The Martian Chronicles: Episode 2: The Settlers (1980, directed by Michael Anderson)

The first episode of The Martian Chronicles ended with a dying Jeff Spender (Bernie Casey) warning John Wilder (Rock Hudson) that humans settling on Mars would be the worst thing that could ever happen to the once powerful red planet.

The second episode, called The Settlers, sets about to prove Spender right.  By 2004, humans are desperately leaving the war-torn Earth for a new home on Mars.  They rename all of the Martian landmarks, honoring the men who died exploring the planet.  In one of the few deliberately funny moments of this entire miniseries, it’s revealed that the canal that Briggs threw his beer cans in was eventually named Briggs Canal.  There’s one unfortunate shot of a line of miniature space ships that are supposed to be orbiting Mars and waiting for their chance to land.  The episode then gets down to showing what the settlers do to Mars.

It’s nothing good.  The main town looks like a traveling carnival, full of bars and crime.  Many of the people who come to Mars are people who are fleeing something on Earth and Col. Wilder has his hands full trying to keep the peace.  All of the Martians are believed to be dead but it turns out that there are still a few out there.  Using their mental powers, they disguise themselves as humans.  A large part of the second episode deals with a Martian who approached an elderly couple, disguised as their dead son.  Even though they know that he’s not really their son, they allow him to live in their home.  But, when the Martian goes to the city, he becomes overwhelmed by all the thoughts that bombard his mind.  Everyone sees him as being someone that they care about.  Even the local priest, Father Peregrine (Fritz Weaver), sees the Martian as being Jesus.  (That’s no big deal today but that had to have been controversial in 1980.)  Eventually, the Martian becomes so overwhelmed that he dies while a group of humans gawk at him.

As for Father Peregrine and Father Stone (Roddy McDowall, who spent most of his later years appearing in miniseries like this one), they explore the Martian mountains, searching for three lights that have been reported as hovering in the sky.  When they find the lights, the lights explain that they are ancient Martians who long ago abandoned their corporeal bodies.  They also somewhat implausibly say that they worship the same God as the two priests.  In a departure from Bradbury’s original short stories (in which Bradbury was skeptical about the idea of bringing religion to the Mars), Father Peregrine commits to building a church so that, even on the Red Planet, people can worship.

Finally, Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin) has achieved his dream of building a restaurant on Mars.  He says that, as soon as more Earthlings arrive, he’ll be rich because every trucker will stop off at his place for a bite to eat.  When a Martian suddenly shows up in the diner, Parkhill panics and shoots him.  When more Martians show up, Parkhill flees.  It’s only when the Martians catch up to him does he learn that they’re giving him a grant for half the land on Mars.  “Tonight’s the night,” they tell him, “Prepare.”  Old Sam Parkhill’s pretty excited until he looks through a space telescope and sees that Earth, the home of his future customers, is now glowing with the sure sign of nuclear fire.  I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw this episode on late night Baltimore TV but I do remember being thoroughly freaked out by the scene where Sam watches as a fiery glow encircles the Earth and the planet’s green surface turns brown.  It’s the most powerful moment in the miniseries and a fitting visualization of Bradbury’s concerns about the nuclear age.

As for the rest of The Settlers, it’s good but it’s not as strong or as cohesive as the first episode.  The Martin shapeshifter story is good but the two priests in the mountains felt like they were included to keep religious viewers happy and their segment takes too many liberties with Bradbury’s original material.  Then, Darren McGavin returns to the story. dressed like a cowboy and getting chased by a Martian sandship and The Martian Chronicles goes back to being one of the coolest miniseries to ever be broadcast.

With Earth dead, would Mars follow?  That was the theme of the next episode of The Martian Chronicles, which we’ll look at tomorrow.

One response to “The Martian Chronicles: Episode 2: The Settlers (1980, directed by Michael Anderson)

  1. Pingback: The Martian Chronicles: Episode 3: The Martians (1980, directed by Michael Anderson) | Through the Shattered Lens

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