PROPAGANDART

Earlier this summer, I eagerly anticipated what was being heralded as the best science-fiction and fantasy anthology series since The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone . There have been others: Tales from the Crypt and Stephen Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, for example – but they did not acheive the level of the classics. This month, on Saturday nights at 10 p.m., ABC is running its experiment in bringing back the classic sci-fi anthology. Entitled Masters of Science Fiction, it had the potential to make a historical contribution to contemporary culture and our collective mindsets – just as did the show’s venerable antecedents. In fact, that has been the consensus of critics for a few months now.Episodes are adapted from tales by award-winning authors and each show is introduced by Dr. Stephen Hawking. Hawking’s presence would appear to be all it takes to certify the show as ground-breaking (until, of course, one recalls he has also appeared on The Simpsons).The sad fact is Masters of Science Fiction falls about a light-year short in terms of history-making television. The initial episode, A Clean Escape, chronicles the psychotherapy sessions of a man with a curious inability to recall a significant part of his life. Ultimately it becomes clear that he is the President of the United States and he has conveniently (for his own sake) repressed that part of his past in which he “pushed the button,” – you know, let loose a nuclear attack and initiated the apocalyptic battle in mankind’s history of warfare.Along the way, we are lectured with pedantic preachiness about how letting weak leaders (like our President) possess such awesome power is and will be our downfall. The President ends up remembering what he did and pathetically crawls into a corner to assume the fetal position. To pound in the message even further, there is a coda in which we’re led to believe this is an endless cycle. I excused that episode as one that happened to have a clumsily handled political message. I chalked it up to typical Hollywood holier-than-thou know-it-all posturing and awaited the next installment.Amazingly enough, episode two – The Awakening – was also about the President of the United States and what a bellicose dunderhead he is. A comatose alien is discovered on Earth. Then many comatose aliens are discovered on Earth. After sending their human subjects into comas themselves, the aliens use the human zombies to transmit messages of world peace. The messages unequivocally demand all men and all nations immediately put down their weapons or face total devastation. All the world’s leaders, including the mean and nasty ones, are in favor of dropping their defenses and trusting the aliens – except, of course, the President of the United States. He fights them all like a big spoiled power-hungry baby. Absurd? Yes. Typical shallow Hollywood politics? Yes again. Our leader is shown to have made a terribly bad decision – a lethal one. And for the second show in a row, the President of the United States is shown acting like an idiot.Rather than continue the folly here, I suggest you read ABC’s website promo page for the other thinly-veiled political screeds-as-entertainment offerings in this silly summer series. The point could be made that many classic-era sci-fi stories have had political, social, cultural, or moral messages. This is true and the best ones handled things with subtlety and nuanced complexity. However, that was then and this is now. As in most other things made in Hollywood today, the contemporary versions handle their messages with all the subtlety and nuance of the Dixie Chicks. When artists decide to mix blatant political partisanship with creative production, it is most often the art that suffers.The Twilight Zone was a work of genius – far advanced both politically, socially, and aesthetically for its time. Masters of Science Fiction is none of these. It simply is an insult to the intelligence of its audience.

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