Geeks gone wild

No longer niche, sci-fi soars by swimming in the mainstream

Broadcasters got so hot and bothered by the sweeping success of “Lost” last season that they ordered up a round of splashy science-fiction-based tall tales, including “Invasion,” Threshold” and “Surface.” Not one made it to a second season.

But the oft-slighted genre didn’t entirely get the shaft. Subtly speculative stories are not only winning over auds, they’re making critics sit up and take notice.

Emmy recognition for the wildly popular ensembler “Lost” — last year’s drama winner — is one of several signs pointing to a possible turning of the tide. Voters, at long last, are giving props to the otherworldly.

USA Network grabbed the largest audience in its history and a 2004 miniseries nomination for “The 4400,” about the return of 4,400 alien abductees to Earth, while NBC’s “Medium,” focusing on a law student who can communicate with dead people, not only was renewed but also landed lead Patricia Arquette an Emmy win.

That’s not to mention shows such as last fall’s rookies “Supernatural” and “Ghost Whisperer,” which will be back for second seasons, and upcoming big-budget entries “Jericho” and “Heroes,” hours with equally far-fetched topics.

Still, the idea of “science fiction” is for most folks a turnoff, a fact that’s forcing showrunners operating within the realm of the supernatural to work overtime to avoid the negative connotations.

“Lost” exec producer Damon Lindelof says ABC and his team have been very careful not to “brand” the series a sci-fi show.

“It has hardcore science-fiction elements, but in its architecture it’s really a character drama with a relatable scenario — a plane crashes on an island with people just like you and me — that plays out on a sometimes wild and crazy backdrop,” Lindelof says. “I think the entry point needs to be relatable before a show reveals its sci-fi roots, lest it be unfairly pigeonholed into a cult heading.”

Executives at Sci Fi Channel are hoping the overwhelming acceptance of “Lost” will help its own drama entry, the politically charged space opera “Battlestar Galactica,” come Emmy time. The cabler shocked everyone when it landed the miniseries award for alien-abduction story “Taken” in 2001, a project that boasted Steven Spielberg as an exec producer.

For “Battlestar,” which is heavier on sci-fi elements, network brass are taking a different approach to Emmy.

The campaign takes pains to downplay the title and even the network on which “Battlestar” airs: Both were missing entirely when Sci Fi distributed screeners of an episode on the covers of both Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter using only critics’ quotes and a black background.

“Battlestar” exec producer Ronald D. Moore says, “The title is a blessing and curse for the show. We’ve reached a point where it is actively holding people back, so we’re hoping to target the Academy in a way that they’ll understand. We’re telling them, ‘This is a show you will like. All of these critics and organizations have hailed the series.'”

“One of the big problems for science-fiction series, and science fiction in general, is the mass audience has a misperception about what sci-fi is … that it is only for male geeks as opposed to speculative writing,” says Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and Sci Fi Channel. “Regardless of how good the press has been, we know the minute people think they’re going to watch a sci-fi series, they’re going to be turned off.”

Emmy voters, in fact, have a history of snubbing the genre. “The X-Files” never managed a win for drama series, while “Star Trek: The Next Generation” nabbed a nomination in the category only in its final season. Series that smack of the surreal also have had tough times. Popular teen drama “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” couldn’t get noticed; even HBO’s “Carnivale” was feted with several noms except in the race for the top prize.

But the genre has come a long way in its evolution and, if the attention paid to “Lost” is any indicator, Emmy prospects are up. Today’s sci-fi hits have shades of the speculative and virtually no black slit-eyed aliens. “Battlestar” baddies look and speak like humans as they wage a war for equality with the race. (It’s just one of the many socially relevant storylines that earned the drama a prestigious Peabody Award.)

“Lost” keeps its viewers intrigued with just hints of the paranormal, including the mysterious black smoke, island-bound polar bears and frightening apparitions. Lindelof says the genre standouts, from Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” to Chris Carter’s “X-Files,” have always shared the same basis in the real world.

“As far as storytelling goes, we still pretty much bow to what Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry were doing decades ago: presenting surreal situations through the eyes of real characters,” he says. “Chris Carter figured out the same thing: Give us someone in the real world (Scully) who constantly challenges the weirdness of the world they find themselves in, and then write stories that comment on the things on the audience’s mind, like faith vs. reason, war, love.”

Adds Moore, the shows “that aren’t doing a wink and a nod at the audience, that ask you to pay attention” are the ones that can be Emmy contenders. “There is no time travel, no parallel universe in ‘Battlestar.’ It’s a human drama that happens to take place in space.”

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