Masters of DVD11 Jul, 2008 By: John Latchem
If the show is called “Masters of Science-Fiction,” it's pretty much a given Harlan Ellison would have some input.
“They wanted me to be involved owing to the fact that I've had somewhat of a fairly outstanding career and was one of the few living writers who could be called a master,” Ellison said.
The prolific author, whose television credits include episodes of the original “The Outer Limits” and the fan-favorite “Star Trek” episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” is one of several writers involved in “Masters of Science-Fiction,” an anthology series from the same production team behind “Masters of Horror.” The two-DVD Masters of Science-Fiction: The Complete Series collection streets Aug. 5 from Anchor Bay Entertainment at $29.97.
The series is hosted by physicist Stephen Hawking and features an all-star cast.
Executive producer Keith Addis said “Masters of Science-Fiction” stemmed from the unique success of “Masters of Horror,” which was fully funded prior to production and driven by the creators of the individual episodes. The ultimate goal, he said, is to recoup the budgets through domestic DVD sales, while also expanding profits through international home video and television markets, as well as domestic broadcast and cable deals.
Producers secured funding for six episodes and reached a deal with ABC to air four of them. The two that didn't air are exclusive to the DVD set.
Ellison said the prospect of adapting his own work was daunting.
“The story they wanted me to adapt was one I was loathe to do,” Ellison said, referring to his 1965 award-winning short story “‘Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman.”
Ellison said the scope of the story was too much for an hour-long format, so he suggested five or so other stories that would be more appropriate, leading to the selection of his 1959 short story “The Discarded.” The episode chronicles a group of outcast mutants who roam the solar system in an old spaceship and one day hope to return to Earth.
“I was talking about a culture in which looks are favored over other qualities,” Ellison said. “And we see today that someone like Paris Hilton or Britney Spears gets more attention than the Taliban. Is the prediction coming true?”
The story proved to be a natural fit for television.
“It had a couple of lead roles that some really good actors could sink their teeth into,” Ellison said. “We were blessed to get Brian Dennehy and John Hurt.”
Ellison partnered with Oscar-nominated writer Josh Olson (A History of Violence) to adapt “The Discarded.”
“The original story was very sparse,” Olson said. “We kept as much as we could. We gave it more character moments. We filled in some gaps. But the general premise is the same, which involves those deformed mutants.”
Among the additions was expanding a love story that was only hinted at in the original. The storyline involves a memorable scene that started off as somewhat of a joke.
“The sex scenes I wrote for A History of Violence had received a lot of attention,” Olson said. “So I joked that we should add a sex scene. And then we thought about it, and we came up with that love scene that's in there with the woman being transparent.”
Olson said Ellison's stories inspired him to become a writer, and that working with one of his idols was both challenging and rewarding.
“We fought constantly but always got along,” Olson said.
Ellison said the result of their collaboration was worth the effort.
“I really glowed with pride,” Ellison said. “I thought we put out a really terrific script. This probably will be the last thing I write for television.”
Addis said he is proud of all the episodes, but his personal favorite might be “A Clean Escape,” starring Sam Waterston and based on a short story by John Kessel.
“It has such relevance with the world today, considering things such as Iran and nuclear proliferation,” Addis said.
Ellison offers a different perspective.
“Of these first episodes, there are a couple that are really nice, and I think mine is one of them,” Ellison said. “It's a wonderful DVD because I like what I did.”
However, while the “Masters of Horror” DVDs were known for extensive bonus features, the “Masters of Science-Fiction” DVD does not include any supplemental material.“It's a shame,” Olson said. “Harlan and I were on the set a couple of days and shot an interview that's hilarious.”
Addis hinted the material may be unearthed in the future for a limited-edition DVD or Blu-ray Disc version.
As for “Masters of Horror,” the brand was discontinued after its second season aired on Showtime, but the formula and financing model evolved into the NBC series “Fear Itself,” which airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. Anchor Bay's Masters of Horror: Season Two hits DVD July 22 in special skull packaging.