I remember being strongly affected by the presentation of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles on television about two decades ago. I still have a few notes made on 28 January 1980, on a theological dialogue between two priests on Mars. While I recognize the dialogue, that scene was not included in the broadcast I taped off the air several years later, which suggests I might have taped a butchered version of the original program. But there is also a note on what was for me the most memorable scene of the entire drama.
After watching this program on television, I dug out the original book, and I could not find the scene I wanted to look up. I repeated this attempt about a month ago, to no avail. I concluded that the scene in question must have been added by whoever wrote the teleplay, which turns out to be Richard Matheson, celebrated science fiction author, screenwriter, and writer of classic episodes of the TV series The Twilight Zone.
Ray Bradbury also made a stage play out of The Martian Chronicles (Woodstock, IL: The Dramatic Publishing Company, 1986). (It is rumored that he has been working on a screenplay as well.) This play is by far the sketchiest and to me least satisfactory version of the story, though there is one more expedition, as well as scenes involving the settlers, than appear in the television version I have on tape, which is what I will report on from here on in.
Comparing this television play to the contemporary run of video science fiction, one finds The Martian Chronicles extremely "deficient" in special effects, with a concentration on serious themes instead of the blockbuster spectacles that now monopolize the attention of the infantile American audience. Most of the background is very ordinary and not very futuristic. The Martians are bald, with slightly aglow eyes and no ears, and they sport simple white robes. The Martian cities are composed of abstract geometric shapes such as spheres and cones, in stone. The story begins at a very slow pace by today's standards, though it ceases to drag once we are in the thick of the expeditions. There are several voice-overs, a technique not much in use these days, but some of Bradbury's poetic prose is thus preserved. The haunting spacey theme music is by Stanley Myers.
Whatever there is to carp on from a contemporary technical perspective, Bradbury's thematic richness comes through undiluted, even expanded by Matheson's script while some of the plot developments of the original chronicles are omitted. A half-century ago Bradbury gave us a damning critique of American society in the guise of science fiction (as he was to continue in Fahrenheit 451): the crassness, small-mindedness, blind ambition and greed, militarism, witch hunts (omitted in this teleplay,) spiritual emptiness, nervous preoccupation with mindless partying and compulsive distraction that we dare to call "fun," obtuseness to impending destruction, and a scandalous lack of curiosity about the cultures of the indigenous populations we exterminated while colonizing our own land.
"Part One: The Expeditions" includes three exploratory expeditions to Mars. The first crew is killed by a husband (probably out of jealousy) concerned by the dreams his wife is having over the Earthmen who are just arriving and whom no Martian has yet encountered. When the second expedition arrives, the crew comes upon a midwestern American town mysteriously transplanted to Mars, complete with the crewmen's relatives, some of which were deceased on Earth. Though totally mystified, the crewmen are seduced by the ministrations of their "relatives." Captain Black only comes to his senses when he is about to go to sleep, in bed in the same room with his "brother" Skip. Black guesses that all the people in the town are Martians in disguise defending themselves the only way they know how, by recreating familiar scenes telepathically borrowed from the memories of the Earth "invaders." Skip completes the story for Black and reveals his true Martian appearance, but it is too late for Black, as he collapses dead from the poison he ingested with his dinner. The next day, the Martians, still in the guise of Earth people, now dressed in black, conduct a traditional Earth burial for the crewmen they have killed, and then disappear.
Back on Earth, Mission Control has been totally baffled by the disappearance of the first two crews, but a third mission is sent to Mars, this one headed at last by Capt. Wilder (Rock Hudson). A couple of his crewmen are typical crass American ignoramuses, but there is a thoughtful black crewman, Spender (Bernie Casey), who is full of doubts from the beginning about the impending colonization of Mars. Wilder is a thoughtful man himself, but dismisses those doubts. "What's wrong with colonization?" he asks innocently, whereupon Spender gives him a look. On Mars, the crew finds only the ruins of a dead city, but no Earth explorers and no Martians. Spender is very troubled and goes exploring on his own, and concludes that the Martians were accidentally wiped out by a plague brought on by contact with the Earthmen: the Martians died of chicken pox. Spender is infuriated by the crass indifference to the extermination of a whole civilization, and disappears. He has since spent his time teaching himself about the Martian civilization, and now identifies with the Martians. He kills three of his crewmen with a Martian weapon. Later, following a standoff with Wilder and the cowboy-character Parkhill, Spender explains to Wilder why he has chosen to kill off the crew in order to keep Mars safe from Earth contamination for another half-century. Wilder refuses to join him. Spender intimates that there are still surviving Martians. Spender implores Wilder to protect Mars if he wins the fight. During a subsequent attack from Spender, Wilder is forced to kill him.
As "Part Two: The Settlers" commences, the inevitable colonization of Mars is implemented, with Wilder as the Chief Coordinator.
Two years later, late at night, an elderly couple is lying in bed. Leif Lustig hears a noise, and when he goes outside in the rain to investigate, he sees an apparition of his son David, who had disappeared in the second expedition. "David" rejoins the family the next morning. Mrs. Emma Lustig, who had rejected the apparition the night before, now treats David as a normal member of the family, while her husband, who had encouraged the apparition to approach, is extremely disturbed by his reappearance. Leif suspects that David is an imposter and David flees the scene. After a long disappearance, he returns, presumably prompted by Leif's unspoken wish for him to come back. This time Leif doesn't make any trouble about David's reappearance. Emma insists that the whole family go into town that night, even though David panics at the prospect. The night life in the Mars colony is very vigorous, and thrust into it, David panics and then disappears into the crowd. Then Leif goes to look for him, encountering Wilder in the process, who becomes disturbed by their conversation about Leif's missing son.
The following scene, with Father Peregrine in the church, is the one that most indelibly impressed itself upon me, which is why I decided to review this production after all this time. I have attempted to describe the scene and transcribe the dialogue, which you will find at the end of this piece.
Now I want to skip ahead to what follows after. Wilder visits Father Peregrine, whereupon it becomes evident that there is a Martian changeling at large in the town, assuming human form.
Leif Lustig, in search of his son, learns of the mysterious reappearance of another lost loved one, Lavinia. He visits her family's house and confronts "Lavinia," urging her to return with him as David. Lavinia tries to ward off Lustig, but is trapped. After a conflict ensues between the two fathers, Lavinia turns into David and runs off with Leif. Everyone is closing in on David as Wilder comes on the scene. David, after running through the crowds by himself, catches up to his "parents," but others who have a claim on him converge on his location, and he rapidly changes from one person to another: to Lavinia, a killer being chased by a policeman, someone's husband, and back to David. Wilder intervenes, identifying the changeling as a Martian. The Martian can't take the stress any longer and dies an agonizing death, assuming each of his guises and finally dying in his original Martian form, and then vanishes. Wilder is stunned.
There is a threat of world war back on Earth.
Wilder visits Parkhill and his wife to warn him of impending disaster. Parkhill is dressed up as a cowboy this time, and he has opened his dream diner to sell his weenies and burgers to nonexistent customers. He refuses to believe the news about Earth, insisting that the next wave of migration will make him rich once the customers start pouring in. Parkhill is as much an ignorant redneck as he was on the third expedition. Wilder gives up and leaves.
Parkhill is alone, and he hears a customer enter. But it is a Martian. Parkhill panics and shoots him dead. The Martian vaporizes and his cloak, mask, and a silver box fall to the floor. Parkhill's wife is distraught, but Parkhill just makes lame excuses. A fleet of Martians appear over the hill sailing their sand ships. Parkhill assumes they are out for revenge, and forces his wife to flee with him in a sand ship he had found long ago but had never before piloted. During the chase, Parkhill shoots several Martians, but they overtake him. Instead of exacting revenge, one of the Martians speaks to him in English and hands him a treaty, granting him a huge tract of Martian land, and warning him to prepare for tonight.
That night there is an atomic war on Earth and the Earth population is wiped out.
Six months later Wilder returns to see Parkhill. Wilder had been away, visiting Earth, but the family members he hoped in vain to save, along with everyone else, are dead. Wilder hears about Parkhill's encounter and the land grant for the first time, and he is exasperated that he yet again missed his long-sought opportunity to meet and talk with and learn from a Martian at last, while this obtuse and ignorant cowboy blithely turned his encounter with the Martians into a massacre. Wilder comes to a sudden realization of what Spender had been trying to get him to understand, and Parkhill is alarmed at such subversive extremist views. Wilder leaves and drives off to the abandoned Martian city.
As Wilder strides through the old Martian city, a Martian approaches, and greets him in Martian before adjusting himself to speak English. Wilder's dream of meeting a live Martian has come true, but when he extends his hand, it goes right through the Martian. The two are ghosts to each other, and see only their own worlds, not the world the other sees. Wilder is troubled, but the Martian tells him it hardly matters which civilization is alive and which dead, which is the past and which the future. Wilder is anxious to learn from the Martian, to learn the secret of the Martian way of life, and he is frustrated. The Martian explains:
"Secret . There is no secret. Anyone with eyes can see the way to live . By watching life, observing nature, and cooperating with it. Making common cause with the process of existence . By living life for itself, don't you see? Deriving pleasure from the gift of pure being . Life is its own answer. Accept it and enjoy it day by day. Live as well as possible. Expect no more. Destroy nothing, humble nothing, look for fault in nothing. Leave unsullied and untouched all that is beautiful. Hold that which lives in all reverence. For life is given by the sovereign of our universe; given to be savored, to be luxuriated in, to be respected. But that's no secret. You're intelligent. You know as well as I what has to be done."
The Martian and the Earthman part as friends.
At home, Wilder's children are bored. When Wilder arrives home, his wife is worried, but Wilder explains his new realization. They have been hanging on to the old way of life in futility. Wilder announces that the family is leaving. While Wilder is gone to make some preparations, his wife goes into the playroom to tell the children to pack for a camping trip, in view of the huge American flag attached to the wall. The family piles into a boat and goes on a long ride down the canal. After a while, Wilder asks his two children where they want to stop. They agree to stop at the lost city. Wilder announces that this is their new home. He has promised all along to take his children to see Martians, and they repeatedly ask about the Martians. As they make a campfire at night, Wilder tosses some old papers and books into the fire (including a book with the word "Capital" on the cover), explaining that he is burning what is being left behind, a way of life. He announces to his eager children that they are now going to see Martians. He leads his family to the edge of the water. He points downward, and says, "There. Those are the Martians." They look down and see their reflections in the water.
Reaching into his pocket, Wilder pulls out a remote control device, and pressing a button, blows up the rocket in the distance that had brought them from Earth.
I don't think I have ever been more moved by a dramatic presentation of a science fiction tale. And I have never forgotten that phrase, "the gift of pure being."
All that is left to do is to present my transcription of the brilliant scene as promised, an encounter between Father Peregrine and the Martian changeling on the run. This is one of those rare moments in which the visual presentation of science fiction (a very different beast from the literary genre) really does challenge our philosophical foundations, in this case the selfishness of religious belief.
Scene in Church
The door to the church opens. Father Peregrine is at the altar. He hears something, goes to close the door. Father Peregrine returns to kneel and pray at the altar, then turns around and looks for an intruder.
He approaches a water basin in the center of the room, sees blood dripping into the water. He sees a hand bearing the stigmata, then the other, and begins to pray intensely with eyes clenched shut.
"Enough." Father Peregrine covers his face with his hands.
'Jesus' appears, in a robe, with arms crossed and folded, with a crown of thorns. Father Peregrine reaches out his hand. Then he mutters "You're trembling ..."
'Jesus' says: "Let me go."
Peregrine: "Let you go? But no one keeps you here."
'Jesus': "Yes . you do."
'Jesus': "Avert your gaze. The more you look, the more I become this. I am not what I seem. I'm not that vision. I didn't mean to come here. I was in the town square. One thing: I lost hold and suddenly I was many things to many people. I ran and they followed. I fled in here. Then you came in. And I was trapped."
Peregrine: "No. no."
Martian Jesus: "Yes trapped!"
Peregrine: "But you're not what you seem?"
Martian Jesus: "Forgive me. I wish that I might be but I cannot."
Peregrine: "I'm going mad."
Martian Jesus: "No or I go down in madness with you. Release me!"
Peregrine: "I can't. Not when you've finally come. 2000 years we waited for your return. And now I am the one who sees you, and hears you speaking."
Martian Jesus: "You see nothing but your own dream ... your own needs. Beneath all this I am another thing."
Peregrine: "What am I to do?"
Martian Jesus: "Look away from me, and in that moment I'll be gone. Halt, or you'll kill me!"
Peregrine: "Or I'll kill you?"
Martian Jesus: "If you force me into this guise much longer, I will die. This is more than I can hold."
Father Peregrine and 'Jesus' exchange inaudible whispers.
Martian Jesus: "No You know that
Peregrine: "That "
Martian Jesus: "No more, no less."
Peregrine: "And I have made you like this with my thoughts."
Martian Jesus: "You came into the church. You looked at the crucifix. Your old dream of meeting him seized you once again. Seized me. My body still bleeds from the wounds you gave me with your secret mind."
Peregrine: "Oh, my sweet God . Go, before I keep you here forever."
Father Peregrine turns away. The door opens; the wind blows. 'Jesus' is gone. The priest turns back around: no one is there.
Written 31 July - 2 August
in celebration of the joy of pure being.
©2001 Ralph Dumain
When I transcribed the scene above, I erroneously assumed that this scene must have been Matheson's own creation, and that there was no way to obtain this story in print, as screenplays can be very hard to come by. Thanks to Ray Bradbury fans, I have learned that the scene above was indeed based on a short story by Bradbury, though not part of The Martian Chronicles. Apparently, there are enough other Martian stories to make up another volume. The basis for this scene is evidently Bradbury's story "The Messiah", which appears in the collection Long After Midnight (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976; pp. 55-66). The story begins with a theological dialogue between Father Niven and Bishop Kelley. Father Niven has the encounter with the Martian 'Jesus' in the wee hours. There is more to the dialogue here than in the screenplay, as Father Niven exacts a promise from the Martian Jesus to return once a year, on Easter. I think this ending derogates from the story. I do not know how Richard Matheson came to include this story in his teleplay. One of my informants claims that Bradbury wrote some of the additional scenes and dialogue for the miniseries, but I have not as yet been able to verify Bradbury's direct input. The miniseries is available as a three-volume VHS video, and can easily be found via online auction web sites. (Ralph Dumain, 17 May 2003)
After acquiring the miniseries on video (StarMaker #1215, VHS, 3 tapes, 296 min.), I finally had the chance to see it uncut, perhaps for the first time in 23 years. I suggest that any of you who have seen any of the rebroadcasts or any tapes made off the air, get hold of this uncut video. Indeed, the tape I worked with when I wrote my original review was a butchered version of the miniseries. How much was lost?
There are three parts to the miniseries, each approximately 98 minutes in length: (1) The Expeditions, (2) The Settlers, (3) The Martians. The first part appears to be intact.
Part two is where the most damaging cuts were made, all of which involve the adventures of Fathers Peregrine and Stone after they arrive on Mars. Their scenes are sandwiched in between two segments of the late David Lustigs reappearance at his parents house, between the moment he flees after his father expresses his suspicions about his real identity and the moment David returns, leading to his fatal excursion into town with his parents. The tale of the priests is based upon Bradburys short story The Fire Balloons, excised from the original edition of The Martian Chronicles and restored for the first time in the 40th anniversary edition (New York: Doubleday, 1990; pp. 90-108), and anthologized again thereafter.
Upon introduction to Col. Wilder, Fr. Peregrine explains his mission, but he also harbors a personal curiosity about the Martians. He enquires concerning a rumor about blue spheres, but no substantiation is forthcoming. Peregrine wants to exchange ideas with Martians if any can be found. He wants to see the old Martian cities. Wilder compares Mars to the Wild West: colonization is proceeding too abruptly, there is too much corruption, and spiritual guidance is needed. Wilder confides in the priests: he wonders if the Spender who attacked his fellow members of the third expedition was the real Spender. Perhaps there are still Martians afoot. Wilder shows them the ruins of a Martian city. Pieces of it are being dismantled to be sent back to Earth. While others drive back to the Earth settlement, the priests stay behind, choosing to walk back on their own. Fr. Peregrine is actually the one who takes charge.
The two priests debate theological issues as they hike back to home base. By dusk they are lost. Three blue spheres appear. Stone is afraid, convinced its the devils work. Peregrine is unafraid; he tries to communicate, showing his cross. The spheres depart. But Peregrines shouting appears to provoke an avalanche. As rocks rain down from the mountainside, the priests prostrate themselves on the ground, fearing the worst. But a blue sphere descends from the sky, picks them up, and moves them to a safe spot. Peregrine is elated: this proves that the spheres have souls and free will. Stone as usual wants to limit his attention to Earth souls that need saving; he is averse to non-human creatures. Peregrine asks: Cant you recognize the human in the inhuman? Stone replies: I would rather recognize the inhuman in the human.
This exchange typifies their contrasting attitudes. They camp for the night. Peregrine argues that the blue spheres know sin and moral life and have free will. He argues that saving Earthmen is the Martians atonement for their original sin of killing the members of the first expeditions. Stone thinks Peregrine has his own interests at heart, committing the sin of pride. Peregrine confesses that his initial motivation to become a priest was to meet Christ in person.
This confession sets up the assumptions behind Peregrines later encounter with the Martian changeling.
Wilder is preoccupied with troubles in the colony caused by lax immigration controls. He sends out a search party for the missing priests.
The priests spend the night on the cliff. Around dawn the blue spheres descend, and Peregrine awakens. While Stone sleeps, Peregrine sets out to prove that the spheres are intelligent. He jumps off the cliff, but instead of plunging to his death, he is saved in mid-fall by a sphere, as he anticipated. Overjoyed, Peregrine tells the sphere he will build a church for the Martians with a blue sphere instead of a cross. The sphere identifies itself and its fellows as the Old Ones, who have no bodies and are immortal, living in grace, each a temple unto itself, and having no need of any church or salvation, unlike Earthmen.
Afterwards, Peregrine awakens Stone and tells him the story, emphasizing that he heard His voice. The voice-over narration concludes that there is a truth on every planet and that the priests Christianity is a partial truth in the mosaic of a larger truth to be discovered.
The contrast between Peregrines affirmative, expansive attitude and Stones narrowed, negative attitude gives this tale a large part of its interest. I find Peregrines expression of faith noteworthy. For all the talk of sin and seeking after Christ, he has a positive attitude toward the Martian spheres, derived, I would say, not from any faith in God apart from people but from faith in his fellow intelligent creatures. In effect, Peregrine jumps off the cliff placing his faith in the good will of the spheres.
The rest of the second part proceeds as I originally described. I think the series suffers with this part cut out. However, more than half of part three was cut out in my abridged version, approximately the first hour. While the narrative advances quite smoothly without the subplots contained in the missing scenes, they do reinforce key themes in certain ways.
Wilders space ship lands on planet Earth after it has been devastated by world war. He finds the space command center abandoned, and is anguished when he plays back the videotape of the final moments of its personnel before the fatal atomic blast.
Apparently, before the Earth Holocaust took place, a large majority of settlers abandoned the Martian colony, apparently to perish back on Earth. There are stray colonists who remain on Mars, living in isolation from one another. The first one we see is Ben Driscoll, skulking about the ghost town he lives in. He hears a couple of phones ring, but there is no one on the other end. He finds a phone book and proceeds to call every number in it, finally succeeding in reaching a live person, Genevieve (played by Bernadette Peters). He hops into his one-man flight vehicle and makes a beeline to her settlement.
The next scene finds another isolated survivor, Peter Hathaway (played by Barry Morse), looking at the sky through his telescope. He spots the space ship he had long hoped to see. Excited, he informs his wife Alice and daughter Marguerite. He sends up flares but fails to make contact.
Meanwhile, Ben finds Genevieve dressed to the nines and looking ravishing. They are the only two left alive as far as they know. He asks her for a date; she accepts. They go out on a formal date in an elegant but deserted restaurant. He is a bit shy. She is vain, playing games. He cooks for her while she preens, constantly primping and looking in the mirror. They dine. At the end of the evening, she rebuffs his advances, but this glamour girl is happy to have him around, as she needs a servant, a cook, and a handyman.
Disillusioned, Ben hops into this flight vehicle and puts as much distance between Genevieve and himself as he can. After over a week of flying, he succeeds in putting 10,000 miles between them.
Peter Hathaway and his family are up at night again. Again, he spots a rocket, sends up flares, and this time the rocket lands. In joyous anticipation, Hathaway begins to pack, telling his family he couldnt make it without them. In the morning, Wilder and Stone arrive at his home. Wilder suspects things are not as they seem, as Hathaways wife has not aged and the daughter is a different age than she should be. While Stone takes over the conversation, Wilder ducks out to look around, and finds the graves of the real wife and daughter. Wilder rejoins the household. While toasting his good fortune, Hathaway has a heart attack and dies, his final words being that his family wont understand. The wife and daughter are impassive. They were not taught to cry. They are androids, built by Hathaway to assuage his loneliness.
Wilder and Stone bury Hathaway. They debate about what to do with the androids, who have not been programmed to serve any other function. Wilder is inclined to take the androids away, but Stone insists that they remain where they are, which would respect the decision of their creator. They have the right to live the lives they were created to have. Their souls belong to Hathaway.
Wilder and Stone say goodbye, and depart. The androids sit around the table, just waiting. Ben Driscoll shows up at the door. His needs are simple; he just needs a home and family. The androids now know what to do.
Next, Wilder visits Parkhill, learns of the land grant from the Martians, and the story proceeds as I have described.
These restored subplots help to reinforce central themes of the whole story. Though Hathaways family turns out to be androids rather than Martians in disguise, the existence of the androids raises the now-familiar existential questions about the moral nature of intelligent life, cast by Fr. Stone in terms of the relationship between creature and creator. This is another way of creating a distancing perspective from the familiar habits, mores, and assumptions of Earth culture.
The central purpose of these subplots evidently is to show the futility of hanging on to the old ways imported from Earth. What could be more ritualistic and pointless than the assumptions upon which the date between Ben and Genevieve takes place? Ben thinks he is going to play Adam and Eve; Genevieve acts like a narcissistic prima donna in total disregard of the reality of her situation. Ben comes to the correct conclusion, getting as far away from her as possible, a very satisfying resolution for this viewer. Then Ben stumbles onto the android family and finds a home. In his way Hathaway tries to hang on to the Earths dead past, in the persons of his own deceased loved ones. All of this reinforces the central theme of this final installment of the miniseries, Wilders decision to leave Earth ways behind and begin a new life.
Viewing this series in its entirety, as with the abridged version, is a powerful experience. While it lacks the fast pace and snazzy special effects we take for granted today, when it comes to science fiction on screen it is virtually unparalleled in its human content. Why does its message for us to change our ways hit home as so few other productions do? My guess is that it is not because of the strangeness of Mars but because of the familiarity and utter conventionality of the characters, their lives, and our society transplanted to an imagined location. The analogy to the colonization of America could not be more conspicuous, as well as the all-too-familiar meaningless distractions of modern life and the smallness of peoples dreams.
What hit home this time even harder was Wilders dream that pervades the whole story: to meet the Martians, learn from them, and to improve the ways of the human race. Even as an instrument of colonization he anticipates the best and only understands later the truth of Spenders warning as he strives to keep his promise to the dying Spender not to let Earth ruin Mars. In self-defense the Martians feel compelled to resort to murder. They are accidentally and absurdly wiped out by a plague. As a result, the survivors adapt themselves to Earth people, either by ceding them land or taking on the disguise of Earth people to live among them and become part of them. When the Martians realize that Earth is destroying itself, they decide to give the survivors a second chance, a chance to start over. Wilder finally understands this, as he explains to the alarmed redneck Parkhill, and pursues his hope for a new synthesis of human and Martian ways. When Wilder finally meets a live Martian, he learns that their worlds cannot quite touch one another. The Martian cannot see his world nor can Wilder see the Martians. The Martian asks him: how do you know you are seeing the ruins of our past civilization and not the ruins of your future one? They part as friends, but they cannot share their lives. After having been told he knows what must be done, Wilder takes his last, bold step. He realizes his fellow colonists are stuck in the past. He packs up his family, boats to a Martian city, to "where it all started," and tells his wife and children they are all going to learn the Martian language, study the Martian ways, and learn the secret of the way to live. And finally, when asked to deliver on his promise to see the Martians, he points at the canal, and, looking down into the water, they see their own reflections. Is there anything else in visual science fiction to affect us so deeply, so intimately, and yet with such simplicity? No, there is nothing like this. May we all learn to "take pleasure from the gift of pure being."
Ralph Dumain, 1 June 2003
Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 June 5, 2012)
He is missed.
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