Anchor Bay // 2007 // 264 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 13th, 2008
From the very beginning, we have struggled to understand time, matter and the infinite universe; who we are, where we are headed, and if we are alone.
"Who's watching the Watchbirds?"
Masters of Science-Fiction was a short-lived television program that aired on ABC during the summer of 2007. The science-fiction anthology show is hosted by the voice of Professor Stephen Hawking, who introduces a new story each week, each created by a different director and featuring a different cast. The six episodes are spread across two discs, as follows:
"A Clean Escape": A powerful businessman (Sam Waterston, The Killing Fields) is told by a psychiatrist (Judy Davis, The Ref) that he is living the same day over and over again in the post-apocalyptic future. Is this true, or is the businessman simply being abused as part of an elaborate scheme? Based on the story by John Kessel, directed by Mark Rydell.
"The Awakening": Strange alien objects start arriving on Earth,
and people begin to react in a particularly strange manner. The aliens intend to
disarm the planet and remove the possibility of nuclear war. The U.S. government
is suspicious and thinks the aliens may be planning their own attack. A
paranormal expert (Terry O'Quinn, Lost) is forced to investigate and must
determine the true intention of the aliens before it's too late. Based on the
story by Howard Fast, directed by Michael Petroni.
"Jerry Was a Man": An extraordinarily wealthy woman (Anne Heche,
Six Days, Seven Nights) is determined to buy herself a new genetic toy.
Her friend has a six-legged dachshund, and she wants something even more
impressive. While at the manufacturing plant, she determines that she wants a
Joe, a human-like slave crafted from mechanical parts and human DNA. The creator
(Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange) immediately regrets agreeing to
this when the woman determines to prove in a court of law that the Joe is
actually a human being. Based on the story by Robert Heinlein, directed by
"The Discarded": A group of humans suffering from terrible
mutations is floating through space in a lonely ship, having been discarded by a
group of human beings who couldn't bear to look at them. Thirty-seven years
after leaving Earth, they are approached by a government ambassador who claims
he can help them. The captain of the ship (Brian Dennehy, As You Like It)
is skeptical, but his right-hand man (John Hurt, Indiana Jones and the
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) thinks there may be light at the end of the
tunnel. Based on the story by Harlan Ellison, directed by Jonathan Frakes.
"Little Brother": A man (Clifton Collins Jr., Capote) who
has been forced to live underground his entire life determines to make an escape
to the surface. Very shortly after succeeding in his escape attempt, he has a
conflict with some police officers, which ultimately leaves several people dead.
The man is put on trial for his life, with a computer fueled by the memories of
dead human beings serving as judge, jury, and potential executioner. Can he
prove his innocence to the ghosts in the machine? Based on the story by Walter
Mosley, directed by Darnell Martin.
"Watchbird": A scientist (Sean Astin, Rudy) has created a powerful defense weapon for the military called a Watchbird, a mechanical bird of sorts that protects soldiers on the battlefield. The weapon is such a huge success that the government is eager to expand the use of the Watchbird program. The owner of the science lab (James Cromwell, The Sum of All Fears) is eager to proceed, but the creator of the program has his doubts. The birds weren't designed for domestic uses...employing them could cause some serious consequences. Based on the story by Robert Sheckley, directed by Harold Becker.Grade: A-
I hate what happened to ABC's Masters of Science Fiction. Six episodes of the show were produced, and the idea was that the program would follow a format similar to Showtime's Masters of Horror. However, the network determined that the show was "very uneven" and "a bit too problematic" for their audiences. They cut the six-episode run down to four episodes, pushed the air dates to Saturday nights in August, and left the poor little anthology series alone to die quietly in a television dead zone. It never had a chance to succeed.
The thing is, Masters of Science Fiction isn't particularly uneven or problematic. Most episodes aren't any harder to follow than the average episode of The Twilight Zone. What we have here are six well-crafted, well-acted episodes based on intelligent and engaging sci-fi short stories. This is excellent stuff, better than almost any dramatic show on network television at the moment. Had it been marketed properly by ABC, it could have turned into a long-running high point of their lineup, standing right next to their equally ambitious Pushing Daisies. That didn't happen, but at least these six episodes have been preserved on DVD. They are well worth checking out.
There isn't a genuinely bad episode in the bunch, just good episodes and great episodes. I particularly love "The Discarded," an incredibly lonely and sad little story about a group of mutants in space. There are some wonderful conversation scenes between John Hurt and Brian Dennehy, both very fine actors. Director Jonathan Frakes manages to provide a heartbroken sense of bitter atmosphere, beautifully accentuated by a noirish score from composer John Frizzell. It's simultaneously tender and brutally unsentimental, undoubtedly helped by the fact that author Harlan Ellison co-wrote the television script.
I was also impressed by the adaptation of Robert Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man," a wickedly subversive little tale that hasn't got a single sympathetic character in the entire script. It's all played with a sense of over-the-top loopiness by the actors, and achieves the challenging feat of finding a role just right for Anne Heche. Malcolm McDowell has tons of fun chewing on the scenery in a few key scenes, too. The story reaches a conclusion that puts a new spin on Capra-esque courtroom finales. Some may be annoyed by the aggressively odd tone of this story, but it's undoubtedly unforgettable. It reminded me just a little of Terry Gilliam's masterpiece Brazil, though obviously it lacks the budget to create a world as visually complex as that one.
"Watchbird" is another terrific episode. I have no idea why they chose not to air this one, but it's a real winner. Sean Astin and James Cromwell give terrific performances as two men engaging in a genuinely thought-provoking ethical debate about the subject of national security. Considering all the personal freedoms that have been compromised in the wake of 9/11 in the name of "national security," this episode feels particularly relevant. This one probably would have worked best as a feature film, considering the amount of ground it has to cover. Still, it does everything it can within its 44-minute running time and ranks as genuinely gripping stuff.
Though the rest don't quite hit that level of brilliance, they're certainly worthwhile outings. "A Clean Escape" feels more like a stage play than a television episode, but it works thanks to the very solid performances of Judy Davis and Sam Waterson, who engage in what essentially amounts to a 40-minute verbal duel. "Little Brother" is a fine futuristic sci-fi courtroom drama of sorts, only falling a wee bit short at the end, when it became a bit too convoluted for my liking. My least favorite is probably "The Awakening," which is a bit on the hokey side (it makes most Spielberg alien movies seem cynical). Still, it boasts strong craftsmanship all around.
As for Professor Hawking's participation, it's very limited. We never actually see him, we only hear his mechanically-aided voice offering up a few philosophical sentences. He really doesn't contribute a lot, but even his vocal presence does manage to add a welcome air of respectability to the show. The DVD transfers are fine, nothing special, but perfectly acceptable. The same applies to the sound, which conveys the dialogue, music and sound effects in a manner that is adequate, but little more. There are no extras of any sort included in the set, which is disappointing.
Shame on ABC for mistreating this classy anthology program. Even with a complete lack of extras, this DVD set is worth a purchase. Rent the show at the very least; you won't regret it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 264 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated