Why Star Trek fans should watch “The Night That Panicked America”

Orson Welles and other members of the Mercury Theater rehearse for the broadcast of A Tale of Two Cities for the 1938 radio program First Person Singular. (Photo by �� John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Orson Welles and other members of the Mercury Theater rehearse for the broadcast of A Tale of Two Cities for the 1938 radio program First Person Singular. (Photo by �� John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) /

The Night That Panicked America boasts two fun Star Trek connections.

It’s altogether appropriate Nicholas Meyer is slated to write and direct an audio podcast prequel to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s not simply because Meyer directed Star Trek II and, without credit, crafted the film’s final script from several previous versions. It’s also appropriate because one of Meyer’s earliest credits as a professional screenwriter revolves around audio drama.

Eighty-five years ago today, on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air performed their adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Scriptwriter Howard Koch had transformed H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel about a Martian invasion of Earth into a series of realistic, increasingly urgent “news bulletins.” The Mercury Theatre’s convincing performances, combined with the fact that a good portion of the radio audience either didn’t know or forgot they were listening to a work of fiction, produced a “panic” that made headlines and became a milestone in American media history.

In recent decades, historians have reassessed the true scope and impact of the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds “panic broadcast.” But in 1975, not even 40 years after the event, few people questioned its reputation as a cause of major mayhem.

And so, on Halloween of that year, ABC broadcast a movie about the Martian broadcast, written by Nicholas Meyer in the early days of his career.

Nicholas Meyer wrote and Joseph Sargent directed The Night That Panicked America

The Night That Panicked America is only the third writing credit, chronologically, on Nicholas Meyer’s IMDB page. It’s very early work from Meyer.

It’s also very good work. Much of the teleplay comes verbatim from Koch’s 1938 radio script, but Meyer deftly dramatizes what was going on in the radio studio. For example, he shows how the Mercury Theatre produced the sound of the fallen Martian cylinder opening: by unscrewing the lid of a pickle jar in a toilet bowl.

Where Meyer’s scriptwriting really shines is in the scenes that show how various listeners, across a wide range of places and social statuses, react to the broadcast. In Grovers Mill, New Jersey itself, for instance—the invasion site Koch chooses (in the movie, though not in real life) by throwing a dart at an enlarged map—a farmer and his son (played by Michael Constantine and John Ritter) grab their shotguns to go fight the invading aliens.

Meanwhile, at a posh Halloween party, a butler (Byron Webster) who knows the broadcast is fiction enjoys watching his elite employer grow increasingly frantic. He teases the rich tycoon—an isolationist who is sympathetic to Hitler—that perhaps, like Germany’s dictator, the Martians only want “breathing room.” (Meyer would later put Hitler’s infamous concept of “lebensraum” in the mouth of General Chang in the script Meyer co-wrote with Denny Martin Flinn for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)

The Night That Panicked America boasts another Star Trek connection beyond Meyer’s teleplay. Joseph Sargent directed the film. A prolific film and TV director, Sargent is best known to Star Trek fans for directing “The Corbomite Maneuver,” the first regularly produced episode of Star Trek: The Original Series.

As self-proclaimed “middle-aged geek” Sebastian points out at his blog, The Night That Panicked America boasts a number of faces familiar to TV and film fans of the 1970s and 1980s—not only John Ritter (“Three’s Company”) but also Tom Bosley (“Happy Days”), Meredith Baxter (“Family Ties”), Will Geer (“The Waltons”), and even Casey Kasem (whose voice, perhaps, was more familiar than his face). Depending on your age, you may feel a fair bit of nostalgia for pop culture gone by as you watch it.

But The Night That Panicked America is certainly worth watching on its own terms. Even if Orson Welles’s broadcast didn’t panic America quite as badly as we once believed, the incident remains a fascinating—and frightening—tale about the reach and power of mass media. And this version of “the story behind the story” offers, in Nicholas Meyers’s script and Joseph Sargent’s direction, two Star Trek connections that make it all the more enjoyable to the franchise’s fans.

If nothing else, The Night Tha Panicked America suggests Meyers’s appreciation for the power of audio drama means we can expect great things from his forthcoming Khan podcast!

dark. Next. When Star Trek voices restaged the 1938 Martian invasion