Sci-fi moving beyond final frontier

Genre's appeal based on characters as well as f/x

Where once sci-fi TV featured clever but simple plots, men in rubber suits and models on wires, a new generation of genre shows is proving there’s more to space than costuming and special effects.

Sci-fi has been around as long as TV itself, but doing it well has proved one of the harder tricks in showbiz. Rod Serling’s original “The Twilight Zone” delivered on the potential of sci-fi concepts and “Star Trek” became such a huge success that few shows have dared to venture beyond its tried-and-true format.

The syndie success in 1987 of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was followed by such well-written and popular series as “Babylon 5” and “The X-Files” in the mid-1990s, breaking the field wide open for a new generation of programs from “Farscape” and “The Dead Zone” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Smallville.” Just like their noted predecessors, the new crop’s audience-pulling powers are based as much on good writing and compelling characters as on flashy concepts and special effects.

Already established and growing in popularity are the Sci-Fi Channel series “Farscape” and “Stargate SG-1.” The channel has been aggressively adding original programming. Plans include expanding on the potential of reality sci-fi hinted at by the success of “Crossing Over With John Edward”; miniseries events such as “Dune” and Steven Spielberg’s “Taken”; and reviving old sci-fi shows such as “Quantum Leap,” “Tremors” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

Sci-Fi Channel senior VP Thomas Vitale says the cabler’s goal is to develop many flavors of sci-fi with stories good enough to keep the attention of hard-core sci-fi fans and a mainstream audience. “We’re not going to get people with the special effects or the concepts. It’s great characters and great storytelling.”

Reviving old shows is something the sci-fi genre has done more than any other, partly because of the loyalty and long memories of its fans and the timelessness of some concepts. Vitale says the advantages are many from a business standpoint as shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” have a built-in audience who watched as kids and are therefore easier to sell than completely new shows.

And while revivals are unlikely to change the face of sci-fi, they do have to be good to keep viewers past the first few episodes. “You don’t want to do a pure, straight remake,” Vitale says. “If you’re gonna go back and do a ‘Quantum Leap’ or a ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ you need to say something new about them.”

J. Michael Straczynski, however, says relying on old properties hurts the genre because it reduces it to a commodity in a marketplace instead of a unique genre with no creative limits.

“There’s still a reluctance to trust sci-fi. You’re not seeing the new ‘Hill Street Blues.'”

Straczynski cites the “Star Trek” franchise as an example of a hit show that failed to take advantage of its creative potential. “If you knew it was going to be successful no matter what you put on, why play it safe? It’s like having a Ferrari in the garage and not driving it because you don’t want to scratch it.”

For most showrunners, it’s the creativity and unlimited potential of the genre that attracts them.

One of the most anticipated sci-fi skeins of recent years is “Firefly,” executive producer Joss Whedon’s follow-up to “Buffy,” about a crew for hire struggling to survive in the new frontier of space. Whedon says he definitely wanted to set “Firefly” apart from other shows, going so far as to call it the “anti-‘Star Trek.’ ”

“I wanted to do something I wasn’t seeing in those shows, which is the down-and-dirty physicality of pioneer life,” he says. “I wanted starships that are as dirty as my car.”

Whedon says he wants to make the space setting real and mundane, and has had built a full-size set of the spaceship’s interior on two soundstages to achieve that.

Taking a different tack is Showtime’s “Odyssey 5,” which stars Peter Weller as leader of a crew of astronauts who survive the end of the world and go back in time five years to try and prevent the catastrophe. The show uses the sci-fi premise credibly to combine storylines as diverse as family drama and “X-Files”-style conspiracies.

“It started as a series of plot twists that mushroomed and grew into a meld between a dramatic show and sci-fi series,” says creator and executive producer Manny Coto.

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