Commentary on the SciFi Channel

Commentary on the SciFi Channel
This week, I was going to post some news from the SciFi Channel. But looking at their new slate of TV movies reminds me why SciFi needs an overhaul, or at least a decent competitor—one that actually shows, and knows, science fiction.

At this point I’m not going to completely condemn the SciFi Channel, because without it we wouldn’t have a re-imagined “Battlestar Galactica,” or 10 seasons of “Stargate SG-1,” or “Farscape,” or prompt American airings of shows like “Torchwood” and the new “Doctor Who.” We wouldn’t have repeats of “Lost” and “The X-Files” and “Firefly” and some truly worthwhile science fiction television. SciFi also does a fairly good job trying to build community and taking advantage of new trends and technologies on its Web site, as with the “Battlestar Galactica” Webisodes that aired between seasons and its scifi news—though even then, it’s not the first place I go for forums or news.

On the other hand, we wouldn’t have to wade through the hundreds of B-movies focusing on monsters that SciFi apparently has in its vault, in order to get to the good stuff. Not all of these completely suck, but come on. “Frankenfish?” Let’s look at the latest slate of TV movies just announced this week:

-“Alien Western,” set in an old West town of the 1890s, where buglike machines attack

-“Carney,” based on the Jersey Devil legend

-“Sand Serpents,” in which American soldiers battle the Taliban and wormlike serpents

Right. I love a good monster-of-the-week movie as much as the next person. But come on. You’re the SciFi Channel, and THIS is what you’re spending your money on? This isn’t scifi.

If you look at the schedule for the following months, you’ll see a lot of Halloween horror/supernatural movies, James Bond films, Steven King TV projects and a “Mork & Mindy” marathon, among other things. And don’t forget the “reality” shows, tackling the paranormal and ghosts and other distinctly un-scientific topics. Who watches these, I want to know? Part of the reason I love scifi is for the “sci” part of it—not at the “psi.”

And what in the world does ECW wrestling have to do with scifi TV? I can understand that the SciFi Channel must be catering to what it views as its core audience—men between the ages of 18-34? I’m guessing, because I’m a woman who (darn it) lies slightly above that age range now, feeling slightly excluded because the addition of ECW makes me wonder if I ought to be offended. And you’re talking to a person who kind of enjoys the soap opera storylines of professional wrestling. I suppose there’s still an archaic viewpoint that girls don’t watch scifi—and maybe I’m not as desirable a demographic. Spike TV and G4 do the same kind of programming, and I still watch them, too, because they show “Star Trek” reruns and I like video games. What can a girl do in a world of stereotypes and labels like this? I can’t stand those sappy, sentimental, mundane Lifetime movies and networks that are supposed to be geared toward women like me. Ultimately, one of the reasons I always loved scifi was because of its inclusiveness. Shouldn’t every fan feel like there’s a place for them in the scifi TV world?

Another problem with the SciFi Channel is that it shows a clear disdain for scifi shows that have gained a large and loyal cult following—and that seems to translate, for many of us, to a disdain of fans. Take classic “Doctor Who”—SciFi, for whatever reason, showed only a limited selection of Tom Baker repeats when there were almost 30 years worth of shows to draw from. Or how about the cancellation of “Stargate SG-1” after 10 years and the more recent cancellation of "Stargate Atlantis", or the cancellation of “Farscape,” or the airing of repeats that only marginally have anything to do with anything scifi.

Let’s take a look at “Battlestar Galactica” as an example. The original show from 1978-1979 was cheesy, no doubt—but consider that it was made in the 1970s and aired in a family-friendly slot. Still, what does it say that a program that lasted for one season 30 years ago still has thousands of fans around the world? Richard Hatch, at this year’s 30th anniversary Galacticruise, says that the SciFi Channel hated the show—just didn’t get it. This attitude comes as no surprise to fans who have watched Hatch and others try to create a continuation of the show that was met with derision by many in the industry. And yet, years after Hatch’s version of the BSG continuation was halted (just weeks before production) it is still wished for by a large number of Galactica old-schoolers. The trailer for the series still gets a big reaction at all the conventions, which is just about the only place fans can see it now.

Now I’m not faulting the SciFi Channel for this, because the way I understand it, it was mostly Universal Studios that held the reins here. I’m just saying that a true scifi TV channel would have seen this trend and understood why folks yearned for a modern Galactica that stayed truer to the classic characters and situations.

Instead, the re-imagined series was born. At its core, this show simply builds upon the original premise of “BSG” in a modern way. If you compare the series versus the one Hatch was promoting, there are a lot more similarities than you might imagine. David Eick and Ron Moore’s fine version is the SciFi Channel’s most popular series. So maybe “BSG” wasn’t such a terrible franchise after all.

The re-imagined “BSG,” a truly well-written and engrossing series, is really the exception that proves how well the SciFi Channel could champion the desires of scifi fans if it really turned its energies towards doing so. The network hasn’t been a perfect advocate for the new “BSG,” by all means (waiting months and months for the last 10 or so episodes is a bit exasperating), but at least we know it is capable of putting out good science fiction. Hatch spoke for many of us when he said, “It’s not really the SciFi Channel”—there’s just not enough scifi TV on it.

Ultimately, what scifi fans want is a channel truly devoted to science fiction, which listens to their concerns and offers quality original programming and community without getting distracted by what’s popular and easy (like reality TV). The SciFi Channel does some of this, but in fits and starts. Personally, if the SciFi Channel would just lay off the wrestling and the B-movie monsters, I’d sing its praises.

Because here’s the thing: science fiction shows are special. After all, they create the most hardcore and passionate fans. They tell stories that go deep into the heart of what it is to be human. They require a sense of humor and a sense of disbelief; they cultivate the imagination and open the mind. And those of us who are fans can’t get enough of it. We echo Hatch’s words, “I’m hungry for new scifi and fantasy.”

But scifi TV shows require a different type of nurturing than regular dramas and comedies. And they require a network that understands that the best scifi is about the human condition (as an example, see the new “BSG”) while the worst scifi assumes that fans will stomach anything as long as it’s an escape from reality (see “V—The Series”). The fact is that science fiction television has almost always required time to gain a following, and it’s a shame that networks haven’t yet figured out how to benefit from the desirable niche market that scifi fans represent.

The SciFi Channel could do all this—it could be pioneering, it could be innovative, it could be sublime. It could be so much better than it is. It could create a powerful, profitable fan base without alienating us. It could truly earn its name. So far, though, it hasn’t.

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