Adding wit, weirdness to sci-fi

With 'Chronicle' and 'Invisible Man,' the Sci-Fi Channel offers fresh alternatives

'Science fiction's time has come of age," says Bonnie Hammer, president of the Sci-Fi Channel. "We're all walking around with cellphones and palm pilots, reading our e-mail; information is flying back and forth via fax - way beyond what was predicted even 10 years ago.... More scientists are saying they do believe there is life on other planets. Science fiction is not quirky anymore; we live in a futuristic world now."

Sci-fi is doing well on TV and in the movies, too. Part of the reason lies in the human imagination's need to penetrate the mysterious - to make itself at home with what it does not understand and to detoxify its fears about the unknown. Even unnameable catastrophes (monsters) are less frightening if human beings can defeat them.

Then, too, what we know of our past makes us long to imagine and inhabit our future. We identify with those noble future astronauts who offer us a window onto a shrinking universe. We want to look back with them on our own era.

Cautionary tales are popular in the genre. It's a good place to consider ethics. Who are we? Are we noble specimens of our world? Are we harming our planet beyond repair? Are we creating an environmental apocalypse? These questions are asked in science fiction, and almost all involve one long search for the meaning of our existence: Do we belong here among the stars?

So it's not too surprising that the Sci-Fi Channel is prospering. (It added another night of all-original programming this year) and that its new president is developing different kinds of original programming to keep the fans intrigued. In fact, the channel is establishing itself as a purveyor of witty, well-written, and alternative TV. "We're defining sci-fi as anything outside what we know to be true," says Ms. Hammer.

The new series The Chronicle (Saturdays, 9 p.m.) is perhaps the best Sci-Fi news of this season. Witty and weird, it boasts a fine ensemble cast and a delightful premise: Consider what the world would be like if all those supermarket tabloid stories were true! Based on the book, "News from the Edge" by Mark Sumner, the show is "Men in Black" meets "The Front Page," and it has a story arc that celebrates integrity and conscience.

'Sci-fi is really appealing because you can postulate all kinds of things that will never come true," says "Chronicle" Executive producer Robert Greenblatt. "We make the outlandish seem plausible.... It is an intelligent genre, because there is so much science in it.... If there is a topic we're covering [say, cloning], we do feel we have to be up on the science. But in our case, we add a lot of humor, and that's a breath of fresh air."

Mr. Greenblatt likes his characters. Tucker Burns is a legitimate reporter. But following the truth sometimes means finding little green men - and reporting on them, no matter what the cost in terms of personal reputation. "There's a nobility in that decision," says Greenblatt. And it's true; that's why we like Tucker - and all the rest of them - they report the facts even though they know the world won't believe them.

The Invisible Man pays homage to the 1933 Claude Rains classic. It's a dramedy about a thief who is saved from execution when he agrees to have a nasty organism implanted in his brain - one that can make him invisible at will. Espionage and a wise-cracking antihero, a standard of the crime genre, disappears Friday nights at 8 p.m.

The intelligent, beautifully produced, sometimes soulful space opera, Farscape (Fridays at 9 p.m.), is in its third season and growing in popularity. A human astronaut who was caught in a worm hole has discovered space Nazis and assorted other villains threatening the universe. Last week's battle with the forces of evil killed him. Will John Crighton return, or is he gone forever? Produced by the Jim Henson Company and Hallmark Entertainment, " 'Farscape' is a fabulous vehicle for looking at ethical, moral, political, and social issues," says Hammer, adding that, in fact, these tales, like so many sci-fi stories, are really morality plays.

First Wave (Saturdays at 8 p.m.) is winding down to its conclusion (unless some deus ex machina salvation saves it). This alien invasion story, like "The X-Files" before it, involves the paranormal as well as "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" creepiness. But it has been a pleasure to watch actor Sebastian Spence grow into his role as the hero guided by Nostradamus predictions.

The Outer Limits (Saturdays at 10 p.m.) is on its seventh season, but this is its first on Sci-Fi, and it's as good or better than ever.

Hammer emphasizes Friday and Saturday nights, because the networks have traditionally neglected these nights. Her strategy for the channel includes lots of minis and movies as well as more "reality" series. (Here's hoping they prove more interesting than the channel's physic show, "Crossing Over with John Edwards.")

But the most promising prospect of all is a collaboration with Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks for "Taken." The 20-hour epic adventure, slated to air in 2002, covers 50 years and three families plagued by alien abductions. As high up on the dial as the Sci-Fi Channel is, it will surely lure more viewers with programming of this caliber.

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