The Martian Chronicles

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A Dark and Scary Place

Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles TV Miniseries


It's nearly forty years since THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES mini-series hit our TV screens in the UK, and approaching the celebratory seventieth anniversary of the original book's first publication in the US. we ask the question: Did the TV version achieve what it originally intended? 

Based on the 1950 (in the US) novel, The Silver Locusts, by Ray Bradbury, one of the most prolific science fiction and suspense writers of our time, the attempt to adapt it for live action has been an ongoing effort virtually from first publication - with little success.


Bradbury was approached shortly after publication by producer John Houseman at MGM Studios who discussed the merit of a feature film based on the book. His choice for director, Vincente Minnelli, never materialised and no doubt this was one of the main reasons why it was finally considered unfeasible.

Seven years later Bradbury worked alongside short story writer Sidney Carroll to make it work as a Broadway musical. Also involved in this version was REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE composer, Leonard Rosenman. After a few months of intensive writing, the project coordinator, David Susskind decided to turn it into a comedy. Bradbury failed to convince him it should be treated seriously, and so returned the advanced money to escape the contract.


Actor Kirk Douglas' company, Byrne Productions, purchased the rights for one year, with the intention of creating a series for TV, but this one hardly progressed beyond the original idea. 

In 1960, Bradbury returned to MGM. This time he penned a screenplay. As expected by the writer, when he presented the finished product he was promptly dismissed. Likewise, in 1962, a script written for Alan Pakula and Bob Mulligan - who were connected to the film, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD - was received at the time of the first Viking photos from Mars. The pictures showed no canals or vegetation, causing the studios to quickly lose interest. 

A few years afterwards the story was picked up yet again for a stage production in Paris, presented by Jean-Louis Barrault. Bradbury was excited with the sets being built, and drawings showed prospective gigantic marionette Martians. Everything looked promising until students raided the venue, L'Odean, and it was decided that all future projects would be scrapped. However, it was retrieved in an alternative play which ran for several months. Bradbury also had his own stage format production which played in America during the mid- to late-seventies.


Now we reach the version in question. It was 1976 when Ray Bradbury was contacted by NBC television - amid the news of the Viking craft's touchdown on the surface of the Red Planet - who were keen to film a definitive adaptation. One of his conditions of acceptance was that they employ Richard Matheson to write the screenplay.

Matheson's pedigree was almost legendary. His previous credits included for the big screen: THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, and many Roger Corman films, incorporating, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. There was also DUEL, written for Steven Spielberg's directorial début. For the small screen he contributed countless short story scripts for THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY. During the seventies Matheson was considered one of the best fantasy writers of America.

Named as executive producers were Charles Fries - famous for his 1970's live action THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN series; or should that be infamous! (Actually, I quite like it) - and Dick Berg. The producers were Andrew Donally and Milton Subotsky (screenplay and producer of the two Dalek movies), although the latter withdrew from the project prior to its release. Special effects and photography were handled by two previous Oscar winners, Briton John Stears and Ted Moore, respectively. The direction was by Michael Anderson.

The overall line-up was already beginning to look impressive, but the inclusion of certain well-established and household names made this look increasingly like the ultimate professional representation of classic science fiction. These faces included Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowell, Gayle Hunnicut, Darren McGavin, Robert Beatty, John Cassady, Fritz Weaver, Barry Morse and Nyree Dawn Porter. 


The official go-ahead was given by NBC in 1978, and filming commenced March of the following year. Around June of 1979 it appeared on US TV as a mini-series of three two-hour parts. With advertisements this was closer to ninety minutes each. With the help of a quite stunning poster, the completed product was edited down in the Spring of 1980 for film release in Europe. The BBC, who had purchased the original format around July of 1979, finally screened it on BBC 1 between 9-23 August 1980. 

The three parts of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES were titled, The Expeditions, The Settlers, and The Martians. The first, set during 1999, follows the fate of three manned expeditions to Mars. A female native, Ylla, experiences a series of dreams about the arrival of men from space. When the visions become obsessive, her husband dons a war mask and dispatches the new arrivals from the Zeus Project. The astronauts of Zeus II land to discover a village identical to the one they grew up in. In it they find friends and deceased relatives which separate the men and lull them into a false sense of security. The third expedition, led by Col. John Wilder (Rock Hudson), finds the Martian people dead from a chicken pox epidemic. Jeff Spender (Bernie Casey), a crew member disturbed by the realisation of such a wonderful culture destroyed, becomes psychotic, and believing himself to be the last Martian survivor, begins killing the crew to protect his false homeland. 

The Settlers is set in 2004, and centres on the mass colonisation of Mars, and more primarily on several characters each looking for the answers to their problems on another planet. A fresh start. Anna and David Lustig seek their missing son, Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin) and wife Elma want a successful restaurant business, and Father Peregrine (Roddy McDowell) desires to meet the physical existence of Christ. All are granted their wish in a quite unexpected manner. Then all life on Earth is desecrated by nuclear holocaust.


The Martians - who are now the humans, of course - set in late 2006, sees the colonists isolated from their native Earth. No more ships (the Silver Locusts) arrive carrying people and supplies. The Parkhills have a restaurant adjacent to what was to be the major highway; but now they have no customers. The corrugated iron town constructed by the humans quickly becomes a slum, with litter, graffiti and seedy nightclubs. John Wilder begins to despise the influence of such negative human culture on a world that is not their own. A true Martian makes his presence known to Wilder, explaining his resigned attitude to the desecration with "out with the old, in with the new" philosophy. 


THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES had all the ingredients of a classic show, without ever quite pulling it off. It's difficult to analyse exactly just what went wrong. The effects, although not outstanding, were passable. The make-up and particularly the Martian face and glittering eyes was impressive, as was the Martian war mask, costume and stone architecture. There were some nice moments, as when the missing son, Lafe, appears to the Lustigs during a thunderstorm; when Spender loses his grip early on; and the scene where the priest is visited by a vision of Christ. 

However, these magic moments were few and far between, so it's logical to assume that the original Richard Matheson teleplay containing Bradbury's heavy influences was drastically altered. This, along with an apparent desire to force the concept down the throats of mainstream viewers, left the finished product barely comprehensible (even Rock Hudson, the star of the show, left the strong impression he was disorientated throughout the filming).


Ray Bradbury himself was said to be greatly disappointed by the way it turned out. Many of the comments he suggested for improvements were graciously accepted before being ignored.

There was an obvious effort to produce something of high standard, but as so often happens with adapted Ray Bradbury material, the fantasy quality of childlike wonder is simply not there. For evidence of this simply read the novel, preferably before watching the mini-series. Alternatively, check out THE RAY BRADBURY THEATRE television series (a DVD boxset is available on region 1) for the best yet live action representations of classic Bradbury short stories.

(Feature by Ty Power - first appeared in DreamWatch magazine November 1996)

*See below for The Martian Chronicles film version poster