Sci Fi TV Genre Gems: Forgotten magic and hidden treasures from the worlds of sci fi TV
What Is It? This 1998 TV movie was based on an episode of the 1950’s drama showcase Playhouse 90 of the same name that was written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. The original teleplay had a western setting, but the Sci Fi Channel updating moved it to a post-apocalypse future. The story focuses on a town who’s “boss” Jerry Paul heads up an operation to scavenge scrap metal which is sent to the colonies in space. His mostly white crew of “Drivers” directs the Native American “Dwellers” into dangerous areas to collect and return the needed material. One of these “Dwellers” is accused of assaulting and raping Paul’s wife, and he is being held by the ineffectual town sheriff. (Minor Spoiler Alert) Paul leads a lynch mob to the jail and this results in the death of the Native American. But that’s only just the beginning as the story of this town crumbling at the seams delves into the bigotry and inner turmoil of the troubled people who populate it.
Created By: Rod Serling (Originaly Screenplay)
Starring: Ron Perlman, Stephen Lang, Judy Collins, Gabriel Olds
Why It Stands Out: This long-forgotten and vastly underrated telefilm has very much the feel of an extended Twilight Zone episode as it presents a brooding yet introspective tale that transcends its setting and delivers a poignant commentary on human nature.
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi TV? Pretty close. This is the type of sci fi movie that television can do well and should have acted as the template for more to followed it.
The Skinny: This TV movie was produced by the Sci Fi Channel back in 1998 in an era when that network still more closely embraced its science fiction roots and had not yet given in to cheapie critters-run-amok films, reality shows, and Sharknado. It hearkens very much back to the Golden Age of science fiction on television when shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek used their fantastic settings and premises to explore human nature and society with thinly-veiled morality plays. The shift from the original western setting to a post-apocalyptic future is seamless and it still delivers a timeless message that resonates with its audience. And the telefilm is very faithful to the 1950’s version apart from its sci fi rework (IMDb.com only lists Rod Serling as writer). This movie obviously had its budget constraints–just like television has had for years, especially early on–but it more than makes up for that by focusing on the story and its characters. Television may not be able to deliver the level of spectacle we see with the typical Hollywood blockbuster–even today–but it can tell a good story when it tries. A Town Has Turned to Dust may seem somewhat slow and talky, but that’s the way the early television dramas worked. They often had a staged feel to them with stilted direction and heavy dialogue driven scenes. But many early television dramas (and comedies as well) were filmed live which meant that they were much closer to theatrical productions than feature films. And the updating of this teleplay holds on to that earlier sensibility and thus has a look and feel very similar to TV of the 50’s and 60’s, particularly The Twilight Zone. Some viewers might hold this against the movie, and argue that it seems outdated. But personally I found that it gives it a nostalgic, retro feel which complimented its story.
The movie is helped along by the strong performances from its two leads Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Stephen Lang (Avatar), who have since become very familiar faces to sci fi fans. And it offers plenty of choice roles for the other actors involved as well. Unfortunately, it has all but fallen off the radar, and I don’t think this one gets around the repeat rotation on Syfy or any of the other channels out there (nor have I seen it on any of the streaming services yet). I do recommend seeking it out, though, for those who would appreciate a well-made retro-sci fi flick that hearkens back to the classic age of the genre on television.
Should It Be Rebooted? No. This is already a reboot of the Rod Serling story and it does quite well with that and follows the original script pretty closely. Any reboot these days would almost certainly go high on the CGI and low on the story which would make it essentially pointless.
Interesting Fact: The racist town boss who in the 1998 version is played by Ron Perlman was originally portrayed by a young William Shatner in the Playhouse 90 presentation.
Where Can You Watch It? Unfortunately, the DVD release has since gone out of print (VHS as well) so you are at the mercy of Amazon Sellers for whatever they currently want to ask for their copy. There are bootleg DVDs floating around out there as well, but you will be rolling the dice on quality. It also shows up on YouTube from time to time, so you best bet may be to seek it out there.