Monster of the Week: Flying Saucers

A flying saucer on the cover of Amazing Stories

Okay, so the thing about flying saucers is—

Wait.

*straightens tin foil hat*

Okay. Now I’m ready.

Flying saucers are the most iconic image that pops up when we think of alien spaceships. Space ships more generally—whether we’re talking UFOs people claim to have spotted in real life or the huge variety of science fiction designs—come in all shapes and sizes. Some are badass. Some are terrifying. Some tiny, some huge, some literally impossible to visualize because they transcend the bounds of time and space as we know it. (Time And Relative Dimension In Space, anyone?)

So it would be pretty tough to say anything that applies to all of them.

Flying saucers, though—the ones that were literally first described as pie plates floating in the sky? Those hold their own special little place in our hearts and minds.

They’re ridiculous.

Yet something about them really captures the imagination. After the first reported sighting in 1947, flying saucers exploded in popularity, at least in American pop culture.

Since then, they’ve gotten a bad rap. They’re usually played for laughs, and these days they’re more often used as a vessel of ridicule than an alien threat. Usually, writers use flying saucer references as a kind of shorthand—“Hey, isn’t that ridiculous? This character’s nuts/quirky/actually an alien, wink wink!”

So flying saucers are rarely scary. Why?

Well… it’s pretty hard for a flying pie plate to look menacing.

And that’s the thing—that’s why they work so well as a comedic device. The concept is inherently absurd. It’s a floating piece of dishware. Think of all the hype we’ve built up around the question of whether life exists anywhere else in the universe. The excitement! The fear! The inherent call to reevaluate everything we know about who we are and what it even means to be alive!

It would be tough for any kind of intelligent life to live up to that hype. I mean, what’s the last alien movie you watched? Whether they come in peace or to serve man, they had better roll out the red carpet.

The last thing you’d expect to see them ride in on is something that your grandmother keeps in the cupboard.

Contradictions are funny. It’s a kind of tension—and the tension this cognitive dissonance creates can be played for drama or horror, as well. It’s a matter of tone. A real master of horror could take this same idea and make us all afraid of what’s in our cupboards.

Another thing that makes flying saucers good fodder for comedy is that we’ve all already heard of them. That huge popularity explosion back in the 50s? It means that flying saucers have been DONE TO DEATH. They’ve become what TV Tropes calls a dead horse trope. It’s been played out so many times that when we see it again, our gut reaction is to roll our eyes and go, “Yeah, this ridiculous thing.” We’re already making fun of it in our heads before the writers even have to do anything. Everybody loves poking fun at a cliche.

Let’s give flying saucers a little credit, though. There’s no denying how much they’ve influenced the visual landscape of science fiction. Or, er, spacescape. Look at the USS Enterprise and Millennium Falcon, even—don’t try telling me their suspiciously disc-like shape is an accident, you sheeple.

*waves a tin foil hat at you*

So what are your favorite flying saucers in pop culture? Throw down some fun, comic references—or even places where they’re played straight!—in the comments.

Prompt: One of the most delightful things about flying saucers is the way they completely ignore the laws of physics. But if you were really an alien engineer who could ignore physics, you would probably come up with something a lot more interesting than a disc. SO DO IT.

One Comment

  • Beth Reply

    Love the tin foil hat! Can it double as a “conclusion hat”? And, perhaps you should market them before the next alien invasion hits…? Are flying saucers like killer tomatoes?

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