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Recognition for sci-fi still a fantasy

'X-Files' broke out, but 'Buffy,' 'Trek,' others overlooked

Science fiction and fantasy shows hold a special place in TV history. Who can think of the 1950s without “The Twilight Zone,” the 1960s without “Star Trek,” or the 1990s without “The X-Files”?

But you wouldn’t always know these series have had such an impact from Emmy nominations. While sci-fi shows have earned hordes of technical Emmys, the genre’s writers, actors and producers are usually passed over by academy voters who appear to appreciate only police, lawyer or medical shows and view sci-fi as a lesser form of entertainment suited only for children and the childish.

“I feel like sometimes there are things going on on (sci-fi) shows that are more exciting or more creative than what’s on other shows,” says Marti Noxon, an executive producer on UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “You feel like these awards are not really in tune with what people are getting excited about.”

“Buffy” is the most cited example of a genre show overlooked by the Emmys. Creator Joss Whedon gets high marks from critics and peers for taking the supernatural teen-angst saga into unusual, exciting and highly creative territory, such as last year’s silent episode and this season’s musical extravaganza.

“Joss has brought to ‘Buffy’ a level of writing I would put head to head with any show out there,” says J. Michael Straczynski, creator of sci-fi skeins “Babylon 5” and “Jeremiah.” “That he’s been nominated only once is a terrible oversight.”

Tough ‘Trek’

The many versions of “Star Trek” have had a difficult time with creative Emmys, despite being one of the most popular and enduring franchises in TV history. The original series got two best drama noms and Leonard Nimoy scored two acting noms, but the only creative win for the show was a daytime Emmy for the 1975 animated version.

Since 1987’s debut of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” 22 successful seasons of the various “Star Trek” series have been produced featuring such top actors as Patrick Stewart, previous Emmy nominee Rene Auberjonois, Avery Brooks, Colm Meany and four-time Emmy nominee Scott Bakula. The only creative nom was for best drama series for “The Next Generation’s” final year in 1994.

“I have outgrown expecting to get nominations in acting and writing and directing categories,” says Rick Berman, executive producer of all series from “The Next Generation” on. “It’s just been so many years we’ve been overlooked.”

“The year we were nominated for ‘Next Generation,’ it was wonderful to be acknowledged,” says Brannon Braga, Berman’s partner on “Enterprise.” “You wonder if we took the bumpy (Klingon) foreheads off people, if ‘Star Trek’ would have gotten more nominations in the past.”

Berman says among the overlooked is Connor Trinneer, who plays engineer Trip Tucker on “Enterprise.” “If Connor were on any other freshman TV series right now, he would be the buzz of the trades in terms of getting a nomination. But he’s on ‘Star Trek,’ and we’re forever hopeful, but the history doesn’t show he has much chance.”

Other sci-fi freshmen making a push but having little or no buzz include WB’s teen-oriented take on the Superman mythos, “Smallville,” and long-running cablers such as Sci-fi Channel’s “Farscape” and “Stargate SG-1.”

The one show that broke out of the creative Emmys sci-fi ghetto is “The X-Files,” which earned noms for best drama, writing wins for creator Chris Carter and Darin Morgan, and multiple noms for stars David Duchovny and 1996 best drama series actress winner Gillian Anderson.

Spotnitz says the show had the overall quality but also the right approach to its sci-fi and horror genres to win over Emmys voters. “Part of the reason it could overcome the genre prejudice is that it attempted to not feel like a genre show,” says Frank Spotnitz, executive producer of the just-concluded Fox skein. “It worked very hard to make the sci-fi and horror elements seem plausible.”

For many detractors, it’s the implausibility of genre elements that turns them off. Straczynski says exploring the impact of everything from cell phones and computers to “Jeremiah’s” treatment of hot topics such as DNA research and biological warfare is far from unimportant.

“In a way, science fiction is a more relevant form than some mainstream shows,” he says.

Science fiction writer David Gerrold says the genre defies expectations by deviating from traditional definitions of drama. ” ‘Real drama’ is about the human condition; it’s about angst, anguish, suicide, incest. It’s about people failing to put their lives together,” says Gerrold, who penned the classic “Trek” episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” episodes of “Babylon 5” and books such as “The Martian Child.” “Science fiction is about what do we build next. (It) gets into what is the nature of reality, what does it mean to be a human being. Those are answers you don’t get in an ordinary story.”

That odd nature makes it extremely difficult to pull off a sci-fi show both good and accessible enough to connect with the kind of mainstream audience enjoyed by most Emmys winners. Most sci-fi ends up in specialized niches that rely and thrive on an extremely loyal but relatively small fan base. Shows like “Buffy” and “Enterprise” don’t compete on the same ratings level as big network shows, but are still popular enough to be tentpole series that reliably pull viewers in to smaller nets.

“I think for a sci-fi show to take hold with a mass audience is very difficult,” Spotnitz says. “You have to tap into something really powerful.”

And while genre shows have found a great deal of success on their own terms through outlets like Fox, syndication and cable, sci-fi’s Emmy odds are hurt by not having a presence on the traditional Big Three networks.

Straczynski says the big nets’ conservative streak and sci-fi’s high budgets keep them from gambling on the genre for now, but even that barrier will fall when the right show comes along.

Until then, sci-fi will have to be content with only the occasional creative nod from Emmy.

“It’s like any other popularity contest,” Noxon says. “We try to make a show we believe in and would like to watch, and as long as we do that, we feel like we’re winning. But at the same time, you feel like the kid who never gets asked to the prom.”

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