Before TV and film became the dominant media of science fiction, the short story was king. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the most famous science fiction authors were better known for short stories published in magazines than full-length novels. And before you say, “What about the Ray Bradbury books like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles?” consider this — both of those were actually a series of short stories stitched together in what was commonly called a “fix-up.” (The same goes for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.)
One of the reasons anthology sci-fi like Black Mirror or Love, Death & Robots feel so classic is that they’re basically short stories. Big, epic shows with several-year-long arcs are wonderful, but a self-contained sci-fi tale that needs just a tiny bit of world-building to deliver a thought-provoking twist remains the genre’s most reliable and nimblest formats.
If you’ve already binged through Love, Death & Robots Season 2, there’s one mostly forgotten sci-fi anthology series that’s absolutely worth your attention. Here’s why The Ray Bradbury Theater is so great, and how to watch it for free right now.
Unlike most sci-fi anthology shows — like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits — The Ray Bradbury Theater has the most in common with Black Mirror for one simple reason: the vast majority of the episodes are written by the same person.
The Ray Bradbury Theater is literally what it sounds like: Ray Bradbury presenting TV versions of a bunch of his short stories. It’s the kind of stunt that seems almost impossible to imagine now, with the closest analog perhaps being Castle Rock insofar as Stephen King is probably the closest living version of Bradbury. It’s hard to find a short story writer more prolific and consistently good as Bradbury, especially when you go digging around in the sandbox of older science fiction. Bradbury’s stories don’t always make sense, but they’ve always got style and attitude.
Each episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater begins with the author ascending what looks like an elevator in the famous Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. To be clear, the Bradbury building was not named after Bradbury himself, but it did make famous appearances in science fiction works, notably The Outer Limits episode “Demon With a Glass Hand,” and of course, Blade Runner. Bradbury enters a cluttered office. It’s way too junky to actually be a set, which makes you think we’re seeing his real writing office, probably located somewhere in ‘80s Los Angeles.
Bradbury’s opening narration and corny intros don’t give Rod Serling a run for his money or anything. The guy was a writer, not a TV host, and it shows. But the silliness of these intros is actually great because it gives you an insight into the raw purpose of the show. By 1986, when Ray Bradbury Theater first began airing, Bradbury had already been a huge American writer for over three decades — ever since the novel version of Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953.
But despite his fame, and his various forays into Hollywood, adaptations of his books rarely made the same kind of impact as the books themselves. Sure, the Francois Truffaut version of Farhenheit is great, but it’s no Tarkovsky’s Solaris. In terms of having mass appeal outside of his books, it’s hard to argue any Bradbury movie is more beloved than the book. (Stephen King and Philip K. Dick are good examples of the opposite: You could argue more people have seen IT than read the book, or that Blade Runner and Total Recall are more famous than the novel and short story they’re based upon, respectively.)
Was this Bradbury’s motivation in creating The Ray Bradbury Theater? I have no idea, but the low-budget approach to adapting a bunch of his short stories into 30-minute episodes can feel like Bradbury’s way of reaching for a different kind of posterity. It doesn’t always work, but because the stories these episodes are based upon are almost always awesome, you won’t regret watching it.
When Ray Bradbury Theater really works is when Bradbury mixes and matches elements from multiple short stories. For example, my favorite episode of the show is Season 5 Episode 5, “Usher II,” about a man (Patrick Macnee) who manages to replace book-burning government officials with robots in a giant homage to Edgar Allan Poe. The cool thing about this episode is that Bradbury sets it very clearly inside the Farhenheit universe, but also references the robot replacement tech from the story “Marionettes Inc.”
This is somewhat true of the short story, too, but somehow the filmed version is creepier, with a kind of David Lynch quality to the robot-murders. The episode is also, like many of Bradbury’s stories, about the censorship of imagination, and what measures people might take to preserve their right to embrace certain kinds of fictions.
Not every installment of The Ray Bradbury Theater is great, and, in fact, I’d recommend skipping the first episode (the aforementioned “Marionettes Inc.”). Yes, Leslie Neilsen may have starred in the 1956 sci-fi drama, Forbidden Planet, but by 1986, it’s hard to take him seriously.
That said, the guest stars in this show are amazing overall. From William Shatner to Drew Barrymore to a fantastic episode starring Jeff Goldblum — “The Town Where No One Got Off” (Season 2, Episode 1) — in which a young writer finds himself trapped in a town where...well, you get it.
The great thing about Ray Bradbury Theater is that it’s a good simulacrum of flipping through one of Bradbury’s short story collections like The Illustrated Man or Golden Apples of the Sun. If you don’t like the first one you land on, you can skip to another. The production values are shaky, but the talent both in front of the camera and in the bones of the writing is, in every sense of the word, classic.