Every now and then, television offers a tale that opens a window on the old verities - without sentimentalizing them. Fox, that bastion of thoughtful speculative fiction ("The X-Files," "Harsh Realm," and "Millennium"), presents Dean Koontz's Sole Survivor (Sept. 13 and 14, 8-10 p.m.), a sci-fi thriller with a sensitive, even religious, message.
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name, the rambling miniseries may not be a work of art, but there's something strangely heartening about it, despite its shortcomings.
When crime reporter Joe Carpenter (Billy Zane of "Titanic" fame) loses his wife and daughter in a mysterious plane crash, his whole world crumbles.
Then, one night while he is visiting their grave site, he meets a woman taking pictures of the tombstones - Rose Tucker ("ER's" Gloria Reuben) - who reassures him that death is not final, and that she has something wonderful to share with him. When Rose is chased off by gun-toting heavies, Joe must discover who she is and what really happened in the crash.
He is led on a labyrinthine quest for the truth, and along the way he meets people of faith and integrity. When some of these commit suicide unexpectedly, Joe has another mystery to solve.
Joe is chased by a diabolical agent named Victor Yates (John McGinley is arch without flying over the top), one of those chatty villains who is both scary and absurd. He pursues Joe to catch Rose.
Like many another speculative fiction, this story represents a pop-culture approach to issues of faith and redemption. In fact, the quest Joe takes on is really about a decent man's discovery of faith. The rose is traditionally associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. And the ultimate object of Joe's quest is Christological. Like his namesake, Joseph the Carpenter, Joe will have the role of protector in the ongoing story.
What Koontz seems to be driving at in this story, though, has to do with God's presence in the world - no matter what wrong man does, no matter how he tries to usurp the prerogatives of God with science, goodness is protected.
The traditional Christian view of the battle of good versus evil is also explored here, albeit in science-fiction terms. Interestingly, Koontz's villains choose evil freely, one because of his growing narcissism and another because he, like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's great novel "The Brothers Karamazov," believes that absolute goodness would upset the established order and bring about chaos. The villain Yates believes that only in the fear of death will human beings strive and behave.
But he is wrong, utterly and finally wrong. Koontz implies that mankind actually transforms itself for the better - which is what happens to Joe and others in the film. Zane made for a cardboard scoundrel in "Titanic," but he gives a touching, intelligent performance here. It is easy to believe he is a thoroughly decent man - and the complexities of a good man are harder to portray than those of even the most subtle rogue.
The science-fiction paradigm has its flaws. Some of the villains are a bit too predictable and one-dimensional. The four-hour miniseries is an hour too long, meandering far afield, introducing irrelevant characters, and dwelling overlong on the villains' reprisals.
Why no one ever calls the local police in when the bad guys threaten to off some innocent is a mystery in itself. Though most of the violence is off-screen, there's plenty of gunplay and the suggestion of torture, making the story more suitable for adult audiences.
But for all that, it's not pap - and it might have been. Joe earns his redemption, and even the mystical visions he sees at the end are restrained enough to minimize sentimentality. The story asks "what if" absolute goodness should come to earth in our time? It doesn't shirk the implications.
Another interesting TV choice this week is To Walk With Lions (Starz/Encore, Sept. 9, 8-10 p.m.) - mostly because it's the fact-based sequel to "Born Free," the 1966 Oscar-winning story of George and Joy Adamson and their work raising and releasing the lioness Elsa.
This slow-moving, well-meaning drama finds George 20 years later still defending Kenya's lions from poachers and encroaching civilization. He and Joy are separated, but still have Christmas dinner together every year. A young ne'er-do-well arrives looking for work and is won over by George, by the lions, and by life in the bush.
The story has less meat on its bones than it should. But it captures a marvelous sense of the grandeur of the beasts and their right to live free.
Richard Harris, starring as the wild-looking naturalist who not only walks with lions, but reads to them from the Bible and Koran, projects a noble passion for the animals' cause.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society