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The Space Place

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Science Fiction Fans Raise Money To Get Their Favorite Shows On The Air, Turning Channel 42 Into ... The Space Place

It's a match made in heaven or rather the heavens, in whatever spaceship or asteroid captures the suitors' vivid imaginations.

The eager groom: area science-fiction fans lusting after defunct TV shows like Doctor Who and Red Dwarf.

The blushing bride: Palm Beach County's WXEL-Ch. 42, struggling like other PBS stations in a world of shrinking government grants.

The prenuptial agreement: Fan support, fund-raising and research even some production services in return for putting the fans' beloved shows on the air.

Since July 1994, four sci-fi and fantasy shows three British, one American and several films have made their way onto the WXEL schedule. If the current fund drive goes well, more are on the way.

WXEL's "Science Fiction Task Force" is a committee of station executives and representatives from a half-dozen area fan clubs. The fans raise the money and find the programs. WXEL provides the hardware and air time.

A year after the union began, both sides are still cooing like newlyweds.

"We're delighted with what they've helped us accomplish," says station president Mary Souder. "Sci-fi is not a big niche, but it's a deep one. And [broadcasting it) is consistent with our role of educating the community."

Mutual admiration from Dan Harris of Margate, media coordinator of the nine-member task force: "In the past, TV stations would let fans visit and maybe answer the phones but we wouldn't be taken seriously. WXEL is different."

Thanks to Harris and fellow aficionados, Ch. 42 airtime includes:

-- Red Dwarf, a space parody played strictly for laughs. The show, set aboard a runaway space freighter, has four main characters: an obsequious android; an abrasive holographic man; a super-evolved, fashion-obsessed cat; and one real human who thinks, incorrectly, that he can play guitar like Jimi Hendrix.

-- The Tomorrow People, about a foursome of youngsters who can teleport, read one another's minds and move objects by mental power supposedly the next step in human evolution.

-- The New Twilight Zone, a mid-1980s color revival of the mysterious anthology series written and hosted by Rod Serling in the early '60s.

-- The biggest victory has been Doctor Who, the longest-running sci-fi TV series ever produced. The story of an enigmatic time and space traveler, Doctor Who was in production from 1963 to 1989; a total of 130 half-hour episodes were made.

Doctor Who traveled with various female companions in the Tardis, a time machine cleverly disguised as a British police phone booth. Together they faced a host of mock-serious menaces: blocky-looking Cybermen, schools of Loch Ness-type monsters, robot mummies, galactic-class criminals, religious cultists. Perhaps the most ludicrous were the Daleks, merciless cyborgs resembling giant salt shakers impaled with mini-trumpets.

Over its 13-year run, the show went through numerous changes from black-and-white to color, film to videotape, dead serious to tongue-in-cheek. The role of title character changed hands six times. (Producers excused the recasting by saying the Doctor could shape-shift at will.)

The fans good-naturedly bought it and still do. They'll scour several continents for lost "Holy Grail episodes," as they call them. They'll lovingly take toothbrush and cleaning fluid to old tapes. They'll compile dossiers on shows and stars, inviting the actors to their own tiny conventions.

The way they describe it, the fans are rather like sci-fi Israelites seeking a Promised Land for their peculiar tastes. Harris says he has approached several stations to air sci-fi oldies over the years. "I'd even offer to help promote the shows. Most of [the station executives) said I was out of my mind." i

During the 1980s, WPBT-Ch. 2 in Miami aired Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and Blakes Seven the latter a Star Wars-type space opera but tapered off as the decade waned, finally halting the shows in 1989.

-- In late 1993, T.J. Lubinsky - a fan as well as a TV director at WXEL - gathered members of groups such as Star Fleet, the local Star Trek fan club; two Doctor Who clubs, the Guardians of Gallifrey (a reference to the Doctor's home planet) and Tardis Repairs Inc.; and the South Florida Science Fiction Society (SFSFS), affectionately dubbed "Sisyphus," for the mythical Greek condemned forever to roll a rock up a hill without reaching the top.

At WXEL they got a Sisyphean challenge: The station would air the shows if the fans could find them - and pay for them.

In January 1994, Lubinsky called the first meeting of the Science Fiction Task Force, which set about planning a six-hour "Pledge Night" and mini-expo. The task force taped humorous promotional clips and recruited 55 volunteers for sound, cameras, security and the phone bank. They persuaded an airline and a mortgage company to pay travel expenses for British actor John Levene, who was in Doctor Who from 1968 to 1974, to join them as a celebrity guest.

The event was telecast on July 30 last year, interspersed with Doctor Who episodes featuring each of the seven Doctors. The fund-raising goal was modest - $5,000 for 58 half-hour Doctor Who episodes - but the task force could claim a smashing victory when it overshot that mark by $1,200.

"It was a reality check for the staff here," Lubinsky recalls. "It showed them a world they didn't suspect existed. We had people driving in from Miami and Orlando and Tampa to help."

Other donations came from Palm Beach Community College, which underwrites The New Twilight Zone, and the Nickelodeon cable network, which is producing new episodes of The Tomorrow People. The Sci-Fi Channel underwrites Sci-Fi Saturday Night, a weekly block of programs starting at 9 p.m.

"WXEL's whole approach is innovative," says Charles Martin. As president of the Orlando-based Guardians of Gallifrey, he promotes Doctor Who at about eight stations around the country. "They've discovered that if an offbeat show has a small but loyal audience, it can have an impact equivalent to a show that has a large audience."

-- This audience is more than loyal, it is aggressive. The task force has tracked down Twilight Zone footage in New Zealand, Doctor Who tapes in Nigeria, Tomorrow People tapes in Canada. The latter were in bad shape - the 2-inch masters had begun oxidizing and melting. The fans carefully cleaned the tapes with toothbrushes and cleaning fluid, then recorded them onto new masters.

The members boast of assembling "Planet of the Daleks," a six-part storyline they say has never been shown in toto on American television. Neither have all six episodes of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs," a Doctor Who miniseries about extremists who try to colonize the Mesozoic Era.

Task force members seem to reserve their deepest affection for British sci-fi, with its absurdist humor, surreal plot lines and dauntlessly cheesy production values. But their tastes can be eclectic: They recently found some episodes of Flash Gordon, the '50s TV series featuring Buster Crabbe, as well as the late-'50s series One Step Beyond. Those are scheduled to start on WXEL in September.

The task force keeps in touch with supporters by running an occasional call-in show, called Task Force Live. They also produce a quarterly show, Interstellar Interconnect, which reports news on science fiction shows and films, and includes interviews with sci-fi stars such as Tim Russ (Tuvok the Vulcan on Star Trek: Voyager). They publish a fanzine, Interstellar Transmissions, under WXEL's aegis. The eight-page quarterly contains rundowns on upcoming episodes of the four series running on the station.

For much of the background information, the task force doesn't have to go far - just to the Coral Springs home of one of its members, Mark Woda. A collector of books, magazines and other materials on sci-fi in TV and movies, Woda usually has all the archival materials that are needed.

Like other task force fans, Woda finds it hard to articulate his attraction to the genre. "I guess one element is the fight between good and evil - that's always the theme in Doctor Who. Also that life goes on - that there is hope for the future."

WXEL president Souder, though not a real aficionado, stoutly touts sci-fi as a valid educational mission for a PBS station. "It can explore serious ethical questions in an entertaining and provocative way. And do it in a way that's not threatening. I've seen shows on genocide, population control and medical ethics. "This notwithstanding the rubber makeup, tongue-in-cheek writing and often campy acting.

Not only fans but other stations have begun working with WXEL, whose Interstellar Interconnect is shown over PBS affiliates in Tampa, Newark, N.J., Louisville, Ky., and San Jose, Calif. KTEH in San Jose has ordered the "Daleks" and "Dinosaurs" tapes for its own market. WUSF in Tampa lent production staff to Ch. 42 to tape an on-air promotion last year, then used it for the Tampa market as well. WKPC in Louisville taped an interview with Sophie Aldred (who played Doctor Who's companion five years ago), then had WXEL edit it.

Last night, Aldred was booked as the guest emcee for this year's WXEL fund-raiser. The Guardians of Gallifrey paid her airfare from London; the Sci-Fi Task Force paid for her stay in Florida.

Local star power will come to Ch. 42 in the shape of Rick and Suds, morning talk show hosts for WIOD (610-AM). They'll host the Sci-Fi Comedy Night on Aug. 19.

-- The task forcers are well aware that science fiction, once the near-exclusive preserve of reputed geeks, is now enjoying mass appeal with the likes of the Sci-Fi Channel, the various Star Trek spin-offs, Babylon 5 and Fox's The X-Files. More such shows are on the way in the fall, including UPN's Deadly Games and Nowhere Man.

There's more good news. Grant/Naylor, the British producer of Red Dwarf, recently announced plans for a seventh season. Universal Studios is producing a new Doctor Who TV movie, expected to air on the Fox network in November or February, according to Martin.

So why aren't the fans leaping for joy? It may be due in part to elitism: They don't like their turf invaded by the less discriminating. But it's also the fear that American producers will pour big bucks into special effects at the cost of lively writing.

"American producers make things so big and splashy, like on Babylon 5," says Woda. "British shows are more character-driven. And they're not afraid to use comedy. They don't take themselves too seriously."

Martin, who attended a Doctor Who convention in England in October, says the fans there were already talking disdainfully about a "Tardis Happy Meal" - an American commercialization of their beloved show.

Still, he says, it helps to woo more viewers. "If you can put [the Universal Doctor Who movie) on the air, it'll be a great success. There is room on television for another sci-fi legend to start."

Could be another budding romance.

'Doctor Who' alumna aids Sci-Fi Task Force's drive

The Science Fiction Task Force launched this year's fund-raising campaign on WXEL-Ch. 42 last night with a goal of $10,000, to be raised on three successive Saturdays. Doctor Who alumna Sophie Aldred was scheduled to host the first evening's programming, which included four installments of the British comedy-drama about a mysterious Time Lord; two episodes of The New Twilight Zone. produced in the mid-1980s after creator Rod Serling's death; and an episode of The Tomorrow People. a mid-'70s British series about psychic teens.

Next Saturday's lineup, beginning at 9 p.m., features the "Planet of the Daleks" story-line from Doctor Who, which task force members say has never been shown in its entirety in this country. At midnight, WXEL airs Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the classic 1920 version starring John Barrymore.

Aug. 19 is billed as "Sci-Fi Comedy Night," with 13 Klingons manning the pledge phones. The evening begins at 7 p.m. with Spaceballs, Mel Brooks' parody of Star Wars. It is followed at 9 p.m. by the final three episodes of Red Dwarf, a British space farce involving a man. a hologram. an android and a humanoid cat. At 11 p.m., a three-part storyline of The Tomorrow People titled "A Man for Emily" will air. Fans fondly consider it the worst ever made for the show. Task force officers say they'll burn a little of the tape. on screen, for every pledge that comes in.

During the season. if all goes well, the schedule will settle down to The Tomorrow People at 5 p.m. weekdays. and the Sci-Fi Saturday Night lineup, starting at 9 p.m. with The New Twilight Zone. Doctor Who. The Tomorrow People and a sci-fi or horror movie.

The movies will feature the likes of Godzilla, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The task force is also negotiating for two Doctor Who movies, made in 1965 and 1966 and starring Peter Cushing.

Caption: Robert Klein's gift of gab deserts him in a New Tonight Zone episode, "Wordplay."

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  • APA 6th ed.: Davis, James D. (1995-08-06). The Space Place. Sun-Sentinel p. 1D.
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