In the year 1976 a probe from Earth landed on the planet Mars, but failed to find any signs of life, not that this stopped the optimists from believing that something - or someone - lived there. When a manned mission, the brainchild of Colonel Wilder (Rock Hudson), was sent there in 1999 it was hoped that the puzzle would be cleared up once and for all, but it was not to be as the two-man crew was lost, having landed they failed to contact Earth ever again. The reason? Nobody was to know, but it was actually because there was indeed a race living there, and they feared the arrival of these visitors from another world...
Ray Bradbury published The Martian Chronicles back in 1950 essentially as a collection of themed short stories all based around what could possibly happen to a colonisation of the Red Planet. Unlike his contemporaries such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, he was less interested in the science as he was in the emotion and imaginative possibilities, which proved hard to translate to the screen so it was little wonder that when his book was made into this 1979 miniseries, the response was muted. Not least from Bradbury himself, who famously proclaimed the results to be "boring" and scuppered the production's hopes for being a major work of television science fiction, yet there were those at the time who really liked this.
For others it was impossible to overlook the unavoidably episodic script by Richard Matheson (himself no slouch when it came to penning genre material) or the low budget afforded to the special effects, and to make things worse they didn't like the acting either. But for viewers wanting to be transported by the ideas, this was very worthwhile, flawed, yes, but its biggest premise was that mankind needed to find a new way of living lest they destroy all that was good in the world - in the universe, for that matter. Couple that deeply felt worry about needing to avoid the Armageddon that we were all capable of with a genuinely eerie and angst-filled sense of what would happen if our home world were destroyed, and you could see why certain parts of this, even the overall atmosphere, would stay with some.
The trouble with series television, even miniseries television, was that they needed recurring characters and the book did not supply those, so Matheson had to contrive a way of getting the same faces into what was really a succession of brief tales that spoke of a larger picture. Thus Hudson became the conduit through the three episodes, cropping up here and there to guide the audience through what began as a space exploration theme, then turned to thoughts of being the alien in a different world with all the problems and blessings that brought, then to a cosmic loneliness when it considered where mankind might be heading; rather typically of science fiction writing during the Cold War that was to be some kind of apocalypse. Stars appearing included such TV stalwarts as Roddy McDowall (as a monk), Darren McGavin (as a trigger happy associate of Wilder) and Christopher Connelly (lumbered with the comic relief plot).
Although each of these actors and their co-stars were not hired to bring out deep characterisation, Bernie Casey did very well with the role delineating the Martians' ideas of having their home overrun with invaders who inadvertantly spell the end of the line for them, yet also a new hope. With Lanzarote filling in for the planet's landscape, you had to accept that science was not the strong point which was a given when the source had been started forty years before, but would give pedants something of a headache. Nevertheless, this was very well designed, and the awestruck nature of people exploring, settling and eventually being stranded upon this foreign world was, in parts, quite hauntingly achieved even if it did lack Bradbury's essential poetry. Assisting in this was an excellent score by Stanley Myers which ranged from the portentous to the disco without doing the material a disservice. Some say Bradbury is a pessimist, not liking the future really, but this series got his more nostalgic view right: don't forget the past as you forge ahead.