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1997-10-22 00:00:00 - (REVIEW) Stream of Consciousness (Spoilers marked) - (Mike Horne <mike@whispers.demon.co.uk>)

Hi, me again. Sorry if I've already posted this one, my newsreader managed to expire everything. There's a sudden splurge here, to get up to date. --- The Outer Limits Reviews 'Stream of Consciousness' "I have to *read* it to know." "Nothing worth learning can ever be taught." - Oscar Wilde "The virus is spreading Ryan. The Stream is flooding." Sometimes, an episode of The Outer Limits can be lifted out of the doldrums by a single scene, or by a single performance. It was an example of the latter that saved 'Stream' from being put into the bad category. However, even this wasn't enough to remove it from the drawer marked 'Could've done better.' This episode is set on an Earth where almost everyone is connected up to what is known as 'The Stream' - a fountain of knowledge that allows anyone with a cerebral interface to have access to any fact or word ever recorded digitally. Anyone who isn't in The Stream is considered an outsider but the rest of the population who see these individuals as retarded. One such person is Ryan (played by George Newbern) who has had to teach himself to read in order to gain any knowledge. His parents were killed in a car crash when he was very young and this same accident left him with a brain defect, which refused connection to The Stream. After his parents' death, he was taken in and watched over by Stanley (missed the actor's name) who sees Ryan as special because he isn't linked to everyone else. Ryan is held in disdain by those around him, especially his foster-brother Mark (Shane Meier) who constantly puts him down and ridicules the notion of Ryan reading the books he has surrounded himself with. Sheryl (Suki Keiser) has been friends with the family for a long time, and although she is part of The Stream, treats Ryan kindly, and is oblivious to the enormous crush he has on her. This idyllic world is shattered when Stanley falls victim to a virus floating around in The Stream which forces a data input overload in the cranial implants, first sending the person mad with obsessive detail (such as how many hairs are on your arm) and finally causing neural synaptic failure. As usual, I'll start with the good points about the episode. Going back to what I was saying at the beginning: this episode is nothing special, but one performance does take it into a respectable position. That performance is the one given by George Newbern as Ryan. He brings an everyman quality to what is a rather awkward role. His acting is so subtle in the first few minutes that I, myself, thought that he was mentally disabled in some way, but this then gives way to the fact that he is subservient to everybody else simply because he is not connected to The Stream. He manages to convey the sense of sadness, at not being part of The Stream, while at the same time brings credibility to the way the character is always looking for a spec of humanity in the digital ocean that links everyone to everyone else. Later on, when he realises what is going on, we get the desperation of a man trying to convince everyone that something is wrong, and then realising that the people themselves are part of the problem. Overall, Newbern does himself and the series justice in bringing a subtle heroism to the episode. The actor playing Stanley has some of the more difficult scenes in the film, such as the operating theatre and the Social Security number sequence. He does bring over the feeling of distraction, but he also manages to bring warmth to what is otherwise a thankless role. The one flashback scene is a nice counterpoint to the madness we observe later. As far as I am concerned, he manages to steal whatever scene he is in, but in a quieter, more distinguished way than, say, Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. Suki Keiser's performance was confusing to say the least. It seemed flat in a lot of ways, but then should we expect that from someone who is connected up to The Stream? Probably, so in that way the acting worked. It was also what was probably intended. In her scenes with Ryan in the later scenes, a bit more life gets into her, which is what one would expect with that kind of human contact as opposed to the electronic contact which the character of Sheryl experiences most of the time. Let's say, then, that it was an average to above-average performance. Shane Meier fared less well in the smallest part in the episode. His character was given very little to do and was almost written as a cackling villain in places. On the other hand, he did manage to give over an overall sense of superiority, contempt and young genius, which was really all that was required of him. He didn't drag it down, but this episode really needed all the boosts it could get, and this he didn't provide. Still sticking with the good points for the episode, then. The plot was not bad, and it was a decent idea. I do remember thinking at the beginning: 'Interesting concept, can they do anything good with it?' The answer to this question is yes, for the most part. The idea of the computer virus crossing the species barrier is not original (for people in the UK: Stream aired the same week that Bugs' virus episode aired) but, for once, we get a plausible scenario. The Stream is connected straight up to the brain, and whatever wetware they were using could quite conceivably enable the virus to jump over into humans. (Mind you, the security in that wetware has to be worse than Java. *grin*) The special effects were minimal in the episode, well, they weren't the main points of the story, anyway. The rapid data-input 'Stream' sequences were done quite well. Better, in fact, than most of the other tries such as Johnny Mnemonic or TekWar (yes, I watched a couple). Basically, it was a nice effect and was just what was needed without bringing too much attention to itself. The matte paintings, especially the one at the end in the abandoned street, were very effective. In fact, had I not gone to the TOL website, I wouldn't have known that they were paintings. The laser-bolt effects were, well, laser-bolts. Nothing more, nothing less, just adequate. The direction of the episode was handled well by Joe Nimziki, and there were a few standout scenes that can be attributed to the way in which they were shot. First of all, there was the operating room sequence. Very disorientating, very scary. I especially liked the low- key approach to the fingernail incident (which I might add, grossed the hell out of me.) It was always happening in the background, almost out of focus, and we saw as much as we needed to. It was the description afterwards of what the woman had done which made me shiver the most. The P.O.V. sections where people were getting stream-data shot at them were nicely done, but I can think of more original ways to do it. The part at the end with The Stream being shutdown were okay, but I would like to have seen something different, more on this in the next part. The writing, by David Shore, was low-key, but effective. The script was filled with meaningful, and sometimes symbolic, dialogue. I sometimes view this as heavy-handed, but in this case it fitted in well with the tone of the episode. One word about the music: pretty good. It was by Joel Goldsmith (who appears to be joining the regular music team) and was especially good at the end where I would describe it as haunting. For the rest of the time, it was suitably low-key and kept to the tone of the episode. And now for the bad. As I hinted at the beginning, the episode was good because of George Newbern. The things I mentioned above are all good parts of a story, but the whole didn't really impress me as much as, say, Last Supper, did. I can't really blame it on any one aspect of the show. In which case, there must have been something fundamentally wrong with the plot. Again, I can't quite put my finger on it. I think the main problem was that The Stream was a global phenomenon, but the episode was only about four people, which meant that it felt a lot smaller than perhaps it ought. The episode also relied too much, I think, on the skill of George Newbern. The strength of the leading actor's performance should be accompanied by good supporting work from the other members of the cast. That just didn't happen here because the others were given very little screen time. Last week, I commented that I liked small cast stories, which is the reason I liked TOL so much, but this week's was an example of a small cast that didn't work as a cohesive unit. Shame. It is also difficult to say what the message of the episode is: Is it a symbolic version of Internet-backlash? Is it another 'handicapped people are okay, too' stories? Is it a parallel of Fahrenheit 451, with the people getting rid of (if not burning) books? Probably a combination of the three, I suspect. It worked in that respect, but in other ways it meandered a little. To finish off, I have one small nitpick. You know that building they went into at the end? The abandoned bank. Abandoned, as in, no-one has been around for quite some time to clean it? It was a completely dust free room. Summimg up, then. The episode didn't promise very much, but it did deliver more than I expected it to at the beginning. The performance by George Newbern hints at a depth I haven't seen before in this particular actor, and kudos to him if he can carry off this quality of work all the time. The episode was incredibly subtle, from the plot, to the music, to the acting, to the effects and direction for much of the time. I wouldn't say it was a mixed opportunity, I would say that there needed to be a few more things that were special about the episode, rather than above average. Not bad. Score: 7.4 The season so far After the dramatic triumph that was Last Supper, I felt strangely let down by Stream of Consciousness. It's not to say it was a particularly bad episode. It was okay, but only okay. Mind you, it was better than both Bits of Love, which promised plenty and delivered an old plot and Re-Generation, which promised something different but instead managed to dredge up the plot of Unnatural Selection with a twist. Let's see what they can do next week: Dark Rain. -- Mike Horne