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Sci-Fi Flies High

The epic TV series 'Dune' is one of many otherworldly shows examining contemporary moral issues.

By M.S. Mason Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor / December 1, 2000

The unleashing of Frank Herbert's "Dune" as a six-hour miniseries (Sci-Fi Channel, Dec. 3-5, 9-11 p.m.) is big news for science-fiction buffs.

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It is, as screenwriter and director John Harrison observes, an epic adventure, filled with all-important anthropological data on a variety of fictional cultures.

Crossing cultures is what sci-fi does for a living. The other thing sci-fi does well is tell epic tales in which all those imagined cultures have room to interact.

Seen in a certain light, most sci-fi shows on TV are epics in series form. Their continuing stories tell large tales of heroes in human and extraterrestrial form, who slay bizarre "dragons," search for something like the Holy Grail (think of the tag line for "The X-Files" - "The truth is out there"), and confront the very human concerns facing our ever-so-terrestrial present.

"One of the things we've always done on 'Star Trek,' " says executive producer Ken Biller, "is to take a look at contemporary social, moral, and cultural issues, and using science fiction to create a metaphor and a framework in which to explore them."

The same may be said for the other important space fantasy, "Farscape," the earth-bound "Dark Angel," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Roswell," "The X-Files," "Invisible Man," "Level 9," and "First Wave."

Because television doesn't often represent the stories of other cultures, we need sci-fi to fill the gaping hole. While the nightly news speaks of the "global economy" on a regular basis, most American television reflects little of that reality. TV does court ethnic diversity, but only within the context of big-city USA. Only documentaries truly reveal non-Western cultures to us.

But the "what if" of science-fiction epics allows cross-cultural representation - especially, but not exclusively, in the space operas where alien cultures bump up against one another and tolerance and insight into the workings of "other" sensibilities are always of prime importance.

Of course, a certain sensibility is still the norm on these shows. At their core, each and every one expresses the "do unto others as you would be done by" ethic.

Very often, as in "The X-Files," "Dune," "First Wave" and "Farscape," there's a cautionary argument about when tolerance is inappropriate.

Last week's X-Files dealt with a (human) religious cult that used human beings as hosts (and ultimately sacrifices them) to a strange alien, burrowing creature. "In some cases, intolerance is a good thing," says executive producer Frank Spotnitz of these cultish doings. "We try to think independently, not politically.... [But 'X-Files' characters] Mulder and Scully operate with higher ideals - 'the truth is out there.' And they are protecting democracy."

While Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spinoff, Angel, seem to plead for tolerance and understanding of young people and their special gifts, "Buffy" and "Angel" are never tolerant of vampires - or humans that try to use the vampires to their own nefarious ends.

"Monsters are metaphors for the maladies of the human heart," says Marti Noxon, "Buffy" co-executive producer. "The monsters of speculative fiction [of which sci-fi is one form] are what we fear and go through every day."

The Star Trek franchise, including "Voyager," the fourth spinoff in a series that has stretched over 25 seasons and will end this spring, while always promoting tolerance, draws the line at some aggressive species - all of whom reflect human cultures. Thus the Vulcans are like Greco-Roman stoics, the Klingons borrow from ancient Samurai warriors, the Cardassians resemble Nazis.

In contrast, the teenage aliens of Roswell are a sympathetic, peace-loving lot, equipped with special gifts and capable of doing mankind great good - if only mankind would let them. In this series, the viewer is meant to identify with the young heroes and side with them against the "dominant," i.e., adult, human culture that threatens their very lives.