Once upon a time, you couldn’t sneeze in the summer without hitting some sort of made-for-TV movie. Sometimes, they’d be specially made for the purpose of airing. Sometimes, they’d just be unused pilots that happened to be edited into a two-hour block to fill a little airtime. For every The Night Stalker, there was a Steel Magnolias, K-9 And Company, or a Riding With Death (which went on to fame via Mystery Science Theater 3000). In other words, the TV movie pilot doesn’t always work out all that well. However, you have to give SyFy credit for trying to make something out of nothing with High Moon, the television pilot version of John Christopher’s novel The Lotus Caves.
In the not-too-distant future, the moon has become the new frontier for an Earth thirsty for resources. In this case, vast lunar reserves of helium, which the earth depends on for fuel. This has created a collection of lunar colonies, all from different countries with different interests, and all competing to get that sweet sweet moon juice to power their gadgets and gizmos. Every country has a different mindset when it comes to exploiting their lunar resources. Russia sends its military, the Japanese send robots, and the United States sends its convicts. Two of these convicts, Marty (Jake Sandvig) and Leon (Toby Hargrave), investigating a broken piece of equipment, uncover a shocking surprise: a flower growing out of the surface of the moon. Cue the massive explosion, and cue the political intrigue.
Arriving via the luxury space yacht of lunar magnate Eve (Charity Wakefield), whose family made a fortune thanks to the moon business, is investigator Ian (Chris Diamantopoulos), charged with uncovering the person or persons behind the blast. General Gale (Peter Macon), the man in charge of Tranquility Base, believes it’s the Russians, even though his Russian spy Stan (Jonathan Tucker) says otherwise. As it turns out, the secrets of the moon are much deeper, and much weirder, than something as simple as Cold War intrigue and the occasional knife-wielding Indian assassin who turns into a pile of goop.
You can’t fault High Moon for reaching for every possible element. From a father and daughter (who just happens to be the only baby ever born on the moon) to the estranged brother pairing of Ian and Marty to the romantic subplot between Stan and Trofim (Kirby Morrow), High Moon really does try to cram several individual episodes of TV into a single movie block, and it’s mostly successful. However, at times it’s downright impossible to remember who is who, or how various characters relate to one another, but then a guy’s hands pop off and help him escape prison or a giant dinosaur shows up, and it doesn’t really matter that the cast is crowded.
The ideas seem to pop, and I’d rather the show overreach than not reach far enough (especially since is the only shot they’re getting unless the movie ratings are really, really good). At times, the script, from Jim Danger Gray, gets a little lost in itself, but there are some really weird, inventive things going on. There’s also a pretty sizable streak of wit running through certain characters, like Stan, and General Gale, who serves as both foil to Ian and the comic relief character. There seem to be too many charming rogues to go around, but I have no doubt that if the show had gotten more time, they would have had no problem balancing out the cast and making it all come together nicely. There are elements here that could really work.
I have no doubt that Bryan Fuller, who helped develop the story and who served as a producer, had a hand in the choices, too. There’s a cleverness here, both in the way the show does visuals and in the way it handles its character relationships. It definitely feels like a finished, expensive product, and while the pilot may never go farther than this, someone put a lot of money into doing it properly. The set design is beautiful, and appears to be a mixture of CGI and practical effects blended together relatively seamlessly. The costumes are very well done, as well, from the camouflage suits of the US military personnel to the orange space suits of the convict miners, to the individualized suits for the various countries. It never quite rises to the level of Hannibal, but Fuller and director Adam Kane give it a really good shot, and it achieves a very specific look akin to the pulp magazine covers of the 1950s and 60s. It’s a pleasant combination of stark and fanciful, with blindingly white moon bases on one side and crazy moon caverns full of sentient plants and abandoned Buddhist moon temples on the other. Even Eve’s space ship is a work of art, particularly in the opening shots in which Eve floats on her tip-toes up an incline to bring Ian his scotch.
There aren’t many finished pilots that don’t get put into production by cable networks, and I can’t figure out why High Moon didn’t make the cut. Yes, it’s cluttered and it shoehorns entirely too much world-building in the first 15 minutes, but what sci-fi show doesn’t get exposition heavy in the beginning, particularly when trying to cram two (or three) episodes of material into a trimmed-down TV movie? Perhaps SyFy felt it would be too expensive on a limited return; perhaps they just didn’t want to have another sci-fi show on at the same time as Defiance. Maybe High Moon would be too expensive; it certainly looks expensive if nothing else.
Either way, at least they released the pilot for the public, if only to recoup some of the expense put into it. High Moon isn’t perfect, and it probably never would’ve been perfect, but it was close to finding the right balance of campiness to seriousness to cater to SyFy’s devoted, if dwindling, audience of folks who want to see decent sci-fi tales on television without being too dry for the Sharknado audience. Any show that gives us a robot dinosaur is probably worth a single season to find its metal-clawed feet.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan would have liked to see more from Fuller and company’s interesting take on Moon, but if this is all he gets, this is all he’ll get, cliffhanger or not. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.
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