What was NBC thinking? A three part science fiction miniseries that didn’t feature space battles and evil aliens? That instead focused on Rock Hudson and Bernie Casey debating the philosophical implications of colonizing Mars? And ended up making the case against our exporting our culture everywhere we went? And more shockingly, featured The Night Stalker‘s Darren McGavin in a cowboy outfit and a silly wavy-haired wig?
Nowadays, something like that would be relegated to some place where only loser nerds would see it, like the Sci-Fi Channel and would star someone like David Keith or Brad Johnson, no doubt supported by tons of ugly CGI. But back in 1980, any old lady in Gary, Indiana could have turned on the TV and her their big screen idol Rock asking for advice on how to live his life from a Martian!
The Martian Chronicles is an ambitious effort to adapt Ray Bradbury’s loosely related collection of short stories about our efforts to muck around on the red planet. Anyone who’s ever read the book knows that adapting it for television or the movies is pretty much impossible since the stories don’t share much of a common narrative.
It’s understandable then that screenwriter Richard Matheson has to shuffle events and characters around to give us something resembling a single story. Matheson (no slouch on his own, being the author of The Incredible Shrinking Man and I Am Legend) ditches some stories, changes characters in others, and edits some here and there to keep some characters like Rock Hudson’s Colonel John Wilder featured periodically throughout. Barring an ongoing anthology series, there’s no other way to really to handle it.
Divided into three parts detailing each phase of man’s endeavors on Mars, the movie’s almost five hour long running time allows it the ability to tell a variety of stories while keeping the common thread of things from completely disappearing.
“The Expeditions” details the first couple of times we send our guys up there and the various problems they run into. An advanced civilization, the Martians are aware of what we’re bringing with us and that we’ll ruin their planet as we did our own.
Wilder believes that things will be just fine between the two races (if there are even any Martians still left – they’ve mysteriously died out in large numbers since the first two expeditions), but after a confrontation with one of his own men (Bernie Casey’s Spender) he begins to have his doubts and wonders about the fate of Mars, Man, and the Martians.
“The Settlers” has the first colonists from Earth trying to make a go of it on Mars. They’re building roads, towns, and pretty much remaking Mars into the world they left behind.
The collision between the two cultures is highlighted here on two levels. The immediate when a Martian gets caught up in one of the new towns the men have built and the more esoteric when monks from Earth try to transfer their religious beliefs to the beings that inhabit the vast Martian deserts.
It’s all tied together nicely in what is probably the only appearance of a Martian Jesus in the history of network TV. What are the chances today of seeing any major TV program showing us that the rejection of our brand of religion by a foreign people is entirely acceptable and that we are somehow less advanced for still believing in it?
The final episode is simply called “The Martians” and features the final stories revolving around man’s ultimate fate on Mars following tumultuous events on Earth that leave both the population on Mars and Earth decimated.
It’s during these twilight years on Mars that Wilder finally meets with the Martians and completes the conversion he began when Spender’s actions made him question everything he once believed. It all concludes with the adaptation of the classic “The Million-Year Picnic” story that brings everything full circle.
You can complain about the brown pantsuits our astronauts wear, about the disco music that sometimes annoyingly blares during shots of bad model spaceships flying through space and the cheap lawn furniture that doubles as futuristic furnishings, but that’s all decoration and can’t detract from the stories presented here.
From the expedition that lands on Mars only to find a perfect replica of an Illinois town inhabited by all the astronauts’ loved ones (an idea ripped off by the abysmal Journey To The Seventh Planet) all the way through Wilder taking his children to see “real Martians” at the end, The Martian Chronicles does what all good science fiction does – it makes you think and question. (Who am I? Why am I here? Couldn’t Rock have hit the gym a little before filming started?)
In spite of its budgetary limitations (but kudos to the guy who designed the Martian cities – those are all appropriately alien) and 1970s casting (I’ll always think of Nicholas Hammond as Spider-Man), and while not flawless (some of the segments go on too long), I’ve always liked how this one attempted to do something different in the genre and stay true to the core ideas of the book.
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