TV REVIEW: ABC is 'Masters' at hiding a sci-fi gem

For the next four weeks, ABC presents its best new series in more than a year: an ambitious, artistic, refreshingly intelligent anthology series, "Masters of Science Fiction."

That's the good news - but it's also the bad news.

ABC, which had the wisdom to develop the series, kept "Masters of Science Fiction" in storage for months. It waited until now to bring it out - when viewing is at a low point - then banished it to Saturdays at 10 p.m. EDT.

ABC couldn't have buried the series any deeper with a backhoe.

Just because ABC can't recognize great TV when it sees it (remember, this is the network that held back "Masters" for the likes of "National Bingo Night") doesn't mean viewers will be similarly blind.

The series, with Keith Addis as one of its executive producers, is introduced by Stephen Hawking. The writers whose works are adapted are Harlan Ellison, Robert A. Heinlein, Howard Fast and John Kessel. Stars include Terry O'Quinn from "Lost," Malcolm McDowell from "Heroes," Anne Heche from "Men in Trees," and so on.

This weekend's opener, "A Clean Escape," is a brilliant duel of wits between an Army psychiatrist (Judy Davis) and a forgetful patient (Sam Waterston), set 24 years in the future. He seems to have no idea why he's being questioned, and no memory of most subjects she's probing. She thinks he's faking.

Director Mark Rydell, working from Sam Egan's adaptation of Kessel's short story, trusts his actors to do all the emotional heavy lifting in two remarkably nuanced, dramatic performances.

Three weeks from this Saturday, the series concludes with its other masterstroke: "The Discarded," starring Brian Dennehy and John Hurt as mutant outcasts on a marooned spaceship. The story is adapted from Ellison's short story "A History of Violence". It may seem like an obvious allegory about the AIDS epidemic - except that the story was first published in 1959.

Between those two installments, O'Quinn is wonderful in "The Awakening," based on a series of close encounters of the third kind, and Heche and McDowell are amusing in "Jerry Was a Man," one of Heinlein's many stories about humanoid robots.

ABC failed to recognize it has a modern-day, improved "Outer Limits" on its hands - but for four Saturdays this month, "Masters of Science Fiction" should make viewers happy, whether or not they're genre fans.