Pop Culture — Fifth Dimension

Fifth Dimension

by Amy Diaz

A fifth dimension beyond that known to man...

... and that’s the only place you’ll find sci-fi on televison these days

These are dark days for the Republic.

And no, I’m not just talking about the vaguely promising but, let’s face it, likely let-down that is the forth coming Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith.

I’m also talking about the rather genre-free state of network television. By “genre” I mean those shows that fit, neatly or with a little squishing, into the category sci-fi and fantasy. Shows where you can easily create some joke involving a diehard fan, their grandmother’s basement, Cheetos and assured life-long virginity. Star Trek and its assorted offspring are the obvious example but during the 1990s and early part of 2000s, TV featured a wealth of shows that would fit such a category.

These shows feature Byzantine plots and shadowy tertiary characters who would utter one line of dialogue and then instantly spawn half a dozen websites and be eligible for guest duties at sci-fi conventions nationwide. The lead characters were usually brainy but shy or outcast despite being stunningly attractive, usually in an “unconventional” (read: wears glasses) kind of way.

Shows like this were no CSI, no Law & Order. You couldn’t just watch just the occasional episode. You had to watch every single entry, often several times, often with companion material, to even have a shot at understanding what the hell was going on. To pick up on such a series a few seasons after its start you’d need a few weeks of tutoring with a hard-core Trekkie, X-phile or, uhm, I forget what diehard Buffy fans called themselves (I remember we went through a “Bronzer” phase but I don’t think that really stuck).

You could argue that such complexity helped shorten the reign of the kings of recent genre history. With the proliferation of prerequisite-free reality shows and bad-guy-of-the-week procedural cop dramas, overly nerdy genre shows just couldn’t compete. Or you could say that the on-its-deathbed Enterprise (the first timeline-wise but last in terms of air date series in the Star Trek franchise) killed any lingering bit of enthusiasm one might have for genre TV. I happen to like Law & Order so I’m going to blame Enterprise. (And with that damn theme song with lyrics they deserve my scorn.)

So, where can a genre fan, one who came up in the age of Scully and Mulder, Buffy and Angel, Picard and all the late-40s female aliens he could find, turn for a genre fix? (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got your Sci-Fi Network right here. But I’m talking network TV, not the geek ghetto.) Here, broken up according to your particular obsession, is a guide to surviving our current drought.

The X-Files

Originally ran: Fox, 1993-2002

Gist: Two geeky but appealing FBI agents investigate paranormal activities; almost die several times; are chased by aliens and, I don’t know, other things; ultimately have a child together but never, ever have on-screen sex.

Death-knell: Scully (Gillian Anderson) is pregnant for, like, a year and a half; Mulder leaves because someone, I wanna say aliens but who knows, is chasing him and because David Duchovny delusionally believes he can have a film career.

Reruns: Weekdays on the Sci-Fi Network at 5 p.m.

Present-day equivalent: For exposition-heavy supernatural plot, try Carnivale, Sundays on HBO at 10 p.m. (two episodes remain in the second season).For the skeptics-doubting-the-existence-of-the-paranormal, try Medium, Mondays on NBC at 10 p.m. For the government conspiracy, try 24, Mondays on FOX at 9 p.m.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Originally ran: The WB, 1997-2001; UPN 2001-2003

Gist: Ex-cheerleader Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has been given a sacred destiny — to fight and kill vampires and the forces of darkness — and some really handy super-strength. With the help of some geeky friends, she fights the demons (metaphoric and literal) of high school and then faces an assortment of more grown-up challenges post-graduation. Also, she has several bad relationships.

Death-knell: Pick one — Buffy dies, end of high school, leaving The WB, Buffy dies again, creative team runs out of interesting villains, Scooby Doo: The Movie.

Reruns: Weekdays on FX, 7 and 8 a.m.; 1 and 2 p.m.

Present-day equivalent: For sassy blond formerly-popular high school girl with geeky friends, try Veronica Mars, Tuesdays on UPN at 9 p.m. For Eliza Dushku, you could have tried Tru Calling, but it’s been canceled. (Ditto Marti Noxon’s Pointe Pleasant — Marti Noxon being the Buffy executive producer who either ran the show or ran the show into the ground, depending on who you ask.) For teens with superpowers, try Smallville, Wednesday on The WB.

Angel

Originally ran: The WB, 1999-2004

Gist: Buffy’s ex-boyfriend Angel (David Boreanus) is a soul-having vampire who fights supernatural crime in Los Angeles. He helps the helpless!

Death-knell: As so often happens on television, everything starts to go south when the lead character has a kid. Oh, right, and the part where Angel and his supporting crew all go work for an evil law firm.

Reruns: Weekdays on TNT, 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Present-day equivalent: For group of co-workers learning to get along at an evil organization, try Alias, Wednesdays on ABC 9 p.m. (yes, I know it’s technically the CIA now but if Sloane’s in charge I’m sure their unit is in some way evil).

Xena: Warrior Princess

Originally ran: Syndication, 1995-2001

Gist: Formerly bad warrior chick is still a bad-ass but now has a conscience and she travels the Roman Empire circa Julius Caesar with her female lifemate, trying to do works of goodness and justice (which is not easy in a short leather skirt). For added fun, Xena is frequently harassed by assorted Greek and Roman Gods (the hottest of whom was Ares (Kevin Smith), the really hunky god of war). 

Death-knell: Jesus-like character starts talking about love all the damn time and Xena has a baby.

Reruns: No reruns are currently in the listings but check out the entire series on DVD.

Present-day equivalent:  For gods that communicate with humans, try Joan of Arcadia, Fridays on CBS at 8 p.m. For lesbian relationships, try The L Word, Sundays on Showtime at 10 p.m.

Roswell

Originally ran: The WB, 1999-2002

Gist: Alien teenagers hook up with non-alien teenagers in the dusty yet action-packed town of Roswell, N.M.

Death-knell: A bunch of hoo-ha about one of the aliens being the king of his alien world. Also, some remarkably bad acting.

Reruns: Series is currently available on DVD.

Present-day equivalent: For angst-filled teens and their improbably rich love lives and clear skin, try The O.C., Thursdays on Fox at 8 p.m. For Emilie de Ravin (who played wife-of-king Tess on Roswell) in a supernatural setting, try Lost (where she plays the pregnant, amnesia-suffering Clarie), Wednesdays on ABC at 8 p.m.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Originally ran: Syndication, 1987 to 1994

Gist: The first sequel to the original Star Trek is still the very best. Capt. Jean Luc “Awfully Sexy for a short bald man in his late 50s” Picard (Patrick Stewart) takes his crew on a journey through the universe and an assortment of moral dilemmas.

Death-knell: Everybody wanted a film career and/or to direct.

Reruns: Weekdays on SPIKE, 1 and 2 p.m.

Present-day equivalent: The lesser Deep Space Nine and Voyager spin-offs ran from 1993 to 1999 and from 1995 to 2001, respectively and are also available on DVD and in reruns. For your last glimpse of the Trek franchise for what is likely to be a long while, try Enterprise, Fridays on UPN at 8 p.m.

- Amy Diaz

 
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