Boldly going where no one has gone before, science fiction maintains a hard-core following and continues to make converts with offbeat, intelligent entertainments as diverse as "The X-Files" on Fox and "Babylon 5," currently on TNT.
These shows are excellent examples of the two main branches of TV's science fiction offerings, the earth-based SF thriller and the space opera. Off on its own is NBC's science fiction comedy Third Rock From the Sun, a goofball take on just how odd human beings might seem to extraterrestrials.
And now a new thriller beams down Thursday nights, though this one has few thrills to offer. Prey, on ABC, is no match for the likes of "The X-Files" or "Millennium" (Fox), which inventively explore the shadows of mystery. There is nothing inventive about "Prey."
SF continues to appeal to a range of viewers for a variety of reasons. Imagining the future, or a universe peopled with intelligent life forms, is part of it. The characters must also engage us with their humanity, their sense of purpose, their sacrifices for humankind. No matter how devilish the foe or world-weary the hero, he or she cannot be absolutely cynical. The search for right answers to wrong circumstances requires skepticism, maybe, but also openness and virtue.
Though Millennium concerns the paranormal rather than the extraterrestrial, the show appeals to the SF audience, and here, too, its flawed hero is always ready at the rescue.
The most highly regarded of them all - though often gruesome - is The X-Files, now winding up toward the ultimate episode, the movie (to be released theatrically this summer). The show presents the hero and heroine engaged in a quest for truth. FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) is trying to find his sister who was abducted under mysterious circumstances when they were children. In his search for the truth, he encounters all kinds of plots and counterplots, supernatural doings, and alien manifestations.
Since Mulder's mind is wide open, his partner, agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), is there to challenge his findings and keep his imagination in check. Answers produce more questions, there are no neat plot packages, and profound affection (no sex) unites the two searchers in a believable bond.
The space dramas, too, are peopled with exemplary human beings, along with a cosmic assortment of villains. Multiculturalism is the biggest fact of life on "Babylon 5" and UPN's "Star Trek: Voyager." The engaging Babylon 5 is about interstellar politics and inter-species relations, emphasizing the threat that greed, species chauvinism, and selfishness pose to intergalactic peace. In the space operas, an earthling may be captain, but critters from other galaxies take the helm, succor the troubled, and rule star systems.
Humankind has evolved a tad toward dignity and justice in these shows, despite the occasional villain, and whatever violent urges are left in the human characters are never indulged except in defense of life and limb. Star Trek: Voyager (all new episodes this month) appeals to us largely because it presents a kind of inter-species family on board the Starship Voyager. Led by a wise and caring captain (Kate Mulgrew), this ship may often be in danger and far from home, but its home life is still intact. It fantasizes a community of equals - highly idealistic and humane, though military in structure.
One essential of the SF-thriller genre remains: that the premise, however impossible, is made to seem plausible. But the premise of "Prey" is preposterous. It concerns the evolution of a new superhuman species on earth bent on the destruction of humankind. The explanation for the fanatical killer instinct of this new creature is that two species cannot occupy the same ecological niche at the same time. Natural selection in this case includes serial rape and murder.
But bad anthropology isn't the worst news about "Prey." Poorly written and tedious, it isn't even scary.