The New Golden Age of Science Fiction Television
In last month's column, "Summer of '82", I complained about the lack of quality genre entertainment in movie theaters this summer. Now, as the holidays approach, it seems only fair to highlight the flip side of that coin. As of this writing, science fiction and horror television is probably the healthiest and best it has ever been. We stand at the cusp of a new golden age for such video entertainment, and it's a welcome development.
Fan boys often prefer to remember the golden age of the 1960s and 1970s, when Star Trek, Doctor Who, Space: 1999, The Outer Limits, Battlestar Galactica, Blake's 7, The Prisoner, Batman, Lost in Space and other "classics" were born, and for good reason. Many of those programs were revolutionary pioneers in the art of SF-TV and have become the bedrock foundation for all new shows. They defined and expanded the playing field, bringing to the television mainstream everything from metaphysics (in the case of Space: 1999) and movie-style special effects (Battlestar Galactica) to political philosophy (The Prisoner) and even theatrical-style "camp" (Batman). But a quick perusal through any contemporary issue of TV Guide reveals that there is a next generation of "gems" in the making today.
At the top of that heap reigns the Sci-Fi Channel's Farscape, a triumphant space adventure series soon to enter its fourth season. I must admit, I was slow in finding this program and more than a little suspicious when fans began to rave about it a few years back. I've succumbed to hype before and been woefully disappointed (particularly in regards to the overrated Bablyon 5), but when the Sci-Fi Channel began "stripping" Farscape, playing it Monday through Thursday every week, I gave it a gander and was frankly stunned at just how good it is. This series has done for the space opera what Wes Craven's Scream (1996) did for the horror film. It trots out every familiar convention of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Space: 1999, Buck Rogers and the rest and then carefully spins each one on its head in new, humorous and provocative ways. It's a deft maneuver, but one the post-modern sci-fi series carries off with aplomb each week.
The story of an American astronaut named John Crichton (Ben Browder) stranded in a distant part of the galaxy on a living starship called "Moya" with a loosely-allied band of renegades and prisoners, Farscape gets every detail exactly right. There's the fish-out-of-water premise, a modern reflection of Buck Rogers lore, but Browder's Crichton is far more appealing a lead than Gil Gerard or even Buster Crabbe and his character constantly works in pop-culture references to everything from Captain Kirk and Star Trek to Yoda. Even better, Farscape adopts the legacy of the original Star Trek in another regard, being the first outer space program in a generation to be, well…kinky. Remember how Captain Kirk was always bedding alien dames in the classic Roddenberry series, but how new generations of Trek became prudish, safe entertainment? Farscape avoids that flaw and features all varieties of alien sexual encounters in fun and stimulating fashion.
From the BBC's Blake's 7, Farscape modifies the idea of a diverse crew (former prisoners) banded together in a common cause even though characters don't always like each other. From Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999 comes the notion that these travelers are in search of a new home, lost as it were, in the "Uncharted Territories." And from Lost in Space comes the delightful Rygel, a toadish little troll (A Hynerian ruler called a "Dominar") who rivals Jonathan Harris' Dr. Smith for getting himself and his shipmates into trouble. The antecedents are all visible, yes, but Farscape honors them all with its many homage-filled references. And yet the joy of this series isn't purely intellectual, isn't simply that it reads like a doctoral summation of thirty years of science fiction television. No, its true appeal is that the series starbursts beyond triumphs past, propelling its constantly-evolving characters into exciting new stories and developing its dramatis personae with the kind of brawny imagination missing from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager or Babylon 5. And, simply stated, this series has the most appealing cast of any sci-fi drama in twenty years. Pitch Black's Claudia Black, who plays the emotionally stunted Peacekeeper named Aeryn, is a particular stand out, especially in her scenes with the enormously likable and unpretentious Browder.
Delightfully, Farscape is not alone in this big-bang expansion of the universe of genre television. James Cameron's Dark Angel has just entered its sophomore season and is showing signs of becoming a new classic. Last year, when the series premiered and revealed to the world its dark premise of an economically depressed, vulnerable United States of America of the year 2019, many read the series as far-out, far-fetched and impossible. Following the terrible and terrifying events of September 11, 2001, the series looks positively prophetic. The story of a "transgen" genetically-enhanced soldier, Max (lovely Jessica Alba), living in a third world, apocalyptic U.S., this series has become more confident, more risk-taking and more interesting in its second incarnation. In its world of a depressed future America, we see people banding together to help one-another in ways that may have seemed remote last year, but which are now practically revelatory.
And there's more. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is better than ever in its sixth season. As the characters grow up, leaving high school far behind, they face new challenges and creator Joss Whedon hasn't shirked from facing these changes. This season, Buffy (Emmy-worthy Sarah Michelle Gellar) has returned from the grave only to realize that the greatest challenge in life is not slaying the undead, but paying the bills. As has been the case throughout its run, Buffy is superb, thoughtful (and witty) entertainment. One episode in November, a musical, reveals that this series is still willing to take chances and push the envelope. Whedon's companion series, Angel, now in its third season, is a somewhat lesser light, more in the vein of traditional vampire action shows (like Forever Knight). Still, at least one episode this season, a drama involving racism and prejudice, was outstanding. It made relevant social points in entertaining, graceful fashion and would have done the great Rod Serling proud.
If these ventures aren't enough to float your boat, there's the coming-of-age dramas Roswell and Smallville (relatively interchangeable, but both entertaining), and the latest chapter of the Star Trek mythos, the prequel Enterprise. On the latter, this author remains cautiously optimistic. Unlike many Star Trek fans, I appreciate the opening "theme" vocal simply because it is different, a symbol that producers Berman and Braga are opening themselves up to "new possibilities." I also enjoy the many references to early Trek lore like Andorians, Axanar, and Zefram Cochrane. What remains less inspired, unfortunately, are the individual stories, which have, for the most part, been under whelming. The second episode "Fight of Flight" was a rehash of Voyager episodes involving the Vidiians, a race of organ-harvesters and it was disconcerting to see Bakula's Enterprise facing a derivative organ-harvesting villain right out of the gate. Contrarily, "Unexpected," the story of an Enterprise crewman becoming pregnant, was one of the most amusing and witty Star Trek shows in years. I laughed through the whole show, particularly a dinner scene involving Captain Archer, Dr. Phlox and the "expecting" Tripp, and found my affection for the series growing. Again, it's cautious optimism, but I think this show is on the right track to be a very memorable addition to the Star Trek canon.
Farscape, Dark Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the long-lived X-Files, Angel, Roswell, Smallville, Mutant X, the upcoming Tick, syndicated hits such as Andromeda and cable's kick-ass Witchblade are just a few of the dramas making sci-fi television required viewing. The movie biz could stand to learn something from these ventures, particularly from the impressive Farscape. Action and special effects are important, but what audiences return to a franchise for good stories, interesting characters and a healthy dose of romance and humor. In showing up their feature film rivals, these programs have proven what many have suspected since the early 1990s as Chris Carter's The X-Files took the medium by storm. Television, as an art form (and as a vehicle for quality genre programming), has finally come of age.
Content Copyright © John Kenneth Muir 1998-2007 All Rights Reserved.