Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Martian Chronicles (1980): a Twilight Zone for a tacky decade

Obscure movie question - what recently deceased actor got the chance
to play Jerry Cornelius and Jesus Christ?

The Martian Chronicles (1980), was a much mocked and forgotten tv mini
series attempting to modernise and adapt a much loved Ray Bradbury
classic story of Martian colonisation. It is mostly recalled now for
excruciating special effects and the classic mauling it received form
the arch tv critic of the the time, Clive James. Nevertheless, despite
it's myriad faults and terrible reputation it deserves a
re-evaluation, especially as a remake has been threatened for a long

A US co-production with the BBC, it had the faults of genre
programming from both sides of the Atlantic at the time - wooden
acting and characters from NBC and BBC level special effects
(need I say more).

Despite that the credits were very impressive

Big stars...
Rock Hudson as Colonel Wilding, occasionally supported by genre stars
like Roddy Mcdowell, Barry Morse and Darren McGavin

Big Director - Micheal Anderson, best known for directing The Dam
Busters (1955), Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Logan's Run

Big producer - Milton Subotsky, the man behind Amicus films, (the only
series competition for Hammer in the UK) who had produced classic
horror omnibus films written by Robert Bloch (also of Twlight Zone)
such as Asylum, Tales From The Crypt and the House That Dripped Blood

Best of all, adapting Bradbury's classic novel, we had great genre
writer Richard Matheson creator of The Incredible Shrinking Man and I
Am Legend, who had previously contributed some of the classic episodes
to Rod Serlings Twlight Zone (Nightmare at 20,000 feet) and the
original Star Trek (The Enemy Within)

The awkward co production created an issue with the structure, with
the version shown in the UK being broken up into more episodic chunks,
and the US version apparently constructed as three tv movies. Watching
the BBC version would have been preferable, as it would have suited a
more 80s Twlight Zone feel (I'll get to that) and it would have
allowed regular exposure the incredibly haunting and melancholic

(after 2 minutes 20 secs of awful 70s special effects)

music written by equally forgotten film composer Stanley Myers, who
wrote guitar piece, Cavatina, for The Deer Hunter. As an interesting
note the soundtrack to Martian Chronicles (1980) was released in 2002
and includes a comprehensive 18 page full colour and fully illustrated
booklet - demonstrating a level of care and reverence never shown for
the DVD release of the show itself!

The miniseries was broken, awkwardly, into three parts

"The Expeditions"
"The Settlers"
"The Martians"

Which for BBC consumption was further split into the more episodic
storyline of short length shown midweek early evening in late summer,
traditionally a time for dumping bad tv even in 1980.

The first part, Expeditions, covered the first few doomed atempts to
explore Mars using wildly ridiculous technology - Mars seems to be
parked somewhere between the Earth and the Moon for the purposes of
this show, you'll notice for example the complete lack of delay in
communications with Earth. These first three 'Zeus Program' missions
are ridiculous but also surprisingly watchable in a doomed and
recognisably downbeat format.

Next episode The Settlers had a more bitter 1960s perspective,
covering the adventures of materialistic and foolish settlers as they
clashed with the haunted surrounding around them using plot cliches
and characters from the Charlies Angles and Six Million Dollar Man era
of dramatic storytelling. Yes.. that bad ...but again it contains
haunting moments and quite shocking twists that could pass as late era
Twlight Zone.

The final part, The Martians, tries to update Bradbury's masterful
twist ending into an era threatended by Nuclear devastation, when the
Martian settlers watch the Earth devastated by Nuclear war and realise
the only future for them is to become the Martians themselves. Seen
today It is still flawed and silly but remains shocking and again
could easily pass as something Rod Serling had a hand in. Arguably Rod
Serlings uber cloassic Twlight Zone of the 1950s was actually ape-ing
(see later) Ray Bradbury brilliant writing from the 1940s in the first
place but the effect is much the same.

Interested now ?
Woh there Martian cowboy. ...

Part 1 opens with tortured lingering on some truly awful effects
shots, which set Martian Chonicles (1980)'s place in history
henceforth. That week, in August 1980, masterful tv critic Clive James
had perhaps his finest hour..


'You tested the gyroscope?' Spacemen delivered lines like that to each
other in the first episode of The Martian Chronicles (BBC1),
purportedly a faithful rendering of the Ray Bradbury book, but
actually the latest in a long series of undeviatingly tacky science
fiction epics which carry the name of Milton Subotsky prominent among
the credits. I like Milton Subotsky, who once did me the honour of
asking me to write a movie for him. He is under the illusion, however,
that if one actor asks another actor whether he has tested the
gyroscope, the audience will be convinced that they are both spacemen.
Subotsky productions, whatever their budget, are dogged by an
ineradicable naivety. The only difference between The Martian
Chronicles and such hallowed items of Subotskiana as They Came Prom
Beyond Space is that this time more money has been spent on getting
things wrong. In They Came From BeyondSpace the female lead was
Viviane Ventura in a crash helmet. In The Martian Chronicles you get
Gayle Hunnicutt to look at – a distinctly more rewarding experience.
But the guys in the spacesuits are still asking each other whether the
gyroscope has been tested.

Anyway, it is 1999 or thereabouts, and Rock Hudson is in charge of the
first NASA mission to Mars. 'The atmosphere on Mars, though thin by
our standards,' Rock tells the waiting pressmen, 'is perfectly capable
of supporting life.' This suggests that Rock has not been keeping up
with the previous quarter-century of research into the subject, and
has perhaps stayed on in the job too long. It is important to remember
at this point that actors do not write their own dialogue. Rock was a
perfectly credible submarine captain in Ice Station Zebra, where he
had some convincingly technical-sounding things to say. But that was a
real movie, whereas this is the pits.

The spacemen, whose attire suggests that in 1999 military uniforms
will be very badly tailored, climb into their module and fly up to
join their waiting rocket, an order of events which intriguingly
reverses the usual procedure, in which the chief function of the
rocket is to lift the module. As it staggers through deep space, the
rocket has smoke coming out the back. It would look more like a real
rocket if it did not have smoke coming out the back, but the people
responsible for this series have either never seen any film of what a
real rocket looks like or, more likely, have seen it but not taken it
in. Their imaginations were formed by Flash Gordon Conquers the
Universes, in which rockets had smoke coming out the back.

To be fair the show was doomed from the start, as apart from the
obvious various problems with the shows construction, at the NBC press
junket to launch it in the US Ray Bradbury himself had described it as
"just boring". Perhaps the lack of attention given to Bradbury since
by Hollywood is perhaps because of this obvious snub, but Bradbury was
right, as was Clive James (mostly). It got a roasting not just from
mainstrean tv critics but from fans as well - Starburst was just as
merciless. Presumably any goodwill in the scifi fan community was
destroyed by the by the botched adaptation of a much loved book and
this is perhaps what this viewer - I have never read the original
despite being a Ray Bradbury fan still haven't, though I may well now.

The tv series It is - at least - a great tribute to Bradbury, in that
the themes seem to be there even if the execution is botched in
places. The story, from the tv, is obviously not a story of 21st
century colonisation, it is 19th century history replayed for a modern
audience, with Martians wiped out by chicken pox and cultural and
ethnic cleansing, becoming a profound and true story about colonisers
eventually being colonised themselves. What with that and the Martian
Christ it was eye opening stuff for kids weekday nights in the 80s.

Clive James has a point about the costumes, which look designed well
but never seem to feature any space suits, an odd omission for a story
about space colonisation. Production design is the for most part
atmospheric and believable, with the terrible terrible rocket ships,
rendered as sets on the surface, actually looking quite effective.
Though convincing, the human settlement looks surprisingly boring, with
lots of people in similar clothes aimlessly wandering around
pretending to have fun, a bit like Glastonbury Festival 2010.

Mars itself is mostly an unfiltered Mojave desert with occasional long
distance cutaways to a genuinely alien looking place which appears to
be volcanic Lanzarote. (If this sounds bad it is no less alien than
the Mars in the recent 250 million dollar John Carter of Mars

It is seriously cheap in places. Devastated post nuclear NASA/NATO is
just an empty set with humans mysteriously disintegrated - quite a an
embarrassing scene cut from version originally shown. It also appears
chaotically put together production - with the Barry Morse episode -
and they are episodes - seeming to be set chronologically way after
the rest but appearing about 3/4 of the way through. It is almost as
if the all-round enthusiasm in in the production disappeared with the
first look at the effects shots.

Someone deluded idiot must have been very proud of that abysmal first
special effects sequence as it is repeated at the start of every
episode. Clive James in his review is actually being unfair - to the
effects crew on Flash Gordon (and that's the 1930s Flash Gordon
version). They had never seen footage of Apollo 11 in orbit, or
Kubrick's 2001. The effects sequences in Martian Chronicles were
created three years AFTER John Dykstra's work on the first Star Wars.
The same year that Rock Hudson and Darren McGavin had to stand and
stare for five minutes while their plastic rocket wobbled off to
Mongo.. sorry Mars.. Han was piloting the Falcon through the asteroid
field in Empire. That's how bad the effects are in Martian Chronicles.
But in an age where people can see the charm in vintage Dr Who,
continuing to mutilate the corpse of this show with it's hilarious
effects is a little harsh (if fun). Clive James planted that stake and
further pounding on it is unnecessary, laugh if you want to but raise
a glass to Clive while you are at it.

So what are the pluses? Richard Matheson creates a hybrid of 70s
Apollo, 80s nuclear disaster and the original source novel that tries
to go in a genuinely new direction The same year the Ridley Scott's
Alien is taking science fiction deep into Lovecraftain horror
territory by way of Mario Bava's Planet Of the Vampires, Anderson and
Matheson are trying to do something similar, but with classic ghost
story, by way of Twilight Zone, contemporary politics (and a classic
source novel to work from). Parts of this show look like Flash Gordon
but are trying to be Nigel Kneale, and, occasionally, it works.

In perhaps the most effective scene in The Settlers, the best directed
bit of the four hours by some distance, Martians start appearing as
ghosts in the human settlement - including a Martian Christ, played by
Jon Finch. This is quite powerful stuff, especially for early evening
weekday nights on tv 30 years ago. Depressing to think that recently
deceased Jon Finch was equally unappreciated as Jerry Cornelius in the
equally reviled (by fans and the author) The Final Programme.

As things get spookier and the plot heads off in a very 80s post
nuclear apocalypse direction (certainly a more palatable way of
processing the message from Threads and the Day After for an early
evening audience) Rock Hudson carries the show with a quiet cool
dignity and gravitas of a classic era movie star. In a poignant scene
near the end Col Wilder encounters a Martian and both believe the
other to be a ghost - this was obviously filmed at different times as
he appears quite gaunt in some shots. A year later the heavy drinking
and smoking Hudson, the romantic comedy lead of the 50s and 60s, would
suffer a heart attack. In 1984 he would be the first big Hollywood
star diagnosed with AIDS, another detail which places Martian
Chronicles as a forgotten time capsule of its era.

In 1980 it was placed next to the effects shots in Space 1999 and
Battlestar Galactica (and the whimsy of that late era Baker era Dr
Who) and really suffered. Perhaps a fairer contemporary comparison
would be with Tobe Hoopers tv version of Salems Lot, and though he was
not involved in that miniseries Milton Subotsky would go onto several
Stephen King adaptations for tv after this. It certainly had a tragic
and melancholic air completely at odds with the bright up beat
escapism of the Star Wars rip-offs of the time. (Even the original
Battlestar Galactica seems hilariously upbeat now.)

If making the argument that the classic 1968 Planet of The Apes,
adapted by Rod Serlling, is the real Twlight Zone The Movie, and we
are being particularly generous, we could say Richard Matheson's
Martian Chronicles is best seen as Twilight Zone's brave but doomed
1980s descendant. The effects weren't too good in the Twilight Zone

DVD note :
The extended five hour DVD version oftentimes drags with pointless
padding (common fault with tv of that era) It needed a ruthless editor
and the original BBC version seemed to have that.

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