When English author H. G. Wells imagined "The Time Machine," little did he suspect his countrymen would later invent it in the form of television drama, as presented through the PBS series "Masterpiece Theatre."
Viewers who tune in to "A Perfect Hero" this weekend will be transported back to 1940 England, when Spitfires and ME-109s dueled over the verdant countryside in the Battle of Britain. The new four-part story premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on Maryland Public Television (and at 9 p.m. on Washington's WETA-Channel 26).
Based on a novel by Christopher Matthew, this quintessential "Masterpiece" sequence stars Nigel Havers (seen earlier in "Sleepers" and "The Charmer") as Hugh Fleming, a perfect upper-class rotter who joins the RAF with three Cambridge chums.
"A bit of a lark," he calls it.
But in an encounter with "a Hun in the sun," his plane is flamed and he suffers terrible burns before parachuting clear.
In a nice blend of current and flashback scenes, the story carefully sketches out a character of depth against a thoroughly believable backdrop of time and place.
And the tale is largely true, based on a historic wartime hospital set up to pioneer treatment of disfigured pilots.
In part one, Edward Fox plays Dr. Angus Meikle (based upon the real Sir Archibald McIndoe), who suggests he can return the stricken flier to a relatively normal life.
"It's going to be painful and take a long time," the doctor says bluntly.
Key drama comes from the reactions of a trio of girlfriends (Fiona Gillies, Joanna Lumley and Rachel Fielding) and a new relationship with his physiotherapist (Amanda Elwes).
Yet throughout the story, the familiar stiff-upper-lip English resolve is portrayed as being gained only through terrible internal struggle.
Even as Fleming lies slumped against a tree after being cut from his dangling parachute harness, he tells the farmer who's covered him, "I'm awfully sorry I've made a dreadful mess of your coat."
His father (Bernard Hepton) holds in his remorse with pressed lips, while his mother (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) has to natter on with optimism as "her way of dealing with things."
Mr. Havers handles a formidable acting task. Through the first episode, his face is mostly swaddled in gauze, save for his mouth and the area around his eyes that are burned black as pumpernickel. In later segments, according to production notes, sat through three hours of makeup daily to achieve the burns effect.
The contrast between the almost too-pretty young man we see in flashbacks and the injured patient is gently but insistently drawn, as the drama tackles the age-old dilemma of whether beauty is skin deep.
We also get a nice portrayal of the odd contrasts of wartime England. Life on the ground seems nearly normal, yet overhead plucky English lads are fighting German fliers to the death.
THE SEASON'S OVER -- NBC tonight sends some series home for the summer, and it is not clear that all will be back in the fall.
In "Empty Nest" (at 9, Channel 2), star Richard Mulligan handles three roles, including one with a gender switch, as Dr. Weston (Mulligan) is called to England to accept the traditional Sword of Weston.
In "Nurses" (9:30 p.m.), the old stuck-in-an-elevator plot involves Greg (Johns Hopkins alum Jeff Altman) with "Peter the Eater," a cannibalistic psychiatrist (guest star Marius Weyers).
And the touchy topic of surrogate mothering arises in "Sisters" (10 p.m.), as Frankie (Julianne Phillips) mulls over which of her willing siblings might provide a womb for a fertilized embryo from her and husband Mitch (Ed Marinaro).