Cable's Sci-Fi Channel has taken a 40-year-old script by Rod Serling and projected it more than 200 years into the future. But "A Town Has Turned to Dust" retains the same message about mob violence and racism.
Not that it's any closer to the actual events that inspired the screen-play."We were able to, I think, make a version that was true to the original spirit but had new elements of how racism develops," said Rob Nilsson, who both adapted the script and directed this version of "Dust."
Serling's original "Playhouse 90" script was inspired by the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.
"What he had written was a story of this little 15-year-old boy who was dragged out of his home and murdered," said Carol Serling, Rod's widow. "This was 1958. . . . And the network said, `Oh, you can't put this on. We'll offend too many people.' So they literally made Rod move the story back in time to 1870, put it in the Southwest, make the victim a Mexican instead of a black, etc."
But given all of that, Carol Serling still doesn't think it hurt "A Town Has Turned to Dust."
"People at that time said, `You've sold out. This isn't what you should do. You should have fought,' " she said. "I didn't agree then. I don't agree now. I think the story is there, and it doesn't really make that much difference."
Apparently not, because the new version is much further afield than the 1958 "Playhouse 90" production. The Sci-Fi Channel movie, which premieres Saturday at 7 p.m., is set on a devastated Earth in the year 2215.
Most humans have deserted the ecologically ravaged planet for an asteroid named New Angeles. But a group of miners known as the Dwellers have returned to Earth to process scrap metal, employing a group of American Indians known as Drivers to do all the dirty work.
In the midst of a terrible drought, town boss Jerry Paul (Ron Perlman) claims that a 17-year-old Driver named Tommy (Zahn McLarnon) has raped and beaten his wife, Maya (Barbara Jean Reams). Jerry whips up a mob with hatred for the Drivers in general and Tommy in particular.
Tommy is in the custody of the local sheriff, Harvey Denton (Stephen Lang), but Harvey backs down when faced by the mob. Jerry and his followers haul the boy off and hang him.
Of course, the truth is something considerably different from how Jerry has portrayed it. And the drunken Harvey - supported by his love interest, Ree (Judy Collins) - must summon the courage to stand up against the lies and reveal the truth.
Chronicling all of this is a reporter, Hannify (Gabriel Olds), who is determined to let the rest of humanity know what has happened.
All of this was captured on film in Utah County, much of it at an old steel mill. The special effects make the surroundings appear particularly hellish - there isn't even a blue sky, it's murky brownish red.
This version of "A Town Has Turned to Dust" might actually be closer to what Serling originally intended than the "Playhouse 90" version, according to the producers.
"What Carol provided Rob and me with were all the drafts that she could find (of the original script)," said executive producer Nelle Nugent. "So we worked from six or seven drafts and were able to track through the creative mind of Rod Serling.
"In fact, we borrowed a character - the character that Judy (Collins) plays - from an early draft that never saw the light of `Playhouse 90.' She was a character that Rob and I felt very strongly about as a moral center - a kind of North Star of morality in the piece."
And some of the other characters have also changed.
"The character of the young girl, Maya, wasn't as hard-edged. Wasn't as sexy as she is today," said Carol Serling. "Because you couldn't do that on television then. You can today, and she has some marvelous, wonderful lines."
Nugent pointed to an "erotic subtext" between Maya and Jerry that was excised back in the '50s, something that was "part of the dilemma" for Jerry. "His sexual frustration - his rejection by his wife, Maya," she said. "That's what Carol was saying they could not do on television in the '50s. Now we can play into it with an adult sensibility."
(Not that "A Town Has Turned to Dust" is sexually explicit by any means - although it is certainly violent and intense.)
"In the old days, you couldn't even put Coke bottles on the table because somebody would say, `Oh my gosh, that looks like the South,' " Carol Serling said. "And the ending is different. `Playhouse 90' did not want to have a suicide at the end because Allstate was sponsoring it. You paid a little attention to that."
Despite carrying "A Town Has Turned to Dust" into the realm of science fiction, those involved still maintain they've preserved the integrity of Rod Serling's original vision.
"I think that the time element of putting it in the future serves the story so well, because it points out the strengths of the story," Collins said. "This is something that survives time. It's not a period piece. It transcends. The story itself time-travels very well."
NOT GREAT: "A Town Has Turned to Dust" comes to the Sci-Fi Channel with great intentions and high aspirations.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to them.
It's a bit dense and tremendously dark - and far too violent and intense for children. The setting may suck in some sci-fi fans, but it's ultimately somewhat distracting to the story.
Wouldn't it be great to see somebody do this script as Serling had originally intended? Something closer to the actual story of Emmitt Till, to whom this production is dedicated?
It's a worthy effort, but rather disappointing in the end.