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MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION (ABC)
(Saturdays at 10:00/9:00c starting tomorrow)
The network's description: "Four thought-provoking tales of present and future Earth are brought to life in "Masters of Science Fiction," an all-new anthology series featuring a stellar lineup of actors and directors, and narrated by acclaimed physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. The series premieres SATURDAY, AUGUST 4 (10:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network."Masters of Science Fiction" is from Starz Media in association with Industry Entertainment and its Vancouver partner, Reunion Pictures, and is based on some of the genre's most popular and highly regarded short stories. Academy Award� nominee and Emmy� nominee Sam Waterston, two-time Academy Award nominee and Emmy winner Judy Davis, Anne Heche (ABC's "MEN IN TREES"), internationally renowned star Malcolm McDowell, Terry O'Quinn (ABC's "Lost"), Elizabeth Rohm ("Law & Order"), two-time Tony Award winner and Emmy winner Brian Dennehy, two-time Academy Award nominee John Hurt and James Denton (ABC's "Desperate Housewives") star the four installments of the series."
What did they leave out: Six episodes were actually shot. Click here for details on the two installments that aren't being aired.
The plot in a nutshell: The disembodied voice of Stephen Hawking introduces us to a variety of "Twilight Zone"-esque science fiction tales, each of which is based on a "classic" short story. Said introduction generally poses a question about the human condition. In the premiere, John Kessel's "A Clean Escape," it's "are there events so impossible to forget that they become too painful to remember?" Episode two, Howard Fast's "The General Zapped an Angel," asks if we can overcome our own violent natures. The third installment, Robert Heinlein's "Jerry Was A Man," poses that "if necessity is the mother of invention, what will drive our ingenuity once all our needs are met?" And the concluding tale, Harlan Ellison's "The Discarded," wonders that in our quest for perfection, what will become of those who are less than perfect? The episodes themselves then play out mostly as one-act morality plays between two or three characters, most of which end in some kind of concluding twist.
What works: As can be expected in any kind of anthology, the quality varies widely between each episode. The best by far is the second installment (August 11), which sees Terry O'Quinn playing an embittered retired military man brought back into the fold to try and figure out if a mysterious cocoon is extraterrestrial in origin. It's nothing you haven't seen before - complete with William B. Davis as a hawkish president and Elisabeth Rohm as the believer who works with O'Quinn's skeptic - especially if you've caught a rerun of the Robert Zemeckis film "Contact" on cable recently (even if Fast's story obviously predates it). Nevertheless, the talent involved elevates its retread premise into an entertaining hour. Also solid, albeit grating at times, is the opening tale (August 4) which sees Judy Davis play a dying psychiatrist to a man (Sam Waterston) who literally caused the end of the world but has chosen to forget it.
What doesn't: It unfortunately also signals the show's chief problem - trying to expand one or two act stories into the teaser and four act format of television. For the most part, each installment wears out its welcome by the end of its second act as the third and fourth are simply retreads of the former two as we wait for the expected "twist." "The Discarded" (August 25), in which Brian Dennehy and John Hurt play genetic freaks cast off by the human race, is a perfect example of this. It's basically those two cursing their condition and the human race - but secretly clinging to it at the same time - for 40 minutes, bookended by a few minutes of exposition and conclusion. By comparison then, UPN's short-lived "Twilight Zone" revival seems to have had the better idea by putting two half-hour tales in each episode. Anyway, rounding out the quartet is "Jerry Was a Man" (August 18) which sees Anne Heche play a rich woman who becomes smitten by a "plasto-biological" lifeform (Jason Diablo) who seems to be much more than the disposable servant to humanity he was envisioned as. Said installment likewise embodies the other major problem with the series - everything feels like a watered down morality play we've seen before. Science fiction being used as a metaphor for civil rights and the like is nothing new as "Star Trek," "The Outer Limits" and the original "Twilight Zone" have proven it to be well traveled territory.
The bottom line: Overall, if you're desperate for some kind of scripted entertainment this summer a few of these tales may be a brief oasis for you but overall you'll be bound to be disappointed.