[VINTAGE COAX] The Ray Bradbury Theater – Season 2, Episodes 7 & 8

I’ve written several times now about the difficulties and trials of properly adapting short stories to the screen, but THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER still provides a unique – and often fascinating – example of the process. With Bradbury himself doing the adapting, you might expect that the final product would be slavishly devoted to the original text; but what has been most intriguing so far has been examining the changes the author has made to his stories. In some cases it’s to make them more cinematic; while others have been updated from their original setting to modern day. With “The Small Assassin”, entire plot elements were shuffled around or excised completely, and occasionally things had to be stretched out a bit to fill the twenty-odd minutes of each episode.

However, what has really been proven by all of this reshaping and manipulating of material is how economical Bradbury’s short stories truly are. This shifting of elements often robs the stories of at least some of their power, while the most successful episodes so far have been the ones that have least strayed from their sources. It’s also notable that the more cinematic and stylistic visual aspects of these episodes tend to be the parts that are most dated – with the laughable special effects and soundtrack of this week’s “Punishment Without Crime” a low point for the series. Few anthology TV programs feel quite as reflective of the era they were made as THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER does, and while this is unable to undermine the best of these teleplays, lesser episodes are invariably damaged.

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Episode 7 – Punishment Without Crime
Originally aired: April 16th, 1988
Directed by: Bruce MacDonald (“Peak Practice” (TV) (2001-2002), “Ruth Rendell Mysteries” (TV) (1998-2000))
Featuring: Donald Pleasence (Halloween (1978), The Great Escape (1963)), Lynsey Baxter (The Little Match Girl (1974), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981))
Based on: “Punishment Without Crime” by Ray Bradbury (titled “Behold, Thou Art Fair” in Bradbury’s manuscript) originally published in Other Worlds, March 1950 and later collected in Long After Midnight and The Stories of Ray Bradbury.

Here’s something rather novel: a sequel to a short story! Or, at least, sort of.

You might remember that the very first episode of  THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER was an adaptation of his 1949 story “Marionettes, Inc.”, where two couples encounter some wonderfully creepy fallout as the result of an encounter with the titular company, which manufactures extremely lifelike automatons. A year later, Bradbury brought Marionettes, Inc. back in his story “Punishment Without Crime”, and with equally dark and distressing results.

Unlike that original story, which took a blackly comic look at how lives might be changed by the introduction of lifelike robots, here Bradbury has much more philosophical intentions with a fantasy scenario slowly devolving into bleak horror. George Hill is an affluent man of advancing age who finds himself betrayed by his young lover, who has taken on a younger and more virile suitor. Faced with mounting anger and frustration, he visits a slightly different version of Marionettes, Inc. that specializes in creating exact copies of living people specifically for the purposes of being murdered. These duplicates are exact (even able to feel pain and emotion) but when faced with the look and personality of someone he once loved, George is unable to go through with the deed. It’s only when he’s pushed by reminders of her misdeeds that he’s able to embrace his anger and shoot the creature.

The story ends with George being arrested and tried for the murder of his wife – a new law instituted to handle the still controversial practice of creating lifelike copies – and him being sent to his own death. It’s a grim finale, particularly since George is visited by his wife at the zero hour – and we’re left with his protestations that he can’t be guilty of a murder while the victim still lives.

The television translation of the story actually begins with this protest, before we get a flashback that tells the story; very much how it’s presented in Bradbury’s original text. Unlike the story, however, this adaptation is not presented as a sequel to “Marionettes Inc.”, with the company in question being renamed (rather comically) to Facsimiles Ltd. instead. However, the design of the offices maintains the sleek, science fiction look of the premiere episode, though now we get more fictional elements added: monitors filled with computer read-outs, as well as a sleeping pod where George rests until the Marionette/Facsimile is ready.

These futuristic elements are where the episode falters, as even in the late 80s they would have given off a cheesy, 70’s Doctor Who vibe that betrays the shows limited budget. Still, we do get a reliably great performance from Donald Pleasance in the lead,  and the actual meeting – and confrontation – between George and the facsimile version of his wife is quite well done. Alas, the runtime is then padded with an unnecessary futuristic trial, where jurors are pictured on CRT television monitors before giving their judgment. These bits go against the not-so-distant-future element of the short story, and since the fate has already been revealed, these last few scenes hit with a dull thud.

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Episode 8 – On The Orient, North
Originally aired: April 29th, 1988
Directed by: Frank Cassenti (L’agression (1973) , Mystery Mister Ra (1984))
Featuring: Magali Noël (Satyricon (1969), Amarcord (1973)), Ian Bannen (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), Waking Ned Devine (1998))
Based on: “On The Orient, North” by Ray Bradbury, originally published in Bradbury’s 1988 collection The Toynbee Convector.

Ah, now this is more like it. “On The Orient, North” is a beautifully written eulogy for the great ghosts of fiction, and is blessed with a very sweet – and very romantic – element of nostalgia that makes for a wonderfully bittersweet conclusion. While perhaps not one of Bradbury’s most lauded stories, it’s beautifully written, with a florid, operatic element to the writing that feels at once triumphant and slightly heartbreaking. It’s also a very unique ghost story, while paying minor, appropriate tribute to “Murder on the Orient Express”.

The story takes place almost entirely on the Orient Express, from Venice to Paris to Calais, with a Miss Minerva Halliday finding herself aware of the rapidly declining health of a fellow passenger. Remembering an encounter from her youth, Miss Halliday rightfully recognizes the “ghastly gentleman” as being a ghost, displaced due to the crumbling of ancient haunted castles and the increased skepticism and cynicism of modern travelers. She decides to nurse the man back to health as a well-deserved “lark”, and the pair become fast friends – with her reading to him from Hamlet, The Turn of the Screw, A Christmas Carol, and other works of fiction that celebrate specters and phantoms. When the gentleman arrives at his destination, he discovers that his nurse has passed away during the trip, and Miss Halliday will be – lovingly – accompanying him on his future haunts.

Taking great pains to describe and revel in the texture and atmosphere of his European locations, Bradbury here tells a wonderfully unique ghost story that manages to take a potentially serious topic – the eradication of myth – and put it in a rather romantic context. Here, the old ghosts and legends will never die, as long as a few believers remain.

The television adaptation wisely stays extremely close to the original text, and the quality is buoyed by the increased production values and quality of actors afforded to it by its European setting. Yes, like the earlier “The Man Upstairs”, this episode is actually shot in France, and the inclusion of  Fellini regular Magali Noël as Miss Halliday and the late Ian Bannen as The Ghastly Passenger make for an inspired pairing – even if Bannen’s ghostly make-up is a little much at first. The train-bound setting doesn’t allow for much sight-seeing, but director Frank Cassenti is deft enough to keep things from feeling too claustrophobic.

The biggest issue with the episode is that it seems rather drained of much of the atmosphere of Bradbury’s story. Perhaps seeing the Passenger in the flesh (so to speak) couldn’t really carry the same impact when adapted; and we only have hints of the fog-covered, mist-enhanced locations so wonderfully described. I also take issue with the episode’s big effect, where a newly invigorated Passenger relays a ghost story to group of students on a train platform, and suddenly levitates. It’s an impressive visual, but a bit too concretely supernatural for a tale that works best when the terror is kept to the margins.

It’s also plagued – as are many of these episodes – by some cheesy, inappropriate synthesizer music that betrays the timeless feeling of the setting and performances. While the material here isn’t meant to be frightening, even the slightest bit of mood building tends to be shattered when the soundtrack cuts in. Still, thankfully the ending manages to capture some of the charm of its source, and while the uniting of our two characters may not be quite as hauntingly elegant, it still ends things on a wonderful note. One of the better episodes of this season, but still an often flavorless adaptation.

Doug “Sweetback” Tilley

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