‘The Martian Chronicles’ is a television mini-series based on Ray Bradbury‘s collection of short stories of the same name. It concerns the exploration of Mars, its inhabitants, settlers and largely acts a fable that parallels aspects of the colonisation of North America by European settlers.
It was directed by Michael Anderson, written by Richard Matheson, produced by Milton Subotsky and Andrew Donally and starred Rock Hudson, Darren McGavin, Bernadette Peters, Roddy McDowall, Fritz Weaver, Barry Morse, and Maria Schell.
An American-Anglo production, it initially aired on NBC from 27th-20th of January 1980, and was shown on the BBC as late night airings, shortly thereafter. It consists of three episodes with a total running time of approximately four to five hours (depending upon version). The series was quite divisive at the time of airing and remains so, some appreciating its attempt to convey the complexity of the underlying stories, but also commenting on the production values that were marred by often sub-par special effects, some of the acting and the wide liberties taken with the original story-lines; indeed Ray Bradbury was himself one of the series greatest critics.
The series weaves aspects of Bradbury’s stories together, mainly centred around the Col. Wilder (Rock Hudson) character, but deviates from the original works in many ways. It depicts Mars as having a ‘thin atmosphere’ in which humans can breathe with water-filled canals and desert-like vegetation. The landscapes and some of the costume work is fantastic, but some of the models of space craft etc., leave a lot to be desired, particularly from a contemporary standpoint.
Before watching the TV mini-series, I would suggest reading Bradbury’s original collection of underlying short stories.. ..it really helps to fill in some of the missing fragments that the series simply couldn’t hope to cover, notably ‘There Will Come Soft Rains‘.
I first watched ‘The Martian Chronicles’ during its initial late night run on the BBC in 1980, when I was c. 10 years old. In the UK it was split over a three week period, with an episode being shown each a week.. ..I could hardly wait until the following week and time for the next episode. Due to its late showing I watched this with my Dad, who also seemed to really enjoy it. As it was on so late and married with my [then] tender age, I was the only person out of all my peers who watched it. I distinctly remember asking friends at school about it and no one had seen it; trying to explain it often left me feeling a little weird, as it was so hard to explain (particularly for a 10 year old).
However, somewhat like the ‘Hammer House of Horrors’ TV series, it left a big impression on me and I can still remember some of the scenes and costumes clearly, particularly the alien masks, some forty years later. In the intervening years I have asked scores of people to see if anyone else remembered the series and not one person said they had.. ..you start to wonder if it is simply the product of your own fertile imagination, particularly as the series had a uniquely ‘dreamy’ quality. Over the years, I have even occasionally asked my Dad about the series and he usually said something along the lines of “I think I remember it?”, which isn’t exactly reassuring. I have also never seen it ‘rerun’ in the UK either.
As such, you can imagine my utter surprise and delight when in 2004 and working in the US, I happened to pop into a Virgin Megastore in Ontario Mills and there staring back at me from a large display unit was the newly released ‘The Martian Chronicles’ on DVD!
That mask that used to scare me witless.. ..I hadn’t been imagining it for all those years, it was tangibly real and right in front of me! I finally had a chance to watch the episodes again and rushed to the till without pausing for breath. I also remember phoning my Dad later that week and when I recanted this story to back to him, his response was simply.. ..”Oh yeah, that strange one with Rock Hudson”!
I am not the only person to have had such an experience, there are similar comments from others of my age on review pages of Amazon etc. I think the main reasons for this are, it was shown very late, during a working week and there have been very few (if any) re-runs on British terrestrial TV. As such, only a small group in the UK are even aware the series exists.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
Episode 1 – ‘The Expeditions’ – The series starts with the scene of a Viking 1 unmanned landing probe touching down on the surface of the planet Mars in July, 1976. There is a documentary style narration throughout the series and an explanation is given stating that the purpose of the probe is to determine whether Mars is inhabited, or not. As the narrator continues we become aware that there are opposing viewpoints at NASA, with one group of scientists believing Mars is uninhabited, the other open to the possibility of discovering indigenous life. Each group has convincing theories, but upon landing the probe finds a barren and desolate plain, with no signs of life. However, as the scene ends, the camera pans back to show a larger view of the surrounding area, which appears to show Martian structures in the back ground, with the narrator lamenting that, “If the probe had landed just a few miles further on, things might have been different.” We then see the opening credits, which show more of the Martian landscapes.
We then move to January 1999 when the first ‘Zeus I’ manned spacecraft to Mars is carried into orbit by a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center. The Zeus project represents the beginning of a major effort by NASA and NATO to explore and eventually colonise the outer planets.
On Mars, living in a house of crystal pillars, on the edge of an empty sea are ‘Mr K’ (James Faulkner) and his beautiful wife ‘Ylla’ (Maggie Wright), they are Martians trapped in an unromantic marriage. Whilst ‘Mr K’ listens to his book, ‘Ylla’ dreams of the coming astronauts through telepathy. Although ‘Mr K’ pretends to deny the reality of ‘Ylla’s dreams, he becomes increasing jealous, sensing his wife’s inchoate romantic feelings for Nathanial York (Richard Oldfield), one of the astronauts. As the spaceship is approaching, he takes a weapon, dons the ‘mask of conflict’ and walks to the nearby ‘Green Valley’, where the ship is landing. He kills the two-man expedition, astronauts York and [Bert] Conover. NASA remains ignorant as to the fate of the crew.
Back on Earth, one of the senior astronauts, Jeff Spender (Bernie Casey) urges the project director Col. John Wilder to abandon the Zeus project. He is convinced that Mars is already populated and has an intelligent, indigenous life form, which should not be interfered with. Wilder, who has been working on the project for ten years refuses to give up his dream of colonising Mars; he believes it may be the only way that mankind might escape environmental pollution and/or war on Earth.
A second mission is launched in April 2000 and the ‘Zeus II’ crew heads towards Mars. However, as the Martian dust clears after landing, it seems they are back on Earth and one of the astronauts, Arthur Black (Nicholas Hammond), recognises their location as Green Bluff, Illinois c. 1979; his birthplace. Subsequently, Black and his fellow astronauts, Sam Hinkston (Vadim Glowna) and David Lustig (Michael Anderson Jr.), are warmly greeted by close relatives and loved ones who all died several years ago. In reality, the Martians are using some form of telepathy as well as the astronaut’s own memories to lure them to their old homes, where they are killed in the middle of the night. After conducting a funeral service for the three astronauts, the Martians go back to their own homes and as their implanted human memories fade we see the image of Green Bluff also fading to show a barren Martian landscape.
A third mission, ‘Zeus III’, lands on Mars in June 2001, this time being commanded by Col. Wilder himself, with five other astronauts.. ..the aforementioned Spender, Parkhill (Darren McGavin), Briggs (John Cassady), Cook and McClure (Peter Marinker). The crew quickly discovers five ancient Martian cities in the vicinity of the spacecraft, one of which seems to have been very recently abandoned. The scientists subsequently discover that all of the Martians have died of chickenpox accidentally brought from Earth by the previous Zeus missions. The astronauts, with the exception of the archaeologist Spender and Col. Wilder, become increasingly boisterous, having little respect for the Martians demise or their culture. Spender loses his temper when a drunken Briggs starts throwing empty wine bottles into a clear blue canal, knocking him in. He then leaves the rest of the party to explore the Martian ruins and lives alone in the hills learning about Martian culture. Spender had always questioned the ethics of the mission and returns with a Martian weapon declaring “I’m the last Martian”. He proceeds to kills everyone except Parkhill and Wilder to avenge the destroyed Martian civilisation. Spender then attempts to get Col. Wilder to understand and appreciate the Martian way of life and end further missions to Mars.
Realising that this is a lost cause they leave each other and at dusk Wilder and Parkhill go to find Spender, intending to kill him. However, they spot a lone Martian sitting amongst the ruins and a shoot-out ensues, Wilder shooting the Martian in the chest. Upon removing his mask the Martian is revealed to be Spender. The narrator concludes that only then did Wilder begin to understand.. ..men will indeed come to Mars, with their own ideas, fears and plans and then what would happen to Mars?
Episode 2 – ‘The Settlers’ – Col. Wilder returns to the Red Planet in February 2004 with an entire fleet of spaceships, having been appointed director of the American colonisation of Mars. Within six months, a dozen communities are established, named after the ‘Zeus’ mission astronauts; ‘York Plain’, ‘Blackville’, ‘Wilder Mountain’, ‘Spender Hill’, ‘Briggs Canal’ (which Briggs was seen drunkenly naming himself in the first episode) and ‘Lustig Creek’. The colonies grow rapidly over the next two years with varying amounts of success, as the colonists bring all of the vices of Earth (greed, corruption and bureaucracy) with them, just as Spender had predicted.
In September 2006, the Martian colonists start to encounter strange phenomena. David Lustig, presumed dead six years ago with the rest of Earth’s second expedition to Mars, returns to his parents in ‘Lustig Creek’. Somewhat peculiarly, he expresses an intense aversion to visiting ‘First Town’, the main colony on Mars. When forced to visit by his parents anyway, he suddenly goes missing. At the same time, a couple of missionaries, Father Peregrine (Fritz Weaver) and Father Stone (Roddy McDowall) are rescued from a landslide by a group of mysterious blue lights who claim to be the ‘Old Ones’. They claim to be non-corporeal Martians from over 250 million years ago who live in the hills, supposedly among God. Father Peregrine later sees a vision of Jesus Christ in his church in ‘First Town’, but the vision requests to be left alone, with the words “I am not what I seem! I am not that vision!” and “You see nothing but your own dreams, your own needs”. At the apparitions insistence, Peregrine concludes that the vision is actually a Martian who involuntarily appears as anybody that other people have in mind.. ..David Lustig, Jesus Christ, or anyone else. Once chased by Col. Wilder and other settlers, the Martian is surrounded by the residents of ‘First Town’. Under the intense telepathic pressure to fulfil these multiple roles simultaneously, he dies and his body disappears.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, nuclear war is imminent and Congress cuts the budget for space exploration, with all flights to Mars cancelled. The colony is closed under Presidential order. However, Col. Wilder insists to his brother that he is coming back to return them to Mars, where life for a small family group can be sustained and they can live in peace.
The final scene focuses on Sam Parkhill, the only survivor, apart from Wilder, of the third Zeus mission. He has opened a ‘themed’ burger bar on Mars with his wife Elma (Joyce Van Patten) at a busy new intersection, intending to make a fortune serving future mineral truckers. A lone Martian suddenly appears and declares “I come for an important reason.. ..this is for you!”, pointing what appears to be a gun at Parkhill. In panic Parkhill shoots the alien, who collapses in front of them, leaving only his robe, mask and the ‘gun’. As Parkhill and his wife realise that the Martians ‘gun’ was some form of scroll, numerous Martians suddenly appear in ‘sand ships’. Fearing that they are intent on revenge, Parkhill takes his wife to his very own ‘sand ship’ and flees. The Martians catch up with the Parkhills, but only after Sam has shot a number of them. Nevertheless, they continue to gift Parkhill a land grant to half of Mars, which was what the original Martian who appeared in the bar was attempting to do. They also deliver a message, “We leave you now.. ..prepare.. ..tonight is the night, this land is yours”! Back at the Burger Bar Parkhill begins to celebrate, determining that the Martians meant that thousands of rocket ships will leave from Earth tonight, bringing millions of “hungry customers” to his burger bar. As such, he looks towards Earth through his telescope but instead of seeing rockets he witnesses the nuclear war; with Earth being burned and reduced to a cinder before his eyes. The scene ends with Elma hysterically announcing that it “looks like it’s going to be an off season”!
Episode 3 – ‘The Martians’ – We start with a re-cap of events and establish, as at the end of the second episode, that Mars has been evacuated shortly before a worldwide nuclear war terminated all life on Earth. Wilder travels back to Earth in November 2006 in the hope he can rescue his brother and his family. He returns to the Zeus project mission control facility but discovers a video recording the deaths of everyone, including his brother, when enemy neutron bombs detonated nearby.
Only a few scattered humans remain on Mars, Benjamin Driscoll (Christopher Connelly) is one of them, the lone inhabitant of ‘First Town’. He walks aimlessly around the town, which has remarkably more graffiti and litter than when the residents suddenly departed (in the previous episode). He becomes aware of a telephone ringing. After hearing multiple telephones ring, he realises there is an opportunity for him to seek companionship. Breaking into a home to answer yet another missed call, Driscoll sits down with a phone book of Mars and starts dialling from ‘A’. After days of calling without answers, he starts calling hotels and then after surmising where he thinks a woman would most likely spend her time, calls the biggest beauty salon on Mars, in ‘New Texas City’. When a woman actually answers, he immediately jumps into his gyrocopter and flies 1,500 miles to ‘New Texas City’ to meet Genevieve Selsor (Bernadette Peters).
She is stunning and he is instantly beguiled; however, she turns out to be thoroughly narcissistic and entirely obsessed with her own good looks. Driscoll asks her out on a date, during which she makes him do everything from changing tables to cooking the meals, whilst revealing that she decided to stay behind simply because “they wouldn’t let me take all my clothes with me back to Earth.” She enjoys having access to all the clothes and makeup in ‘New Texas City’, without having to pay for anything. At the same time, she also laments that she is forced to do all the cooking and technical maintenance herself. Disappointed, Driscoll flies away when she not only rejects his advances, but expects him to make a nice breakfast and repair multiple items, including the sauna at her club.
This is one area of the mini-series that marks a significant departure from the corresponding Bradbury short story (‘Silent Towns’), originally published in 1950. Although the male character is essentially the same, other than going by the name of Walter Gripp, Genevieve Selsor is significantly different. She is not self-absorbed and expectant of Driscoll’s labor.. ..instead, she is overweight and ‘sticky with chocolate’; constantly watching movies. Furthermore, she is expectant and clingy, showing Gripp her ideal wedding dress, hinting at their impending marriage. Although Genevieve varies significantly in the two stories, they have the same end result.. ..Driscoll leaving for isolation yet again.
Meanwhile, Peter Hathaway (Barry Morse) is living retired on Mars with his wife, Alice (Nyree Dawn Porter) and daughter, Margarite. Hathaway’s actions, revolve completely around pretending they are not alone.. ..making his desire for a return to Earth and companionship, very clear. Hathaway is obviously a technical wizard; he has a built a sophisticated telescope and has wired an abandoned town below his house to come ‘alive’ at night with lights, noise and phone calls. One night, when Hathaway spots a rocket in orbit, and he puts on a laser light show he has engineered, to signal the rocket. After this initial failed attempt, the rocket returns and lands, carrying Father Stone and Col. Wilder, who have returned from Earth. They reunite with Hathaway, who suffers heart trouble when they break the news of Earth’s nuclear destruction. Undeterred, Hathaway takes Wilder and Stone to his house for breakfast. Wilder remarks that Hathaway’s wife’s appearance has not changed since he last saw her, when he was present at their wedding. Wilder then explores the surrounding area, checking headstones that he saw earlier. He returns, pale, realising that Hathaway’s wife and daughter died in July 2000, from an unknown virus.
The Hathaway’s give Wilder and Father Stone a toast, at which point Peter Hathaway’s heart fails. As he dies, he begs Wilder not to call his family because “they wouldn’t understand and I don’t want them to understand“. Wilder then confirms that Alice and Margarite are androids made by Hathaway. The android family continues on with its meaningless daily life, alone until Ben Driscoll lands, shortly after the rocket has departed with Wilder and Stone. The androids appear relieved when Driscoll decides to stay with them.
In March 2007, Wilder visits Sam Parkhill again to inform him that now the Earth is destroyed, Mars is all they have left. Parkhill tells Wilder about the ‘land grant’ that he received from the Martians. Wilder suspects that the Martians were aware of the coming war and concludes that the Martians desired to give the other half of their own desolate planet away to the survivors of the Earth colony; such that each surviving civilisation could develop once more.
Finally, Wilder then meets a Martian, each seeing Mars as he is accustomed to.. ..Wilder sees ruins, while the Martian argues the presence of a festival. Each of them are transparent to each other and appear like phantoms. However, the Martian leaves Wilder with a reassuring “Goodnight, my friend”. Neither knows if he precedes the other in time, as they each argue that the other resides far in the past. The point here is that any one civilisation is ultimately fleeting.
Wilder then takes his family into the ruins of a Martian city, saying that they will make a life there and learn the Martian way. That first night, he burns copies of ‘Capital’ and ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and promises his family they will see a Martian the following day.
As they travel through the Martian city his children constantly enquire about the Martian, with Wilder promising they will soon meet. As night falls, he points into a pool of water at the family’s own reflection and declares, “Those are the Martians!“.. .. indicating that humans will be the new citizens of Mars. Finally, he activates his remote control, destroying the last remaining spaceship that could return them to Earth.
In 2002, the ‘Airstrip One Company’ in association with ‘MGM Music’, released a limited edition 36 track soundtrack CD of the original Stanley Myers score, recorded in 1979. This release was restricted to 3,000 copies and includes a comprehensive 18 page full colour and fully illustrated booklet detailing various aspects of the making of the mini-series. It can still be found for sale, with a little searching.
It comprises the full miniseries soundtrack, with one notable exception; the track entitled ‘the Silver Locusts‘ is shorter than the version that was aired. Also, the soundtrack is missing a few incidental electronic music passages. This omission is acknowledged in the CD inlay notes which indicate that additional electronic music by Richard Harvey had not been included in the soundtrack.
At the time of the initial run of the mini-series, toy Manufacturer ‘Larami‘ produced three ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ action figures, based on the series. This is surprising, as not only was this a somewhat unknown series to base an action figure range upon, it was wasn’t an area that the company had delved into before.
In addition, despite the fact that the Kenner ‘Star Wars’ action figures were all the rage at the time, ‘Larami’ chose to go with the ‘Mego‘ style and produce 8″ figures, all based on the Martian designs. Indeed, they went as far as to copy an outfit from the ‘Mego’ ‘Star Trek‘ aliens line, which gives the figures a mid seventies feel.
The figures have limited articulation and if found ‘mint‘, on an unpunched card, can command a price of several hundred pounds, due to their rarity.
As stated at the beginning of this review, ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ mini-series received very mixed reviews, upon airing.. ..one of the harshest critics being Bradbury himself, stating that he found it “just boring!” Personally, despite it’s flaws.. ..some terrible special effects and slowness at points.. ..I think overall it’s a fantastic attempt at covering the original stories and I love it’s dream-like style.
I waited nearly 25 years to watch this series again and enjoyed it just as much as I did as a 10 year old boy.. ..more so, as I could fully understand and appreciate the plot. I thoroughly recommend you give this a watch.. ..it has recently been re-released on Blu-ray in the US, so here’s hoping for a UK release in the near future.
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