With a title like “The Martian Chronicles,” it probably won’t surprise you to learn that sci-fi references—both intentional and not-so-intentional—abound in last night’s Supergirl. Like most good science fiction writers, the Supergirl team builds on the theories and established conventions of past authors. Let’s take a look at the works that inspired this week’s episode:
Let’s start off with the most obvious reference: a title borrowed from one of Ray Bradbury’s best-known works. Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is a classic of science fiction writing, detailing the human exploration and colonization of Mars. Told as a series of connected short stories, Bradbury uses the setting of Mars and the human desire to escape from a dying Earth to explore a lot of contemporary themes. Written in the late 1940s, Bradbury bluntly explores themes like racism, colonization, nuclear war and death, all while ruminating on what it means to be human. It’s powerful work and far from uplifting, but—without detailing any spoilers—it’s well worth a read, especially if you’re a believer in the idea that science fiction gives us a space to talk about the less savory aspects of human nature.
Are your friends and loved ones acting strangely? Are they acting a bit too much like themselves? Are they too understanding, too calm, too patient, too willing to listen to you whine about how they’ve let you down without defending themselves? Bad news, my friend: They’ve been body snatched.
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise encompasses several movies, thematic connections to multiple authors—including Robert Heinlein, whose 1951 novel The Puppet Masters provided the loose inspiration for the film version—and even a Bugs Bunny cartoon. (It’s called Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers, and it’s perfect.) All revolve around the paranoia that the people we know could one day be replaced by identical alien life forms with no discernable difference. So when M’gann, Winn, and later Alex turn out to be white Martians in disguise, those feelings of uncertainty and paranoia come straight out of the Body Snatchers bag of tricks.
Originally meant as a metaphor for communism and the Cold War—and, really, when was anything not originally meant as a metaphor for communism and the Cold War—Supergirl ups the ante on Snatchers by taking a more personal route. It’s a horrifying idea: That you could be spilling your most difficult-to-process and embarrassing feelings to a person you think is your closest friend, only to find out that the person literally isn’t who you think he is. Try hard not to think about it the next time you’re talking to your crush.
Basically, any media artifact in which a group of badasses is trapped in an isolated setting—in Supergirl’s case, we’ll count the lockdown as “isolated”—while trying to figure out who may or may not be an alien owes its dramatic tension to The Thing. Throw in a liberal use of fire as both a test and a weapon, and you have a pretty safe guess as to what movie the Supergirl writers were watching while writing last night’s episode.
The Twilight Zone had something of a crush on Mars upon its debut in 1959. When space invaders were needed or far-off planets explored, The Twilight Zone usually found itself on Mars. (Well, except that one time where they found a giant mouse on the moon. But we try not to think about that.)
It’s no surprise then that the seminal sci-fi TV series put into practice most of the space exploration tropes we see today—a list worthy of its own article, to be sure. Still, one of the best, invoked in tonight’s Supergirl, comes from the classic episode “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (Spoilers ahead. Consider yourself warned.) In it, two police officers investigate the crash of what appears to be an alien space ship, tracking the survivor to a diner where a bus full of travelers has stopped for a meal. It’s a classic paranoia plot, in which the cops try to determine which of the passengers is the alien in disguise. The plot relies on a lot of misdirection, but it’s ultimately revealed that the unassuming man in the corner was a three-armed Martian the entire time. Not content with this twist, The Twilight Zone then reveals that the kindly counter attendant (whose long-term job at the diner kept him above suspicion) is actually a three- eyed Venusian. There were two aliens all along! Luckily, in this case, neither turned out to be Supergirl’s sister.
Of all the references on this list, I’d put good money on the fact that the Supergirl team had no idea they were alluding to Melbourne and Mars while working on the white Martian plot line. Written in 1889 by Joseph Fraser, the story details the life of a sick man named Jacobs living on Earth. As his health deteriorates, Jacobs begins to have dreams of an alien world. It is eventually revealed that these dreams are a telepathic link between him and a child, his other self, living on Mars. Thanks to series like the aforementioned Martian Chronicles, we take Martian telepathy as a standard in science fiction. So much so that, were Martians to exist, I suspect we humans would start an intergalactic war with some unintentional snark about their mind reading abilities. Still, Melbourne and Mars was the first fiction to speculate on this idea, and while maybe only a handful of people consider it a must-read today, it created one of the qualities we most closely associate with (speculative) alien life forms.
Finishing off this week’s list is a classic, though it’s obviously not a work of science fiction. M’gann and J’onn’s struggle to express and come to terms with their growing love for one another has some overtones of Romeo and Juliet. Still, with its themes of war, longing and a desperate need to do the right thing, their tragic love story shares more in common with the Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman classic than any other. A reversal of gender roles adds extra punch here, with M’gann taking Rick’s attitude that sacrificing peace and love for the greater good is necessary, and J’onn arguing that they can be happy if they just agree to hide from their problems together. It’s unconsummated love, which, depending on your interpretation of Casablanca, they also share with Rick and Ilsa. Throw in Armek as an evil, less desirable, jerkface-who-needs-to-die version of Victor Laszlo and you have a feminist science fiction twist on one of the greatest films ever made.
Katherine Siegel is a Chicago-based writer and director, and a regular contributor to Paste. You can find out more by checking out her website or follow her on Twitter.