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.
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.
"At first I thought of it as an immigrant story," says executive producer Jason Kitims. "The immigrants didn't know much about where they were from - it was an assimilation story. But as they began to find out more about their origins, and that they weren't alone, it led to larger stories - epic in nature. The stories have grander themes - what it means to be a leader of your people, that there is a reason for them to be here on earth - and each has a role to play."
In a "Roswell" episode airing Dec. 18, young Max will have to decide whether he should use his power to heal for the good of human beings. What is his responsibility to humankind? Healing others will expose him to great danger. It's an epic moral issue - what he owes mankind versus what he owes himself and his own people.
The wonderful Farscape, with its great cast of Australian actors, creatures from Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and strong writing, gets better with every episode. It offers one cautionary tale after another - but always grippingly well-told and never preachy.
A small group of outcasts from humanoid and non-humanoid societies have banded together to evade the evil Scorpious and defend each other. They are crew members of a living spaceship. At every turn, they face religious and cultural differences, acknowledging other mindsets and working toward compromise. But that compromise never comes at the expense of each individual's fundamental ethics.
Into this teeming TV stew of space aliens and techno-future stories, Dune comes as another welcome cross-cultural epic. It is beautifully photographed, for the most part well acted, though there are a few plot holes, a few sketchy characters, and a few too many computer-animated special effects, there's a lot here for the space-opera buff to enjoy. The cultures invented by author Herbert resonate with earthlings. The miniseries both defends and questions rigid religious beliefs, customs, and individual social responsibility.
For the uninitiated, "Dune" is the story of the desert planet Arrakis. Duke Leto Atreides is posted there by the Emperor (played with Machiavellian glee by Italian star Giancarlo Giannini) to supervise the mining of the most valuable commodity in the universe - "Spice" - which makes space travel possible, confers long life, and gives the powerful more power still.
When Duke Leto (William Hurt) is murdered, his son, Paul (Alec Newman), and his son's mother, the Lady Jessica (Saskia Reeves), escape to the desert and seek the Fremen, a fierce but honorable race of desert nomads who wait for a messiah.
When Paul's significant psychic powers make it appear that he is their messiah, they follow him with a single-mindedness that makes possible warfare on the evil house of Harkonnen and rebellion against the emperor.
But the real heart of the piece is the life among the Fremen - which incorporates technological gadgetry amid a sort of psychic wonder works and an elaborate belief system within a desert tribal framework. "Dune" is a cautionary tale, warning against mindless religious fanaticism. Writer and director Harrison says what really immersed him in the story was the cultural detail.
"When you look at the book, it's mostly about politics and religion and human interconnections," he says. "That led me to the obvious study ... of the different groupings of people Herbert created to illuminate his drama - and the human drama. He created a feudal society set in the future that had a competition among royal houses - not unlike our Middle Ages."
Each of these royal houses, he continues, is a sophisticated culture. And add to that a religious sorority that has been practicing mystical rituals for hundreds of years and has been trying to breed a perfect human.
"Every one of these groups had its own cultural identity," he says. "I thought it would make the drama much richer if I could bring out these details - what kind of environments they lived in, what kind of clothes they wore, even down to the rituals and religious observances."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society