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Mars Is Heaven
A review by Nicole Blizzard
Many science fiction writers considered the 1940's and 50's to be the golden age of science fiction. It was during those years that many of the best known practitioners of this genre got their start as short story writers for the numerous pulp anthologies that were around in those days. Writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert A Heinlein and Ray Bradbury would pound out scores of such stories on old manual typewriters for two and three cents a word. Science fiction was not considered the stuff of novels, yet.
In later years, these writers would collect their short stories into anthologies of their own. Between 1948 and 1956 Ray Bradbury wrote several stories about space explorations to our closest planetary neighbor, Mars. In the late 50's, he began to gather these stories together using new material to connect and expand his vision. The subsequent book was entitled The Martian Chronicles and it proved to be a bestseller.
In the late 80's, an anthology television series called The Ray Bradbury Theatre debuted, based on Bradbury's numerous short stories. The series was a Canadian/New Zealand co-production between Atlantis Films (now Atlantis/Alliance) and Avalon Television and it followed in the tradition of the still popular Twilight Zone.
The fourth season opener, Mars is Heaven (episode #31), aired in the US on 20th July 1990. It starred Hal Linden of Barney Miller fame; Paul Gross, later to become famous on TV for due South and Murder Most Likely; and Helen Moulder. Although this screenplay, written by Bradbury, was about the first Mars expedition, it was actually adapted from the chapter of The Martian Chronicles called Third Expedition which was set in April 2031.
As directed by John Laing, the story opens with the landing of an earth space ship on Mars. Captain J Black (Hal Linden), or "Blackie" as he is called, explores the surface with two other men, Hinkston and Henley. After determining that the thin oxygen can support life, they remove their helmets. Almost immediately, they hear a rooster crowing. They notice trees, grass, and birds - but wait a minute, this can't be. This is Mars.
Moving further along, the visitors see that they are in a small American town. Hinkston believes it to be his hometown of Grinelle, Iowa. He even finds his tennis racquet with his initials on it on the porch of a house with a white picket fence, before wandering off. Henley, however, believes the town to be Greentown, Illinois, and encounters his grandfather, a man who has been dead for 25 years. The two of them go off together, leaving Captain Black alone. What is this place?
It's at this moment that Captain Black begins to hear the sounds of a baseball game in the distance and running to catch the ball is his brother, Skip (Paul Gross). We find out later that Skip was supposed to have died in a house fire at the family home more than a dozen years earlier. Yet, here he is again with a homespun grin and boyish charm, snagging flies and racing his brother Blackie home. And yes, the home's there too. In fact, everyone on the ship - with the exception of one man, an orphan - finds all of their dead family and friends on this foreign planet. So, is Mars really heaven? To find the answer, you will have to see it yourself.
Although done on a low budget, this episode (running about 23 minutes without commercials) is well done. It has a very chilling ending and Paul Gross turns in a fine performance as Skip. In the next to last act, Paul and Hal have a great scene in their boyhood bedroom that will creep you out. Paul portrays what could be the all-American boy next door but there is something very dark and ominous behind that smile. Watching this early performance of his, one can easily see how he could so convincingly portray Patrick Kelly in Murder Most Likely.
This episode, along with four other Martian stories from The Ray Bradbury Theatre, has been repackaged into one video entitled The Ray Bradbury Chronicles: The Martian Episodes of which Mars is Heaven is the first. It is available from such places as amazon.com and borders.com for less than $10 or you could try your local video rental store. Check it out. I think you will love Paul's performance. I know I did.
Special thanks to Mary Halbert for sending me the video and to the Internet Movie Database for background information on the episode.