Back to the Spice mines

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Susan Sarandon has been taking heat lately for her antiwar messages on television. But in one of those neat twists of TV programming, she will play an evil, warmongering princess on "Children of Dune." The six-hour sequel to one of the most successful basic cable series ever ("Dune") airs on Sunday through Tuesday nights on the Sci-Fi Channel.

In the sequel, Sarandon's character tries to depose her brother-in-law, the head of sci-fi writer Frank Herbert's royal space family, the house of Atreides.

Despite playing a space villain, Sarandon says the story evokes obvious comparisons to current events. "It's very much about fundamentalists," she says. "Whether it's consumer fundamentalists or whether it's religious fundamentalists. It's about religion run amok."

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Indeed, Herbert's work is surprisingly topical, despite being published four decades ago: A deeply religious head of state has unleashed what Herbert himself dubbed "a jihad." His followers are fighting around the universe and upsetting longstanding political alliances.

Alex Newman plays Paul Atreides, whom, he says, has begun to doubt the virtue of his political power. "[The story] is more pertinent to how we exist politically in the world today, with plots and underhanded political devices" used by people to gain an advantage, he says.

For those who are not familiar with the Dune mythology, the big picture includes a vast, futuristic universe, ruled by the planet Dune. The key to power is the mysterious Spice, an animal extract that powers everything from hyperspace travel to higher consciousness - and which is only found on Dune.

While the first book in the Herbert series had been turned into films before, the second and third books that inspired this miniseries have not. Given the time lapse since the "Dune" series last aired in 2000, producers took special care to allow the sequel to stand on its own storytelling merits.

"You can watch 'Children of Dune' and understand it completely, given the context of the world that you're in and the power struggles that are going on," says writer John Harrison.

The actors, most of whom are Herbert fans, are quick to point out that the story isn't just for sci-fi fans.

"You don't have to be a sci-fi geek to get into this," says Julie Cox, who plays Princess Irulan, wife to Paul and sister to Sarandon's Princess Wensicia. "There's relationships, there's love, there's subterfuge...."

Women, especially, may enjoy the sequel, she says, pointing to the powerful princesses, queens, and seers whose actions change worlds. Princess Irulan, for instance, ascends the throne at age 16.

Sarandon signed onto the "Dune" project (she reprises her 2000 role) because she is a fan of Herbert's work. But she adds that she also liked the challenge of playing the bad girl.

"The most interesting villains, just like the most interesting good guys, are the ones that have a shade of something ... not redeemable but a little bit, you know, gray," she says. And, she adds with a laugh, "It's always more fun to play a villain - you don't have the burden of sincerity."

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