The Invasion is over, everyone. and the science fiction occupation has begun. While “sci-fi” once remained relegated to the Area 51s of the FOX Network or the Sci-Fi Channel, it has now descended from the digital cable clouds and demanded that we take them to our major network. A quick look at the weekly listings reveals NBC, ABC, CBS and the CW all kicking off prime time science fiction with new shows, returning shows, and re-imagined ones to boot. While I naturally couldn’t watch everything scif-fi/horror (I missed Supernatural), and some new shows didn’t sprout until next week (Pushing Daisies on ABC), I did what I could to watch, and rate, the premieres of the fall television sci-fi season.
I’ll review them in the order I encountered them last week:
Heroes (Mondays, 9pm)
For those who slept through the last year in entertainment, this smash hit is essentially X-Men, without the stylized leather biker suits and Star Trek Captain. Grounding mankind’s genetic mutation in a more realistic backdrop, focusing on people instead of superheroics, the series featured a LOST-sized cast of characters from all walks of life converging in New York City as a prophesized catastrophe drew nigh. Unfortunately, the season finale received mixed reviews, as budget constraints made the final conflagration less than many hoped (a phenomenal earlier episode involving a glimpse of a dark, possible future, stole the finale’s thunder).
The smash hit of last season began this year’s chapter. with a whimper. Set four months after the climax, we find former senate candidate and flight-capable Nathan Petrelli lamenting the loss of his brother, medicating his guilt with alcohol. Time-bending Hiro has traveled to ancient Japan, discovering that his romanticized hero from the past is a drunken Brit a far cry from his legend. Ex-cheerleader Claire is laying low in a small town with her family, trying to normal in high school while her foster Father (and former division head of the company seeking to control the heroes) works in a local copy store (his altercation with the assistant manager is probably the best part of the episode).
George “Sulu” Takei is also back playing Hiro’s father, just in time to get murdered by the new mystery-villain of the series. The first episode plays like a prologue, and not much transpires save establishing scenes and setup. Granted, as the story grows over the next few weeks this might blossom into a phenomenal story arc, but alone it barely whets the appetite. Considering the lukewarm reception of the finale in an otherwise stellar first season, it might have been wiser to spice of the first episode of the second year and come out swinging with super-punches.
Reaper (Tuesdays, 9pm)
Years ago there was a series called “Brimstone”, about a damned man used by the devil (played with relish by John Glover, who now plays Father Luthor on Smallville) to send “escaped souls” back to hell. The cursed hero was a former cop who used his training and some dark power to combat undead villains of the week. This season, the concept has received an extreme make-over. the devil is played by Ray Wise (former father/killer of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks), and the heroic Reaper is a 21-year old slacker working at a Home Depot knockoff, teaming up with his even lazier buddy when he discovers his parents sold his soul to the devil and he’s bound to Lucifer’s employ. They stock shelves by day and confront evil on break, (which is fortuitous, since they’re always on break). Imagine Kevin Smith’s duo from “Clerks” assigned to send escaped prisoners back to hell, and you’ve got “Reaper” summed up nicely; conveniently enough, the premiere was directed by none other than Kevin Smith himself.
This black comedy played beautifully, using Smith’s style of rapid-fire wisecracks and timing to establish the characters, the premise, and the mood, which vacillates from grim to guffaw with amazing alacrity. Wise’s devil even dispenses almost-adequate theology to reassure his reluctant vassal: “don’t worry, I’ve seen how it ends. God wins.” Then again, Satan loves to employ true statements to deceive and achieve his ends. Considering a man is ground to a bloody pulp by a zamboni in the first episode, it’s hard to articulate why I would dare describe this premiere as “cute”, but you’ll just have to trust me. For a series sending it’s antagonists down below, this series soared.
Bionic Woman (Wednesdays, 9pm)
Jaime Summers is back for the 21st century, this time as a bartender and student in love with her brilliant professor. When her lover is targeted for death and the two of them are struck by a semi-truck “accident”, he uses his government connections to give Jaime bionic upgrades. Now, SHE is the target. of government scrutiny, as well as the first, unbalanced, lethal bionic woman. Feeling violated having enhanced abilities forced upon her for good intentions that have irrevocably altered her life she must determine how to care for her younger sister and have any normalcy with the expectations that she will also be a government operative.
A functional pilot, Bionic Woman shows promise, and both the car accident and bionic effects are well executed. Veteran film and television actor Miguel Ferrer adds some gravity as the government man in charge of the project. Actress Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica) actually plays her darker role with verve as Jaime’s bionic nemesis. However, though the premiere evokes curiosity from the viewer, it’s far from a “MUST tune in next week” feeling. It also takes an odd logic leap to crib a “power-discovering” scene straight from the Spider-man playbook. For a show featuring a gal with two super-powered legs, it could have leapt higher.
Chuck (Mondays, 8pm)
I didn’t watch Chuck on Monday, but my friend Chad insisted I watch his Tivo’d pilot on Thursday before “Smallville”. As “Reaper” played on the slacker-to-hero theme, “Chuck” plays on a similar nerd-to-hero narrative, introducing us to Nerd-Herd boy Chuck and an equally bone-headed buddy. They work at a Best-Buy knockoff and lament their lack of girlfriends. When a former college roommate turned rogue secret agent sends Chuck the entire secret database of the combined CIA and NSA, he downloads all the info into his brain. A hot-headed NSA agent (Adam Baldwin from Serenity) and a hot CIA agent (Yvonne Strahovski) both converge on Chuck to find out what he knows, and why he’s important.and are forced to become his co-handlers because he not only contains all their secrets, but now has the power to use them to compute and assist with government operations.
The premise is extremely flimsy, but the execution was genius, with excellent writing and tight acting. The pilot works well with a heroic, James Bond/Jackie Chan opening. and another scene plays like “The Man Who Knew Too Little” as the female agent dances with Chuck and fends off NSA operatives whilst he is oblivious. However, Chuck is no Bond, and now he knows what’s happening, so those plot-points have already been spent. As a series, “Reaper” seems to have more longevity on paper, but if the creative team can maintain the integrity of this action/comedy it may play just as well, if not better.
Smallville (Thursdays, 8pm) When last we saw Clark Kent, he was getting the crap kicked out of him by the alien Bizarro; his friends Lois and Chloe were in danger as a dam burst, his ex-girlfriend Lana was apparently dead, her husband Lex Luthor was arrested for her murder, and his viewers us were wondering why we were still watching this mess of a show. The mopey pre-Superman has us all wondering why he’s still wandering around his little hometown three years after high school. with no job, no confidence, no spandex, and no clue. Even a visit from the junior Justice League last season did little more than make eyes roll. Like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Smallville” is a show that lost its way after high school graduation. John Mellencamp tells us to “hold on to 16 as long as you can,” but seriously Superman man up and fly to Metropolis already.
The CW announced their plans to add new dimension to the show this season: could they be firing the lazy writers? Killing off dead-weight characters with stale plotlines? No. they’ve decided in their Hollywood wisdom that what they need is another hot body, so the addition of Supergirl is their solution punch up the series. In one of the skimpiest outfits on the show to date, actress Laura Vandervoort appeared in the season premiere as both Lex and Clark’s guardian angel, posing with hands on her hips to flaunt her bare midriff and sell posters. Honestly, the only dimension they’re adding is a bust.
The premiere episode was disjointed, confusing, and lackluster, and the future isn’t promising. In earlier seasons, film actors Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, and Rutger Hauer appeared on Smallville. This year, former television Superman actor Dean Cain will be making an appearance, as well as former Supergirl Helen Slater. Considering the sudden cancellation of “Lois and Clark” and that stinkbomb of a “Supergirl” movie, the show truly grasping at Kryptonian straws. Then again, with all the Kryptonite in Clark Kent’s stomping ground, it was only a matter of time before the show was poisoned. The only two reasons to watch this show are the family Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum as Lex, John Glover as father Lionel). It’s sad when the only thing left to root for are the badguys.
Moonlight (Fridays 9pm)
Anyone remember the Toronto based “Forever Knight”, about the vampire/cop Nick Knight who shunned blood-drinking, working to fight standard and supernatural crime with an oblivious partner, and a helpful coroner who knew his secret? How about the more recent series “Angel”, about a vampire/private investigator who comes under the scrutiny of an attractive blonde police officer? No? Well, good, because that means “Moonlight” will feel like a highly original story about Mick St. John. a fanged, sun-shunning private investigator who comes under the scrutiny of a blonde reporter, helped with his blood problem by a coroner who knows his secret, and dedicated to fighting human or vampire crime. Surely, there is nothing new under the. moon.
When chocolate and peanut butter come together, it’s a thing of tasty beauty. When you meld these two previous shows together with a less dynamic actor, and a script so weak they feel compelled to have Mick provide pulp detective narration that even he doesn’t seem passionate about, it tastes like a stale saltine cracker. (The narration feels last-minute, written to answer every possible viewer question about the premise and simultaneously insulting our intelligence about what we can clearly see transpiring on screen much like the original cut of Blade Runner.)
The only thing that made me consider tuning in next week was a nostalgic love for this TYPE of show. and a hastily cut trailer of what would be coming up throughout the rest of the season, some of which looked curious. The effects, used sparingly, were actually pretty good. If this show doesn’t take flight in its second episode, all the efforts spent reshooting and retooling the pilot will have been in vein.
Summary and Rating
While I’d still bank on Heroes to deliver the strongest goods over the course of the season, new shows Reaper and Chuck delivered the strongest premieres. Heroes and Bionic Woman provided interesting kickoffs, while Smallville and Moonlight find themselves dallying near the chopping block. In any case, it’s still fascinating to see so many Science Fiction shows (including other popular series like the award-winning Battlestar Galactica and the waterlogged Stargate franchise) invading a landscape once reserved for yet another CSI location or a gripping medical drama with sexy and/or grumpy doctors. Late starters like ABC’s “Lost” will add even more to the count in January.
Instead of pontificating on why this might be, I’ll open it up for comments about the speculative reasons for the mainstreaming of sci-fi. For now, here’s the Cinemagogue results: