Taking up Space

In the light years since the television launch of 'Star Trek,' the science fiction genre has grown bland. Fans and programmers see that it needs new life, a new destination, or the journey will soon be over.

July 05, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Television is now four decades removed from the premiere of Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone," the medium's first great science fiction series. More than three decades have passed since the voyages of the starship Enterprise debuted on NBC. In just the past year, two longtime SF favorites, "Babylon 5" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," have reached the end of their syndicated runs.

It's a good time to step back and assess where TV science fiction is headed. And while no one is prophesying doom just yet, there's a growing consensus that it needs some new blood.

"It's bland city," writer and critic Harlan Ellison says of the current state of science fiction television, which he believes suffers from a mind-numbing sameness. "It's the same problem for science fiction as it is for sitcoms, as it is for doctor shows, as it is for cop shows. They all wind up in the same bag. No one seems to understand that the days in which television was a novelty and everybody wanted to watch it all the time are gone. The thing that is attracting all the interest now, for Pete's sake, is wrestling."

The trick will be to move the genre to places no man has gone before: shows that don't put people in a U.S.S. Enterprise and send them off to other galaxies, or don't tap into the paranoid "The X-Files" vein, or depend on alien-looking creatures to salvage plots that would doom a more ordinary-looking series.

"For its long-term health, it needs to find a new view," says Tim Brooks, senior vice president for research for USA Networks, parent company of cable's Sci-Fi Channel. "More paranoia shows [like Fox's `The X-Files'] is probably not finding a fresh view. Of course, if I knew what that fresh view was, I'd be producing it."

"I'm a huge fan of `Star Trek,' but we've kind of gone though 31 years of `Star Trek'-like shows," says Rockne S. O'Bannon, the force behind Fox's "Alien Nation" and Sci-Fi's "Farscape." Noting that "Star Trek" begat "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which begat "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," which begat "Star Trek: Voyager," he suspects the genre is just about trekked-out.

Science fiction, suggests "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski, "is going to have to grow up a little bit."

As anyone who remembers science fiction from the early days of TV can attest, the genre's already done a lot of growing. By the end of the 1950s and early 1960s, crude sets and gee-whiz gimmickry of such shows as "Captain Video" and "Space Patrol" had evolved into the sophisticated storytelling and social commentary of "The Twilight Zone" and the best episodes of "The Outer Limits."

Science fiction's next great leap forward came with the 1966 launch of "Star Trek," which chronicled the interplanetary voyages of the starship Enterprise and painted a refreshingly hopeful picture of life in the future. By the 23rd century, we were assured, the people of Earth would all get along and a ruling Federation would maintain peace throughout the galaxy (save for an occasional run-in with Klingons or Romulans).

But while "Star Trek" would garner a tremendous cult following, it proved a failure in the ratings, never cracking the top 50 during its three seasons on NBC. Which may explain why SF lay fallow for much of the next 20 years, reduced to such gimmicky shows as "Land of the Giants" and "The Six Million Dollar Man" (the syndicated "Space: 1999" was one of the few exceptions).

Next generation

That began to change, however, in 1987, with the return of an old friend, although in slightly different clothes.

"The current cycle of sci-fi popularity on TV really began in the mid-1980s, with `Star Trek: The Next Generation,' " says Sci-Fi's Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows."

"That show just ignited a boom in TV science fiction. It showed that what had been a cult genre had the potential to attract a very wide television audience, including women. To this day, it's the most successful sci-fi syndicated show ever, and arguably the most successful syndicated show ever."

By expanding on the theme of brotherhood (and, just as importantly, sisterhood) that Gene Roddenberry introduced with the original "Star Trek," "Next Generation" struck a chord with viewers. Men and women were truly equals here (the women of "Star Trek" were pretty much there only for Capt. Kirk to ogle), and audiences clearly enjoyed this vision of the future.

More than 10 years later, however, many in the SF genre believe it's time to move on. And, by definition, almost anything is possible when it comes to science fiction.

"What makes science fiction work has always been the sense of wonder," says Straczynski. "I think there's room for shows that are more speculative fiction, that look at the affects of technology -- where we are now, where we're going in the next 20, 30, 50 years. We're in for some interesting times in the next 20 or 30 years as technology changes. Those areas could be addressed right now in new shows."

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