Science fiction is overrun with Martians, from monstrous invaders to shapeshifting superheroes to Santa-kidnapping buffoons. To make sense of over a century's worth of Martians, we present this grid ranking scifi Martians on their goodness and just how alien they are (click to expand).
We figure all Martians can be assessed on two basic rubrics: for their behavior, there's the good to evil axis, and for their physical appearance, there's the humanoid to monster axis. That means we put all the Martians into four basic categories, and without further ado...
Top graphic by Stephanie Fox. Click on it to expand.
Humanoid & Good
Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets by Joseph Fraser
This 1889 novel follows an Australian merchant who begins having visions of life as an infant growing up on Mars. This is revealed to be due to a telepathic link between the narrator and his "other self", who is the citizen of a technologically advanced utopia. Like many 19th century depictions of aliens, the Martians here basically function as stand-ins for what the author saw as a more perfectly evolved version of humanity, so it's hard to imagine any Martians more human or more good than these.
Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record by Percy Greg
This 1880 book is actually set fifty years earlier, when a traveler visits Mars in a spacecraft that's actually called "The Astronaut." The whole thing reads more like an ever so slightly racist recounting of the European discovery of the Americas than a journey to another planet, and the Martians aren't exactly human - they're shorter than us, though their chests are proportionately longer and wider than humans. The people have their own languages, laws, and fashion, and the Martians again come across relatively positively, even if it's mostly because they just reflect humans.
My Favorite Martian
One of the slew of bizarre sci-fi/fantasy sit-coms that were all the rage in the 1960s, My Favorite Martian follows a human-looking, benevolent Martian anthropologist who goes by the name of Uncle Martin. He is telepathic, has two retractable antennae in his head, can talk to animals, can speed people up to do work faster, and invented a time machine on multiple occasions. The show got canceled because of dwindling ratings and because CBS heard the show was planning on making Martin's precocious Martian nephew Andromeda a regular character, which probably means CBS did the world a very great service. The show also got a movie adaptation in 1999 with Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Daniels, but I think they'd both appreciate me not mentioning that any further.
Unveiling a Parallel: A Romance by Alice Ilgenfritz Jones and Ella Merchant
Another 19th century Utopian novel, this one also falls into the feminist category. The Martians are again basically just humans, and the book's male narrator visits two different societies in which gender equality has taken very different courses. In one, women have been given all the rights of men and have started acting like men - which includes voting, proposing marriage, participating in wrestling matches, and visiting male prostitutes. Somehow, the authors feel that society isn't the perfect one, as they prefer a second society where men have started acting more like women, creating a spiritually advanced society where equality "has made both sexes kind, loving, and generous." Anyway, averaging this all together, the two Martian societies are probably a bit better than us, so they're on the good side of the scale.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Finally, we reach some really legendary Martians with Ray Bradbury's 1950 magnum opus. While the Martians don't look particularly human - they have copper skin, yellow eyes, and powerful telepathic abilities - they show themselves to be more like humans than they might like to admit, and vice versa, which turns out to be a pretty crucial theme of the stories. Indeed, because Bradbury's Martians are simultaneously so human and so alien, it's difficult to really properly categorize them, though I'd say they grade out as more good than evil and certainly humanoid than monstrous. Best way to resolve this is probably just to read the book again, which is just generally a good idea anyway.
Journey to Mars by Gustavus W. Pope
This 1894 book follows a shipwrecked sailor who passes out and finds himself on Mars. Hey, we've all been there. There he finds Martians who are essentially humanoid except for their skins colors: blue, red, and yellow. Mars is threatened by a meteor bombardment, and the sailor tries to rally the people of Mars to come back with him to Earth, but he's interrupted by a revolution against the planet's feudal social structure. All things considered, they sound a lot like us, so they're moderately on the good side.
The Native Martians, Futurama
As seen in the great third season episode, "Where the Buggalo Roam," the Native Martians are a downtrodden, ridiculed people who aren't above stealing all the Martian cattle (and the daughter) of the richest jerks on Mars, and they're also perfectly willing to kill Kif when his general wimpiness messes up a crucial cultural exchange. While their dire circumstances certainly make their actions understandable, they're pretty much like everyone else on Futurama: certainly not evil, but really too selfish and slightly insane to be particularly good. At least they get a happy ending, discovering the bead that they traded their land for is actually a massive, flawless diamond, which allows them to finally become rich jerks themselves and leave that dump of a planet.
The Red Martians, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
We come to the first set of Martians from Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom series, which really took off with the 1917 publication of A Princess of Mars. One of the two major types of Martians first encountered by Civil War veteran John Carter, the Red Martians are pretty close to humans, with strong senses of honor and fairness, a society of laws and advanced technology, and loving families. That said, they're not above corruption and infighting, and it's anybody's guess how they would have turned out with some pushes in the right direction from John Carter.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
This dreary 1964 Christmas movie became one of Mystery Science Theater 3000's ten greatest episodes, as Joel and the Bots riffed mercilessly on this cloying, nonsensical tale of a bunch of Martians kidnapping Santa and a couple
kids so that they can learn the true meaning of Christmas and bring joy to the Martian children. (Also, have a Patrick Swayze Christmas.) With the exception of Voldar, the thuggish but incompetent - actually, "incompetent" pretty much describes everyone in this movie - Martian who hates Santa and the children, all the Martians are actually fairly good-natured and helpful. Though make no mistake: they're all idiots.
Monstrous & Good
J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter
DC Comics's second most famous alien superhero is a telepathic shapeshifter with super-strength, super speed, and flight whose default appearance is a tall, inhuman green alien...though he does tone things down when he's around humans. So no, he's not really all that humanoid, but it's hard to imagine anyone, Martian or otherwise, scoring higher on the goodness scale than he does, as you could make a fairly persuasive argument that he's even more virtuous than good old Superman.
Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
Lewis's 1938 sci-fi predecessor to his fantasy epic The Chronicles of Narnia doesn't really bother with the "allegory" part of religious allegory, dropping any last vestiges of subtlety and just building a fully Christian Mars. There are various barely veiled stand-ins for all the major theological figures, plus three alien races: the hrossa, who are like bipedal otters, the séroni, who are 15-feet-tall with feathers and seven-fingered hands, and the pfifltriggi, who have the heads of tapirs and the bodies of frogs. So, while none of them are even close to humanoid, they're all (literally) as good as it gets - since Mars never experienced the Fall, they are without original sin, which I'm going to go ahead and guess makes them dreadfully boring at parties.
Red Planet by Robert Heinlein
Heinlein's 1949 book, which has the much same take on Martians as in his more famous Stranger in a Strange Land, depicts the Native Martians as creatures who live out a three-stage life cycle. First they are bouncers, who have the intelligence of children but look like volleyballs. Then they become sentient, three-legged adults, and finally they die and become "old ones", existing both in the physical and spiritual realms. These Martians have the telepathic ability to make people disappear, which they lethally use to stop a scheme by Earth administrators, but considering they do this to help out the other humans and even let them stay on the planet after this betrayal, they're still more good than evil.
Marvin the Martian, Looney Tunes
The long-running Warner Bros. cartoon character is another tricky one to grade - since we really have no idea what's actually under that helmet, I'm just going to assume he's more monstrous than humanoid, though that's anyone's guess. And, while he does spend most of his time fighting Bugs Bunny and trying to destroy the Earth, he's just as likely to show up as a good-natured, befuddled astronomer who really doesn't understand what Earth is like, and more recent cross-over appearances like Space Jam are just as likely to make him one of the good guys as anything else. Besides, I figure calling him a good monster is liable to make Marvin, "very, very angry"...and hilarity is sure to ensue if I do that.
Doctor Omega by Arnould Galopin
This 1906 French novel, often called a spiritual precursor to Doctor Who, follows the mysterious title character and his two companions to Mars, where they run afoul of any number of strange Martian species. There are hostile, reptilian mermen under the Martian seas, bat-men in the air, dwarfish Martians on land with tentacle arms, as well as the planet's two civilized races, the benevolent Macrocephales, who in keeping with their name are a big-headed gnomish people, and the evil Cacocytes. So, while many of these aliens either want to kill Doctor Omega or take him prisoner - like I said, spiritual precursor to Doctor Who - most of these races turn out to be all right in the end, so they average out to the monstrous and good category.
Humanoid & Evil
"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?", The Twilight Zone
There aren't too many Martians who count as both humanoid and evil, so thank goodness for Rod Serling's legendary anthology show, which provides two of the clearest examples of this category. First, there's the Martian from this 1961 episode, who is human enough to hide in plain sight among some bus passengers at a roadside diner. The Martian ultimately arranges for the death of the passengers and some policemen to protect his identity, at which point he reveals to the diner cook his very non-Earthling third arm...but he then learns the Martian plans to set up a colony have been foiled by the cook and his people: the Venusians.
"People are Alike All Over", The Twilight Zone
Like a lot of the 19th century Utopian novels, the Martians here are almost entirely like humans. The difference, though, is that Rod Serling's script takes an altogether dimmer view of humanity, as the Martians here appear to welcome stranded astronaut Sam Conrad with open arms...before imprisoning him in a zoo enclosure simply labeled, "Earth Creature in his native habitat." Conrad ends the episode by bellowing to his lost comrade, "Marcusson! Marcusson, you were right! People are alike...people are alike everywhere!" And that, of course, is exactly the problem.
A Honeymoon in Space by George Griffith
This 1900 book is one of those where the title is basically a plot summary, as a couple's honeymoon (in space!!!) goes wrong when they arrive on Mars and encounter a race that has "civilized themselves out of everything in the way of passions and emotions, and are just purely intellectual beings, with [no] human nature." In practice, this means spraying the honeymooners with a poison mist and killing everyone who doesn't speak English, because they have decided English is the perfect language and anyone who doesn't speak it should die. They're mostly humanoid, but a bit taller than us and their bald heads are overlarge because they contain "too much brains." Honestly, I'm still trying to get over the whole English thing...that's just some awesomely psychotic writing right there.
Monstrous & Evil
The Tharks, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
And now for the second major set of aliens from the Barsoom series. More technically known as the Green Martians - the Tharks are just name of the initial horde introduced in A Princess of Mars - this race is four-armed, up to fifteen feet tall, and have eyes on the side of their heads. They're a warlike, barbaric people, with little concept of love or friendship but who take great enjoyment in inflicting pain on their enemies. There are some good Tharks - the most famous of which is John Carter's great friend Tars Tarkas - but overall the Green Martians are best avoided unless you're spoiling for a fight.
The Ice Warriors, Doctor Who
Doctor Who's fourth or fifth most famous monsters - and definitely the most famous to not yet make a return appearance in the new series - appeared in a pair of black-and-white 1960s Patrick Troughton stories and a linked pair of Jon Pertwee stories in the early 1970s, and have since popped up in a bunch of novels and audio plays. A ruthless, lizard-like race with a strong sense of honor and advanced technology, the Ice Warriors are unique among Doctor Who monsters in that they're not always the bad guys, being used as a surprisingly benevolent red herring for the real villains in one of their appearances. Still, they've far more often proven to be the Doctor's enemies than his allies, and on at least one occasion actually tried to wipe out all life on Earth. So...yeah, pretty evil, all things considered.
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
This book by the giant of pre-Golden-Age science fiction recounts the future history of a series of Martian invasions. In this case, the Martians are actually sentient clouds that can move across space between Mars and Earth. They try several times to take over Earth for their own use. In fairness, they don't have much choice, considering Mars is drying out, which can't be good for a sentient cloud. And, as Stapledon showed later on, humans would make much the same decision in their own history, leaving the dying Earth and wiping out the people of Venus. Still, that just seems to argue these humans are just as evil as the Martians were before them, and it's hard to imagine something less humanoid than a sentient cloud.
Well, the Martians in Tim Burton's 1996 alien invasion movie are certainly evil, considering they try multiple times to assassinate the president, finally succeeding while he's trying to negotiate for peace, and they destroy or deface such landmarks as Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Washington Monument, and a Great Pyramid, not to mention all of Tokyo and Hawaii. But compared to some of the other Martians in this category, the fact that they simply have big bulgy gray heads and need masks to breathe Earth's atmosphere makes them practically humanoid. We're about to see things way monstrous.
Vampires of Mars by Gustave Le Rouge
Like vampires! Nothing more monstrous than a good vampire. (Well, at least that used to be the case.) The 1908 book and its 1909 sequel, War of the Vampires, concerns an engineer who is sent to Mars by the mental energies of some Hindu brahmins. He encounters hostile, blood-sucking, bat-winged vampires, who he spends much of the book fighting before finally making his way back to Earth...except the Martian vampires have come back with him, starting an all-out war.
The Water, Doctor Who
The monsters of "The Waters of Mars", David Tennant's penultimate adventure as the Doctor, were so terrifying that even the Ice Warriors were scared of them, taking steps to trap them in the frozen ice forever. But, as the Doctor himself observes, "Water always wins," and this bizarre water-possessing entity all-but wipes out humanity's first base on Mars and gets this close to a full-scale invasion of Earth. Worse, this particular monster comes closer than perhaps any other before or since to shattering the Doctor's moral compass, prompting the soul-searching and reflection that made him finally realize it was time to turn into Matt Smith...but not before one last climactic brush with the Master and the Time Lords, of course.
Colossus and the Crab by Dennis Feltham Jones
This 1977 novel was the final entry in the Colossus Trilogy, in which two mysterious black spheres calling themselves Martians arrive on Earth and announce their plans to take half of Earth's oxygen, killing a quarter (yes, only a quarter) of the human population in the process. As it turns out, these aren't just any Martians - they're actually the end result of an eons-long devolutionary process that has collapsed all Martian life into just two forms...which we know as the moons Phobos and Deimos.
The Mysterons, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
The aliens in Gerry Anderson's 1967 Supermarionation series - which really has to be in the running for darkest and most violent children's show ever made - were an unfathomable race of probably non-corporeal entities, who interpreted a single regrettable act of aggression by humans as a declaration of war. They then began a war of nerves against Earth, killing people and destroying objects so that they could be Mysteronized, creating almost indistinguishable duplicates that could be used to carry out acts of terror and destruction. Honestly, they're just about as evil and monstrous as you get, if not for...
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
Could there really be any other choice for most evil and most monstrous? Whether you're going with the H.G. Wells, Orson Welles, or even Steven Spielberg version, these Martians are a technologically advanced race - in the original version, they're described as large tentacled creatures much like octopuses - who use a combination of heat rays, chemical weapons, and fighting robots called tripods to wipe out humanity and drink their blood without even really bothering to explain why they're doing it in the first place. Thank goodness for bacteria, is about all I can say.