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Total Recall 2070 is plausibly paranoid

By Robert David Sullivan

MARCH 15, 1999:  Fans of The X-Files have a right to be suspicious of Showtime's latest entry in the science-fiction genre, Total Recall 2070 (premiere episode airs March 12 at 10:45 p.m. and repeats March 13 at 10 p.m.; further episode air on Wednesdays beginning March 19). Lead actor Michael Easton bears a strong resemblance to David Duchovny, though his police-detective character lacks the playfulness of "Spooky" Mulder. And the 90-minute pilot revolves around a 12-year-old boy with telepathic powers, much like the story arc that led into the current season of The X-Files. One difference is that there's a lot more skin than sexual tension on the R-rated Recall. (Showtime's publicity kit points out that Easton made People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" while he was starring in the soap opera Days of Our Lives.) The first episode is also padded with a lot of cop-show clichés and garnished with a few obscenities to let you know you're watching a premium cable channel.

For all these flaws, none of which is necessarily permanent, Total Recall 2070 is an enjoyable diversion -- not as scary as The X-Files, but certainly populated with more plausible bogeymen. Loosely based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film of the same name (minus the date) and the short stories of Philip K. Dick (who also inspired Blade Runner), the series takes place seven decades from now in an unidentified city crammed full of neon lights, video monitors, and weary-looking people. (I didn't spot any senior citizens, but it's unclear whether this Logan's Run atmosphere is a reflection of America in 2070 or Hollywood in 1999.) By this time, the world is unofficially run by six "private sector" companies known as the Consortium. David Hume (Easton's character) works for the closest thing to a public police force, the Citizens Protection Bureau, which is supposed to keep a check on the Consortium and preserve civil liberties. From the look of things -- including the old wooden furniture at CPB headquarters -- this arrangement is not much of a threat to the descendants of Bill Gates. As one character remarks, when 90 percent of the city's taxes come from Consortium members, the police don't have a lot of leverage against white-collar criminals.

Recall promises to stay clear of the alien-invasion plots that fuel most sci-fi series, including you-know-what. It's closer in spirit to the smart and subversive Max Headroom series of the late 1980s, which depicted a consumer-über-alles world run by television networks. In this case, the chief menace seems to be the Rekall Corporation, which offers "virtual" vacations to beaten-down citizens (see the Alps without leaving your chair) while dabbling in more-Frankenstein-like activities. I should mention here that David Hume is paired with a new partner in the first episode: a good-natured android named Ian Farve (amusingly underplayed by Karl Pruner).

The dystopia of Recall is a believable exaggeration of certain 1990s trends, and creator/writer Art Monterastelli (who also created UPN's Nowhere Man and has written for such series as NYPD Blue) even has some fun with the idea of a permanently lowered crime rate. The CPB cops aren't allowed to carry lethal weapons, and Hume complains that he spends most of his time reassuring citizens that their personal computers "aren't spying on them." In one clever scene summing up the irrelevance of 21st-century cops, an agitated visitor to the police station claims that his "automatic tennis instructor" is attacking him with high-speed serves. "Machines can't be arrested, sir," the android Ian deadpans. "You'll have to file suit with the manufacturer."

But who needs street gangs when the Consortium is so adept at creating mayhem? The first episode concerns a group of androids who have been temporarily granted humanlike powers of memory and emotion -- a "soul on loan" -- and naturally develop violent tendencies. A Rekall executive (the suitably sinister Nick Mancuso) obstructs the police investigation, sounding like a Microsoft mouthpiece with such lines as "That information is protected by the Intellectual Copyright Law and Corporate Security Act!"

"Machine Dreams" is a serviceable if not wildly original story. One misstep is that Hume takes far too long to figure out the truth about his new partner -- which suggests that the tighter running time of upcoming episodes may be a blessing. But there are enough freaky moments to keep you interested throughout. I was pleasantly grossed out by the autopsy of an android, and I wondered whether another android was intentionally channeling William Shatner with his roller-coaster manner of speaking. ("Soon . . . I'll . . . be . . . as dumb as a doorknob. Or . . . as . . . dumbasacop.") Perhaps Star Trek popped into my head because Total Recall 2070 is a refreshing throwback to the kind of sci-fi where stories aren't driven by special effects.

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