying accomplishment.
Text © 1998-2011 JH Harison
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My essay can also be found on Len's My Favorite Martian site. Thanks, Len!
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