Monday, August 4, 2008

MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION (2007) the Complete Television Series

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Anthology series with episodes incorporating science fiction themes have been around since the dawn of television. While there have been many fine examples of such fare, the original TWILIGHT ZONE, THE OUTER LIMITS and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS are some of the best examples of well-regarded story-driven compilations. The beauty of science fiction, beyond its capacity to be imaginative and to provide momentary escape, is its ability to wrap powerful story concepts dealing with morality and philosophy around a setting and plot that highlights the theme and makes its impact weightier and its vision more stark. Contemporary realistic fiction can often seem too bland or it can cut too close to home. Science fiction has the unique faculty of being able to blend impossible actions and places with everyday issues that cut across time and space. It is for those reasons that some of the greatest minds like Isaac Asimov, David Brin and Arthur C. Clarke have explored the limits of space while still examining the roots of the human experience. THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION takes a page from THE MASTERS OF HORROR series and classic anthologies like ONE STEP BEYOND and enlists an ensemble cast of directors and writers to create six episodes that do what science fiction always does best, hold up a mirror to mankind so that we can see what is there.

THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION is comprised of episodes titled “A Clean Escape” based on a short story by John Kessel and directed by Mark Rydell, “The Awakening” based on a short story by Howard Fast and directed by Michael Petroni, “Jerry Was a Man” based on a short story by Robert Heinlein and directed by Michael Tolkin, “The Discarded” based on a short story by Harlan Ellison and directed by Jonathon Frakes, “Little Brother” based on a short story by Walter Mosley and directed by Darnell Martin and “Watchbird” based on based on a short story by Robert Sheckley and directed by Harold Becker. “A Clean Escape” deals with the subject of accountability and is a futuristic look at a world ravaged by nuclear apocalypse. “The Awakening” explores the topic of antagonism, war and the path to peace in a world suddenly exposed to extraterrestrial visitors. “Jerry Was a Man” examines uniquely negative human traits in a future where genetic engineering has rewritten the definition of life. “The Discarded” is a futuristic look at leper-like colonies in space. “Little Brother” takes a hard look at a high-tech justice system run by “impartial” machines. Finally, “Watchbird” poses the age-old question of what is the price of security, in a world not that much different from ours right now.

The strength of THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION the writing is based on real science fiction stories created by authors who know their craft. One of the reasons why THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS were such superb anthology series was that writers like Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch were writers who had already transformed the genre and knew how to tell a tale. While not all the narratives of THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION are of award-winning caliber and not all stories translate ideally to a one-hour small-screen format, they are all interesting in their own way. All of the stories take an unflinching look at authority, responsibility, values and the essential nature of humanity and being a “morality play” leave the viewer in a position where they must wrestle with the themes presented. Since each episode has a powerful moral point, like any weighty subject, it is going to have an impact and it may not be easy to listen to or accept the message. That is the beauty of science fiction, it is meant to be powerful. Too many people equate the genre with “space opera” like STAR WARS or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Science Fiction can be action-oriented and it can provide thrills and chills, but it doesn’t have to and some of the most important and inspiring science fiction is more contemplative. While the teleplays of THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION are not the finest sci-fi ever created and some of the plots are a bit obvious in their direction, they do the genre proud. It is probable that THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION only lasted six episodes because it was smart, it tried to tell a worthwhile tale and was not all about “bangs and flashes”.

In addition to having a very strong story base, there is also some strong directing and acting. Since it is a one hour television show, the special effects are not going to be up to the level of theatrical film quality, but they are still quite good. What is better is the sense, created by a mix of solid directing and acting, that we are observing an unfolding stage drama. The onus of each episode is on the character development and interplay and that is aided by some careful use of cameras, judicious choice of small, focused interchanges between actors and intensified by some small but thoughtfully constructed sets which were augmented by the special effects. The outcome is imagery that looks and feels authentic, fits the story idea and allows the actors and directors to do their job of selling the story to the viewer. The outcomes are a bit uneven at times, but that is partly due to the fact that the tone of each story is meant to be different. When you read a short story collection, even if the overarching genre is homogeneous, the tone of the stories will differ. The same is true of THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION. Some episodes like “A Clean Escape” and “Watchbird” have a grimmer and more intense nature, while others like “Jerry Was a Man” were more satirical. Just as a person at an art exhibit will not find every work their cup of tea, not every episode in an anthology series is going to resonate either, but it will still make the viewer think if that person keeps an open mind.

In addition to having some fine writers and some solid directors, THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION has quite an eclectic collection of actors. Some, like John Hurt and Malcolm McDowell, are living legends, while other screen veterans like Brian Dennehy, Sam Waterston and James Cromwell add talent and recognizable faces meant to connote steadiness. Still others are recent luminaries meant to add an immediacy of star power like Jamie Denton, Terry O’Quinn and Elisabeth Rohm. One of the strengths of older anthology series like THE OUTER LIMITS and DARK ROOM was that they blended up and coming stars with well-traveled masters of the craft. THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION tends to lean in the direction of more familiar faces in the major roles, but at least the choices were a reasonable mix of ages, backgrounds and acting styles, they were generally well cast and no “flavor of the month” choices were made that would detract from the quality of the outcome. Fortunately, the roles these actors were chosen for either allowed the thespian to immerse themselves in the part so that viewers wouldn’t constantly be forced to separate the name and the face, or they were the kind of face that just blends into the role.

THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION does not have a bonus features section and that is likely due to the fact that like most of its kin, there is never a clear sense how long something like this is going to last. The focus was probably on producing each episode effectively and inexpensively, with little time or cash left over to do cast and crew interviews or some such thing. It is too bad, for the amalgamation of talent and names in this project is pretty impressive and there probably won’t be many chances left to sit guys like Harlan Ellison down with Brian Dennehy. I can only imagine what a pairing like that would have created, but it is still an intriguing thought.

I have tried to interest friends in science fiction novels and stories over the years, and have had only limited success. In many cases, my friends could not, as Coleridge said “suspend their disbelief” and let the currents take them where they would. I feel intensely sad for those who say they can’t enjoy science fiction, for many of my favorite stories have come from that genre and have left some of the most lasting impressions upon me. THE MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION is not THE TWILIGHT ZONE and will not leave an indelible mark on television history, but there were some very good themes in this anthology series raising some very worthy points about the actions, thoughts and beliefs of humankind today. A few of these episodes should probably be viewed by some of our political and business leaders, not that such a thing would do any good. To actually gain anything from film or literature, you have to actually internalize the message, process it and then synthesize new understanding. Too many at the helms have liquidated those skills from their mental repertoire in their lust for power and wealth. We must hope that science fiction will do as it has always done, expand the mental horizons of those average folk who partake so that they are left a little wiser and better by their brush with The Great Unknown.

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