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Space Oddity

Science fiction has faltered on network TV. So why is Sci Fi Channel flourishing?

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Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck and Apollo.  

If you need me to explain that Cylons are the bad guys in the Battlestar Galactica series—so bad, in fact, that they’re actually synthetic, like something potlucked in a South Korean stem-cell lab—then you’d be better off reading the rest of the magazine. This week I am all about Sci Fi Channel, in planetary particular, and science fiction on television, in cosmic general. Besides Galactica, both Stargate SG-1 and its derivative, Stargate: Atlantis, return for new seasons on the same night on the same cable channel. So while Edward James Olmos, commander of Galactica, and Michelle Forbes, admiral of Pegasus, set aside deep-space differences to team up against the Cylon threat, over at Stargate SG-1, General Beau Bridges is worrying simultaneously about plague and Lou Gossett Jr., who has signed on with the evil Ori. Next door at Stargate: Atlantis, the gorgeous Torri Higginson and the not-so-much Mitch Pileggi must figure out how to rescue half their team from a Wraith hive ship.

It’s amazing that the original Galactica, a Star Wars ripoff so moronic it lowered the IQ of its audience five points per hour, would ever inspire more than a snigger, much less a successful reincarnation. (Though changing the sex of Lieutenant Starbuck, from Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff, helped immensely.) It’s merely surprising that Stargate SG-1—which improved on the big-screen original by substituting Richard Dean Anderson’s sense of humor for Kurt Russell’s conceptual difficulty with the whole idea of a smile—would not only survive Anderson’s defection from the series, but attract enough loyal viewers to make the Atlantis spinoff possible. That said, we can now settle down once a week for three straight hours out of this world. How could this have happened when such superior sci-fi series as Max Headroom, Alien Nation, VR.5, Roswell, and Firefly struck out on network television? Not even Chris Carter could repeat his X-Files success with either Harsh Realm or Millennium.

Much as we may appreciate what Mary McDonnell does on Galactica, or Michael Shanks and Amanda Tapping do on Stargate, characters we care about can’t be the only explanation, or Shatner’s original Star Trek would have lasted as long on NBC as its several sequels did in syndication. Nor can it be that one set of wormholes and cyborgs is more agreeable than another set of gene-spliced cheese doodles, no matter how much money they spend on special effects. We will sit still, or not, for anything, from Cold War B-flick collectivized Bolshevik killer ants, to warm and fuzzy close encounters with Spielberg pollywogs, to Wagnerian space operas where George Lucas makes Carrie Fisher wear her hair in bagels, to an insecticidal Sigourney Weaver and the gasbag ninjas of The Matrix. From cyberpunk fiction, some of us even hoped that late capitalism and its marketing of commodified emotions could be vanquished by an outlaw culture of computer hackers with nose studs, mirror shades, vector graphics, chaos theory, and the grace of hip. But then hip was abducted by mallrats and the Wachowski brothers.

What we forget is that science fiction is meant to be subversive. We consume it outside the classroom of official culture, in the closet, in the woods, on the barricades. It lets us imagine the other and odd; the old, poor, sick, and strange; class differences, racial divisions, and gender confusions. So naturally, sci-fi television thrived first in syndication, where we had to seek it out, and then on its very own cable channel, where we spend whole days watching Godzilla marathons and entire weekends running away from made-for-TV catastrophes (earthquake, avalanche, tidal wave, volcano) or from made-for-TV invasions (spiders, locusts, snakes, and fish). Like the late, lamented Roswell, where 16-year-olds revealed that they’d been hatched from alien seeds in the New Mexican desert, this is niche programming for the paranoid. It puts us back in touch with our inner alien teen—a lost soul with call waiting.

Battlestar Galactica
Sci Fi Channel.
Fridays, 10 p.m.
Debuts January 6.

Stargate SG-1
Sci Fi Channel.
Fridays, 8 p.m.
Debuts January 6.

Stargate: Atlantis
Sci Fi Channel.
Fridays, 9 p.m.
Debuts January 6.


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