Martians and Simpsons

Martians and Simpsons: An Analysis of Past and Present Criticisms of Authority The advent of new technology has been a source of trepidation throughout history. Just as with any change, fear is often the pervasive response to new technology and developments, especially amongst those who do not fully comprehend the changes. It seems, however, that people ignorant of the true meaning and extent of technology are the most likely to place unwarranted faith in its abilities. Technology becomes an authority—one that is difficult to question or rebel against. After advances become accepted, complacency sets in, reducing the general public’s vigilance against dangers to society in any form. This lack of vigilance, due to an unwarranted faith in authority, is depicted and questioned in H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Published in 1898, the message of Wells’s work remains relevant, even in the present day. Criticisms of an unwarranted faith in authority manifest themselves in modern culture in multiple media. The Simpsons, a half-hour animated television program, represents such a manifestation. The episode entitled “Bart’s Comet,” first aired on February 5, 1995, criticizes a blind allegiance to authority in any form by humorously detailing Springfield’s response to an approaching comet, which threatens to destroy everyone in the town. The episode parallels Wells’s chronicle of the Martian invasion in its depiction of authority. Unwarranted faith finds an unfortunate place in government, religion, and science in both accounts of impending disaster. In themselves, these three fundamental elements of society do not receive criticism. The misguided trust people sometimes place in these institutions, relying on them as unquestioned and unquestionable authorities, receives the brunt of the censure in both works. The townspeople themselves receive their fair share of reproach as well. In both works, the people criticized include not only the general middle- to upper-class communities, but also those responsible for the criticizing. In The War of Worlds, the government plays a silent role that finds its reflection in the attitudes of the townspeople upon the first arrival of the Martian cylinder. Here, the ignorance of the public manifests itself in the cavalier attitudes of the people toward the potential threat. In the opening lines of the novel, the public’s demeanor becomes evident: “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (Wells 3). During the height of the British government’s domination of the world, through the spread of its colonies and economic power, Wells’s description of the people’s security in their empire over matter, over reality itself, seems most fitting. Their blindness to the impending threat stems from their nation’s security and success throughout the world. The narrator comments that, in retrospect, it seemed “incredibly wonderful that, with that swift fate hanging over us, men could go about their petty concerns as they did” (Wells 9). In fairness, however, he continues by describing his own petty concerns at the time: “I was much occupied learning to ride the bicycle, and busy upon a series of papers discussing the probable developments of moral ideas as civilization progressed” (Wells 9). Civilization’s progress, not its survival, remained the focus in people’s minds. Unwarranted faith in the government is further reflected in the people’s confidence in their military superiority over the Martians. Despite the fact that the Martians have successfully traversed the vast distance from their home to earth, trust in the military endures. “The idea people seemed to have here was that the Martians were simply formidable human beings, who might attack and sack the town, to be certainly destroyed in the end” (Wells 67). The narrator himself is guilty of this over-estimation: “‘A shell in the pit,’ said I, ‘if the worst comes to the worst, will kill them all’” (Wells 32). The narrator later echoes this same sentiment when, in hoping to realize a childhood, heroic fantasy, he notes that he would like to be involved in the death of the invaders. His faith in human superiority extends beyond the military and includes himself, a moral philosopher, as one who could defeat the Martians. His estimation of his own strength and abilities seems ludicrous—he cannot even claim the benefit of military training. The same ill-fated trust in government reveals itself in a humorous description of both elected officials and townspeople in The Simpsons. As the comet approaches Springfield, the mayor speaks to the community in a town meeting. Here, the public reacts like mindless drones to its elected official, responding to the mayor and his position of authority, rather than to the content of his speech: QUIMBY [mayor]. Fellow citizens, when I learned about the impending crisis, I caught the very next plane to Springfeld...field. {everyone claps politely} First of all, yes, there is a comet in the sky, and yes, it is going to hit Springfield. {a couple of people clap} You don’t need to applaud that. (Swartzwelder 12) Despite the mayor’s obvious incompetence, the townspeople offer no criticism of his absence from the city until the threat of disaster, nor do they notice his mistake in pronouncing the name of his own town. They merely look to the mayor for a resolution to their crisis. An explanation of a plan to destroy the comet, given by a prominent scientist, quickly assuages the fears of the community, and their derisive laughter at the comet and its feebleness serves as a testament to their foolish trust. This blind faith finds its expression in the comments of Homer Simpson, in a conversation with his worried daughter, Lisa: HOMER. Will you stop worrying about that stupid comet? It’s going to be destroyed. Didn’t you hear what that guy [the mayor] in the building said? LISA. But Dad, don’t you think— HOMER. Uh, Lisa, the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time. Just like that rainforest scare a few years back: our officials saw there was a problem and they fixed it, didn’t they? LISA. No, Dad, I don’t think— HOMER. There’s that word again. (Swartzwelder 13) Just as Wells’s narrator trusts in his military’s might, so too do the townspeople of Springfield, depending on the plan previously discussed in the town meeting, which involves the use of a missile to intercept and destroy the comet. This criticism of an unthinking populace differs slightly from Wells’s focus in The War of the Worlds. While The Simpsons presents a censure of a witless populace that overly relies upon the guidance of authority instead of their own intellects, Wells includes the dimension of emotion to his criticism of the British. Their absence of sympathy for or empathy with those who have found themselves under the rule of the British Empire receives subtle but apt rebuke in the body-type of the Martians: they have evolved into creatures comprised of a great brain, but no heart or other organs. The lack of a heart symbolizes the cruel and emotionless beings the British may become in their continued ignorance of the plight their Empire engenders. While an unwarranted faith in government manifests itself among those responsible for its institution, a criticism of religious authority comes in the form of shattered and shaken clergy. In The War of the Worlds, the narrator encounters a curate after the devastation has already begun. In the curate, the narrator finds no solace. The curate maintains that God looses the Martian invasion upon a sinful earth as punishment: “‘This must be the beginning of the end,’ he said, interrupting me. ‘The end! The great and terrible day of the Lord! When men shall call upon the mountains and the rocks to fall upon them and to hide them—hide them from the face of Him that sitteth upon the throne!’” (Wells 78). For the curate, belief in God does not provide him with hope. Rather, God serves as the source of the destruction he sees about him. The narrator chastises the curate and his hysteria by asking, “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?” (Wells 78). Wells reproaches blind faith in religious figures by showing how one curate’s own thoughtless faith in his religion drives him to eventual madness. His immature understanding of that which he preaches leads him to despair. “Bart’s Comet” offers a similar glimpse into the mind of a shaken clergyman. After the missile’s failure to destroy the comet, an encounter with Reverend Lovejoy illustrates his despair: HOMER. It’s times like this I wish I were a religious man. LOVEJOY. {running down the street} It’s all over, people! We don’t have a prayer…. (Swartzwelder 14) Lovejoy’s loss of faith serves as a reminder that weak or false faith offers little solace. His comments betray a fundamental despair, as he believes that not even prayer, and therefore, God can save the townspeople. Thus, both Wells and The Simpsons reproach an unwarranted faith in religion by showing the folly of those who should display the deepest and truest faith—the clergy. While religious criticism finds its place in small episodes, the criticism of an unfounded trust in science pervades both works. In The War of the Worlds, Wells involves the scientific community very early in the development of his novel. They provide false assurance to the people from the very onset of the flashes on the surface of Mars perceived by telescope. Ogilvy, an astronomer who witnesses the fist few flashes, “scoffed at the vulgar idea of its having inhabitants who were signaling us” (Wells 8). This attitude toward the Martian’s inferiority remains with the people until the Martians begin destroying the surroundings with their mechanized bodies. One of Wells’s masterful ironies involves the fact that the very people who would serve as food for the invaders try desperately to release the Martians from their capsule. Led by Stent, the Astronomer Royal, those who would first fall victim to the heat-ray struggle to aid the apparently helpless Martians. The narrator later mocks the underestimation of Martian potency when he recounts their response to human attempts at communication: “The Martians took as much notice of such advances as we should of the lowing of a cow” (Wells 43). The most convincing criticism of unwarranted faith in science comes on the heels of the narrator’s evaluation of the effects of gravity on the Martians. After seeing the sluggish Martians, he comments that the increased gravity of the earth would make their attempts to move about futile. Employing the clarity of hindsight, however, the narrator notes that had he truly understood the relevant scientific facts, he would have realized that such a claim was unfounded. The increased oxygen level on earth invigorated the Martians, and their demonstrated ability in space travel should have alerted the populace to “the fact that such mechanical intelligence that the Martian possessed was quite able to dispense with muscular exertion at a pinch” (Wells 34). A true understanding of science would have provided a warning of the danger that the Martians embody. Instead, a cursory comprehension provides enough false security to allow the Martians to establish themselves. This same lack of true understanding leads to a unthinking confidence in the knowledge and ability of the scientific community in “Bart’s Comet.” Scientific leaders working with the military are responsible for the safety of the town: QUIMBY. Fortunately, we have a plan: Professor Frink? FRINK. Nn-hey, good evening, ladies and— MAN. {hysterical} Quit stalling! What’s the plan? FRINK. All right, just take your seat, just take your seat. Now, working with former Carter Administration officials and military men who were forced into early retirement for various reasons which we won’t go into here, nn-hey, we have planned this defense of the city: as the comet hurtles towards the city, our rocket will intercept it and blow it to smithereens. (Swartzwelder 13) The man’s premature interruption and evident desperation clearly depict the public’s willingness to accept any assurance of their safety in the face of this celestial threat. Despite the questionable credentials of the scientific elite, the townsfolk are pacified and calmly go about their daily business until the missile fails in its mission. Just as Wells masterfully uses irony to convey his criticism, The Simpsons utilizes the same device, as the townspeople search for shelter against the imminent destruction. Because of the townspeople’s faith in the missile and in the scientific community’s plan, no one takes any precautions against its possible failure. Only one family in town displays forethought by building a bomb shelter. After the missile falls short of the comet, the entire town wants a space in the shelter. Since not all of the town can fit, they decide to abandon the shelter entirely and to face the comet and impending death. The irony of the comet’s landing shows the folly and lack of understanding of both the townspeople and the scientific community: The comet speeds towards Springfield, through the polluted atmosphere. Chunks of it start to fly off.…The rapidly diminishing-in-size comet…places a direct hit on Ned’s bomb shelter—destroying it in a pile of masonry. (Swartzwelder 17) The shelter’s destruction shows the folly of the people’s unwarranted faith in science. Not only does science fail to destroy the comet, but it would have also failed to protect them from its impact. While both works demonstrate the folly of the public in the face of danger, through a depiction of blind faith in authority, they also depict the continuing pettiness of the populace in the midst of disaster. This pettiness provides further evidence to support the notion that few individuals truly understand the magnitude of the threat to their well-being. Wells describes a scene in which an old man cannot be convinced to flee without his flower pots. The elderly fellow defends his reluctance to adhere to the corporal’s instructions: “‘I was explainin’ these is vallyble’” (Wells 65). The narrator has the clarity of thought to reprimand the man, explaining that the Martians bring with them death. Material possessions continue to serve as a focal concern to the townspeople as they flee. If they truly grasped their predicament, only their safety and that of their families would be important. As the townspeople in “Bart’s Comet” huddle in the supposed safety of the bomb shelter, they engage in a bickering which betrays their feeble grasp of the gravity of their situation: MOE. Hey, uh, I got an idea: we can play a game to pass the time. Er, I’ll make the sound of a barnyard animal, and, er, you all try to guess what it is. Ahem: {makes some unidentifiable noise} WIGGUM. It’s a pig! BART. It’s a cow, man. LISA. It’s a pony. KRUSTY. No, it’s a goat. You know, one of them lady goats.… {everyone starts arguing} MARGE. Stop it! Stop it! Can’t you see this barnyard noise guessing game is tearing us apart? (Swartzwelder 17) Marge’s interruption attempts to illuminate the magnitude of the situation through the obscurity of the petty argument: they bicker over a game, while their very lives remain in danger. Both The Simpsons and The War of the Worlds include a criticism of the middle- and upper-classes and their complacency in the face of danger, but the censure is not reserved for them alone; the authors of the critique include themselves, as well. This self-criticism finds form in Wells’s narrator’s game of cards with the artilleryman during the destruction of London: “Strange mind of man! that, with our species upon the edge of extermination or appalling degradation, with no clear prospect before us but the chance of a horrible death, we could sit following the chance of this painted pasteboard, and playing the ‘joker’ with vivid delight” (Wells 183). In Swartzwelder’s text, intellectuals do not escape reprimand either. The writer’s of The Simpsons, graduates of elite universities, recognize that they themselves constitute the class of individuals that include the scientist that concocts the failed plan to destroy the comet, and the politicians that implement this plan. In both works, the self-criticism adds to the credibility of the authors because it does not alienate them from those they criticize; they too prove to be susceptible to the errors they describe. When Wells published The War of the Worlds in 1898, it served as a tool to teach his contemporaries about the dangers of imperialism and its inherent immorality. The novel also functioned as a forum for the criticism of an unwarranted faith in authority. Authority, in the forms of government, religion, and science, fails to educate and prepare the public for the coming Martian invasion. An overestimation of this infallibility leads to an underestimation of the Martians. Many lose their lives because of this naiveté. The Simpsons also provides a forum for criticism and commentary. Through a humorous depiction of the town of Springfield, John Swartzwelder echoes Wells’s metaphor for the reaction of humankind to its impending destruction: So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. “We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.” (Wells 35) One hundred years after Wells’s criticism, it again finds voice in “Bart’s Comet.” A Victorian controversy remains relevant in the modern day. Works Cited Swartzwelder, John. “Bart’s Comet.” Comp. James A. Cherry. The Simpsons Archive. 1997. . Wells, H. G.. The War of the Worlds. New York: Penguin Group, 1986.