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DVD Review

Masters of Science Fiction


Starring: Judy Davis, John Hurt, Terry O'Quinn, Sam Waterston and Elisabeth Röhm
Anchor Bay Entertainment UK
RRP: £19.99
Certificate: 12
Available 25 February 2008

Anthology shows are nothing new in science fiction and horror whether it is on radio or on television so it is with no surprise that another has come our way in the form of Masters of Science Fiction.

Now a title like that seems to promise the best of the best in short story writing, but do we really get what is promised. The first season, from ABC studios, consisted of only a paltry six episodes, hosted by Stephen Hawking, doing his best Rod Sterling impression in the prologue.

The stories appear to have been selected not on the basis of literary merit, though that is not to say that some of the stories are not good, but rather on the basis that it allows each show to have two relatively well known actors in it.

In the not too distant future Dr Deanna Evan (Judy Davis) is intent on making a seemingly innocuous man, Robert Havelmann (Sam Waterston), remember the last twenty-five years of his life. Robert’s amnesia means that he has no idea why he has come to see the doctor and her increasingly aggressive attempts to make him remember are inexplicable in their intent...

Written by Sam Egan, from an original short story by John Kessel, A Clean Escape is a good strong opening story. Judy Davis is powerful as the good doctor who will go to any lengths to make Robert remember, though the laurels have to go to Sam Waterston who takes Robert from a reasonable man of conviction to the destroyer of the planet in less than an hour. The ending is very reminiscent of The Twilight Zone - which always insisted there be a twist in the tale.

Mrs Bronson Van Vogel is an extremely wealthy woman, so wealthy that she can afford to have genetic pets made for her amusement. However, on a visit to have a new toy made, she stumbles across Jerry, a low grade humanoid construct who is designed for mine removal. Moved by his plight - he is just about to be scrapped - she insists on taking him home. However, over time, she comes to care for him and decides to champion his right to survival...

Jerry was a Man is adapted and directed by Michael Tolkin, from a short story by Robert Heinlein. There have been a number of short stories written along similar lines which have made it to the screen, including Bicentennial Man (1999) and A.I. (2001) and is a favourite subject for anthology shows - though normally the creature being championed is usually a robot.

  Of course Anne Heche, who plays Van Vogel, needs a nemesis and this is ably provided by Malcolm McDowell, who plays the head of the corporation which makes the Jerry’s.  One of the nice things about the story is how they prove that Jerry is indeed a man, not by showing his capacity for empathy or love, but his ability to lie and cheat death at the expense of others.

In contemporary Baghdad an unidentified body is found. Soon more start appearing across the planet. As events escalate lights appear in the sky with a simple message: either live in peace or die...

The Awakening, with screenplay and direction by Michael Petroni, was adapted from a short story by Howard Fast. This is a rerun of The Day the Earth Stood Still with allusions to God thrown in for good measure. Okay in its way, but a little too formulaic for my tastes. I would have been more impressed if the humans had stuck two fingers up at the aliens and gone down fighting - now that would be both novel and monumentally stupid, a fair description of the human race.

Ultimately, the humans get it together with a mental group hug and can suddenly understand each other, removing the good work that the Tower of Babel created. Oh, and in case you miss the Christian allusions, there’s proof of life after death and, blow me down, the aliens look like angels. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Christians, but to have the message so artlessly shoved down my throat left a bad taste.

In the near future man has given over his judicial system to machines, but in doing so has he given up too much of his freedom? Frendon escapes from his captivity only to save a girl by killing a cop. Can he persuade the judges of his innocence or will their mechanistic minds condemn him to death...?

Little Brother, from an original screenplay by Walter Mosley, is another story with a preachy message, this time about justice and freedom. In essence this is a court room drama with only one inevitable ending which you can spot a mile away. It’s the dullest of the shows in its inevitability.

How much of your freedom would you be willing to trade for security? Society has a new technological invention known as Watchbirds, flying robots which intervene in murders before they can happen. However, when the inventor's girlfriend is killed, in a bid to control him, he decides to take action...

Watchbird, screenplay by J. Michael Straczynski from a short story by Robert Sheckley, is an intelligent script about the tradeoff between freedom and security - certainly a question which is at the forefront in the twenty-first century. Sean Austin gets off his knees to play the inventor, whose idealism is tainted by others desire to control. The show also has James Cromwell as his boss. The nice thing about the script is that whilst it undoubtedly has a message it does not shove it down your throat.

In a floating ship the discarded genetic mutants of the earth sit and wait hoping to one day go home. When a ship docks, with just such a promise, can it really be too good to be believed...?

In The Discarded, by Harlan Ellison, the anthology has saved the best till last and shows just how good science fiction can be as a story form. In less than an hour Ellison is able to show great depth and development in his characters. More than any of the other stories, except possibly A Clean Escape, this is about people and not just big ideas or preachy stances; of course it never hurts to have the brilliant John Hurt playing the leading role. Great story, well acted.

The stereo DVD runs to a total of 255 minutes and is presented in 1.33:1 letterbox aspect ration. There are no extras.

When I first saw the show on television I was stuck by just how uneven the anthology was in the quality of the shows. I have to say that my initial assessment has not changed in the re-watching. Partly I think that this comes down to the choice of original short stories that were adapted.

Science fiction is over a hundred years old, with many "masters" of the genre to choose from, so why not do so. In the end what has been produced is an anthology which does not in fact, for the most part, show off the best of science fiction, but rather reaffirms uneducated belief that it’s all about the big idea and aliens, and has little to say about people.


Charles Packer

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