HBO (Sat, July 26, 9 p.m. ET)

A-

Not only are the waters hostile, they're a little muddy. HBO promotes this taut thriller unequivocally as a "true story," although the U.S. government officially denies the teleplay's contention that an American nuclear submarine collided with a Soviet nuclear sub while the ships were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game several hundred miles east of Bermuda in 1986. Whatever the cause, no one disputes that there was an explosion on the Soviet vessel, and the film says the ensuing fire in its missile bay could have led to a nuclear meltdown that spelled catastrophe for America's Eastern Seaboard.

The skipper of the U.S. submarine (Martin Sheen) is essentially a spectator here; the top naval brass, American (Harris Yulin) and Soviet (Max von Sydow), are reduced to surface second-guessing. With a Reagan-Gorbachev summit only days away, the fate of the superpowers lies with the Soviet sub's laconic but quick-thinking captain (Rutger Hauer) and his courageous crew. Can they put out the flames before the world feels the heat? Director David Drury (Defence of the Realm) expertly captures the tense, claustrophobic atmosphere.

Showtime (Sun., July 27, 8 p.m. ET)

B-

The 1994 movie Stargate took in $200 million worldwide at the box office. This new series based on the film has a two-season commitment from Showtime. Devotees will probably be holding conventions any day now. At the risk of seeming out of touch with the science-fiction community, we say: Huh? The two-hour premiere is sort of fun, but the plot is nutty even by sci-fi standards. Why do the aliens from the planet Chulak have serpents popping out of their stomachs? Was it something they ate?

Still, it's likely that fans of the big-screen epic will be satisfied with the TV version. Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver) is a worthy, more humorous successor to Kurt Russell as Air Force Col. Jack O'Neill, a man-of-action type called out of retirement to lead a return mission to the planet Abydos via an ancient portal that allows instant interplanetary travel. On Abydos, which is under attack by those reptilian Chulakians, O'Neill rejoins Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks), an archaeology wonk with boyish good looks who stayed behind after the first expedition. On their weekly adventures (Fridays at 10 p.m., starting Aug. 1), Jack and Daniel will team with an astrophysicist, Capt. Samantha Carter (Amanda Tapping), who goes by the name of Sam so males with sexist assumptions will be stunned when they meet her. It's a trick as old as the universe, but guys never seem to catch on.

Comedy Central (weeknights, 7:30 ET)

C+

Here's a capital idea for a quiz show: Take a celebrity brain and make all the prize money his to defend. Pit him against average citizens in a test of general knowledge. Every dollar won by a contestant is one the celebrity doesn't get to keep.

Based on the two episodes we've seen, the concept doesn't quite pay off. The role of resident smarty-pants is filled by Ben Stein, actor, pundit and former political speechwriter. Though Stein has a natural haughtiness that should serve him well here, his obviously scripted expressions of disdain for the contestants are undercut by his inappropriately encouraging ad-libs. "Holy smoke! Wow!" he enthuses as one of the commoners gets several right answers in a row. A man in his position should come up with something more competitive, like "Lucky guess!" or "Tell me something I don't know." Stein might be free to be a bad sport if all he had to do was play the game. But he also serves as host in an awkward partnership with sidekick Jimmy Kimmel.

Discovery Channel (Mon.-Wed., July 28-30, 10 p.m. ET)

B+

The phrase "having babies" makes parenthood sound like something that just happens to people. "Making babies" connotes a chance to control reproduction. To those with infertility problems or defective genes who want a child, medical science now offers hope. But the cost—financial, physical and emotional—is high. Crushing disappointment, says this worthwhile documentary miniseries, is all too common. The 3-hour study is uneven in places, but on the whole it strikes a commendable balance between skepticism toward modern miracles and sympathy for modern couples.

>Pop-Up Video

RHYTHM AND CLUES

WHO KNEW THAT 3.5 MILLION birds die each year crashing into windows? Or that crocodile dung and honey was an ancient Egyptian contraceptive? Almost nobody—until Pop-Up Video debuted on VH1 in December. The popular half-hour-long show annotates clips from music videos with factoid-or photo-filled balloons. Some are educational (1 percent of Sagittarians are color-blind, notes a pop-up in Des'ree's "You Gotta Be" video); others are esoteric (a popup in Prince's "7" video reveals that his high school nickname was Skippy).

The show was created by Tad Low and Woody Thompson, both 30. Low, a former MTV reporter, and Thompson, a onetime video art director, had amassed a trove of behind-the-scenes video trivia but, says Thompson, "you never saw the stuff on the screen." Now a staff of 12 takes up to a month to ferret out facts for a single video. "Directors love them," says Low. "They always call for copies." But there have been complaints. When a vintage still photo of Sheryl Crow (from her days as a backup singer in Michael Jackson's 1988 Bad tour) appeared in the Pop-Up version of her 1994 "Leaving Las Vegas" video, her rep protested. "She had huge hair," explains Thompson. "She was incredibly tacky."

  • Contributors:
  • Maria Speidel.