News for March 23, 2005

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Prepare Yourself for Rise of the Machines - “self-replicating rapid prototyper” or “RepRap,” will even reproduce itself by fabricating its own components. THE coming of a robot age, with mechanical helpers at our beck and call, moved a step closer yesterday with news of a revolutionary British invention that could soon change our lives. Now engineers are working on a device capable of churning out a host of household items and gadgets, including kitchenware, cameras and even small musical instruments.

A 'Probable Tornado' Rips Through South S.F. - South San Francisco got a taste of Dorothy’s Kansas on Sunday when what authorities called a “probable tornado” whirled through town, ripping off roofs, pulling down power lines and breaking windows and then flinging the debris for blocks.

Putin to Visit Israel - a First for Russia - Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Israel at the end of April, the first visit ever by a Russian leader to the Jewish state, Israeli officials said Tuesday.

A better UN, for a safer world - The United Nations’ secretary-general, Kofi Annan, has proposed the most sweeping reforms of the body since its founding in 1945. If approved, these would answer many of the strongest criticisms of the UN and should help rebuild its damaged credibility.

Magnitude 3.4 - SANTA MONICA BAY, CALIFORNIA - Recent Earthquake Activity in the USA.

‘leaders of the Episcopal Church USA are promoting pagan rites to pagan deities.’ - An earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale on Friday jolted Indonesia's tsunami-devastated province of Aceh, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damage, the state meteorological agency said.

Israel’s New Jerusalem Plan Angers Palestinians - (March 21) Israel plans to build 3,500 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank to cement its hold on Jerusalem, government sources said Monday, drawing Palestinian warnings that peace efforts were at risk.

NBC’s “Revelations” set on the Book of Revelation to launch April 13

In times of turmoil, people often turn to religion for aid and succor. So, too, it seems, do the networks. Suffering from a “Friends”-less prime-time lineup and generally lackluster ratings, this spring a beleaguered NBC is finding God - and delivering him to viewers - in a six-episode series based on the apocalyptic prophecies laid out in the Book of Revelation.

With a premiere set for April 13, NBC’s “Revelations” follows the efforts of Sister Josepha Montifiore, a globe-trotting nun played by Natascha McElhone, and Dr. Richard Massey, a Harvard astrophysicist (and religious skeptic, of course) played by Bill Pullman, to determine whether the end of the world is indeed near.

Along the way, the investigative duo encounters all manner of unexplained phenomena and bizarre characters, including a brain-dead girl who appears to be channeling the spirit of Massey’s murdered daughter, a virgin-born infant believed to be either the son of God or the spawn of Satan, and the powerful Satanist, Isaiah Haden (Michael Massee, in a performance so flesh-crawling you start to wonder about the actor's immortal soul), who ritually sacrificed Massey's daughter. 

From the get-go, it is clear that “Revelations” will be a far cry from the inoffensively ecumenical brand of spirituality typically found in prime-time offerings like “Touched by an Angel,” “Highway to Heaven” or “Joan of Arcadia.” “We felt what needed to be done is a television show that expressed itself as Christian,” said Gavin Polone, an executive producer of, and the driving force behind, “Revelations.” “We’re very clear about that here. The words ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Christ’ are used three times a minute.”

Nor will it share the shiny, happy tone of those generally uplifting series. Its New Testament source material, after all, features a judgmental, unambiguously sectarian God who has vowed one day to destroy mankind - or at least all non-Christians - in a wave of plague, famine, pestilence and war. And since early in development, the series’ writer and chief creative guide has been David Seltzer, whose last foray into biblical prophecy resulted in the 1976 apocalyptic horror classic “The Omen.” Early in the first episode of “Revelations,” an ominous bit of biblical text fills the screen: “And the Sun will turn to Darkness and the Moon will turn to blood. ... For in one hour is thy judgment cometh.”

But it is precisely the edginess of the program, along with its overt religiousness, that its creators and NBC hope will intrigue both believers and nonbelievers alike. “In tumultuous times like those we live in, apocalyptic buzz is always on the rise - as is spirituality,” said Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment, who greenlighted the series. Or as Ms. McElhone put it: “I defy anyone to say they’re not interested in the questions that are being asked here.” Certainly, the widespread interest in, not to mention the tremendous profit potential of, religious-themed pop culture was evident even before “The Passion of the Christ” took the movie world by storm a year ago. Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, “The Da Vinci Code” (the overwhelming popularity of which Mr. Reilly says first got him “thinking in this arena”), combined murder-mystery suspense and historical speculation about the machinations of the early Christian Church. Even more relevant to “Revelations,” the “Left Behind” series of novels, based on a Christian-fundamentalist interpretation of end-times prophecy, has sold in the neighborhood of 50 million copies since its debut in 1995. 

Mr. Polone says his personal interest in religion and Armageddon stems from a long-ago summer spent at an evangelical Christian youth camp, where he was encouraged to read Hal Lindsey’s apocalypse-themed treatise “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” “It scared the hell out of me,” he said. 

But as an adult he found the entertainment industry was wary of such issues, a phenomenon that he and others attribute to cultural bias. Lili Zanuck, who directed three episodes of “Revelations,” recalled that in pitching the project, Mr. Polone argued that “there’s a whole audience out there with these interests that we don’t really address in Hollywood.” Ms. Zanuck added, “In our community, we do sometimes forget the whole rest of the country.”

“I don’t think most people in the entertainment world understand that this is a big deal,” she said. 

As for those who do understand, they may have their own reasons to shy away from religious themes: depending on which poll you consult, between one third and one half of Americans identify themselves as biblical literalists, and no one wants to risk alienating them by taking liberties with their beliefs.

To help avoid such backlash, the creators of “Revelations” say, they took great pains with all the biblical aspects of the series. “Everybody wants to make sure no rock has been left unturned,” said Bill Pullman. “They’re looking at everything - the credibility of every character, each choice.” Scripts are reviewed by a theological consultant, as will be all marketing efforts, Mr. Reilly said. And Ms. Zanuck said each scriptural citation is checked against multiple versions of the Bible. 

And David Seltzer, cast members say, has become a man obsessed with the details. Ms. McElhone said, “There have been a lot of people making sure that we walk the line on this.”

Still, the series creators admit that while biblically inspired, their story does takes plenty of liberties. “We’re telling a fictional story,” Mr. Seltzer said. “It’s not a religious tale.” Most notably, the entire series rests on the premise that the two lead characters can somehow forestall the final clash between God and Satan - an interpretation anathema to most end-times literalists.

“It may make for interesting tension and fun drama,” said Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the “Left Behind” books. “But I don’t know any serious theologian who thinks that humans can delay anything that God desires to do.”

Mr. Jenkins nonetheless expresses optimism that “Revelations” will focus people’s attention on Christianity and help “keep the conversation on the table.” “It’s a conversation we like to have, about prophecy, God, Jesus,” he said.

In fact, his biggest concern about the show may have more to do with art than theology: if religious entertainment is “cheesy,” he said, with cheap special effects or bad acting, the fad will flop and Hollywood will move onto the next new thing. But if projects like “Revelations” are well done and become popular, “my hope,” he said, “is it will keep the media interested in the topic and maybe they’ll eventually get closer to the kind of stuff we do.”

As the air date approaches, there seems to be a growing sense among those involved that “Revelations” will be judged on more than just its entertainment value. Mr. Pullman says the realization hit him this holiday season, during a trip home to visit his family.

“I come from a pretty small town in western New York State,” he explained. “One day I was out dealing with this guy who had some old tractors for sale, and he said to me, ‘Well, I don’t pay much attention to Hollywood, but that movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’ did some important work.’ I’m suddenly thinking: ‘Wow. We’re going to be part of that. People will either say we didn’t help their cause or we kind of did. We’re going to become part of the discussion about what everybody’s agendas are.’”