New York Times Week in Review WK1: Not-So-Brave New World: Sci-Fi TV Runs Aground

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February 6, 2000


Not-So-Brave New World: Sci-Fi TV Runs Aground


WHEN television sprouted up in the living rooms of postwar America it must have seemed like a techno-wonder straight out of science fiction. In fact, television and science-fiction appeared to be a match made in the heavens — an imaginative literary genre that had already excited the masses on radio (”War of the Worlds,” anyone?) could now be melded with pictures to give audiences something truly new to think about. But for those expecting new horizons of literate entertainment and provocative visions of the future, sci-fi television has largely failed to live up to its promise.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, series like ”The Twilight Zone” and ”The Outer Limits” effectively mixed social messages with simple special effects. ”Star Trek” combined space opera with memorable scripts and flourished in syndication. With scripts that didn’t pander to audiences, these shows managed to pull early science-fiction television away from pulpy stories about invading bug-eyed monsters. Part of the magic may have been the times: the rocket launches and moon missions of the era whetted a lot of appetites for the possibilities of what might be Out There.

These days, however, channel surfers are more likely to encounter fiction that has swapped ”science” for ”sex” to attract viewers. Take ”Lexx,” a cable series that began its second season last month on the Sci-Fi Channel. The main character is Xev, a voluptuous, scantily clad woman with a hyperactive libido who travels around the galaxy with three male characters on a giant bug that serves as a spaceship. In one recent episode, the crew lands on a harmonious all-male world of gay space monks and disrupts the society so badly that the planet blows up.

Later this month NBC will roll out ”The 10th Kingdom,” a miniseries that draws on standard fairy-tale archetypes (think Snow White) in a sci-fi/fantasy setting. Then there’s ”Cleopatra 2525,” a new syndicated series about three tightly dressed women battling aliens. Even though the half-hour show weaves a bit of ironic humor in with exposed midriffs, there’s still far more eye candy than brain benders on screen.

This isn’t exactly boldly going where no one has gone before.

It can’t be because the pace of scientific discovery has outrun the human imagination. After all, 7 of the top 10 highest-grossing films have had science-fiction themes, and new books in the genre like Michael Crichton’s recent ”Timeline,” about century-hopping Yalies, regularly land on best-seller lists.

”People talk about a golden age in retrospect, but there’s been very little intelligent science fiction on television, period,” said Paul T. Riddell, a writer and columnist for Sci Fi magazine, pointing to the space-ranger exploits of Captain Video and Flash Gordon as evidence. ”Nobody takes science fiction seriously,” he added, noting that most network executives believe that sci-fi fans ”will watch anything.”

”When the budget for special effects or sets became excessive,” Mr. Riddell said, ”the natural tendency was to push for that teenage male audience, or to dumb things down to expand the available audience at any given time.”

Peter Nicholls, in the ”Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” (St. Martin’s, 1993), writes that, ”the pressures toward conformity and formula” over the last 40 years have resulted in programming that has ”never approached the intellectual excitement of the best written s.f., or indeed the best s.f. in the cinema.”

For straightforward action-oriented fare, television has depended for years on adaptations of sci-fi literature, for series like ”The Six Million Dollar Man” and ”Logan’s Run.” But the literary genre’s more cerebral material doesn’t seem to translate well to the budgetary and mental constraints of the small screen. Think about it: Could Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1969 book, ”The Left Hand of Darkness,” about a society of hermaphrodites, possibly fly in a medium that makes a big deal about Ally McBeal’s unisex bathroom?

BOOKS and television are different forms of entertainment, of course, and perhaps it is unfair to compare them too closely. ”If a story has too much conversation or too much explanation in it, it’s not going to work for television,” said Bonnie Hammer, the executive vice-president and general manager of the Sci-Fi Channel. ”You have to be able to tell it through action, through the story line and through characters. If you have to explain everything in the dialogue, it’s going to be a very slow hour.”

But Harlan Ellison, an award-winning author who has written much science-fiction, says sci-fi TV has lagged decades behind what is happening in the literary world, ”because it is being done by the same people who produce cop shows, doctor shows and game shows.”

”And these are people who simply do not understand any of the aspects or elements that make science fiction what it is,” he continued. What makes for good science fiction? ”A big idea that deals with the human heart in conflict with itself and the effects of science, the future or an imaginative idea on those people that is rigorously logical within the terms of its own story,” said Mr. Ellison.

While the human heart in conflict with itself is often a ploy television uses to attract female audiences (and their valued advertising dollars), sci-fi on the tube has had some trouble putting down the laser pistols and showing its sensitive side. There may be comfort in genre cliches, but the preponderance of women in variations of the little silver space bikini helps keep science-fiction TV in a state of arrested development.

”Sci-fi vibrates at the key intersections of modernism and postmodernism, with the macho sci-fi writers often reverting subconsciously to essentialized gender identities and behaviors,” says Dr. Christine Boese, an assistant professor in English at Clemson University, who disliked the original ”Star Trek” because ”it was all about men and posturing.”

Dr. Boese, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the cyber-culture created by fans of the action-fantasy show ”Xena: Warrior Princess,” consumes a wide variety of science fiction and doesn’t seem to mind a few guilty pleasures. ”I like sorting through the wacky theories and deciding for myself which part is utterly wacked and whether a kernel of truth might be buried in the dung,” she said.

The prognosis isn’t all bad. There are some ambitious shows on the air these days, like the Sci Fi Channel’s acclaimed ”Farscape,” and shows with promise like CBS’s ”Now and Again.” Other programs that mix supernatural elements with clever dialogue and sharp writing, like ”The X-Files” and ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” may not be pure science fiction but are entertaining hybrids. ”If the show is produced and written well, it’s all on the page — whether it’s a book or a script,” said Ms. Hammer. ”If it’s not on the page and it’s not smart, it’s not going to be there.”

Photo: Time travel: In 1940 it was this robot from the film ”Mysterious Dr. Satan.” Today it’s gay space monks. (Photofest)