Episode 2 of The Martian Chronicles ended with Sam Parkhill (Darren McGavin) helplessly watching as Earth was consumed by nuclear fire. Episode 3 opens with Col. John Wilder (Rock Hudson) returning to Earth in 2006 and discovered that the entire planet is dead. He had hoped to find his brother and rescue him but instead, all Wilder finds is a video of his brother being vaporized by an atomic blast.
Back on Mars, the planet is nearly deserted. Most of the human colonizers were ordered to return to Earth before the war broke out and, as a result, they died in the atomic inferno. Only a few humans remain on Mars. One of them, Ben Driscoll (Christopher Connelly), is excited to discover another survivor named Genevieve (Bernadette Peters) but he abandons her when he discovers that she’s too high-maintenance for him. He decides he’d rather live alone. (Too mean-spirited to really be funny, this was the weakest short story in Rad Bradbury’s collection and it’s also the weakest segment of the miniseries.) Wilder and Father Stone (Roddy McDowall) visit another survivor, a scientist named Peter Hathaway (Barry Morse). Peter lives with his devoted wife and daughter but when he dies of heart attack, they barely notice because they’re robots.
The first hour of the final episode of The Martian Chronicles is considerably weaker than the two episodes that proceeded it. After the effective scenes of Wilder exploring Earth, the series is suddenly taken over by Christopher Connelly, playing a character that we’ve never seen before and who isn’t very likable. The Ben and Genevieve sequence is weak and never that funny, despite Peters’s skill with comedy. The sequence with Dr. Hathaway and the robots feels like a dry run for something Ray Bradbury would have written for The Twilight Zone.
Fortunately, the final segment of The Martian Chronicles swoops in to save the series. Col. Wilder and his family spend the day camping at the same ancient Martian city where, during the first episode, Spender tried to convince Wilder not to allow Mars to be colonized. While walking around the ruins of the city, Wilder meets what is either the ghost or the future projection of a Martian. They have a friendly and philosophical conversation. They talk about how The Martian doesn’t know if he’s from the past or if he’s from the future but it doesn’t matter. Returning to his family, Wilder looks at their reflection in Briggs Canal and he say that, with Earth gone, they are now the Martians. With Earth in ruins and only a few humans left, it’s up to the survivors to combine the ways of Earth with the ways of Mars and create a new world. Though Hudson is usually held up as being the epitome of a stuff actor, when he made The Martian Chronicles, he had the right amount of gravitas to make the final scenes work.
The Martian Chronicles is an uneven miniseries. The first episode is so good that the two that follow struggle to keep up. But just, as in Bradbury’s book, the ending is perfectly realized and it still work, ever after all these years later.