Every Tuesday, Matthew R. Bradley takes us through the career of Richard Matheson. Catch up with the series through the Richard Matheson—Storyteller index.
In the late 1970s, Matheson embarked on a project with producer Stephen Deutsch (now known as Stephen Simon) that occupied some three years of his life, with nothing to show for it publicly until approximately a quarter of a century later. They planned a twenty-hour miniseries entitled The Link, with three major storylines incorporating “spiritualism, parapsychology, the occult and metaphysics,” and he spent a year and a half on a 557-page narrative outline, finally published by Gauntlet in 2006. ABC asked him to reduce it to seven hours, but after he scripted the first three they parted ways, whereupon Matheson spent another year and a half writing the first 800 pages of a novelization, eventually abandoned at his literary agent’s urging due to its gargantuan scope.
The most ambitious of Matheson’s produced scripts, however, came to fruition when NBC aired his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as a six-hour miniseries in January of 1980. The success of Star Wars (1977) was the catalyst for a property that had languished since Bradbury’s own attempts to bring his loosely connected 1950 collection of stories about the Red Planet to the screen twenty years earlier. Rock Hudson headed a cast that included such familiar faces as Gayle Hunnicutt and Roddy McDowall from The Legend of Hell House (1973); Darren McGavin, best known as Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker (1972); Joyce Van Patten, a veteran of The Stranger Within (1974); and Fritz Weaver of “Third from the Sun” on The Twilight Zone.
The miniseries has come in for more than its share of flak over the years, partly due to the leaden direction of Michael Anderson, who had perpetrated such reviled genre films as 1984 (1956) and Orca (1977), and the special effects, some of which even executive producer Charles Fries later described as “terrible.” Also beyond Matheson’s control were changes to his script, with “There Shall Come Soft Rains” relocated from Bradbury’s mechanized house to the costly space-center set, and “Usher II” replaced with an adaptation of “The Long Years” that he did not write. But a close comparison reveals that while providing desired continuity by making Hudson’s Col. John Wilder a recurring character throughout the stories, Matheson’s teleplay was extremely faithful.
Bradbury, who had approved of both this restructuring and Matheson’s script on paper, remade a number of stories from The Martian Chronicles on his cable anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theater, just as he did some of the material from the disappointing 1969 feature-film version of his 1951 collection The Illustrated Man. He also adapted “Usher II,” with Lee Tamahori of Die Another Day (2002) directing Avengers legend Patrick Macnee, and “The Earth Men,” two of the stories from the book that were not filmed in the NBC version. Postponed for three months for last-minute tinkering, after an ill-fated press conference at which Bradbury called it “boring,” the miniseries was broadcast in three parts: “The Expeditions,” “The Settlers,” and “The Martians.”
Interplanetary relations get off to a rocky start with “Ylla,” as the first expedition is wiped out by the title character’s jealous husband, and “The Third Expedition,” which—recalling Matheson’s Twilight Zone episode “Death Ship”—is lulled into complacency by images of loved ones drawn from their memories before being killed. (“The Earth Men” told how the Second Expedition was locked up as lunatics and euthanized.) “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” pits Wilder against astronaut Spender (Bernie Casey), who takes it upon himself to avenge the Martians apparently ravaged by chicken pox brought from Earth; the characters were played by Kenneth Welsh and David Carradine on Bradbury’s show, where “The Third Expedition” became “Mars Is Heaven.”
The second installment summarizes the subsequent colonization with narration taken from “The Settlers,” “The Locusts,” and “The Naming of Names” before launching into an adaptation of “The Martian,” who uses his mental powers to let a grieving couple see him as their dead son. Matheson made them the parents of one of the slain astronauts, but Bradbury required no such link on his series. “The Fire Balloons” (published in The Illustrated Man) depicts missionaries Weaver and McDowall as they encounter disembodied Martian “Old Ones,” while in “The Off Season,” Wilder’s colleague Sam Parkhill (McGavin) and his wife Elma (Van Patten) have just opened a Western-style café to cater to hungry colonists when nuclear war breaks out on Earth.
Part Three shows the plight of colonists left behind in the exodus, such as Ben Driscoll (a name borrowed from Bradbury’s “The Green Morning” and restored to Walter Gripp in his version of “The Silent Towns”), who finds that his female counterpart might not be worth the trip. Wilder learns of his brother’s vaporization in the vestigial “There Shall Come Soft Rains,” then meets Peter Hathaway (Barry Morse)—played by Robert Culp on Bradbury’s series—who has endured “The Long Years” with android duplicates of his family. Replacing the protagonists of “Night Meeting” and “The Million-Year Picnic,” Wilder learns the secret of living from a wise Martian and decides to remain there with his wife (Hunnicutt) and children, learning of the Martian ways.
Filmed in Britain, Malta, and on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, The Martian Chronicles did well in the ratings and shared a 1981 Hugo nomination for Best Dramatic Presentation with The Lathe of Heaven (1980), but its negative reputation persists. It was subjected to a final indignity when, on subsequent airings, “The Settlers” and “The Martians” were conflated into a single two-hour segment under the former title. A highly touted rebroadcast several years ago on The Network Formerly Known as Sci-Fi ignored the fact that the miniseries was shorn of a third of its running time, with “The Fire Balloons,” “There Shall Come Soft Rains,” “The Silent Towns,” and “The Long Years” excised and the names of their leading players likewise expunged from the credits.
Matthew R. Bradley is the author of Richard Matheson on Screen, now in its second printing, and the co-editor—with Stanley Wiater and Paul Stuve—of The Richard Matheson Companion (Gauntlet, 2008), revised and updated as The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson (Citadel, 2009). Check out his blog, Bradley on Film.