Fox's 'White Dwarf' is light-years away from promised quality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"White Dwarf" takes the premise of "Northern Exposure," sets it on a distant planet, then dresses it all up in the language of myth and fairy tale.

Cool, hey?

Cool, no. Try lame, tedious, tired, obvious. Is there anybody in programming at Fox who knows anything about made-for-TV movies?

"White Dwarf," which airs at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), is supposed to be the network's big movie event of May sweeps. It's also supposed to be indicative of the "quality television" that John Matoian, the new president of Fox Entertainment, promises to deliver.

Promises, promises -- from the same folks who told us "Hardball" was funnier than "Cheers" and that Fox was getting out of the sleazeball business only to air an O.J. docudrama a few weeks later.

"White Dwarf" could use O.J., come to think of it. Instead, it has Neal McDonough starring as a young doctor from Manhattan who is forced to do an internship on a backward planet. No, the young doctor is not named Fleischman. In this version of coming-of-age-on-the-frontier his name is Driscoll Rampart.

The planet is called Rusta, and it's in a remote part of the universe ruled by a dying "white dwarf" star system -- hence, the title.Half the planet lies in everlasting darkness, the other half in perpetual light -- with the two sides divided by a wall. The planet's medical clinic is run by a legendary surgeon, Akada (Paul Winfield), and a nurse, Shabana (CCH Pounder). Akada wears Nehru jackets, which is how we know the planet is backward, I guess.

Also living on Rusta are: twins named XaXa (Tara Graham) and XuXu (Beverly Mitchell), a "morph" boy named Never (Joey Andrews), a beautiful but sad princess (Ele Keats), a king (Robert Cornthwaite) and an evil-doer (Michael McGrady). Each has a little twist. With the twins, for example, one is a normal 12-year-old, and the other looks as if she's 70 due to an exotic virus. The boy changes into different people and animals when he gets nervous. It's the kind of stuff that will undoubtedly lead some critics to call the film "quirky."

"White Dwarf" is not quirky, clever, kicky or imaginative. It's a careless and uninspired attempt to rework the hero quest from two executive producers capable of much better work -- Francis Ford Coppola ("Apocalypse Now") and Bruce Wagner ("Wild Palms").

Don't be too impressed by Coppola's name above the title, though. When big-name film producers are credited as executive producers for TV films, it sometimes means they just rented out their names and production companies for a fast network cash fix.

The first indication that not a lot of care went into this film comes when Dr. Rampart tells us in the opening sequence that the year is 3040 A.D. But, on the cassette case from Fox, it says the "sweeping mythological saga is set 500 years in the future."

Whatever the year, our young hero, Dr. Rampart, arrives on Rusta all smug and condescending -- just like Dr. Fleischman of "Northern Exposure" -- only to find himself starting to care about the inhabitants. Ultimately, his journey of self-discovery will lead to membership in the very community he once scorned. Along the way, he learns from Akada, the Merlin figure, and falls in love with the princess on the dark side of the wall.

The film's ultimate message seems to be one delivered by the princess, who tells Dr. Rampart that to see her again he must learn "not to be afraid of the dark." If this is true, we are probably talking about a target audience for "White Dwarf" of boys somewhere between the ages of 4 and 6. Personally, I think Fox underestimated the intelligence of its audience.

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