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MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION

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  1. The Awakening
  2. The Discarded
  3. A Clean Escape
  4. Jerry Is A Man
  5. Watchbird
  6. Little Brother


Cast varies weekly


OTHER SPACE TRIPS
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Battlestar Galactica
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The Awakening

A helicopter is downed in Iraq by what appears to be an alien in a cocoon. The authorities look into the alien, but the three people that the creature has put into a trance start writing and speaking in tongues. The message is simple. Disarm or you can be destroyed. Is this an alien race preparing for invasion or the word of God?

You certainly can't fault the opening story on this anthology series for a sense of ambition, telling a tale that is effectively about a potential second coming. It is a pity that it's a bit of an undisciplined mess.

It starts off well with the crashed helicopter site in Iraq (ooh politically topical) and opposite sides being able to understand each other's language. Then it switches to the old cliche of the retired expert being dragged back because nobody else will do (even though he then goes on to do pretty much nothing that anyone else couldn't) and escalates into an end of the world nuclear confrontation story. Lots to get your teeth around you would think, but unconvincing, uninvolving and strangely dull considering all that's going on.

The most interesting aspect is the politics. It is the American President who, in the face of world oppositiion, insists on attacking the aliens and it is he who admits to being afraid because he doesn't understand the other countries' cultures. This is a naked attack on the current presidential authority and it's not often that happens in screen science fiction.

The title of the series is MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION, but who is the master here? True Terry O'Quinn has starred in MILLENNIUM and LOST and Elizabeth Rohm appeared in ANGEL, but that hardly qualifies them as masters. This episode certainly isn't a masterpiece.

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The Discarded

A plague is ravaging the Earth and its terraformed colonies, creating genetically mutated victims, each with a random disfigurement. Earth's solution to this is to put all the infected into spaceships and leave them to float in space. When an ambassador from Earth comes aboard one of the vessels and announces that the inhabitants can all go home in exchange for an enzyme in their blood, discord amongst the group turns to death.

The Discarded is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Whilst the story is about humanity's reaction to ugliness, here characterised in the mutations, the camera lingers over each one in a leer that is unpalatable at best and downright disgusting at worst. Brian Dennehy and John Hurt (one with a giant arm and one with an extra head) manage to create some warmth and humanity in their characters, but there is madness amongst the others that blocks any hope of endearing them to the audience and the casual cruelty of the Earth authorities is as twisted as the bodies of those they discard.

Part of the problem is that there isn't enough plot to fill up the hour sufficiently and so there is nothing else to do other than gaze upon the deformed, something that director Jonathan Frakes is all too willing to do. The situation is well set up, but the proposal from Earth is delivered and rejected and then accepted and then reneged upon. The whole of Harlan Ellison's short story could probably have been told in ten minutes, let alone an hour. It's also completely predictable, so much so that it is impossible to believe that the discarded would enter into the agreement without Earth keeping their end of the bargain first.

The various mutations are well realised by the special effects team, some more repellant than others, but the internal ugliness is more important that the external (clearly the point of the story) and the overall result is too depressing for words.

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A Clean Escape

A man walks into a doctor's office suffering from a condition that resets his memory every 40 minutes or so. The doctor's methods seem overly hostile. Is the hospital really a hospital, is the doctor really a doctor and what could the man have lived to cause his memory to blank every 40 minutes to ensure he doesn't remember?

Virtually a single set, two heavyweight actors firing off each other, a slowly unravelling of the scenario. This is an excellent story, a simple set up allowing the stars to show what they can do. Few of the twists along the way will really surprise any fans of the genre, but might catch out newcomers.

Judy Davis and Sam Waterson know a thing or two about acting and certainly make the most of the scenario, perhaps more than is actually there, but their characters are the story and it is their performances that make it work.

More episodes like this would be gratefully recieved.

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Jerry Is A Man

A fabulously wealthy woman and her husband go to a genetics factory to buy an animal to make an impression at the club. Instead, she comes away with an ordinary robot scheduled for termination through obsolescence. The minesweeping android model Joe, named Jerry, makes such an impression on her that she decides that he will not be destroyed and sues the corporation that built, and wants to destroy him.

Oh dear, but this is awful. An examination of what it means to be human is turned into a pantomime in which everyone feels free to overact just as badly as they wish and in the case of Malcolm McDowell that is quite some level of overacting, but Anne Heche tries to match him. The special effects are pretty poor, with a simple mask making Jerry an android and the CGI elephant looking like it cost about 2.50 to produce on a ZX Spectrum.

The STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION episode Measure of a Man did this exact same story and did it so much better. It is something not to be proud of when it can be said that Robin Williams' film BICENTENNIAL MAN is an improvement on this.

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Watchbird

The watchbird is a drone aircraft that can spot the telltale physical signals of a human about to kill. Armed with lethal weaponry, it has been deployed on the battlefield with great effect, but can it be made to work in a domestic context, recognising and stopping criminals? The inventor doesn't think so, but the government and the moneymen want to think different and so the experiment is made. When the birds start to think for themselves, the decision as to who can and cannot use force is taken out of human hands.

It is not a good idea to give machines the power to decide over mankind's behaviour. This has been a constant theme throughout the history of science fiction and this episode of MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION adds nothing to it whatsoever. You would be much better off watching COLOSSUS:THE FORBIN PROJECT which tells the same story in a much more entertaining and thought-provoking way. Whilst James Cromwell makes his paper-thin money-grubbing character at least as three-dimensional as, say, a piece of cardboard, Sean Astin manages to do nothing with the conscience-wracked scientist in charge of the birds.

The story is dull, the writing is equally poor and the ending resolves virtually nothing.

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Little Brother

A man breaks out from his underground existence and makes it to the outside world where he hopes to find freedom. Instead he finds himself strapped to a chair being judged on charges of murder by a court that is completely automated. He has not intention, however, of letting machines execute him without going through every human trick in the book to prove his innocence.

The last of the six stories is another disappointing one. It starts with a dystopia straight out of THX1138 or a hundred other future visions and then goes into a courtroom drama with a difference. The difference, however, is that it is completely unbelievable. The set up is a neat enough idea, but nobody would give over the administration of justice and execution to a system as unreliable and, let's face it, flaky as this one. Half of the arguments used would not compute and the overrides would surely kick in much earlier.

This episode contains everything that has been wrong with the series and why it got cancelled so early. Simply having a future setting is not enough. There needs to be a strong story and a strong theme. This has a theme, but the attention to detail isn't there and the story has more holes than every golf club in the country put together.

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