Thus far, two of the four episodes of ABC's mini-series Masters of Sci-Fi have aired.
Color me underwhelmed.
I wanted to like this show. I came prepared to like this show. I mean, an anthology that's not tied to some sort of Crypt Keeper twist ending formula? Bring it on.
Now take it away.
I understand that man's capacity for self-destruction is a staple theme for sci-fi authors. But to lead off the run with two heavy-handed preachy anti-war episodes based around the threat of world nuclear annihilation?
How do I define preachy? Well, it's preachy by default if, at the end of the episode, a main character spends two paragraphs of dialogue explaining the moral of the story.
It makes one long for the (relative) subtleties of the Gene Roddenberry age of "But don't you see, Captain Shatner, they are white on the left side of their faces, and we are white on the right side."
Let me make it clear that I believe that the morals of the first two episodes are worthy ideas, and that the best science fiction is that which aims to provoke thought and enlightenment.
In these instances, however, it is as if Mary Poppins has added a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down in a most delightful way, and then proceeded to jam the spoon repeatedly into the back of your throat.
It Wouldn't Be Sci-Fi without a Robot
In an anthology, if you're going to lower the "moral of the story" boom on the heads of those of us too dense to "get it", shouldn't that at least be the narrator's job?
And Masters of Science Fiction's answer to Rod Serling is . . . Stephen Hawking.
All respect to Mr. Hawking. His I.Q. is ridiculous, and he played poker with Data on Star Trek:TNG.
But seriously, how do we know that it’s really Stephen Hawking and not just some random Texas Instruments employee banging away on an old Speak&Spell or some other 1980s electronic learning toy?
Once you get past the novelty that it's the Stephen Hawking, you realize that they've given the job of narrator to someone whose "voice" is difficult to understand, incapable of tempo changes, and completely void of emotion or inflection. Hawking's computerized form of communication does have one slight pitch change, which is when he inputs a question mark into his voice simulator. Unfortunately, this still means that, if Stephen Hawking is asking a question (rhetorical or otherwise), you're unlikely to know that he's asking a question until the very last word of the sentence.
So, on second thought, if it really is necessary (and it's not) to have someone spend several sentences explaining the moral of the story, please don't have the narrator of Masters of Science Fiction do it. It's a waste of our time, and Stephen Hawking's.
Not With a Bang, But a Whimper
Let's return for a moment to the baffling decision to front-load this series with ponderous "Oh, humanity, can you not see that you will bring about your own destruction" warnings.
Meanwhile, coming up in future episodes, we have elephants genetically engineered to be the size of poodles, and cyclops cheerleaders (possibly in the same episode, I'm not sure).
Poodle elephants and cyclops cheerleaders! What are they waiting for, sweeps week?
No doubt the cyclops cheerleader will spend the last two minutes of the episode earnestly spelling out the moral of the story. But it'll at least have broader appeal than two people sitting in a room crying and yelling at each other and then telling us the moral of the story (A Clean Escape, the first aired episode).
Along similar lines, whose decision was it to keep brand-name authors Robert Heinlein and Harlan Ellison on the bench for so long, and instead lead off with episodes based on stories by Howard Fast and John Kessel, two names guaranteed to set off a bout of prolonged head-scratching even among Masters of Sci-Fi's target audience?
Thus far, I've only referred generally to the shortcomings of the first two episodes. But I think it's time to give each one the individual spanking it so richly deserves.
A Clean Escape
In A Clean Escape, Sam Waterston plays a real tool of a man. As a weapons contractor, he ignores the warnings of colleagues about the possible malfunctions of a missile system and pushes the project forward. Then (oh, this is rich), he becomes president, and, going against the wishes of his advisors, he launches a strike using that same shoddy missile system he installed 20 years earlier, and (you guessed it) the system malfunctions and (whoops) blows up the whole planet. Then, on top of that, surviving in the standard-issue underground government bunker, he's so distressed by the whole thing that he conveniently forgets what happened, in a wacky Iran Contra scandal Ronald "I don't recall that" Reagan meets Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates kind of way.
Oh, and just in case the giant hammers wielded by the author and screenwriter and director have not yet penetrated the skulls of the audience, President Jerkwit also holds forth heatedly but vaguely about "basic values" like, um, God and family.
Which, to my mind, makes this less speculative fiction and more a fairy tale for Democrats to tell to their kids at bedtime to ensure that when they grow up, they always vote along party lines instead of thinking for themselves.
Democrats, please put down your keyboards. I'm well aware that Republicans have a sack-full of their own fairy tales. If Republicans and Democrats actually stopped beating the public over the head with their bulging sacks of fairy-tales, there might actually be a real chance for us all to join hands and sing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke". But that won't ever happen. Because humanity isn't basically good, or basically evil. Humanity is just basically stupid.
I'm crossing my fingers what I've just written is the moral the cyclops cheerleader will solemnly intone at the end of the rousing and soon-to-be legendary cyclops cheerleader episode.
A Clean Escape, which is mostly just an extended face-off between President Forgetful and his psychiatrist (played by Judy Davis) could have made for an electrifying two-person stage play. But as television, it's just a lot of static stilted emoting. More annoying is that, based on their chosen acting style, Sam Waterston and Judy Davis seem to believe that they actually are performing a two-person stage play.
Throughout the episode, there are a series of "big revelations" (half of which shouldn't come as a surprise, but are still passed off as big revelations). As Judy Davis or Sam Waterston pronounce each big reveal, if you listen very carefully, you can hear the director say "And . . . hold for commercial."
The moral of A Clean Escape is that people have to be held accountable. Not only the leaders, but those who follow those leaders.
How do I know that's the moral? Because Judy Davis told me.
What struck me as particularly wise and noteworthy about this was the idea that those who choose and follow leaders must also be accountable for their actions. But here's the rub. Not a single element in the hour episode dealt with that part of the moral. A whole hour, and the most piercing insight was a throwaway addendum to "we should hold our leaders accountable for their actions".
Thanks, Judy Davis.
In this episode, John Locke from Lost and Detective Kate Lockley from Angel have a close encounter of the predictable kind. Who needs Mulder and Scully when you have Locke and Lockley. Oh, but wait, there's more: The President of the United States is The Cigarette Smoking Man.
We've seen these actors before! Hurrah!
We've also seen this story before. And before that. And before that.
Aliens are sending us messages. The message is: lay down your arms. Is it an invasion, or is it an intervention? Will the aliens kill us? Will we kill ourselves? One thing is for sure: the suspense isn't killing anyone.
One of the characters is a high-ranking military officer. Is he immediately suspicious of the aliens? Does he spend the entire time trying to convince the president to use lethal force to defend the country, the world, and baseball against this perceived threat?
Of course he does! Sometime after Dr. Strangelove was made, the House and Senate passed legislation requiring that all fictitious screen military generals do exactly that.
The Awakening floats the idea that the major world religions were seeded by a vastly superior alien race. Ooooh, how original and thought-provoking! (There is, of course, the possibility that this actually was original and thought-provoking at the time Howard Fast wrote the short story. If so, package this episode up, put it in a time machine, and send it to a decade when it would be less boring).
As Locke and Lockely play out their prescribed skeptic versus believer roles, the aliens begin disarming all the world's nuclear weapons. Are they trying to render the human race defenseless so they can destroy us, or have they just seen Superman IV: The Quest for Peace?
Come to think of it, if they are here to destroy us, it could well be because they saw Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
In the end, President Cancer Man decides to let his nuclear capabilities be rendered inert without putting up a fight.
Choose your own adventure:
Turn to page 176: And then a groovy shiny space angel appears and sprays hope juice on everyone.
Or, turn to page 39: The aliens laugh. "Stupid trusting superstitious humans! Now we will probe you with uncomfortably large cold instruments, and send you to our home planet to pick space fruit for an alarmingly unfair daily wage!"
These types of stories can be thought-provoking, not to mention great fun. But it's always struck me as intellectually lazy to use these stories to present one type of world-view as superior to another. Skeptics versus believers. Hawks versus doves. Pragmatists versus idealists.
The problem is that the author of these types of stories has the protagonists at a distinct disadvantage. S/he knows exactly what the aliens' intentions are. And, big surprise, the characters s/he identifies with ideologically turn out to be right.
In a story in which the intentions and origins of the alien intellect are mysterious, so much depends upon the ending.
The Last Mimzy, for example, is a movie in which a mysterious intellect uses toys to reconfigure the brains of children so that those children can act as agents of that intellect. This could be the plot to a horror movie, but it's actually the plot to a kids' movie. Among the heroes in the kids' movie is a math teacher who is into transcendental meditation, someone open to possibilities, someone who helps the children on their path to enlightenment. If it was a horror movie, this same character would be a hapless irresponsible idiot, a well-meaning but essentially blind kook who puts the lives and minds of innocent children at risk.
Take Matthew McConaughey's character in the movie Contact. He's ostensibly one of the wisest people in the film. But plunk his universalist surfer dude minister into H.G. Well's War of the Worlds and he'd be the very first optimistic fool to get a face-full of green destructo-rays. Take the blithe moron believers blissing out atop tall buildings in Independence Day, and put them into this episode of Masters of Science Fiction, and instead of getting their dumb-asses fried, they'd be saying, "Dude! Space angels! I totally knew it!"
And you better believe that the Space Marines from Aliens would have blown the guts out of Steven Spielberg's E.T. before they let that slimy thing touch them with his icky glowing finger. Space Marines, all E.T. wanted was some Reese's Pieces. I used to think you were brave and bad-ass. Only now do I realize that you are just mindless tools of the military-industrial complex.
In the course of The Awakening, John Locke allows himself to be exposed to the eye-beam of one of the aliens. And he sees a vision. Of his dead wife. In her hospital bed. Everything's all bleached-out and white, like the room of the star child from 2001: A Space Odyssey, except that in 2001 there weren't any chintzy hospital curtains blowing in an ethereal way, nor a bed-pan shining luminous white like the robes of a saint.
Stay with me. Then, his wife smiles and says: "They have shown me the beauties of the universe. It's beautiful. So beautiful. One day, you will see it too."
Does this strike anyone else as creepy rather than lovely?
And I'm not even talking about the possibility that, as he gets closer to her bed, her eyes could turn black, and, then, BAM!, she's sucking his brains out through a bendy straw.
I'm talking about the fact that an alien intellect advanced enough to muck about in my mind like that could pretty much manipulate me into feeling or believing whatever it wants me to believe or feel. You show me what I'd most like to see, a vision of my dead wife talking about how beautiful everything is now that she's dead, and I'm supposed to trust that? The next thing I know, I'm stuck in The Matrix, talking to my dead wife, not a care in the world, while you use my body's electrical impulses to power your Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.
If we wanted to be realistic, the ending to The Awakening could have easily gone the other way.
And don't give me that hooha about how any sufficiently advanced alien race would logically be a peaceful and benevolent race. We only put a man on the moon because John F. Kennedy wanted to beat the Russians at something. Conflict and competition are just as likely a path to technological and intellectual advancement as peace and cooperation are.
If an author wanted to write an intellectually honest story of this type s/he might start out as the characters start out -- not actually knowing the true intentions of the alien intellect.
But the creators of The Awakening have the ending all sewn up. They have a point to prove, and they're not about to let telling a good story get in the way of their dull little point.