I watched the last two episodes of Masters of Science Fiction
last night. The program was apparently scheduled to air last year but ended up on hold until it emerged last month as a late summer filler, exiled to Saturday nights. Ray Richmond writing for Reuters and The Hollywood Reporter has already chastised
ABC and its president Stephen McPherson for not supporting the show so I won't do so here. Not much, anyway.
Masters of Science Fiction was an anthology series which adapted sci-fi short stories for the small screen. Six episodes were shot but only four aired. It is "hard" science fiction, thusly there's no battles with laser pistols or between giant spaceships. Instead, speculation of what the future may hold is used as a backdrop to tell very down-to-earth tales.
"A Clean Escape" started things off on a high note with Sam Waterston as Robert Hovelmann, a man who has lost his memory. Judy Davis puts in a charged performance as Dr. Deanna Evens, a psychologist who is trying to get Hovelmann to remember for her own all-too personal reasons. The truth of the situation unfolds slowly and it does so mostly in the confines of a single room. The dramatic tension and fine performances made for some great viewing.
The second installment was entitled "The Awakening". Terry O'Quinn stars as a retired army major who is hauled out of retirement to investigate a mysterious alien pod found in Iraq. The opening scene in that country features a confrontation between an American soldier and a member of an Iraqi militia and it sets the thematic wheels in motion. William B. Davis who was Cancer Man in The X-Files, is wonderful as the U.S. president. He confronts and is confronted by other world leaders via a bank of video conference screens and these scenes heighten the tension well in addition to providing fodder for contemplating our political situation today. While the show excelled for the majority of its running time, I found the ending a bit hasty and sentimental. Still, it was great fun.
"Jerry Was a Man" was adapted from a story by the legendary Robert Heinlein and featured a favorite actor of mine, Malcolm McDowell as Cargrew. He heads a company that genetically modifies animals to make custom pets for the rich in addition to its main business of creating Joes, which are human-mechanical chimeras that do tedious and/or dangerous work that people don't want to do such as serving coffee or clearing minefields. Anne Heche plays Marth Van Vogel, an exceedingly rich woman, who, along with her partner Bronson, approach Cargrew about breeding an ultra-exotic pet. While there, she encounters Jerry, created to clear minefields, and decides she wants to save him. And so she leases Jerry for a year. At the end, she takes Cargrew to court seeking to gain Jerry's freedom by proving that he is, in fact, a person. No one can play a baddie quite like McDowell and he delivers here. I must admit that I was impressed by Heche as well. She's not an actress towards whom I can admit much affinity but I thought she did a splendid job here. This episode was pretty good but I'm just so acclimated to Philip K. Dick exploring the "what is human?" topic that anyone else doing so just doesn't feel right to me.
Sadly, the final episode was "The Discarded", written and co-adapted by sci-fi's best-known curmudgeon, Harlan Ellison. It chronicles the lives of a ship of mutants – people who were afflicted with a genetic disorder. This band of outcasts wanders the galaxy looking for a new home since they are unable to return to Earth. Brian Dennehy plays Bedzyk, the erstwhile captain of the ship and leader of the band of outcasts. John Hurt is the smart-talking Samswope who, along with the second head growing out of his shoulder, is Bedzyk's friend. No off-Earth colony will accept the mutants and you can imagine that life aboard the ship is mercilessly sad. Indeed, the opening scene is of one of one person ramming their head into the wall until death. The bleakness of the circumstances are juxtaposed a rather sprightly jazz soundtrack which is at once disorientating and oddly appropriate. The ship is boarded by a representative from Earth who informs everyone that the disease has spread on the surface below but a cure has been found. But it requires the blood of Bedzyk and company as the disease has mutated and the blood of more recent victims does not contain the requisite component. That's all I'll say about the plot so as not to give anything away.
"The Discarded" is probably my favorite of the four because Ellison and co-writer Josh Olson do a great job of developing Bedzyk and Samwope in a very short time. They do so, not only by having the two interact with one another, but by having them interact with other members of the crew. Hurt gives some comic relief while Dennehy broods.
It's a real shame that ABC set up Masters of Science Fiction to fail. Although a fair sum was spent on special effects, they weren't front-and-center. Instead people with all their attendant conflicts and attachments were. I'll leave you with part of Richmond's rant with which I wholeheartedly agree:But hey, as long as there's room in sweeps for such literary masterpieces as "National Bingo Night" and "Shaq's Big Challenge," ABC should remain safely insulated from most programming that could somehow be construed as brainier than your average speed-dating mixer. Imagine the same guy whose network boasts such MENSA candidates as "The Bachelor" and "Wife Swap" referring to a show that dramatizes short stories by such legendary writers as Harlan Ellison and Robert A. Heinlein as "very uneven" and "a little bit problematic." That's how McPherson described "Masters" in justifying his slicing it down and burning it off. And by comparison, this would make "According to Jim" . . . what? A bellwether of consistency? A landmark comedic achievement?