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Masters of Science Fiction

It’s a Saturday night — 10 p.m. As a TV watcher, can you already feel the bitter, lonely chill? You’re in the black hole of network slots. But then you turn to ABC and find Masters of Science Fiction, a four-episode anthology series that after sitting around for a year is being shot out into the ratings void of August like a starship pod in which the crew-eating alien has finally been trapped. The series boasts introductions by Stephen Hawking; adaptations from Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein; stars like Terry O’Quinn, Judy Davis and Malcolm McDowell; and one upcoming episode written and directed by Michael Tolkin. Far from exile-worthy — as I found out this past weekend during the first show’s airing (I didn’t get an advance copy). Could ABC have been playing a time-slot prank with the unlucky folk behind Masters of Science Fiction?

Based on a short story by John Kessel, adapted by Sam Egan and directed by Mark Rydell, the series is a politically minded future-jolt about leadership accountability in which a dying doctor (Davis) must repeatedly interrogate a patient (Sam Waterston) whose memory stops — conveniently, perhaps? — 25 years ago, before certain cataclysmic world events took place. While clunky in parts, cheesy with its bloops-and-bleeps gadgetry, and predictable with its twists, Masters of Science Fiction at least offers the kind of old-fashioned spark that comes from two accomplished actors sparring like pros — this could have been the anchor for a juicy, live two-hander during the golden age of television. Plus, Law & Order’s righteous D.A. in particular seems to relish playing the grilled rather than the griller; Waterston’s outraged wails and fits of umbrage achieve an almost charming hamminess. Too bad that in network’s deep space, no one can hear you emote.