I had the opportunity to view some advanced copies of the upcoming ABC limited series Masters of Science Fiction from Starz Media, which is a series aimed at bringing together top notch SF writers, screenwriters, directors and actors to tell various stories. Think an A List (at least for SF if not in general) version of The Outer Limits. Read more for the episode descriptions and my impressions.
There is a reason for the Outer Limits comparison, on several levels. First, Sam Egan, one of the co-exec producers of more recent The Outer Limits, has the same role here (as well as a writing credit). Two, whereas The Outer Limits had the voice of Control to give and introduction and a conclusion to each episode, here we have Professor Stephen Hawking doing the same thing (using his voice synthesizer). Lastly, they had the feeling of The Outer Limits – each story it told a little differently, but for some reason they feel like they belong together. It literally feels like its an extension of The Outer Limits, with more star power behind it.
Four episodes have been announced to air, but it is believed there are six in the can, so good ratings may see the release of the other two at some point, and the production company has previously said they had plans to produce a full set of 13 episodes – no idea if they are still trying to do that.
Below in italics you will see the press release description of an episode, followed by my review.
A Clean Escape (August 4th): Based on a short story by Nebula Award-winner John Kessel (?Another Orphan,? ?Buffalo?), written for TV by Emmy nominee Sam Egan (?The Outer Limits,? ?Jeremiah?) and helmed by Oscar-nominated director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond, For the Boys). A dying Dr. Deanna Evans (two-time Oscar nominee and double Emmy-winner Judy Davis; ?Life With Judy: Me and My Shadows,? Marie Antoinette) refuses to believe that her patient, Robert Havelmann (Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Sam Waterston; ?Law & Order,? The Killing Fields), cannot remember the last 25 years of his life. It remains unclear why she has been so obsessed with this particular patient until the final, shocking conclusion that may just have resonance with the current global crisis.
Probably my favorite of the four. The story unfolds in small chunks. In bits and pieces, you find out who he is, why she is involved, and what has happened. Bits of it may be predictable (including the conclusion, but that may come from seeing so many OL episodes), but it was well done. The video was a bit grainy, but this is not the finished item and the other episodes show improved quality. Some of the imagery is a bit shocking and best suited for an adult audience.
The Awakening (August 11th): Based on a short story by Howard Fast (Spartacus) and written and directed by Michael Petroni (The Dangerous Life of Altar Boys). It stars Emmy nominee Terry O?Quinn (?Lost?, Stepfather) and Elisabeth Rohm (?Law & Order?) in a story set in the middle of a ferocious firefight outside of Baghdad, where U.S. soldiers discover a mysterious body ? one that they can?t even identify as human. Swiftly, all over the earth, more such creatures appear and begin to communicate. With this contact, the world is forced to choose between peace and destruction.
A so-so episode. I was not impressed by William B. Davis’s performance in the situation room – he seemed to be lacking some level of emotion when it was really needed. However, like one of the better OL episodes, you don’t know if it is going to end well, or go horribly bad in the last 5 seconds. The episode did seem rushed to me however, and didn’t explain well what was going on.
Jerry Was A Man (August 18th): From a short story by seven-time Hugo Award winner Robert A. Heinlein (?Stranger in a Strange Land,? ?Starship Troopers?), written and directed by Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Michael Tolkin (The Player, The Rapture). It tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Van Vogel (Golden Globe nominee Malcolm McDowell; A Clockwork Orange, ?Heroes?; and Emmy nominee Anne Heche; ?Men in Trees,? John Q), a wealthy couple for whom pleasure is their only work; mundane or dangerous chores are done by anthropoids. Somehow, Mrs. Van Vogel?s dormant compassion is awakened by an anthropoid named Jerry. What traits would prove that Jerry is, indeed, a man? [Ed: Malcolm McDowell does not play Mr. Van Vogel, but rather the scientist.]
A good episode that deals with what the status of a created creature would be in our society. Anthropoids, or “Joes”, are engineered humanoids created to be expendable – in this particular instance, they walk around in set patterns in a minefield in order to trigger any hidden mines. If they blow up, no one cares, nor do the Joes – or at least, so it seems.
Jerry is a Joe, who has had limited retraining. When one of the richest women in the world (played excellently by Anne Heche) is looking for a genetically engineered pet and takes a liking to him, she takes him home, and later helps fight for his rights – and the rights of all Joes.
The Discarded (August 25th): Based on a short story by seven-time Hugo Award winner, three-time Nebula Award winner and Science Fiction Grand Master Laureate Harlan Ellison (?A Boy and His Dog,? ?Star Trek?), written for the screen by Ellison and Oscar nominee Josh Olson (A History of Violence) and directed by Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: Insurrection, Star Trek: First Contact). It stars James Denton (?Desperate Housewives?), two-time Oscar nominee John Hurt (V for Vendetta) and Emmy and Tony Award-winner Brian Dennehy (Assault on Precinct 13, Cocoon) in a story of despised minorities forever adrift in the darkness of outer space. As a last resort ? born out of their loneliness and despair ? they are forced to make an ominous pact with those responsible for their plight, in the hope that they will finally be offered refuge at home on Earth.
The Discarded suffer from RIGM (Random Ideopathic Genomic Mutation), a disease of unknown cause, spread or cure, which causes horrible physical mutations. Exiled from Earth and drifting between planets for years, they suddenly encounter an emissary from Earth, which needs their help.
There is a lot of potential here for interesting and humorous characters, and they generally do a good job, but the campiness at one point seemed out of place (check out the one-eyed cheerleader followed by the two gentlemen making comments). The exposition for the Discarded’s situation was handled well by John Hurt, who does excellent in his role. Where this episode was lacking (other than the predictable end, which could have used at least a single line of explanation) is the death scenes, which I believe through direction (and I generally like Frakes’ work) or cinematography lacked any kind of emotional tie-in.
Overall, this could be a good, suped-up version of The Outer Limits. I don’t know if the screener copies are necessarily reflective of the finished production – that may account for some of the issues I’ve seen, and given some refinement could easily excel. I have my doubts that an anthology series, which has no regular cast or characters to draw viewers can do well in a broadcast network environment, but I sure hope so – give an outlet of some of the best stories that don’t necessarily have to be 22 episodes or more long.
I hope we can see a more diverse set of stories from other A List SF writers.
As a special bonus, you may find some of the minor and background actors familiar. Quite a few have appeared in various SF productions (such as the Stargate series) and should be easily recognizable.