Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ray Bradbury Theatre: The Martian Episodes (Alberta Filmworks, Atlantis Films, Ellipse Animation, 1990-1992)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For days now I’ve been wanting to comment on the quite remarkable Mars movie screening in Golden Hill Charles and I went to Friday, June 17, a program of seven episodes from the Ray Bradbury Theatre TV series which ran from 1988 to 1993 set on and/or dealing with Mars. Of course Ray Bradbury is one of the legendary authors and one of the first science-fiction writers to break out of the genre ghetto and be accepted as a literary heavyweight, and his strengths are an almost poetic prose style and an imagination that cut across the technological triumphalism of much sci-fi of the 1940’s and 1950’s and questioned whether the scientific and technological advances of his time were such a good thing. He also was one of those writers who lived so long he virtually became an institution, and this show, produced in Canada and originally aired (at least in this country) on the USA Network), drew on a lot of his old stories for which he did fresh adaptations. It also featured the usual mix of on-their-way-up and on-their-way-down actors usually cast in relatively cheap TV shows; I can’t recall anyone from the lower reaches of these casts who subsequently made it to stardom (though Paul Clemens, cast as the long-lost son Tom in “The Martian,” certainly deserved to; he was not only quite sexy in an unassuming way but managed to achieve a genuinely complex performance in a not-that-well filled-out role) but among the on-their-way-downs were David Carradine, Hal Linden, David Birney and Robert Culp.

What came through most strongly in these seven shows — “The Concrete Mixer” (1992), “Mars Is Heaven” (1990), “The Earthmen” (1992), “And the Moon Be Still As Bright” (1990), “The Martian” (1992), “The Silent Towns” (1992) and “The Long Years” (1990) — is how much of Bradbury’s fiction deals with human loss; at times he seemed to be out to prove single-handedly that the usual “rap” against science fiction, that it presented imaginative technologies but cardboard people, was wrong. It’s difficult to tell who came first since neither the credits of the shows themselves nor gave publication dates for Bradbury’s original stories, but it seems as if Bradbury anticipated Kurt Vonnegut in his fusion of an idealized small-town America (which, of course, proves considerably less ideal than advertised) and Solaris author Stanislaw Lem in the idea that humans could visit an alien planet whose intelligences would probe their minds and reconstruct their lives on Earth, not only the environments in which they had lived but people they had known who had died but now were resurrected based on the aliens’ reading the people’s memories of them. At the same time the influence of O. Henry and his famous surprise endings is clear in a lot of these stories (including such other “serious” science-fiction tales as Rod Serling’s and others’ scripts for The Twilight Zone — no one with more than a passing familiarity with The Twilight Zone would have been especially surprised by the famous “surprise” ending Serling stuck onto his script for the original Planet of the Apes), notably “The Earthmen,” which is about a group of astronauts who land on Mars as part of the third Earth expedition to the Red Planet and spend a lot of time making frustrating attempts to contact the Martians — all the ones they meet have names like “Mr. X” (Gordon Pinsent), “Mrs. Th” (Patricia Phillips), “Mr. Aaa” (pronounced “Ah”) (Jim Shepard) and “Mr. Iii” (Raul Tome), and when the mission’s captain, Williams (David Birney), tries to present himself he’s given what appears to be a simple bureaucratic runaround until … at the very end they’re ushered into a room which it turns out is an old-fashioned Bedlam- or Snake Pit-style insane asylum, to which he, his crew and the crews of the two previous expeditions have been committed for having the delusion that they’re visitors from Earth.

Actually the first episode shown, “The Concrete Mixer,” was in some ways the best — certainly after it everything else seemed just a bit anticlimactic — in which a small group of Martians attempt to stage an invasion of Earth. Their leader, Ettil Vyre (Ben Cross, who looks like he won the part in a Michael Rennie lookalike contest), is initially unwilling to go, alluding to some dire fate he thinks will befall the Martian army and making it clear he’d rather stay with his wife and kids on Mars, but he’s talked into going. The Martians’ small numbers, preposterous uniforms and weird-looking armaments are reminiscent of the invading force from the Duchy of Grand Fenwick in Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse That Roared — only the whole point of Grand Fenwick’s invasion of the U.S. was to lose the war and then be showered with the huge amount of foreign aid Germany, Italy and Japan got from us after we beat them in World War II. (After the woeful non-reconstruction of Iraq following the 2003 war, that joke is a good deal less funny now than it was when Wibberley thought it up.) What actually happens is that the Martians are greeted by an unctuous Rotarian type who gives them the key to whatever Earth city they’ve landed in, they’re impressed into marching in a parade in their honor with a properly awful marching band supplying the music, and they end up in the raunchier part of town drinking and carousing with no-good women — Ettil tries to instill some discipline into his fellow Martian soldiers and get them away from the 24/7 party and back to the serious business of conquering Earth, but to no avail.

It’s a spoof not only of science-fiction conventions of outer-space invaders but of the whole hail-fellow-well-met spirit of small-town America in the 1950’s and the presentation of that decade as some sort of ideal in much of America’s political propaganda (though one of the odd things about the modern-day American right is that mythical past they want to take us back to — you know, the one when America was “great” and Donald Trump wants to make us “great again” — seems to be receding; for a while it was the 1950’s because back then women were still in the kitchen, Blacks at the back of the bus and Queers in the closet, until they realized that the 1950’s were also the decade of the highest income-tax rates in U.S. history and the highest percentage of the American workforce in unions; then it was the 1880’s, the age of the “robber barons” when corporations freely and openly bought elections and did whatever they wanted, U.S. Senators were still elected by state legislatures instead of directly by the people, and there was no income tax at all; and some of the corporate leaders and Tea Partiers seem to want to go back even further, to the 1820’s, when only white male landowners could vote) when so many writers in so many genres, including Evan Hunter and John D. MacDonald, presented the 1950’s as a living hell when they were still going on. (It’s also worth noting that “The Concrete Mixer” was directed by Eleanore Lindo; quite a few of the Ray Bradbury Theatre episodes were directed by women, including Anne Wheeler on “The Martian.”) “The Concrete Mixer” is also arguably an illustration of the so-called “Double-Cross System” by which the British secret service was able to “turn” virtually every German agent sent to the U.K. to spy on them during World War II — and the first step in doing this was to treat the German prisoners humanely, respectfully and with dignity. Like the Martians in this movie, this sent the Germans into cognitive dissonance big-time; they were in the hands of enemies they’d been trained to regard as inhuman monsters, and instead the “enemies” were being nice to them, treating them as fellow human beings and winning their trust and confidence preparatory to getting them to switch sides.

Quite a few stories in this cycle explore the issue of grief and the lengths to which people (or Martians) will go to keep their dead loved ones’ memories alive in some form. In “The Martian” Earth couple LaFarge (John Vernon) and his wife Anna (Sheila Moore) are confronted with the return of their long-dead son Tom (Paul Clemens), or at least a Martian using their memories of Tom to pose as him — but for what purpose? Anna uncritically accepts the reappeared Tom as the real deal but her husband is more skeptical. He worries that “Tom” is actually a Martian seeking to get into their house so he can kill them all, and the last shot of the show is of a long, lanky, scrawny arm — apparently Tom’s equipment in his original form — reaching from behind LaFarge over his shoulder, possibly to murder him. Another emotional wrencher is “The Long Years,” in which Robert Culp plays the head of a family that has been living on Mars for two decades, ever since the rest of the human colony on Mars evacuated (at least one other story on this program dealt with human colonists on Mars missing a planet-wide order to evacuate) — only when another ship arrives from Earth to take them home, John Hathaway (Robert Culp) has aged visibly the way you would expect him to … but his wife, son and daughter are all the same apparent age they were when they got to Mars. Eventually it turns out that his family were all killed by a Martian infectious disease, he buried them but then made perfect (or as perfect as possible) android replicas — who are fully conscious of everything he could recall and program into them about their real-life originals but who don’t know that they’re androids. In a scene of ineffable grief, sadness and loss, John has to take leave of his (simulated) family in a way that will keep them hopeful of his return someday but not break their hearts too much if he doesn’t. The gimmick of the disease that wiped out an entire population from another planet because their immune systems had never seen anything like it before and thus they had no biological defense (something that happened quite frequently during the so-called “Age of Exploration,” in which whites brought their diseases to Third World populations that had experienced nothing like them) had of course been most famously exploited in Mars fiction in H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in which the Earth militaries have no defense against the Martians’ technologically ultra-sophisticated attack machines but the Martians’ bodies had no defense against Earth’s commonest infectious microbes. (Wells was a Fabian socialist and an animal-rights activist — if you actually read The Island of Dr. Moreau sometime instead of just judging it from whichever of the three film versions you’ve seen, you’ll be struck at how blatant its animal-rights propaganda is.)

Another show in this cycle used it in reverse — in “And the Moon Be Still as Bright” (a title Bradbury lifted from Lord Byron’s poem “So We’ll Go No More a Roving,” which is quoted in the dialogue) the entire Martian race has been wiped out by the chickenpox virus, which a member of an Earth expedition to Mars unwittingly carried to the Red Planet. All that’s left of the Martians are the black leaf-like objects their bodies degenerated into when they died. The key character in this one is Spender (David Carradine, over a decade after his hit TV series Kung Fu but playing an oddly similar role as a person who becomes attached to a culture not his own but which he considers superior, and acting well enough his tragic death becomes all the sadder), who ends up so totally identifying with the lost Martian civilization that, when a fellow Earth astronaut breaks a glass cylinder containing a large chunk of Martian knowledge, Spender goes berserk and starts killing his crew to protect the Martian legacy against Earthlings who are just going to destroy everything on Mars the way they did with the indigenous cultures white people “discovered” on Earth. I’m not sure how Lord Byron’s poem (“So, we’ll go no more a roving/So late into the night,/Though the heart be still as loving,/And the moon be still as bright”) fits the tale, but Spender is fond of quoting it (that first stanza, anyway; there are two others) and the story itself is a typically Bradburyan bit of romantic cynicism (in his writing the two are decidedly not oxymoronic!) that, like so much of his work, achieves a sense of genuine tragedy that marked him as a “special” writer when he started to emerge from the world of sci-fi pulps and get “noticed” by literary critics and non-genre readers.

About the only episode that rubbed me the wrong way was “The Silent Towns,” yet another one about Earthlings stranded on Mars when the entire planet was evacuated; Walter Grip (John Glover) is driving around Mars in a truck (how does he fuel it?) when he hears repeated examples of telephones ringing in abandoned houses. He keeps trying to answer them and the calls keep cutting off before they can do so, but finally he reaches one person, Genevieve (Monica Parker), who’s eager to make a date with him. Only when they finally meet she turns out to be middle-aged and heavy-set — too heavy for Walter to find her attractive, though given that she’s the last human female on Mars one could imagine a remix of this story in which he has sex with her anyway because he’s horny and it’s not like there are a lot of other choices! An reviewer called “Hitchcoc” (presumably no relation), who posted about a lot of the Ray Bradbury Theatre episodes and oddly disliked some of the ones I liked best (like “The Concrete Mixer,” which I saw as brilliant satire and he saw as “terrible”), was right this time when he called it “an interesting and somewhat sexist presentation.” But would it have seemed more or less sexist if he’d overcome his initial revulsion towards her looks and fucked her anyway? About the only way to have remixed this story to make it non-sexist is if he’d got to like her as a person regardless of her appearance and genuinely fallen in love with her …