The Martian Chronicles (1980)

Based on the works of Ray Bradbury, “The Martian Chronicles” may well be the most idiotic miniseries ever aired on American television.  It’s not the tackiest (that would be “Lace,” which is great fun), it’s not the most boring (that would be…oh, hell, there’s way too much competition to pick just one), but maybe, just maybe, the dumbest.  Bradbury was a master of science fiction, but this is just hokey as hell, bearing little resemblance to what he envisioned as our world and that of Mars in the future.  Don’t let me hang us up on introductions, let’s just dive in.

Things are laughable from the onset.  We start in July 1976, when the first spacecraft lands on Mars.  The thing is so obviously a toy parked on dirt that I’m surprised one can’t see the wires attached.  “Mankind waited.  Intense expectation for the answer to the question that had puzzled him [sic] for centuries.  Is there life on Mars?” the narrator asks.  He describes how most people on Earth are “non-believers,” saying that it’s possible that we have looked at Mars and just not seen anything, also noting that Martians would have thought the same thing of us if they landed a spacecraft “in the Sahara desert.”  Well, although I suppose that’s true, it’s not the most scientific argument.

“However, if the spacecraft had landed only a few miles on, things might have been different,” we’re told as the camera pans out to show more toys doubling as models, this time as Martian habitation.  Wait, so we can send a spacecraft to Mars, but we can’t get it to see anything more than a foot in front of its face?  That doesn’t say much for NASA, does it?

Part One: The Expeditions

Now it’s 1999 and it’s time for the “first manned expedition to Mars.”  Stock footage and more models show the launch of a rocket, unmanned, sent in preparation.  The dozen people who seem to make up mission control seem fairly happy.  Reporters are assembled so Colonel Rock Hudson can answer questions about the impending manned mission.  Actually, he manages to avoid any real answers, tossing someone else to them and going into mission control to look at pictures and invite one the main men to brunch (don’t laugh, his wife plans to be there).  Actually going on the mission are Richard Oldfield and Richard Heffer.  They hop into the module without their helmets or much gear, so I suppose by the fictional 1999 of this story, astronauts no longer need all that junk.  There is no scientific explanation as to why not.  Let’s just chalk it up to a small budget.

The manned module is launched with no problem.  It meets the rocket in space, a rocket which is completely immobile as the module attaches to it, looking way more sexual than it should.
Let’s meet the Martians.  James Faulkner is “Mr. K,” “sitting in his room listening to his book.”  Wow, Martians are so advanced they have Books on Tape, which actually seems to be a gold-plated fan manipulated by James in gold nail polish.  A few feet away, Maggie Wright is tossing and turning during sleep, seeing visions of the approaching astronauts, her fingers twitching.  James notices this and hikes up his muumuu to go over and find out what is happening.  She relays the dream to James, who does not believe there can be men on Earth “because there is too much oxygen for life to be sustained.”  Their science program is apparently no better than ours.

The module disconnects from the rocket (why did it need the rocket if it’s perfectly mobile on its own?).  The astronauts, still without helmets, announce their last transmission to headquarters.  Oh, that’s not good.  You mean, there was no way NASA could use better communication devices.  Maggie’s visions of the astronauts also looks sexual, and when she relays it to James, she notes that the astronaut finds her “beautiful.”  The quality of vanity is equal on Mars!  James thinks the dream is real, that they are about to have Earthlings invade the planet.

The astronauts joke with Rock that they won’t start any wars, “which are more likely on Earth,” but let’s note that they don’t have any weapons and there are only two of them, not to mention the fact that still no one believes there is life on Mars.

A pissy James, who is doing something with a stick over a vat of dry ice that looks like he’s toasting a marshmallow, is not happy that Maggie wants to go out that night.  He forbids it, the argument sounding like a man who knows his wife is having an affair.  He is the one going out, with the intention to kill the men who are coming from Earth because he fears the men.  He puts on a “mask of conflict,” basically a metallic gas mask, and commands Maggie to “stay here!” and out he goes into the barren landscape while Maggie stays home, bubbling over with desire to know what’s going on.  We hear the module door open, shots fired and Maggie’s fingers twitch all over.  So much for a peaceful Mars-Earth first contact.  She’s definitely not happy that James has killed the men.

Let’s pause to note that when we next see the model module and toy men dead in it, they are still not wearing any protective gear.  The air quality really is so similar on both planets that the astronauts did not even need masks?  Who knew?

Rock can’t get in touch with the astronauts, so no one has any idea if they are dead or alive.  He argues with General Robert Beatty, who isn’t sold on second expedition to Mars to find out what happened.  He refuses to let Rock go because he’s “too valuable.”  Rock promises Bernie Casey he can go on the next expedition, should there be one.  Bernie wants to go in one sentence, but in the next, he says there shouldn’t even be a second, yet still wants to go.   Yes, it’s as confusing to hear it as it is to read that last sentence.  “You know there’s always a risk of losing lives on such an expedition,” Rock says without any trace of emotion.  “Sure, I know that,” Bernie says, afraid of colonizing Mars if there are Martians living there.  Rock doubts there is any life on Mars

Of course there is a second expedition, this one in 2000, landing with wildly overwritten dialogue for the narrator.  The three astronauts aboard (neither Rock nor Bernie among them) wear nothing but polyester army suits (nope, no masks).  “God in hell,” the first one says.  “I’ll be damned,” the second one says as they look at what appears to be a typical small American town.  They see a house, a church and trees and grass.  There is discussion that it can’t be real because the first astronauts did not say anything about seeing what these guys are seeing.  Well, they probably landed in a different space.  After all, didn’t the narrator tell us in the beginning that the Martians would have thought there was no life if they landed in the Sahara?  If they had landed in small-town America, it would all be different.  Thus, why isn’t it possible that the astronauts have landed in small-town Mars?  One astronaut thinks it looks just like his home town, causing another to ruminate that maybe every planet in the solar system has evolved in parallel.  Well, if that were true, wouldn’t we know about it?  They would have the same ability to communicate that we do, so someone would have noticed the others!

They decide to walk into town and investigate.  “It looks as though an entire town was transported from Earth.  There’s only one way this could have happened.  It has to be that space travel began before the first world war,” chirps one of them.  Run that by me again?  Why is that the only way this could have happened?  What does World War I have to do with anything.  “No, that’s just not possible,” one of the others says dismissively.  “What other explanation is there?” the one who came up with the idea asks.  I could think of about 15 without working at it too hard, but not so here.  A pre-WWI scientific experiment it must be.

The three are Nicholas Hammond, Vadim Glowna and Michael Anderson.  Nicholas decides to head to one of the houses, where a typical-enough housewife asks what they are selling, since they have randomly come to her door.  “Where is this?” Nicholas asks.  “Green Bluff, Illinois, 1979,” she says.  “Are you census takers, is that why you are in uniform?” she asks of them.  Census takers?  Anyway, Nicholas decides it’s best since she speaks clear English to talk to her very loudly and slowly, saying they are from Earth, but she just notes this is Illinois and closes the door on them.

Going on the theory that this is still a very old scientific experiment, the thought is that people who colonized Mars simply make a replica of what they knew.  But, Nicholas is suspicious, because Green Bluff, IL is where he grew up.  That changes things a little bit, so they decide everyone must be under some sort of hypnosis.  “That has to be it!”  It does?  Nicholas then spots a man he knows, his brother who died many years ago!  How can he be alive?  “Don’t fight it…we’re alive again, no questions asked,” his brother says.  That’s a convenient way of ducking the question of what the hell is going on.  Michael’s grandmother shows up (he never lived in Green Bluff, so why is she there?).  Even Vadim’s Aunt Thelma pops around, and he’s British!

The men go off with their dead relatives, overjoyed to be seeing these people again (and not particularly worried about separating).  Nicholas finds his beloved mother playing the piano.  “You’re home now,” she says.

“At mission control, the fate of the second mission is in doubt.  There’s been no communication from Mars from over 12 hours,” we are told.  At least someone is worried about them!

Back on Mars, Nicholas has a typical home-cooked meal and then dances to records with his mother.  When he says he has to go back to the ship for a minute (oh, yeah, right, the ship), his family tells him not to leave or he’ll miss the surprise due to arrive .  Smart enough to be a NASA astronaut, but too dumb to figure out that something is seriously wrong with what he’s experiencing, he listens to them.  The surprise is his old girlfriend, who had been sent away to school by her parents because he was “from the wrong side of the tracks,” despite living in what seems to be a very comfortable middle class home.  They talk as if they were still teenagers, about standing up to her father and being together and all that crap.  They even make out under the old tree in the front yard before he goes back inside to his old bedroom, which he shares with his brother.  Still not wondering what’s going on, Nicholas?

“I was just thinking,” Nicolas says in his pajamas to his brother, who cuts him off there and laughs, “thinking is bad for you.”  ’tis true.  The writers certainly can’t be accused of it.  He continues the thought that may be this really isn’t Illinois, these people are not his friends and family.  “Suppose there were Martians and they saw a rocket ship landing and had no defense against its weapons,” the brother wonders, “supposed they used the only real defense they had…telepathy!”  He goes on to explain that perhaps the Martians have locked into memories.  “Would there be any other way to divide and overcome invaders?” he asks.  That’s as dim an explanation as the pre-World War I science experiment.  Even if the Martians didn’t have a single gun on their planet, by sheer force of number, wouldn’t they be able to overcome three polyester-wearing astronauts who haven’t shown the smallest evidence of their own weaponry?  No, apparently not.  “The Martian Chronicles” can only think of one explanation at any given point, so this must be it!  “You couldn’t disguise the air!” Nicholas says, suddenly having an attack of some sort.  “The chocolate pudding was drugged.  Of course you only thought it was chocolate pudding,” his brother tells him.  Now there you go!  The Martians do have weapons!  “Your death will be painless, Captain.”  There is some claptrap about how the Martians have seen the destruction on Earth and cannot allow that to happen, so they must “murder out of fear…forgive us,” he says, now in Martian muumuu clothing as Nicholas dies.

The entire Nicholas episode hasn’t made a lick of sense, but what comes next is even more far-fetched!  The narrator tells us that the Martians are actually burying the three dead astronauts, “still under the influence” of the memories.  Ah, so the Martians can’t control these memories?  Some of them can?  Nicholas’ fake brother and family could, but not Granny and not Aunt Thelma and the people digging the holes in the ground?  Not even the pastor who presides over the funeral of the flag-draped coffins.  Thankfully, we’re told, the Martians lose those pesky memories as “nightmares fade into a new dawn.”

Back on Earth in 2001, it’s the night before the third expedition to Mars, this one being led by Rock himself.  Hey, if the Martians don’t swoon for his old-style Hollywood glamour, they must be a completely helpless race.  He’s will be joined by Darren McGavin (who, along with Rock, is at least 15 years too old for a fast car, let alone a rocket ship), who tells a worried wife that he doesn’t mind going to Mars because “soon you’ll all be making the same trip.”  Bernie is going along this time, defending the trip to Rock’s wife Gayle Hunnicut, and so are John Cassady and Peter Marinker.

Staring up at a full moon, Gayle sits outside on her extremely well-appointed deck, afraid for Rock’s safety.  He’s not the least bit nervous and he’s the one blasting off.  This sort of sad wife scene is a regular in the adventure miniseries as the brave husband goes off to an uncertain future.  “We’re not going to fail this time.  I promise you.  This time we’re gonna make it,” Rock assures her.

It’s cold when the men reach Mars, lighting an electric fire (where does that plug into?) and looking at a cityscape they assume is deserted (oh, and no helmets, FYI).  There are arguments about whether the Martians are alive or not and what fate might await them.  “If Mars is ever colonized, a man could make a fortune here,” Darren notes as the guys chuckle over cups of coffee.  Bernie returns to the ship, having scoped out the planet, to tell everyone that some of the cities are deserted for centuries, but in one city, everyone died at most ten days ago.  In one out of every five cities he went to, the bodies were new.  “As far as I can figure, they died of chicken pox,” he says.  He has come to this conclusion without so much as a vial of blood drawn, without touching a corpse, nothing.  They all have no trouble believing their fellow astronauts must have brought the chicken pox with them and decimated the Martian population.  “As far as the Martians are concerned, this planet is finished,” Bernie surmises.  That should be enough of this illogical conversation, but Bernie continues, wondering aloud that this is akin to the “Greeks dying of mumps…the Roman empire dying of athlete’s foot.”  There’s a new take on history!

John Cassady, the feisty one of the bunch, decides the only solution is to get drunk and regale the boys with ribald stories and even a harmonica recital.  This kind of uncouth behavior for sure means he’s a goner.  Anyone who drinks and talks of sex is destined to die by the rules of the American miniseries (at least in its early years).  Even worse, John starts dropping wine bottles into a nearby river, so Bernie clocks him and knocks him into the river.  Bernie’s explanation for doing this?  “I was ashamed.”  “Do you begrudge them some release?” Rock asks him, but Bernie, even the moralist, feels guilty about having killed Martians by bringing a disease to a planet without realizing it.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (who in this movie are pretty stupid, so that’s a bad comparison) to see this as a parallel to how the Europeans destroyed the Americas with new diseases.  If this were later in the decade, we might throw in the AIDS epidemic too as another parallel.  “If there are any Martians left, they are going to grow to hate us,” Bernie says after a looooooong winding argument with Rock that reads like an apologetic history lesson.  “No, you’re wrong.  No hatred here.  They were a graceful, philosophical people.  They wouldn’t mind us here any more than they would mind children playing on their lawn, knowing, understanding children for what they are.  Looking at all this, we all know we’re not so marvelous and we are children.  We’re LEARN from Mars,” Rock says, summoning up all of his command of acting to make that drivel sound almost believable (if you come from the camp that said Rock could not act, then just laugh along with it).

The team decides to explore one of the abandoned cities, with his really just a series of papier mache three dimensional geometric pieces.  “Who were they, I wonder.  Who were their kings?” Rock asks, for some reason not wondering about their queens.  Bernie runs off on his own, but no one knows why.

When we next see Bernie, his killing John (thankfully, the guy was damn annoying) and saying, “I’m the last Martian.”  He tells the rest he’s been living in a Martian city for the time he’s been away, reading their literature and studying their culture.  “Then one day a Martian appeared to me and said, ‘give me your boots’ and then he said ‘give my your uniform’ and I did.  I offered him my weapon, but he said he had his own,” Bernie relates in a monotone fashion that is a sign of some sort of possession.  Bernie kills the two remaining non-stars in the mission and then walks back to the city.  Of course it wasn’t Bernie, but a clever Martian-brainwashed version of him.  Only Rock and Darren are left to wonder what happened (they were conveniently absent when Bernie came to kill everyone–whatcha doin’ in the spaceship, boys?).

Rock and Darren go off in search of Bernie, who shoots at them with his Martian weapon (didn’t we hear previously that the Martians didn’t have weapons?).  It’s going to be a fight between our polyester pals to see who can survive.  Bernie offers a truce, putting down his weapon, but Darren cautions against it, especially when Bernie insists only Rock meet him.  “Don’t do it!” he clucks like a schoolteacher who has just caught a student trying to flush a frog down a toilet.  Bernie explains to Rock that he fears for what people will do to the Martian planet, considering how they have screwed up their own.  Yes, Bernie, we get it: Earth dwellers suck and have been killing each other senselessly for thousands of years.  He feels he has to kill Rock and Darren to avoid another expedition, but if they do come, he will meet every single one as long as he’s alive to kill every single astronaut who approaches to spare the planet.  There are two problems I see what that plan.  First, Bernie can’t live forever and second, if he kills men for just walking off a rocket ship, is he any better than the Earth dwellers who kill so easily?  He’s the man with the message, but unfortunately hasn’t thought it through particularly well.  Another preachy argument ensues, but Bernie asks Rock to follow him for a half an hour to see how the Martians live, and Rock actually does it!

“The secret to Mars is that they discovered the secret of cooperating with nature.  That the reason for living is simply life itself, nothing more than that: the enjoyment of pure being,” Bernie explains, no doubt getting props from environmentalists.  Rock cuts through the discourse of life, art, science by asking how they can also kill.  Oh, well, that would be because they have to defend themselves.  Whose side are we on?  I’ve lost track.  This scene is a complete smack in the face to the lack of humanity back on Earth.  In 1980, this would have resonated.  It still resonates, but the writing is too damn awful to draw much sympathy.

Completely undermining his own argument, Bernie asks Rock to go back to Earth with his message, but if no one believes him, Rock can just tell everyone Bernie went crazy.  I think that will be perfectly obvious.

Rock and Darren have a gun battle with a Martian and kill him, only to tear off his mask to find it’s Bernie.  “Only then did [Rock’s character] fully realize what was going to happen.  Men would come to the new frontier.  They would come because they were afraid or unafraid, because they were happy or unhappy, they would come with small dream or large dreams or no dreams at all, but they would come.  And then what would happen to Mars?” the narrator informs us.  Couldn’t that incredibly complex few sentences, which are merely a bunch of contradictions, have been best summed as “we will be coming.”

That’s the end of the first episode.  Frankly, my voice is hoarse from laughing.  I can’t wait for what comes next.

Part Two: The Settlers

Now it’s 2004.  It’s time to colonize Mars.  General Robert Beatty is interviewed by a reporter as a way to catch us up on the last three years (not the most clever way of doing it, but what would you expect by now?).  The General is convinced no life is left on Mars, the Martians done in by that nasty chicken pox epidemic.  A gigantic swarm of dildos…I mean rockets,  goes to Mars to start building.  In charge of the whole planet is our old pal Colonel Rock Hudson.  The narrator tells us that those who went to Mars have turned it into a replica of Earth (and this time, not a secret, like that pesky theory about pre-WWI hush-hush stuff).  The places where the first two expeditions landed are named after dead astronauts.  Rock has a mountain named after him, another astronaut a creek, another, well, you get the picture.

By 2006, Wolfgang Reichmann is one of the people who has come in search “of the unattainable.”  With wife Maria Schell in tow, he has built a beautiful home, but there is “only one thing missing.”  He misses fallen relative Michael Anderson.  In bed one night, Wolfgang hears whistling and, despite a giant storm, goes to find out what it is.  There’s a man outside and both Wolfgang and Maria recognize the figure as Michael!  Maria runs away in terror, but Wolfgang tells him that if he’s cold, he’ll leave the door unlocked and Michael can come in.  Stupidity runs in this family.

The next morning, Wolfgang hopes Michael is there, and he is, making breakfast as if he never disappeared.  Wolfgang is shocked to find his son alive, but through Martian mind tricks, he had done something to Maria as she slept so that she’s not at all surprised by his presence.  So the mind tricks don’t work on Dad, just Mom?  “There’s something about you.  You are [Michael’s character’s name], but yet you are not,” Wolfgang notes.  Very good!  Wolfgang may just earn a D in Miniseries Stupidity, where everyone else here is flunking en masse.

There are two types of people who can always be found whenever new colonies are formed: missionaries and hookers.  The missionaries apparently get there first.  Father Roddy McDowell and Father Fritz Weaver are there on a “quest for God himself.”  Just off the spaceship, both kneel and Father Fritz prays.  “How did you like space travel?” Rock asks them, the most natural question one can ask in this situation.

Father Fritz asks about a rumor he heard, that a man up in the hills broke his legs, but was healed by a blue light.  “There is no scientific evidence of the light,” Rock tells them, as if science has ever stopped anyone here from theorizing.  The priests are anxious to find out about this Martian phenomenon, but when Rock tells them there is no native life left on Mars, they will have to settle for the transported people who need religion.  However, Rock confides his last conversation with Bernie to the priests, the one where Bernie said there were “a few” Martians still left.  “I’ve been wondering about it ever since,” he says, not that he’s done anything to actually pursue it.  He’s too busy swapping one polyester pant suit for another.  He does indeed believe there are some Martians left somewhere.

Rock takes the Padres to an archaeological site, but Father Fritz is upset that the abandoned monuments are being taken apart, because the warning Bernie issued to Rock is rattling around in his head.  Father Fritz decides they will walk back to town, over the objections of prissy Father Roddy.  They leave the main road and Father Roddy issues nothing but complaints as they traipse around rocks in their sandals.  “We’ll be all right.  God is everywhere,” is Father Fritz’s answer to Father Roddy’s protestations that they are lost.  Are we sure God is interested in Mars?  His attentions certainly seemed to wander when he was in charge of just Earth!  Father Fritz is obsessed with meeting Martians, while Father Roddy just wants to convert humans.  Just in time to cut their senseless chatter short, three orbs of light appear.

“We come with God!” Father Fritz says to them, but apparently they are not interested, because they disappear as quickly as they appeared.  He yells after them, but all this does is cause an avalanche.  The orbs return to save the priests from falling rocks and then go away again.  “It’s proof that they have souls,” Father Fritz says, because he believes the orbs made a conscious decision to protect them, but Father Roddy thinks this is bunk.  He would rather save the miners and laborers Rock had mentioned.  Yeah, of course he would.

Not only does Rock have to send out a search party for the priests, but his more pressing problem is immigration.  Rabble has been coming to Mars and that’s not party of his idyllic plan for the planet.  But, too many people want to leave Earth because of its problems.

Back in the mountains, Father Fritz is visited again by the three blue lights.  One light picks him up and deposits him at the base of the mountain.  “You save me.  You wouldn’t let me die…You know!  You understand!” he tells them, before ruining the moment by vowing to build a mission right there, “but instead of a cross, a blue sphere, the Martian Christ.  We will live with you and we will help you discover God.”  Spoken like a true one-track-mind missionary.  The orb speaks.  “We are the old ones,” he is told.  “Once we had bodies…then we learned to free ourselves.  We have lived in the winds and skies since then…How we came to be has been forgotten…we have put away the weaknesses of the body and live in the grace of that whom you call God,” it continues, before listing a few of the seven deadly sins that they claim never to have committed.  The orb thanks him for the offer of a church, but they aren’t in need of one since their very selves are churches, but they do tell him to build one for people.  As if science fiction lunacy weren’t enough, now we’re adding religion to the mess of “The Martian Chronicles.”  Anyway, when Father Fritz wakes up Father Roddy, the latter is awfully confused by what he’s told.  He has the perplexed look of…of…well, anyone watching “The Martian Chronicles.”

Here’s another question I have to pose: why are their clouds on Mars just like there are on Earth?  Could no one cut them out of the film?

Michael shows up again at Wolfgang’s.  “Are you going to ask me who I am?” he asks Wolfgang, who says no.  Why not?  I want to know!  At dinner, Maria suggests they all go into town, but Michael says he’s afraid of the city, and their plastic-utensil dinner turns into an argument.  Maria will hear no refusal, they are going!  “Stay close father, I don’t want to get caught,” Michael tells Wolfgang.  They go into a town that looks like 1976, not 2006.  There is absolutely no attempt made by the creators here to even guess at what 2006 might look like.  Bell bottoms, satin shirts, the whole deal.  Michael is freaked out by the crowds and disappears.  Luckily, Wolfgang encounters Rock and asks him for help, until Rock figures out he’s asking about a dead astronaut.  By that time, Wolfgang has scampered off.

In what looks like an old bookmobile turned into a church-on-wheels, Father Fritz has no parishioners.  Perhaps if he used seats with backs instead cubes, people would want to show up and pray.  Suddenly, he seems blood dripping into the holy water and the hands of a man who has been crucified.  The man is…yes, the man is Jesus (a very handsome Jon Finch).  The crown of thorns, the flowing locks, all of it.  Okay, you guessed it.  He’s not really Jesus, just a Martian manifestation, a new bodily form of that being that had been Wolfgang’s son a few minutes ago.  “Release me!” he begs of Father Fritz, who believed the orbs, but doesn’t believe this isn’t Jesus.  “Beneath all of this, I’m another being!” he insists.  “If you force me into this guise much longer, I will do.  It’s more than I can hold,” Martian Jesus yells, explaining to Father Fritz that he’s forced into this bodily being because Father Fritz is such a believer in Christ.  Father Fritz simply turns around, tells the being to go and he’s gone.  So why all the yelling and screaming?  All it took was a denial from Father Fritz and it’s done.  Hell, the apostles denied him three times in the same amount of time.

Just at the right moment, Rock shows up to get the full explanation from Father Fritz.  “He can look like anyone they have in mind.  Anyone,” he dramatically says, telling him that it’s the people in town who unconsciously demand that this Martian take a human form.  Wolfgang is looking for Michael and a friend tells him a dead woman has been spotted, so this poor Martian is being made to take form after form after form.  He finds the Martian, now a woman, and she can’t change back into Michael, even though Wolfgang pleads that Maria will die if her son disappears again.  He promises the Martian, “we’ll never come into town again,” and the Martian morphs back into Michael.  Everyone starts chasing the Martian, because they all want to believe the various forms he has taken and a weird montage ensues where the Martian keeps alternating forms as everyone grabs for him.  Just as it’s getting good (this is the best scene in the movie so far), the Martian gasps for air and dies.  Oh, swell.  They have killed another one!  But, it does mean Rock has proof there are still Martian alive.

When Rock arrives home, wife Gayle asks, “have you heard the news from home?  There’s going to be a war.”  Since Rock can’t possible act well enough to show what’s going on in his mind, the narrator needs to explain it to us.  He decides to return to Earth to bring his family to safety.  Gayle says the family should just come on the next shuttle.  “Don’t you understand?  There won’t be any more shuttles!” Rock snaps, without explaining why.  “Then we’ll be cut off isolated,” Gayle winds, her sweater so tight you can see through her bra.  Well, yes, Gayle, but you do have an entire planet and lots of people there.  It’s not the worst place to be with the Earth dwellers do each other in.  Rock gets in touch with his brother to find out the President has siphoned all money for space into the defense budget and the colony is cut off, which prompts Rock to pick that very moment to admit they don’t know very much about Mars and may not be able to sustain their lives.  Wait, no one knew that before?  Rock and company have been lying to everyone?

In a desperate state, Rock hightails it to the local burger joint, which is run by Darren McGavin in a rhinestone cowboy outfit, complete with fringe.  Rock also gets to meet Darren’s wife, Joyce Van Patten, wearing even more fringe.  Rock lowers the boom that the colony may be doomed because no one else will be coming, that travel from Earth has been cut off.  “You stay here at your own risk, but if you change your mind, be in town tomorrow,” Rock tells them and rides off.  I would say this was the most useless scene in the movie so far, but there have been so many worthy candidates for that honor, that it’s merely one of the more amusing diversions.

As Joyce and Darren are worrying if Rock is right, a Martian shows up, wearing regulation muumuu, but also a big V mask to cover his face.  He has something for Darren, who panics and shoots the Martian instead of taking the offered item.  It turns out it was only a message.  “We better go get the shovel,” Darren says.  Darren spends the next scene justifying his actions to Joyce until she sees a bunch of “sand ships” making their way to the restaurant.  Darren can’t believe what they are, because “I bought the last one…at an auction!”

The sand ships are just what they sound like, ships that use wind to guide them, masts and all.  Darren’s car is broken, so their only hope of escape is in the sand ship he bought.  The three Martian sand ships chase them, as a pace only slightly faster than an injured elephant could manage.  The wide shots show them to be toys pulled by string, really bad models.  Darren pulls out a gun and shoots the Martians in one ship, killing them, but there are still two others with plastic figurines in them.  The Martians board Darren’s sand ship, but not to kill him, but rather to give him the deed to over half the planet.  “We need you now.  Prepare.  Tonight is the night,” the Martian tells Darren and Joyce before going off in his sand ship.

Joyce finds Earth on her telescope, which looks like an x-ray machine and while Darren is looking at it, it suddenly goes red and a mushroom cloud bursts open.  The Cold War fascination with nuclear war has come to pass.  “It looks like it’s gonna be an off season,” Joyce giggles to Darren, having gone completely bonkers.  The second parts ends on this note, an odd one of comic relief given that the Earth has just launched a nuclear war.

Part Three: The Martians

It’s now November 2006.  “The Earth is dead, but are there people still alive?” the narrator asks.  Rock is about to find out, since he’s piloted a rocket ship back to his home planet in search of his brother.  At mission control, it’s deserted.  Not even a dead body to be found.  Rock is able to press a button labeled “Memory” to watch his brother and everyone else disappear when the war happened.  Since when does nuclear war make bodies disappear?  Maimed and twisted, limbs lost, all of that, but full-on disappearance?  They never taught us that as we all hid under our desks in those endless school drills.

“The town is dead,” our increasingly kill-joy-like narrator tells us of the colony on Mars.  Everyone seems to have disappeared, except Christopher Connelly, who plays kick the can and pitches pennies to amuse his lonely self.  Where did everyone go?  Why is Mars abandoned too?  Christopher hears a phone and runs to answer it, but no one is there.  His guess is that “a pole blew down somewhere, activated the circuit and you rang all by yourself, didn’t you?”  That’s up there with the pre-World War I secret space travel theory.  After he walks away, the phone rings again in a different place.  He breaks into a house to answer it, but he’s too late.  Christopher decides to call every number in the phone book, in order, to find out who might still be there.  Rattling off the names one-by-one, he gets a “no reply” screen from every number until Gladys Livingston, who seems to be the only person on Mars with an answering machine.  “I would be glad to leave a message,” Christopher yells into the phone, “GO TO HELL!”

Christopher assumes the only person left on Mars must be a woman, though he has no concrete proof of why he thinks that, and guesses that the woman must be at a beauty salon, so he calls them.  Wait!  How sexist is that?  If she’s the only woman left on Mars, what would she be doing at a beauty salon?  Why be beautiful?  But, it works!  He dials all of the beauty salons and Bernadette Peters picks up at one of them.  Excited, Christopher gets in his travel thingamajig, a weird little airborne motorcycle, to fetch Bernadette.

The narrator tells us that there are actually a few people left on Mars, who didn’t go leave with “the exodus,” although he neglects to tell us why there was an exodus or where the people went.  Lousy friggin’ narrator!  Barry Morse is also alive, using his telescope to find any sign of life and therefore potential rescue.  His wife and daughter have remained with him and one night, he spots a ship in space, assuming it’s coming for him and they will be saved.  His not-very-helpful wife sits near his telescope and knits as he frantically tries to make contact with the ship.  Alas, despite the colorful light show of lasers he beams up at the ship, no one responds.

Christopher shows up at the beauty salon to find va-va-va-voom Bernadette decked out in jewels, make-up and a fresh hairdo.  She won’t shake his hand because “my nails are wet.”  What does he do first?  Asks her out on a date.  No discussion of survival, no mutual worry that they are the last people on Mars, just a date.  She agrees.  He dons a sequined red coat with ruffled shirt and she wears a form-fitting satin dress with a fur stole.  They go to a restaurant, but of course it’s deserted.  I thought the Darren-Joyce scenes were grating in their comic flippancy, but this scene tops them all.  Bernadette asks for a drink and Christopher puts some extra alcohol in it.  Um, she’s kind of a sure thing no matter what, because you are the last man around!

Bernadette is hysterically self-absorbed, insisting on sitting near mirrors.  “Does my hair look all right?  I had such a time trying to give myself a permanent and then trying to style it.  Ugh!,” she says, focused only on the mirror and ignoring Christopher.  She then criticizes the drink he’s made and she wants food.  Lucky Christopher.  He’s met the only single woman still on the planet and she’s a self-entered nitwit.  The entire tone of the miniseries has gone from non-sensical science fiction to completely inane comedy, which is not the least bit helpful or interesting.  While Christopher cooks in the kitchen, Bernadette reapplies her make-up a few times and stays focused on herself.  She’s still doing it when dinner is served.  “I just can’t eat that much.  I have to watch my figure,” she chirps, talking of how her beauty regime has been interrupted.  “That’s the trouble with living on Mars.  The latest fashions don’t get here soon enough,” she bleats, hating the cut of her dress.  Christopher reminds here there was a war on Earth, but she can’t be bothered with that as she plucks her eyebrows.  Why didn’t she leave Mars with everyone else?  “They wouldn’t let me take all my clothes,” she replies, much to Christopher’s stupefaction.  He has a better excuse, being in the mountains alone when the evacuation occurred.  Finally, Christopher has enough of her ridiculous self-absorption and ends the dinner, saying he’s tired and wants “to go to bed now.”

On the way to her house, Bernadette rattles on about her wardrobe, make-up, shoes and everything she’s been able to get for free, but Christopher just wants to get her into bed.  At the door, she sends him off, telling him they should have brunch the next day so he can start fixing all of the broken appliances.  She won’t allow him in, but gives him a list of things to buy in order to complete those repairs.  The narrator informs us that Christopher was “fairly disenchanted” and “vows never to return.”  Fairly disenchanted?  There’s one woman left on earth and he can’t have her!  I would say he’s more than “fairly disenchanted.”  Furthermore, he flies in his little machine over 10,000 miles to put Bernadette out of his mind, “but still he can find no peace.”  Where did he get the fuel to fly 10,000 miles?  Just asking.

Barry has had no more luck saving his family.  “Don’t worry…haven’t you go everything you want right here?” his wife asks.  His wife and special needs daughter (I kid you not, they have actually given him a special needs daughter) are as oblivious to their lonely state as Bernadette, playing endless hands of gin rummy as Barry paces.  He spots another rocket and does that laser show thing again, and this time the ship lands.

Who is on the ship?  Rock Hudson, of course, and, for some reason, Father Roddy McDowell.  Rock recognizes Barry, but has to deliver the bad news that they can’t go back to Earth, but he invites his whole family to stay with him.  For the second time in five minutes, Barry almost collapses, which is miniseries lingo for “he’s a goner.”

Rock is puzzled when he meets Barry’s family.  When Barry goes into the kitchen for drinks, Rock confides in Roddy that the wife and daughter seem to be frozen in time.  He was at their wedding and no one has aged.  He says the daughter should be much older and comments on how young Barry’s wife looks.  Rock sneaks out to poke around the buildings on Barry’s property, finding two graves…for Barry’s wife and daughter!  Getting Roddy alone again, Rock tells Roddy of his discovery, that the wife and daughter have been dead for seven years.

Barry gives a teary toast to his family and visitors, only to suffer a massive heart attack.  He begs Rock not to tell the fake wife and daughter they are not real and then promptly dies.  The wife and daughter don’t react at all emotionally.  “How do you feel?” Rock asks, and the wife says, “he didn’t want us to cry.  He didn’t teach us how.”  The fake wife and daughter actually know they are fake, but since they don’t have any sad emotions programmed in, they go on with their chores.  As Rock and Roddy leave, Roddy gets all philosophical, saying they should leave the fake wife and daughter because they don’t know anything but the life they are leading and should be left alone to lead it.  Hey, whatever helps you sleep at night, buddy.

After Rock and Roddy leave, Christopher shows up at Barry’s home, where the wife is knitting and the daughter is playing a game.  He is welcomed by mother and daughter warmly.  They are programmed to make people happy, so now they have a purpose again.  “You have come to the right place…precisely!” the fake wife says with a large smile.  That neatly wraps up Christopher’s story, albeit in a nonsensical hokey manner.

Also left on Mars is Darren McGavin, still sporting his cowboy outfit, though minus the rhinestones and the toupee.  He tells Rock that Joyce had taken to her bed the night of the nuclear war and hasn’t been up since.  But, he has supplies enough to make coffee.  Darren shows Rock the deed the Martians gave him.  Rock is flabbergasted that there might still be Martians alive and he wants to talk to them.  Darren doesn’t advice chasing them.  “They look weird,” he says, like a four-year old boy.  Since Darren shot at one of the Martians, Rock is upset because “all I’ve ever wanted is to see a Martian, to talk to one,” and Darren’s behavior has probably chased them away.

Rock has a brilliant thought (without taking the time to think of it): what is the Martians knew that Earth was going to destroy itself and they gave Darren the land grant so survivors could start over.  “What’s the point of destroying two civilizations?” he wonders aloud.  So, the Martians, apparently not upset at the chicken pox decimation or anything else, are actually nice aliens who wanted to help the humans, but just couldn’t express it correctly?  Hmm, okay.  If you say so.

Our hero goes to one of the city ruins and there encounters a muumuu-clad Martian who speaks a language Rock doesn’t understand.  So, the Martian puts his hand over Rock’s head and suddenly he can speak English.  “My God, you’re a ghost!” Rock says, shocked, when he goes to put his hand on the Martian’s shoulder and his hand goes right through him.  The same happens when the Martian does it to Rock.  I guess sex is completely out of the question.  The Martian knows nothing of Earth, the plague of chicken pox or anything else that’s happened in the movie.  Rock sees only an empty city, but the Martian can see lights and beings and even an ocean.  We have our final swooping explanation now.  “This can mean only one thing.  It has to do with time.  You’re a figment of the past!” the Martian says.  “You are from the past,” Rock argues.  Each has proof he’s alive, but it’s not convincing enough to the other.

Rock is finally getting his chance to talk to a Martian and the conversation makes absolutely no sense.  The Martian wonders if perhaps what Rock is seeing isn’t the ruins of his own civilization.  “Who can tell what is past and what is future?” the Martian wonders.  I can!  The past is my faith in television before seeing “The Martian Chronicles” and my future is more cynicism after having seen it.  “All that matters is that you see your world and I see mine.  Isn’t that enough, no matter what we each believe?” the increasingly-maddening Martian asks Rock, trying his hardest to give this miniseries a moral, where for over four hours it’s lacked one.  More of the same follows, though the rhetoric gets more absurd, sounding like random words strung together.  “Life is its own answer.  Live it day by day and expect no more,” the Martian says, as if that means ANYTHING.

After giving Rock a whole lot to think about (and the rest of us a royal headache), the Martian announces he has to go to his people and Rock has to do the same.  They part as if they are going to dinner parties on opposite sides of town.

“His dream of sharing this world with a few survivors of a race that has existed here for eons” is forever gone, the narrator says of Rock.  What we didn’t know is that Rock’s wife and kids are still living, though bored with their existence.  Gayle suggests the kids watch a movie, but they have seen them all “a million times.”  Rock returns to his family and suddenly has an idea.  First, however, he gets his big speech moment, the one we knew was coming, where he rephrases the Martian’s words for his wife’s benefit.  “We’re leaving this place,” he tells her.  “Where are we going?”  “Where it all started.”  Where what started?  Time immemorial?  The movie?  The scene?  He packs the family into a boat and puts some dynamite in a suitcase.  He promises the kids they will see Martians!  “How far are we doing, Dad?” one asks.  “Four million years,” Rock responds.  I have no idea what that means.  Sorry, I wish I could help.  He takes his family to the ancient Martian outpost, where he just had the conversation with the maybe-past-maybe-present-maybe-future Martian.  The last few moments are padded by reminders of past moments.  Rock decides they will live there, but the wife and kids aren’t sold on it, so he pretends it’s temporary.  He uses a campfire to burn the last vestiges of humankind, starting, by the way, with “Das Kapital.”  “I’m burning what’s behind us, burning a way of life, the same way of life that burned on Earth,” he says before launching into a full assault castigation of humans, who are greedy and war-loving.  But, the four of them will start fresh on Mars, as if it’s some sort of Garden of Eden.  How exactly are they going to procreate?  Rock’s not so good with the ladies, but there’s only one lady around anyway!

He promises his kids they will see Martians, but what he shows them is their reflection in a pool of water.  Get it, they are no longer Eartlings.  They are Martians because they live on Mars and have no more connection to Earth.  To guarantee they can’t go back, he blows up the last remaining rocket.

I’m torn as to what actually is the biggest problem with “The Martian Chronicles.”  It’s too easy to pick the acting, because no one has a chance given the script.  Is it the special effects?  They are awfully cheap, and this was made after “Star Wars,” so it would have been nice to spend a bit more money.  It’s not actually anything physical.  It could be the wildly shifting tones.  The deadly serious beginning section turns boring for the second and almost comical for the third.  But no, the biggest problem is the lack of any actual sense.  Not only does the script constantly force us to believe its conclusions, it doesn’t bother to explain them.  Science fiction is not supposed to make sense on its own, but the fun of science fiction is watching the creators come up with plausible reasons to explain what is happening.  How many times did “Star Trek” explain its goofy plots with machines or races of people who didn’t exist?  Every episode, but it was believable!  In “The Martian Chronicles,” characters run around two planets making sweeping assumptions and no one questions them.  When one’s mouth hangs open in surprise for nearly five hours, the miniseries has a problem.

That said, there is so much deliciously awful fun to be had here, it’s worth looking at.  Where else will you see Rock Hudson as the head of a space program or Roddy McDowell as a priest?  Only in “The Martian Chronicles.”

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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