The Martian Chronicles(1980)
Certain examples of entertainment transcend mere mundane amusement ascending to the heights of a pivotal moment in developing life. For my much younger self that moment began while my age still could be described by single digits. As was my habit I was browsing in my corner candy store ostensibly searching for the latest comic books for the next additions to my nascent collection. Over to the side was a rack containing paperback books costing only a quarter. The one that caught my eye was in a genre I enjoyed in movies, science fiction. The specific title I found in my hand was ‘The Martian Chronicles’ by the undisputed grandfather of modern Sci-Fi, Ray Bradbury. It was a collection of loosely connected short stories all concerned with the planet Mars. Despite my tender years, I realized I was reading something important, not just in my small sphere of understanding but to the world at large. This was the humble beginning of the lifelong love of the literary genre and the start of what would perpetually dominate the shelves of every bookcase I have owned. I realize that this might appear to be off topic for a consideration of the television miniseries first broadcasted in 1980. At that time, I purchased the highest-grade VHS tape and recorded the series at the highest possible quality. That was a prize of my collection until superseded in 2006 by the release of the miniseries on DVD. Those discs remained on my shelves, viewed every so often until this week. Kino Lorber, know for their respectful treatment of great nostalgic films and TV series, released a beautifully restored version of the miniseries on Blu-ray. Consistent with their standard treatment respecting both the fans and artists, this released remains in 4:3, albeit enhanced to 1080p, and presented the stereo audio in 2.0 DTS High Definition video. Upon notification of receiving a preview copy, I was elated, a seminal childhood memory was preserved in crystal clear high definition.
With the source material derived from one of the most popular and influential American authors defining the genre for generations to come, Ray Bradbury, it fell to NBC to select the best possible creative minds to write the teleplay and determine the stylistic direction of the series. The devoted fans were extremely happy with the choices made by the studio. The director chosen for this endeavor was a name already famous, Michael Anderson. As a director, he garnered a nomination as Best Director Oscar for ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. His contribution as a filmmaker encompassed such pieces of movie history as, ‘Logan's Run,’ ‘1984’, and ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’ to cite just a select few. Undertaking the creative helm as a screenwriter for all three parts was a man of impeccable credentials and an oeuvre that brought science fiction to a substantially deeper and more mature level, Richard Matheson. Among his literary, cinematic and televised contributions is a myriad of iconic stories defining the genre for a generation. Any devotee of science fiction/horror would instantly be familiar with works like ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man,’ and ‘I Legend,’ a story transformed to film no less than three times. He also was a regular contributor to the most influential television anthologies, ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘Night Gallery,’ ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘The Outer Limits.’ His trademark themes explored the psychological reaction of people facing the most extreme or unfamiliar circumstances. Some fans objected to the significant alterations to the details of the original stories. It would be impossible to translate the 28 short stories comprising the original book to television within the confines of the time restrictions of a miniseries of the eighties. Perhaps a limited series on a streaming video of cable network could preserve a greater amount of the original stories but with three, two-hour time slots on NBC television, Mr. Matheson embarked upon the best compromise. He successfully condensed the thematic content into a linear narrative that was able to capture the fundamental emotional impact of Mr. Bradbury’s iconic creation. This miniseries should consider, and subsequently, judged, as another exploration of many of the same themes. In many ways, the script expertly, crafted by Mr. Matheson is in many ways a work of fan fiction, a love letter to a brilliant author to one of his most significant formative influences
The miniseries was structured into three nightly parts, each focusing on a specific main segment of the overall story. Within each of these parts several different threads derived from one of the original stories. Under the creative control of a lesser storyteller, the result would have inevitably imploded in a quagmire of confusion. Richard Matheson has attained several life-time hachement awards form the most important organizations regarding science fiction and horror. He was a pioneer in creating synergy through the juxtaposition of these two fundamental genres. Matheson was decades ahead of the trend to instill a sense of realism into his stories, this burgeoning stylistic direction is present, albeit in a subtle, nuanced fashion. The look and feel provided by the set design and costumes were familiar to television audiences of the time as the generally accepted view of the near future. Adding to this sense of familiarity is the general casting choices. At that point, Rock Hudson was a staple of film and television, a favorite actor with the public.
The Expeditions Episode 1, 27 January 1980
The miniseries opens with a touchstone to reality with the unmanned probe, Viking 1, landing on the Martian surface in July 1976. In NASA mission control a divided on both sides of a heated debated that persist, "does Mars currently, or has ever harbored life." It appears that the camera reveals a barren landscape but as the scene concludes showing a Martian habitation. If the landing spot were a little different, the results would have completely altered mankind’s perception of place in the universe. The first segment established a glimpse of the indigenous Martian culture, before the advent of human intrusion. There are some allusions to Western colonialism, but the temptation to be heavy-handed was deftly avoided. Instead, a connection is forged on an emotive level that Martians and Terrestrials face similar issues with relationships. A Martian woman, Ylla (Maggie Wright), is struggling with her marriage. She has been experiencing strange dreams, foretelling the arrival of the human astronauts. Her husband refuses to accept the dreams have any significance driving the wedge between them deeper. Ylla develops an attraction towards one of the humans sparking her husband into a jealous rage leading him to murder the two-person crew. The Martians possess telepathic abilities allowing them to distort an project memories into the minds of the crew forcing them to turn on each other lethally. The third mission is lead by the ground commander, Col. John Wilder (Rock Hudson), discovering that the Martian cities were annulated by a plague, chicken pox, brought by the previous crews. This has the two-fold impact
The Settlers Episode 2, 28 January 1980
The next installment of the saga moves forward in time to 2004 when the Space agencies of earth dispatch a fleet of ships in a move to colonize the Red Planet. Several communities quickly established, the hopes of bringing only the best aspects of humanity to launch this new chapter for humanity were not realized as the all too prevalent traits of (greed, corruption and bureaucracy take root in the settlements. A couple of years after the initial towns were created the settlers began to experience strange phenomena. An astronaut who died in an earlier expedition appears to his parents now residing on Mars. A group of Missionaries is mysteriously rescued by strange lights that call themselves, ‘the old ones.’ They are the incorporeal consciousnesses of the Martian from 250 million years ago. They have withdrawn to the hills to remain with God. The appearance of Jesus Christ reinforces the religious threads. The focus of this segment explores the tragedy of humanity. Attempts to escape from the global devastation wrought by humanity is impossible, they follow us as an intrinsic component of what we are. The section also introduces the greatest fear the population of the world has feared since the middle of the twentieth century, all-out nuclear war.
The Martians Episode 3, 29 January 1980
The final segment of the saga picks up the story some point in the future. Modern man’s worse nightmare had been realized as global conflict finally erupted in the final world war. Mars was evacuated shortly before nuclear war terminated all life on Earth. A few tenuously held on with Benjamin Driscol (Christopher Connelly), alone in the First town. Phones ringing give a feeble hope of others but finding companionship remains elusive. He eventually encounters a woman. She didn’t evacuate because she was not permitted to bring her wardrobe. Instead, she stayed to enjoy access to the clothing, makeup and other affectations of vanity. This is a powerful, albeit sexist portrayal of humanities obsession with material things, society’s objectification of beauty and narcissistic infatuation. These self-centered priorities are so overwhelmingly powerful that they ultimately override preservation. Displaced Earthlings are forced to take refuge on Mars although many still yearn to return to earth to rebuild. The telling goes these stories are presented as personal tales from the vantage point of regular people. Infused within these narratives are themes that explore the dangers of government belligerence, the missus of technology and, perhaps most important, the hubris of those intent to colonize inhabited land with no regard for ancient, pre-existent cultures.
Science fiction serves many functions, from light-hearted romps of the imagination to times and places physically impossible to visit. A significant number of the visionary’s humanity has produced their road to changing the world reading a well wore paperback or sitting in the darkness of a movie theater watching men exploring outer spaces to technologies yet impossible. Another purpose of Sci-Fi is to challenge the establishment, incite discussion of crucial, sensitive themes in such a fashion that it comes across as innocent entertainment.