Sci Fi TV Genre Gems: Forgotten magic and hidden treasures from the worlds of sci fi TV
What Is It? Based on the book of the same name by Ursula K. Le Guin, the story follows a man, George Orr, who discovers that his dreams can affect reality. He tries to use drugs to suppress his dreams but with no success, and finds himself sent to counseling with dream specialist Dr. Haber. As the therapy sessions progress, Haber discovers that George’s claims of effective dreaming are actually true and the doctor begins to manipulate his patient’s dreams with the intention of making a better world.
Aired: PBS, 1980
Starring: Bruce Davison, Kevin Conway, Margaret Avery
Developed By: Diane English, Ursula K. Le Guin
Why It Stands Out: This television movie delivered a rare bit of intelligent science fiction at a time when the genre was at a low point on television, and for the most part it still stands up today.
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi /Fantasy TV? Yes. This movie sticks very close to the source material and it is a perfect example of how television can do science fiction right. It is a bit dated and the special effects are sub-par in some places, but for the most part it represents sci fi TV at it best.
The Skinny: Sadly mostly forgotten now, this television movie brought Ursula K. Le Guin’s acclaimed 1971 science fiction novel The Lathe of Heaven to the small screen. It is very faithful to the book, containing only a few variations and omissions from the source material, primarily for budgetary reasons and/or to make it fit within the two hour framework. Bruce Davison (Willard, X-Men) is the perfect George Orr, playing the character as a simple, nebbish man who only wants a normal life without the awesome responsibility of “effective dreaming”. Kevin Conway (Slaughterhouse-Five) does an equally good job of portraying Dr. Haber, a powerful man in contrast to the somewhat timid George Orr. He is not an evil man, but he does become blinded by his own good intentions. This becomes more apparent as Haber delves deeper and deeper into his attempts to control George’s dreams. Margaret Avery, as the social worker Heather Lelache, also does a good job of sharing the stage with the two main characters and does not get swallowed up by their more dominating performances.
Since the movie was made in 1980, it is somewhat dated. Dr. Haber’s super computer which occupies an entire office seems like a dinosaur in comparison to today’s tablets and smart phones. Also, the extremely limited budget results in some incredibly cheesy special effects at times, especially the alien invasion scene (which looks sort of like an attack of video game spaceships). The aliens themselves are fairly well done, though, coming very close to Le Guin’s descriptions in the book. Overall, the pros far outweigh the cons, and this television adaptation of The Lathe of Heaven ranks among the finer science fiction movies, either on television or in film.
Should It Be Rebooted? A&E did another television adaptation of Lathe of Heaven in 2002 which starred starring James Caan as Dr. Haber, Lukas Haas as George Orr, and Lisa Bonet as Heather Lelache. That diverged significantly from the book and played more like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone. The 1980 movie did such a good job of adapting the original story with actors perfectly cast for their parts that there is no reason to redo this one. But the film could benefit from a re-mastered edition that updates the special effects in a few sections.
Interesting Facts: This was actually the first of what was supposed to be a series of science fiction television movies by PBS adapting major works of literature from the genre. Unfortunately that project was abandoned after one more film was produced, Overdrawn at the Memory Banks (based on a short story by John Varley). PBS’ rebroadcast rights to The Lathe of Heaven expired in 1988 and it then became the most-requested program in the network’s history prior to its 2000 DVD release.
Where Can You Watch It? This movie received a DVD release in 2000, but that has sadly gone out of print and now it is fetching a rather high price from Amazon Sellers. And unfortunately it is not available for purchase on VOD nor do any of the major streaming services have it that I am aware of. You can search it out on YouTube, but the quality is hit and miss.