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By Joe Bendel. When we think of space, we think of lofty ideals, passed on down to us from JFK and Star Trek. However, an oppressive belligerent power will act the same up there as they do down here. Indeed, China’s saber-rattling off the coast of Taiwan will bedevil an American manned space mission in Josh Bernard & Bracey Smith’s Control, which screens as part of the 2012 New York Television Festival’s Independent Pilot Competition (IPC).

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The NYTVF is the only meaningful festival of its kind showcasing independent talent looking to break into episodic television, in the same way scores of film festivals act as launching pads for indie films in search of theatrical distribution. There are real development deals to be won at this year’s festival. The dollar figures may not be much by studio standards, but they would constitute a significant step up compared to the budgets of many competing pilots. In the drama category, Smith & Bernard’s Control may well be the pilot to beat, which is not all that surprising, considering their Pioneer One (see here and here) won the drama competition two years ago.

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The American and Chinese navies are engaged in a war of nerves in the South China Sea. Simultaneously, an American spacecraft is racing to beat their Chinese rivals to a resource-rich asteroid. Long in development, the American mission continued, even when China precipitously laid claim to the asteroid, in open defiance of international law. Apparently a quasi-private enterprise conducted with official government sanction, the mission obviously just became a whole lot more complicated.

The flight director isn’t helping much, either. Not only did he call the president a feckless ditherer on national television (but in more colorful terms), he is also carrying on a not so secret affair with the chief medical officer, who happens to be married to the flight captain.

Of all the genre-related pilots screening in the Drama 1 programming block, Control is by far the one that leaves audiences most eager to see more. Shrewdly, Bernard & Smith end on a monster cliffhanger that cannot possibly be as bad as it seems. Though the flight director resents the U.S. military’s secret involvement in the mission, he might be happy to have them around when it is all said and done. Based on the pilot, Control has the potential to become a cool submarine-warfare in space story, much like the classic Romulan episodes on the original Trek.

The tone of Control is sort of like a cross between Apollo 13 and Ben Bova’s geopolitical sci-fi thriller novels. To their credit, Smith & Bernard do not appear to have many naïve notions with respects to the current (and presumably near future) Chinese Communist regime. It also looks reasonably realistic, thanks to the control room full of computers bought on the cheap due to a tech firm’s bankruptcy (finally, the stimulus plan delivers).

Perhaps most importantly, despite all the intrigue and political infighting, it looks like it will still tap into the warm fuzzy feelings many viewers get when they think about the Space Program, particularly in its Apollo-era heyday. Showing loads of potential, Control is definitely worth seeing when it screens again this Friday (10/26) as part of the 2012 NYTVF’s IPC Drama 1 program at the Tribeca Cinemas.

Posted on October 23rd, 2012 at 10:42am.

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By Jason Apuzzo. I mentioned Showtime’s new Homeland series in our first Terror Watch update; Showtime recently made the entire first episode of the series available free on-line and I’ve embedded it above.

Having watched the episode, what I can tell you is that the series appears to be a somewhat clunky updating of The Manchurian Candidate for the era of the War on Terror, with some extraneous melodrama mixed in. Frankly, given the comments the producers have been making about the series of late (see here and here), I was expecting a somewhat more politically aggressive, stridently left-of-center show. There are certainly hints that the show may head in that direction in the future, but so far what we’re getting here instead is something more ambiguous and interesting (whether it’s entertaining is another matter). And, much to my pleasant surprise, the villains of the piece are actually Al Qaeda! Fancy that. I wasn’t sure Showtime had it in them.

Did hubby get brainwashed by Al Qaeda?

Homeland follows the return of an American soldier back to the United States after the soldier’s 8-year captivity at the hands of Al Qaeda. Quirky, non-conformist CIA case officer Claire Danes has reason to believe the soldier may actually have been brainwashed by Al Qaeda for mysterious ends, although the producers of Homeland have hinted that the plotline will involve the soldier’s eventual run for political office. (My suggestion? He should run for Governor of California. We’d never know the difference.) The theme of the show is quite obviously ‘paranoia’ – i.e., when or whether it’s justified in the post-9/11 era. Thus far the answer from this series – one episode in – is a resounding ‘yes.’

Whether I’ll actually follow this series, of course, is another matter. Homeland thus far looks a little dry and conventional, and Claire Danes (who spends a lot of the first episode popping anti-psychotic pills) doesn’t really excite me very much, although it’s good to see V’s alien queen Morena Baccarin back in a new series.

What made John Frankenheimer’s original Manchurian Candidate work, of course, was its razor wit, sophistication with respect to its depiction of the Cold War, extraordinary photography from Lionel Lindon – and some extravagant, signature performances from Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey and Khigh Dhiegh. It can safely be assumed we won’t be getting anything like that in Homeland, but you may want to give the show a whirl if you have a free hour and wouldn’t otherwise prefer The Playboy Club. Also: feel free to catch this interview conducted by The Wall Street Journal with Claire Danes, whose character in Homeland is apparently based on a real-life CIA officer she was able to meet at Langley.

Posted on September 29th, 2011 at 1:13pm.

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By Jason Apuzzo. Last summer we posted about a then-forthcoming web series called The Mercury MenThe Mercury Men (see the trailer above) is a retro-, 1940s-style adventure serial about a lowly government office drone, who finds himself trapped when deadly alien visitors from the planet Mercury seize his office building and use it as a staging ground for a nefarious plot. Aided by a daring aerospace engineer from a mysterious organization known as “The League,” the office drone must stop the invaders and their doomsday device, the Gravity Engine.

The Mercury Men received a fair amount of buzz last year, including an appearance in Sci Fi Magazine (right next to a feature about Libertas Contributor Steve Greaves) and at Comic-Con. I lost track of The Mercury Men, though, until Libertas commenter Vince (to whom I tip my hat) notified me that the series had finally been completed and picked up by The SyFy Channel as a web program. The series is currently 7 episodes in (at about 7 minutes per episode), with 3 more to go – and all episodes will be available on-line at the Syfy Channel website by the end of this week.

Since we’ve been talking a lot here lately about both superheroes and alien invasion sci-fi, this seemed like a good moment to remind everyone about this series.

Dodging an attack by The Mercury Men.

It’s important to keep an eye on the indie/low-budget world, not just because there’s a lot of creativity in that arena – but because tomorrow’s big-time directors are regularly emerging from these humble projects. For example, Joe Cornish, whose debut feature Attack the Block we just reviewed last week, is already getting buzz as the possible next director for the Die Hard series. And Gareth Edwards, director of the low-budget indie sci-fi film Monsters (see our review here), has already been tapped to direct the Godzilla reboot.

As I mentioned previously, I love the creativity of what director Chris Preksta did with The Mercury Men to evoke the atmosphere of the old adventure serials, so many of which were based around a charismatic American hero (Superman, Batman, The Green Hornet, Captain America, etc.) fighting some sort of fascist invader. It’s also quite remarkable how far low-budget VFX have come in terms of their ability to fill out the otherwise constricted universe of indie filmmaking; it’s a classic case of technology freeing up storytellers’ imaginations. Beyond that, though, I like the pizzaz the filmmakers brought to this simple project, and its old-fashioned humanistic spirit – exemplified by the great speech given by ‘Dr. Tomorrow’ in the “Men of Tomorrow” episode.  And of course it’s also interesting, once again, to see the ‘invasion of America’ theme recurring, which we’re seeing everywhere these days.

So once again, best wishes to the team behind The Mercury Men, and I hope LFM readers take time to check out this fun little series.

Posted on August 2nd, 2011 at 5:45pm.

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By Jason Apuzzo. A special hat-tip goes today to my LFM colleague Joe Bendel for covering an interesting new web series called Pioneer One that just appeared on Vimeo and YouTube, and is also showing right now at the New York Television Festival. Pioneer One is essentially a crowd-funded webseries that went from concept to finished pilot in three months, on a budget of about $6000.

The premise of Pioneer One is this: a mysterious object falls from the sky, spreading radiation over North America. Fearing terrorism, Homeland Security Agents are dispatched to investigate and contain the damage. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that what they find there involves elements of sci-fi, contemporary anxieties associated with terrorism, and the political history of the Cold War. And while the politics of the series seem a bit murky, based on what I’ve seen thus far it’s safe to say that the series’ creators take a dim view of Soviet communism.

You can read Joe Bendel’s full review of the Pioneer One pilot episode here, and I’ve embedded that full, 30+ minute episode below. If you just have time to watch the series’ brief trailer, you can catch that here.

All summer long here at Libertas we were covering a variety of subjects – sci-fi alien invasions (see here), a return of Cold War/anti-communist themes (Salt, Mao’s Last DancerFarewell, etc.), and crowd-funded indie sci-fi projects (Iron Sky, The 3rd Letter, Mercury Men) – all of which categories, interestingly, Pioneer One fits into.

Having watched the full pilot episode, my feeling is that the team behind Pioneer One has a great premise they’re working from – one that only becomes clear by the end of the episode. Writer Josh Bernhard and director Bracey Smith are doing a very nice job, cleverly providing a sense of scale and suspense to the story, even if the pacing of this first episode is perhaps a bit relaxed. I hope this series takes off (it already has, to a great extent – the pilot has been downloaded and streamed over 2 million times) because if it goes where I think it’s going … it should be a great deal of fun. Bravo to the whole team behind Pioneer One.

[UPDATE: Congratulations to the team of Pioneer One for winning the "Best Drama Pilot" award at the New York Television Festival.]

Posted on September 21, 2010 at 4:34pm.

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PLEASE NOTE: Living with the Infidels Episode 5, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” features adult language and situations. If that might offend you, please don’t watch the webisode. Otherwise, enjoy.

By Jason Apuzzo. Here is Episode 5, the final installment of Living with the Infidels. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series. This episode may be the best. It is genuinely hilarious – in large measure because it’s dominated by the terror cell’s raging narcissist, Psycho Ali, who delivers the funniest riff on a terror video I’ve ever seen – Four Lions included. Watch him as he struggles to find his ‘actor’s moment.’ Enjoy!

Posted on September 16th, 2010 at 10:15am.

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PLEASE NOTE: Living with the Infidels Episode 4, “The Box,” features strong sexual innuendo. If that might offend you, please don’t watch the webisode. Otherwise, enjoy.

Here is Episode 4 of Living with the Infidels. We hope you enjoy the series. You might say that the series is moving toward its climax.

Posted on September 16th, 2010 at 12:20pm.

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