Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Masters of Science Fiction (2007)

I enjoyed most of the first Masters of Horror series that aired in 2005, and approaching science fiction with a similar concept was a great idea. Indeed, every genre should have a Masters series, from mysteries to comedies, allowing specialists in each area to develop projects of their choosing. MoH really did approach the specialists, including John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Keith Gordon and Takashi Miike, whereas MoSF seems to consider the original stories as the Masters, and not the people behind them. These six episodes were directed by a varied bunch, yet most have little or no experience in science fiction. In fact, most of them seem to have been struggling for work, and might have directed a TV commercial had they been approached. Considering the stories as the Masters was, let's be honest, a cheaper option for a standard network. The series was produced by ABC rather than Showtime, and there is no way ABC (the Disney channel) would allow the freedom of creativity required by established Masters. While MoH was not scaled down in its violence, profanity and nudity, which, truly speaking, helped generate some of its better episodes, from Cigarette Burns to Jenifer, MoSF was limited to prime time PG-rated fare. Though not a terrible series, it feels like television, often lacking depth and proper visual effects (though the sometimes poor CGI did not bother me). Whereas watching MoH felt like I was watching a series of short films, with MoSF I was always aware that I was watching prime time TV; of course because of this I was more willing to forgive its faults, but many of the episodes were missed opportunities, amounting to plain fluff or, in the more painful cases, political propaganda.

The series was hosted by undisputed Master of scientific knowledge Stephen Hawking. Though the narration is limited to a few opening and most often closing words of wisdom, I was pleased that the great man was brought in for this project, if for nothing more than a sign of respect. Thanks to Dr. Hawking's work, and the work of other talented scientists, the genre is able to progress and continuously generate great concepts for both science and art. In the case of MoH the Masters are not the film-makers but the stories, adapted from authors John Kessell, Howard Fast, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Walter Mosley and Robert Sheckley. The stories selected were an odd bunch, some quite dated and not properly updated (namely those by Howard Fast and Robert Heinlein). Still, the ideas are there, but aside from "The Discarded" this was a pretty average, even under-average series, weaker than the sometimes innovative 1995 rendition of The Outer Limits. In fact, a lot of this felt like The Outer Limits, especially the series pilot, "A Clean Escape." Which segues us to the episodes...

"A Clean Escape." (First aired 4 August 2007) Directed by Mark Rydell. Written by Sam Egan from a short story by John Kessel. Starring Judy Davis, Sam Waterston, Allison Hossack and Robert Moloney. 6/10

Psychiatrist Deanna Evans is working on bringing successful company man Havelman's memory back. Apparently he has successfully blocked out the last twenty-four years of his life due to some kind of trauma. We learn quickly enough that the trauma was something he himself is responsible for, and his actions of two and half decades ago resulted in the death of Dr. Evans's own children. A solidly grim introduction to the series, with good directing, a great set and good performances all around. Moreover, in line with good science fiction, its thematic notions weigh heavily on the darker side of humanity.

The plot is nicely constructed, with little bits of information released in a patient, methodical manner. Yet it is too well constructed, a consequence of prime time television, so you can see exactly where the commercials were originally inserted. As the puzzle begins to take shape, there are still more surprises awaiting us, though none of it feels artificial; while we might feel that we should be privy to the information Dr. Evans is withholding rather than be in the dark alongside Mr. Havelman, Evans and her colleagues naturally talk around the subject since all are very well aware of Havelman's actions, and moreover, this way we are given the opportunity to sympathise with Havelman before we learn all of the facts. Despite being the bad guy, however, I still felt sorry for him at the end.

I can't help but liken this series opener to many episodes of The Outer Limits (1995); the small contained set, dark social themes and familiar television faces. Had I come across this while flipping channels I would have likely assumed it to be an episode of The Outer Limits. Both programs were even filmed in Canada, Vancouver to be precise (which, incidentally, is also where some of the Masters of Horror episodes were filmed). Dr. Evans's office is gorgeous (and the single stage set reduces costs), while the remaining decor and clothing are quite simple. Well directed by Mark Rydell, the man behind such classic films as The Cowboys (1972), The Rose (1980), On Golden Pond (1981), I wonder what the director's link to science fiction might be. Looking at the dates of his greatest achievements, I suspect he was looking for work. The script by veteran TV writer Sam Egan is good, though at times the dialogue is a little self-conscious, but this might also be due to the delivery. Egan has a long list of science fiction to his credit, from twenty episodes of The Outer Limits to Stargate SG-1 and the short-lived Automan. I am unfamiliar with the work of John Kessel, author of the Moby Dick-inspired "Another Orphan" and co-author of Freedom Beach (with James Patrick Kelly), so cannot comment on the spirit of the adaptation. I did not care for the music; it was overdone and used too obviously to heighten certain moments when a piece of the puzzle falls into place, almost as though we were watching the 1950s The Outer Limits rather than the modern version. And now (dum dum da dum) we will move onto (dum da dum dum) the next episode (da-dum!).

"The Awakening." (First aired 11 August 2007) Directed by Michael Petroni. Written by Petroni from "The General Zapped an Angel," by Howard Fast. Starring Terry O'Quinn, Elisabeth Röhm, William B. Davis, Julian Christopher, Malcolm Dingham and Hiro Kanagawa. 3/10

An American military chopper goes down in Iraq, and a US soldier and an Iraqi soldier confront each other with loaded weapons in a tense moment, trembling and screaming until they are suddenly able to understand each other. Baffled, they look over to a foreign object on the ground, and immediately fall into some kind of trance. [Insert overdone synthesized television music.]

It turns out that the chopper collided with something unearthly, and a figure wrapped in some kind of cocoon is discovered in the sand. A retired general is brought in to investigate alongside a young lieutenant, and they soon realise this is no hoax. Military and political leaders must now decide how to face what they believe is a potential alien threat.

Based on Howard Fast's short story "The General Zapped an Angel," from the bygone idealistic age of 1970, this little play is interesting until the idealism shines through (and I mean literally shines). I won't give the ending away, but will say that the last portion is dated and silly, filled with naive propaganda and bad music. The opening was interesting enough, and for a full half-hour I was willing to forgive its obvious shortcomings. First, there are the stereotypical characters: the tough retired no-nonsense general who lost his loving wife many years ago and reminisces about her last words to him while showing his sympathetic side (I thought for a moment he might even shed a tear); the tough young-yet-sympathetic and attractive lieutenant who is daughter-like to avoid having to confront a potential romantic sub-plot (so poorly acted I thought I was going to shed a tear); the temperamental war-hungry president, and all the other high ranking know-it-all military men and doctors who refuse to listen to the warnings of our two outcasts. There are the other nation leaders, the Russian, Chinese and French officials who speak through the same interpreter, and the Indian in appropriate costume. There is a lot of silly yellow light and terrible made-for-TV music. There is the convenience of leaving the alien figure unguarded (unlikely) so that the female scientist can become comatose as well. I was even willing to overlook Elisabeth Röhm's terrible attempt at acting, that painful struggle you can almost see in her eyes whenever she tries to emote. In contrast I am always pleased to see Hiro Kanagawa who earned my respect many years ago with his wonderful improvised cameo as the pet shop owner in Best in Show. Terry O'Quinn (the bald guy from Lost), William B. Davis (the cancer guy from The X-Files) and the rest are fine in their single-dimension roles. The direction by Michael Petroni is average, while his script is embarrassing, an unabashed, poorly-written bounding mass of idealistic "lay down your weapons so the world can be one nation" speech.

It is interesting, however, that the creature comes in a cocoon and leaves with wings. Not quite the angel the film-makers had hoped, but rather an insect.

"Jerry Was a Man." (First aired 18 August 2007) Directed by Michael Tolkin. Written by Tolkin from a short story by Robert A. Heinlein. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Anne Heche, Russell Porter, Jason Diablo and Bill Dow. 6/10

In the distant future, genetically engineered "Joes" are designed to perform menial tasks, saving companies a fortune since these workers, though costly, require no salary and no benefits. A supremely wealthy woman (the seventh wealthiest in the world) and her dufus husband visit a manufacturer of Joes in search of something quaint, and during this visit the woman is taken by a Joe named Jerry. Unable to purchase him since the old models were bought by a dog food company, she leases Jerry for one year, much to the chagrin of her simple-minded husband who much prefers the shrunken elephant.

"Jerry Was a Man" is a not terribly funny but a strangely enjoyable satire nonetheless, mainly due to its overall design and the fine performances. The decor does well in conveying this decadent society, though we only see the world through the eyes of the financial elite, so the rooms are all large, from the couple's bedroom to the elegant space of the Bradbury Club (no doubt a nod to author Ray Bradbury). Moreover, the unusual hairstyles, costumes and calming colours give the feature a nice, consistent look. The script, unfortunately, is lacking, since despite the solid performances some of the speeches and dialogue come across as silly or uninspired, and structurally we are offered something extremely formulaic.

Nonetheless, in this single episode many themes are touched upon, from class issues to the question of whether artificially generated anthropoids have human qualities or are they merely possessions. Many touched upon, indeed, but none really examined satisfactorily. Depictions of the self-interested social elite and financially interested scientific endeavours are not contrasted in any way; even the lawyer who takes on the case to prove that Jerry is a man is motivated by the challenge and the price, rather by any moral drive. A shortcoming of this episode is its inability to show different aspects of its society, so that we can only speculate as to whether morals in fact do exist, since even the trial judges appear less than morally astute, and less than intelligent. Perhaps the intent is to give the viewer a glimpse of the world through the eyes of Martha Van Vogel rather than a full-scale notion of this future society, but then if she is so isolated from realities outside her own, how is she able to acquire sympathy for Jerry or gain the drive to fight for his freedom? Less focus on the speeches, both from Dr. Tibor Cargrew early on and from lawyer McCoy during the trial, and a little more characterization, either of Martha or society on a larger scale, would have made for a more complete story, but even so the episode does manage to, while not educate or enlighten, at least to entertain.

Director and writer Michael Tolkin is a writer with minimal director experiences, yet as touched upon above, I feel his direction worked better than the writing. Tolkin's writing credits are varied and mostly co-credited, from the disappointing Deep Impact to the ho-hum Changing Lanes, though he also adapted his own novel for Robert Altman's fine film The Player. While Deep Impact was a foray into science fiction, good science fiction is social statement masked as entertainment, usually plot-driven, its commentary built into plot and world vision; Deep Impact was more statement than entertainment, with some poor sentimentalism which also hinders "Jerry Was a Man." Another director looking for work, and surely not hired due to any science fiction prowess. As I mention above the acting helps to make this watchable: the inconsistent Malcolm McDowell is great as the opportunistic scientist, though his part is over-written, and while Anne Heche is acceptable as Martha, Jason Diablo is very watchable as Jerry, and both Russell Porter and Bill Dow give solid performances as Bronson Van Vogel and McCoy, respectively.

As a teenager I read a fair amount of Robert A. Heinlein, though I managed to miss "Jerry Was a Man." First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1947, it is dated in its simplistic social view, though I suppose its uncomplicated nature makes it easy to adapt for television.

"The Discarded." (First aired 25 August 2007) Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Written by Josh Olson from a short story by Harlan Ellison. Starring Brian Dennehy, John Hurt, James Denton Gina Chiarelli, Jason Diablo, with a cameo by Harlan Ellison himself. 7/10

A group of mutants are exiled into space, clearly not because of any kind of infection, but because they are so horribly disfigured that no one wants to have to look at them. So they float around in space aboard the ship, tolerating one another, going a little crazy, and existing in the minutest sense of the word. Despite the obvious ending and the more obvious message, this is the best episode of the series. The acting is excellent, the make-up fantastic, the set nifty, the music better and the script somewhat above average.

"The gift that keeps on giving. Like another head."

The wonderful John Hurt this time around has a head poking not out of his belly, but out of his shoulder, while broad-bodied Brian Dennehy is broadened even more by an inflated left arm. The make-up is excellent, with a convincing second head on Hurt's shoulder that is enhanced by excellent voice work, and the details of Dennehy's hand and arm are vivid and stare-inducing. Other deformities include Jason Diablo (who played Jerry in "Jerry Was a Man") who wears a grin that nearly takes the expression "ear to ear" literally, and Gina Chiarelli whose somewhat luminous body partially reveals her inner workings. Dennehy as ship's unwilling leader Bedzyk and Hurt as his irritable and small-minded (despite having two heads) friend Samswope work well together, and without the two the episode would lose much of its appeal. Indeed the characters are, aside from Dennehy and partner Chiarelly, juvenile, scampering about like children not knowing what to do with themselves, and needing a tough paternal role model. So out of touch with reality, easily cajoled and manipulated, a ship of fools is what this is, and an effective menagerie at that.

Directed by science fiction figure Jonathan Frakes (Commander William T. Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and written by Josh Olson, who adapted the graphic novel for David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, "The Discards" is based upon a short story by admired/hated genre author Harlan Ellison, first published in the April 1959 issue of Fantastic. Personally, I'm mixed about Ellison's work, but the idea here is among his better, cynical ones. The story unfolds well, and works because it allows for character interaction and uses the episode's additional time well (and there is quite a bit, since the essential plot points can be related in ten minutes of video), in allowing the actors to play off of one another. Some nice, wider shots also enable us to see more of the interesting, moss-ridden set, and there are neat touches, like the shelf of cheap, tattered paperbacks appropriately stored behind Bedzyk's chair; he is likely the only one on the ship who bothers to read. This time around the music is a jazz light, appropriately replacing the usual over-dramatic scores of the previous episodes. It's a nice change.

"Little Brother." (not aired in the US; first aired in Canada 2 December 2007) Directed by Darnell Martin. Written by Walter Mosley from his story. Starring Clifton Collins, Jr., Kimberly Elise, Garwin Sanford and Daryl Shuttleworth. 6/10

Inmate Frendon Blythe finds himself tried for a murder he did not commit by a court that is made up of computers running on fragments taken from the memories of previous humans (I plea dead people). A great idea with much promise, focusing on individuality and intelligence rather than brawn or idealistic socialism. The title "Little Brother" is taken from a term derived from George Orwell's totalitarian Big Brother, referring to individuals snooping on one another, rather than the state doing the snooping. Unfortunately, the episode isn't given the opportunity to be fully realised. It could easily have been longer so that we do not need to rush through so many of the events and details. What was the business of Frendon wanting to flee the compound so he can find his mother? It had nothing to do with anything. Are we supposed to sympathise with him because he misses his mommy? And what of the societies behind and beyond the wall? Fine ideas are introduced but they go nowhere and seem not to have anything to do with the courts. Rather than rushing through details, perhaps we could have stayed underground, had Frendon save someone's life there and be set up, and that way explore the sub-level society and the inhuman courts (literally). Or make an hour-and-a-half episode.

The sets are great as are the props, the acting is average, and the script by popular crime fiction writer Walter Mosley is average as it suffers from so many TV constraints. One thing we do learn is that the expression "Whatever" will survive beyond society as we know it today. That alone should have gotten Frendon convicted.

"Watchbird." (not aired in the US; first aired in Canada 2 December 2007) Directed by Harold Becker. Written by Sam Egan from the short story by Robert Sheckley. Starring James Cromwell, Sean Astin, Stacy Grant, Vincent Gale and the voice of Sally Kellerman. 4/10

A young software expert finds himself in moral turmoil. He is responsible for the development of the Watchbird, a small droid involved in overseas battles that has the ability to recognize deadly intent from human individuals. American soldiers are rendered safe through specially designed chips, so these watchbirds are able to destroy enemy targets before they can actually strike. Well, dedicated developer Charlie Kramer is troubled when asked to alter the droid so it can be used for homeland security. Chuck has his reservations, for the human psyche is complex and these machines seem to be evolving; how certain can we be that the innocent will be spared? But the evil, capitalist CEO and government officials see potential in these birds, and are pushing our poor morally bound genius to go against his sense of responsibility, even by committing horrible, immoral acts! How distressing! How predictable! Yet we don't care because of the poor acting and that awful music that would be likely more effective in stopping crime than any advanced piece of military technology. ("I surrender! Just stop playing that crap!")

A great idea by the talented Robert Sheckley, though the episode is lacking his satirical humour. Like many things on TV, this could have been a decent little play. Unfortunately it is bogged down by a bad script, overt propaganda, a needless scene with Arab terrorists, and a terrible performance from our lead, Sean Astin. The scenes between him and his bride-to-be Sarah Moser (Stacy Grant) are painful to watch, the dialog between them stiff and unnatural while the performances are so forced I feel the two have just met; there is no chemistry between our actors. Sarah seems to be arguing against Charlie's moral stance, as though she too were a company CEO, and I just wonder how someone so committed to humanity could fall for a woman not only as cold as she, but as unsympathetic toward his dilemma. Perhaps she is upset about his weight and those blank stares he keeps giving her. James Cromwell, however, gives a good performance as boss Randolph Ludwin, and Sally Kellerman (Hot-Lips from the original MASH) is fine as the voice of the Watchbird, but aside from these two the cast is weak, and even the bit actors fail to be convincing.

Director Harold Becker is known for third-rate Hollywood fare since offering a strong debut in 1979 with The Onion Field. This is Sam Egan's second script for the series, following the better "A Clean Escape."

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