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.
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).
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 CharlesFries (“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).
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.
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.
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…).
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.
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!!!”
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 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).
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 Chroniclesin 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 Amazon.comhere.
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!).