Now relegated to your (TV) grocer’s cheese aisle, the TV attempt at Ray Bradbury’s classic stories was actually a test run for something that wouldn’t happen for quite a while.
Alas, poor NBC. It just couldn’t catch a break in 1979. Under the leadership of Fred Silverberg, who migrated from the network president’s office at ABC over to the same office at NBC, a record amount was spent on both new programming and on the 1980 Winter Olympics. Lake Placid probably seemed like the warmest possible destination to network ad sales execs after a year that had seen gigantic expensive prime-time flops such as Supertrain (of which more another time). But looking ahead to the fall ’79 season, surely the insanely expensive, all-star NBC/BBC co-production of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles offered some hope of a ratings recovery.
But even this much-touted production was going to come in for a rough landing.
The idea was to bring top talent – both those well-versed in the sci-fi genre and mainstream A-listers as well – to bear on a definitive telling of one of literary science fiction’s best-loved entries. No less than Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone, Ghost Story, The Night Stalker, Star Trek) was brought in to adapt Bradbury’s tales into something that maybe, just maybe, two of the biggest broadcasters on the planet Earth might be able to afford to put on film. Some concessions had to be made to reach this goal. But surely, assigning someone accustomed to squeezing the most out of a major movie budget would yield good results, right? Enter director Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run, Orca, Around The World In 80 Days). Actually, just from a personnel standpoint, this sounds like it’s bound for glory, right?
Now add a cast of stars from both sides of the Atlantic – Rock Hudson! Darren McGavin! Bernie Casey! Bernadette Peters! Roddy McDowall! Fritz Weaver! Even lesser-known genre favorites crowded the cast listings – Nicholas Hammond (CBS’ live-action Spider-Man), Barry Morse (Space: 1999), Robert Beatty (2001: a space odyssey, Blake’s 7, Doctor Who), and many others would take part too. How could this fail?
The death blow came from something of a surprising place. At a press junket promoting NBC’s fall lineup, author Ray Bradbury was – somewhat surprisingly – the only person connected to the star-studded three-night Martian Chronicles miniseries available to the press. He had worked with Matheson on the script adaptations and had signed off on, at least, the written results of those writing sessions before they went to stages and exotic locations around the world (including Lanzarote, standing in for remnants of Martian civilization on the banks of the planet’s fabled – and fictional – canals).
And when asked what he thought of the show that had resulted, Bradbury replied, with typical candor, that it was… boring… and wasn’t an especially faithful rendition of what he had written.
Remember those executive offices at NBC mentioned earlier? Cue the sound of dozens of foreheads slamming into dozens of desks. The beloved sci-fi author had just proclaimed this very, very expensive adaptation of his own work a snoozer. In public. The Martian Chronicles was quietly moved off the fall schedule, no longer the launch event of NBC’s new fall lineup.
The Martian Chronicles did air in 1979 on the BBC, as well as getting a European theatrical release in a heavily-edited 90 minute form. But in the United States, it was quietly shuffled into the last week of January 1980 that wouldn’t be occupied by the Winter Olympics. And, somewhat predictably, it wasn’t heavily promoted by NBC – they were burning off all three nights outside of a ratings sweeps month, where they would do the least harm. This meant that few people were exposed to Stanley Myers’ amazing theme music for the mission leaving Earth, which almost sounded like “DALLAS…in spaaaaaace!”
Ironically, the audience that had been primed for The Martian Chronicles before it was shuffled off to its new, do-no-harm time slot… showed up in reasonable numbers to watch it. Perhaps in spite of Bradbury’s criticism, or perhaps because of it, it made a showing in the ratings, but not enough for NBC to consider doing anything further with it. The legal difficulties of rounding up the rights to the stories had proven formidable. Even when it was still considered a hot contender as a one-off miniseries, nobody was excitedly discussing The Martian Chronicles‘ prospects for continuing as a weekly series.
Thus was The Martian Chronicles buried, not in the Martian regolith but in the soft peat of the pre-Olympics prime-time schedule, where presumably NBC hoped it would never be spoken of again. (It has since resurfaced on DVD, and of course it’s on YouTube, where – somewhat surprisingly – nobody feels possessive enough of it to issue takedowns for the multiple copies of all three nights that have been uploaded.)
From time to time, the Hollywood trade press will buzz slightly as someone makes some maneuver toward bringing Bradbury’s stories to the big screen, and of course, Bradbury himself is – as of 2012 – no longer around to either contest any new attempts (or to declare them boring in public just prior to release). And while a few of Bradbury’s stories from the Martian Chronicles did indeed see production on TV – as a handful of episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theatre – this ill-fated miniseries stands as the one attempt that has actually made it to our screens as a major production, perhaps as a warning to future generations: if you think going to Mars in real life is difficult…just try creating Mars on a TV budget.
But was The Martian Chronicles a harbinger of something else? In a way, yes. Revisiting the 1980 miniseries with fresh eyes, and with an international context that comes from having watched sci-fi TV from both sides of the Atlantic, it’s easy to see that this was a trial balloon for pooling international resources to tackle a genre that was a budget bear for visual media. Star Wars had reset the registers for what the public expected from sci-fi in 1977; Universal Studios had spent the 1978-79 TV season reeling from the budget of Battlestar Galactica trying to bring Star Wars-style spectacle to the small screen. NBC got a taste of that too, before the decade was out, as Glen A. Larson brought similar resources (and expenses) to bear on Buck Rogers In The 25th Century.
The Martian Chronicles featured special effects model work that was top-notch for the BBC, but wasn’t up to the level that NBC was seeing in Buck Rogers. There was already a great disparity in how much money, and technology, the respective international broadcasters could bring to bear on bringing sci-fi to television. (For context, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers were on TV at the same time as the BBC’s Blake’s 7 and mid-Tom-Baker-era Doctor Who – and yet no one would, with a straight face, claim that the effects work of the American and British shows were on the same level.)
Fast forward to the 21st century, and now international co-productions are the norm, and digital effects have reached a level achievable on both sides of the ocean. Modern Doctor Who is as flashy as modern Star Trek. International co-productions are now the norm – in fact, as expensive as the aforementioned flashy digital effects are, international co-productions, and the cash infusions that selling international rights brings in, are often the only way shows of this scale get made anymore.
The Martian Chronicles was indeed pointing the way to the future – not with what it put on our screens, but with how things were assembled behind the scenes.