8.21.2016

The Ray Bradbury Theater: Top 20 Episodes

of

It's rare enough when an anthology show is devoted exclusively to one writer's works. Rarer still when the writer adapts each and every episode himself, as Bradbury did for all 6 seasons of The Ray Bradbury Theater. And he even filmed introductions for some of the earlier episodes, as well as providing his office for the opening credits.

Other oddities: it filmed on location in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and France, and found new life on different networks on two or three separate occasions, in an age (1985 to 1992) where neither of these things were of the norm. And the whole thing was nurtured and produced by Larry Wilcox, of CHiPS fame. 

TRBT is challenging in a way most TV - anthology or otherwise - is not. Sometimes you have to overlook a lot of hokey preciousness or his characters' odd way of speaking or going about things, but if you're willing to - and chances are, if you're chasing down anything related to Ray Bradbury, you are - there's a lot to enjoy

Here's how my Top 20 episodes shake out. All episodes written by Rad Bradbury, all plot summaries from TV.com, and all eps available to watch on YouTube. (The show has never been digitally remastered, so you're not really missing out on visual quality on YouTube.) 

I resisted the urge to call any one episode "particularly Bradburyian," but they all very much are.

20.
Season 4, Episode 3 (1989)
Directed by Pat Robins.
First published in Weird Tales (May, 1944).

An artist returns to the lake where years before he had a childhood sweetheart who drowned. Now he must try and bring her back.

For what it's worth, I'm not sure that Doug (the artist) is trying to bring Tally (the girl) back. I'm not sure she's best characterized as a "childhood sweetheart" either, but you say tomato.

If I had to point to the defining feature of TRBT, it would be Atmosphere with a capital A. Any episode on this list is a good example of such, but the mood evoked in "The Lake" is a particular favorite. Only the (forgivably) amateurish acting from the kid actors keeps this one from claiming a higher spot in my countdown. 

This is the story, by the by, that is popularly credited as where Bradbury found his distinctive style. As such, if you're a Bradbury fan, it's a real treat to see him adapting it for the small screen 45 years down the road. It must have been quite a time-travel-ly moment for the author. And since the theme of this story is about resolving at long last a lingering childhood loss, the proceedings are imbued with a certain je ne sais quoi.

19.
Season 4, Episode 9 (1989)
Directed by Randy Bradshaw.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May, 1963).

In the near future, an old man is sought after for his memories of the past, a past that the government forbids people from remembering.

This episode has some of the strangest dialogue going, even for Bradbury, who (like Kirby) often wrote "dreamspeak" that was more poetry than prose. That's part of the magic, though. Take this for example:

"All I am, really, is a trash heap of the mediocre. The third-rate, the hand-me-down, useless and chromed over, slush and junk. Of a race track civilization that ran over a precipice and still hasn't struck bottom. Oh, once I would have raved 'Only the best is best. Only quality is true!' But roses grow from blood manure, and mediocre must be so that most excellent vine can bloom. And I shall be the best mediocre there is. And I'll fight all those who say 'slide back,' 'slip under,' 'dust wallow,' 'let brambles scurry over your living grave.' No, no, I shall protest." 

Although this is a hope-amidst-the-holocaust sort of story, there's a definite sense of melancholy. A society that outlaws the past and forbids its citizens to share, nurture, or discuss their own impressions and experiences is a nightmare, of course, though we don't seem particularly mindful of this in 2016. Everyone's scared of Alzheimers - rightly so - but we seem less bothered by the memory-holes deliberately widened every day by our cultural betters.

Maybe there's some of that tied up in the proceedings here. Maybe I'm just projecting. To the Chicago abyss, indeed.

18.
Season 4, Episode 5 (1989)
Directed by Alin Bollinger.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (February, 1952).

A man's night-time walks are considered subversive in a world of the future.

A companion episode to the above episode in many ways: a repressive future society which has replaced fresh air with air conditioning and independent thought with government-mandated programming is revealed to be both hollow and unsatisfying when contrasted to the free range and pedestrian (ahem) pursuits of the "old-fashioned." 

"The houses are dark. Our cities are haunted. By the ghost machines. Think. Ninety percent of the actors we see on our TV screens have been dead 40 years. Our telephones are haunted, too. Why you can't get a hold of a real person if you want one. They're all old tape voices that give out the weather, the time. (...) Immortal, now. Giving out wrong numbers forever."

The episode ends with Leonard, the instigator, being taken away by an unmanned patrol helicopter. Stockwell, his companion, is allowed to return home. As he does so, he picks up a dandelion, as Leonard showed him, and blows the thistles into the night air. 

17.
Season 6, Episode 1 (1992)
Directed by Graeme Campbell.
First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August, 1948).

Members of an expedition to Mars find their insanity questioned by the local inhabitants.

That's a very understated plot summary. I can't dispute it - that is what happens - but it fails to properly convey the weirdness of this episode. 

My original idea for this post was to do more detailed from-story-to-screen entries for each of the Martian Chronicles episodes. The Martian Chronicles is pretty much my favorite Bradbury - it's wonderfully surreal, satirical, weird, scary, dated, and thought-provoking. Plus, it actually feels alien, which is a nice touch. (So do Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes, for that matter, which is fine since the past is probably best described as an alien world as well.) Many of the stories therein are like this one - a "downer" ending, shared confusion between Terran and Martian, and just a real sideways look at its subject matter. (Here, the Earthmen are taken to be delusional telepaths and are killed, their spaceship sold for scrap at a Martian junkyard.) But I opted for a Top 20 of the whole series instead.

This is one of the more bizarre TRBT eps, to be sure. 

16.
Season 6, Episode 17 (1992)
Directed by Lee Tamahori.
First published in Planet Stories (Summer, 1950).

When a spaceship crash lands on a world where it never stops raining, the survivors try to reach the Sundome that has been erected on the planet.

If you want to work for it a little bit, there's a Die Hard vibe going on with this episode. The astronauts are both the Nakotomi terrorists and John McClane. Try it out next time you watch it and tell me what you think. It's a pointless mental exercise, but I enjoy such things.

Not much to this one, but I like it. Marc Singer's always fun, and I like the general idea of being driven insane by the rain and building bigger and better citadels against the night. That's played up a bit more in the short story than it is in the episode.  

15.
Season 4, Episode 6 (1989)
Directed by Costa Botes.
First published in Collier's (June 28, 1952).

Time Safari, Inc. uses time travel to allow big game hunters the ultimate thrill: killing dinosaurs.

One of the more widely adapted and anthologized Bradbury stories. I first came across it as an EC story myself


On one hand, I never quite understood why people went so crazy for it. (Beyond just the dinosaurs and time travel novelty.) Perhaps it's a case of being the first to posit something - in this case, the idea of "the butterfly effect," although that is not a term that Bradbury either created or coined in the text. But he and this set-up (a seemingly insignificant event in the past has exponential consequences in the now-altered timeline) remain popularly associated with both the idea and the term.

Never mind that the consequences Bradbury comes up with (killing a butterfly leads to the thug candidate of the most recent election winning instead of the other guy) are ridiculous. It's still fun to watch. (And to read - the title plays better with the end of the story more than the end of the episode.) John Bach (Madril from the Lord of the Rings movies) plays the grumpy and grizzled hunting guide; Det. Johnny LaRue plays the guy who hires him.  

14.
Season 4, Episode 8 (1989)
Directed by Roger Tomkins.
First published in Vogue (October 1, 1969).

A man's old flame calls him up and asks him if he wants her manor. The only condition is that the manor has to decide if it wants him.

At no point does this story unfold, feel, sound, or pace like a television show. I suppose it looks enough like one, but that's about it. This episode doesn't seem to enjoy the greatest reputation among the few TRBT review-sites out there, and I think it's this lack of resemblance to any other TV ever made that might account for it. It's disorienting. But if you can get overcome the oddity of its approach, it's kind of a remarkable story.

The plot is complicated, and while it's definitely a sideways take on the whole "haunted house" genre, its various tropes are familiar enough. It's difficult to discuss without launching into every little detail, but it's one of Bradbury's more sensual stories. (Meaning there's sex and nudity in it.)

Superman's Mom plays the old flame, and TV vet Richard Comar plays the man she calls up out of the blue 
 


13.
Season 4, Episode 2 (1989)
Directed by Roger Tompkins.
First published in Playboy (January, 1962).

Two drifters sell views to a desert mirage, a mirage that provides miraculous views, but a rival tries to buy the land and shut them down.

Here's one that I just didn't get the first time I saw it. I must not have been paying close attention, as I remembered it taking place in some kind of post-apocalyptic environment. But nope - it takes place during the Depression

I also didn't remember Bradbury's opening remarks ("When I was a boy, my dad was looking for work. He took my mom, my brother Skip and myself, and headed west. Along the way, in the middle of nowhere whatsoever at all, on a hot summer desert noon, with the wind still and heat rising from the sand dunes, we were witness to a miracle. Years later, I remembered the miracle. This is that remembrance.") Which is probably just his PT-Barnum-ing things, but I kind of like the idea of this being non-fiction. And in a way it is: miracles, once bottled and branded and sold for a profit, have a way of curdling.

I only know Pat Harrington, Jr. from playing Schneider all those years on One Day at a Time, but his performance here hints at an entirely different career he might have had. As with "The Haunting of the New", it doesn't appear to be very popular with the few reviews and overview out there.

12.
Season 6, Episode 8 (1992)
Directed by Anne Wheeler.
First published in Super Science Stories (November, 1949).

New life welcomes grieving parents who move to Mars.

The stories in the first third of The Martian Chronicles detail the attempts of the Earthmen to colonize Mars, and the various ways in which the Martians keep them from returning. Those of the second take place after germs from Earth have wiped out all but a handful of the Martians. And those of the third deal with the aftermath of an apocalyptic war back on Earth.

"The Martian" is from the second part of The MC, when the Martians have almost all died off. One of them - a telepathic shape-shifter - survives by allowing himself to be trapped in the memories of others. This works so long as he stays with one couple in relative isolation (manifesting as their dead son) but once exposed to the memories of others, the Martian is lost.

Interesting subtext, here. If any of Bradbury's work has a post-colonial-deconstruction / New Wave sensibility to it, it's The Martian Chronicles. Each story can be taken as a view askew towards our colonial mythmaking / the irony of external conquest vs. internal strife, etc. Or, put another way, it's a book-length demonstration of "Wherever you go, there you are." 

11.
Season 1, Episode 2 (1985)
Directed by William Fruet.
First published in Esquire (October, 1953).

When Charles Underhill was a boy, he was tormented by neighborhood bullies. When his son begins playing in a local playground, he becomes deeply disturbed when he sees a bully from his youth.

The words "magical childhood" are often associated with Bradbury. With good reason, for sure, but he was equally if not more adept at putting out stuff like this, where children are monsters that terrorize themselves and the adults who mind them.

"Really! Who said childhood was the best time of life? When in reality it was the most terrible, the most merciless era, the barbaric time when there were no police to protect you, only parents preoccupied with themselves and their taller world."

I don't know anyone who's seen this episode that doesn't recall it with a shake of the head and a "Oh yeah, that one." It's certainly memorable and unsettling. My only gripe is it loses itself a little too much in metaphor and magic, so much so that the ending - which works better on the page, perhaps - seems more incomplete than creepy and ambiguous.

Shatner gives one of his rare subdued performances here. I imagine when (God forbid) the man beams up to the ship for good, this will be one of the roles people point to as evidence of his range as an actor. (I think all such discussion misses the sublime point of Shatner, myself, but again you say tomato.) William Fruet directed a whole bunch of low-budget horror, as well as several episodes of Friday the 13th: the Series, including the eternally awesome "Vanity's Mirror." 

10.
Season 5, Episode 12 (1990)
Directed by John Laing.
First published in New Tales of Space and Time (1951).

Unknown to an exploratory team, the Utopia-like world they have discovered has yet to unleash its deadly forces.

The twist of this one isn't really that much of a twist, but it's a satisfying little morality play with fun atmosphere. Timothy Bottoms is agreeable if boilerplate as the mineralogist determined to turn the planet into a slag heap ("like Earth" one of the other explorers laments) despite the ample warnings that this particular planet might push back just as aggressively. 

"'Here there by tygers.' What old explorers would write on their charts to identify dangerous places."

Fun fact: this story was originally picked up for the original Twilight Zone series and would have aired as part of its sixth season had it not been cancelled. 

 9.
Season 6, Episode 20 (1992)
Directed by Lee Tamahori.
First published in Charm (March, 1949).

The last man on Mars after an evacuation seeks the last woman on Mars. 

The images of Mars as an abandoned series of storefronts and irrigation tombs and the constant ringing telephone motif (probably an homage to the scene from The Omega Man) and robo-calls all made a deep impression on me when I first saw this back in high school. (How long before we get to another planet before a "Do Not Call" registry has to be established? Food for thought.) I also love the cheap but surreal "Mars" effects, which remind me of those silent films that stained or hand-painted various frames red.

John Glover plays the last man on Mars; Monica Parker, the last woman. The ending (playing off the "not if you were the last man or woman on Earth") is kind of cruel. But, there's a common Bradbury theme here beyond the cruelty: rise above any and all impediments, including matters of rudeness and regardless of circumstance, in pursuit of mystical solitude. 

8.
Season 5, Episode 7 (1990)
Directed by Randy Bradshaw.
First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories (June, 1948).

Space explorers on a Martian expedition are faced with problems when one of their members becomes obsessed with the planet's former residents.

This one has a bit in common with the TNG episode "Masks." (Or "Masks" with it, I guess.) Think of the time period when Bradbury wrote it vs. when it saw teleplay on the USA network - quite a few real-world revolutions re: the sort of imperialistic Kipling-esque drama played out under Martian guise.

The crewman who becomes obsessed is the ship's archaeologist, played by David Carradine. He's probably the best part of the episode. Both the drunken-fratboy crew member (Biggs) and the Captain are a little stilted. Their characters are interesting, though, and not just tropes. There's enough edge to the dialogue, though, to keep things engaging even when some of the conflict falls flat.

7.
Season 6, Episode 16 (1992)
Directed by Wayne Tourrell.
 First published in Playboy (July, 1984).

On a train, a man learns the truth about about a boy and his drill sergeant father that he met years ago at a hotel pool.

There's an awful lot packed into this one. In some ways it's my favorite of the whole series. It's definitely a damn odd one - even for a series characterized by as many odd episodes as TRBT. It flips between the present - two men on a train, one of them telling a long story from his past, only to realize the stranger to whom he's speaking is the young boy of the story - and the past, where the young boy tells the rest of what happened.

More than that I shall not say, because you really ought to check it out. Its characters are not normal people, and its action seemingly mundane. But it brings that feeling of childhood helplessness (and tragedy) to life and also deconstructs it with extreme sensitivity and insight. Less ambiguous but even more unsettling as "The Playground." 

Plus, the main character is so bizarre. If you turned this story in to your creative writing professor, he or she would red-circle the crap out of it; thankfully for us, Bradbury was well beyond all that. 

6.
Season 5, Episode 8 (1990)
Directed by John Laing.
First published in Playboy (January, 1984).

A man time travels to the future and returns to show the people what they have to look forward to.

This one is deceptive. The basic conceit is, a man fakes time travel in order to inspire humanity to rise above itself. And humanity does. Yay! But it's all based on a deception. Given the result - a world at peace with itself and living in balance with nature on this and many worlds - does it matter? Or doesn't it? Is it optimistic or cynical? (And again, does it matter?) Many sci-fi writers play around with this type of idea - is a mistruth justified if it prevents great catastrophe? - but Bradbury's take on it (and James Whitmore's simple and sincere performance) is moving. 

It's funny because the first time I saw this, I thought it was just okay. Interesting but hokey. But my brain kept working on it absently. Eventually I read the short story and then watched it again. I've seen it nine or ten times now, and it gets better on repeat viewings. I say this because if you've only seen it once, you likely think I'm out of my mind putting it this high in the countdown.  

And I may be - then again, I may be just feigning insanity to inspire you to new heights of rationality. #TeamToynbee

5.
Season 5, Episode 1 (1990)
Directed by John Laing.
First published in Planet Stories (Fall, 1948).

As the first successful mission to Mars touches down, the men stare through the mists of the Martian dawn and finds something strange: a small town straight out of the American Midwest, filled with their long-lost loved ones.

Here's the conceptual inspiration for the Twilight Zone episode "Elegy". Among many other tributes. It's another one I came to via its EC adaptation before I ever read the source material. 

"Elegy" is (perhaps) a better unintentional adaptation of this story than this episode is, but it's still one of my faves. I kind of wish David Lynch had been the guy to bring it to life, either here in TRBT or as some kind of mash-up of Dune and Mulholland Drive. (And Bradbury, of course.)

Not much to say about this one, I guess. Outside of what's coming up for #2 and "A Sound of Thunder," this might be Bradbury's best-known short story.   

4.
Season 3, Episode 5 (1988)
Directed by Alain Bonnot.
First published in Harper's (March, 1947).

An American boy living with his grandmother in Paris for the summer takes an interest in a new boarder.

The new boarder, Mr. Koberman, is some kind of vampire - or so the American boy believes. The boy goes to ingenious lengths to suss him out. The story is a duel between them, against a Parisian boyhood summer backdrop

Wonderful stuff. The performances of both the man upstairs (played by FĂ©odor Atkine) and the boy abroad (Adam Negley, whose sole imdb credit is this episode) are great, particularly the kid's. Well, it's not "great," but his awkwardness is key to the whole thing to me. He probably wouldn't be perfect or even competent for a traditional 80s-kid role, but he's perfect for a Bradbury one, where the kid characters often leverage the unique advantages of childhood against the adults in pursuit of supernatural mystery.

Another one, too, where you can see some direct influence on Stephen King. Not that this is some profound discovery; King's talked plenty about how much he loved Bradbury and his influence on him. 

3.
Season 1, Episode 3 (1985)
Directed by Ralph L. Thomas.
First published in Weird Tales (May, 1943).

A neon sign artist named Joe Spelliner is injured in a car crash and sees a crowd of onlookers quickly gather. Days later he sees another car crash and notices that again the same crowd quickly gathers. He begins to investigate a series of accidents and news footage reveals that the same crowd arrives at every scene. What's more, Joe notices that the faces in the crowd match photographs of people at the city morgue.

If that summary reminds you of the Christina Ricci movie The Gathering, it should. Hard to believe that one didn't end up in court. Maybe it would have had anyone seen it. I did because I see anything Ioan Gruffudd is in. Everyone needs to make that guy as rich as possible so he can buy the rights to the Horatio Hornblower books and get the last half of the series where Hornblower is an older man filmed, so one actor - himself - can represent his career from midshipman to Admiral, retired. So say we all!

As for "The Crowd," this is not the first episode I'd recommend to someone who was curious about the show or Bradbury as a writer. But if you've already established how you feel on the man's work and/or enjoy the short story, it's a pretty pitch-perfect representation of both this side of the man's work (the Twilight Zone side, for lack of a better term, i.e. the anxiety-story-with-supernatural-twist-ending) and the short story, even updated as it is from the 40s to the 80s. 

Nick Mancuso - who stars in one of the greatest TV intros ever made - plays the artist in the car crash. He is perhaps a weak link in the proceedings here - YMMV - but the fundamental existential dread of the story comes across quite agreeably. 

2.
Season 4, Episode 11 (1989)
Directed by Brad Turner.
First published in The Saturday Evening Post (September 23, 1950).

Two parents begin to worry when their children's high-tech holographic nursery fixates on a single landscape: an African veldt filled with savage lions.

Yet another wow-we-were-warned-weren't-we? entry for the Hall of Records. I firmly believe we are living out the background years of "The Veldt" right now, one step between buying the technology for our homes and raising the kids who would murder us rather than be cut off from it. Whether or not that is actually the case, any 20th Century American Short Fiction anthology should have it. It works on many levels and is as airtight as any Hemingway or Carver or O'Hara. (Or whomever else you got).

Longtime DSO reader ChrisC once linked to the adaptation of this story for X Minus One, and I'm happy to do so here, as well. It's exceptional stuff. But I do prefer its TV adaptation here in TRBT. Which has the wonderfully surreal effect of representing the "Veldt" interface with cheesy (but oh-so-awesome-at-the-time) 80s fx. The CGI equivalent of steampunk or something. 

Another malevolent children leveraging-their-innocence-and-superior-guile to commit mayhem parable.

And finally:  

1.  
Season 2, Episode 1 (1986)
Directed by Don McBrearty.
First published in Ellery Queen (October, 1958).

A city writer learns a lesson when he takes an idealistic view of rural life, but discovers the truth is far different when he impulsively leaves a train to explore a small town.

I covered this one in depth here so I won't go into it all again. Here's my closing remarks and it goes the series in general as well:

"Reverential is a good word for the overall Bradbury approach. It's probably more interesting to wonder at story's end whether or not Cogswell is or is not a killer himself, but I also like the disillusioned but quick-thinking Cogswell of the episode.

I don't love every episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater - which makes sense as I don't love every story I've read by him, either - but the ones I do, like this one, are a successful blend of dreamscape and verisimilitude. No one quite sounds like anyone you've ever met yet they're all familiar; no one's actions or motivations are traditionally explainable yet their inner worlds are easy to see and well-described."

"Bradbury once wrote that "you have to stay drunk on writing so reality won't destroy you." This explains to my satisfaction why I often find his stories to be somewhat disorienting. But usually worth it and always unique. Alternately nostalgic and eccentric, with unexpected darkness, it's tempting to see his work as an intoxicating hedge against reality's war of attrition against your childhood sense of wonder." 

~