Masters of Science Fiction

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Science fiction critics often lament that genre film and television tend to lag behind its print production in freshness and sophistication, and frequently point to film and television’s neglect of the rich body of novels and short stories the genre has generated over the last half century or so as a part of the problem.  Brian Aldiss in Trillion Year Spree offered an off-the-cuff list of classic science fiction novels that should have had their crack at becoming classic films (but never did), and that list has dated very little in the years since.  More recently Orson Scott Card in his celebration of the demise of Star Trek: Enterprise compared Star Trek very unfavorably with the print science fiction being written when it first appeared in the 1960s-and suggests it might never have become such a phenomenon if television audiences had then been in a position to make the same comparison themselves.

This makes it only fair to take note when Hollywood does pay attention to print SF, which it may not have capitalized on quite so well as it should have, but which it has certainly not ignored in recent years.  The last decade has seen quite a few efforts, admittedly with mixed results, like Steven Spielberg‘s A.I. (based on a short story by Aldiss, “Supertoys Last All Summer Long”), and the numerous efforts to film the writings of Philip K. Dick (such as Spielberg’s Minority Report and Richard Linklater‘s A Scanner Darkly)During the same years the Sci-Fi Channel produced films and miniseries based on Frank Herbert‘s original Dune trilogy, Philip Jose Farmer‘s Riverworld saga, and Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea novels.

Network television now appears set to take a similar course with ABC’s new anthology show, Masters of Science Fiction.  Hosted by physicist Stephen Hawking, Masters bases each episode on a classic science fiction short story.

Unfortunately, the network’s handling of this show only affirms the standard criticisms.  When I first realized, quite by accident, that the show was airing at all, I recalled hearing about plans to produce it a very, very long while ago—and indeed, the appearance of Masters is well overdue.  Bumped over a year from its initial release date, the network has finally dumped it in the time slot of 10 P.M. Saturday night in August, “deep within the bowels of television Siberia,” as Ray Richmond put it in his article, Masters of Science Fiction Too Artistic For ABC”, noting there that it “simply wouldn’t be possible for a broadcast network to more effectively guarantee that a series be viewed exclusively by close friends and family members of the production team, unless they cut the national signal and screened it instead on someone’s front porch.”  ABC has also trimmed the run from six episodes to four.  (You can find the original plan discussed in this now outdated press release.)

Two of those episodes have aired at the time of this writing.  The first, “A Clean Escape,” which premiered on August 4, is based on John Kessel‘s story of the same name, which first appeared in the May 1985 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.  It centers on a game of wits between a psychiatrist (Dr. Evans) and a very unusual patient (Robert Havelmann).  While the story’s expansion diminishes the sense of claustrophobia and narrative tightness that sharpened the central conflict of Kessel’s carefully constructed piece, and the ending has been tweaked, it is on the whole quite faithful to its source material.  Its principal additions, notably, strengthen rather than diminish its telling of that story, the dialogues communicating Dr. Evans’s internal narrative, and a number of well-executed red herrings helping to sustain the suspense.  “A Clean Escape” also benefits from strong performances by Judy Davis as Evans, and Sam Waterston as Havelmann, which help imbue the episode with tension from their first meeting on.

The episode which aired on August 11 the following week, “The General Zapped A . . .”, is based on Howard Fast‘s “The General Zapped An Angel,” which first appeared in the 1970 anthology of the same name.  In this instance, even less of the premise survives than the modified title suggests.  Of course, it should be acknowledged that Fast’s classic story is far more difficult to produce for television than Kessel’s piece because of its sprawling, spectacular images that cry out for accompaniment by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” its large cast of characters, a plot structure which might be better suited to a short film than an hour-long TV drama—and of course, the political sensibilities of the original.  Fast’s funny, brutal satire of military men and clergymen might have a chance on an animated comedy like The Simpsons or American Dad, but not a live action show like this one, least of all in the current climate (though as a survey of the opinions on the Internet Movie Database web site indicates, it is quite sufficient to make some conservatives condemn the whole effort).

In place of that humor there is only solemnity as otherworldly visitors demand that human beings put an end to war, a well-worn plot to which the teleplay brought little that was new, despite touching on some worthwhile ideas, and some interesting cast choices, particularly William B. Davis (perhaps best known as the “cigarette-smoking man” from The X-Files) as the President of the United States.  Terry O’Quinn‘s casting as “Major Skinner,” who replaces General Clayborne “Old Hell and Hardtack” Mackenzie as the central figure, was also an interesting choice that made me wonder what the original plan for the episode was, given some of the characters O’Quinn has previously played.

In fact, I found myself wondering why they bothered to credit Fast’s story at all—and expect that an angry screenwriter will someday tell the story of the changes foisted onto his original vision in the manner of Harlan Ellison‘s account of the inside story of the making of the Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.”  (You can read Ellison’s caustically funny version of how that all went, as well as his intriguing original script, in his book by that title.)  The end product, however, is still considerably smarter than most television, as Richmond’s rather more favorable review attests.

Future episodes will hopefully be more like the first episode than the second, but despite the compromises network television requires, the show still has promise, as the source material of upcoming episodes by itself should indicate, namely Robert Heinlein‘s “Jerry Was a Man” (airing Saturday, August 18) and Harlan Ellison’s “The Discarded” (airing August 25), which was not discarded after all, survivng the network axe.  Would that the executives were so quick to swing it at the endless torrent of mind-numbing game shows and “reality” programming that helped drive this viewer far, far away from The Big Four years ago.  If the conduct of network president Stephen McPherson is any indication of things to come, however, he will not be returning.