Saturday, January 26, 2008

MASTERS OF SF blogging

Masters of Science Fiction
by Todd Mason

Episode Recap: "The Discarded"
Tonight's episode is the fourth and last of the six that were produced that ABC intends to run. (All six will be seen in Canada, at least, on the cable channel Space, starting in November). And it was the episode a number of viewers were most eager to see, I suspect, since it was based on a short story by Harlan Ellison, who has established himself as a major figure in both fantastic fiction (among other sorts of prose) and in screenwriting, as well as being responsible for some notable comics scripting and work in other media.

Apparently Ellison gave executive producer Keith Addis strong support when they resisted the attempts by ABC to call the series "Masters of Sci-Fi," which would be comparable to calling its Showtime sibling series Masters of Horror something like "Masters of Spookiness" (ABC chose to slip "scifi" into the URL for the series' pages on abc.go.com, anyway... perhaps the smallest of many hostilities the network has shown toward this project). And the story was adapted for television by Ellison and Josh Olson, best known for his excellent work in adapting the graphic novel A History of Violence for the 2005 film of the same name. Jonathan Frakes, of Star Trek: The Next Generation, directed the episode.

It's a pleasantly baroque staging of a rather simple tale of multiple betrayals. Most of the betrayed are people with unusual appearances due to their infection with a plague known as RIGM (pronounced "rig-gum") or (more insultingly) "the Blood Poo," which causes limbs or organs to undergo extreme deviation from the norm.... John Hurt's character grows an extra head, albeit a smaller one, from his shoulders. A number of these folks have been quarantined — in the manner of lepers exiled to the Hawaiian island of Molokai (referred to in the drama) — on poorly maintained spacecraft and left to their own increasingly dispirited, often suicidal devices.

Suddenly an emissary from Earth comes to beg for their blood, to help create a vaccine for RIGM, which has grown more virulent as it continues to plague the planet's human population; the emissary himself is infected and suffering. The deal: a trade of their blood samples for an opportunity to take up tracts of land, rather like reservations, on Earth. The de facto leader of the Discarded on this particular cargo ship is certain that the Earth government won’t honor its end of the bargain, and aggressively insists as much, till he's accidentally killed... leaving Hurt's character as the grand old man of the ship's crew, despite having killed his best friend. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the late leader's suspicions are borne out... once the Earth has the blood cultures they need, they simply exile a few more of the most "unsightly" folk to the ship, crushing the hopes of those waiting to return to Earth for the first time in years or decades.

Ellison’s early short stories are often grim and relentless, and this one, written while facing great personal hardship (including attempts by his immediate commanding officers to court-martial him for a minor infraction, living off-base without permission as a married peacetime draftee), is no exception. The latter-day Ellison's touch is most obvious in the word-drunk play with language evident in the lines given Hurt’s character, named for a most unpleasant fellow GI Ellison knew then. Hurt delivers the speeches with Shakespearean aplomb, in a good performance among many here, one that works well with Brian Dennehy’s gruff cynic and the largely Canadian supporting cast (Ellison has a cute cameo role, as well). Among those Canadian actors were a number who are in their daily lives unusual-looking due to circumstances of birth or surviving severe burns among other mishaps... they moved Ellison mightily by suggesting that they’d adopted the term "the Discarded" for themselves. (The short story was given this title in its 1959 magazine appearance by the late Cele Goldsmith, who went on from "discovering" such writers as Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas M. Disch and Keith Laumer as editor of the Ziff-Davis fiction magazines Fantastic and Amazing, to become the chief editor of ZD’s bridal magazines when the publisher sold the fiction titles). Decide for yourself how many in-jokes are suggested by a character who shares the cameo scene with Ellison, an apparent teenage girl in a cheerleader’s outfit who is otherwise unusual mostly for having only one large Cyclopean eye centered above her nose; a reference to Maria Bello’s former cheerleader role in A History of Violence, to the gifted cheerleader in Heroes (rather unlikely, given when this was filmed), or to the monocular character Leela from Futurama… or any or none of the above. John Frizzell’s jazz score for the episode was impressive, seeming at one point to rework or quote another 1959 cultural product, Miles Davis’ "So What?"

And the arguable betrayal of this series by ABC wasn’t restricted only to the network’s lack of publicity or other support, but by a number of local affiliates, who particularly have been eager to preempt Masters of SF from its 10pm ET/PT slot on Saturdays in favor of local specials or sports coverage, often delaying the run till early-morning hours on Sunday. Given the (at least) interesting nature of at least three of the episodes, this seems more than a pity… but one that will presumably soon be remedied for those interested by a home-video release. And Canadians, at least, will have the option of seeing the two episodes, based on stories by Robert Sheckley and Walter Mosley, that we in the States will have to wait for.

Coming soon… a recap of the series as presented by ABC… and a consideration of the controversy surrounding the treatment of Robert Heinlein’s story by Michael Tolkin for the third episode, "Jerry Was a Man" (reflected in at least one comment here).
TVGuide Links:

Brian Dennehy
John Hurt
Jonathan Frakes
Josh Olson
Keith Addis
Harlan Ellison
John Frizzell

Posted by Todd Mason 08/26/07 12:40 AM Permalink: Episode Recap: "The Discarded" 8 Comments Report Abuse Edit Attachments
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Episode Recap: "Jerry Was a Man"
“Jerry Was a Man” is the slickest and most handsomely produced of the three episodes shown by ABC so far, and it’s based on a short story by probably the most influential of 20th-century American science-fiction writers, Robert A. Heinlein; 2007 is the centennial of his birth. He wasn't the best American sf writer of the century (though many would give him that, too), but the most influential in part because he demonstrated the ease with which one could sketch in details to give a sense of otherness in fiction — but an otherness in which the characters were entirely at home (unless there was some reason they shouldn’t be). And ingenuity, both in sociological speculation and in story construction, was often his strong suit, particularly in the work he published in the first decade or so of his sf-writing career, beginning with a story in John Campbell’s magazine Astounding Science Fiction in 1939. This story was first published in a competing magazine, Samuel Merwin’s Thrilling Wonder Stories, eight years later, by which time Heinlein had established himself as a superstar in the sf field, and had also begun publishing sf stories in the hugely popular general-interest "slick" magazines of the time, Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, when they were multimillion-copy-selling staples of many Americans' reading.

Heinlein was also a Californian for most of his early adult life, and prone to satirical observation; the potential for a somewhat updated skewering of the idle rich of a certain flavor, among others, is probably what attracted the deft satirist Michael Tolkin to this story. Tolkin wrote the screenplay for and directed this episode. It’s not in the same league as such previous Tolkin works as The Player or The Rapture, nor, clearly, was it meant to be, so much as a bit of fun at the expense of self-satisfied crusaders, such as Anne Heche portrays here, or corporate greed and insensitivity, as personified by Malcolm MacDowell’s character and his genetic-modification factory, or of other satirical targets as they arise… down to an otherwise sober judge in the trial at the center of the drama all but clapping her hands as some audiovisual footage is submitted in evidence. “I like videos,” she purrs.

The Jerry of the title is one of a series of manufactured androids, genetically modified clones that are (somewhat improbably) put to use as extremely inexpensive slave labor, since they have been created with only very limited desires and abilities, or so their manufacturers argue. The Van Vogels, an excruciatingly wealthy couple, seek from the same manufacturers an item that will trump a country-club rival’s six-legged dachshund. When told their desire for a live Pegasus is impractical, they settle for a miniature elephant (the size of a toy poodle) that can write the sentence “I like you” in cursive with a pen clutched in its trunk, and also insist on taking a mine-sweeping android named Joe, which they are allowed to lease rather than buy, since it has already been sold to a pet-food manufacturer…as raw material. Ms. Van Vogel becomes an advocate for Joes' rights, and finds a lawyer who is ready to argue the case that their manufacturer has no right to execute the Joes when they outlive their usefulness. Jerry is demonstrated to be as capable of deception and selfishness as any other human, and thus the case is won.

There are funny bits sprinkled throughout the episode, such as the geneticist’s rant criticizing himself for truckling to the Van Vogels and similar wealthy fools rather than doing work that will actually benefit humanity, or in Ms. Van Vogel’s sudden affectation of a beret and Che Guevara T-shirt as she is interviewed for television news about her newfound advocacy (even if the latter is a particularly easy sort of joke). The animation of the miniature elephant ranges from acceptable to quite good indeed (I was reminded of the quite different sort of special effect used to create miniature elephants for the 1940 film version of The Thief of Baghdad). The framing of the shots at times seemed a bit odd: in the courtroom, one of the three judges is not only not heard from but can barely be seen in the image as broadcast, and a chat between Ms. Van Vogel and Jerry, during which they both lie in a bed, presumably intentionally has Heche’s head partially off the screen but for no obvious reason (at least when viewed as an analog broadcast in the 4:3 ratio). And I wonder if a telling point is intended by having the Joes speak in what sounds like a parody of the dialogue Chinese-American characters were often given in Westerns in decades past. One suspects the treatment of Chinese-American near-slave labor in California, and its effects on subsequent generations, hadn't escaped the notice of either Heinlein nor Tolkin. I also wonder how much the somewhat similar matters dealt with in L. Sprague de Camp’s short story “The Gnarly Man” inspired Heinlein to write this one.
TVGuide Links:

Anne Heche
Malcolm McDowell
Michael Tolkin

Posted by Todd Mason 08/19/07 1:27 AM Permalink: Episode Recap: "Jerry Was a Man" 4 Comments Report Abuse Edit Attachments
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Episode Recap: "The Awakening"
Like the characters in tonight's episode, we can live in the hope that "The Awakening" remains the weakest installment of this series. In fact, we might even wonder why this arguably religious fantasy was included in a series devoted to science fiction at all; more importantly, we can wonder why, if this obviously heartfelt production was to be included, they executed it so poorly, with so many goofy little details that pull the viewer out of the drama.

Based, presumably rather loosely, on Howard Fast's short story "The General Zapped an Angel" (the producers were so concerned that the not-exactly-surprising ending would be given away that they credited the story in the opening as "The General Zapped... "), it's squarely in the tradition of attempted mystical uplift in science fiction drama. As I mentioned in my first post, Howard Fast is best known for his historical fiction, the field to which he contributed most often and most importantly; like sf, historical fiction is a field that can lend itself easily to commentary on the human condition, and too often writers who don't usually write science fiction do so only when they have a point they want to make, often too bluntly. I fear that this was the case with Fast's story, published in 1970 and probably written at the height of the Vietnam War. The adapters for this episode have done nothing to sharpen the blunt instrument, in applying the story to the present day. (I haven't yet read Fast's story, so the fault might rest solely with the adapters.)

We begin with a helicopter crash in the Iraqi desert, and an ensuing face-off between a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi militant, who soon find themselves telepathically linked, then nearly catatonic in what's described by the U.S. military scientists they're delivered to as a "state of bliss." The object that struck the American copter turned out to be a "cocoon" protecting a humanoid from, among other things, attempts at scanning the shell's contents, but not from collecting cells from the creature within (which has human-style chromosones, except it lacks the sex-selection pair, so no XX nor XY), nor does it keep the lab's scientists from pulling up an eyelid on the creature, which allows a light-beam to shoot into the eye of the human who does so, and make of that person another blissed-out near-zombie. It turns out, we are told, that this is only one of many encased creatures falling in clusters around the world, and soon they are communicating through the entranced humans, using phrases from various religious traditions to demand an end to all war, with vague threats of destruction if this is not done. The threats are backed up with large images of the Sun hanging over, again we are told, all the world's major cities. (We are shown an image of the Earth with about a dozen little suns hovering over various spots.... The creatures or our characters apparently have very stringent criteria for a "major" city.) The "experts" include a young military lieutenant who's also a physicist and NASA volunteer (played by Elisabeth Röhm, unfairly maligned for not enlivening some of the dullest dialogue ever given an actor on Law & Order), and a retired military UFO investigator (Terry O'Quinn, a veteran of The X-Files movie, Millennium and Lost). They are called in to have philosphical discussions and report back to the president (William B. Davis, thus making this both an X-Files reunion and the second Masters of SF to feature a feckless U.S. president; make of that what you will). The retiree pines for his wife, lost to him via the human form of mad-cow disease; the president is terrified by both the alien threat and the methodical but unconvincing way his nuclear arsenal is being disarmed by the creatures, which is represented by arrow gauges in one missile silo, labeled "U-235," "U-238" and with the names of other isotopes, as if the warheads needed to have their oil changed every six months. Other world leaders threaten the president from their individual TV screens in the situation room, while one remarkably polymathic translator relays all the messages from the French, Chinese, Russian and other non-Anglophone dignitaries. Happily, having been dismissed by the president, O'Quinn's character goes back to the lab to make eye contact with the angel, which allows him to commune with his wife and also puts the president and all the other world leaders, for no obvious reason, in telepathic contact with the retired military officer and the angels. So all is right with the world.... But, and you can intone this in your best or worst Serling or Shatner imitation, for how long?

There's a long tradition of religious science fiction, going back even further than C.S. Lewis and including Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, Philip Dick, Rudy Rucker and on to younger writers today, and arguably including the popular Christian post-Rapture novelists. But too often, however seriously intentioned the religious belief or the speculation in the work, one can suffer in the face of the other. And entirely too often, as with this drama, what we get is, again, a well-intentioned but ineffective sermon. As Ranger99 noted in a comment about the pilot episode, it was more like 12 Angry Men than sf.... There's a lot of serious sf that's a lot more like 12 Angry Men than like fanciful adventure fiction, and sf of many other sorts as well, including sf drama that actually says less than, say, The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1950s film based on a 1930s short story by Harry Bates. It's a pity when it comes from folks who've already proven they can do better.

Some updates: I noted in my recap for the pilot episode how well John Kessel's "A Clean Escape" would adapt to the stage. This had not escaped Kessel's attention; his own dramatic adaptation of the story was first produced in 1986.

The lack of promotion from ABC has paid off how one might expect: According to the ratings reports I've seen for that pilot on Aug. 5, Masters of Science Fiction managed to come in second in its timeslot, but well behind a 48 Hours true-crime rundown on CBS and only barely ahead of an NBC Top Chef episode. Spread the word if you choose to, folks: At least the next two episodes look like they'll be livelier.
TVGuide Links:

John Kessel
Terry O'Quinn
Elisabeth Rohm
William B. Davis

Posted by Todd Mason 08/12/07 1:51 AM Permalink: Episode Recap: "The Awakening" 11 Comments Report Abuse Edit Attachments
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Episode Recap: "A Clean Escape"
Well, as John Kessel (the author of the short story adapted for this first broadcast episode of the series) advised us, the acting by Judy Davis and Sam Waterston in "A Clean Escape" was excellent; it was particularly good to see Waterston away from the harness of Law and Order (and he even got to be the U.S. president in this one, as opposed to district attorney or ADA for NYC).

Good performances are crucial in this kind of context; as several have noted elsewhere, this was largely a two-character drama, one which with not much revision could be nearly as powerful as a "legitimate" theater/stage play, particularly given the stark and sweeping ethical dilemmas involved: personal responsibility, the (necessary?) abuse of (always corrupting or at least reason-distorting?) great political and military power, real and metaphorical losses reinforcing one another as the drama plays out. Literary sf (along with other forms of fantastic literature, such as fantasy and surrealist fiction) and stage drama both lend themselves to this kind of concrete metaphor even more than, say, most film or contemporary mimetic or "realist" fiction... in the latter, the need to replicate enough reality to allow the audience to accept the story being told can crowd or obscure the point or points the artists want to make... and, conversely, the stylization of stage drama and fantastic fiction, if they're in any way ambitious, can lead to a certain preachiness. Certainly, much of the more ambitious television science-fiction drama has attempted, with greater or less deftness and sophistication, to impart Heavy Messages (Rod Serling's too-often one-punch scripts for The Twilight Zone come to mind)... all art tries to say something about something, but sometimes letting the message trump the artistry can be an utter bore or, possibly worse, unintentionally hilarious.

This episode, thanks to those performances, good scripting and source material, and decent direction, manages to avoid those pitfalls, but I can foresee complaints from those who find it too schematic an indictment, or even no longer relevant to the post-Cold War world (the short story was published in 1985, after all, when "Star Wars" suddenly was also the derisive nickname for potential space-based anti-missile weapons... which could easily become weapons against all sorts of targets). One could wish that it was merely an outdated concern, in a world still rife with nuclear weaponry and various sorts of ambitious fanaticism. Alynda Wheat, reviewing this episode for Entertainment Weekly, probably speaks for a number of people when she suggests she'd "rather be scared by stuff that (probably) can't happen"; of course, she's therefore asking for something other than a science-fiction series, since the distinguishing factor between sf and other fantastic fiction and drama is precisely that it is meant to be about things that could conceivably happen.

Little details in the episode certainly helped keep it grounded, even the way Waterston stumbles backward onto a chair when his character is threatened with a pistol... it isn't an obviously choreographed dance, as it often is in "action" films (or as in a Dick Van Dyke or Chevy Chase comic scene), nor does he simply fall back into the chair as if this was the fifth take and he knows exactly what's supposed to happen. He convincingly stumbles, doesn't quite fall.

I was reminded of the old adage about the commercial networks being resistant to drama that was too good and would cause viewer resentment of the commercial breaks; the breaks certainly interfered with pacing of this episode, which will play that much better uninterrupted on DVD (or might've on cable, had this series joined its sibling Masters of Horror on Showtime). The ads also had another jarring effect: Some of the dialogue is delivered in whispers or at least hushed tones, including that coming into or going out of the breaks, which didn't go that well with the much-louder pitches for yogurt and laxatives (ABC's confusion about this series seems to have been reflected in their odd mix of sponsors as well, ranging from denture adhesive to X-Games promos, while failing to promote any of their sf or fantasy drama series aside from Cavemen, nor seeking much in the way of sf or fantasy film or electronic-game advertising, a natural "synergy").

Several people have wondered why Stephen Hawking has been employed to deliver opening and closing narration for the series; aside from the odd novelty of a having as "host" a man who remains alive and able to communicate only with the help of recently developed technology, and one who is famous for attempting to bridge the gap between the cutting edge of physics and cosmology and science-popularization work such as the book and film A Brief History of Time, I suspect that the nostalgia for the hosts of yesteryear (Boris Karloff for Thriller among others, Alfred Hitchcock for his anthology show, Serling for his series, et al.), and the radio anthology-show hosts that preceded and inspired them (and inspired the comic-book "hosts" of such influential titles as Tales from the Crypt), has become less a matter of fondness than of expectation... how can you have an anthology show without a host? Certainly all the network series of any duration seem to have them, to give the nervous executives if not the audience someone to hang onto from week to week (never mind that Police Story did fine without one... that was in the 1970s, who remembers?... or Monsters... that was a low-budget syndie series, they could afford to gamble...). Odder still, for this episode, Hawking wasn't seen, only his voice synthesizer was heard, giving us no real reason to know, aside from his onscreen credit, that it was his electronic voice we heard. Perhaps this, too, is a bit of metaphoric fun on the part of the producers.

In the Philadelphia area and probably elsewhere, the closing images were squeezed to make way for a lottery drawing, while an ABC promo rushed on the heels of the closing narration... for another "reality" series, with viewer-supplied content, no less. Just in case ABC hadn't made the message clear enough already.

(And if you liked this episode, you might well like... Death and the Maiden.)
TVGuide Links:

John Kessel
Judy Davis
Sam Waterston
Harlan Ellison
Masters of Science Fiction

Posted by Todd Mason 08/5/07 12:31 AM Permalink: Episode Recap: "A Clean Escape" 12 Comments Report Abuse Edit Attachments
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Prelaunch: T Minus Two Days
Masters of Science Fiction begins its truncated run on Saturday, Aug. 4, on ABC, at 10 pm ET/PT... after a delay of more than a year, and the originally announced order of 13 episodes reduced to six, of which only four have been scheduled to run throughout August. Nonetheless, it's more than welcome; even though some television drama has become more sophisticated in its approach toward science fiction over the years, adaptations of literary science fiction, and television (or film) that attempts to match the sophistication of the best literary sf, is still rare.

Happily, all reports about these four episodes (and the two others that most U.S. viewers won't see till the DVD release) suggest that this is an example of talented people doing good work on all levels; the episodes, in chronological order, are adaptations of stories by John Kessel, Howard Fast, Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison, and Kessel and Ellison have told me that they are very pleased with their episodes (unfortunately, Heinlein and Fast are no longer with us).

Kessel notes about "A Clean Escape": "I felt that [screenwriter/adaptor] Sam Egan did fundamental justice to my original story — that is, he got what it was about and, though he expanded, added characters and context, and some new ideas, he kept the focus on the interactions between the two principal characters, Havelmann and Dr. Evans, which was always my greatest interest in the story. I liked that it remained a story both personal and political. And I thought the acting and the directing were exceptional. Having Judy Davis and Sam Waterston play my characters is some kind of fantasy come true. And Mark Rydell elicited great performances from them. I know a lot of writers are unhappy about adaptations of their stories to film, but I have to say that this has been a completely positive experience for me. I do wish ABC had shown more gumption about this show." Kessel will be hosting a slightly early screening of "A Clean Escape" at the Raleigh, North Carolina, annual convention Trinoc*Con, on Saturday at 9:30 pm, where he'll be fielding questions afterward.

For his part, Ellison has told me (in an interview I hope to have transcribed here in the near future) that he is as proud of the adaptation of "The Discarded" (scheduled to be the final episode in ABC's run, on Aug. 25) as he is of any of his groundbreaking television work so far (including such notable scripts as "Demon with a Glass Hand" for the original 1962-1964 The Outer Limits series, and others for Star Trek, the first [and only good] revival of The Twilight Zone, and many others).

Ellison was suprised by some of the choices made for stories for adaptation. Approached by Keith Addis, the creator and executive producer of both Masters of Science Fiction and its Showtime sibling Masters of Horror, for permission to adapt his famous short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," Ellison counterproposed several stories he thought would work better in the framework of an hour of television with a good but not extravagant budget. His early story "The Discarded" (first published in Cele Goldsmith's magazine Fantastic in 1959) was settled upon — not the first story that comes to mind when one thinks of Ellison, but neither is "Jerry Was a Man" the first story usually mentioned when the hugely influential Robert Heinlein is discussed, nor is Howard Fast best remembered for his science fiction at all (while he contributed to sf and fantasy magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, his best-known work has been in historical fiction, ranging from the novels Citizen Tom Paine and April Morning, set in the U.S. Revolutionary War era, to Spartacus, to the multivolume family-history saga beginning with The Immigrants). Ellison was impressed by how well the "Jerry" episode turned out, even given that the adaptation was scripted and directed by Michael Tolkin, he of the great philosophical horror novel and film The Rapture, among such other notable works as The Player.

In any case, I hope to be able to read or reread the short stories in question before seeing the episodes, and to note here their original and reprint appearances (courtesy of ace indexer William Contento, with his kind permission).

"A Clean Escape" by John Kessel was
originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, the May 1985 issue.
Reprinted in Meeting in Infinity (Arkham House, 1992) and
The Pure Product (Tor, 1997).

"The Awakening," the second episode in the ABC schedule, is based on "The General Zapped an Angel," by Howard Fast, originally published in his collection of the same title (Morrow, 1970).

"Jerry Was a Man," by Robert Heinlein, was originally published as "Jerry Is a Man" in the magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, the October 1947 issue (yes, gotta love the pulp magazine names of yesteryear). Reprinted in, among others, The SFWA Grand Masters, Volume 1, edited by Frederik Pohl (Tor, 1999).

"The Discarded," by Harlan Ellison, was originally published in the magazine Fantastic, April 1959 issue, and reprinted in Paingod and Other Delusions (Pyramid 1965; new edition 1975), Alone Against Tomorrow (Macmillan U.S., 1971), All the Sounds of Fear (Panther, 1973), The Illustrated Harlan Ellison (Baronet, 1978), and The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison (Gregg Press, 1979). It's also available in electronic form from FictionWise.
Posted by Todd Mason 08/2/07 11:06 AM Permalink: Prelaunch: T Minus Two Days 4