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'Taken' takes too long

Sunday, December 01, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

There's nothing small about Sci Fi Channel's 10-part, 20-hour miniseries "Taken." Against all odds, that's mostly a good thing.

TV Review
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow through Friday and Dec. 9 through 13 on Sci Fi Channel.
Starring: Steve Burton, Joel Gretsch, Eric Close.

For the first 10 hours, at least, it's the best television miniseries since HBO's "Band of Brothers," which, like "Taken," was executive produced by Steven Spielberg. In its early going, "Taken" is leaps and bounds better than what passes for a miniseries on the broadcast networks these days. But in the last 10 hours, it bogs down in repetitive stories and the stretch marks begin to show.

Stories of alien abduction over the course of 55 years (1947 to the present) will appeal to a narrower audience than "Band of Brothers" with its true-life stories of paratroopers in World War II. At its best, "Taken" hearkens back to the epic, character-driven miniseries of the '80s (think: "The Winds of War").

"Taken" is the story of three families on a collision course whose path begins in 1947 in the skies above France.

American fighter pilot Russell Keys (Steve Burton, "General Hospital") sees a mysterious blue light and finds himself miraculously saved from death, but that miracle has a price: abduction by aliens and experimentation.

Around the same time, Air Force Capt. Owen Crawford (Joel Gretsch) begins investigating an alien spaceship that crashed in Roswell, N.M.

Simultaneously, a gentle stranger named John (Eric Close, "Without a Trace") turns up on the West Texas farm of Sally Clarke (Catherine Dent, "The Shield"). Nine months later, her alien-hybrid son, Jacob (Anton Yelchin), is born.

Through the generations, members of the Keys, Crawford and Clarke families wrestle with their secrets and their relationships with the aliens. For the Keys family, aliens are evil interlopers. For Crawford, uncovering their mystery is an obsession. For the Clarkes, the aliens are friendly and protecting Jacob becomes a priority for his half-siblings.

"Taken" tantalizes with these conflicting takes on the alien presence, particularly in its first week when episodes unspool through succeeding decades of the 20th century. Individual episodes have a stand-alone film feel to them, with some bringing to mind the best of "The X-Files."

Jumping from story to story can sometimes make a miniseries difficult to follow, but frequent use of on-screen IDs prevent "Taken" from causing confusion.

In week two, four episodes take place in the present. This is where "Taken" slows to a crawl and doesn't warrant the 20 hours of air time it's been given. Those four episodes easily could have been two, maybe even one, making for a tighter, better saga. Instead, the story gets drawn out and turns pulpy.

Worse yet, in the end, "Taken" leaves room for a sequel. Viewers who devote 20 hours to a miniseries deserve a more conclusive ending.

Eight-year-old actress Dakota Fanning ("I Am Sam") narrates "Taken" and eventually turns up in part seven, playing a key, wise-beyond-her-years role. Her innocent voice breaks through the foreboding tone of many episodes, although the dialogue she's given sometimes tries too hard to be Deep and Meaningful.

"People like to examine the things that frighten them, to look at them and give them names," she says at the start of part three. "We fool ourselves into thinking because we study something we can control it. So saints look for God and scientists look for evidence. They're both just trying to take away the mystery, take away the fear."

Ultimately, "Taken" is more a meditation on humanity than it is on the meaning of U.F.O. sightings, and it's better at exploring the mystery and asking questions than it is at giving answers.

Because "Taken" is such an epic, sprawling miniseries, the cast continually changes, but young Yelchin makes an impression early on as the intense, but frail Jacob. Gretsch also scores points as Crawford, though I'm reluctant to say why because the character's true nature isn't revealed immediately. Crawford's favorite endearment ("You're the sun and the moon to me") takes on a new meaning as "Taken" progresses through the years.

Matt Frewer joins the cast as Dr. Chet Wakeman in episode No. 5. At first he's too goofy and giddy for the miniseries' otherwise sober tone, but eventually he settles in, playing a role not unlike Jeff Goldblum's character in the "Jurassic Park" films.

"Taken" is a noble attempt to return the miniseries to compelling tales of multidimensional characters, but its desire to be big gets in the way of maintaining the quality readily apparent at the outset.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

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