Sunday, April 19, 2009

Despite stars, the 1980 TV miniseries of The Martian Chronicles is a sad story

Despite a cast of big-name stars such as Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, and Bernadette Peters, the 1980 television miniseries of The Martian Chronicles, a six-hour serial based on the classic book of science fiction short stories written by Ray Bradbury, was a big disappointment. The following excerpts, taken from various issues of The New York Times, chronicle the sad story:
June 23, 1979: In addition to the drama presentations, NBC also announced its lineup of original movies and serial adaptations of books for next season [...] Among the serials will be a six-hour film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a science-fiction adventure published in 1939 [sic] [...] The cast for Martian Chronicles, which is to begin its run on Sept. 17, will include Rock Hudson, Fritz Weaver, Roddy McDowall, Barry Morse and Bernadette Peters.

August 30, 1979: NBC, meanwhile, having run third all summer, has made some alterations for its opening week [Sept. 17] in the hopes of getting off to a strong start. In place of The Martian Chronicles, a six-hour serial based on science-fiction stories by Ray Bradbury that was to have been shown over the first three nights [Sept. 17-19], NBC has scheduled a pair of recent blockbuster movies and a made-for-television film. The movies are Coming Home, with Jane Fonda and John Voigt ... Semi-Tough, with Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson ... [and] the television movie Mrs. R’s Daughter, a story on the theme of rape.

November 25, 1979: Paperbacks: New and Noteworthy. These recently published volumes are especially suitable for gift-giving. [...] The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. (Bantam, $6.95.) Since it was published in 1950, this story of successive visits to the planet Mars by tellurians -- first spacemen, then tycoons, next odd types, and, finally the survivors of the last large-scale war on Earth -- has come to be counted one of the classics of science fiction. For this handsome, large-format edition, Ian Miller has provided 28 drawings that capture the eerie, poetic quality of the tale.

January 6, 1980: Does Science Fiction have a Future on TV? The initial box-office success of Star Trek and The Black Hole
-- hot on the heels of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Superman -- has confirmed the status of science fiction as the most popular of current film genres. Yet, science fiction has seldom garnered more than cult interest on television. Even Star Trek, the television series, never attained “hit” ratings when it was first shown on NBC in 1966 [...] At present, only one science-fiction series, NBC’s new Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, is on in prime-time, and it has never placed among this season’s top-rated shows.

Now, all three commercial networks as well as the Public Broadcasting Service are about to test the airwaves with made-for-television movies that may well determine the future of science fiction on the home screen. Of these projects, the two most ambitious are a made-for-TV film -- a first for public television – dramatizing Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven [...] and NBC’s $8.5-million, three-part mini-series based on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 27. Conceived before the success of Star Wars and other recent theatrical films, each in its own way demonstrates that in an era of spectacular special effects, on television’s small screen, less may indeed be more. [...]

The Martian Chronicles, an episodic account of the colonization of Mars published in 1950, is studied in high school and college literary classes. To date, the book has sold more than 5 million copies; over the years, it has been optioned for the movies by, among others, David Wolper, Alan Pakula, John Houseman and Kirk Douglas, but never did get before the cameras. At one point, David Susskind bought the rights with the idea of turning it into a musical comedy, but this project also foundered. Author Bradbury had written several unavailing screen adaptations of his book before succeeding in mounting a stage version in Los Angeles for a modest $15,000. Beginning on Sunday, Jan. 27, and continuing the following two evenings, NBC will present the six-hour mini-series based on The Martian Chronicles, produced by Charles Fries, with co-financing from the BBC. The cast of the $8.5-million project includes Fritz Weaver, Bernadette Peters and Rock Hudson.

After waiting so long to see his book brought to the screen, Mr. Bradbury is less than enthusiastic about this production. At a press conference held this past September when the mini-series had originally been scheduled to be shown, he confessed that he found its first two hours boring, a fatal flaw if viewers are expected to tune in on two successive nights. Even after re-editing, he still has problems with it. "They cut corners in production," he recently said in a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles. "I believe they started with good intentions that got lost along the way."

According to Mr. Bradbury, the special effects for The Martian Chronicles, shot under the supervision of Oscar-winner John Stearns at a cost of nearly $2 million, at times appear surprisingly shoddy. The mini-series opens with a shot of a Viking lander wobbling toward the surface of Mars in a rather unconvincing manner. This is followed by model work intercut with Saturn moon rocket footage that does little to establish the reality of a Mars expedition at the turn of the 21st century. The sequences that seem to work best use simple animation to represent the globular, disembodied Martians who interact with a missionary portrayed by Fritz Weaver.

Mr. Bradbury added: "There are some nice moments in the film. I think some of the scenes with the priest work well on television because of their intimacy."

Has this dramatization of The Martian Chronicles soured its author on the possibilities for science fiction on television? "Not at all," Mr. Bradbury replied. "I think this will get viewers to read the book. In the future, I hope the producers will get into people’s imaginations."

January 25, 1980: Two programs, each a new series of sorts, each dealing with human discovery, in one case, of the earth, in the other, of Mars, will appear on television Sunday night [...] At 8 P.M. [...] The Martian Chronicles, a television adaptation of the science-fiction novel by Ray Bradbury in three two-hour segments starts on NBC-TV, Channel 4. The other parts of this will appear at 9 P.M. on Monday and Tuesday. [...]

The Martian Chronicles is entirely fictional but it is also quite philosophical and is an example of how difficult it is to translate ideas from printed word to spoken film and television. The first installment catches the eye and the attention, but it moves slowly.

The plot has to do with the exploration of Mars and life on that planet. Two expeditions are sent, land there and are never heard from again. A third six-man crew headed by Rock Hudson finally gets there and learns that almost all of the native Martians have been destroyed by chicken pox brought by the first earthlings who arrived. One of the crew, played by Bernie Casey, is appalled at the prospect of further settlement by people from earth who will not appreciate the heritage of serenity in the arts and living left by the Martians, a hairless nonviolent people skilled in telepathy and gracious by nature. There follows a conflict, and one must wait for the next installments to see how colonization will fare.

The production is interesting and somewhat different from the usual technologically centered run of science fiction. The concepts are attractive, and the show has spooky moments when the illogical becomes fact and the imagined becomes real. Michael Anderson, the director, may have overestimated the holding power of deliberate slowness on home screens, where distraction is all too easy, but he has a sense of the mysterious, and that is what is needed. Richard Matheson, who did the adaptation from the book, has given us a series of small stories, bigger than vignettes but smaller than complete yarns, which fit into the major theme of man’s drive to reach Mars. This makes for a heavy turnover in personnel, but the theme does emerge. And one does want to know what will happen. That is the kernel of good storytelling.

January 27, 1980: The Martian Chronicles – Maggie Wright and James Faulkner play inhabitants of Mars in an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction novel, beginning tonight at 8 on NBC. The three-part mini-series also stars Rock Hudson.

January 28, 1980: The Martian Chronicles: Part II of the dramatization of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction novel; starring Rock Hudson, Fritz Weaver and Bernadette Peters. [At 9:00 p.m. on Channel 4].

January 29, 1980: The Martian Chronicles: In the last installment of this three-part dramatization of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction novel, survivors of a cataclysmic war on Earth fight to preserve the human race on Mars. [At 9:00 p.m. on Channel 4].

January 30, 1980: With another strong showing last week -- its sixth winning week in succession -- CBS-TV broke a tie with ABC-TV in the audience-popularity derby for the season and recaptured the flag it lost to ABC four years ago this month. [...] ABC’s new Tenspeed and Brown Shoe finished in eighth place [#8], ahead of two popular CBS programs, Archie Bunker’s Place [#12] and Alice [#15], and NBC’s The Martian Chronicles [did not make top 15], that were in direct competition.

February 6, 1980: After losing its four-year lead in prime time to CBS-TV a week ago, ABC-TV bounced back to win last week and achieve a tie with CBS for the season to date. [...] Movies had a bad week overall. The most-watched film was Part II of NBC-TV’s made-for-television serial, The Martian Chronicles, on Monday night [Jan. 28]. It ranked 33d among the week’s 67 prime-time shows.

April 24, 1983: Filming a Ray Bradbury Fantasy. For the last 50 years, Ray Bradbury has protected himself against the world by spewing out allegories of civilization’s eventual end in fire, ice, nuclear rain, or silence. [...] Many of Ray Bradbury’s books and short stories have been turned into bad movies and television programs. “My idea of hell,” he says, “is having to watch NBC’s mini-series of The Martian Chronicles."
I’m slowly watching my way through The Martian Chronicles on YouTube, for some kind soul has posted the entire six-hour miniseries in ten-minute blocks. Here are the links:

Episode I, Part 1 (9:56 min.)         • Episode I, Part 2 (9:52 min.)

Episode I, Part 3 (9:36 min.)         • Episode I, Part 4 (9:58 min.)

Episode I, Part 5 (9:57 min.)         • Episode I, Part 6 (9:42 min.)

Episode I, Part 7 (9:39 min.)         • Episode I, Part 8 (9:43 min.)

Episode I, Part 9 (9:52 min.)         • Episode I, Part 10 (9:34 min.)

Episode II, Part 1 (10:02 min.)      • Episode II, Part 2 (10:01 min.)

Episode II, Part 3 (9:59 min.)        • Episode II, Part 4 (9:59 min.)

Episode II, Part 5 (9:58 min.)        • Episode II, Part 6 (9:58 min.)

Episode II, Part 7 (9:57 min.)        • Episode II, Part 8 (9:49 min.)

Episode II, Part 9 (9:58 min.)        • Episode II, Part 10 (8:31 min.)

Episode III, Part 1 (10:03 min.)     • Episode III, Part 2 (9:53 min.)

Episode III, Part 3 (9:56 min.)       • Episode III, Part 4 (9:58 min.)

Episode III, Part 5 (9:47 min.)       • Episode III, Part 6 (9:59 min.)

Episode III, Part 7 (10:03 min.)     • Episode III, Part 8 (9:53 min.)

Episode III, Part 9 (9:56 min.)       • Episode III, Part 10 (7:39 min.)

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