Deep Ice: The war scare was over (“The Great Martian War 1913-1917”)

The Great Martian WarI’ll Explain Later…

It is June 26, 1913. Civil War veterans begin arriving in Gettysburg, PA for the Great Reunion marking the fiftieth anniversary of the battle. A few days ago, Tiny Broadwick made history as the first woman to parachute from a plane. Chauncey Olcott’s recording of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” tops the charts. In theaters are Charles Gyblyn’s The Battle of Gettysburg and Mack Sennett’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, which you’ve probably seen without realizing it because it’s the movie that invented the old-timey movie trope of a villain tying a woman to the railroad tracks. Buffalo, New York is recovering from a grain elevator explosion earlier in the week that killed seventeen men and injured fifty. Avalon, California is incorporated. The Washington Senators host the Philadelphia Athletics in a double-header.

Oh, and Earth is invaded by an advanced and hostile alien race from the planet Mars.

History Channel LogoSo, I’ll grant it’s entirely possible that I just imagined this, but I think that possibly when I was a younger man, The History Channel did not… suck. I mean, they had their share of crap shows and all, but mostly they were a respected institution. One of my professors in college got interviewed by them a fair number of times on the subject of Joan of Arc. By the time I was in grad school, they were well on their way to transitioning into being mostly about Hitler, lost treasures, historical reports of supernatural entities, and Hitler’s Leveraging of Supernatural Entities to Hide Treasures. And more and more recently, they’ve come under fire for using their once-trustworthy documentary filmmaking chops to put out works of fiction that pretend to be real documentaries about mermaids and suchlike. At least they still show stuff about the pyramids sometimes. I like the Egyptology stuff.

In 2013, the History Channel produced one of these faux-documentaries about World War I, sorta. They recast the Great War, getting rid of all that messy and inconvenient history with an adaptation of, you guessed it, The War of the Worlds. We’ve covered three “newscast”-style adaptations so far, so I thought we’d try out a “documentary”-style one. There is one more documentary-style adaptation, 2012’s War of the Worlds: The True Story, but that’s largely a reworking of an earlier traditional movie, and I’m not going to cover it because I’ve already watched the movie it’s reworked from, which was enough of a slog that I never want to do that again. So I guess this, provisionally at least, marks the end of our little trek through adaptations of HG Wells’s novel that are presented with the framing device of a real historical event being reported. Unless I can somehow find an angle to squeeze out an article about Henry Legg’s Twitter adaptation. Which I probably can’t.

So let’s do this thing. It’s a little strange to even call this an adaptation of War of the Worlds, really. I mean, is “Earth gets invaded by aliens, ostensibly from Mars” enough to make it count? There’s loads of movies where Earth gets invaded by aliens, even specifically Martians, but not all of them are considered “War of the Worlds”. The key factors seem to be that the Martians arrive in a meteor, sweep over the world without meaningful opposition, then are all struck dead by what amounts to divine intervention, because they have no natural immunity to the common cold (At least, it’s usually remembered as the common cold; the book says “putrefactive and disease bacteria”, and even this Wells qualifies as unproven hypothesis. Viruses had only just been discovered when Wells published). The war as presented in The Great Martian War 1913-1917 unfolds very differently from other adaptations. Sure, the broad strokes of the story are mostly there, but so much is changed. Most importantly, the war isn’t a complete curbstomp: humanity can and does fight back. It is still only through a bit of a deus ex machina that mankind is able to win in the end, but it’s not so much “Killed after all man’s defenses had failed,” as “This war would have gone on for years and probably ended in a slow defeat had this one big push right at the end not worked so perfectly.”

But it’s got tripods, so there’s that. We’ve talked about one adaptation using the height of 1930s radio technology, and one using 1960s radio technology and a cast of non-actors and a budget of “what we can find around the studio”, and one really cheap production that was kind of profoundly unconvincing. But if there’s one thing The History Channel is good at, it’s at convincingly pretending to document fake history, so at the least, this is going to be a lot more proficient on a technical level than what we’ve seen before.

Since this isn’t a traditional narrative,  I’m going to be a lot more light-handed on the play-by-play. While The Great Martian War doesn’t have a “story” per se, it does have an “angle”. That’s a clever choice, I think, and adds to the authentic feel. This isn’t “Ken Burns’s War of the Worlds”, a twelve-hour epic providing a semester’s worth of lecture on the history of the war. Just like a real History Channel documentary, this is very much “Hey, there’s been a recent discovery that makes this old topic timely again, so here’s seventy minutes of background to get you up to speed and then we’re going to deliver a bit of actually new information at the end,” just as you’d see in a real documentary: “We got permission to X-ray a mummy. Here’s seventy minutes about the Third Dynasty and then we’ll show you what we found.” The angle for them is a recent breakthrough in translating alien text. “2013 is the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great Martian War – a conflict unequaled in devastation and often mired in controversy. But the lost legacy of a forgotten hero, unearthed only last year might just ignite the biggest controversy of all.”Regardless of what you think of the History Channel’s sensationalist style (Hey, maybe they could make their motto “We put the History in Histrionic!”), this is just pitch-perfect. It’s practically Mad Libs: <current year> marks <length of time> since <historical event>, among the <superlative> <category of events> in human history. But now, new <research | discovery | witnesses | technology> might just have unearthed the most <unexpected | startling | terrifying> secrets of all, and changed the way we look at <event | all of human history | our place in the universe | Hitler> forever.”

Our narrative frame for this little adventure through faux-history is Gus Lafonde, a Canadian Anishinaabe soldier, who’d left detailed notebooks of his observations during the war, recently rediscovered by his great-granddaughter. The Great Martian War: Gus LafondeI think it’s a bit of a pleasant sign of the times we live in that they made the effort to do a little bit to correct the extent to which the indigenous peoples of the Americas are represented in things like 20th century history, especially in a context that implies that his work had been largely overlooked precisely because no one was expecting a major breakthrough to come from a First Nations enlisted soldier. That his discoveries are specifically linked to the translation of the alien language may be an homage to the Navajo Code Talkers, though it that’s true, it’s maybe just a bit uncomfortable that they’ve conflated the country, tribe, and which war it was. But still, props and all.

The “Martian War” will follow the broad outline of the Western Front of the European Theater of World War I, transposed one year backward in time (Presumably to keep everything at the right time of year while preempting the historical war). Lots of elements of the historical war are there — the US’s early isolationism and late entry, the von Schlieffen plan, the Battle of the Marne, chemical warfare, the introduction of tanks. Others are recast: Paul von Hindenburg is crucial in the defense of Paris; Douglas Haig is remembered as an inspirational leader and his troop losses as fully justified; the Lusitania is reimagined as an American liner, and the events precipitating America’s entry into the war draws more from Perl Harbor than the Zimmerman Telegram. Other things still are missing: there’s no references to an Eastern Front. Russia is completely absent. The Ottoman Empire is completely absent. There’s no campaign in Africa, and naval warfare is minimal.

In order for you to slot Martians into the story of World War I, of course, you need to clear out some space first. This is a little tricky; one of the reasons “Why did World War I happen?” is so hard to answer is that World War I was caused less by one specific thing happening, and more by the fact that the general trend of European History was for them all to go to war with each other every few decades, and it was just tough cookies that there’d been a technological revolution since the last one that made warfare possible on an industrial scale. Blackadder Goes Forth. Image from bbc.co.ukThe most accurate summation of why World War I happened I’ve ever heard comes from Edmund Blackadder: it was too much effort not to have a war.

Now, obviously, you can recast the story any way you like, but if you want to be able to draw from real history, both because it lets you show interesting parallels, and also because if you’re not sure what should happen next, you can just look up what happened next in real life, the simplest way to do it is to remove one of the historical players in the war and stick the Martians there instead. So that is what they did. Most adaptations move the invasion so that it occurs on the adaptor’s home turf: Orson Welles had the Martians invade New Jersey and work their way up to New York. Jeff Kaye put them in Buffalo. The 1953 Hollywood film put the aliens in California. Breaking News put them in Mojave. The Great Martian War needs to write the Central Powers out of the war to make room for the Martians, so it breaks with tradition: an American production with a very British focus places the one and only Martian landing site in the Bohemian Forest. Most adaptations have the Martians land all over the world; the only one off the top of my head that doesn’t is the WKBW version, where the invasion is centered on the east coast of North America (Interestingly, though, the novel doesn’t say one way or the other. The narrator speculates that the invaders might move outward from England — which they obviously made their first priority as it was the most important country in the world, the rest being full of foreigners — but he never becomes personally aware of invasions outside of England). Here, there’s just one mass landing, which generates a shockwave felt across Europe.

This being pseudohistory, I think parallels to the Tunguska Event are intentional, and it’s almost a little surprising that no one brings it up. The other obvious parallel is something which does get brought up, but never by name. Like I said, in 1913, World War I was already more-or-less inevitable. When an earth-shattering explosion occurred in the heart of the German Empire, everyone’s first assumption was that Kaiser Wilhelm had just test-fired some kind of new super-weapon. Everyone except the Germans, of course, who assume someone else just test-fired some kind of new super-weapon at them. “His Majesty the Emperor, in the name of God, the Fatherland, and the German people, begs the assistance of his brother nations. Germany is under attack by assailants not of this earth.” Six days after German troops enter the impact zone, however, the Kaiser sends word begging the other world powers to come to their aid against, “assailants not of this earth”. It takes less than a week for Germany to collapse, and the world is at war by the end of July.

The tripods, hallmark of any War of the Worlds adaptation, are called “Herons” in The Great Martian War, and they pay homage not only to the novel, but to the many adaptations done over the years. The Great Martian War: Heron TripodThe “heat ray” is described as a “slow-firing energy cannon”, and, like their 1953 counterparts, the Herons are protected by an “energy shield”. There’s a rare hint at how this world’s 2013 has diverged from our own: the shields are described as “The first introduction we had to the many uses of dark energy particles.” The Herons are a bit similar in design to Warwick Goble’s original illustrations for the serial run of The War of the Worlds (Which Wells himself personally disowned and criticized in a passage he added when the book was published in novel form). The “black smoke” is a function of the Herons too, a “toxic cloud” that surrounds the machines. The effectiveness of it is greatly scaled down here, though, making it much more similar to the chemical weapons that were introduced in the real-world Great War. Gas masks prove effective against it, though interviewee Jock Donnelly describes the sense of dreadful isolation that comes with that sort of fighting.

The Great Martian War: Jock Macleod as Jock DonnelyThis is another thing that The Great Martian War does well. The interview footage is really convincing. In fact, if you told me some of it was actual interviews with real World War I veterans — the bits where they’re just speaking about the horrors of war or conditions in the trenches without anything specific about aliens — I’d believe you. I’d be pissed that they’d misrepresented the real testimony of real people’s real suffering for this show, but I’d believe you. (It’s not. I checked. The interview footage is all done with actors). What sells it is the audiovisual texture. Remember, this is purporting to be a documentary made a century after the fact: hardly anyone who was alive in 1913 would be available for interview in 2013, and certainly no one who was old enough to have served in combat (The last known World War I veteran died in 2012), so this is all archive footage dated from the ’60s to the ’90s. The sound is flat. The video is grainy — and it’s grainy in different ways. Interviews dated to the early ’80s have film grain, and those from the ’90s have VHS artifacts. Some of it is in 4:3. Other parts are widescreen but have that slightly-wrong look of having been cropped and enlarged. The colors are either oversaturated or faded depending on the vintage. The only interview footage that looks really inauthentic is of an interview with author Nerys Vaughn in the 1960s, and even there, it looks quite a lot like the “reenacted” interviews they sometimes attach to this sort of documentary.

There are actually four kinds of Martian war machines in Wells’s original novel (Or three, if you don’t count the flying machine mentioned only in the original serial version). Hardly any adaptations ever follow up on this; it’s only the large tripod machines that get covered. The Great Martian War: Iron SpiderThe Great Martian War, though, wants a “whole” war story, so it takes the rare step of changing it up a bit. Like the original, there are four distinct types of Martian war machine, though they’re entirely distinct from those in the novel. The second type of machine introduced is the “Iron Spider”, a smaller form of tripod that acts as the Martian infantry. It’s a clever way to divvy things up: between the original and its many famous adaptations, there’s a whole assortment of traits associated with the Martian war machines that are kind of a clusterfrak when put together, so here, they divide up the popular tripod traits between the two different kinds of machine. The Spiders are smaller and far more agile than the Herons, whose size honestly makes them look kind of awkwardly matched against human infantry. The primary purpose of the Herons, it seems, is not to kill humans in large numbers directly, but rather to destroy cover and force soldiers out into the open, where the agile Spiders, roughly the size of a modern tank and twice as tall, could dispatch them with “ribbons of death”, highly articulated tentacles that are extremely accurate to the tentacle appendages Wells described on the fighting machines, prefiguring modern inventions like electroactive polymers and muscle-wire.

By August, the situation on the continent looks desperate — the Martians are expected to take Paris within weeks, when Paul von Hindenburg and the German Army turn up, revealing that they’d been hiding in the woods for a few months. In real history, Count von Hindenburg was a major German war hero on the Eastern Front, who went on to the German presidency, and is remembered as probably the last guy who could have stopped Hitler from rising to power except that he didn’t, and kinda sounds like the German version of Ulysses S. Grant. The fictionalized Hindenburg implemented the von Schlieffen Plan, which, near as I can figure, is basically “Slip into France the back way through Belgium,” bringing along the German army and every other surviving German he could round up. In the real world, it was a devastating strategy for defeating France, whose only flaw was that it didn’t actually work: Belgium took a certain objection to the German Army rolling through, which made everything harder, and on top of that, Russia didn’t take nearly as long to get its act together as they’d anticipated, so they had to divert troops to the other side of Germany to fight the other half of the war.

The Great Martian War: Louse Machine

Ironically, the failure of the von Schlieffen Plan in real life had pretty much the same effect as the success of it in The Great Martian War: it caused what had been a juggernaut advance by the invading army to stall out into years of stalemated trench warfare. And it was in the trenches that the third class of Martian war machine came into play: at night, as fighting slowed down, the ground-based “lice” would scour the battlefield, sweeping it clean of the day’s debris of war. The documentary makes a big deal out of the psychological impact of this: dead soldiers could not be recovered for burial, and rumors spread of the Martians invaders making some hideous use of the dead and wounded — keep in mind, in the original novel, the Martians were vampiric (Based on some comically incorrect Victorian ideas about how digestion worked, Wells assumed that a more advanced race would evolve beyond the need to eat and would just inject the blood of lesser creatures, and this would somehow be more efficient), and herded humans for food.

It’s kind of strange, in fact, how much they make of this, since it turns out to be a red herring: about twenty minutes later, they reveal that the missing dead weren’t taken by the Martians at all, but rather simply crushed into the mud: the lice were actually just sweeping the field for spent shell casings and other bits of metal debris, which they recycled to build their war machines.

A kind of parody of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 occurs in December 1913: fighting draws to a halt on Christmas night as the Martians launch a series of “Christmas Stars” into the sky. But this “truce” has a twist reminiscent of the Racnoss Christmas Star from Doctor Who: what the Martians have launched are their fourth kind of war machine, kraken-like submarines that attack the shipping lanes.

In the real world, the 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania came close to bringing the US into the war. That’s mirrored here in the sinking of the Aquitania. There’s a bit of a slip though: the historical RMS Aquitania was a sister-ship of the Lusitania, launched in May 1914. The Great Martian War: RMS AquitaniaThe historical Aquitania would serve in both World Wars as a troop transport and hospital ship, and operate in peacetime as a cruise ship until 1950 (It was the longest-serving passenger liner of the 20th century, surpassed only in 2004 by the QE2). But the ship is identified by narration as American (Even though the illustration they show is clearly based on the real ship and bears the historically correct Liverpool marking).

As in real history, half the American public gets all riled up and wants to join the war, but the other half still reckons that this is Europe’s war and none of our damned business, and President Wilson kept the US out of the war. And here, Theodore Roosevelt, the historical equivalent of Harrison Ford in Air Force One, reenters history. In real life, Roosevelt did push for the US to enter the war, and in 1917, he tried to raise up a volunteer army to go fight in Europe. Wilson shut him down and sent the real army instead. Roosevelt acts earlier in the Martian war, and Wilson concedes to public opinion, allowing Roosevelt’s volunteers to ship out in 1914.

Meanwhile, Gus Lafonde, our “angle” on this, had been counting coup. I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand, it has a hint of TV’s usual “Magic Indian” trope: the humble indigenous American who is able to do what the white folks can’t because of his people’s rich heritage, specifically something the white folks in the audience have probably heard of already. On the other hand, by making his contribution tie specifically to his specific cultural background, it does make his presence a part of the narrative and not just “We wanted extra credit for diversity so we spun the Wheel-of-Minorities and it came up ‘Canadian First Nations’.” Sneaking into Martian encampments under cover of night, he steals alien artifacts and makes notes on their writing which, a century later, would lead to its decipherment.

The Great Martian War: Martian

Things start to turn around for the allies when, having discovered the size of the Martian force, they undertake a daring plan to capture a Heron through undermining. The captured Heron reveals the true intent of the lice, as it’s made from locally-sourced materials. We also get to see the physical nature of the aliens. There’s a clear similarity between the alien bodies and the alien war machines. That’s a common theme in adaptations, and is suggested by the book in a limited sort of way (Wells notes that the aliens don’t use pivot joints, and this seems reflective of the fact that their own bodies, being akin to cephalopods, don’t have them). Odd when you think of it, since humans have never built vehicles designed based on the way we look outside of Japanese cartoons. These aliens look like a kind of anencephalic insect. Correspondingly, the Herons, Spiders and Lice alike all have these sort of pillbug-shaped bodies, differing mostly in size and the design of the legs.

wotwii13

The other thing to come out of the capture is where The Great Martian War makes its real contribution of something genuinely new to the “mythology”. Because once the Heron is down, its attendant Spiders surrender. Investigation turns up that the Spiders are unmanned, controlled instead by a “living organic metal” they term “victicite”. The victicite turns out to be not only the key to Martian technology, but seems like it’s actively trying to be helpful, causing allied war techology to advance. Though, just like the first tanks of the real World War I, the technology is unreliable at first and its impact is limited. Though the energy-weapons are effective, they’re prone to exploding, and the “landships” aren’t fast or maneuverable enough to evade Heron counterattacks — they can dispatch a single Heron, but only if it obligingly stands still and lets them. Their first real successful use comes when three ace pilots (among them, László Almásy, the real-life inspiration for “The English Patient”) using experimental energy weapons defeat a Heron that’s wandered across the Channel to London. The pilot survives, but catches glanders from police horses and promptly dies.

Unlike the other interpretations we’ve seen, then, though it’s still a disease that will ultimately bring down the Martians, it won’t be an act of nature, but flat-out biological warfare. Glanders really was used as a bioweapon in World War I along the Eastern Front to infect horses. However, it would take most of a year for the virus to be weaponized, and the Martians are expected to conquer all of Europe before that can happen.

The Great Martian WarFortunately for Europe, the Martians inexplicably attack a group of American destroyers.  Or do they? The interviewed historian points out that there’s no hard evidence of Martian presence in the Gulf of Mexico, and notes that Allied U-Boats had the range to have done it themselves, coyly hinting that it may have been a false flag by the Allies to trick the Americans into the war. Woodrow Wilson resigns in disgrace, and for some reason — they talk around it, but it kinda sounds like a coup — this makes Teddy Roosevelt president and the US enters the war proper.

Victicite-based weapons and American reinforcements slow down the Martians enough for the final push, called “Operation Trojan Horse”. To the troops on the line, it sounds very much like it’s going to follow the general outline of the Hundred Days’ Offensive, and desertion starts to become a problem as they expect to be sent on a suicidal final charge against an unstoppable foe. “Many amongst us are tired. To those, I say hold firm. Ultimate victory is within our grasp. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.” Sir Douglas Haig, who in our world became the poster-child for the kind of disengaged aristocratic general who happily sends huge numbers of his own men to their deaths because he thinks of war as a sort of jolly academic exercise rather than a real thing that affects real people, delivers a stirring speech that restores order. The push turns out to be a feint: when the Martians easily rout the charge, they press their advantage, the Herons charging into vast pens of glanders-infected horses up and down the 50-mile line. Within a day or so, all are dead.

That may be the end of the war, but it’s not quite the end of the story. In the real world, during the last months of World War I and the years that followed, a particularly deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus caused a global pandemic, killing far more people than the war itself. For morale purposes, the allied nations underplayed the effects of the disease at home, but because neutral Spain was not subject to similar censorship, the pandemic became known worldwide as the “Spanish Flu”. In a cruel twist, after the Martian defeat, the glanders virus mutated in some of the infected horses of Operation Trojan Horse, becoming an airborne flu-like disease dubbed “Martian Flu” which would kill a hundred million worldwide.

The story ends by returning to the story of Gus Lafonde. Three decades after his death, his granddaughter discovered the notebooks he’d made during the war, and the information in them allowed Martian texts to be translated for the first time, revealing them to be largely similar to the diaries of human soldiers on the front: full of homesickness and the horror of war. But even more chillingly, the text from the Heron destroyed in London seems to contain a warning: it claims that the Martians had themselves once been victims of a similar invasion, and had become infected by a parasitic lifeform, which had manipulated them into this war to spread itself. The culprit is implied to be the “living metal” victicite, which the narrators assure us (without going into detail) has become a major element of modern life, underlying the many innovations in travel, medicine and telecommunications of the twentieth century, and which, they sinisterly hint, may, not unlike, say, the Silence, be inspiring our own exploration of space to spread itself further.

The Great Martian War is a “documentary style” War of the Worlds done right: the production values aren’t simply first rate; they’re diverse and varied to convey a realistic sense of using multiple sources dating to different times over the course of a century.The Great Martian War There’s grainy, deteriorated “battlefield” footage made to look authentic, but also obviously staged footage with clearly simulated aging, made to look like a reconstruction. Interviews don’t simply look old: ones from the ’70s look like they’re from the seventies, ones from the ’80s look like they’re from the ’80s. And there are numerous little touches, too. Statues of Herons and Spiders in the War Museum, or a tripod in place of The Hun on a war bond poster in the background. Or the fact that they never say a single word about it (Well, one: the phrasing of the caption about their deaths is one normally used with spouses), but it’s quite clear that interviewed veterans Jock Donnely and Howard Klee were domestic partners. It displays a lot of the cheekiness you often see in alternative histories too, such as recasting Paul von Hindenburg and László Almásy as heroes to the Allies, making “Butcher” Haig into an inspirational leader, or having Teddy Roosevelt make the history books really complicated.

The weakness, really, is in what they don’t show. There’s a heavy, if unstated, implication that World War II doesn’t happen in this universe — there’s no Treaty of Versailles and, for that matter, no Germany to speak of when the war is over. It’s kind of hard to imagine, though, why the handful of glimpses we get of the modern world look so much like our modern world with such a large divergence. We’re told that victicite and “dark energy particles” have found many uses in earth technology, but aside from the decor at the war museum, their 2013 looks like ours. There’s no mention of Russia, and it’s hard to quite imagine Russia bowing out of the Martian War halfway through to have their own revolution. How you get from 1913 to 2013 with a Martian War instead of World War I isn’t really clear, and if there is a second world war in the 1930s, I think it’s self-evident that it would go rather differently if the European powers had been armed with energy weapons they’d had twenty years to refine.

Then there’s the big twist: the “parasitic” nature of the mysterious unobtainium victicite. It’s a neat idea. I’ve read a handful of War of the Worlds adaptations over the years which have taken a similar tack, revealing that the aliens had themselves been invaded earlier. Usually, they take the approach that the Martians were invading Earth because they were forced to flee their own planet. The idea here is a little more clever. Parasites which alter their hosts’ behavior have gotten a little pop culture attention recently, with increased awareness about how freaking weird stuff like toxoplasmosis and cordyceps are. But it’s disappointing that they don’t do anything with it. The alien writings suggest that they were “deceived” and manipulated into their invasion, that they’d been parisitized by the victicite. But there’s absolutely nothing we’re told that hints how this works. If it’s something as simple as “Exposure to victicite makes you rabidly xenophobic and imperialistic,” that’s something that could have been fantastic to work into the coda. Yes, it’s cheap and you should probably never crib a plot from The Tomorrow People, but “Alien influence makes people xenophobic and imperialistic in the first part of the twentieth century” screams for a “Hitler was mind-controlled by aliens” plot. The wars, genocides and ethnic strife of the twentieth century could easily be framed as the result of mind control.

Of course, it’s always a terrible idea and kind of crass to pretend that the Nazis were the way they were for anything but a fully human cause, but given just how obvious an angle it is, the fact that they didn’t give us something else instead makes the idea palpable in its absence. And keep in mind, “It makes people xenophobic,” isn’t actually suggested by the show itself: victicite’s method of operation could be completely different. While I can’t come up with anything, the basic concept of some kind of technology that parasitizes and manipulates its user is something that could be really profoundly novel.

But even if they did stick with the straightforward interpretation, I think, because this is an explicitly alternate history, it might be possible to pull off the whole “Hitler was inspired by aliens” thing, if you’re subversive about it. The crassness behind plots that attribute non-human influences to the Nazis comes from the attempt to sanitize humanity by saying that their atrocities are beyond the scope of what humans are capable of doing of their own volition. In an alternate history, though, you can do it as an indictment: have the historian speculate that perhaps victicite was responsible for the bloody and genocidal wars of the twentieth century, then say something like, “Perhaps if the Martians had never come, those horrible things would never come to pass.” From our reference frame, this does not shift the blame away from humanity, but to it: they were infected by an alien parasite; what’s our excuse?

In a certain sense, it’s because the documentary is so strong that it leaves me just a bit unsatisfied. Because, frankly, I can look up how World War I went.  “A Brief History of World War I Only With Martians Instead of Germans,” is merely clever; I find myself much more fascinated by the question, “How does the rest of the twentieth century go if we get Alien Tech in 1918?”

Unfortunately, that’s not a question that particularly interests The Great Martian War. Fortunately, I’ve got a bunch of adaptations left to go…

Oh, and in conclusion, the History Channel would just like you to know:

History Channel Aliens Meme

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