Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is one of those classics that actually deserves the title. It’s an amazing, startling piece of work even decades after its publication. It’s Norman Rockwell by way of Death of a Salesman, a flotilla of stories about the beauty and idealism of space exploration and the untidy, often ugly aspects of human nature. If you’ve not read it, please do, it’s amazing.
Better still, listen to this first.
This radio adaptation, written by Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle from Ray Bradbury’s original novel makes no attempt to adapt the whole thing. Instead it folds several of the stories together into a clever framework that maps the emotional trajectory of the book onto a much smaller space.
That framework is built around Captain Wilder, the head of the second expedition to Mars. Wilder, played with a charming lack of respect for authority by Derek Jacobi has just returned from a 20 year trip to Pluto. He’s a hero. He’s also under arrest. As the play continues we find out the two are far from mutually exclusive.
The meat of the story here is a flashback to Wilder’s first trip to Mars. Discovering the crew of the previous missions all dead and buried, Wilder finds himself at the head of an increasingly fractious team. The military officers he has with him, including the boorish Parkhill, want nothing more than to drink and conquer their way across Mars. Spender, the team geologist, wants something much more. For their sins, she gets it too.
This is one of the best stories in the original novel and Kurti and Doyle have brought it to life perfectly. That’s largely down to Hayley Atwell who turns in a passionate, angry performance as Spender. Increasingly disgusted by the antics of her colleagues and naivety of her Captain, Spender is the lone voice of wonder and reason in a mission that’s clearly just the precursor to the planet being strip mined. The sequence where she predicts this and Wilder tries to reassure her is heartbreaking precisely because you know the one thing he doesn’t; Spender’s right. And it doesn’t matter.
The later stories dig into this still further, as we find out just why Wilder is under arrest and get a glimpse of the Mars that Spender tried desperately to avoid. That second story is particularly good, giving John Altman a chance to add the depth that Parkhill needs. He’s never a likeable man by any means, but by the end of that story you understand Parkhill a good deal more. Here too, Andrew Mark Sewell’s direction really comes into its own, especially with the closing moments that give us a glimpse of Mars on the brink of something awful. That feel is bookended to in the final scenes with another moment that’s hopeful and strange and just as well handled.
Verdict: This could never cover the ground the book does but by using Wilder as the connective tissue, it does something just as good. This is the story of Mars and the people who lived there. It’s always fractious and untidy, it’s frequently tragic and on occasion both horrifying and beautiful. But there’s a constant bass note of wonder to each of these stories, a sense of something truly alien. That’s the spirit of Mars, and of the original book. And it’s alive and well in this remarkable achievement. 10/10