Revisiting Masters of Science Fiction (2007 Series)

I figured that since I already discussed seasons one and two of Masters of Horror, and also discussed the made-for-network-TV, unofficial third season (which was called Fear Itself, but was otherwise the same format), I might as well complete the set, as it were, and talk about the even less well-known and even more short-lived offshoot anthology series, Masters of Science Fiction.

Produced by most of the same people involved with Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, but this time focusing less on iconic directors and more on adapting stories by legendary writers in the scifi genre, Masters of Science Fiction was made for ABC in 2007. The network ordered an initial run of six episodes, but then only ran four of them, for whatever reason. The series, hosted in voice-over by Stephen Hawking, was broadcast in full later in the same year by the Canadian channel Space, and in 2012 was aired on the Science Channel under the title Stephen Hawking’s Sci-Fi Masters.

While I admit that I’m far, far more into horror than scifi, I did enjoy most of these six episodes (which are, as of this writing and at least in the United States, available to watch for free on YouTube and the Roku Channel), which are a bit uneven, but feature a smorgasbord of award-winning acting talent and adaptations of stories by beloved authors. According to an article on Reuters, the series ultimately failed because ABC entertainment president Stephen McPherson didn’t care for the show and relegated it to a loser timeslot: 10pm Saturday night. Which is some similar shit to what NBC pulled with Fear Itself, so I can totally believe it.

At any rate, let’s dig in and see what we can see.

Episode 1: A Clean Escape

This was a decently gripping start to the series, and although the bulk of the runtime consisted mainly of two (great, Oscar nominated) actors playing a sort of psychological cat-and-mouse game inside a well-appointed office, there was still enough drama to keep me completely engaged, though I admit I saw where the story was going about halfway in. That didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the episode, though, as the acting here is top-notch.

Based on a 1985 short story/1986 play by prolific scifi writer John Kessel, adapted for the screen by TV scribe Sam Egan (who also, incidentally, penned the screenplay for the 1988 film Elvira: Mistress of the Dark), and directed by Mark Rydell (whose many credits are mainly centered on TV westerns and film dramas, such as The Rose, On Golden Pond, and For the Boys), “A Clean Escape” begins with one of our two main characters, Dr. Deanna Evans (Judy Davis), getting a grim cancer diagnosis at some unspecified date in the future (though I think it’s supposed to be somewhere around 2030).

We then follow her at what is presumably her job, as she sits in a swank office, contemplating a gun stashed away in her desk drawer. Enter Mr. Havelman (Sam Waterston), who says he isn’t sure he’s in the right place. Dr. Evans assures him that he is, and she starts firing questions at him; it’s clear almost immediately that she’s a psychiatrist, and her patient seems to be having trouble with his memory, as he apparently believes that he’s still 41 years old, even though he’s obviously about two decades past that.

As their sessions unfold, more and more information is revealed about who this man is, and why he’s being prodded into remembering the 20-odd years he has seemingly shoved down the memory hole, though there is some question about how much he actually does remember. Dr. Evans is convinced that Haverman has conveniently “checked out” to avoid taking responsibility for whatever monstrous thing he’s done. I won’t spoil what that is, but suffice it to say that it’s somewhat political in nature; I haven’t read the 1986 play, but I read the synopsis, and it’s pretty much the same as the episode, though the story has been updated specifically to reflect the particular political era of 2007, the year in which the series aired.

I actually really liked this opening installment; it’s essentially a bottle story, but the interplay between the two actors was great, and the twists and revelations kept coming at a steady pace. As I said, I predicted what was going to happen, but that didn’t bother me all that much, because seeing the events play out was just too satisfying. It also made me look forward to the five upcoming episodes, so it did its job for sure.

Episode 2: The Awakening

I have to say, though, I was slightly less enthusiastic about the second episode, which came across as way too heavy-handed for my liking, bordering on the cheeseball, although it’s always nice to see Terry O’Quinn (of Lost and The Stepfather) in something.

Directed by Michael Petroni (probably best known for writing the screenplays for Queen of the Damned, The Rite, and the third Chronicles of Narnia movie) and based on the 1970 short story “The General Zapped an Angel” by Howard Fast, this installment begins with a helicopter crash in the Iraqi desert. An American soldier and an Iraqi soldier face off across the dunes, but discover they can inexplicably understand each other’s languages. They both then focus on some strange being in the sand that kinda zaps their eyes and puts them into a sort of coma, though their eyes are open and they seem to be experiencing a state of extended bliss.

A woman named Lt. Granger (Elisabeth Röhm), who is an astrophysicist for SETI, is sent to coax Major Albert Skynner (Terry O’Quinn) out of retirement, as he was apparently the guy you went to with anything that seemed extraterrestrial. Skynner is a UFO skeptic, and is convinced the whole thing is a hoax, but he goes along out of curiosity.

It turns out that this thing they found in the sand is humanoid, genetically almost identical to human beings, other than a single missing chromosome. It shoots golden laser things out its eyes and puts more people into the chill comas, and at some point it starts to communicate, using passages from different religions’ holy books to berate humans for their violent ways and their inability to get along with one another. The President of the US and his advisers are pretty sure this “alien” is just pretending to be all groovy and mellow in order to get us to disarm, and think we should strike first, ask questions later. The leaders of other countries, though, believing this entity is essentially God, threaten to nuke the US back to the Stone Age if we try anything funny against the interstellar visitor.

It’s not too much of a spoiler, since it’s right there in the title of the source short story, that this being is basically an angel. I think I would have liked this one better if it was more satirical, along the lines of Dr. Strangelove or something, but it’s so earnest that it comes across a little cringey, even though the sentiment is nice enough.

Episode 3: Jerry Was a Man

See, now this is more what I’m talking about; this one leans very hard into the humor and absurdity, which makes it much more entertaining. Directed by Michael Tolkin (the screenwriter behind Gleaming the Cube, The Rapture, The Player, and Deep Impact) and loosely based on a 1947 short story by Robert A. Heinlein, this episode deals with the ethical question of genetically created “anthropoids” and whether they’re due the same rights as a human being. Incidentally, the original story asked the same question, but about a genetically modified chimpanzee that campaigned to be treated equally under the law; this episode updates the story to make it more relevant in light of human cloning and the possibility of genetic enhancement, though to be honest it might have been cooler (though undoubtedly more cost-prohibitive) if they had gone with the chimp.

The year is 2077, and large corporations—including one run by genetic scientist Tibor Cargrew, played by a deliciously mercenary Malcolm McDowell—produce not only disposable humanoids called “Joes” for various dangerous and menial jobs, but also craft bizarre genetic abominations like 6-legged dachshunds for wealthy customers looking to impress their peers. To that end, the company is visited by the seventh-wealthiest woman in the world, Martha Von Vogel (played by Anne Heche), and her ridiculous boy-toy husband, a caddy named Bronson (played by Russell Porter). Bronson wants the company to make him a Pegasus to really make the other elites at the club green with envy, but Cargrew tells them the logistics of a flying horse would produce a monstrous creature not consistent with expectations, and sells the couple instead on an adorable, fully-grown elephant the size of a large cat, who can also read and write, and whose name is Napoleon. He comes with his own little bed!

On the way out of the facility, though, Martha is struck by one of the Joes, who keeps insisting his name is Jerry, constantly requests candy and cigarettes, and looks as though he’s trying to ask Martha for help. Cargrew explains that this particular Joe was one whose intended function was to sweep minefields, but now that his job is no longer needed, he’s going to be liquidated and turned into dog food. The excessively privileged but not entirely shitty Martha is appalled, and offers to lease Jerry to keep him from being killed. Once Jerry moves into her mansion, Martha goes on a crusade to give all Joes the same rights as natural-born humans have, which came across to me like something of a send-up of wealthy celebrities who campaign for various causes; sometimes their heart is in the right place, but they come across looking sort of clueless and out of touch.

This one was actually pretty damn funny, and it was clear that everyone involved was having a blast with it. If you like your scifi darker or more serious, you might find this one far too broad for your liking, and it does hammer home its theme pretty overtly, but because it’s played for laughs, it gets away with its overt messaging a lot better than the previous installment did. Not for all tastes and kinda silly overall, but it made me laugh, and if you’re into Heinlein, you should probably check it out.

Episode 4: The Discarded

This was another good one, with some entertaining acting performances and an effectively downbeat, cynical tone that was leavened by a heaping helping of gallows humor.

Based on a 1959 short story by Harlan Ellison and directed by Jonathan Frakes (Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the host of the fun series Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction), “The Discarded” is set 37 years after a horrific plague began sweeping through Earth’s population. The disease, known as Riggum (for RIGM, or Random Idiopathic Genomic Mutation) or more crassly as “Blood Poop,” basically makes everyone infected with it mutate in wildly unpredictable ways, such as growing new limbs and so forth. The first people stricken with Riggum, known as The Discarded, were placed on a self-sustaining vessel and set adrift in space to keep them from spreading the contagion to everyone else.

The Discarded, not surprisingly, are a little bit cranky and despondent about their lot in life, especially since their ship isn’t all that well-maintained; other than the occasional shipment of supplies from Earth, the denizens of the so-called “garbage scow” have been forced to figure things out for themselves. The most misanthropic of them all is Bedzyk (played by Brian Dennehy), a gruff hulk of a man with one enormously mutated arm. Despite his grumpiness, the others on the ship look to him as something of an ersatz leader.

Bedzyk’s close friend and temperamental opposite is Samswope (played by a delightfully scenery-chewing John Hurt), a witty gentleman with an outlandishly prolix way of speaking and a small second head sprouting out of his shoulder. Samswope has still maintained his sense of humor and some measure of optimism in the face of their situation.

As The Discarded are living their humble lives far from their home planet, possible hope arrives in the form of an ambassador from Earth named Barney Curran (played by James Denton). He has some news and a proposal for the residents of the ship, one which will cause a terrible rift between Bedzyk and Samswope, and test their very different ways of looking at their circumstances.

While this one had a lot of black humor in it, which I enjoyed, it’s overall a very tragic story, and one that will probably make you lose much of your faith in humanity (provided you had any to start with). That said, I still liked it a lot, and I have to say that John Hurt is probably the only actor who could have pulled off the character of Samswope; in the hands of a lesser man, I think the character might have come off as irredeemably obnoxious, as he spouts exposition using as many fifty-cent words as he can cram into a sentence. But John Hurt imbues him with such warmth and charm that he totally sells it, and his penchant for verbosity—demonstrated by a sentence like “In spite of your surly—one might even venture taciturn—nature, mon ami, you remain an imposing and, whether you like it or nay, a de facto executive figure aboard this enchanted scow, the mutant horrors of which hold you in the very highest esteem”—simply becomes an endearing hallmark of his personality, rather than an affectation that makes you want to strangle him through the screen. That’s no mean feat.

Fun fact: Harlan Ellison makes a cameo appearance in the episode, as Nate, one of the mutants.

Episode 5: Little Brother

I was a little bit meh about this episode, which after a brief prologue, takes place entirely in one room. It’s not a bad story, I just thought it introduced too many ideas into its short runtime, and there was consequently too much time spent on exposition to explain the mechanics of what was going on, rather than just keeping it simple.

Directed by Darnell Martin (who has helmed episodes of Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, and The Walking Dead, among other things) and written by well-regarded crime author Walter Mosley (based upon his own 2001 short story), “Little Brother” follows a young man named Frendon Blythe (played by Clifton Collins, Jr., who was also in the Fear Itself episode “Family Man,” which I talked about recently). Frendon was born in an underground bunker situation called Common Ground, where various undesirables are kept as “background” people, referred to as “White Noise.” Their lives are regulated as though they’re in prison, and they’re only allowed a fifteen-minute pass every six months to go outside and see the sun. He longs to escape and find his mother, and does so during his fifteen minutes, climbing through the razor wire and out into a place called Freedom Slum. A friend of his in Common Ground told him to seek out a man called Augustus, who would help him if he could prove that he had a mind worth saving.

He finds Augustus almost immediately, but before anything can really come of that, two cops bent on rape chase a young girl into their orbit, and in the ensuing melee, Augustus and the little girl are killed, while Frendon is obliged to kill the cops to try to defend the innocents. After this, Frendon is caught and placed on trial, but in this future world, justice is doled out not by a judge or jury of one’s peers, but by an automated system that’s been cobbled together and seemingly perfected from fragments of thousands of people’s brains being amalgamated into an ostensibly completely fair Court. The accused are also hooked up to a special chair that can basically read their thoughts and also execute them if necessary.

The bulk of the episode, then, consists of Frendon trying to outwit the Court and prove that he acted in self-defense and defense of others. There’s also a bit of a romance subplot introduced with a newbie Court official named Tilly Vee (played by Kimberly Elise), who unlike her cohorts is sympathetic to Frendon’s plight.

The acting here is good, and it’s an interesting exploration of the concept of justice, and whether it should ever be put in the hands of a seemingly impartial machine intelligence, as opposed to a bunch of flawed human beings. But I think this might have worked better as a 45-minute TV episode if it either stuck with the trial conceit, or devoted the whole story to Frendon escaping from Common Ground and finding freedom of a sort on the outside, even though in many ways it was just as bad as where he grew up. As it was, I felt like the first part of the story that detailed his escape was given really short shrift, and was only introduced so he could commit a “crime” and get dragged back and placed on trial. The whole thing about his longing to find his mom and the legendary status of “Saint” Augustus on the outside was given a lot of weight at the beginning, but then set aside in favor of the courtroom drama. There were actually two good stories here, but I think it would have been better if they were told separately, or in a longer format so that each aspect had more room to develop.

Episode 6: Watchbird

This final episode was pretty decent too, focusing on the fears surrounding drone technology, but also dipping into some of the same crime-prevention themes as Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. It was directed by Harold Becker (The Onion Field, Taps, Mercury Rising), and adapted from a story by the prolific scifi writer Robert Sheckley.

Sean Astin plays a scientist named Charlie Kramer, who works at a technology company, and in particular has developed a very advanced drone program called Watchbird. The drones, which look like birds, obviously, have been programmed with AI to learn and disseminate information among themselves. They’ve been used with much success in Iraq and Afghanistan, but one hotshot executive at the company thinks that the drones could also be deployed on American soil, to stop criminals. The CEO of the firm, Randolph Ludwin (played by James Cromwell), agrees, and although Charlie isn’t all that confident that the drones will work as well in domestic applications, he’s sort of strong-armed into reprogramming the technology.

Everything seems to be going well at first: the Watchbirds are quick and efficient, and stun criminals before they can do much harm, killing them only if necessary. Charlie still has reservations, though, and worries that something is bound to go wrong. And for a time, it looks as though it has: one of the drones kills a seemingly innocent young woman through the window of her apartment building. But when it turns out that the woman was actually going to poison someone, the company executives as well as Charlie himself realize that the drones can now sense murderous intent, and the CEO suggests loosening the restrictions on the drones in order to prevent crime before it occurs.

Naturally, this goes horribly wrong in all kinds of ways, and the shopworn but still relevant theme of the piece asks us to consider how much freedom we’re willing to give up for safety.

This was a solid swan song for the series, although it wasn’t my favorite (which probably would have been “A Clean Escape,” followed by “The Discarded”). All in all, this was an enjoyable series, though probably not one I’d ever revisit, though more because I’m not a huge scifi fan than because it wasn’t any good. If you’re interested at all in any of the authors adapted here, it’s definitely worth checking out if you have a few hours to kill.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s