In 1980, NBC adapted the Ray Bradbury short story collection, The Martian Chronicles, into a three-part miniseries. Though Bradbury’s original book featured short stories that were only loosely connected by two shared locations (Earth and Mars), the miniseries connected most of the stories through the character of Colonel John Wilder (Rock Hudson), the NASA project director who headed up the project to colonize Mars and who later regretted his decision after it became clear that humanity was going to treat Mars just as badly as they treated their previous home. The miniseries was adapted by Richard Matheson and directed by Michael Anderson.
Unfortunately, the miniseries itself was not a hit with critics, who complained that the story moved too slowly. Audiences, having just experienced Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, were not impressed with the special effects, in which miniatures were used to simulate spacecraft flying through space. Despite all of that, though, The Martian Chronicles has built up a cult following. I can remember first catching the miniseries playing late at night on one of the local station in Baltimore. I’ve always liked it. It’s not as good as Bradbury’s original collection, of course. But the miniseries still has its strengths, despite the miniatures.
The first and best episode of the miniseries was The Expeditions. Starting with a recreation of Viking 1 landing on Mars in 1976, the episode jumps forward to the far future of 1999! The first manned spacecraft lands on Mars and the two astronauts aboard are promptly killed by the first Martian that they meet, an angry husband who thinks that one of the astronauts is going to have an affair with his wife.
The second expedition is led by Captain Arthur Black (Nicholas Hammond, best-know for playing Spider-Man in the late 70s TV series). When they land on Mars, they discover that the formerly Red Planet now looks like Black’s childhood home of Green Bluff, Illinois. All of their relatives are waiting for them! Falling into the belief that they’ve returned to the past, the astronauts are killed by their “families” that night. It turns out that the Martians were using Black’s memories to set a trap for them. As the Martian who disguises himself as Black’s brother explains it, they’ve seen, in the minds of the astronauts, what the humans are doing to their own planet and they can’t allow that to happen to Mars. “Forgive us,” the Martians says, “we were once an honorable race.” In one of the best scenes in both the book and the miniseries, the Martians still have an Earth-style funeral for the men that they’ve killed because they too got sucked into the world that they created and came to care about the men they felt they had to kill.
Years later, a third expedition arrives. This one takes up the majority of the episode. It’s led by Colonel Wilder himself and includes Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin), Jeff Spender (Bernie Casey), Briggs (John Cassady), and McClure (Peter Marinker). Almost all of the Martians have apparently died, the victims of the Earth germs that were brought to the planet by the second expedition. While Parkhill plots to open a barbecue joint and Briggs gets drunk and tosses his empty beer cans into a waterway that he christens, “Biggs Canal,” Spender investigates a deserted Martian city. Unlike the others, Spender is in awe of the Martian civilization and angry that it’s been so casually destroyed. When Spender returns, he declares himself to be “the last Martian” and tries to kill the members of the expedition.
Of the three episodes, The Expeditions is the one that sticks closest to the stories on which it was based, in both content and theme. Not surprisingly, it’s also the best of the miniseries, with each vignette working as both a separate story and a part of a larger whole. It’s the episode that sticks closest to what Bradbuy himself was going for in his original collection. While the miniature spaceships are a distraction, the desolate Martian landscape is sharply realized and the first episode is full of striking shots, from the Martian husband walking through the red desert to “greet” the first expedition to the funeral for the second expedition to the final battle between Spender and the survivors of the third expedition. Among the members of the cast, Nicholas Hammond and Bernie Casey are the stand-outs but everyone plays their part well. Darren McGavin is always a welcome presece in any miniseries and John Cassady is so obnoxious as Briggs that it’s impossible not to see where Spender is coming from. (Back when the IMDb still has message boards, every message on Cassady’s board was someone posting about Briggs Canal.) Rock Hudson is as stiff as ever but it’s appropriate for his character. The scene where he and Bernie Casey debate whether humanity is worthy of a planet like Mars is well-acted by both actors, with the different opinions of their characters reflected in the different performing styles of the two actors. Though the miniseries never explicitly states it, it is perhaps not a coincidence that Spender, as the only black character in the miniseries, is the only one to truly understand what humans colonizing Mars could lead to.
The Expeditions ends with Spender warning that humans will destroy Mars if they’re allowed to colonize it. The next episode would explore whether he was correct. We’ll take a look at The Settlers tomorrow.