by Christopher DeFilippis
DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 8
(First Appeared: September, 1999; First Light E-zine, Issue #84)
One of the perks of working for my local cable provider is getting every station for free. And with the new television season upon us, it provides me with an unparalleled opportunity to sample the dearth or science fiction shows scattered across the dial.
While there appears to be more Sci-Fi on the tube than ever, most of it suffers from what I like to call the Xena-Effect—a seemingly concentrated effort to dumb down a format that has traditionally been a sanctuary for intelligent ideas, complex characters and stories that actually demanded the viewer to think a little bit. Now we’re all being asked to think like Aaron Spelling.
Before you sigh in disgust at yet another sanctimonious lament of the declining status of the genre as we knew it, regular readers of my column know that I couldn’t really give two figs about the Ellisonesque notion of a noble and beneficent SF that’s going to transform the world. This has to do with stupidity, plain and simple. And just about every Sci-Fi offering seems to have more than its share.
Relax, Xena fans. I pick on your show only because I never expected it to last more than a few weeks. I mean, look at it. How could it? Yet the warrior princess seems to be doing better than ever—bad writing, fractured pelvis and topless national anthems notwithstanding.
She has defied my dire predictions and even outlived her mentor in dopiness. Oh Hercules, we barely knew ye…
This phenomenon has spawned a glut of programming that dangles the lure of fantasy to draw in the ever-hungry Sci-Fi audience. Unsuspecting, you begin watching the first act. Something doesn’t feel right. You watch on, striving to quell your unease, but the feeling of impending doom only increases. Suddenly, SNAP! The spring-loaded bar of stupidity clamps down on your neck and you realize that this isn’t Sci-Fi at all! What you’re really watching is a revamped version of Silk Stalkings, only the half-naked criminal babes have been replaced by mutant tree slugs or something. If you’re lucky, you might be able to fight your way out of the trap. Sadly, however, more and more fans are giving up the ghost and have decided to reside in the land of Same Old Crap. I guess it’s just easier that way.
And there are more traps to watch out for. I recently got wind of a show in development by USA Networks that made me shudder. Get this premise: a hardnosed private detective and the Goddess of Love team up to solve crimes on the mean streets of Los Angeles. I’m not making this up. I read it on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Sci-Fi wire. Someone actually heard this idea and said, “I love it! Give me thirteen episodes.” Worse yet, someone actually had the balls to pitch it. I think Aphrodite needs a new agent.
Now I know I might be rushing to judgment here. After all, I haven’t seen the show. In fact, I haven’t seen the majority of programs I’m lambasting here. But I never needed to watch an episode of Beverly Hills 90201 to know how dismal it is.
I’m not down on camp. Camp in Sci-Fi is wonderful. Hitchhiker’s Guide brought it to a pinnacle. Red Dwarf also does it extremely well, as does 3rd Rock From the Sun. But the difference that makes each of these offerings stand out is that while they have tongue planted firmly in cheek, they never forget to add a grain of intelligence. And they don’t continually insult yours.
There are few hold-outs left. I used to think that Star Trek Voyager was struggling to find an intelligent voice, that once it went through its growing pains, it would be a jewel equal in shine to the rest of the shows in the franchise. But it has become abundantly clear that Voyager has found its level and stayed there. The producers aren’t interested in the Trek the rest of us have come to expect; they’re bent on satisfying UPN’s lowest common denominator expectations. I’ve completely lost the thread of the show. Last I saw, the ship was flying through “chaotic” space (whatever that is) and Chakotay was in a boxing ring fighting Kid Chaos. Ummm…. What? I hope they find a happy home in the same neighborhood with 7 Days and The Sentinel. I don’t plan to visit very often, unless Jeri Ryan hand delivers the invite with a nudge and a wink.
I think the biggest problem in today’s SF programming is the lack of intriguing premises. There just doesn’t seem to be anything original enough to grab my attention and demand that I watch. And even a good premise is no panacea. Case in point: Sliders.
When FOX debuted the show five years ago. I was glued to the screen. A band of wayward travelers hopping dimensions, encountering different earths in their attempt to get home. How could a premise that exciting possibly let you down?
After watching the first episode, I saw how. It wasn’t bad, exactly. It just needed something, though I couldn’t figure out what. Still, I gave the show the benefit of the doubt for a full season. But there was simply nothing to work with. Apparently, FOX felt the show could be saved and took a personal interest in punching it up. All was lost from that point on. Sure enough, they killed off the most interesting character (who, coincidentally happened to be the show’s best actor) and replaced him with that master thespian Kari Wuhrer.
I’m surprised she’s able to keep her top on long enough to meet the standards of network television. When, in true FOX fashion, the gang started Sliding to zombie world and shopping mall world I gave up the ghost. Or so I thought.
Enter Sci-Fi Channel. They picked it up and I thought there might be a chance of resurrection. Finally, the writers would be free to fashion new episodes, new story lines, a new character or two, all without FOX’s detrimental influence. But it turns out that the lameness had less to do with FOX and more to do with bad writing. The characters are poorly developed and the writers still don’t seem to have a sense of how they should react to new situations or each other. The result is a very formulaic show that relies more on gimmicks, over-the-top plot twists, and pyrotechnics to keep viewers. It’s no wonder the O’Connells jumped ship.
It might not be all gloom and doom. There are a couple of shows that might be worth a look. Sci-Fi Channel’s Farscape, for one, has promise, though I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet. Likewise with First Wave. But it looks like I’ll have to rely on my dwindling stable of old favorites to get me through. I just hope all the loose plot threads in the X-Files come to a satisfying culmination.
In any event, I can always fall back on the old favorites. Say what you will, but I’d match the original Trek episode “Spock’s Brain” toe to toe against any of the crap currently floating around the dial. I’ve taken a lot of heat for liking this episode, but I think today’s programming geniuses would do well in answering the simple question Kara (the chick who stole Spock’s brain) asks Kirk so fervently:
“Brain and brain? What is brain?!”