The Ray Bradbury Theater 4.5 – Usher II

Surely the kid recognized Patrick Macnee, you say. I mean, he saw him just four nights ago in Mister Jerico, right? Heck, no. He asked whether he might have been the seventh Doctor, only a little older. Actually, this was shown in August 1990, at which time Who was resting. If they had cast Sylvester McCoy in this delightful story, he really could have been the seventh Doctor, only a little older.

Before we got started, I let the kid know that this was one of the short stories that became the skeleton around which Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, and that it was a reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” What I didn’t know was that this story is steeped in a love of Poe that is forbidden in its world. The episode begins with a reference to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as a stack of books by Poe, among others, are dumped in an incinerator. The events of that novel happened on Earth, but they were apparently echoed on Mars. Twenty years before, a morals committee burned a giant library. Today, sweet, sweet revenge, played out in several gruesome Poe-inspired tableaux. Macnee is absolutely excellent as the murdering hero. I was saying last month about how I hope that Count Dracula doesn’t slay too many of his victims? Not here. Censors and thought police have it coming.

I’d like to think that Ray Bradbury would have appreciated how our son responded to this. He was so shocked by a world where books are banned because they make people use their imaginations that he couldn’t wrap his brain around it. He can get behind the schemes of all kinds of villains, but this just didn’t make any sense. Bizarrely, we happened to have had a discussion over supper about Prohibition, and how a hundred years ago, the bad guys briefly won and made liquor illegal for a while.

We told him he’s going to spend his life hearing about this. The Harry Potter series was a bugbear for banned books for the last few years. More recently, it’s been an attack in Texas on works by Erika Sánchez, Derf Backderf, Carmen Maria Machado, and others. There will always, always be small-minded idiots and control freaks who don’t want anybody to read fiction that makes them uncomfortable. Good discussion. Marie’ll be reading him another chapter of From the Dust Returned tonight. We may have a follow-up talk with him tomorrow. It’s never easy for kids to realize there are villains in the real world weirder and more insidious than anything he sees in the movies.

That wraps up our look at The Ray Bradbury Theater. Stay tuned for another old classic as we turn the clock back fifty years for something new to the blog Monday night!

The Ray Bradbury Theater 4.3 – Touched With Fire

We’ve introduced our son to the concept of failing a perception roll. And knock me down, but it was actually us parents who failed our perception rolls when we started this show. There’s a whacking great replica of the Nautilus from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Bradbury’s desk in the titles. We didn’t notice it, but he did.

But actors? As longtime readers know, this kid can barely tell any two adults apart, so we have to point out actors to him. I didn’t expect him to recognize Eileen Brennan, because I think he’s only seen her once, in Clue. But no kidding, we watched an episode of Space: 1999 (“End of Eternity,” with Peter Bowles) about three hours earlier and the boy had no idea that was Barry Morse as the retired insurance salesman in this. I’m just about ready to give up!

Anyway, none of us liked this one very much. Morse’s character has a notion that he can identify incredibly irritating people and save them from their impending murder, before they annoy somebody into killing them. This is not a theory that his character has the people-skills to actually explain to one of the aggravating “murderees.” It was a bit amusing seeing him exude confidence when detailing his hypothesis to a colleague only to become hopelessly tongue-tied in front of Brennan.

The strangest part was that a key element of his notion is that more murders are said to be committed at 102° than any other temperature. Now, when I first heard this, it was in the Siouxsie & the Banshees song “92°,” which opens with some sampled dialogue from the film It Came From Outer Space, which tells us that “more murders are committed at 92 Fahrenheit than any other temperature? …Lower temperatures, people are easygoing. Over 92, it’s too hot to move. But just 92, people get irritable!” It turns out that Bradbury actually wrote one of the early treatments for this film, and reused the concept when he published “Touched With Fire” as a short story in 1954. By the time this episode was filmed in 1990, the temperature had gone up from 92° to 102°. Blame climate change.  (Source.)

The Ray Bradbury Theater 3.6 – A Sound of Thunder

Kids these days. They learn stuff early. The boy and I went to pick up lunch today and I asked whether he’d ever heard of the butterfly effect in time travel before. He knew it inside and out from all the stuff he’s read and absorbed, but what he didn’t know was where it came from. So fifteen minutes to downtown and fifteen back and all we talked about was time travel, and he knew the problems and the possibilities and how pretty much every time travel story or program just ignores it. Ray Bradbury is credited with giving the problem a memorable spin, and introducing the popular example of stepping on a butterfly, in his 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder.”

So naturally this was going to be one of the episodes that I picked to watch. It’s a superb adaptation, done with simplicity and a tight budget. It starred Kiel Martin, who had played the flashy Detective Larue in Hill Street Blues, in one of his last roles. Lung cancer took him less than a year later at the stupidly young age of 46. There are only five speaking parts, and a few very small, compact sets. The tyrannosaur isn’t at all bad, given its limitations.

What I didn’t expect was how incredibly effective this adaptation was in clearly and concisely laying out the rules of the time safari. This was such a contrast to last night’s Doctor Who and all of its rules. This takes a minute and just elegantly explains how the death of anything could have repercussions up the food chain. The hunters are given a floating platform and they can only target animals too old to mate. They bring the dinosaur down, but only after Martin’s character, terrified, steps backward off the platform, dooming them.

Well, naturally, I couldn’t let a setup like that go without giving the kid another take on the material. This was a silly, silly afternoon around our place. We watched most of the Movie Macabre presentation of a dumb film called Legacy of Blood, laughed ourselves stupid for a while until we ran out of steam and got bored, chuckled and yukked and told dumb jokes, and then somehow reined it in to enjoy “A Sound of Thunder” without interruption.

Then I calmly played my masterstroke by hopping over to Disney+ to watch the middle section of The Simpsons‘ “Treehouse of Horror V.” It’s called “Time and Punishment” and the kid howled like a hyena. This is great, because he watched about eight episodes from season two before giving up and wondering where the jokes in this allegedly funny program were. Evidently they’re all in these eight minutes. It even worked out that his grandpa sent him the complete Rocky & Bullwinkle a few months back, so he knows who Peabody and Sherman are. And he definitely knows that should he ever end up back in time, don’t touch anything. Marty McFly got away with fiddling with the past, but I don’t quite trust our son to get it right. He’ll probably step on every butterfly he can find in a quest to make it rain doughnuts.

Simpsons image credit: Entertainment Weekly.

The Ray Bradbury Theater 2.11 – There Was an Old Woman

Tonight, another of the Granada-made Ray Bradbury Theater installments, and unlike the last one, this was incredibly entertaining and creepy. Well, our son’s been in the phase where nothing gets under his skin anymore, but at least he agreed that it was entertaining. This was just a fine, fine half hour of television. Like the previous installment, it assembled a very good cast, led and dominated by Mary Morris, who passed away a few months after this aired, but also featuring Ronald Lacey and Roy Kinnear. Oddly enough, this was not the first time that Kinnear played a funeral director. He played one in The Avengers as well, twenty years previously!

So this one looks like it’s going to head down a pretty obvious path: an old lady who doesn’t want to die unwittingly allowing Death into her house. I wondered how in the world they were going to sustain that for half an hour – The Twilight Zone got away with it, but that was a long, long time before this – and the answer is simple: they don’t. Death and his minions leave, and take her body with her. Now she has to get it back.

Incidentally, I can’t think of a finer illustration of how small Mary Morris was in her final year than to show you how Ronald Lacey loomed over her.

I let my love of horror lie for such a long time but have been rediscovering some of the classics and some long-forgotten gems recently. The problem, for me, is that something went badly, badly wrong with horror somewhere between Halloween and Friday the 13th, and the genre became dominated by slasher movies where the audience roots for the protagonists to die. I certainly enjoy a macabre murder or ten, but at the end of the movie, I want as many people to survive Count Dracula as possible. I really like the thrill of something incredibly creepy and unpredictable happening. I don’t need gore or dismemberments, so the vast majority of horror made in the last forty years doesn’t really appeal. Morris’s not-dead phantom threatening all the staff of the funeral home with some chilling revenge if she isn’t reunited with her body? That is right in my wheelhouse. Shame the kid didn’t find it as creepy as I did, but I’m glad that he enjoyed it all the same.

The Ray Bradbury Theater 2.7 – Punishment Without Crime

When the USA Network ordered 12 episodes for a second season of The Ray Bradbury Theater, the producers looked for some partners in other countries to fill the order. I picked this installment because it was one of the ones made in collaboration with Granada Television and looked like it had the sort of powerhouse cast I enjoy. Unfortunately, the great Iain Cuthbertson and Peggy Mount just have very small parts. That leaves Donald Pleasance, who, in my humble opinion, gave far, far greater performances in so many other things. I started the story by telling the kid what a great actor he was, and honestly, he phoned this one in and looked bored.

I seem to enjoy creepy Bradbury more than speculative Bradbury. This time, he goes back to the well of businesses that build robots. But this one doesn’t build electric grandmothers or replacement spouses, it builds… well, it builds replacement spouses as well, I suppose, but these are meant to be short-lived replacements for angry, jilted husbands to “murder.” Sadly, the writer had to add some mighty convenient plot complications to make the jilted husband’s subsequent arrest for murdering the robot make any sense. It’s dreary and weak, although the design and execution kind of reminded me of the original Max Headroom pilot, when it wasn’t reminding me of a music video from the period, anyway. Nobody liked it, and I should have gone with my notion to replace it with “Gotcha!,” which starred Saul Rubinek, just to see whether the kid would recognize him after seeing him in Stargate the last two nights.

The Ray Bradbury Theater 1.5 – The Screaming Woman

People enjoy Stranger Things for lots of reasons, but I’ll humbly suggest that one of them is that people about my age (nearly 50) remember the era fondly. There’s certainly lots of utter garbage about the eighties worth forgetting, but we all enjoyed being kids and being trusted to have adventures on our own without supervision and without getting into trouble. Eventually the Satanic Panic parents won out or something and convinced everybody that kids were in constant danger of abduction and/or razor blades in apples, and by the second Bush administration, we weren’t allowed to kick our kids out to play like we did anymore.

So for those of you who miss being able to hang out in construction sites while reading Tales from the Crypt, I submit for your approval this absolutely excellent half hour of Drew Barrymore trying to convince Canada’s stupidest grownups that she heard a woman crying and screaming for help in a patch of woods near her house. She sics the police on her neighbors, heads off on her bike to Baskin-Robbins, sits down in strange, chain-smoking men’s houses, and digs up possible graves in the middle of the night while humming half-forgotten tunes. To the eighties, my friends, let us hope the good stuff comes back one day.

The Ray Bradbury Theater 1.4 – The Town Where No One Got Off

Well, the debut episode of this show was a little unpromising, but we soldiered on and I enjoyed the fourth installment very much. The kid thought it was very strange and creepy, and he was absolutely right. In “The Town Where No One Got Off,” Jeff Goldblum’s character gets argued off a train by a loudmouth played by Cec Linder, who says that if bleeding heart small town apologists like him think that rural life is so bucolic, why not get off the train and see what happens. Goldblum has nothing better to do for a couple of days, conveniently, so he does just that, and steps off into the least friendly town in Canada.

I just thought this was really interesting. There might have been a Little Town With a Big Secret trope at play here, but we never learn what that Big Secret is; everybody is just an unbelievably hostile jerk. The installment was filmed on location in the small village of Alton. About eight years earlier, the producers of The New Avengers had semi-successfully turned the town of Vaughn into looking like a mountain range full of stereotypes separated it from Toronto. Alton is admittedly a good deal further out than Vaughn, and I’m sure that thirty-five years ago it was even more isolated, but this feels so far out that I’m reminded of those counties in Oregon so far east of Portlandia that they want to secede and join Idaho because they’re sick of them big city lib’ruls.

This town – and remembering that it’s not meant to really be Alton, but rather a place called – wait for it – Erewhon – is almost totally abandoned, and the producers did a good job shooing the actual residents out of sight so that six actors could take turns snarling at Goldblum. One old guy finally starts talking to Goldblum, who’s grown a mighty eighties mullet since we last saw him in Buckaroo Banzai, made the year before. Then things really ratchet up, and honestly only an actor as unpredictable as Goldblum could make the resolution work. I won’t pretend it’s entirely satisfying, but it certainly was fun to watch.

The Ray Bradbury Theater 1.1 – Marionettes, Inc.

And now back to 1985, and Ray Bradbury Month at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time continues as we look at a selection of episodes from The Ray Bradbury Theater. This was a show with a very weird life. HBO, who didn’t, then, have very much original drama programming, ordered six episodes of this idea for an anthology series, then didn’t seem to understand what they were meant to do with them. They ran three in the summer of 1985, and the other three in one evening in February 1986. Then they cancelled the show and it turned up again two years later on the USA Network, where they presented 59 more installments over four years. Bradbury is credited with the teleplay for every one of them, so he didn’t have to worry about anybody rewriting him. I think that most of the episodes were filmed in Toronto, but a handful of installments were made in the UK and France. (I picked eight for our little visit to the series.)

First up, “Marionettes, Inc.”, which is a little evidence that the hideous, unpleasant, Lockhorns-like marriages so often seen twenty-five years previously on The Twilight Zone were still providing fuel for writers who’d rather come up with a science fiction resolution to them instead of counseling or divorce. Oh, we had a lot to unpack after this one. This marriage is so broken, and, frankly, so ridiculous, that we had a very, very long conversation with the kid once it finished.

This is the sort of marriage we’ve seen before – “Time Enough at Last” came to mind – where you can’t imagine what in the world brought these lovebirds together. All Jayne Eastwood’s character wants to do is talk without pause and all James Coco’s character wants to do, miserably, is escape her yammering and go to work. Leslie Nielsen’s company targets him with an aggressive sales pitch. They can replace him with a robot who will put up with the yammering while he enjoys life. This would mean – I’m not kidding – movies and bowling.

If things are so bad today that you need a robot to let you bowl a few lanes, then they were that bad when you were dating. I swear, marriages in the Silent Generation must have been made randomly. Why aren’t they bowling together? If she doesn’t like bowling, why doesn’t she have her own hobby on league night? Of course, the big twist is visible from space: the robot figures out that she isn’t happy either and resolves to fix things and do away with the human. I’m not sure who I was rooting for: the robot to win, or the robot to travel back in time and match these unhappy people with somebody compatible in the first place. Come on, Bradbury, you already had the robot, why not give it a time machine?