Future Fantastic (Sun.-Thurs. (2-6), 10-11 p.m., the Learning Channel) Filmed in New York and Los Angeles by BBC-TV, the Learning Channel, and Pro Sieben. Executive producer, Edward Briffa; producer, Jasper James; series producer, David McNab; directors, Jonathan Renouf, Samantha Starbuck, Chris Wells, James Younger; camera, Dion Casey; editors, Gerard Evans, Allan Fowlie, David Sleight; sound, John D. Wilson; music, HAL/real VIVID. Narrator: Gillian Anderson The Learning Channel explores the relationship between science-fiction and hard science in a provocative five-part series. If each densely packed episode overstates prospects for alien life, time machines, robots, space travel and immortality --- respectively --- that's just the point. The degree to which imagination drives science and technology cannot be exaggerated. Yet the layman watching "Future Fantastic" will have trouble conceiving a fictional future more visionary than the one posited by contemporary scientists. A joint production with the BBC, the series distinguishes between fact and speculation but nevertheless occupies the gray region where it's counterproductive to make too fine a distinction. There's some debunking going on but most of the reportage is wildly optimistic and stimulating. On-air host Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files" delivers taut narration and writers from the sci-fi pantheon (Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury) and heavyweight scientists (Marvin Minsky) opine on an overlapping set of topics along with lesser-known writers and scientists. Historical context and the pop culture perspective are provided using film, television and advertising clips, amateur video, and artwork from comic books and sci-fi magazines. The odds we're not alone are very high according to the first episode, "Alien," which runs the gamut from a mathematical formula calculating those odds to abduction stories that have yet to yield proof. Efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials get equal time with conspiracy theories about the government hiding alien bodies and craft. Last summer's feature "Independence Day" and the radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds" are used to address the question whether aliens are benign or bent on conquest. Episode 2, "The Incredible Shrinking Planet," examines the physical forces such as solar power, ion propulsion and anti-gravity being considered for high-tech transport. It sketches what a working time machine would be like. Indicative of the speculative nature of the series, the machine would have to use the energy of an exploding star. In other words, don't hold your breath. Because robots exist, the show devoted to them is especially strong. The latest generation of robots are introduced and the history of robotics is illustrated using snippets from "Metropolis," "The Forbidden Planet," "2001" and "The Six Million Dollar Man." The question is when, not if, the distinction between humans and robots will be erased. Voices of caution are heard but no one doubts that a mixed robot and human culture is in the offing. Philosophical questions frame the discussion , the most general being our readiness to abandon the idea we're the center of the universe, which applies equally to episode 1. Topics from episodes 1 and 2 are revisited in "Space Pioneers" concerning space exploration and the history of space flight. It stresses the influence of politics on rocket technology and how all of the pioneers in the field were inspired by science-fiction, whether it be Jules Verne, "Flash Gordon" or "Star Trek's" anti-matter propulsion system. Space tourism is predicted in the next 20 years and the exploration of the universe will supposedly burgeon once big business gets involved. Reclaiming Mars through terra-forming is one very long-term project that might enable colonization. The final episode entitled "Immortals" about the quest for longer and possibly never-ending human life spans is the most disturbing. Although ethical questions are raised, quality-of-life issues are skirted. Various technologies are supposedly on the brink of breakthroughs. Engineering human body parts by growing nerve cells, ears and windpipes, DNA manipulation and cryonics are touted as ways of achieving eternal youth. It all seems pie in the sky when you consider cancer, AIDS and drug-resistant bacteria. Things get really outlandish turning to the possibilities of cyberspace --- uploading minds into computers or downloading them into mechanical bodies. One guy thinks it will be possible to simulate the whole of human history in virtual reality. Who knows? Series ends, appropriately, on the theme of imagining the impossible. Production values are tip-top. Producers have spanned the globe to conduct interviews and have also done good work in the archives. The photography is varied to lessen the talking head effect. Every kid participating in a science fair should be forced to watch "Future Fantastic." It might help flush out the next Asimov or Einstein or even the next George Lucas. --- John P. McCarthy

Future Fantastic (Sun.-Thurs. (2-6), 10-11 p.m., the Learning Channel) Filmed in New York and Los Angeles by BBC-TV, the Learning Channel, and Pro Sieben. Executive producer, Edward Briffa; producer, Jasper James; series producer, David McNab; directors, Jonathan Renouf, Samantha Starbuck, Chris Wells, James Younger; camera, Dion Casey; editors, Gerard Evans, Allan Fowlie, David Sleight; sound, John D. Wilson; music, HAL/real VIVID. Narrator: Gillian Anderson The Learning Channel explores the relationship between science-fiction and hard science in a provocative five-part series. If each densely packed episode overstates prospects for alien life, time machines, robots, space travel and immortality — respectively — that’s just the point. The degree to which imagination drives science and technology cannot be exaggerated. Yet the layman watching “Future Fantastic” will have trouble conceiving a fictional future more visionary than the one posited by contemporary scientists. A joint production with the BBC, the series distinguishes between fact and speculation but nevertheless occupies the gray region where it’s counterproductive to make too fine a distinction. There’s some debunking going on but most of the reportage is wildly optimistic and stimulating. On-air host Gillian Anderson of “The X-Files” delivers taut narration and writers from the sci-fi pantheon (Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury) and heavyweight scientists (Marvin Minsky) opine on an overlapping set of topics along with lesser-known writers and scientists. Historical context and the pop culture perspective are provided using film, television and advertising clips, amateur video, and artwork from comic books and sci-fi magazines. The odds we’re not alone are very high according to the first episode, “Alien,” which runs the gamut from a mathematical formula calculating those odds to abduction stories that have yet to yield proof. Efforts to communicate with extraterrestrials get equal time with conspiracy theories about the government hiding alien bodies and craft. Last summer’s feature “Independence Day” and the radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” are used to address the question whether aliens are benign or bent on conquest. Episode 2, “The Incredible Shrinking Planet,” examines the physical forces such as solar power, ion propulsion and anti-gravity being considered for high-tech transport. It sketches what a working time machine would be like. Indicative of the speculative nature of the series, the machine would have to use the energy of an exploding star. In other words, don’t hold your breath. Because robots exist, the show devoted to them is especially strong. The latest generation of robots are introduced and the history of robotics is illustrated using snippets from “Metropolis,” “The Forbidden Planet,” “2001” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The question is when, not if, the distinction between humans and robots will be erased. Voices of caution are heard but no one doubts that a mixed robot and human culture is in the offing. Philosophical questions frame the discussion , the most general being our readiness to abandon the idea we’re the center of the universe, which applies equally to episode 1. Topics from episodes 1 and 2 are revisited in “Space Pioneers” concerning space exploration and the history of space flight. It stresses the influence of politics on rocket technology and how all of the pioneers in the field were inspired by science-fiction, whether it be Jules Verne, “Flash Gordon” or “Star Trek’s” anti-matter propulsion system. Space tourism is predicted in the next 20 years and the exploration of the universe will supposedly burgeon once big business gets involved. Reclaiming Mars through terra-forming is one very long-term project that might enable colonization. The final episode entitled “Immortals” about the quest for longer and possibly never-ending human life spans is the most disturbing. Although ethical questions are raised, quality-of-life issues are skirted. Various technologies are supposedly on the brink of breakthroughs. Engineering human body parts by growing nerve cells, ears and windpipes, DNA manipulation and cryonics are touted as ways of achieving eternal youth. It all seems pie in the sky when you consider cancer, AIDS and drug-resistant bacteria. Things get really outlandish turning to the possibilities of cyberspace — uploading minds into computers or downloading them into mechanical bodies. One guy thinks it will be possible to simulate the whole of human history in virtual reality. Who knows? Series ends, appropriately, on the theme of imagining the impossible. Production values are tip-top. Producers have spanned the globe to conduct interviews and have also done good work in the archives. The photography is varied to lessen the talking head effect. Every kid participating in a science fair should be forced to watch “Future Fantastic.” It might help flush out the next Asimov or Einstein or even the next George Lucas. — John P. McCarthy

Future Fantastic

Sun.-Thurs. (2-6), 10-11 p.m.,the Learning Channel

Production

Filmed in New York and Los Angeles by BBC-TV, the Learning Channel, and Pro Sieben. Executive producer, Edward Briffa; producer, Jasper James; series producer, David McNab; directors, Jonathan Renouf, Samantha Starbuck, Chris Wells, James Younger.

Cast

Narrator: Gillian Anderson
Camera, Dion Casey; editors, Gerard Evans, Allan Fowlie, David Sleight; sound, John D. Wilson; music, HAL/real VIVID.
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