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EARTHWATCH

TV Programs Focus on Environmentalism : An awards ceremony on cable and a new documentary series on public broadcasting give attention to the plight of the planet.

October 20, 1994|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Environmentalism has become so trendy it has made it to prime time.

This Sunday, the cable superstation TBS will carry an awards ceremony conducted by the Environmental Media Assn. Heavy hitters from show business, the arts scene and politics--including Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the convert from red to green, and poet Maya Angelou--will gather to point out recent evidence that ecological themes have not gone out of fashion in Hollywood.

Also, by coincidence, the Public Broadcasting System this month has launched the documentary series "Future Quest," running Mondays, which will repeatedly get into environmental questions.

As to the awards event Sunday, Ventura County folks who tune in should pay particular attention to the "Best Movie of the Week/Miniseries" competition. Brian Trenchard-Smith of Westlake Village is the director of the made-for-TV movie "Official Denial" in this category. Ostensibly a science fiction thriller about an ordinary guy captured by aliens, the movie, made in 1993, also has a solid pro-environment slant.

More a thriller than a message film, it gets across the idea that "our science allowed us to control the world until there was no more world to control," as expressed by one of the movie's characters.

"I feel the film was good for my children," Trenchard-Smith said, referring to his boys, ages 10 and 13, who are in local schools. But he did admit that though the boys enjoyed "Official Denial" and even came on the set to give him some advice on how to direct an "alien," at home they repeatedly play videos of his other films, which include "Night of the Demons II," "Dead End Drive-In," and "Escape 2000." Nonetheless, he defends his recent eco-film as "a worthwhile social and moral message amidst the entertainment."

Indeed, "Official Denial," with its message intact and critics approving, was able to double the ratings of the cable service "The Sci-Fi Channel," on which it premiered. A win-win situation.

Uncharacteristically for Hollywood, the screenwriter in this case is also happy. Bryce Zabel, a seasoned TV veteran--and committed environmentalist--who wrote a measured and thoughtful script for the production, lives nearby in Agoura Hills.

"Brian," Zabel said, "did a good job." The end result, he said, is a film that realized his goals: to show an audience that "the future can be rewritten. We can avert tragedy."

This mix of show-biz and ecology seems to be a flavor-of-the-season at PBS on Mondays. In "Future Quest," pop culture meets pure science. It's as if the MTV staff took over the reins of PBS mainstays "Nature" and "Nova."

Interestingly, the initial episode of this series on the future out-rated all other PBS shows, including "Masterpiece Theatre."

In the episodes previewed by Earthwatch there were lots of interesting gizmos flashing around on the screen, some in scenes culled from vintage sci-fi flicks. Perhaps physics is too much emphasized and biology not enough, but the most interesting elements of the series are the faces of the people interviewed.

In a forthcoming episode, titled "Planet Patrol," a veteran environmentalist named Scott Mathes is seen leading school-age members of the California Environmental Project into the Santa Susana Mountains above Simi Valley to pull trash out of the canyons. He is as appealing and positive a character as any in nighttime TV series.

The science adviser on the series, Berkeley astronomer Timothy Ferris, appears frequently on camera, using his movie-star charm to deliver some rather barbed remarks--for PBS or any TV network. At one point he assails viewers' wasteful consumer habits: "We are gobbling up everything in sight, leaving our kids to take care of themselves. They will curse us as fools and have every right to do so."

That's environmentalism this season, as seen on TV.

News at 11.

Details

* FYI: The TV broadcast of the Environmental Media Awards event is Sunday, at 8 p.m. on the cable channel TBS Superstation. Videocassettes of the movie "Official Denial" are currently available at major local video stores. PBS' "Future Quest" documentary series runs Mondays at 8 p.m.

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