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Masters of Science Fiction: Clean Escape, A (TV)

Masters of Science Fiction comes to ABCStarring Judy Davis, Sam Waterston

Directed by Mark Rydell

Original Air Date: August 4, 2007 (ABC)


Horror and science fiction have been inextricably linked since the beginning of literature, and the debate continues to this day over the exact definitions of each. Certainly films like Alien, Godzilla, and John Carpenter’s The Thing combine the best of both worlds; and when it comes right down to it, the granddaddy of them all, Frankenstein, with its “mad scientist” at the helm and his unending quest to create life, has more sci-fi elements than pure horror. We’ve pondered numerous times here on Dread Central whether horrific in and of itself equates to horror. It’s been pretty much unanimously agreed that no, it does not; nonetheless, when a project comes along that shows real promise of successfully bridging the gap between the two genres and at the same time providing entertainment value to its audience, well then, we have to take some time to explore it.

Which is why you are reading a review for Episode 1 of Masters of Science Fiction, a new four-installment series coming to ABC from the same people who brought us Masters of Horror. “A Clean Escape” is set several years in the future and unfolds much like a two-character play with viewers left totally in the dark as to the relationship between the protagonists. The woman, Dr. Deanna Evans (Davis), is a psychiatrist who has recently learned she has only a few months (at best) to live thanks to cancer. The man, Robert Havelmann (Waterston), is a mystery. Once a successful, wealthy businessman and politician, he now appears to suffer from short-term (if you can call 25 years “short”) amnesia. Dr. Evans is obsessed with curing him, or at least making sure he remembers what he did a quarter of a century before, an event that is hinted at as being horrifying but not made clear until the final moments of the film.

Masters of Science Fiction comes to ABCThe plotline, penned by Sam Egan from a short story by Nebula Award winner John Kessel, isn’t much to phone home about. Its ambiguousness is its strong point; it keeps your attention and makes your brain work to fill in the blanks of Havelmann’s life. Once his actions and their consequences are made clear, however, it unravels completely and implodes into a heavy-handed mess. No, the reason to watch “A Clean Escape” isn’t its narrative but rather its stars. Davis and Waterston are mesmerizing playing their unnerving game of cat and mouse. Even when the dialogue falters, they persevere and give it their all. Rydell obviously knows how to showcase great actors, having worked with the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Henry & Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond, Steve McQueen in The Reivers, and Richard Gere and Lolita Davidovich in Intersection (one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite tear-jerkers). He cut his teeth on the 1960’s TV shows Gunsmoke, I Spy, and Ben Casey, ably prepping him for his MOSF return to the small screen. “Escape” is shot mostly in one location, masterfully conveying the requisite claustrophobic atmosphere of the piece, which makes the turn in tone of the ending even more disappointing. All the elements for a great hour of television are there but for a thinly veiled, badly conveyed jab at our current Administration.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of Dubya and am usually first in line to watch anything with a message — be it political, social, apocalyptic, whatever. To me, mankind is the scariest monster on the planet, a scenario that’s provided some of the best horror and sci-fi stories ever written. The potential of seeing that portrayed in at least a few of the MOSF episodes is why we gave it the benefit of the doubt in the first place. But there’s a huge difference between satirical depictions and over-the-top re-creations. Give me metaphors and innuendo, not overstated, in-my-face impersonations of current day events.

Masters of Science Fiction comes to ABCBy the end of “A Clean Escape” I was shaking my head (not good) and laughing (even worse). Why is it so hard for today’s “masters” to match the glory days of pioneers like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents? Or maybe we just look back on them as classics because they seem so ahead of their time. In any event, we can still make great dramas and comedies, but the anthology shows can’t seem to get it together. The times we live in are ripe for adaptation and lampooning. A hit here and there among mostly misses seems out of whack. Masters of Horror had, at best, six or seven truly memorable shows during its 26-episode, two-season run … not a very good ratio. No one expects 100%, but is half of that too much to ask for? But maybe Episodes 2-4 of Masters of Science Fiction will overcome the odds. They certainly have promising pedigrees. #2 “The Awakening” features Terry (Stepfather, Lost) O’Quinn, #3 is based on the Heinlein story “Jerry Was a Man” and stars Malcolm McDowell, and #4 “The Discarded” is co-written by Science Fiction Grand Master Laureate Harlan Ellison and Josh (A History of Violence) Olson with Jonathan Frakes pulling director duty. Throw in a space-age intro and outro each week by the brilliant Prof. Stephen Hawking, and I’m curious enough to keep tuning in to see what ideas are being bandied about by this latest assemblage of Masters.

So much of media nowadays is black and white — or, as some would have us believe, red and blue. The only way for us to resolve our differences is to throw in a little gray to mix things up a bit. Science fiction and horror have always been the go-to genres for exploring themes like fear, paranoia, survival, and death. That’s why, despite the shortcomings of “A Clean Escape,” I applaud the minds behind Masters of Science Fiction for tackling the task of interpreting some of the greatest sci-fi writers for contemporary audiences and bringing scary, thought-provoking ideas back to network television. Here’s hoping they’re up to the challenge.

2 1/2 out of 5

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Debi Moore

I'll see you on the other side...