Across six seasons and more than 60 episodes—all of them written by Ray Bradbury himself—The Ray Bradbury Theater brought the science fiction legend’s best stories to the small screen.
Beginning in 1985 and running until 1992, the series featured starring turns from the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Leslie Nielsen, Drew Barrymore, William Faulkner, Donald Pleasance, Carol Kane, Eugene Levy, and Peter O’Toole.
It also marked a unique experiment. There have been few other TV anthology series in history dedicated to the short stories of one writer – and possibly none that ran as long as Ray Bradbury Theater. And that’s not even getting into the fact that Bradbury adapted the stories for all six seasons himself—even lending his real-life office for the series’ early introductions.
If you’re a fan of the legendary science fiction writer and you’ve never seen the show, it’s an opportunity like no other to see the master’s work adapted to the screen by his own hand. If you’re new to Bradbury, it’s a perfect primer for what you can expect from his inimitable short stories.
In either event, with 65 episodes to choose from, where should you begin? As with Bradbury’s stories themselves, everyone seems to have different favorites, but we’ve gathered together 10 of the best episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theater from all six seasons to get you started…
"The Town Where No One Got Off"
Starring Jeff Goldblum back when that was maybe only marginally less of a big deal than it is today, “The Town Where No One Got Off” is adapted from a lesser-known Bradbury story, but it provides a standout episode.
An unpublished young writer (Goldblum) impulsively gets off a train at a random stop after a dispute with a stranger about the nature of small-town life. He finds the town surprisingly deserted and hostile, but meets an old man (Ed McNamara) who has “murder in his heart” and who has just been waiting for an opportunity to kill someone…
"A Sound of Thunder"
This, on the other hand, is one of Bradbury’s most famous – not to mention most anthologized and adapted – short stories, having made its way to the comic book page and the big screen, in a 2005 adaptation directed by Peter Hyams.
It’s interesting to see how the author himself adapted it to television, not to mention how the special effects crew (including at least one person who also worked on Ron Howard and George Lucas’s fantasy epic Willow) brought the dinosaurs and other special effects to life on a more modest budget.
Bradbury is known for thoughtful sci-fi and whimsical stories of childhood, but he was also a master of existential dread, and you get plenty of that in “The Crowd,” the show’s third episode.
This episode features Nick Mancuso (of TV’s Stingray) as an artist who is injured in a car crash, only to learn that the same sinister crowd keeps showing up at accidents all over town. It’s an eerie and surreal story that reminds us all of the kinds of darkness that Bradbury was capable of plumbing right alongside the light and airiness of some of his other tales.
Another of Bradbury’s more famous stories, “The Pedestrian” is a good episode for fans of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as they both deal with similar themes.
In a repressive future where the government controls everything, a man’s night-time walks are seen as subversive as he longs for the old ways.
Directed by one of the cinematographers of the Lord of the Rings series and starring M.A.S.H.’s own David Ogden Stiers – who might be better known today as the voice of Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast.
"The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl"
This side of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” there have been few better stories of murder and obsessive guilt than Bradbury’s classic, “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” which tells of a killer who almost gets away with a seemingly perfect murder – and probably would have, were it not for his obsessive need to cover his tracks.
The adaptation stars Michael Ironside as the killer and guest-stars Robert Vaughn.
Bradbury wrote plenty of stories that warned about the dangers of people becoming too fond of their screens.
Sure, back then he was talking about TV—and was probably altogether too aware of the irony of decrying TV on a TV program—but these stories are often seen as particularly prescient today, as we are all beholden to our phones and other electronic devices.
While Fahrenheit 451 may be the most famous of the bunch, the most pointed is probably “The Veldt,” in which a wealthy couple become concerned when their children keep setting their VR playroom to an African veldt—complete with bloodthirsty lions.
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It wouldn’t be a Bradbury list without a bittersweet story of childhood, and here “The Lake” fits the bill. Adapted from one of the author’s earlier tales, Bradbury himself calls it the “story that turned me into a writer.”
The episode follows an artist who returns to the lake where his childhood sweetheart drowned—an event that he still feels guilty over all these years later.
"Mars is Heaven"
Another of Bradbury’s most famous works, several of the stories from The Martian Chronicles made it onto the air in Ray Bradbury Theater, including this fourth season classic.
What could be more perfectly Bradburian than a Mars expedition that finds—rather than a dead world or the usual space monsters—a perfect Norman Rockwell-style small Midwestern town that seems to be stuck in 1926 and is populated by their deceased family members and loved ones?
Of course, all is not as it seems…
"The Long Rain"
Directed by Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day, Along Came a Spider), this science fiction action episode stars Marc Singer as the leader of a military crew that have crash-landed on a planet where it never stops raining. The only shelter is provided by the distant Sundome, but to reach it, they’ll have to survive the constant rain, carnivorous plants—and each other.
“Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!”
It may not be the best episode of Ray Bradbury Theater, but we’re suckers for a good creepy fungus story (see the recent Creepshow adaptation of Stephen King’s “Gray Matter”).
They don’t come much creepier than this vintage Bradbury story about a father who becomes convinced that the mushrooms his son is growing in the basement are actually alien invaders out to take over the neighborhood.
Featured still from "The Ray Bradbury Theater" via HBO/USA