by Sarah Stegall
copyright © 1999 by Sarah Stegall
Written by Howard Gordon and Tim Kring
Directed by Mick Jackson
If, as a reviewer, I have a mantra, it is “The pilot is not the series”. So many good shows start slow and build into better series than we had reason to expect (“Strange Luck“, “Nowhere Man”, “Space: Above and Beyond”), while hundreds of others fall over a cliff as soon as they go into regular production (“The Burning Zone”, “Millennium“), that I have taken it as a rule never to review a show until the third episode is out. I’m breaking that rule now. Howard Gordon and Tim Kring’s new pilot for ABC, “Strange World”, can stand on its own regardless of what follows it. If the rest of the season stinks, so be it; I’ll be out here on this limb with a saw. But given Gordon’s track record with the strange and the offbeat (“Beauty and the Beast”, “The X-Files”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), it’s unlikely he’ll fall over that cliff.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way up front: yes, “Strange World” owes a lot to “The X-Files“. The X-Files broke new ground in 1993, itself following on from the success of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”. Both shows combined the world-weary sensibilities of post-war film noir with the bemused, matter-of-fact cynicism and outright paranoia of the Sixties: we don’t believe in the Establishment as source of truth any more (did Americans really, ever?), but we haven’t found anything to replace it. Both “The X-Files” and “Twin Peaks” could easily have fallen into the trap of substituting flashy surface style for content, but avoided it through good writing and a strong central vision. “Strange World” can go even further, punching through the trendy atmospherics and by-now-familiar themes of conspiracy and frustration, to give us a down-to-earth look at what it really takes to throw off despair and commit to something beyond yourself, to join the human race.
The premise of “Strange World” is, at first blush, outright anti-intellectual: arrogant and ethically void scientists are creating monsters just because they can. As a basis for a series, this is an invitation to serious abuse, leading us straight to “Frankenstein” and other Mad Scientist genres. The series may yet degenerate into that lowbrow approach. I hope that the producers (Gordon, former “X-Files” writer Tim Minear, and Manny Coto) can hold fast to the vision of a scientist pursuing rogue scientists they presented us with in the pilot, and take us down new and more interesting roads.
In the series pilot, Dr. Paul Turner (Tim Guinee) is sunk in gloomy anomie, having dived into his navel and disappeared after contracting a mysterious wasting illness during his Gulf War service. Although he is cured by a mysterious Asian Woman (Vivian Wu, as an inscrutable Oriental? Puh-leeeze!), the cure is not only temporary but dependent on her continuing good will. If he does what she orders, he will get the cure. If not, so long. This situation tends to wonderfully focus Turner’s attention when he is told to butt out of a criminal investigation involving an old friend and fellow sufferer. His loyalty to his friend, however, prompts him to work to clear the man’s name of a murder accusation when a small boy is kidnapped and later found dead. The Asian Woman is revealed to have an agenda of her own, possibly a traitorous one, in addition to her determination to force Turner to join the Army’s medical research branch, USAMRIID, as a sort of medical SWAT team member investigating Science Gone Bad.
Violence is carefully handled in this episode, as it should be to avoid heating up the cool, disengaged emotional temperature of the world Turner lives in. The glimpse we get of a battlefield full of corpses, of a genetically damaged child, of a trunk full of burned fetal corpses, and of a severed finger are all deftly handled, so that the violence implied in these images bites rather than bludgeons us. Glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, as it were, these images are the more chilling and unnerving. The net effect of this hands-off emotional approach is to cast Paul Turner’s zeal for justice into high relief. Without the distraction of the high-speed chase, the shootout, the special-effects alien, we focus in on the character of Turner and the stress of his situation.
I like Paul Turner. He wears jeans. He lives in a ratty, run-down apartment. He doesn’t drive the latest model car or wear romantic trench-coats, even in the Vancouver rain. While I won’t go so far as to call a doctor a working-class hero, Guinee brings a blue-collar sensibility to his role that puts him in the same frame of reference as his audience. Turner’s identification with Gulf War vets and his struggles with a chronic disease will lend him even more credibility. If you’re going to cast a doctor as a champion of the underdog, this is the way to do it.
The rest of the cast has little to do in the pilot except be introduced. Kristin Lehman plays Dr. Sydney MacMillan, Turner’s former physician and current lover. She misunderstands his use of syringes, but is clearly loyal and supportive of him despite his refusal to bring her into the secret of his “cure”. Their matter-of-fact sexual relationship (we first see them waking up together in bed), their ease with one another, and their trust lay the groundwork for a sympathetic, realistic couple who will function as partners in future episodes. It isn’t going to generate the heat of the unconsummated Mulder/Scully relationship, but it will provide a more believable emotional foundation for the hero. Sandra Quarterman, as Turner’s superior officer in USAMRIID, has almost no screen time to establish her presence, but Vivian Wu’s Asian Woman is as functional as a faucet—she dispenses information but nothing more glamorous. That’s okay. In the pilot, I don’t expect a lot more character revelation than we got.
“Strange World” definitely reaps an artistic harvest sown by “The X-Files”. From the creepy, atmospheric music reminiscent of Mark Snow’s early X-Files scores, to the moody, rain-filled milieu, we get the best elements of “The X-Files”. Howard Gordon earned his Cutting-Edge Cool badge on “The X-Files”, and his High Romance stripes on “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s good to see he retains a clear understanding of the value of ambiguity, of shadow, of silhouette rather than full frontal. With a clear-cut mission to take him into the heart of the bizarre in search of justice (not truth, which is slipperier), Dr. Paul Turner has a solid and complex objective that can sustain a series. Good writing, outstanding artistic production values, and good acting contribute to a substantial and enjoyable first outing. Good luck and well done, gentlemen. Give us more.