SALEM, WGN America’s historical horror television series, comes across in its initial episodes as an unholy hybrid of THE CRUCIBLE and THE SCARLET LETTER, lacking the sophistication of either, but with just enough dramatic interest to hold attention. Moody and sinister, with eruptions of sex and gore (apparently obligatory on cable series these days), SALEM is effectively horrifying at times and occasionally compelling soap opera entertainment, if one can overlook the egregious liberties it takes with the historical record it pretends to depict. However, those disturbed by the show’s assault on the truth, which often plays like pandering to the fever dreams of the religious right, will find much to fuel their outrage.
As envisioned by creators and executive producers Brannona Braga (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) and Adam Simon (THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT), the Salem Witch Trials were not merely the product of superstition, ignorance, and Puritan fanaticism; there really were witches, seeking to get a toehold in the New World and make it their own. Religious ravings about a Satanic war for the soul of Salem turn out to be accurate, though the fanatics espousing the views are corrupt and vile in their own right. Meanwhile, the secret coven members, far from persecuted innocents, are devious conspirators, manipulating the witch hunts to advance their own agenda, using their powers to target victims who stand in their way.
With this “plague on both your houses” setup, there would be little rooting interest if not for the presence of John Alden (Shane West), a soldier return from war to find Salem in the midst of hysteria and hangings. Agnostic, at least initially, on the subject of witches, Alden is tagged as the good guy by virtue of a sensibility that sounds more appropriate to the 21st century than to 1692 Salem.
On the other side of the aisle is Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who was in love with Alden before he left for war. Since then, she aborted his unborn child with the aide of her Mephistophelean servant girl Tituba (Ashley Madekwe); in exchange for the rendered service, Mary has surrendered her soul and now presides as the head of the coven. Also, she has married former nemesis George Sibley, who is now a mute and paralyzed wreck of a man, involuntarily allowing Mary to wield his considerable political power to her own ends.
SALEM’s dramatic tension flows from the relationship between Mary Sibley and John Alden, who still love each other but now find themselves antagonists (though Alden is initially unaware of this). Though eager to crush her enemies and see her coven take over Salem, Mary yearns for John and sometimes contorts her plans to avoid hurting him. Alden, meanwhile, seeks her help because of the power she wields, gradually realizing that her intervention is counter-productive.
Also on hand is witch hunter Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel), who resolutely believes in his purpose, though occasionally he doubts whether those he has hanged were truly guilty. In a sense, Mather and Mary are the true warring parties in SALEM, with Alden caught in the middle, at various times forming alliances with either of them as he tries to stop the rising hysteria.
The problem with SALEM lies in its confused point of view on the subject of witchcraft and witch-hunting. Witch-hunters, whom we should rightly regard as at least misguided, turn out to be correct in their basic belief, even if their methods are faulty. The witches are even worse, if not in an absolute moral sense, then at least in their ability to do harm.
To some extent we are supposed to sympathize with Mary Sibley, because she was driven to her fateful decision by the patriarchal social order that would have condemned her, had she brought her unwed pregnancy to term. We can almost see witchcraft as the shadowy alter ego to the Puritanism of the Salem elders – an outgrowth they have unwittingly brought into existence by their belief in it. Unfortunately, the existence of Tituba and other witches, even before Mary went to the Dark Side, undermines this interpretation, validating the fears of the Puritans.
Typical for contemporary horror, Evil is portrayed as a real, supernatural force, but there is no counteracting supernatural force for Good. (As Chris MacNeil noted in THE EXORCIST, it seems the Devil keeps a higher profile.) SALEM is somewhat cagey about the exact nature of the sorcery on display; some of it could be hypnosis or hallucinations, perhaps psychic power erroneously designated as Satanic. Whatever the source, it is definitely used as Black Magic, resulting in the deaths of innocent victims.
There is an unpleasantly reactionary attitude in the show’s depiction of “Evil,” which often seems to be associated with lesbian sexuality. Mary’s abortion, with Tituba rubbing oil on her skin and lips, plays out with orgasmic intensity; shots and staging often emphasize the intimacy between the two women, and a later ritual involves a large black phallus. Charitably, one might assume that these images are intended to tweak viewer sensibility, to make us identify with the sensuous females as opposed to the uptight males running Salem. More likely, they included as gratuitous exploitation, serving to excite prurient interest while simultaneous conforming to a conservative view that non-traditional gender roles lead inevitably to damnation.
Unlike Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which understood both the benefits and harm in Puritanism, SALEM is one-dimensional in its depiction. Even the occasional apparent voice of reason turns out to be a hypocrite or, worse, an agent of the Devil. The result pushes the show in the exact opposite direction of Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, which sought to condemn witch-hunting hysteria. Here, the message seems to be: all those not for us are against us, and someone expressing an interest in finding the middle ground is probably an enemy in sheep’s clothing.
Fortunately, the show manages to maintain interest thanks to its depiction of innocents caught in the crossfire. The situation is not dissimilar from that seen in Hammer Films’ TWINS OF EVIL (1971), which also showcased religious fanatics in a spiritual war with genuine supernatural evil. That film resolved its dilemma thanks to an agnostic but educated protagonist, who managed to find a middle ground that exonerated the innocent while dispatching the guilty. John Alden has been set up in a similar role. Hopefully, as the show progresses, he can rise to the occasion and find some way out of the sordid sorcery and morbid melodrama plaguing SALEM.
SALEM (WGN America, debut on April 20, 2014). Created by Executive Producers Adam Simon and Brannon Braga. Cast: Joanet Montgomery, Shane West, Seth Gabel, Tamzin Merchant, Ashley Madekwe, Elise Eberle, Xander Berkeley, Iddo Goldberg, Stephen Lang.
Get a look at Superman’s new look… STAR TREK producer Brannon Braga gets all witchy… Damon Lindelof gets Left Behind… THE WIZARD OF OZ goes deep…
Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of genre media.
Once again, Steven Spielberg’s troubled televison production TERRA NOVA has had its premiere pushed back.
From Friday’s Press Release:
NEW EPIC FAMILY ADVENTURE SERIES “TERRA NOVA” TO PREMIERE IN FALL 2011
The new epic family adventure series TERRA NOVA will now launch with its series premiere in fall 2011 on FOX, it was announced today by Kevin Reilly, President of Entertainment, Fox Broadcasting Company.
“TERRA NOVA is one of the most ambitious television series ever produced,” said Reilly. “The cutting-edge visual effects used to create the world of TERRA NOVA, which is of massive scope and scale, require more time to be realized. This aspect of the series is essential, so we are pushing back the special early preview date to give the visual effects team the time needed for their ground-breaking work.”
“The world of TERRA NOVA is visually stunning on multiple levels, and effects play an enormous part,” said executive producer René Echevarria. “Premiering in the fall will give us the proper time to create a world never before seen on television.”
An epic family adventure 85 million years in the making, TERRA NOVA follows an ordinary family embarking on an incredible journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a daring experiment to save the human race. In the year 2149 the world is dying. The planet is overdeveloped, overcrowded and overpolluted. With no known way to reverse the damage to the planet, scientists discover a portal to prehistoric Earth. This doorway leads to an amazing world, one that allows for a last-ditch effort to save the human race…a second chance to rebuild civilization and get it right this time.
The series centers on the Shannon family as they join the Tenth Pilgrimage of settlers to TERRA NOVA, the first colony established in this beautiful yet forbidding land led by its founder COMMANDER NATHANIEL TAYLOR (Stephen Lang, “Avatar”). JIM SHANNON (Jason O’Mara, “Life on Mars”), a devoted father with a checkered past, guides his family – wife ELISABETH (Shelley Conn, “Mistresses”); and children JOSH (Landon Liboiron, “Degrassi: The Next Generation”), MADDY (Naomi Scott, “Life Bites”) and ZOE (newcomer Alana Mansour) – through this new land of limitless beauty, mystery and terror. In addition to blue skies, towering waterfalls and lush vegetation, TERRA NOVA offers new opportunities and fresh beginnings to its recent arrivals, but the Shannons have brought with them a familial secret that may threaten their citizenship in this utopia. These adventurers soon discover that this healthy, vibrant world is not as idyllic as it initially appears. The areas surrounding TERRA NOVA are teeming with danger – and not just of the man-eating dinosaur variety. The Shannons will come to suspect that not everyone on this mission has the same idea of how to best save mankind; in fact, there may be forces intent on destroying this new world before it even begins.
TERRA NOVA is produced by 20th Century Fox Television, Chernin Entertainment, DreamWorks Television and Kapital Entertainment. Peter Chernin, Steven Spielberg, René Echevarria, Brannon Braga, Aaron Kaplan, Katherine Pope, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Jon Cassar, Craig Silverstein and Kelly Marcel serve as executive producers. Alex Graves serves as executive producer and directed the series premiere.
Deadline.com is trying to clear up dark rumblings about Steven Spielbergs’ TERRA NOVA time-travel/dinosaur series.
Rene Echevarria (DEEP SPACE NINE, THE 4400), has apparently been enlisted to produce the two-hour pilot, working with fellow STAR TREK vet Brannon Braga, who is set to be the 20th Century Fox /Dreamworks TV series’ “showrunner”.
Back in September Braga’s co-excutive producer David Fury left the series, and last Friday the rest of the writing staff was “released”, as the show is going on a four month hiatus while the pilot/TV movie is filmed in Austrailia. It’s expected to take two months to shoot, another two for post production & FX, and cost in the area of $14 Million. That would be a record, surpassing LOST’s $12 Million.
Originally, Fox was planning to go directly from the pilot into a 13 episode production run, but it’s been decided to air the pilot in May 2011, and not premiere the series until the Fall.
If TERRA NOVA ultimately does not go into production as a series, certain costs expected to be armortized over the first season might bring the actual cash outlay to around $20 Million.
The site reports extensive rewrites on the pilot, and the possiblities of cost overruns. See the link above for further details.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, producer David Fury (24) has left the Fox Network’s time-travel dinosaur series TERRA NOVA.
Unnamed sources tell the site that Fury left due to “creative differences” while writing the pilot with Brannon Braga (STAR TREK: TNG, 24). Braga will remain as the ‘show-runner’ producer for the Steven Spielberg series.
It’s unclear if David Fury’s differences were with Brannon Braga, or higher up the chain of command.
Meanwhile, Deadline.com says that Steven Lang (AVATAR, CONAN) is in serious talks to play Frank Taylor, who they describe as “the charismatic and ruthless leader of the Terra Nova settlement.”
The article claims Lang was long favored for the the role, but unavailable due to feature commitments until recently.
UPDATE 9/17: Deadline.com is confiming that Steven Lang has signed for the role of Frank Taylor.
The Fox Network has announced it’s delaying the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur series TERRA NOVA until the fall of 2011, rather than staring mid-season 2010-11. They plan to run the pilot/TV movie in May of 2011.
As previously reported, Emmy Award winner Alex Graves (FRINGE) will direct the pilot, and the press release announces that Emmy Award-winning executive producer and director Jon Cassar (24) has joined the series as an executive producer and “series director”.
The release also confirms that Jason O’Mara (RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION) has been cast in the leading role of Jim Shannon, the father of the Shannon family
“TERRA NOVA, an epic family adventure 85 million years in the making, follows an ordinary family embarking on an incredible journey back in time to prehistoric Earth as a small part of a massive experiment to save the human race. In the year 2149 the world is dying. The planet is overdeveloped, overcrowded and overpolluted. Knowing there is no way to reverse the damage to the planet, a coalition of scientists has managed to open up a fracture in the space-time continuum, creating a portal to prehistoric Earth. This doorway leads to an amazing world, one that allows for a last-ditch effort to save the human race…possibly changing the future by correcting the mistakes of the past.
The series centers on the Shannon family as they join the tenth pilgrimage of settlers to TERRA NOVA, the first colony of humans in this second chance for civilization. JIM SHANNON (O’Mara), a devoted father with a checkered past, guides his family – wife ELISABETH and children JOSH and MADDY – through this new land of limitless beauty, mystery and terror. In addition to blue skies, rolling rivers and lush vegetation, TERRA NOVA offers new opportunities and fresh beginnings to its recent arrivals, but the Shannons have brought with them a familial secret that may threaten their citizenship in this utopia. These adventurers soon discover that this healthy, vibrant world is not as idyllic as it initially appears. The areas surrounding TERRA NOVA are filled with dangerous dinosaurs and other prehistoric threats, as well as external forces that may be intent on destroying this new world before it begins.
TERRA NOVA is produced by 20th Century Fox Television, DreamWorks Television, Kapital Entertainment and Chernin Entertainment. Steven Spielberg, Peter Chernin, Brannon Braga, David Fury, Jon Cassar, Aaron Kaplan, Katherine Pope, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank, Craig Silverstein and Kelly Marcel serve as executive producers.
Is it just me, or does the idea of mucking around in the far past sound like an insanely dangerous and irresponsible way to deal with a current problem?
The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur show TERRA NOVA won’t be on FOX’s Fall schedule, but will instead have a mid-season premiere.
Rather than being set on another planet, as one might expect from the title, TERRA NOVA will be about “a family from 100 years in the future that travels 150 million years back in time to prehistoric Earth.”
Writer-producers from ’24’, including Brannon Braga (various Next Gen TREKS) and David Fury (LOST) were specifically asked for by Spielburg, accoring to Fox Network executives.
“Terra Nova” will have an “enormous production commitment,” promised Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly is quoted as saying the series will consist mainly of “stand-alone stories”, rather than a serial arc.
No casting was announced, though previous news items claimed that Kyle Chandler (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS) and film star Kevin Bacon (THE HOLLOW MAN) passed on playing the lead.
Sounds a bit like “LOST IN SPACE meets JURRASIC PARK”. Time will tell.