Press and Pop Culture

The Twilight Zone, Mars, and Percival Lowell

The Twilight Zone episode “People are Alike All Over” opens as a rocket launches for Mars, Rod Serling’s voice intoning:

They’re taking a highway into space. Man unshackling himself and sending his tiny, groping fingers up into the unknown. Their destination is Mars. And in just a moment we’ll land there with them.

It is the Twilight Zone, so you can be sure the rocket will crash, stranding the astronauts on Mars where they will suffer some not-quite-as-it-seems experience that is meant to convey some lesson.[1] The episode was adapted from a Paul W. Fairman story, “Brothers Beyond the Void.” What caught my attention was not the literary debt, however, but was the visual reference to the canals of Mars, images made popular by Percival Lowell’s sustained efforts to study the planet.

About 30 seconds into the show we see the rocket[2] gliding toward Mars and then the scene cuts to a full-frame shot of Mars.

Highlights the image of Mars in the episode to compare it to Lowell's images of Mars.
The image of Mars in the Twilight Zone episode.

This image seems obviously inspired by Lowell’s drawings of the canals on Mars. While by no means identical (or at least, I haven’t found a drawing by Lowell that is identical) they are remarkably similar. See, for example, this drawing by Lowell:

Shows how Lowell's image of Mars resembles the image in the Twilight Zone.
One of Lowell’s many illustrations of Mars, showing the canals and oases.

Lowell was enamored with Mars and things Martian. He built his observatory in Flagstaff in order to observe Mars. He studied the planet for years, publishing three books on it: Mars, Mars and Its Canals, and Mars As the Abode of Life. These books and his other scientific/astronomical publications contained numerous drawings of the features that Lowell was convinced were canals and oases. He thought these canals transported water melting from polar icecaps to the increasingly arid portions of the planet. He was also convinced that he had observed these oases grow and shrink throughout the year. Both were evidence that intelligent beings lived on Mars.

  1. I won’t reveal the twist. If you want to know, watch the episode or read the wikipedia page linked above.  ↩

  2. The rocket that launched from the earth looks nothing like the rocket floating through space. I guess with the reduced gravity and drop in atmospheric pressure the entire ship expanded.  ↩