Ray Bradbury's 'Martian Chronicles': relevance or bust

"Wouldn't it be fascinating if there were peoplem on earth," speculates a bald-pated pointy-headed Martian in January 1999. Yes, it's colonization time on Mars in a six- hour, three-part dramatization of Ray Bradbury's cult classic "The Martian Chronicles" (NBC, Sunday 8-10 p.m., Monday and Tuesday 9-11 p.m., check local listings).

Three separate expeditions to Mars from Earth, starting in 1999 and ending in 2007, result in the destruction of all Martians (well, those you can see, anyway). A strange new American-expatriate civilization remains, which seems to live in plastic cubes, with cheap furniture from Bloomingdale's young- marrieds department. Civilization on earth has been destroyed, you see.

Despite its overextended length (three hours would have done it better), and despite my own rather flip comments, "The Martian Chronicles" constitutes a nearly successful try at transposing a literary work to the electronic medium. It is a welcome change from most of commercial TV's standard fare -- and its tongue-in-cheek quality in the midst of its refreshing earnestness is a rare TV treat. If it indulges itself in the traditional science- fiction cop-out -- obscurity -- well, Ray Bradbury is as much to blame as the Charles Fries and Stonehenge Productions.

Written sluggishly by science-fiction author Richard Matheson, directed sluggishly by Michael Anderson, "The Martian Chronicles" emerges as a sluggish, overlong cosmic adventure with its head in the ionosphere and its feet all too firmly on the ground. Most exciting are the locations -- marvelous picturesquely grotesque landscapes in Malta and the Canary Islands which look like what we imagine Mars should look like.

Some of the actors are fine -- notably Rock Hudson, Gayle Hunnicutt, Maria Schell, Fritz Weaver, Darrin McGavin, and especially Bernadette Peters in perhaps ine most amusing segment of all. Others, such as Maggie Wright and Terence Longdon, who play Martians, seem to have picked up their Martian accents at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Well, maybe Mars didn't have a good drama school.

One of the major mistakes of the series was to place the Martians on camera during the first segment -- bald, pointy-headed, dressed in chiffon nightgowns and Mardi gras masks (or were they space toupees?). Thus, in later sequences, when the supposed nonexistence of the Martians becomes a mystery, their weird nonpresence and ghostly reappearances seem a bit prosaic. We know them well and familiarity, even on Mars, is not the mother of invention.

"The Martian Chronicles," which has been called Mr. Bradbury's most visionary work, is of the relevance-or-bust science-fiction school. Characters worry about the pollution of Mars; they agonize over the meaning of life. And the great revelation finally comes from a Martian guru who tells Rock Hudson: "Live life for itself -- derive pleasure from the gift of pure being. Life is its own answer." Instead of saying: "Is that all?", Mr. Hudson finds revelation in those words, returns to his family in their porto-san house, takes them into the Martian interior and, like the wilderness family, starts life anew.

Some of the special effects by John Stears, winner of Academy Awards for "Thunderball" and "Star Wars," are vividly real -- but now and then dinky little models are clearly standing in for full-fledged rockets, and space ships and launchers. A TV budget stretches just so far. In these cases, the smaller the screen, the more effective the effects.

"The Martian Chronicles" is a disco-beat miniseries (a music track on Mars is inevitably disco sound) that the whole family can enjoy, even though the youngsters may be a bit puzzled now and then. Perhaps the adults among them can explain.Perhaps. It is three hours of cosmic fun and games. Unfortunately, it's a six-hour show. 'Tenspeed and Brown Shoe'

One of TV's fastest moving shows of the past decade zooms across the tube this weekend: "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" (ABC, Sunday, 8-10 p.m., check local listings). This pilot for a new series that officially starts the following Sunday at 8 p.m. is more or less one two-hour chase, done with stylized good humor, a tightly written though incomprehensible script, and the services of the multitalented Ben Vereen and the nouveaunonhero hero type Jeff Goldblum. It involves Nazis, the Mafia, con men and innocence all rolled into one. Like "Hart-to-Hart," ABC's other action-adventure success, it satirizes its own genre , sometimes hilariously. If you like movement . . . movement . . . movement on your TV screen "Tenspeed" is so fast moving it ends ten minutes before you do.

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