A handful of otherworldly and futuristic shows are pulling TV in a new direction.
We were interested in what it all means - the big questions of life," says Rockne O'Bannon, creator of the Sci-Fi Channel show "Farscape." "Are we alone in the universe? Is there good and evil elsewhere?"
Speculative fiction is hot stuff right now on TV: NBC's ghostly "The Others" debuts tomorrow at 10 p.m.; a new post-Apocalyptic series, "Total Recall 2070," premired in national syndication last month; and as a special-event all nine episodes of the near-future show "Harsh Realm" air this spring on the FX channel.
So why is this genre of "what if?" shows expected to attract devoted audiences?
"Speculative fiction gives us the ability to do allegorical stories that cut very close to the bone of what people care about - and do it in a disarming way," says Mark Stern, executive producer of Showtime's "The Outer Limits," an updated version of the classic 1960s sci-fi anthology.
In a coming episode called "Judgment Day," the show lambastes the future of scandal TV. A man is framed for a murder, tried, and convicted by the Judgment Day Network, and then released for the murdered woman's sister to hunt down and kill. In the futuristic context, the episode attacks the entertainment industry's cynicism, the danger of privatization of correctional institutions, and what is arguably a growing trend toward vengeful retribution. It asks "what if" TV could mete out capital justice, as Judge Judy metes out small claims?
Speculative fiction, from sci-fi to fantasy, horror, and the supernatural, asks "What if?" Space operas like "Farscape," "Stargate SG-1" (Showtime), and "Star Trek Voyager" (UPN) propose worlds beyond our own. "What if" technology makes deep-space travel inevitable? What will other worlds be like? Other life forms? What will be the issues facing humankind in such an expanded experience?
In "Farscape," the various species on board the spaceship Leviathan distrust and care for each other by turns - each wanting only to return to their own worlds. Loyalty, courage, compassion, and tolerance are important to survival.
Near-future and futuristic earth sagas like "Now and Again" (CBS), "Pretender" (NBC), "Harsh Realm," and "Total Recall 2070" ask what if technology changes us? What could happen to human societies as technology becomes more advanced? How will mores change? In their own way, each of these shows deals with moral issues without sounding simplistic or moralistic.
'What science can do' and ethical dilemmas
Scholar and writer Jennifer Krammer says that "some sci-fi represents hidden fears of science - and what science can do." That is, euthanasia, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and cloning present new ethical dilemmas.
"Total Recall 2070" suggests a bleak future where democracy and personal freedom have been relinquished in favor of a corporate culture. The stunning design of the show recalls the retro-future look of "Blade Runner" rather than the movie "Total Recall."
Smartly written and performed, this high-minded, entertaining thriller takes on the dehumanizing prospect of a machine-centered culture, corporate greed, and environmental and human-rights issues that would not be tolerated in any other TV genre.
"Harsh Realm" was precipitously yanked from Fox after only three episodes last fall. It pictures a virtual-reality world in which the hero, Hobbes, is trapped. The only way out creates a terrible predicament for him, because in order to return to reality, he must destroy the virtual world. But the virtual characters "have some kind of validity," says executive producer Frank Spotnitz. In other words, souls.
Meanwhile, Hobbes's sidekick, the ever-selfish Mike Pinocchio, "is better than he knows and he keeps doing the right thing despite himself."
Both "The X-Files" (Fox) and "Harsh Realm" are the offspring of Chris Carter, and "what they have in common is that there is more in the universe than we can understand," Mr. Spotnitz says. "We think up what is an intriguing dramatic situation, and not to be didactic, but from there we ask what is the truth we are trying to get at?"
Supernatural comic-dramas like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" and its spinoff, "Angel," (both on WB), as well as the highly serious "The Others" and "The X-Files" suppose a world in which spirits, monsters, demons, and angels invade the human experience as if they were all natural phenomena. Human heroes and heroines must set out to defeat evil.
"The Others" asks what if earthlings could communicate with those "on the other side" in the afterlife? What would it be like? And why would supernatural beings meddle in human affairs?
Well-written and beautifully acted and produced, the supernatural thriller deals in subtle areas of moral concern. Each of the "others," a group who gather to help one another, is sensitive to spectral presences, and each helps the phantoms with unsettled business to find peace. Like "X-Files," "The Others" taps freely into folklore and non-Western as well as Western religious traditions for inspiration. And, like "The X-Files," the stories can be scary or touching.
"They're ghost stories," says Glen Morgan, executive producer of "The Others" and an "X-Files" alum. "Saturday night at 10 you sit down with your family ... and pull up a blanket and turn off the light and say, 'Oh, boy, it's scary.' "
The scary element, in much speculative fiction, is meant to be part of the fun - like riding a roller coaster. But, Mr. Morgan says, "the best part about writing these shows is about the people - how they confront their fear and what they learn from confronting it."
"Roswell" (WB), "First Wave" (Sci-Fi), and of course, "The X-Files" ask what if aliens from outer space were already here? What would they want from us? How would earthlings respond to them?
The premise of "Roswell" was promising, but the tale of three benign alien teenagers trying to hide in plain sight at the local high school now seems thin enough to shove under a door.
In "First Wave," as in "The X-Files," the hero has discovered that malicious aliens have already arrived, are studying humans in order to conquer them, and that he alone, with the help of the predictions of Nostradamus, a 16th-century mystic, can stop them.
There's a lot of that going on - combining the supernatural and science fiction, that is. Even in "Star Trek," with all its hard-science hardware, empaths (who can read emotions) and psychics of various species help unravel mysteries. "The X-Files" is divided among stories of government conspiracies, alien threats, and preternatural or supernatural beings.
Science fused with the supernatural
There are reasons why the ghostly haunts so much of sci-fi, experts say. "Science fiction sometimes comes true," says Dr. Anne Collins Smith of the philosophy department at Susquehanna University in Selingsgrove, Penn. "So when you incorporate the supernatural in it, it gives more credence to the supernatural."
"Society has changed over the last 30 years," adds her husband, Dr. Owen Smith, also of Susquehanna. "A lot of the scientific discoveries that have trickled down to high school and elementary school emphasize the unimportance of humanity - [such as] the size of the universe, which is unimaginably large. The age of the earth, too ... evolution, genetics, and advances in psychology have taken away responsibility for our actions."
But sci-fi and the supernatural endorse the limitations of science - truth is beyond science. Reality is richer than science tells us, Owen Smith says. "The struggle between good and evil for the souls of human beings emphasizes the importance of human beings."
"Speculative fictions tell mythic stories," says Chris Brancato, executive producer of "First Wave." The reason he settled on the predictions of Nostradamus as his device to keep the hero clued is simple - the oracle from the 16th century gives scope and importance to the stories. "Clear notions of good and evil are not so distinct in real life as they are in speculative fiction," Mr. Brancato says. "We all know it's not real. But it allows you to step back from ordinary experience - it creates a remove that lets you tackle subjects of a moral nature that you couldn't otherwise."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society