'Futurescape' Host James Woods on the Future (and Potential Dangers) of Science and Technology

The host and executive producer of Science Channel's new series talks to The Hollywood Reporter about a world in which man and machine are indistinguishable and the illness and aging have been eradicated.
Alper Nakri/Science Channel
"Futurescape with James Woods"

Robots who have the same rights as humans? The ability to stop the aging process? The power to read minds? The ideas -- born of science fiction -- aren't all that unimaginable, according to Science Channel's new series Futurescape With James Woods.

The six-part series, which debuts at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Tuesday, aims to reveal "the advances that will redefine humanity" by examining the next breakthroughs in science and technology, focusing on such topics as telepathy, colonizing space, achieving eternal youth and the integration of robots in our world. They're subjects that fascinate Woods, who not only serves as host and executive producer but also was involved with the show's development.

Woods, who attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tells The Hollywood Reporter that he and his agent, Nina Nisenholtz, were having a discussion about his career one day (he says he's at a point where he wants to sign on for only those roles that are "extraordinarily special") when he brought up his interest in science. He wanted to do another series similar to Moments in Time, a show he hosted for Discovery Channel in which he was "inserted" into big moments in history.

"I liked the idea of that but for science -- looking at the cutting edge of science and walking through and participating in these creations of these events or imaginations of scientific events," he says, adding that he approached Science Channel general manager and executive vp Debbie Adler Myers about the idea, and she revealed the network already was working on something similar. They hit it off, and Futurescape was born.

For Woods' part, he says he was especially interested in exploring not the questions of "can we" create something but "should we" do it just because we can. He cited the famous words of Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, from the official log: "My God, what have we done?"

"There's that awful, dreadful moment when you realize what you can do with science, where this fresh sort of creature emerges from the chrysalis and you don't know whether it's going to be something evil or great," says Woods, a two-time Oscar nominee whose recent credits include White House Down and Showtime's Ray Donovan. "Every sea change in the history of humankind has always been fraught with peril and embedded with promise. That's the premise of the show."

The first episode, titled "Robot Revolution," examines a world in which "cutting-edge experiments have transformed machines into creatures with consciousness, while elsewhere, scientists are enhancing the human body with synthetic parts that work better than the real thing," according to the network description. The result is a "not-too-distant world where man and machine are not only equal, but indistinguishable."

The episode creates a scenario in which a robot goes into a voting booth while humans outside stage a protest. Woods says the situation isn't unlike those from America's past.

"If someone said to you that one day robots could vote, everybody would laugh," Woods says. "But people felt the same way about black people voting and women voting. Now we look back in astonishment, and we know that's absurd."

He also points out that scientific advances such as pacemakers and the like have made some humans "bionic," blurring the lines between man and machine even further.

Future episodes include "Cheating Time," which takes a look at advances in medical technology that could rid the world of illness and old age; "Replacing God," which examines the ability to create life from scratch; "Galactic Pioneers," centering on recent advances in propulsion technology, warp drive and solar energy; "How to Be a Superhuman," focusing on advances in genetic engineering and neuroscience; and "I Know What You're Thinking," which shows how scientists can "read minds" with telepathy helmets and scan hidden memories in ways that could threaten privacy. 

Woods notes that he also injects his own humor into what's going on around him. For example, when filming a segment about the possibility of cheating the aging process -- and death -- he made a quip about someone who was "only" 150 but had been married 11 times and looked 20: "kind of like some of my friends in Hollywood."

In success, Woods says this is a show he'd like to continue doing as long as he could. "I’m hoping I could continue doing it the rest of my life," he says, noting that he also was inspired by Morgan Freeman's Science Channel series Through the Wormhole (now titled Beyond the Wormhole), which, like Futurescape, is from Karga 7 Productions. Adds Woods: "It's something I get to create and be a part of. I'm not just a talking head, but I get to sit down and talk about these episodes and what's on my mind. There are very important social, scientific, moral and ethical issues that we address in the show."

Asked to make predictions on what he thinks the future holds, Woods is cautious but hopeful.

"It's possible that extraordinary advances in technology and science could help the human race [move toward] curing the most heinous of diseases and limit the ability to age, to live longer and more gracefully," he says. "By the same token, if these potential advances are not managed, we very well could be in worse shape.

"It's ironic because we're in the middle of such a debacle with managed health care, but I do think if we had people who could actually run a business and the country, we might be in a situation where we might get into some genetic engineering, stem cell research and bionic and technological advances where we could do a lot to stymie dreaded diseases and keep people healthier and living more functional lives."

Watch a clip from the show, which is exclusive to THR, below.