HCF REWIND NO. 168: THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES [US TV 1980]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 3 x 110 min
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
The Expeditions: various expeditions are sent to Mars and receive differing receptions from the Martians. The Settlers: the Martians having supposedly been wiped out by chickenpox, humans colonise Mars as World War 3 looms back home on Earth. The Martians: the few surviving members of the human race try to survive on an almost deserted planet….
This three- part miniseries is often sluggish and suffers from some special effects which probably seemed poor even in 1980, but I don’t care: I adore it, and given the limitations within which it had to work with, it doesn’t do a bad job of adapting one of the greatest works in all science-fiction [though Ray Bradbury considered himself a writer of fantasy, not science-fiction] literature. I fell in love with it as a child when it first aired on UK TV, albeit at the same time as I was sometimes frightened by things like the Martians having no ears and a couple’s dead son returning from the grave, and its haunting imagery and ideas never went away. Of course, viewed as an adult, there are times when it’s clumsy, it’s certainly not subtle in its messages, and it also screams the 70’s with its fashions and outlook, but it’s also an often beautiful, poetic piece, as well as being downright weird at times, especially for network TV in 1980. You won’t be dazzled by amazing visuals or be on the edge of your seat, but hopefully you’ll be kept thinking for a very long time after by what is a profoundly philosophical piece.
Bradbury published The Martian Chronicles, originally entitled The Silver Locusts, in 1950, though most of the short stories that comprise it he’d written before and published in magazines. The tales form a vague narrative about mankind’s colonisation of Mars and were clearly intended to mirror the conquest of America and the virtual destruction of the Native Americans. Since 1950 several plans to film it fell through, including attempts by Ray Harryhausen, Vincent Minelli and Kirk Douglas. Finally in 1977 NBC decided to make it for TV. Bradbury collaborated closely with the project and even rewrote parts of Richard Matheson’s script, but the escalating budget, partly due to its distinguished cast, meant that certain concepts had to be scaled down and the special effects had to be done with less money. Crete and Lanzarote doubled for Mars. Bradbury wasn’t too happy with the finished product and asked for re-editing and some scenes to be reshot, but the final cut had already been approved. At a press conference Bradbury was asked what he thought of it and replied: “Boring”. This made the papers and the mini-series, intended to air in September 1979, was shelved until January 1980, where it drew quite large TV audiences. A 110 min cut down version of the series was released theatrically in some countries, while some later broadcasts removed a section where Jesus Christ seemingly appears to a priest. Some of the book’s stories turned up again in the Ray Bradbury Theatre Present’s TV series, while the book was adapted again for radio, opera [!] and for film in the 1988 Russian The Thirteenth Apostle, an extremely rare movie that I am in the course of hunting down!
The Martian Chronicles requires much suspension of disbelief. Early telescopic observations of the planet seemed, erroneously, to reveal that it was crisscrossed by giant canals, built by an ancient civilisation to bring water from the polar ice caps. The book also had humans walking about on Mars with no oxygen masks breathing its air and other things which were later proved to be impossible. The mini-series keeps these to avoid huge rewriting, but I’m sure they would have known that characters on Mars would not be able to talk to characters on Earth with no delay in communication. There are also some lazy aspects to the overall presentation of things, most notably the showing of the surface of Mars as being red, as it is, in the early scenes but afterwards only doing it occasionally. Also, characters don’t seem to age over the course of many years. Then there’s the draggy pace. There’s nothing wrong with being slow, but the decision to omit some of the short stories [partly because they would have been expensive to do] means that some of the others are stretched out beyond their natural life. This is very obvious in the final third of The Expeditions, where far too much of the running time is taken up with Jeff Spender, the astronaut who appears to be possessed by the Martians, giving long-winded speeches where he goes on about how the humans must respect the culture of the Martians and so forth. The messages are important, and delivered by Bernie Casey with conviction, but they could have cut all this down to a minute or so and let the viewer pick up on everything else. The second half of The Martians also makes it far too apparent that little is really happening, though it’s very brave to make the ending of the whole mini-series so low-key. By comparison, The Settlers, the middle episode, is better paced throughout.
As for the special effects, well, there are spaceships on strings and a hilarious chase scene involving Martian sand-ships with laughably unconvincing models and even cardboard cut outs of characters [considering Star Wars had come out, how could they?], though I’m rather fond of the many matte paintings: they rarely look real, but they help give some of the proceedings a dreamlike feel. The Martian Chronicles soars with much of its depiction of the bald, ear-less, green-eyed Martians [who are also played by English people, as opposed to the mostly American cast] and their world. Assheton Groton’s production design is often stunning, the geometric patterns of the Martian city in particular remaining long in the mind. The Martians are not seen too often, with only the first part of the first episode showing events from their point of view, but their presence is felt all the time. They are portrayed as essentially peaceful people who live life in a much better way to humans. There is a scene in The Martians where John Wilder, the main protagonist throughout, finally achieves his dream of meeting a Martian, but they seem to be both existing in two different times. The resulting dialogue has the best and most profound, yet simplest, philosophy of life I’ve never heard.
Martian: There is no secret. Anyone with eyes can see the way to live.
Martian: By watching life. Observing nature and cooperating with it. Making common course with the proceeds of nature.
Martian: By living life for itself, don’t you see? Deriving pleasure from the gift of pure being. Life is its own answer, you see? Accept it and enjoy it day by day. Live as well as possible. Accept 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. For life is given by the sovereign of our universe. Given to be savoured, to be luxuriated in, to be respected. But that’s no secret.
The purity of the Martian existence is contaminated right from the very beginning, where a Martian woman, telepathic like all Martians, dreams of one of the visiting earthmen and her husband, suffering from a very human case of jealousy, picks up his gun [which looks like a folded-down umbrella] and goes off to shoot them. After this, they find themselves forced to sink to human-like levels in order to protect their civilisation and culture. Knowing they cannot match human’s weaponry, they next create an idealised vision of an American small town populated by dead loved ones of the astronauts to lure the visitors into relaxation before they kill them. However, by the time the third expedition arrives, they seem to be all dead, killed by chicken pox, though they manage to possess a member of the third party to kill the others. In The Settlers, colonies on Mars have been established, but surviving Martians do sometimes come out of the woodwork, including one who can only exist when taking on the form of a human’s loved one, and intelligent floating globes who appear to two priests. By The Martians, it really does seem that they are all dead, but then there are now no humans left alive on Earth either, because, in a delicious irony, they’ve all been wiped out by World War 3, meaning that the only humans alive are those still on Mars.
Michael Anderson, though he made some decent films, was generally a rather pedestrian director, and doesn’t give things here much of a style, though there are a few good flourishes, like when the second expedition lands and the thick fog around the rocket slowly clears to reveal first the spire of a church, then the features of an Earth town. Rock Hudson is, as usual, a little dull as the main character, but there are fine turns elsewhere, especially from Roddy McDowall as one of the two priests, Bernadette Peters as a woman so used to living on her own on Mars she is totally wrapped up in herself and cannot relate properly when possibly the last man on Mars find her, and Barry Morse as a lonely old man whose family may be Martians. It’s amusing how the Martians are all played by English actors. Stanley Myers’s score is one of the finest ever composed for a mini-series, using a variety of styles and sounds ranging from electronics to conventional instruments [and, yes, disco] yet still always sounding like a unified whole, from its expressionistic, mysterious Martian music to its hummable main march theme to one particular theme, heard in the second and third parts, which is one of my favourite music themes ever; it seems to describe the sadness of the overall story we witness.
The Martian Chronicles has its serious faults, but it’s still quite unique and the strengths of its source material is not lost. Like much of the best science-fiction, it takes us to amazing new worlds and ideas and lets our minds soar, but it also deals with relatable human elements like loneliness, bereavement, faith, nostalgia, vanity and greed. Several times recently it has been announced that a new production of Bradbury’s book is going to happen. There is no doubt that the writer’s Mars could be much more convincingly depicted now, and more of his stories could be included, but I hope this new version doesn’t lose the book’s soul, which is something that the 1980 version, despite its failings, has in spades.