John Wilder -
John Wilder -
Sam Parkhill -
Elma Parkhill -
Joyce Van Patten
Father Stone -
OTHER SPACE TRIPS
Three expeditions went to Mars expecting to find no sign of life. All of them were surprised to be wrong. The first mission was foretold by a martian woman with golden eyes who dreamed of a man called York who would promise to take her to his home planet. Her jealous husband chose to ensure that he did not. The second mission found that Mars was Heaven, but were mistaken. The third found that mankind had already destroyed the civilisation on the planet, but that one man was willing to sacrifice everything to prevent them from desecrating it.
There is only one word that adequately describes the mood of the mixed short stories that make up Ray Bradbury's martian history THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (or The Silver Locusts if that was the edition that you read) and that word is melancholy. Those stories tell of the destruction of a civilisation and a world by a race that thinks only of itself and destroys through both want and accident, that race being mankind. The martians are an advanced race who have discovered how to harmonise with nature and that the secret to life is simply living. They are aware of what the coming of the humans means to them and even though they fight it they are aware that they will not succeed.
Considering that THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES was a major undertaking for 1980, it is surprising how much of that melancholic nature has managed to survive through to this first episode and its three stories of three blighted expeditions. All three stories are surprisingly downbeat and are all the better for it. This can be laid at the feet of screenplay writer Richard Matheson, who has taken the source material and stayed remarkably faithful whilst building in linking scenes of space mission launches, worried wives and press conferences. Admittedly what happens on Earth is pretty dull and the show only comes alive when man is on Mars, but the last story especially benefits from the build up.
The depiction of Mars is surprisingly effective. The first story makes use of a cave dwelling and shows the martians in all their alien glory. They look like us, but are bald and have golden eyes. Their mental powers are advanced and their civilisation is built on crystal and mist. Even the deserted cities are lovely to look at.
Sadly, the special effects can't make the same claim. The modelwork has dated very, very badly (some of it making the same period DOCTOR WHO stuff look good) and as the show opens with some expansive effects sequences this proves to be a problem.
As are some of the performances. Rock Hudson is the star, but continues to prove that being able to act isn't a prerequisite for a long career as an actor. The mineral formations that share his name prove to have more expression in them. Fortunately there are others there to take up the slack and the plots themselves have enough about them to keep it from being too much of an issue.
Quibbles about dodgy models aside, this opening episode proves to be a surprisingly mature, adult foray into some realms that have become familiar since, but have rarely been done as well.
Now that there has been a succesful landing on Mars, the settlers come in their metal spaceships (the 'Silver Locusts' of the original title) and start to colonise Mars. As Spender, the murdering member of the last expedition predicted, they show little respect for the world of the Martians, but instead start putting their own stamp on the landscape. As events back on Earth take a terrible turn, it appears that the Martians are less extinct than believed.
This second collection of stories taken from Bradbury's collection are as mournful as the first, but with more of an element of mystery and danger in them as well as a touch of disdain for the human race with its petty greeds and lusts. Two priests range out into the hills in search of beings older than the Martians themselves, a family rediscovers a lost child who begs them to keep him with them alone, but they ignore his pleas and a would-be millionaire is offered deeds to half the planet.
Meetings with the Martians are all at the heart of these stories and they all end badly through the arrogance and ignorance of men. The Old Ones in the hills have surpassed us, whilst the Martian in the town is undone by trying to be all things to all men. His apppearance to the priest as the personification of Jesus Christ is particularly impressive.
Sadly, the last story is not. Martians come to a human only to be shot at and run away from when all they want to do is hand over the deeds to Mars. It should have been as touching as the other stories but a quite frankly insane performance by the usually reliable Darren McGavin turns it into a farce that is only rescued from the brink by the destruction of Earth. It also doesn't help that the modelwork of the sandships is so utterly terrible that it completely ruins everything that has gone before it, puncturing the mood that has been so carefully built up.
Writer Richard Matheson and director Michael Anderson continue to do a remarkable job of maintaining the mood of the original writings (this one last story apart), aided by fine acting from the likes of Fritz Weaver, Roddy McDowell and John Finch amongst a very able ensemble.
Following the war that has left the Earth a burned out cinder orbiting its sun, Colonel Wilder returns home to see if he can save anyone from the underground bunkers. Back on Mars, two people who believe themselves to be the last man and woman on the planet find they have nothing in common and a man spends a last day with his family. On his return, Wilder chances upon a meeting with the ghost of a long-dead martian and finds the peace and understanding that he has been looking for, but does it really take the near annihilation of two civilisations before man learns wisdom?
The final episode in the trilogy based on Ray Bradbury's collection of stories and it's a difficult task that is set to find a way to tell these stories without being overly depressing and to find some sort of uplifting finale to it all. Difficult indeed when the original stories were not blessed with hugely happy endings themselves. Thank goodness, then, for Richard Matheson whose script doesn't quite mesh the tales together as well as in the previous two episodes, but who does wonders with the meeting between Wilder and his dead martian, oozing dignity and grace to provide a philosophical highlight to the series even though it is followed by a wholly unnecessary coda involving Wilder and his family. The special effects let this scene down badly, but the writing doesn't and Rock Hudson even manages to give a performance of more than his usual blank stoicism.
Melancholy is in strong supply, but there is a measure of pathos as well, especially in the story of the mismatched survivors and how his story intersects with that of the unusual family. Thanks to Bradbury and Matheson's writings, this has been a more downbeat, action-free, but intellectually stimulating, experience than might have been expected from such a high profile project and both would, I am sure be proud.
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