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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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Ratings
Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

SF on TV
As you know, I am a fan of excellent entertainment in all its forms, from Babylonian epic to computer games. But I have a special fondness for entertainment in art forms that have vanished, or almost vanished, such as cuneiform tablets, adventure comic strips, and radio dramas.

An Evening With Sherlock Holmes An unexpected source of radio drama these days is DVD. In addition to four not very good (or so I'm told) prints of Rathbone, An Evening With Sherlock Holmes has, among its extras, a number of the radio dramas with Rathbone and Bruce as Holmes and Watson. Anthony Boucher, SF writer and editor, did some of the scripts. DVDs made from anything but the best available print are an abomination, and the radio Sherlock Holmes is widely available elsewhere. I only mention this DVD because it is the first time I saw radio on DVD.

While on the subject of Sherlock, two superb DVDs are the Ian Richardson films of The Hound of the Baskervilles (****) and The Sign of Four (****).

Also, Jeremy Brett as Sherlock will soon be available on DVD. MPI is going to produce one, just one, and then wait to see if it sells. It better sell. In fact, it is already #121 on the amazon.com DVD bestseller list. But let's see if we can't push it into the top ten. Hop on over to amazon.com and order it. I'll still be here when you get back.

The Third Man (****) by Graham Green and Orson Wells (who wrote the cuckoo clock speech as well as playing the role of Harry Lime) never looked better in a new digitally restored DVD version. One of the extras is a comparison of the original film, scratches and all, and the pristine restored version. But I mention it here because the DVD includes an excellent Harry Lime radio drama, written by and starring Orson Wells.

Radio lives!

Science fiction? I'm getting there. Just be patient. I only have a one more non-SF DVD to recommend.

The era of bargain-priced DVD is here. In K-Mart, I happened upon Shoot Out (***), a western written by Marguerite Roberts, for $7.49. Who is Marguerite Roberts, you may ask. Well, she wrote one of my all time favourite western films, True Grit (****), as well as the 1952 film, Ivanhoe (***). Shoot Out is directed by Henry Hathaway, stars Gregory Peck, and has never before been released for home viewing in any format. The movie is very enjoyable and the print is excellent.

Onward!

The Lathe of Heaven (***)
written by Roger E. Swaybill and Diane English, from the novel by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Lathe of Heaven One of the long dialogues in science fiction began with Frankenstein (unless you want to carry it all the way back to Lao Tze vs. Confucius). Mary Shelly cried, "There are things we were not meant to know!" To which H. G. Wells replied, "Wings over the world!"  Heinlein took up Wells' dream, declaring, "The Roads Must Roll," but Forbidden Planet warned about "The Monsters from the Id".

The problem is power, specifically the power of science. Ursula K. Le Guin is clearly on the side of Lao Tze, Mary Shelly, and Forbidden Planet, and against proponents of progress such as Heinlein and Wells. In her view, we do not have the wisdom to make the world a better place, and the people who try are really motivated by a desire for power. They wind up crushing what they try to create.

But now that science has cured baldness and impotence, the naysayers are beginning to sound timid. To which the cautionary voice would reply, "We are like the man who fell from the 12-story building, and as he fell past each floor was heard to say, 'So far, so good.'" Isaac Asimov, in The End of Eternity, argued persuasively in favour of progress over caution. The Lathe of Heaven may be Le Guin's answer. In it, George Ore has effective dreams that can change the world, but it is a power he does not want, because he knows no one has the wisdom to use such power wisely.

This is the first ever made-for-public-TV movie. It has long been the most sought after public television program in any genre. Finally it is available on VHS and DVD. The DVD has an interview with Le Guin from public television. I haven't seen the DVD version, but the VHS version I got for review had with it a tape of the interview. Le Guin specifically mentions the Taoist influence on the novel.  Dr. Haber is trying to push a river.

The story is not just propaganda; it's a good yarn. The aliens, I think, are the factor that move the story to a more interesting level, and keep it from being just another version of the old, old tale of the three wishes.

Does the name Ed Emshweller still resonate, or is he forgotten? As Emsh he was one of the greatest of the science fiction illustrators in the 50s. It's been years since a digest size SF magazine had a cover as good as the ones Emsh drew. In fact, the last SF magazine to have memorable cover art was Ted White's Amazing. Now, the three remaining digests seem to vie with one another to see who can have the most boring covers. Take it from me: Emsh was great, and so were Frank Kelly Freas and Richard Powers. Where did all the great cover artists go?

Well, Ed Emshweller went into avant-garde film, and some of the beautiful low budget special effects in The Lathe of Heaven represent his last professional work.

The quality of the VHS version I got for review is poor, looking like a third generation copy of a copy. Still, it is better than the off-the-air tape I made last time the film was on PBS, because then I foolishly used the four hour speed. Is the DVD better? I can only hope.

Destination Moon (****)
written by Robert A. Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel, and James O'Hanlon

Destination Moon When Stanley Kubrick decided to follow up the borderline SF film Dr. Strangelove (****) with a real honest-to-Asimov science fiction film, he asked Arthur C. Clarke to recommend some good SF films for him to watch. Clarke was more than happy to oblige. Kubrick had the films screened and pronounced them all crap. In a way, he was right. 2001: A Space Odyssey (****) was an order of magnitude better than any previous SF film.

But the three best pre-Kubrick SF films are three of the films Clarke recommended: Things to Come (****), written for the screen by H. G. Wells; Destination Moon, by Heinlein et al.; and Forbidden Planet (****).

You have to watch Destination Moon knowing when it was made. You have to realize that in the scenes outside the spaceship, all those stars are hundreds of little electric lights strung on wires behind the spaceship set, and that when one of them burned out, they had to stop filming and send a technician to climb the metal scaffolding and replace the bulb.

I love it.

The DVD doesn't have any extras except for the liner notes by Tom Weaver, who tells us that the film cost $586,000 to make, grossed $5.5 million, and won an Academy Award for best special effects. This is a copy of the best print still in existence and it looks great.

This movie, too, is about the power of science. But Heinlein was never one to recommend caution. His view was that if the good guys don't use the power of science, the bad guys certainly will. So when the courts order the moon ship not to take off, because people are afraid the atomic motors might explode, Heinlein's heroes leave the sheriff behind in the dust, and they're off to the moon.

Copyright © 2000 by Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.


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