Revisiting “The Martian Chronicles” TV miniseries…

Mars: Warm Fiction vs. Cold Reality. 

I have been a Mars fanatic since the age of 9, when the twin Viking spacecraft first touched down on the Red Planet in the summer of 1976.  Mars has long been a theater for humanity’s collective imagination, a strange realm largely the domain of science fiction.  Viking made Mars real.  The color images from the lander’s cameras revealed a rust-coated, rocky surface with a salmon-ochre hued sky.  Viking, and the fleet of Mariner spacecraft that preceded it, dashed a lot of early hopes for Mars. There were no visible signs of a civilization, let alone actual Martians.  Mars’ atmosphere was near-vacuum thin, and was mostly carbon-dioxide.  Nevertheless, whenever I looked at those Viking images, I half-expected to see a crashing shoreline just beyond the rocky dunes, or a seagull skimming the horizon.  Even with no visible Martians, there was the chance that life took hold on the planet during its much warmer, wetter past.  Even today, speculation is rampant over whether some kind of microbial life might be present under the surface.  The Viking microbiology experiments were designed to feed an earth nutrient ‘soup’ to potential microbial life and measure the resultant outgassing (Martian farts?).  They officially yielded ‘inconclusive’ results, neither a firm yes nor a solid negative.

Viking 1 image of the Martian surface at the landing site of Chryse Planitia.  The small trenches in the foreground were dug by the lander’s robotic arm, which took soil samples for its microbiology experiments.

At age 12 or so, I got my hands on a paperback edition of Ray Bradbury’s collection of Mars-related short stories “The Martian Chronicles” (1950), and I just ate it up.  It quickly became one of my favorite books, if for no other reason, that it allowed my imagination to freely roam a much more hospitable red planet, regardless of those pesky scientific realities.  In late 1979, there was news of a miniseries being adapted from the book (thank you, Starlog magazine!).  I was very excited by this, and wondered just how they were going to make a single narrative out of the (mostly) unrelated stories.  That job would fall to another favorite writer of mine, Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend,” “Stir of Echoes,” “The Shrinking Man” “Duel”).   I was already a fan of Matheson from his work in “The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964).

2012’s “Curiosity” rover was a nuclear powered automated SUV designed to climb mountains on the Red Planet.  Another nuclear-powered rover, “Perseverance”, is scheduled to launch to Mars in July of this year.

Matheson would take stories from the novel (including one from the longer British edition of the book, which I’d not yet read at that time), and use the character of Colonel John Wilder (played by movie star Rock Hudson) to loosely bind the stories into a cohesive narrative.  The miniseries (released in a shortened theatrical cut a few months early in Europe) was directed by Michael Anderson (“Logan’s Run”) and was filmed on locations in Malta and Spain, as well as indoor studios in England.  Producers on the project included Charles Fries (“Troop Beverly Hills”) and Milton Subotsky (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” “House That Dripped Blood” “Tales From the Crypt”).  These names didn’t exactly ooze with sci-fi cred, but director Anderson’s “Logan’s Run” was a solid hit in the sci-fi movie landscape of the mid-1970s (pre-Star Wars), and Matheson certainly knew the terrain, so all systems were go.


Part I. The Expeditions.

The miniseries would air in January of 1980 over three nights, each episode being about 97 minutes long (sans commercials, of course).  The first episode was called “The Settlers” and it featured Rock Hudson overseeing the first two Mars missions from the ground at Mission Control in Houston, before he took personal command of the third expedition.  The episode omitted a fourth expedition which preceded Wilder’s, which saw that crew locked in a Martian mental asylum before they were killed for their dangerous ‘insanity’ (that story would be adapted years later for “The Ray Bradbury Theatre” TV series).

One of the first things I noticed over the opening credits was a beautifully haunting woodwind and chorus score by Stanley Myers, which contrasted strongly with a disco-heavy electronic score by Richard Harvey.  The disco stuff is very dated, but Myers’ primary score still holds up beautifully today.   From this first chapter, I could see that the miniseries would be a curious mix of top-notch casting, gorgeous location photography (the dead Martian city outdoor set is breathtakingly beautiful), and very dated, 1970s Doctor Who-era visual effects.   This miniseries was made a few years after “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica”, but its visuals and miniature effects looked like throwbacks to children’s programming.   Luckily, the music, photography and performances would smooth over the glaringly amateurish effects work (including a Viking lander miniature that is as convincing as a Hot Wheels toy car).
After the launch of the first expedition to Mars, we cut to a pair of Martians, Mr. K (James Faulkner) and Mrs. K, aka Ylla (Maggie Wright).  The two look like David Bowie’s “Thomas Jerome Newton” (in his native state) from 1976’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth.”  This earless, hairless makeup, with golden contact lenses, gives the Martians a dignified and serene look.  Ylla’s headdress looks consistent with some of the Martian illustrations I’ve seen in various editions of the book; a combination of organic and technological…like seashells and metallurgy fused together.  Their appearance, combined with the grace and mystery of their simple yet mysterious domicile, feels more or less faithful to Bradbury, but with a wink to other influences.
Ylla’s prescient, erotic dreams about the visiting astronaut named Nathaniel York (Richard Oldfield) rouse jealousy in her husband, who puts on his ‘mask of conflict’ and fetches his weapon (a cone which releases compressed Martian bees at its victims).   Mr. K disappears over the horizon, and kills the two astronauts of the first expedition.  The irony that these ’serene’ beings could succumb to something as primal and ugly as jealousy was meant to illustrate that the Martians were as flawed as we humans.  Bradbury’s Martians were clearly metaphors for Native Americans, who are usually depicted in TV/films as being much more in synch with the natural world.  Despite their more harmonious alignment, they could still be as prone to violence and conflict as the more savage Europeans who would conquer them.   The miniseries got this chapter of the book (“Ylla”very right.
The second expedition to Mars, led by Commander Arthur Black (Nicholas Hammond, center) playing much younger than the book’s version of his character.  Black’s shipmates include David Lustig, on the right (Michael Anderson Jr, the director’s son), and Sam Hinkston (Vadim Glowna) on the left.   The men land in what appears to be a near-perfect replica of Black’s hometown of Green Bluff, Illinois, circa 1979.  The captain is met by his late brother, as well as his dead parents.  The other two men also meet dead relatives in this bizarre recreation of Green Bluff.  The Martians are using their telepathy as a defense against the invading Earthmen, using their own thoughts and fondest memories to lull them into a state of acceptance and bliss.   Once placated, the men would be poisoned and killed.  Only the thinner Martian air compromises the illusion, but the Earthmen react too late.  This adaptation of “Mars Is Heaven” is more or less true to the book, despite “Blackie” being considerably younger than the older, more melancholy skipper in Bradbury’s book.  Once again, the TV series “Ray Bradbury Theatre” (1985-1992) would remake this story with Han Linden (“Barney Miller”) playing an older incarnation of Blackie.   That said, this version of the story still works very well, and has the eeriness of a “Twilight Zone” classic.
The Martians, still under the influence of their own illusion, perform burial rites for the three ‘invaders’ of the second expedition.  Once the men are buried, the town, the trees and the grass disappear.  Even the sky reverts back to its more orange native hue.  One of my minor nits with this miniseries would be the inconsistency with Mars’ real appearance.  I suspect there was some color correction done with the film-to-DVD transfer to make the sky better match the peach coloring of Mars’ real sky.  I can’t confirm this, other than what I remember watching the miniseries at age 13.  Being a budding astronomy nerd at the time, I distinctly recall a much bluer sky in the original broadcast than I would see in the DVD years later.   Again, it’s a minor nit that doesn’t really impact the story at all.  Moving on..
One of the best stories of Bradbury’s book is brought to vivid life in “And The Moon Be Still As Bright.”  This story sees Col. Wilder (Rock Hudson) taking command of a third expedition in order to solve the mysterious disappearances of the previous two.   Wilder’s much larger crew includes Jeff Spender (Bernie Casey, left) and Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin, second from left). Spender, as he does in the book, sees humanity’s presence on Mars as contamination; a fact he later confirms after doing a thorough reconnoiter of a nearby Martian city.  The Martians are all dead, dried like autumn leaves, after a horrific reaction to human chicken pox.
Spender is angered that humanity’s presence led to the Martian’s genocide, and that anger is further roused by the drunken, disrespectful behavior of fellow shipmate Briggs (John Cassady).  In a fit of rage at the site of Briggs dumping booze in a Martian canal, Spender knocks Briggs into the water.  Col. Wilder orders both men to cool off.  Spender pleads to the Colonel for a tone of respect for the lost Martian race.  Wilder obliges, and tells Spender he’ll ignore the outburst.  The colonel promises that they will all investigate the Martian city the following morning…
One of the most memorable scenes from the miniseries, which sees the men of Col Wilder’s expedition walking through the ruins of the Martian city.  Mysterious spiked pillars, spheres, canals and steps depict a graceful, artistic, philosophical culture reminiscent of Earth’s ancient Egyptians.  The location photography in Malta gives an exotic desert feel to the location that seems both familiar and otherworldly (much like the Tunisia-for-Tatooine cinematography in the original 1977 “Star Wars”).   An elegant production design by Asheton Gorton is very consistent with the graceful, imaginary Martian cities of Bradbury’s stories.
Disgusted by Briggs’ continued boorish, disrespectful behavior, Spender runs off away from the group, promising, “I’ll be back!”   If anyone’s seen “The Terminator,” you know what usually follows those words…
Several days later, Spender returns to the base camp.  Some of the men are relieved to see him, others are incensed. Asking where the hell he’s been, Spender replies with a preternatural calm “I am the last Martian” before using his newfound Martian bee-gun weapon to kill off most of the expedition’s crew, save for Colonel Wilder and Sam Parkhill.  Bernie Casey gives one of the more memorable performances in the entire miniseries.  It’s a shame that one of the roles the late veteran actor will be associated with is 1987’s “Revenge of the Nerds.”  He was so much better than that!  Casey makes Spender’s murderous rampage against his colleagues surprisingly sympathetic, despite the horror of his actions (actions that made the character nauseous in the book).
Another great scene as Spender calls for a temporary truce with Col. Wilder, with Sam Parkhill nervously hanging back.  Spender tells his former commanding officer that he plans on greeting, befriending and then killing off any future missions that follow.  Wilder asks why, and Spender tells him of the grace, age and beauty of the Martian culture.  Spender has listened to ancient Martian music, learned their language, and has adopted their more natural, harmonious way of life.  In a moment of admiration, Spender offers Wilder a chance to join him, recognizing that the colonel isn’t like the others; that he has the capacity to learn, and to grow.  Wilder is intrigued by Spender’s offer, but ultimately has to refuse, leaving Spender no choice but to hunt down both he and Parkhill.  As a final show of respect, Spender allows Wilder a few moments to walk away, giving the older man a head start before they both do what must be done…
Spender is eventually gunned down after a cat-and-mouse game with his two surviving shipmates.  Wilder is deeply saddened that he had to kill Spender, and the colonel wonders aloud if murder of its own kind is what humanity will be bringing to Mars?   The ‘soldier gone native’ story is an old one, but “The Martian Chronicles” gives it an interesting spin by making the deserter an American astronaut who willfully kills his shipmates for his new way of life (not too unlike Kevin Costner killing his fellow Union soldiers in 1990’s “Dances With Wolves”).  Spender is not specifically written as an African-American in the book, but Casey’s casting makes the character arguably more sympathetic.   “And The Moon Be Still As Bright” was also remade for the “Ray Bradbury Theatre” TV series, with the late David Carradine (“Kung Fu” “Kill Bill”) in the Spender role, but I much prefer Casey in the part.

Part One ends on a very strong and somber note.

Part II: The Settlers.

Part II is not quite as strong as Part I, with somewhat more clumsy attempts to bridge the stories together using the character of John Wilder (Rock Hudson).  Wilder’s insertion into some of the stories feel a bit more forced, as he just happens to be (literally) driving through the unrelated narratives at just the right moments.  That said, Part II still has a few strong and worthy moments, such as the story of Catholic missionary Father Peregrine (Fritz Weaver) and “The Fire Balloons”, a story not in the original, shorter version of “The Martian Chronicles” that I read as a kid.

“The Fire Balloons” is the next chapter in the ongoing “Martian Chronicles” miniseries.  Once again, connective character Wilder (Rock Hudson) greets arriving colonists.  The transparent mattes of the distant rocketships are an example of the somewhat less-than-spectacular visual effects that characterize this otherwise interesting television miniseries.  As with the shorter American-published version of the book, “The Fire Balloons” is a chapter that was also deleted when the miniseries was condensed into a two hour movie for theatrical distribution in European markets.   That shorter version of “The Martian Chronicles” was theatrically released in late 1979, a few months ahead of the full miniseries’ NBC-TV debut in January of 1980.
Two of the newly arrived characters are Catholic missionaries, Father Peregrine (Fritz Weaver) and Father Stone (Roddy McDowell).  The priests tour the newly established sections of the Martian colony, and hear the constant din of power equipment as electrical lines and plumbing are being installed.  The priests also see ancient, precious Martian ruins being broken off and shipped back to waiting labs on Earth.  The late Jeff Spender’s worst fears are coming true, as human civilization is taking hold on the Red Planet.  After the tour of the colony’s newest sections, Wilder offers the two priests a ride back to their church, but the more adventurous Father Peregrine insists on walking, much to the irritation of Father Stone.
Predictably, the two priests are lost in the hills near the city, when they slip down a hillside and nearly fall to their deaths until they are captured and safely returned to the ground by a trio of glowing spheres (the titular ‘fire balloons’) which are the long-discorporated consciousnesses of ancient Martians.  Stone is terrified by the sight of the orbs (“Monstrous!”) while Peregrine wonders if he’s encountered a true manifestation of God.  The orbs immediately vanish, much to the relief of Stone.  Later that night, as Stone sleeps, Peregrine is revisited by the orbs, with whom he is able to communicate in English.  He offers to make them temples and worship them, but they kindly reject his offer, stating that they are temples unto themselves and are at peace.  They soon vanish, leaving Peregrine with a lot to think about as his friend Father Stone reawakens…

Other stories are woven into “The Settlers” episode, such as “The Martian”, which slightly retools its story of grieving parents who see their presumed dead son reappear on their Martian home’s doorstep one rainy night.  In this version of the story, the grieving parents are now the Lustigs (Maria Schell, Wolfgang Reichmann), the parents of young astronaut David Lustig (Michael Anderson Jr.), who was killed during the second expedition (as seen in Part I).   This David is actually a shape-shifting Martian fugitive, who seeks only to remain with one person or family, as he is overwhelmed in crowds; the memories of random strangers force him to change shapes according to their desires. “The Martian” also weaves in Father Peregrine’s story as we see him in the town church, where the hiding Martian is forced to appear as none other than Jesus Christ (Jon Finch).   The Martian-Christ’s hands are, of course, bleeding, and the desperately scared Martian is terrified of being locked into this mortally wounded form.   Wilder, once again, is conveniently on the scene, just in time to see the fleeing Martian trapped in the town’s square, where the flood of memories and involuntary shape-shifting cause him to die.  This story reinforces Bradbury’s insistence that the Martians (who had wildly differing abilities from story to story) only served whatever function the story, and reader, required of them.

We then see the return of Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin) and his wife Elma (Joyce Van Patten), who are now running a cafe off of a once-busy highway on Mars in an adaptation of “The Off Season.”  Sam, one of the original third expedition ‘heroes’, now dresses like a cowboy (complete with a silly wig) to “give the customers what they expect” when they meet the retired astronaut.  Col. Wilder stops by to check in on his old shipmate (because he’s everywhere), and leaves shortly afterward.  Elma is concerned with Wilder’s warning that a nuclear war scare back on Earth will halt the flow of new settlers to the colony.  Sam dismisses his wife’s worries, assuring her that the hotdogs will be broiling and hungry customers will be piling in soon.  As he tries to sooth his nervous wife, she is panicked by the sight of a masked Martian standing right behind her blissfully unaware husband.  Sam turns to notice the tall robed Martian, and instinctively pulls a revolver from his holster and shoots it.  The being’s now empty robes and mask fall to the floor, Obi Wan Kenobi-style.   Sam is panicked!
Elma looks out a window and sees a pair of Martian “sand ships” on the horizon (the miniature effects of which are just terrible…they wouldn’t be convincing in a child’s toy set today).  Sam tries to escape into his vehicle, but realizes he hasn’t finished repairing it (d’oh!).  He then remembers that he bought his own sand ship (at an auction of plundered Martian artifacts), as he and Elma rush out the back of their cafe to board it.   A chase ensues, with Sam and Elma trying to pilot their ancient, sail-adorned vessel over the sand dunes, ahead of their Martian pursuers.  The live-action closeups of the Martians gracefully piloting their ships are well-done, but they are intercut with miniature effects so completely awful that they undermine the poignancy of the scene with their own crudity.  I’m normally not one to get too riled up over piss-poor special effects, but if any older TV show seriously warranted a modern CGI makeover?  It’s “The Martian Chronicles”…
The Martians eventually overtake the Parkhills, as Sam and Elma meekly surrender.  Sam is prepared to die for shooting the Martian in his cafe, as the lead Martian calmly presents Sam with a deed for over half of Mars.  The Martians then depart, but not before telling the Parkhills that “Tonight is the night.”   Sam, ever the capitalist, takes the Martian’s words as a sign of booming business, but that’s not the case.  The Martian was referring to an imminent nuclear war on Earth.  At their cafe, the Parkhills look back on Earth through their telescope, just in time to see the planet reduced to a colorless husk after a bright flash.  Elma begins laughing maniacally, tears streaming down her face, as she tells Sam a ‘little secret’; “I think it’s going to be an off season.”   Joyce Van Patten gives a thoroughly unsettling performance in this final scene of Part II.

Part III: The Martians.

Once again, a few of the unrelated vignettes are somehow tied together either with the presence of Wilder, or though the voice of narrator Phil Brown (“Uncle Owen” from 1977’s “Star Wars”).  Stories from the book adapted for Part III include “The Silent Towns”, “The Long Years,” “Night Meeting” and “The Million Year Picnic.”  Whatever one’s opinion of Matheson’s success in Bradbury’s stories, you have to give him more than a little credit for managing to squeeze so many of them into three, relatively short 97-minute episodes.  “Night Meeting” being one of the best segments of the entire miniseries, and the only segment that is arguably superior to its source (Bradbury, as I’ve said previously, is one of my favorite authors of all time, so I realize that’s a bold statement on my part…).

“The Silent Towns” is one of my least-favorite stories of “The Martian Chronicles”, and possibly one of my least favorite Bradbury short stories of all time.  The protagonist, formerly named Walter Gripp, now renamed Ben Driscoll (Christopher Connelly) after another character in the book.  Driscoll himself to be the last man left on Mars.  Going through a phone book just to hear another voice, he finally connects with a live female voice named Genevieve Seltzer (Bernadette Peters, who was very popular at the time).   Feverishly, Driscoll takes off on the hours-long drive just to see her.  While Driscoll finds Seltzer undeniably beautiful, he realizes that this selfish, high-maintenance woman is essentially interviewing for a repairman who can cook.  Long story short (you can thank me later),  Driscoll decides he’d rather be alone than be with the insanely self-centered Seltzer.   Hardy har har.  One saving grace of this adaptation; at least they didn’t make Seltzer the morbidly obese character of the short story.  Fat-shaming Seltzer would be the absolute last thing this pathetic excuse for a story needs.  It also doesn’t help that Christopher Connelly plays Driscoll with all the charm of a panicked serial killer trying to explain away a headless corpse found in his freezer, while Peters is so insufferably over the top she sounds like Betty Boop after a coke binge.   Why couldn’t they have adapted “Usher II” instead of this garbage story?   Moving on…
More successful is the adaptation of “The Long Years”, which sees Barry Morse (“Space: 1999”) as a lonely tinkerer named Hathaway who uses lasers from his home observatory on Mars to signal passing spacecraft.  Hathaway succeeds in gaining the attention of Wilder (who was in the short story as well), along with Roddy McDowell’s Father Stone (who was not). Hathaway has been living with his wife Alice (Nyree Dawn Porter) and 14 year old daughter Marguerite (Madalyn Aslan), who was named after Ray Bradbury’s own beloved wife.   Wilder and Father Stone greet Hathaway, who is tremendously excited to see another human being…not quite the reaction one would expect from a man who already has a family for companionship.   Hathaway’s excitement turns lethal, as he suffers a heart attack before collapsing dead to the floor of his home.  Alice and Marguerite stare blankly at his corpse, unable to cry, since they are androids, built by Hathaway after the real Alice and Marguerite passed away, some years earlier.   The truth of Hathaway’s existence deeply saddens Wilder.  He and Father Stone decide to leave the two androids ‘on’ in their preprogrammed blissful state, after burying Hathaway near his real family.   A coda to the story sees a still-wandering Ben Driscoll walking up to the Hathaway home, introducing himself to the two smiling androids…
Interestingly, “Night Meeting” was a fairly average story from the book, retooled into one of the best segments of the miniseries, second only to “And The Moon Be Still As Bright.”  The story originally saw a young, blue-collar trucker on Mars named Tomas Gomez encountering a phantom Martian, with whom he has a brief conversation.   In Matheson’s smartly improved version, it is Wilder (of course, because he’s everywhere) who encounters the Martian after stopping his vehicle along the edge of the dead Martian city.  The Martian, well-realized by actor Terence Longdon (“Ben-Hur”) also delivers some of the best dialogue of the miniseries, most of it reworked by Richard Matheson, a hell of a novelist in his own right.
“Night Meeting” is perhaps the only segment of the miniseries that actually improves upon Bradbury’s source material.   Instead of the human-Martian conversation being more concerned with the trivialities of their existences, Matheson’s version tackles the questions one would really want to ask of such a being.  The jovial, patient Martian, believing the human being before him to be merely a figment of his own past,  answers Wilder’s burning questions about the “secret” of life on Mars–er, Teir : “Life is its own answer.  Accept it and enjoy it day by day.  Live as well as possible. Expect no more.  Destroy nothing, humble nothing, look for fault in nothing. Leave unsullied and untouched all that is beautiful.  Hold that which lives in all reverence…” 
Wilder and the Martian attempt to shake hands, but their hands pass through each other, as both exist only as phantoms.  The miniseries’ version still retains some of Bradbury’s colorful imagery about the unseen Martian carnivals, boats and women, but it’s given an added philosophical bent largely missing from the more comedic short story.  Some of the wise old Martian’s speech about living life for itself and expecting no more was originally given to a service station owner earlier in the short story, though without Matheson’s graceful rewording, of course.  The central thrust of the scene, that either being could be a past or future foreshadowing of the other, is left wholly intact.  Wilder may be the Martian’s remote ancestor, while the Martian may be an evolved future human who long ago adapted to life on Mars, entirely forgetting his ancient terrestrial origin.  The Martian ruins may, in fact, be the future remnants of the human colonists…
An adaptation of “The Million Year Picnic” begins with a somewhat shaken Wilder returning home to his wife Ruth (Gayle Hunnicutt), daughter Marie (future “Walking Dead” costar Laurie Holden) and son Timothy (an unknown, curiously British-accented lad).  The Wilder kids are despondent and need cheering up.  John decides to take them down the canal into the old Martian city for a “camping trip.”  The kids hurriedly pack their essentials and gather into the family’s speedboat, which is docked in the canal near their home.  Timmy enjoys the outing, but Marie isn’t having it.  Wilder decides to let the kids pick a place along the old city to stop, promising them that they will see real live “Martians.”  The boat stops, and the Wilders begin to unpack for their picnic.
Setting up camp within the pillars of the old city, John turns to his old rocket and hits a button on a remote control, which destroys the vessel.  Earth is dead.  Mars is their new home.  As Timmy presses his dad about wanting to “see the Martians”, John takes his family to the edge of the canal and has them gaze upon their own reflections in the water, adding, “There they are.”    They are the Martians.

The End.

Meeting Ray Bradbury, January 2004.

It was at a Planetary Society “Planetfest” event in Pasadena, California on the night of January 4th, 2004 that I met the writer whom I’d idolized since childhood, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).  Still one of my favorite authors of all time (to which I’m almost certain he’d say I need to read more, or that I have great taste).  We had a brief, but warm meet-and-greet right before the landing of the Spirit Mars rover on the Red Planet.   I’d brought along my small hardback copy of “From The Dust Returned” (2001) in the forlorn hope he might have a moment to sign it, and thanks to my fanboy tenacity, I saw to it that he did.  I just had to meet him that night.

Actor John Rhys-Davies (“Lord of the Rings” “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), author/legend Ray Bradbury and actor Robert Picardo (“Star Trek: Voyager”).  I met each of these wonderful gentlemen that night in January of 2004, but meeting Bradbury gave me serious butterflies in my stomach.  John Rhys-Davies was a very jovial guy as well, and we had a nice little talk about his work in the Indiana Jones films.

With several of us gathered around poor Bradbury’s wheelchair, he patiently and carefully signed each book or card that came his way.  When it was my turn, I instinctively reached for his hand, and to my surprise, he took it with both of his.  I told him he began my love affair with science fiction/fantasy literature, and I thanked him profusely.  He smiled and thanked me for the compliment, and I just about fainted dead away.  I don’t get starstruck terribly often, but that was one of those times where I could’ve floated home afterward.   I remember pulling out my old flip-phone later that evening and calling just about every human being I knew, telling them, “I just shook hands with Ray Bradbury!!!”  

My own pic of Bradbury signing autographs, with “Famous Monsters of Filmland” publisher Forry Ackerman (1916-2008) at his side.  “Famous Monsters of Filmland” was the first magazine I ever subscribed to as a kid.  Ackerman was also an early publisher of Bradbury’s work, before he took off.

That was one of the giddiest moments in my geeky existence.  Oh yeah, and the Spirit rover landed on Mars that night, too… 

Chronicling the Chronicles.

I very much remember watching the original miniseries in first-run broadcast back in 1980 (this was back in those primitive bygone days when you had to be in front of the TV at the time of broadcast, ads and all, or you’d miss it).  My initial impression at the time was that it left me vaguely underwhelmed.  It wasn’t nearly as good as the book, though it had fleeting moments where it seemed to capture the essence of the book.   Despite a few missed opportunities and some truly terrible FX work, “The Martian Chronicles” was not the dismal failure some critics seemed to think it was, though even Bradbury himself was reportedly not very happy with it.

The bold start time needed proclamation, since this was before VCRs (let alone DVRs) were common in American households (most VCRs went for around $1,000 a pop in those days).  Your butt had to be on the sofa, ready to watch at 9 pm, or you missed it.  Oh, and if you had to pee?  You went during the commercial break.  That’s how we rolled in 1980…

The bigger problem with “The Martian Chronicles” miniseries that I recognized then (even at 13 years old) was that the book, despite its short length, was exceedingly difficult to adapt into a singular, coherent narrative.  The stories were unrelated, and the Martians themselves differed greatly from story to story; they could be conquered tribes, comedic bureaucrats, future/past Earth beings or even glowing orbs of disembodied energy.  Whatever Bradbury’s short stories required, his Martians would fill that niche.  But how do you present all of those traits as a single, cohesive culture?   You can’t.   There was also attempts to make the stories gel by tossing in an appearance by Rock Hudson’s Colonel Wilder character, but most of those attempts felt a bit clumsy, despite Richard Matheson’s grace as a wordsmith.   Many of the stories done for “The Martian Chronicles” were later re-adapted by Bradbury himself for his own HBO/USA-Network TV series, “The Ray Bradbury Theatre” (1985-1992).

Spender and Col. Wilder wander the streets of the dead Martian city.   I’m not sure what color-correction work might’ve been done for the MGM DVD (2006), but this is a lot closer to how I remember the Martian skies looking in the original broadcast.

Looking back on the miniseries now, with a much deeper appreciation for the difficulties in adapting this particular book for television, I am a bit more forgiving of the final result.  Many of the performances are still terrific, especially those of Rock Hudson (1925-1985), Darren McGavin (1922-2006), Barry Morse (1918-2008), Joyce Van Patten and the recently deceased Bernie Casey (1939-2017).  Screenwriter Richard Matheson (1926-2013) did what he could with an admittedly unwieldy (but wonderful) book.  The main title theme by Stanley Myers (1930-1993) is melodically haunting (compelling me to purchase the soundtrack at a sci-fi convention a few years ago).   Yes, the miniature special effects work is still atrocious (especially for a nicely budgeted miniseries made post-Star Wars, post-Battlestar Galactica), but the stories work well enough, and the whole thing, warts and all, casts a certain ‘forgiveness spell’ after repeated viewings… at least for me.  Individual results can and will vary.


As usual during the current Cornavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, I try to help my viewers watch these old favorites of mine by providing their current steaming availability.   Sadly, “The Martian Chronicles” isn’t currently available for streaming on any purchasing streaming platforms with which I’m familiar.  However I have found links to the full miniseries for free viewing via YouTube .  Since I don’t know for certain if the user is sharing the series with the studio’s cooperation, I won’t offer that direct link on this site (you can, of course, type in The Martian Chronicles in the YouTube search engine, and see the results for yourself).  The miniseries, of course, is also available for mail-order, safe-distance purchase on Blu Ray or DVD via here.

To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic.  For the time being, please practice safe-distancing, wear masks in public, and avoid unnecessary outings as much as possible (remember the poor Martians with chicken pox!).

Take care!

Images: MGM/UA, NASA/JPL, Planetary Society,  author.

25 Comments Add yours

  1. I remember this fondly from it’s first showing on TV. I wonder what I would think of it now.

  2. Nick Cook says:

    Fond memories of this, I also remember Nicholas Hammond from The Amazing Spiderman and Barry Morse from Space 1999!

    1. Loved Barry Morse in Space: 1999.
      Very sad when Fred Freiberger removed Victor Bergman from the show…

      1. scifimike70 says:

        I can remember first seeing Barry Morse in Space: 1999 and as the host of Strange But True. It was in the 90s where I finally got to know him as Lt. Gerard in The Fugitive.

    2. David says:

      Wonderful and unequalled. Lovely tribute thanks. I think Stanley Myers was responsible for all the music score here as he was a very successful film composer skilled at blending diverse sounds and genres as well as lovely melodies – ref. The Deerhunter, Cavatina

      1. Thanks for the kind words, David. And having bought the soundtrack many years ago, I should’ve mentioned that (oops!).

        Thanks again!

  3. Yoyo says:

    Watching it now. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched this. It’s very entertaining; especially when there is nothing else to do. I just wished that they added the story in the book about the black man who was planning to leave earth and his racist “boss” was making up excuses to stop this and how others in his community collected money to pay off a false debt. It definitely needed to be included. I’m guessing different times ; but relevant even in today’s society. It’s a shame this wasńt included. Also, I would have have preferred that the character Bernadette Peters played was the morbidly obese one in the book. She was simply annoying. (Maybe more than the original character). I fast forward when I get to this part. All and all- still good miniseries.

    1. I agree the Bernadette Peters vignette was arguably the least effective, but I also get why they didn’t choose to make her obese, as she was in the novel; it would’ve been seen as classic fat-shaming, and no one really needs that, especially these days. I think making her annoying was probably a wiser choice.

      The black man leaving earth (“Way in the Middle of the Air”) is arguably as timely today than it was in 1950 (perhaps more so), and if there ever is a future miniseries adaptation of this book, that chapter’s inclusion is a MUST, I agree!

      Glad you’re enjoying the miniseries; it’s flawed, yes, but they still got a few things right in my opinion.

  4. Jason King says:

    Just rewatched it. Not surprised to find that I remember almost all of it. Could even remember the music, and I hadn’t heard it in decades. Fond enough of the story to overlook the poor effects. Have read the book several times in my life, might be time to read it again. Thank you for bringing this series to more people’s attention.

    1. My sincere pleasure. 🙏

  5. revpeterlaws says:

    I’m a huge fan of this admittedly flawed mini series and I agree with you on the awful miniature effects and the horrible Bernadette Peter’s story.

    Yet the series contains some haunting and magical moments, with some stunning set design, earnest acting and beautiful, complex music. I rewatched on Blu Ray this week (the picture quality was a revelation) and was once again impacted by it.

    Many thanks for your in depth review. I enjoyed reading it.

    1. I appreciate your kind words.
      Thanks for reading!

      Always nice to know that others similarly appreciate this adaptation (flaws and all) more for what it is rather than what it could’ve been.

  6. Clark Savage says:

    A wonderful review. I feel like you and I may have led parallel lives. I remember seeing the series when I was a kid, probably when it aired back in 1980. It haunted me in a good way and I finally got around to rewatching it on youtube recently, but searching for the BluRay led me to your post. Back to 1980, when I watched it with my family, my Dad was really struck by the message (perhaps as he was an immigrant) in the final episode where the family looked in the water and declared that “we are the martians now”. I had been reading a lot of Bradbury’s books around that time (I think I was the only kid at my elementary and middle schools who read Bradbury and Arthur C Clarke), I actually enjoyed the Martian Chronicles show more than the book. Since then I haven’t thought about Bradbury much for many years, life got in the way, but last year while helping to care for my Dad I latched onto a signed copy of From the Dust Returned. I got it for Dad, he loved Bradbury’s Halloween Tree and I thought he’d like this as well; when my Dad unwrapped it and saw the signature he remarked that he thought he would have liked to have met Bradbury. This book was one of the last presents I gave him before he passed away, he started reading it but never finished it. Your description of meeting Bradbury to get your book signed really touched my heart. Take care and stay safe.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful & heartfelt reply!

      I’m genuinely touched that my column helped you to, in any small way, relive such a precious and wonderful memory.

      Thanks for making my week! Safety and good health to you and your loved ones.

      1. Clark Savage says:

        Thank you too for your kind words. And I checked out some of your other blog posts about shows and one I didn’t see you mention (maybe you did and I just missed it) was the new Foundation series on Apple TV+, I wanted to recommend it to you because you seem to enjoy a lot of the same stuff I do. I have never read Asimov before, but my friend gave me one of the Foundation books a while ago and so I’ve started to read the Foundation series to coincide with the show. Anyway I loved the Foundation show (actually more than the book even), it is both very modern and also a bit retro in some cool ways,

      2. I need to get on that one, thanks! I read the first book back in middle school, but sadly, I don’t remember it well. Need to brush up!

  7. scifimike70 says:

    This brings back some fond memories of having first seen The Martian Chronicles when I was a kid, as well as the adaptations for The Ray Bradbury Theatre. The original version was one of the first times that I can remember seeing Bernie Casey. He was a good sci-fi actor, having last seen him in Star Trek DS9’s The Maquis. Thank you for this article. It’s always nice to reminisce with favorites from the earlier decades of the sci-fi universe.

  8. Tony Vaughan says:

    Having revisited the series starting last night with the first 1 1/2 episodes with my wife (we both fell asleep, not because we were bored but because we were tired!!) I just wanted to say how much I agree with your review. We have the DVD and I warned my wife of the FX and how bad they were but to me, the sets, acting and music do enough to make me forget about them. The music, in particular, is beautifully haunting, ethereal and otherworldly. Rock Hudson was a bit stilted at first but soon grows into the character and acts as a good link into the stories. The highlight for me is Fritz Weaver’s utterly believable priest and the somewhat shocking religious imagery for the time was quite controversial. Whilst some aspects of the series have not aged well (FX obviously, and Michael Anderson’s pedestrian direction the main examples) the series does retain a magical quality overall and the Martians are not just there to be conquered, they have a history and narrative of their own (North American indigenous people’s comparison is absolutely spot on). As for those sets….marvellous!!

    Thank you for your review. I will be looking at some others later.

    1. Thank you for reading, Tony! So nice to see readers who also appreciate the miniseries on its own merits.

      And I agree with you on Fritz Weaver’s performance; he’s an underrated actor whose performances I’ve enjoyed dating back to the “The Twilight Zone” (“Third From the Sun” “The Obsolete Man”).

  9. David says:

    I am sorry to leave another comment, but I had a little bit more to add. Thanks for your response and once again many thanks for the post and the beautiful stills images.
    A beautiful tribute to a wonderful adaptation – unequalled in my view. It’s a shame Ray Bradbury didn’t think highly of it due to his disposing of the copyright creating a sort of prejudiced view on his most famous work. He was however a consultant on the film and collaborated with Richard Matheson on some parts of the final screenplay. I see copies of the shooting script are available on Ebay. As for the music and soundtrack I thought Stanley Myers (The Deerhunter – Cavatina) was responsible for the whole thing! I think the driving electronic elements add greatly to certain scenes while the “disco” and “pop” elements clearly owe to Myers as they can be heard in his other numerous film scores. Myers was highly skilled at assembling different sound effects and musical genres to fit the needs of the film scene by scene. Take for example the telepathic mid-west town conjured up in Part One for the second expedition where the Captain encounters his long dead family – the parlour piano…
    On YouTube I found this animation tribute which in its own way reflects the Martians in the film as “magical” in your words.

    1. You can leave as many comments as you like, David. Feedback like yours is always appreciated and very welcome.

      Thanks for the YouTube video!
      I will watch it as soon as possible 😉

Leave a Reply