Merely a big workshop

Nicholas Webster seems to have been good at his job. He directed the classic football documentary The Violent World of Sam Huff. He directed the Johnny Cash special Ridin' the Rails. He directed episodes of Mannix, The Waltons, Bonanza, and Get Smart (the delightfully named "I am Curiously Yellow"). He helmed the non-musical adaption of Ossie Davis's play Purlie Victorious, featuring Ruby Dee and a young Alan Alda, and a modest little crime drama called Dead to the World, which seems to be mostly notable for a Charlie Byrd soundtrack. There doesn't seem to be any particular reason he would have directed a legendary atrocity committed upon the movie-going public; it may be that making workmanlike directors into the butt of punchlines is just part of the magic of Christmas.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is not the worst Christmas movie ever made. The MST3K presentation of SCCtM propelled it into the public eye, but a genre which has provided Christmas Evil, Magic Christmas Tree, Santa's Slay, and Santa Visits the Magic Land of Mother Goose — not to mention these or these — is surely too wide-ranging to give us only one worst movie (although the connoisseur's choice must be Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny). But SCCtM is surely the most surprising entrant on the list. A kids' movie directed by nudie cutie auteur Barry Mahon or grindhouse wizard-of-gore Herschell Gordon Lewis is going to be a weird proposition, but nothing before or since in Webster's filmography (or, for that matter, child star and musical number chanteuse Pia Zadora's) suggested that they were going to create something jaw-droppingly strange, the weirdest offshoot yet of a patriotic expirement from 1871.

General George Tomkyns Chesney, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, Companion of the Order of the Star of India, was a pillar of the British establishment. A military engineer, he founded the Royal Indian Engineering College, better known as Cooper's Hill (more renowned as for its rugby than its contributions to British colonial engineering). His book on the Indian civil service was used as a textbook. He served as a Conservative member of Parliament from an Oxford riding. But his most lasting contribution to world affairs may have been a short novel he published anonymously. The Battle of Dorking ran in Blackwood's in 1871. Like Burdick and Lederer's The Ugly American, Dorking was meant to make a serious political point: England's army was dangerously undertrained compared to the looming Prussian myrmidons. Like The Ugly American, it also proved a huge commercial success. But unlike The Ugly American, it spawned imitators.

Soon anyone with an axe to grind about British military policy was cranking out tidings of an all-too-possible future. Dorking had ended with England subjugated; why not a novel in which England triumphs at the last? And so William Le Queuex wrote The Great War in England in 1897 (published in 1894, making it speculative fiction). Like the Tom Clancys of today, most invasion novels were primarily concerned with the technology of armaments and particular political hobbyhorses. Why not a novel by a respectable British novelist about what the upper levels of British society might be like under the Kaiser's fist? And so Saki wrote When William Came, in which the gentry and aristocracy prove less worthy of English manhood than Baden-Powell's Scouts. Germany was a natural ally of the English, but why not a novel about the perfidy of the French? The Great War in England in 1897 again. What about the threat of Asiatic hordes? Australian Kenneth Mackay's The Yellow Wave or the anonymously-penned The Back Door, in which Russian and French forces team up to conquer Hong Kong. Thirty years after Dorking's release, the genre remained vibrant enough for P.G. Wodehouse to satirize it in The Swoop.

The genre proved enormously flexible. As George Bernard Shaw noted, "Change the words Britain and British to Germany and German, and the Kaiser will sign the article with enthusiasm. His opinion, his attitude (subject to that merely verbal change) word for word." There was Shunrō Oshikawa's Kaitō Bōken Kidan, in which the Russians develop a unstoppable advanced submarine, Hugh Donnelly's The Stricken Nation, in which America is invaded by Great Britain, and young adult novelist H. Irving Hancock's Uncle Sam's Boys in the Invasion of the United States, in which the titular boys, part of a series of books about idealized life in the Army, fight off an invasion by Germany. Most amazingly, Le Queuex's enormous bestseller The Invasion of 1910 was pirated in a German edition. Unlike the producers of King Kong vs. Godzilla, the German authors adjusted the plot to cater to their audience; a happy ending was provided by the simple trick of lopping off the final chapter, in which Britain throws off the yoke of Hun tyranny. (The Swoop! plays no favorites; Plum Wodehouse's England is under siege from the Russians, the Germans, the Swiss, the Somalis, and the army of Monaco.)

Invasion literature survives today, in remarkably unaltered form. Tomkyns Chesney would recognize his work in all the Wolverines and Amerikans and Marsdenian vengeance seekers that still pop up during times of national paranoia. But just as the genre spanned nations, it spanned genres. Tamp down the hectoring foreign policy lessons and set it immediately before the invasion, and you had the rudiments of the modern espionage thriller. Le Queux's work (and Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands, in which British amateurs discover a German armada preparing for naval invasion) are thus precursors to Bond and Smiley. Replace the Kaiser with a charismatic Romanian nobleman out to poison British womanhood instead of simply widowmaking, ladle on a hefty dose of the Gothic and anti-Catholic, and you have Dracula. And if you make all of Earth the victims, you have invasion literature's most lasting legacy: the alien invasion. Edgar Rice Burroughs simply replaced the antagonists of his Bolshevik invasion novel Under the Red Flag with the Moon Men. And H.G. Wells changed science fiction forever, describing startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times, as Martian forces swept armies aside like so many toy soldiers. Earth has been invaded by aliens seeking our real estate, our women, our water. They've defeated us with heat rays and poison gas and ghosts. They want us for foot soldiers and followers and food. Sometimes they live among us and sometimes they claim to come in peace, but we must be ready, whether they're coming for our oil, our souls, or our Santa.

There's nothing quite as fun to watch as a rousing, morally unambiguous smashup, and what narrative provides it better than an invasion of a nation peacefully minding its own business? Further, the appeal of blaming people too ignorant or indolent to recognize the gathering threat is evergreen, no matter how risible. Maybe we're just wired for playing war, and nobody really wants to admit that they're the bad guy. As Saki noted elsewhere and to more comic effect, "The experiment has failed. We have begun too late." As long as there are boys, there will always be room for war games. And perhaps for that we should point to an invader who visits us every December, an enemy we are powerless to resist.