How do we, and more philosophically, how ought we assess the character and motives of others, particularly in the face of potential threats to our well-being? How should we interpret the actions, claims, and even appearance of others as either menacing or not?
“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up” puts eleven people in a room with the possibility that one of them arrived on an Unidentified Flying Object. The assumption, that a being from outer space is a threat, and is among them – an assumption questioned at least once in the episode – raises the question of how one might make the appropriate identification. What kind of investigation would enable them to discover which one of them is the real Martian?
Contrast the situation to that of the earthlings in “To Serve Man.” There, the alien beings arrive with full disclosure: They announce their arrival. They look like aliens. And they profess their intentions, to serve human beings. We know who the aliens are, and we think we know their intentions. In “The Real Martian” we don’t know who the aliens are, and we think we know their intentions.
Everyone in the diner is a suspect, since a human appearance is no guarantee of non-Martianhood. So everything hangs on what each individual says, how they act, their station in life, and their relationship to others. There are two couples, a drunk, two state troopers, a single woman, a single man, and the diner’s cook/proprietor.
Like “The Monsters are due on Maple Street,” here human interactions under stress are ugly. It doesn’t take much for well-established beliefs about others that support trust to be undermined. A member of long married couple almost immediately questions whether the person sitting across the table is their partner! The drunk is dismissed as a drunk, when his observations of what is going on are the most coherent and compelling of the group. The affluent male insults everyone as he sows the seeds of suspicion. Distrust must have been smoldering just under the surface, before the hint of the presence of Martians was suggested.
The capacity to distrust, however, is limited, as this episode chillingly reveals. One can’t distrust everything, at least not everything at once. If Martians were really out to manipulate and control humans, and they possess a good understanding of human psychology, and the means to exploit that understanding, we don’t stand much of a chance. We will distrust what we should trust, and trust what we should distrust.