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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Masters of Science Fiction: The Complete Series
Masters of Science Fiction: The Complete Series
Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // August 5, 2008
List Price: $29.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Michael Zupan | posted August 11, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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What do you think the world is going to be like in the future? It's a question that's been under investigation by science fiction writers for a long time. We've seen guesses range from finding friendship with alien life, to suggestions our earth will one day be uninhabitable.

Masters of Science Fiction takes six short stories from some of the greatest minds of the genre and brings each to life in an hour long format. The series closely examines scientific extremes we may one day inevitably reach. Every topic brought to the fold is presented to question the morality of science. Professor Stephen Hawking hosts each episode off camera, introducing the questions that society may inevitably have to ask. If Masters of Science Fiction is any indication of what technological advances have in store for us, let's hope we can avoid the pitfalls we're being warned about.

This series aired on ABC throughout August of 2007. Only four of the six episodes presented on this two disc set had aired. Episodes Little Brother and Watchbird were taken off of ABC's schedule without any reason being disclosed to the public. They were later aired in Canada on the Space network, but everyone can now finally see these episodes thanks to this two DVD set.

The idea behind Masters of Science Fiction is one that truly tickled my fancy when I heard about it. Each episode was based in its own world and self contained. The theories each episode tried to debate ranged from the logically feasible, to absurd heights only graphic novels could achieve. The end product is a mash-up of modern day story telling that parallels that of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.


THE EPISODES


A Clean Escape

Based on a short story by John Kessel

What starts as a seemingly simple tale ends up ballooning into a controversial look at liability.

The first story takes place after a nuclear winter which was triggered by the President of the United States of America. Lives all over the planet have been devastated by this one man's decision to unleash hell. People have died. People have suffered emotionally. The psychiatrist's patient is the one responsible for bringing the world to its knees. He has an inability to retain memories for more than forty-five minutes. Something has blocked his memory from the moment the world almost met its end. How can someone with amnesia, as convenient as it may seem, be held accountable for something they can't remember?

This is probably the most grounded story in all six episodes. Nuclear winter isn't something that's confined to the depths of our imagination. It's a fear we face every day. It's also entirely plausible a man carelessly causing such destruction could suffer a mental block. Neurological science is keeping a guilty man innocent through a curtain of amnesia. Liability isn't drawn by a fine line in this scenario, it's painfully clear the President is guilty. What does cause the line to blur is when the psychiatrist decides to take matters into her own hands. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. How do you punish those who honestly can't remember the crime they're being accused of?

The Awakening

Based on a short story by Howard Fast

The government becomes highly suspicious when something extra-terrestrial crash lands on earth. The subject is thought to be a hoax by skeptics until it takes control of three people to communicate telepathically. The mixed message stirs a lot of debate. The demand is to lay down all weapons of mass destruction or be annihilated. It sounds hostile but has implications of peace as well.

What we have here is a look at humanity on numerous levels. Faith, religion, and science are married into the debate. The visitors are landing all over the world to deliver their disapproval of man kind's destructive nature. Will surrendering our weapons of mass destruction all over the globe lead us to our salvation, or will it leave us open to attack?

This episode really made me think. I try to keep an open mind with most anything. Is a creator or are alien life forms looking at us in shame? Are we really being ill perceived by a being that's intellectually superior to us? When you take a look at everything going on within our planet objectively, it's clear that we've become a species that thrives on power. Unfortunately all power is usually obtained by force.

Jerry Was a Man

Based on a short story by Robert A. Heinlein

In this version of the future, undesirable jobs are carried out by a fabricated mix between engineered and biological materials called Joe's. A Joe helps with chores around the house and does jobs that are deemed too dangerous for man. Since they're completely disposable, feel no pain, and have no emotion, they can even be used in combat scenarios. Why risk the lives of real men when a Joe can test a mine field for you?

A revolution of rights begins when a Joe by the name of Jerry shows one woman that perhaps man has been a little too crude while playing God. He shows he's not just a manufactured product but also has thoughts and feelings just like anyone else. He craves candy, cigarettes, always desires to do well, and can even pick out and sing a favorite song.

When does bio-engineering become useful, and when does it turn into cruel and unusual punishment? The question of 'could' versus 'should' is posed with more relevance in this episode than any other. Creating a life like this will be something we can accomplish in the distant future. I have no doubt in my mind about that. That doesn't mean it's right though. You can design something to do a specific job without talking back and without the ability to tell you how it feels. That doesn't mean something can't experience thought or emotion just because you deny it the ability to express itself.

The Discarded

Based on a short story by Harlan Ellison

Sailing along in space is a small city of what can only be described as earth's undesirables. The 'discarded' are mutations that were abominations on earth. Society couldn't incorporate the ugliness of the mutations into their world, so they put them on a space ship that's kept them out of sight for decades. The quest for perfection amongst humanity has brought out their ugly side. Lives that were undesirable in their appearance were deemed unfit to live amongst the masses.

A man from earth comes aboard to reveal that mutation is rapidly changing hundreds of thousands of people like a disease. The only way to cure the human race is to obtain blood from mutants that haven't been touched by the latest strain of the virus. The discarded suddenly have a very large decision in front of them. Do they serve their purpose as saviors to humanity or do they hold a grudge in an attempt at revenge?

Personally I felt this was the weakest episode of the bunch. You have a group of outcasts living out in space because they were shipped off like a bag of dirty laundry. An opportunity comes their way to choose if they want to suck up the pain they had to endure emotionally for so many years, so they can save the very society that banished them. They would get to go back home but would it be worth it? Would the human race still living on earth even keep their promise? It's a pretty serious subject that could have been pulled off with a lot of intense drama but instead comes a fairly light-hearted affair with smoky bar jazz music playing in the background the entire time. There was great potential that was spoiled by poor direction.

Little Brother

Based on a short story by Walter Mosley

Machines have replaced the need for traditional judge and jury trials. The human touch has completely been replaced by circuits and wiring. A man has been accused for the murder of a police officer. Unknown to the court, the police officer had killed an unarmed man and a little girl. There was an abuse of power and this man fighting for his life had only intervened to stop the madness. The act would have been considered heroic in our society, but finds no merit in a future run by machines.

Should a system that's been written in such black and white finality ever be responsible for moral judgment? Does a man who is truly innocent ever have the slightest chance to outwit a machine to escape execution?

The acting was pretty weak in this episode. The premise and execution of the story however, more than made up for it. I was left wondering if the ongoing process to automate everything will attribute to our demise in the future. After watching this episode, one could only hope not.

Watchbird

Based on a short story by Robert Sheckley

For the final episode of six, we return to a semi-grounded premise that hits a bit closer to our own reality than the other stories.

The watchbird is a mechanical machine that's small, light weight, unmanned, and doesn't have to be controlled via remote. It recognizes an enemy's intent to do harm and effectively takes them out of the equation. To help distinguish friendly troops against terrorists, chips had to be implanted into the troops so they remained invisible to the watchbird.

Due to their success overseas, the President of the United States had an idea to roll out fleets of the metal winged birds across the country to lower crime rates. If his idea was a success it would ensure a reduction in crime as well as some votes during the next election.

It would be impossible to inject every American with a chip to remain out of harm's way and it would defeat the purpose. A program had to be written from scratch so the watchbirds could view and assess crime themselves. They would have the power to stun or kill depending on their own 'moral' judgment.

Despite the infinite number of concerns the program actually launched without issue. Unfortunately homeland security wants to keep tweaking the program so it can become even more efficient. The bar is raised time and time again until everything predictably takes a turn for the worst.

Will artificial intelligence created for battlefield situations ever become acceptable? There are too many variables that put innocent lives at risk. We've all seen The Terminator, but Watchbirds sheds the light on much more relatable context so it can effectively drive its point.


Video

All six episodes are presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. The picture overall is good, although it can be a mixed bag at times. Once in a while I was able to find some edge enhancement. More often than not I was able to see grain over the picture. I didn't get to see the show when it aired a year or so ago, so I can't say if the grain was intentional. There are times when the picture is almost completely free of any noise at all. It makes me wonder why the grain is apparent during some scenes and not others.

On the bright side the picture looks naturally sharp without any jaggies to distract from the experience. The blacks are deep and help create a great level of contrast with vivid colors that pop off the screen.

There's a lot of detail in this sharp looking picture, grain or no grain. It's a shame the picture wasn't consistent with its cleanliness, but it never reduces itself to a point where I would ever say the picture quality is poor.


Audio

There isn't too much of an opportunity for the series to really 'wow' you with a lot of action. The series is more about questioning the theoretic aspects of science. It's not here to show star cruisers blowing each other away. That being said the episodes are accurately represented. The surround is there when it should be. It subtly and sometimes powerfully lets its presence known without being excessive. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track sounds clean without any hisses or pops. The audio experience left me feeling as if I got the same presentation I would have at home with my surround sound system when it aired for the first time.


Extras

You have Professor Stephen Hawking presenting a series about the 'what ifs' of evolving modern science and a ton of A-List actors that appear throughout the series. Judy Davis, John Hurt, Terry O'Quinn, Sam Waterston, Elisabeth Rohm, James Denton, Brian Dennehy, Anne Heche, James Cromwell, Malcolm McDowell, Clifton Collins Jr., and Sean Astin. You're telling me there can't be just one special feature here?! How in the world could Anchor Bay afford to let this slip through their fingers?


Overall

To be honest, Masters of Science Fiction doesn't always live up to expectation. A saving grace for any episode you may feel is under par is the fact that you'll be left pondering the questions they pose long after you're done watching. This show draws great strength from questioning the biggest concern in the science community, which is the 'could' versus 'should' debate.

There's a great cast that makes every hour long experience almost cinematic. Despite this, after seeing each episode once I don't feel there's much replay value. The journey to each conclusion is always an intriguing one, but not one that truly warrants any repeat viewings. Anchor Bar has also completely dropped the ball on providing any extras. I would strongly urge anyone who is a fan of any science fiction, or the likes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, to go ahead and rent this. There's a lot to take in and leave you thinking after the fact in a good way, but not enough to keep you coming back for more.
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