1 9 8 0 (USA/UK/Germany)
3 x 90 minute episodes
This cerebral mini-series – a three-part co-production between the BBC, Germany’s Polytel, MGM and NBC – is not one for those who think that sci-fi started with Star Wars (1977).
Based on the 1950 collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles is presented as three 90 minute TV movies – “The Expeditions”, “The Settlers”, and “The Martians” – each broken into three half-hour short stories, Twilight Zone style.
The miniseries begins in 1999 when a group of astronauts embark on the first manned flight to Mars (“the Zeus Project”) because the Earth is on the verge of extinction.
A jealous Martian murders the two hapless and innocent astronauts as they emerge from their ship after his wife (Maggie Wright) reveals she has had a telepathic erotic encounter with the aliens from Earth.
It’s a crass, senseless and absurd conclusion to humankind’s first known alien encounter, but entirely credible.
The three astronauts of a second expedition are hypnotised into believing that they have landed in the childhood community of their leader (Nicholas Hammond) – Green Bluff, Illinois, circa. 1979 – and have been reunited with deceased family and friends. Then they are poisoned by the Martians.
Colonel John Wilder (Rock Hudson) leads a much larger third expedition (“Zeus III”) and learns that a chickenpox virus brought to Mars by the first two expeditions has almost eradicated the Martian population.
Major Jeff Spender (Bernie Casey), angered and disgusted by the callousness and indifference of his colleagues to this terrible tragedy, takes it upon himself to avenge the Martian civilisation.
Colonists eventually arrive on Mars to settle, among them priests seeking God, and a lone Martian masquerades as the most desired persons of various settlers, ultimately appearing to the lead missionary as Christ.
Hard science is ignored (astronauts arrive on a breathable Mars in leisure suits) and the space travel effects are clunky, but the action on Mars – with Assheton Gorton’s geometric sets and simple props – is far more effective.
Master sci-fi writer Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) smartly streamlines Bradbury’s episodic stories, giving a central role to Colonel John Wilder (Rock Hudson).
Malta deputised for Mars, although gales kept blowing away the sets, and bald, earless, Martians probably did nothing for the American Space Programme that year. The series, however, did wonders for Hudson’s bank balance. Despite his 60 films he had been practically broke before this series.
The BBC, for their part, found themselves in a row with Equity (the actor’s union) who insisted that the BBC’s £300,000 cut could have been better spent on homemade drama instead.
Col. John Wilder
Joyce Van Patten
Major Jeff Spender
Commander Arthur Black
Michael Anderson Jr.
Captain Nathaniel York
Nyree Dawn Porter
Linda Lou Allen