The Martian Chronicles

The old fashioned look of The Martian Chronicles, the 1980 trilogy of television films, is sure to put a lot of potential viewers off.  In fact, I'll add, not just the look, but a lot of the old fashioned notions in the writing make this feel rather creaky and thoroughly un-hip.  But it's also so, so good that I would implore anyone, even if they're not explicitly science fiction fans, to give this a chance.  Especially since it's now readily available on a very affordable Blu-ray set from Kino.
This opening screenshot should give you an idea of what I'm talking about; our protagonists have landed on the surface of Mars and exited their spacecraft without spacesuits or any other method to address the atmosphere.  They just describe the air as "thin."  The Martian Chronicles was broadcast in 1980, but it's based on Ray Bradbury's 1950 novel of the same name, and much of is gathered from short stories first published in the 1940s.  So there's a lot of rough, early (mis)understandings of science in the material that the series' adapter Richard Matheston, himself a great science fiction writer, opted not to alter/ update for more modern viewers.  It's also surprisingly sexist (in an abandoned city, a man searching for a lone female survivor not only asks himself, "if I was a woman, where would I be?  Hmm... The beauty parlor!" but he turns out to be correct; the author agrees with the character).  These films are faithful, perhaps to a fault; but having made a study of it now, I completely concur with Matheson's decisions here.  I daresay, he's crafted these films even better than Bradbury would have himself.
So just to clarify, The Martian Chronicles is based on a series of short stories Bradbury had written about man's explorations and colonization of Mars.  The stories were compiled and altered, with many new additions, to shape it into what is essentially still an anthology, with different characters set in their individual plots, but which push a larger narrative of mankind's advancement, or failings.  Matheson's own talents come into play, then, as he very intelligently walks a fine line between anthology and a single narrative.  Characters come and go, their stories begin and end in a sometimes episodic way, but they all contribute to this one over-arching adventure, which winds up being more meaningful and impactful than the sum of its parts.  It's not about spectacle, although for a television production it's very ambitious and there are a bunch of cool visuals.  It has an impressive all-star cast, including Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowall, Bernie Casie (who's awesome in this), Demon Seed's Fritz Weaver, Bernadette Peters (albeit not in the most flattering role) and Darren McGavin.  Yes, the martians themselves tend to look like some of the cheesier aliens you'd see on Star Trek, but there's also some really cool and inventive production design.  And the theme music is cool in a very early 80's way.  But what's really important is just that this is really a great, classic science fiction story, expertly told, with a lot to say that still stands the test of time.
The Martian Chronicles debuted on DVD from MGM as a 3-disc set in 2004, though there had previously been a 1999 laserdisc set from Image and a series of different VHS releases in its day.  The DVDs were really the way to go, though, until 2018, when Kino treated us to a 2-disc blu-ray upgrade.  And it really is an upgrade.
2004 MGM DVD top; 2018 Kino BD bottom.
Honestly, when Kino's blu-rays were first announced, I wasn't expecting as much as we got here.  I figured we'd get the same old master on a higher resolution disc, and with a little luck, the interlacing might be cleared up.  As it's a vintage television broadcast program, so I wasn't even counting on that second part.  But hey, look, we've clearly got a whole new scan with greater clarity, more natural colors (arguably, maybe the blus are a little on the cool side, but the DVDs are over saturated, so this is a big improvement) and yes, the interlacing is gone - just look at that guy in the red & white striped shirt.  Both transfers are 1.33:1, though you can see the framing has shifted slightly.  But there's no way to judge, outside of implicitly trusting one release over the other, which is more accurate, as neither appears particularly better than the other, and it's barely visible outside of a direct comparison like this.  However, given how superior the BDs are in every other aspect, I am inclined to trust Kino on this change, too.

Both sets offer the original mono track, but the BDs have bumped it up to lossless DTS-HD.  Both sets also include optional English subtitles, though only the MGM also comes with optional French and Spanish subs.
As I said, though, MGM's release was completely barebones.  Kino's set is no packed special edition, but we got a little something.  Specifically, we got a very brief, but fun and insightful, on-camera interview with actor James Faulkner.  He talks about his experiences playing a martian, but unfortunately, he's unable to speak to so many of the broader topics that Martian Chronicles fans would like to know, about the history of the novel, how it differs from the show, how the show came to be produced, etc.  That's no fault of Mr. Faulkner's, of course - and I also appreciate that most of the key players: Matheson, Bradbury, Hudson, etc have passed, so they'd be limited as to who else they could interview - but even just an expert's participation would have been very welcome.  Still, this is a good, if small, step forward.  There's also a couple bonus trailers and reversible artwork (using the same imagery as the MGM cover).
The same moment in The Martian Chronicles and Ray Bradbury Theater.
Before I wrap this up, I have something else to address.  I said, perhaps rather boldly, that I felt Matheson adapted these films better than Bradbury would have himself, and I don't just say that because I appreciate and admire the work so much, but because Bradbury had his chance to adapt this material himself.  The Ray Bradbury Theater is a television series that ran through the late 80s and early 90s, for the first two season on HBO, and the later three on the USA Network.  Each of the 65 half-hour episodes is written by Bradbury, adapting one of his own famous short stories for the screen, often with some fun celebrity stars like Jeff Goldblum, Leslie Nielsen, Shelley Duvall and many more.  And eight of those are key stories from The Martian Chronicles.  What's fun about this is it includes two chapters that Matheson omitted, including the very dramatic Usher II, which brings Edgar Allen Poe to the space age.  Also, the whole first Martian Chronicles film was about three expeditions to Mars.  In the novel, there were four, and another TRBT episode is about that fourth expedition.

The others are alternate takes on chapters that were in the films; and honestly they're quite good and fun alternate takes on the material, with some noteworthy cast members like John Vernon, David Carradine and Patrick Macnee.  As stand-alone episodes without the macro-narrative, though, they feel more like Twilight Zone episodes: clever stories leading up to an amusing twist, but without the dramatic weight or substantive heft of the films.  Bradbury has taken the opportunity to update them - they wear spacesuits and female characters have actual utility.  And there are some clever details here that Matheson omitted.  And the other episodes in the series are fun, too.  Having recently rewatched the complete Tales From the Darkside, I'd say this series is generally better written with higher production values.  So if you liked that, you're sure to dig this.
2018 Kino BD top; 2005 Echo Bridge DVD bottom. Same scene.
Unfortunately, though, the home video options for The Ray Bradbury Theater are disappointing.  In short, Echo Bridge has them.  And they have released them on DVD, multiple times even.  You can get them as a full 5-disc set, a collector's tin, individual sets, and a more recent re-release.  My shots are from the original 2005 set, but they're all the same actual discs, and ugh.  These are low quality, over-compressed and noisy tape-to-digital transfers.  They squeeze too many episodes on each disc to save space, though the masters are poor anyway.  This series seriously needs remastering; it's a real mess.  And the episodes aren't even put in release order on the discs.  They're just randomly organized.  The 5.1 audio is clear enough, but there are no subtitles.  And no, there are no extras.
So yeah, if your idea of science fiction is the latest special effects and blockbuster actions, admittedly, you're going to be disappointed in The Martian Chronicles.  But if you prefer headier stuff and can look past superficial imperfections, The Martian Chronicles is actually pretty terrific.  And the Kino blu is by far the best they've ever looked.  And then I'd also recommend anyone who does come to love the films to check out the Ray Bradbury Theater episodes as excellent supplements.  But they're not the same tier works of art that the films are.

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