Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Camera Obscura
    by John Joseph Adams
July 2006

Screw-On not screwed-up

This excellent new series (based on the work of Hellboy-creator Mike Mignola) is one of the better comic book adaptations you'll ever see. But the SCI FI Channel isn't so sure about that, so they've put the fate of the series in the hands of the viewers.

The Amazing Screw-On Head
"Pilot"
SCI FI Channel
Director: Chris Prynoski
Writers: Bryan Fuller, based on the comic by Mike Mignola
Starring (voices): Paul Giamatti, David Hyde Pierce, Patton Oswalt, Mindy Sterling, Corey Burton, Molly Shannon
Air Date: July 27 at 10:30PM on SCI FI Channel
Rated TVPG-L-S-V / 30 minutes / 2006
(out of four)

The pilot of The Amazing Screw-On Head opens in 1862, at the Museum of Dangerous Books and Paper, where an ancient document known as The Kalakistan Fragment is stolen, and the Museum's foremost expert on ancient evil texts, Professor Fruen, kidnapped.

The Kalakistan Fragment, supposedly untranslatable, is thought to detail the life of Gung the Magnificent who nearly conquered the world in 1932 B.C. using "supernatural powers derived from a fabulous melon-size jewel."

The Fragment and the Professor were abducted by two old women and a chimpanzee, who happens to wears a crown and displays an affinity for firing heavy artillery. And one of the old women was not a frail old grandmotherly-type; rather, she appears to be, but is in fact a werewolf. The other woman is just an old lady so far as we can tell, but you can be sure she's evil (and also has an affinity for artillery).

After this heist, President Lincoln (Burton) calls for his top secret agent: Screw-On Head (Giamatti). Screw-On Head is just about what you might imagine based on his name: he's an intelligent robot, with a detachable head, which he can screw-on to a variety of robot bodies. But he acts very human and not at all robot-like, so it's not actually clear if he is in fact a robot, and not just a man whose brain has been implanted in the robot head. Either possibility would make sense in the context of the show; it quickly becomes clear to the viewer that though the show is set in the 19th Century, technology-wise, pretty much anything goes thanks to the miracle of steampunk.

After being informed of the details of the case by the President, Screw-On Head quickly surmises that this must be the work of Emperor Zombie (Pierce), his mortal enemy and former manservant, who, since shifting allegiances to the forces of evil, has maintained a petty vendetta against Screw-On Head's subsequent manservants by killing them off whenever possible. And seeing as Screw-On Head relies on his manservant to switch his head from body to body, having to constantly replace them is a bit of a nuisance.

The trail starts in Marrakech, where an informant reported to the President Professor Fruen's last known whereabouts. Upon learning this, Screw-On Head summons his present manservant, Mr. Groin (Oswalt), and selects himself the right body for the job.

Screw-On Head then travels to Marrakech, to the informant's lair, only to find his ex-girlfriend and current evil vampire minion of Emperor Zombie, Patience (Shannon) there waiting for him (and causing mischief). Though she was turned into a vampire by Zombie, Patience blames Screw-On Head for not protecting her, and so now works for his sworn enemy. After some banter, Head tricks Patience into fleeing in bat-form, whereupon she is captured in a birdcage by Mr. Groin. Head proceeds to torture her (by opening the curtains, letting sunlight in for a few seconds at a time) to find out the location of Zombie's lair. She won't talk, but Head's other companion, Mr. Dog (who is some kind of taxidermied-yet-somehow-still-living pooch) picks up the scent. This leads Head to Zombie's lair, where he confronts his former manservant and attempts to put a stop to his dastardly plans, resulting in an amusing and exciting showdown.

Screw-on Head is an endearingly bizarre and original hero, and the nature of his character should allow him to get into all kinds of different scrapes, so the series shouldn't get stale. And while the pilot episode works perfectly well as a standalone short film, there's enough backstory and foreshadowing to whet the viewer's appetite for many more adventures.

Animation-wise, there are some really nice touches, such as President Lincoln's steampunk "video conferencing" system that he uses to speak to Screw-On Head. Instead of being an actual video screen, there's a still image of President Lincoln, with only a shuttering image of his eyes and mouth to mimic motion, like an old flip-clock; when he speaks or moves his eyes, the image of his mouth flips through a series of still images, to give the illusion that his lips are moving. This can't have been easy, so it's nice to see the animators go the extra mile. Also, kudos to the animation team for giving us other small details like the incessant flies that buzz around Zombie's head at all times.

The voice-acting meanwhile is absolutely superb. Giamatti expertly brings Screw-On Head to life with a unique and quirky voice. David Hyde-Pierce similarly excels in the role of Emperor Zombie; he's so good, in fact, he might force you to make water in your pantaloons (to paraphrase one of his exhalations). These two really carry the show, and their performances alone are worth the investment of your time, but the supporting cast does an impressive job in voicing the other characters as well.

There are no weak links here; the animation, the writing, the voice-acting--it all comes together nigh-perfectly. The show is smart, irreverent, and truly unlike anything else on television.

Which brings me to another matter: keeping the show on television. You can go watch the entire pilot episode online right now at SCIFI.com's new SCI FI Pulse component. The show will debut on SCI FI Channel on July 27, but meanwhile, SCI FI will be using fan-feedback to determine whether or not to greenlight the show as a series. After watching the episode, you can participate in a short survey (I did it myself; it's quick and painless). So if you want to see SCI FI continue to put unusual, original, and smartly-written programming like this on the air, then do drop by SCI FI Pulse and let SCI FI know what you think.


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