Bryan Fuller is lucky, in a way. Like any good industry vet, the television auteur behind Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and the incredible Hannibal has left his share of busted pilots in his wake. Unlike countless other TV creators in his position, however, two of Fuller’s aborted projects were later broadcast, their pilots screened as standalone movies. First there was NBC’s Mockingbird Lane, a neo-Munsters starring Portia De Rossi, Eddie Izzard, and Jerry O’Connell. Now, Syfy will air High Moon, a space-age Western based on John Christopher’s 1969 YA novel The Lotus Caves. Written by Fuller alongside longtime collaborator Jim Danger Gray, High Moon didn’t make it to series, but at least the Fuller faithful get to see what could have been.
It’s understandable why the pilot wasn’t picked up. It’s confusing and dialogue-heavy, introducing an army of characters (many of them played by Fuller refugees, like Hannibal alumni Chris Diamantopoulos and Jonathan Tucker, and Mockingbird Lane’s Charity Wakefield) without a chance to fully develop them. That makes sense for an entry point into a full series, but there’s so much going on here that the abundant characters get lost in the complicated plot.
Approximately 50 years in the future, the moon has been colonized by the world’s superpowers for their own business ventures, including tourist attractions and the harvest of natural resources. Yet, the problems that plagued earth continue on the moon, including a U.S.-Russian rivalry that screams of High Moon’s Cold War-era source material. A white-collar prisoner conscripted to toil on the moon (Jake Sandvig) accidentally discovers a plant that leads to disastrous consequences, forcing his brother (Diamantopoulos) to launch into orbit for an investigation. There, he finds a resistant ally in an American general (Peter Macon) whose plucky daughter (Dana Davis) was born on the moon. The general is convinced the Russians are toying with the United States’ holdings, so he sends a spy (Tucker) to infiltrate their ranks. Lording over this lunar landscape is the stylish British entrepreneur Eve St. John-Smythe (Wakefield), who seems to have a leg up on everyone else. So much is stuffed into the pilot’s runtime that a storyline only cohesively emerges by the end.
But the show carries the traces of Fuller’s (and, by extension, Gray’s) hand, and the shame of High Moon’s short lifespan derives not from the stories that could be told, but from the broad palette of genres Fuller won’t get to work with. His visual style is all over the show—tight and meticulously thought-out, while remaining colorful and whimsical. With Hannibal, those aesthetics are rooted in the reality of Hannibal Lecter’s clean-cut world; in High Moon, Fuller and production designer Michael Wylie (who also worked on Pushing Daisies and Mockingbird Lane) are more playful, especially with the lunar base of the Indian faction and the DayGlo flowers that are not as auspicious as they look. In contrast to the heavy-handed sitar on the soundtrack, the Indian stronghold is a beautiful sight, and it’s unfortunate the audience won’t get to look around more—or see more of the moon’s inhabitants, such as a robot dinosaur.
That same misfortune could be applied to Tucker in the role of Stanislav ‘Stan’ Stavin. While other characters get lost in the crowd, Tucker makes Stan stand out, and not just because his character—a slippery, lovelorn, amputee spy—happens to be High Moon’s most distinct creation. Tucker infuses Stan with sultriness, mystery, and humor. When he’s not on-screen, the energy dies down considerably. Fuller’s exploration of the moon ends with this standalone movie, but at least that gives him the opportunity to put Tucker in a vehicle more worthy of both of their talents.