Flying Saucers in SF visualsIn a previous article on SF spaceship design I somewhat glossed over flying saucers. Well, I actually pretty much ignored them altogether. Why was that? For one thing, they are always saucers. They are classically flying silvery disks that have very little detail on them at all. They have a nasty tendency to look like a hubcap, a tea saucer, a shower cap, a sombrero, a coffee ring, a frisbee, a ...you get the picture. On the other hand it is true that they are a huge part of the alien imagery in much pulp fiction art and central elements in identifying aliens in films such as Independence Day, Alien Nation, and V. They were the vehicles of choice for countless invaders through the 50s and even H.G. Wells Martians were saucers with legs like a gigantic milking stool. So, on reflection, I really shouldn't chuck these things like a pie plate (pun intended).
A brief note on this article in that it is not meant to ascertain any truth to UFO reports and the sightings of flying saucers. Instead, this is just an excercise on seeing how flying saucers have been incorporated in popular depictions of SF visual arts. Of course, this cannot be divorced from what people have reported and photographed, be it factual or invented.
Pre-1947 sightingIt is interesting to note that flying saucers do appear before the 1947 sighting that resulted in the monicker. As a result it is important to note their appearance prior to this, as the "look" of these machines was perhaps solidified by the subsequent articles and stories after 1947.
Santos-Dumont Airship on left, Holland Class
A rash of "airship" sightings at the turn of the century, some of the first recorded UFO sightings, probably influenced the use of this shape as well. The cover of a December 1912 issue of Journal des Voyages shows what is either a saucer or an airship apparently gassing the hapless crew and passengers of a ship at sea.
At this early stage of flight technology (let alone spacefaring technology) there was no set look for what a flying object that could have the performance of flying to the moon should look like. This is to say that it was rather certain that it wouldn't be a contraption held together with canvas, wire, and bamboo. There was an awareness of the vacuum of space, so the appearance of steel containers much like boilers was probably natural. At the turn of the last century, space faring vehicles could be based on materials of negative weight such as the Cavorite Sphere described in Well's "First Men on the Moon," or the electro-magnetic anti-gravity steel cylinders described in "Edison Conquers Mars." As a design, these ships are hard to define. They often contain unusual elements that perhaps are meant to be part of their magical levitating properties.
cover of "Air Wonder Stories" from April 1930 shows a flying buzz saw neatly slicing through enemy bombers. The lion men in the Flash Gordon strip and serials flew ships that look and spun like tops referred to as space gyros. The martian tripods from Well's The War of the Worlds were also frequently shown as disks or drums on stilts, which while not flying, gave them a particularly "alien" feel.
The saucer of 1912's Journal Des Voyages may have been more of an airship (I couldn't find details
It is at this time that the odd properties of long chord wings were also tested out. Some of these designs were definitely somewhat saucer shaped. Featured in newsreels at the time along with gyrocopters and other experimental aircraft, they exhibited amazing short takeoff and landing capabilities. The Arup S-2 is often seen in books of unusual aircraft and some of the aircraft were used as flying billboards during the 30s. Another aircraft that pops up in UFO literature was the experimental Vought V-173; it's semi-circular planform reflected in its popular name the "flying flapjack."
1947In June of 1947. Kenneth Arnold reported seeing several "pie-plate" and scalloped "half moon" shaped objects over the Oregon skies while overflying the region. His descriptions of the objects as disk shaped appears to have resulted in press reports referring to the objects as either flying disks or flying saucers. Shortly afterwards a wave of flying saucer reports occurred and a myriad of photographs appeared purportedly showing the craft. While some of the reports were associated with experimental american or soviet designs, the assumption that these must be extra-terrestrial craft figured strongly given the incredibly high performance witnessed.
The Thing from Another World (1951), the Arctic explorers come to realize what they have stumbled onto once they line up to find the outline of the object buried under the ice. This was just one of many flying saucers to appear in movies. From extremely cheap low budget flicks to top tier films such as Forbidden Planet (1956) the saucers start to appear. They do tend to follow the same basic shape: a shallow flattened spherical shape, generally sharped edge, with a hemispherical cap on top and frequently a matching cap on bottom. The disks may spin in whole or in part, or contain a spinning lighting effect. The finish is typically smooth and silvery with hardly any surface detail at all.
With the advent of the space age, the flying saucer starts to fade from the covers of the pulps and the spaceships on screen, but not totally. Lost in Space chose the flying saucer shape over the rocketship for the Jupiter II. The USS Enterprise's shape itself contains a huge saucer shape, and a flying saucer shape was part of the early concept designs. The TV show The Invaders used a design that was reminiscent of photos of reported flying saucers including the infamous Adamski Venusian spaceship. Europe was a holdout for classic saucer shapes. The German TV show Raumpatrouille (Space Patrol, 1966) featured the Orion; a huge flying saucer carrying its own saucer shaped shuttle craft. The flying saucer shape was also central to the alien threat in U.F.O., Gerry Anderson's first live action production in 1970. This last show did start to leave behind the shimmering smooth silver disk in favor for a more detailed shape of spinning shields and clear perspex(like) shell. The short lived "Star Maidens" also from the UK featured an oval saucer/donut ship used by the female ruling class of an alien planet (curiously the male slaves escaped in a rather pointy rocketship, worthy of the SNL sketch).
In real life, the flying saucer shape was still being tried out for real flight, with little success. Various attempts to create an aircraft with vertical take off and and landing capabilities and supersonic performance did not go beyond a few small craft that only flew a few feet above the ground such as the Canadian Avrocar. The space age and mod style design did see the saucer shape showing up in commercial designs and architecture, such as the Futuro house from Finland.
The Flying Saucer LegacyAlong with the decline in flying saucer sightings, the shape has started to disappear from SF visuals in favor for more traditional rocketship shapes. They have not, however, disappeared entirely. The saucer still represents the extra-terrestrial so strongly that it has found itself in various alien invasion movies such as V (old and new), ET, Independence Day, and District 9. What does start to change with the saucer in the last 30 years is that it cannot ignore the portrayal of spaceships in film and art from the late 60s to the present. The fins and smooth finish of the previous years yields to richly detailed surfaces, covered in greeblies, painted and weathered. The addition of these detail pieces, although not part of traditional UFO photography, give the images more weight and depth, and takes away some of that hubcap on a string feeling.
Detail from the mothership from Close
The saucer in "V" (TOS), much like those in an earlier TV series Project UFO, were also filled with detail and shading effects to imply a much large scale and technological sophistication. UFOs start to become a mix of the greeblied spaceship look used in 2001:a space odyssey, and the neon floaters of Close Encounters when portrayed in films and TV (E.T., Greatest American Hero, Cocoon). A rare departure is the used of special effects for a surreal ship, such as the perfectly mirrored finishes of the mothership in Wavelength and Starman, or even Disney's non-saucer, but rather wedge shaped ship in Flight of the Navigator. The look of the alien craft in Alien (while not a saucer) also played a part as the newer saucers became darker, and more gothic such as the richly engraved ships of ID4 - a kind of evil rococo. More classic disks shapes of the 50s do still reappear, but more often for comic effect or perhaps retro homage in films as Mars Attacks and MIB.
Flying saucers continue to appear, although not at the rate during the "flying saucer" craze. When they do appear in non-comic settings their appearance is less and less definable as a "saucer" or "pie plate"
Vague saucer to the 2009
A new reference that I found while working on this article was the UFOPOP (ufopop.org), Flying saucers in popular culture web site. Besides magazine art with saucers, it also covers many books, comics, toys, tv and film, and not just saucers but alien themes in general. Film critic John Kenneth Muir also wrote a couple of brief posts on film flying saucers one at blogspot (Article 1 and Article 2). Also a new resource was found for tracking down some of the artwork in bookcovers: The Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Also for those looking for SF cover art info, check out the SF category at Cubic Muse. Watch the skies!