January 2003

END OF AN ERA?
Sci-Fi TV Takes a Hit.

Just last year in this space, I enthused about a so-called "new golden age" in the arena of science fiction and genre television. Gazing back with 20/20 hindsight, I believe I was quite correct to herald the time as a good and notable one. Back then, I guess I just didn't realize the new "golden age" was going to last for so brief a spell.

Hope you enjoyed it while it lasted...

Let us recollect the good old days of last season for just a moment. The marvelously unpredictable and exciting Farscape was going strong on the Sci-Fi Channel, functioning well as the network's trademark show and the anchor of the network's "Friday Prime" programming block. Buffy the Vampire Slayer ruled the airwaves on UPN with a dangerously gloomy sixth season and a brilliant musical episode ("Once More with Feeling") that won it critical accolades.

Even the long-lived king of the genre, The X-Files, held on to decent ratings last year and sophomore dramas such as Roswell and Dark Angel looked perched to make multi-season runs, having survived turbulent time slot changes and tough prime-time competition.

Another trio of freshman series, Smallville on the WB, Witchblade on TNT and the new Star Trek series, Enterprise on UPN, contributed to this age of plenty as well, offering real viewing potential and thoughtful re-imaginations of old favorites. Each and every one of these productions looked like one that could grow into the next Buffy, X-Files, or Deep Space Nine.

But oh, how the playing field has changed just a year later.

Farscape has been cancelled by the Sci-Fi Channel, a shocking and dismaying turn of events that has yet to be satisfactorily explained by the Powers-that-Be. The X-Files is gone and forgotten, cancelled at the end of its ninth season along with Roswell and the expensive, high profile Dark Angel. Finally, Witchblade, a really promising and intriguing summer series that scored remarkable numbers during both its seasons, has also been cancelled for no good reason.

Bad enough when the networks cite bad ratings as the cause for cancellation and pull the plug on favorite shows, but Farscape, The X-Files and Witchblade were all performing well enough to merit continued life, and that is what makes their untimely and ill-considered cancellations doubly disappointing.

Another terrible disappointment is that Buffy and Enterprise have both witnessed substantial audience drops this season. Enterprise's second season opener came in at sub-Voyager ratings levels (with the dead-on-arrival Star Trek: Nemesis failing to re-ignite interest in the franchise), and Buffy will most likely not continue beyond the current year because of contractual issues with series star Sarah Michelle Gellar. Even if the audience wasn't dropping away from the excellent Buffy, the show seems to have no compelling future without the actress who made it so special.

And what about the new genre series of the 2002 season? Do they offer a seed of hope for a good and sustained viewing future?

Alas, not really.

UPN's Haunted, a kind of young and hip variation on Chris Carter's dour (but memorable) Millennium, has already gotten the axe, after broadcasting only six tepid, but not unpromising episodes.

Joss Whedon's interesting space/western drama Firefly was on the ropes for a while too, hanging on and fighting back, but was cancelled just before Christmas. And Birds of Prey - while filled with promise - seems to resemble a hodgepodge of elements from Charmed, Buffy and Dark Angel. It too has been axed after only a dozen episodes.

On other fronts, Angel and Charmed have both been on the air a long time, but Angel is facing a critical ratings challenge from Alias on Sunday nights and reportedly moving to Wednesdays. And, frankly, most intelligent viewers gave up on the ditzy Charmed after the first dreadful season. Elsewhere, the syndicated Mutant X remains a terribly shallow and silly series, populated by a bunch of posing actors who should immediately return to modeling underwear.

Even the decent, oddly-diverting Smallville seems stalled. Just when, precisely, will this Dawson's Creek-style teen series begin to tackle the wealth of imagery available in the longstanding Superman mythos? For some fans, the wait has already been too long, but at least Smallville's second season has done away with the kryptonite/mutant of the week formula so prevalent in the first. That's a step in the right direction.

As we stand at the mid-point of the 2002-2003 season we can no longer kid ourselves about the facts. Fans of the genre are now looking at a 2003 fall season that will likely have no genre hits. Sure, Alias and 24 are gaining critical and mainstream adherents, and rightfully so, but these fine offerings are only "genre" shows on the periphery. For the first time since 1993 (and the dawn of The X-Files), we face the real possibility of no "appointment" TV in the genre. The days of Buffy/Angel Tuesdays, Brimstone/Millennium Fridays, X-Files Sundays and so forth are long gone.

So where does that leave us? Well, our future appears about as positive as the Democratic Party's on Election Eve 2002. I am notoriously bad at making predictions about such things, but at least I have a good "gut" instinct as far as quality is concerned. On that count, my favorite new series of the 2002 season was Firefly. The program, about the crew of a space-wreck called Serenity, was determinedly different from other outer space shows, and there remains a small chance that UPN may pick it up next season, stealing it away from the shortsighted Fox Network. The show is funny, well cast, compelling, oddball, and the characters are coming to vivid life, week by week, especially Captain Mal Reynolds and his unspoken love, "the companion" (read: hooker) named Inara. Recent episodes (penned by Tick creator Ben Edlund and Whedon himself) have been very funny, and not a little bit touching too. Come on, UPN, do a good deed and keep the Serenity flying!

Now that the Golden Age of sci-fi TV is officially over, what are we to do? Well, if Buffy falls in battle and Firefly isn't resurrected, then it's time to turn away from TV and - gasp - return to reading books!