Science fiction battles odds but survives, flourishes on TV

by Gail Pennington

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

25 June 2009


“Star Trek” was canceled after just three seasons, then grew into one of the most popular and influential franchises in science fiction history. Ever since, fans of the genre have pointed fingers, accusing TV networks of being too quick on the phaser with science fiction shows, canceling them without allowing time to build an audience.

True enough. But despite fans’ frustration at the loss of such series as “Firefly” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” this is a rich time for science fiction and fantasy on both network and cable TV.

This week, Fox debuts “Virtuality,” Ronald D. Moore’s still-alive pilot for a series about virtual reality on a space ship, and BBC America resurrects David Tennant’s “Doctor Who.”

Later this summer, SyFy (the renamed Sci Fi Channel) will introduce “Warehouse 13,” about FBI agents assigned to a top-secret warehouse housing mysterious artifacts, and bring back the wacky scientists of “Eureka.”

In the fall, new network offerings exploring global catastrophes, unexplained phenomena, vampires, witches and past-life regression will join the returning “Dollhouse” and “Fringe” on Fox, “Chuck” and “Heroes” on NBC, “Supernatural” on the CW and “Lost” on ABC.

Moore, whose popular and critically acclaimed “Battlestar: Galactica” ended its run this season, has the prequel “Caprica” on hold for an expected debut on SyFy early next year.

But “Virtuality” has endured more ups and downs than the space shuttle. After ordering the pilot last year, Fox asked Moore and co-writer Michael Taylor to cut it to one hour from two, and when that didn’t work, the network passed. Most observers assumed the project was dead.

Not yet, Moore said in a recent telephone press conference.

“It’s a pilot for a series, and Fox is going to broadcast it as a two-hour movie,” he said. “They haven’t picked it up to date. ... I think right now it doesn’t look like it’s going to series, but I think if enough people watched and enough people got excited about it, anything is possible.”

Unlike many people working in science fiction, Moore is sympathetic to the networks in the decision-making process that cuts some series short.

“It’s a difficult time for the networks in general,” he said. “Everybody in the business has a sense that television is changing right underneath our feet, (and) nobody has an idea of what it’s changing to. That anxiety ... contributes to an atmosphere of panic and fear, of saying, ‘Oh, my God. It didn’t work. Yank. We can’t afford the time to stick with this show. We gave it four episodes and that’s it.’”

That’s unfortunate, Moore said, because “many of the most successful shows on TV had rocky starts, and they really required networks that believed in the process and were willing to stick by them . ... Unfortunately, we’re in an atmosphere where everyone is really worried about what’s going to happen next week. ... It’s really tough. I would not want to be in charge of one of these networks.”

In “Virtuality,” the intent was to “explore the human character in an extreme setting,” Moore said in background material about the program, calling it “outwardly very different from ‘Battlestar Galactica’ but similar in its intent.”

In “BSG,” the setting was “a ragtag fleet of ships fleeing an apocalypse in a solar system far, far away and — as it turned out — a long time ago,” Moore said.

In “Virtuality,” the setting is the near future, when a single spaceship leaves Earth for a 10-year voyage. To help deal with the tedium and confinement, the 12-member crew has been equipped with an advanced virtual reality program — a system that has a bug in it.

“It’s in this nexus of reality and ‘virtuality’ where our characters’ shared and private worlds collide,” he explained, adding, “We set out to tell a cool story. We also intended to entertain and provoke, which is what good writing always tries to do.”

Fox’s attitude on “Virtuality” remains “kind of wait and see,” Moore said in the conference call.

“I think they want to see what the reaction is going to be,” he said. “What are the critics going to say? Is it going to get word of mouth? Are fans going to gravitate to it, or is the science fiction community really going to turn up for it?”

Not just ratings and demographics but also “buzz and excitement” could affect the decision.

Sci-fi fans couldn’t be blamed if they were reluctant to get excited about a project clinging so tenuously to life. But here’s a look at other new shows on the schedule that fit into the sci-fi and fantasy genre.

— “Doctor Who,” 9 p.m. Saturday and July 26 on BBC America: Tennant’s last two appearances as the Doctor are a Christmas special and, next week, an Easter outing. Matt Smith takes over the role next year.

—“Warehouse 13,” 9 p.m. July 7 on SyFy: FBI agents Joanne Kelly and Eddie McClintock are put in charge of retrieving supernatural artifacts and returning them to a secret warehouse in a series with “X-Files” overtones.

—“Torchwood: Children of Earth,” 9 p.m. July 20 on BBC America: The five-episode Series 3 airs as a miniseries, five nights in a row.

—“Being Human,” July 25 on BBC America: A 20-something vampire, werewolf and ghost are roommates.

For fall and beyond:

—“Flash Forward”: The whole world blacks out in a mysterious event that also produces flashes of the future. Fall on ABC.

—“Vampire Diaries”: A high school girl is fascinated by a new boy who’s actually a centuries-old vampire. Fall on the CW.

—“Eastwick”: A new spin on “The Witches of Eastwick.” Midseason on ABC.

—“V”: The 1980s alien miniseries is updated. Midseason on ABC.

—“Day One”: A limited-run series follows a group of survivors after a global catastrophe. Midseason on NBC.

—“Past Life”: A team investigates past lives to solve problems in present lives. Midseason on Fox.

//Mixed media