Sunday, April 23, 2023

From the TV GUIDE blog for MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION: on the adaptation of "Jerry Was a Man" by Robert A. Heinlein

TV GUIDE used to have, in its website, blogs for various television series, and, as a staffer, I wrote the entries for a number of those blogs, beginning with the ABC-TV series Masters of Science Fiction (4-25 August 2007)...other blogs I wrote for have old, now-"repurposed" links in the column at the right side of full-screen views of the blog here. MoSF was a companion series to the Showtime series Masters of Horror, and had six episodes in total, only four of which were broadcast by ABC as a summer replacement/filler series (the cable channel Space in Canada ran all six shortly thereafter, and the series was offered on DVD). I interviewed Harlan Ellison, sadly bedridden at that point, for his participation in and background for the articles I wrote. Here's the text of of the "Jerry Was a Man" as I've just found it in my drafts file.

The episode, as currently available ("free, with ads") on Roku.

“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 American science fiction writers of the Twentieth Century, Robert A. Heinlein—2007 is the centennial of his birth. Not the best American sf writer of the century (though many would give him that, too), but the most influential in part in demonstrating the ease with which one could sketch in details to give a sense of otherness in his fiction…but otherness in which his 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 timeHeinlein had established himself as a superstar in the sf field, and had also begun publishing sf stories in the hugely popular general-interest "slick"-paper magazines of the time, such as Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, when they were multi-million-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, corporate greed and insensitivity, as personified by Malcolm MacDowell’s character’s genetic-modification factory, and of other 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 which are (somewhat improbably) put to use as extreme 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 (and named for writing friends of Heinlein, the van Vogts), 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) which 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, or “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 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 barely can 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 what dialog 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, didn’t escape the notice of either Heinlein  nor Tolkin. And I 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.

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