Rod Serling would be proud.
The writer-producer pioneered fantasy-themed television anthologies with "The Twilight Zone," so he'd likely support "Masters of Science Fiction," a four-part ABC series airing Saturdays starting Aug. 4. With noted physicist Stephen Hawking as off-camera narrator, the commendably cerebral show dramatizes short stories by such acclaimed authors as Harlan Ellison and Robert Heinlein.
First up is director Mark Rydell's ("On Golden Pond") version of John Kessel's futuristic "A Clean Escape," giving Sam Waterston a rare role outside "Law & Order" as a seemingly amnesiac, post-apocalypse patient of a psychiatrist (Judy Davis, "The Starter Wife"). She's more insistent on unlocking his memory than a shrink normally might be, keeping him wary of her agenda.
"It was Judy Davis and the script and the fact that my manager was [co-producing] it," Waterston says of filming the project during his hiatus last summer. "I can't say I'm any great expert on science fiction, but I enjoy it. I loved 'The Twilight Zone,' and this show has that sort of twist at the end. There's an awful lot of science fiction in our general entertainment now, so I don't know if it's as separate a genre as it used to be."
For its sci-fi trappings, "A Clean Escape" is a two-character piece in the best theatrical tradition. "In order to sustain that for an hour," Rydell explains, "the actors have to have great variety and depth. The issues the story deals with are so enormous, the actors have to be brilliant not to be intimidated by such material. It's also a real challenge for the director to maintain visual interest and not let things get static."
Upcoming on "Masters of Science Fiction": Howard Fast's "The Awakening," with Terry O'Quinn ("Lost") and "Law & Order" alumna Elisabeth Rohm in a tale of a strange casualty near Baghdad; Heinlein's "Jerry Was a Man," featuring Anne Heche ("Men in Trees") and Malcolm McDowell in the saga of a wealthy couple and their new, semihuman household addition; and Ellison's "The Discarded," casting Brian Dennehy, John Hurt and James Denton ("Desperate Housewives") in a story of minorities banished to outer space.
Though their paths didn't cross, Waterston is glad for Hawking's involvement in the series. "He's one of those people who has caught the whole culture's imagination," says the actor, who found himself and Davis with little rehearsal time -- typical for television today -- before production began.
"We pretty much dove right in," Waterston says. "I didn't even know I was going to do this until I was on vacation in Norway, so I flew straight to Vancouver for it. We might have had a table reading or two, but we mostly rehearsed on our feet.
"One of the things that's extraordinary about Judy Davis is that she shows up ready to perform, knowing what she thinks about what she's going to do. She's ready to jump of the cliff with you, and if you aren't ready, it makes you want to be."
Rydell knew who and what he'd be getting, since he specifically wanted Waterston and Davis on board before agreeing to direct "A Clean Escape." He deems Waterston "a remarkable actor who has achieved notoriety, but I don't know that he has received the respect he deserves as a master artist. He amazes me, as does Judy Davis, who's just a walking miracle."
The actress was a flying miracle, too, since she traveled a considerable distance to participate.
"To bring her from Australia was a very costly enterprise," Rydell says, "and I have to applaud [the show's producers] for recognizing the supposed wisdom of my choice. They gasped when I said she was a necessary element, but she was absolutely perfect for the part."
Arguably the closest Waterston came to doing science fiction previously was "Capricorn One," the 1978 movie about a faked mission to Mars.
"So much of what appears to be careful career planning is just happenstance and luck," he says. "I don't think I ever did or did not pursue science fiction in any sort of single-minded way."
Neither did Rydell, who also directed John Wayne's "The Cowboys" and Bette Midler's "The Rose." He appreciates "A Clean Escape" for its structural similarity to live television dramas he acted in himself in the 1950s.
"I cut my teeth on those shows, and it's so rare that you get an opportunity to do those kinds of things now. Quality has disappeared in the pursuit of technological advancement, and [much art has] lost contact with the human experience."
Waterston notes the esteem Rydell continues to enjoy in show-business circles, "and there's a very good reason why: He's absolutely wonderful with actors. He knows how to give you the space to bring what you've got to bring, then also knows how to help.
"This was just tremendous fun," Waterston concludes, "even though there was no time. If anyone had made a major misstep, I don't think there would have been any recouping."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times