Sunday, August 9, 2009

Losing Gravity: ABC is out of this world

Finally there is something worth watching on ABC every Sunday. No, not This Week Without David Brinkley.

It’s called Defying Gravity, a sci-fi series that’s a pleasant surprise from the network that gave us Boston Legal, Brothers & Sisters, and of course Desperate Housewives. The series began last week and the third episode is on tonight.

Of course, as with modern sci-fi shows, this is less space western and more space soap opera. It’s like 2001, remade with the cast of Gray’s Anatomy — with traces of Red Planet and Armageddon thrown in.

This is not the futuristic technology of Star Wars or Star Trek, but instead today’s NASA astronauts with (more or less) today’s technology. The first two episodes hint at the stifling NASA bureaucracy — the bureaucratic mindset any organization develops when the key form of accountability is punishing failure rather than rewarding success.

While the production values are not at the level of the final Star Wars movies, they still have the feel of 2001 rather than the typical low-wage CTV production. (Admittedly Vancouver is hard to pick out when all the scenes are a Mission Control or aboard the spacecraft.) The cast is also solid. The perky Candian Laura Harris (aptly cast as “Zoe”) seems worlds apart from Kate Warner’s evil little sister in 24 Day Two.

Beyond the soap opera, my only concern from first two episodes aired last week is that the key obstacle facing NASA’s finest will be some supernatural more akin to Lost rather than a cybernetic villain as in 2001 and so many movies since.

Still, a show (even a soap opera) about NASA in the 21st century has a chance to remind mankind of the importance of the greater sense of hope that it won from explorers challenging the unknown — whether Columbus, Magellan or NASA’s earliest decades. Arthur C. Clarke captured this sense in his book 2001, a vision that Stanley Kubrick realized with first-class visuals in the movie that was my all-time favorite until the 1977 opening episode of the Star Wars saga.

My appreciation to ABC for carrying on this vision, particularly now that the SyFy cable channel has given up on sci-fi in favor of lame X-Files knock-offs.

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