Star Trek actors recreated Orson Welles’ “panic broadcast.”
On October 30, 1938, Martians conquered the Earth—or, at least, American living rooms. But they had inside help. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre presented an inventive radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ foundational science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds (1897).
Playwright Howard Koch dramatized the story, in large part, as a series of “breaking news” reports and eyewitness accounts. And while the so-called “panic broadcast” may not have caused as much panic as once believed, it remains a justly celebrated landmark of American media.
In a deleted scene from the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Storm Front,” Sal tells Captain Archer he was one of the people who panicked listening to Welles’ broadcast that night. “I fell for the whole thing,” says Sal, adding he paid for sister’s medical bills when she broke her ankle running for the car after he called to tell her the Martians had landed.
Sal’s amusing anecdote is, so far, the only filmed reference to the “panic broadcast” in any Star Trek production. But it’s not the only or most notable Star Trek link to the classic radio drama that’s become a Halloween tradition.
Nimoy, McFadden, Spiner, and other Star Trek voices wage this war of the worlds
Directed by John “Q” de Lancie, the show starred both regulars and prominent guest stars from several Star Trek series.
Leonard Nimoy leads the cast as Professor Pierson, the role Orson Welles played in 1938. Early in the broadcast, Pierson assures the radio audience the chances against intelligent life on Mars “are a thousand to one.” Ultimately, Pierson must flee for his life from the hostile extraterrestrials. As Star Trek fans would expect, Nimoy brings exceptional gravitas to the part.
Gates McFadden plays intrepid radio reporter Carla Philips. In the original 1938 broadcast, this role was written as a male one: Carl Phillips, played by Frank Readick. To give his firsthand descriptions of the Martian heat ray’s devastating effects emotional heft, Readick modeled his performance after eyewitness reporting of the fiery Hindenburg crash.
In the gender-switched role, McFadden admirably recreates Phillips’ journalistic dedication. Alas, as did Carl, Carla perishes in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, site of the Martians’ first strike.
Brent Spiner is the Stranger, a character Koch modeled after the artilleryman in H.G. Wells’ original novel. Meeting Pierson in “undemolished but humbled” Newark, New Jersey some time after the Martian onslaught, the Stranger advocates the impossible plan of seizing a Martian war machine and turning it against the invaders. Spiner is only “on the air” as the Stranger for a few minutes, but he makes them memorable ones.
Dwight Schultz and Armin Shimerman are heard as radio announcers and hosts. Wil Wheaton and Tom Virtue (Star Trek: Voyager’s Lieutenant Baxter) can be heard as military officers fighting the Martians in vain.
Jerry Hardin—who guested on Star Trek: The Next Generation as both Radue and Mark Twain, and as Neria in the Voyager episode “Emanations”—plays Wilmuth, the farmer on whose property the Martians arrive. The only cast member without a Star Trek credit on her resume is prolific television actor Meagen Fay.
L.A. Theatre Works has revived War of the Worlds in the years since—for example, in a 2009 world tour as part of a double bill with an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. But Star Trek fans will, logically, find the 1994 production most fascinating!
A recording is available from L.A. Theatre Works. Why not make it part of your Halloween festivities this year? Like Orson Welles’ original broadcast, this production rewards repeated listenings.
It will give you not only a chance to enjoy some of your favorite Star Trek performers’ voices, but also, just maybe, some frightfully fun Halloween shivers!