Science Friction

The Sci-Fi Channel's slick new shows are causing an outcry from its longtime fans

By Suzanne C. Ryan, Globe Staff, 3/16/2003

For die-hard science fiction fans like Jason Seaver, Friday will be a sad day in TV land.

It's the day the Sci Fi Channel will run the final episode of its first original series, ''Farscape,'' a show that Seaver and other passionate followers call television's best science-fiction program since the original ''Star Trek.''

Sci Fi officials, pointing to flagging ratings, say ''Farscape'' must go to make room for new and higher-profile programming such as the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries ''Taken'' and ''Frank Herbert's Children of Dune,'' which begins tonight and stars Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon. Next, the channel introduces its first original reality series, ''Scare Tactics,''as well as a horror-comedy series that spins off the movie ''Tremors.''

But Sci Fi's fans don't want to hear about an image makeover. They want the channel to stay the same. ''I've talked to a ton of people online who have said they're through with the channel after the last episode of `Farscape' airs,'' says Seaver, a 29-year-old computer programmer in Cambridge. ''I can't say I'm too interested in much of their upcoming slate. ... `Tremors' looks like it's going to stink. And just what does `Scare Tactics' have to do with science fiction anyway?''

After operating for 11 years in relative obscurity, the sleepy channel known for airing old episodes of ''The Twilight Zone'' is finally attempting to jettison its pocket-protector image.

''Many of the top-grossing movies of all time are science fiction. We're realizing there is a huge audience to explore,'' says Bonnie Hammer, president of the 24-hour basic-cable channel, which is available in 81 million subscribing homes nationwide.

Five years ago, it was available in only 49 million homes. Today its reach is comparable to MTV, which is available in 85 million households.

But by going mainstream, Sci Fi may lose its core fan base. Other cable channels have changed their original format and survived, but science-fiction fans are renowned for being particularly passionate - and willing to speak their minds - about the genre.

While in the past, Sci Fi was primarily a rerun channel, Hammer says, the mandate now is to ''define ourselves as a front-runner in original programming.''

''Children of Dune,'' a six-hour, three-night saga that premieres tonight at 9 p.m., is a prime example. The film is a sequel to the network's Emmy Award-winning ''Dune,'' which aired in 2000.

With ''Children of Dune,'' Sci Fi hopes to follow the remarkable success of ''Taken.'' A risky project - the 20-hour miniseries about alien abductions ran a whopping 10 consecutive weeknights last December - ''Taken'' broke Sci Fi's viewership records, attracting an average of 4.97 million people and making it the most-watched basic cable network on television during those two weeks.

The channel has realized, Hammer says, that traditional science-fiction shows that attempt to portray the future via space odyssies and gee-whiz technology are no longer as appealing to tech-savvy viewers as Earth-based twists on modern-day reality, such as ''The Sixth Sense'' and ''The Matrix.''

''Years ago, science fiction was based on all of these predictions about technology. Well, there is nothing new out there for kids who are so used to technology,'' she says. ''People don't care about the future that much but about new perceptions on the here and now. We're trying to develop products that deal with that.''

To be sure, the channel has not abandoned the space odyssey. In December, it is rolling out the four-hour miniseries ''Battlestar Galactica'' based on the 1970s show. But the reality, Hammer says, is that Sci Fi must expand its reach.

Anticipating her critics, she calls it a myth that the channel is watched by only ''geek boys.''

''In fact,'' Hammer says, ''we're very balanced - 55/45, male/female.''

Fans of ''Farscape'' are fed up with her justifications.

Launched in 1999, the series chronicles the adventures of an astronaut lost in space who is traveling through the universe on a ship with a group of alien renegades. The show's cancellation has spawned a huge public outcry. There are websites and fan clubs devoted to reversing the decision, including savefarscape

.com and farscapefans.com (which sells Save Farscape T-shirts for $22). Some fans have banded together to pay for their own ''Save `Farscape''' television and radio commercials. Others have attended ''Farscape'' conventions in Los Angeles and New York, where they have signed petitions expressing their discontent.

Chatter on the Internet is intense and extensive leading up to the show's last broadcast.

Julie Rayhanabad, a founder of savefarscape.com in Huntington Beach, Calif., says she's ''really disappointed'' in the channel because it doesn't appear to be ''committed'' to traditional science fiction the way its fans are.

Indeed, on March 28, Sci Fi will debut ''Tremors: The Series,'' a weekly show starring Michael Gross, who will reprise his monster-hunter role as Burt Gummer from the film series. In April, Sci Fi will premiere ''Scare Tactics,'' a ''Candid Camera'' type reality show in which friends will stage elaborate science fiction-style hoaxes on other friends, from a Bigfoot sighting on a campground to a baby-sitting job in a haunted house. Shannen Doherty will host the show.

''We don't see `Tremors' as a good series. The worm comes to get you and you kill it,'' says Rayhanabad. Likewise, ''Scare Tactics'' is a ratings ploy, she adds. ''It will pull in more random viewers who aren't science fiction fans but will tune in because it's a reality show.''

In another affront to fans, she adds, Sci Fi has decided to replace one of the ''Battlestar Galactica'' main male characters - Starbuck - with a female actress in the December mini-series. ''There's a huge uproar over that,'' she says.

Paul Bender, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident who attends ''Farscape'' conventions and is a member of several ''Farscape'' Internet chat groups, believes the channel's primary mission should be to air reruns of the shows that didn't survive on other networks as well as create original programs on par with ''Farscape.''

''I would like to see shows like NBC's `Earth 2' [which was cancelled in 1995] and Fox's `Firefly' [which was canceled in December],'' he says. ''It is the science-fiction channel after all. That is what they should be doing.''

Going forward, Sci Fi will still offer daytime reruns of shows such as ''Lost in Space,'' ''The X-Files,'' and ''Mystery Science Theater 3000.'' During prime time, the channel offers original episodes of ''Stargate SG-1'' (its top-rated show starring Richard Dean Anderson), as well as acquired reality series such as ''Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction,'' horror flicks, and action movies like ''Raiders of the Lost Ark.''

For late night, Sci Fi offers the popular ''Crossing Over with John Edward,'' in which Edward says he communicates with deceased family members of the studio audience.

Sci Fi's president Hammer concedes she receives e-mails daily from upset viewers. ''Science fiction for some reason has an even more passionate fan base than other genres, so when any series ends, somehow there is a backlash,'' she says. Still, she insists that ''Farscape'' is ''coming to its natural end. ... It was a fabulous series that told great stories with a fabulous cast and at some point you have to say goodbye. ... Like many series, it started waning in the ratings, and we have to move the channel forward with fresh product.''

On the surface, tonight's ''Children of Dune'' - a story about life on two other planets - would seem to contradict Sci Fi's new mission. But director Greg Yaitanes says the film is really a story about powerful women and a dysfunctional family. The film begins 12 years after the conclusion of ''Dune,'' in which Paul Atreides freed Dune from an evil empire.

As the new emperor, or Muad'Dib, Atreides has become a messiah to his people, and society has been taken over by religious zealotry in his name. Trapped in a role he cannot control, Atreides is surrounded by enemies who are scheming to remove him.

Meanwhile, from a distant planet, Atreides's sister-in-law Princess Wensicia, portrayed by Susan Sarandon, is also plotting his death. Haunted by visions of the future, Atreides hands the fate of his oppressed people over to his twin children, who must outsmart his enemies and shatter the myth of Muad'Dib.

''I looked at this as a story of a family, not a science fiction film,'' says Yaitanes, a Wellesley native who directed an episode of Sci Fi's ''The Invisible Man'' three years ago. ''What's great about the film is there are empowered women in it. Science fiction traditionally has had a male appeal to it.''

What's more, he says, his film offers a lot more than ''just hardware and monsters and explosions. There are real human emotions, which is very, very rare in science fiction.''

That's just what Sci Fi executives want to hear. But whether the network's biggest fans will bother to listen is another matter entirely.

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at sryan@globe.com

This story ran on page N1 of the Boston Globe on 3/16/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

 

 


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