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Sci-Fi Gets Ready for the Millennium

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SCI-FI fans may have something of a philosophical problem with the movie "Doctor Who" (Fox, Tuesday at 8 P.M.). First, there's the look. "Pretty low-tech," comments the beleaguered heroine, Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook), glacing around a lab lighted by candles and constructed of what look like old bridge girders. Most of all, though, it's the tone, which aficionados of current science faction on television may find, well, slightly off.

To pick a scene, it is seconds before midnight on New Year's Eve, 1999, and odd events are in motion. For one thing, it's snowing in Hawaii; for another, unless Grace can untangle a spaghetti of wires and splice the right two, the entire planet will be sucked into a giant eye at the exact turn of the millennium.

It's a harried time for Grace, not to mention Doctor Who (Paul McGann), that intrepid time traveler and do-gooder of sci-fi fame, who would giver her a hand were he not flat on his back and trussed up by the evil Master (Eric Roberts). as insitgator of Earth's predicament of triumph he suddenly appears decked out in a grand cape. "We have no time to lose!" he cries. "But time to change!" shouts the doctor.

Always with the jokes, this "Doctor Who." That's not exactly appreciated by many sci-fi buffs. In its usual series format, the show was a funny, low-budget staple of British television for 26 years before going off the air in 1989. In the United States, where it has been on PBS stations since 1974, "Doctor Who" still has more than 100 fan clubs. The Fox movie, in fact, is a pilot for a new series proposed for this fall.

A revived "Doctor Who" would make a high-profile addition to a growing sci-fi presence on television. But in the view of many who produce and watch television science fiction, that doesn't allow the doctor to toss off one-liners, especially with the world hanging fire. No that the makers of today's sci-fi are dour lot, but they are uncomfortable with shows that might be taken as frivolous.

More than ever, sci-fi wants to be taken seriously. "By serious we mean not comical, not treated in a farcical way," said Barry Schulman, vice president for programming of the USA Networks' Sci-Fi Channel, which was begun in 1992 and despite predictions of failure has become the source of a growing number of shows, ranging from sightings of the paranormal to excursions into the occult.

Long gone is the juvenilia of the 1950's, when kicking out a piece of 2 by 4 could collapse an entire set of "Captain Video." Today computer-generated images create worlds that almost seem real. "We hadn't been to the moon in the 50's, " Mr. Schulman said. "Now sicence fact has changed our perception of science fiction."

In sci-fi's dim past, technology may have been futuristic but serfs ran around in gunnysacks in the year 3000. No longer. "We want the believable," he said. "Not the farfetched, but science fiction with roots in reality."

As perhaps the best example of this, producers cite "The X-Filtes," now in its third season on Fox. On the show, the F.B.I. agent Fox Mulder, an avid student of the paranormal, plunges into investigations of unexplainable events while a fellow agent and skeptic, Dana Scully, keeps him honest and reports on his activities to the bureau.

"It has all the trappings of reality," said Tim Brooks, senior vice president for research of USA Networks. "This isn't a world totally divorced from our own. There are real people and problems you can relate to. That's the view people want."

Last month the Sci-Fi Channel introduced "The Odyssey," about the conscious and subconscious lives of a young accident victim. The show dove-tails with the swing away form pure fantasy that has been going on since the late 1980's but has become more pronounced in the 1990's. "We 've vetoed the hardware shows and others that made fun of the medium and turned to human dramas," said Pen Densham, an executive producer of "The Outer Limits" and the new "Poltergeist," which had its premiere last month, both on Showtime.

Today's sci-fi producers describe their creations as serious drama with science fiction running through it. That approach has its roots in "The Twilight Zone," one sci-fi show of the late 50's and early 1960's that became a classic and was related to the crtically acclaimed television theater of the era, particularly "Playhouse 90."

In the mid-1960's, however, television suffered a silly season dominated by sitcoms like 'Gilligan's Island." By the early 1970's, the fluff age had given way to "All in the Family" and other shows with messages.

Neither extreme was conducive to good sci-fi, which after "The Twilight Zone" was no longer dumbed down enough for the sitcom period nor, since the genre by definition had to deal with the fantastic, real enough for the socially concerned 70's. "All the way to the late 70's and into the 80's, there was really no science fiction at all," Mr. Brooks said.

By the 80's, though, sci-fi had scored a major comeback on the movie screen, if not on television. "Star Wars" and Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," both released in 1977, were the first of many mega-hits, including the seven "Star Trek" films. In 1982, another Spielberg film, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," became the biggest box-office hit of all time.

For "Star Trek" in particular, the success of the movies led to a rich new life on telvision. The show, which always stressed characters and relationships, had fared poorly during a three-year-run on NBC in the unreceptive late 1960's."It bounced all over the schedule and never got high in the ratings," Mr. Brooks said.

On television the sci-fi drought broke in 1987 with "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The series, a huge hit, took the television industry completely by surprise. "It wasn't about laser battles but relationships, and that drew not just kids but women as well as men in the 18-to-49 age range," Mr. Brooks said.

That audience, the prime target of programmers, also gravitates to shows like "The Outer Limits," now in its second season, which is also about coping with the paranormal. "We have a chance to tell morality tales and parables set against the backdrop of science fiction," said Richard Lewis, the creator of "Poltergeist: The Legacy" and co-executive producer with Mr. Densham.

Mr. Lewis said that he sensed a curiosity but also an anxiety in viewers. "The year 2000 is a psychic waterfall for us. People are afraid of what's beyond. The Chinese aren't worried about it, but we are. Science fiction taps into that. People want to be reassured, but they also want to be exhilarated by these incredible situations."

He and other producers also sense that audiences want to be guided. "The Outer Limits," he said, puts a spin on "urban legends and old wives' tales that show people the right way to behave." The same is true of "Poltergeist," about a globe-hopping team of psychic and spiritual sleuths called the Legacy. The show dwells on the supernatural. "Science fiction is the technological way of getting to the fairy tale," Mr. Densham said. " 'Poltergeist' is the superstitious way."

The supernatural can be tricky business on television. "It's the occult, which tends to be cerebral, which TV audiences aren't," said Mr. Densham. But for Mr. Lewis, his partner, the goal of good programming is the smae for both genres. "It's scary, it's entertaining, and you learn something," he said.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Nichols, Peter M. (1996-05-12). Sci-Fi Gets Ready for the Millennium. The New York Times p. sec. 12, p. 3.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Nichols, Peter M.. "Sci-Fi Gets Ready for the Millennium." The New York Times [add city] 1996-05-12, sec. 12, p. 3. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Nichols, Peter M.. "Sci-Fi Gets Ready for the Millennium." The New York Times, edition, sec., 1996-05-12
  • Turabian: Nichols, Peter M.. "Sci-Fi Gets Ready for the Millennium." The New York Times, 1996-05-12, section, sec. 12, p. 3 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Sci-Fi Gets Ready for the Millennium | url= | work=The New York Times | pages=sec. 12, p. 3 | date=1996-05-12 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=16 August 2022 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Sci-Fi Gets Ready for the Millennium | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=16 August 2022}}</ref>