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morjana
July 11th, 2004, 12:28 PM
From The Journal News:

http://www.thejournalnews.com/newsroom/071104/e0111scifi.html


It came from beyond

By MARSHALL FINE
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: July 11, 2004)

Like an alien planet with an environment too harsh to support human
life, the major television networks have proved hostile to most
science-fiction series.

Which is why two new shows are taking their stories of alien
encounters and life beyond Earth to the expanding boundaries of the
universe known as cable.

"The 4400" debuts tonight on USA Network; "Stargate Atlantis"
premieres Friday on Sci Fi Channel.

"Cable certainly has more open arms in promoting something like
this," says Scott Peters, executive producer of "The 4400," a so-
called "special event series," which will run Sundays on USA through
its Aug. 8 finale.

Brad Wright, executive producer of "Stargate Atlantis" and its parent
show, "Stargate SG-1" (which kicked off its eighth season on Friday),
says: "I would consider myself lucky if 'Atlantis' is half as
successful as 'SG-1.' We think the brand itself is strong enough to
get viewers the first few times."

In more than 50 years of network television, science fiction has
always been something of a stepchild. The original "Star Trek" was
almost canceled after its first season — and lasted only three. "Star
Trek: The Next Generation" couldn't find a network to finance it —
then went on to become one of the most successful syndicated series
of all time.

There hasn't been a hit sci-fi series on the four major networks
since "The X Files" went off the air in 2002. Shows such as "Dark
Angel" and "Firefly" have come and gone, usually lasting no more than
a season. "Star Trek: Enterprise" is entering its fourth season, but
on the less-watched UPN. Which leaves cable as the destination of
choice for most science-fiction programming.

"Some science fiction gets pretty narrow and isn't accessible to a
lot of people," says Steve McPherson, president of ABC-TV. "As a
network, obviously, we're looking for a broad audience."

"In terms of TV, it's simply a matter of ratings," says Rick Berman,
executive producer of "Enterprise" and other "Star Trek"
series. "Science fiction, at least the kind that can be presented
within the budget limits of television, has a somewhat niche
audience. The people who watch Sci Fi Channel or sci-fi shows on
Spike or USA Network get an hourly rating that's acceptable to those
networks but not to ABC or NBC or Fox. You've got a small but loyal
group that's going to go find those shows and watch them."

But Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi and USA, rejects that "niche"
classification. "SG-1," she points out, draws an average of 2.4
million viewers per episode — and has an audience that extends beyond
the stereotypical technophile.

"When you say science fiction, what people think of is space operas
and aliens," she says. "But it's not just a geeky, culty thing. We
try to stay away from the term 'niche'; we choose to call ourselves a
branded channel — and the brand is the broad category of science
fiction and speculative fiction. We're building an audience by
fueling their imagination. More women watch science fiction than
anyone imagines."

Part of the process of attracting a wider audience involves telling
stories that are accessible.

"The mass audience is looking for things they can identify with,"
says Robert Cooper, executive producer of "Atlantis" and "SG-1." "A
lot of science fiction is not particularly identifiable to the
average person."

"There's a perception that science fiction is an egghead thing or, on
the other hand, a comic-book thing," says Peters of "4400." What I
wanted to come up with is a grounded story, dealing with people.
These are real-world situations: divorce, home life."

"The 4400" uses alien abduction of Earthlings as its central plot
device. The title refers to the number of humans abducted over the
years — all of whom suddenly reappear as a group at a lake outside
Seattle. They have been gone as long as 50 years or as little as
three — and none has aged a minute from the moment of disappearance.

Quarantined by the government for several weeks, they are released
after a civil-rights lawsuit and attempt to return to the lives they
left behind. For some, however, that's impossible, because their
families and friends are either long dead or have moved on with their
lives.

"It starts as a Rip Van Winkle story: You close your eyes and wake up
35 years later," Peters says. "What do you do? How do you reconnect
with your life?"

Ira Behr, a "Star Trek" veteran who wrote for "The 4400," says: "The
mandate on '4400' was: Life, interrupted. That's what was said by the
network and, as a writer, that really appealed to me. In most TV,
plot is more important than characters. This show is 180 degrees
opposite."

"The 4400" focuses on the fate of a half-dozen or so of the
returnees, as well as the well-meaning government agents who track
their re-integration into society. If the show captures an audience,
Peters has plenty of ideas — about 4,400 of them — for turning it
into a full-fledged series.

"The idea is to run six hours and see how the ratings are and then
have a discussion," he says. "If audiences respond positively, we can
get up and running quickly."

Peters admits that his initial idea was for a series in which he
wouldn't reveal what had happened to the 4400 until the 100th
episode. But he found he had to wrap it up more quickly.

"I saw it as a five-year story arc, and now our ending will be in
Episode 6," he says. "We had to wrap our minds around giving away the
big finale — but if we don't go further than this, we've already told
a full story. If the series continues, there are a couple of avenues
being left wide open."

Rene Echevarria, a writer for the show, adds: "It's a tricky balance,
to have a satisfying conclusion but to leave open the continuing
mystery and have places to go. We're answering some riddles, but
posing new ones."

The creators and producers of "Stargate Atlantis" faced a different
challenge. The two-hour script for the spinoff was shelved two years
in a row because "SG-1" was so popular.

Beginning on Showtime in 1997, "SG-1" (itself a spinoff of the 1994
feature film "Stargate") deals with a team of Earth scientists and
military men who explore the known — and unknown — galaxies through a
stargate, a portal that sends Earthlings to other planets through
wormholes in space, where they encounter both friendly and
threatening cultures. As the program was entering its fifth season in
2001, it appeared to have run its course and Cooper and Wright wrote
a spinoff pilot. Then the show was dealt by Showtime to Sci Fi
Channel.

"The ratings took off," Cooper says. "We became a victim of our own
success. Season 6 got double the ratings we'd had on Showtime. So Sci
Fi ordered Season 7. That put a damper on the movie; we wound up
incorporating some of its plot into the arc of the series. Season 7
did so well that they ordered Season 8. When we pitched them the
spinoff, their response was, we want both. So we had to rethink
everything."

"Stargate SG-1" started its eighth season on Friday and surrenders
its time slot this Friday for the debut of "Stargate Atlantis." The
two-hour pilot finds the cast of "SG-1" sending a new team of
scientists and military men through the stargate to the lost city of
Atlantis, which had been transported to a distant planet millennia
earlier. Once on the new planet, however, the team finds it lacks the
power to activate the stargate to return to Earth and so must deal
with life in the deserted Atlantis and on the surrounding planet.

"The studio and the network want 'Atlantis' to be new — but they want
it to have a sense of familiarity," Wright says. "In other words,
they want it absolutely the same and completely different."

Cooper adds: "We're trying to wipe the slate clean and create the
unexplored new frontier we had at the beginning of 'SG-1.' We'll
create a world that will feel fresh and new."

The cost of a program with massive sets and special effects hasn't
been as problematic for the "Stargate" series because Showtime
originally ordered 44 episodes — and had committed to all five years
by the end of the second season. But cost is often a deterrent when
it comes to getting science-fiction series on network television.

"Science fiction is a challenge, from a production standpoint," says
ABC's McPherson. "You spend $120 million or more for a feature film —
look at 'The Matrix.' It was fantastic — but you couldn't do 'The
Matrix' every week on TV. It's a question of expectation and
execution."

Berman, who has produced "Star Trek" for TV and film, adds: "When you
make a movie, you're telling a single story. When you're doing a TV
series, you have to create a format on which you can hang 100 or 200
episodes. It's a whole different ballgame."

"People seem to be able to buy into an alternate world in a two-hour
movie," says Echevarria, another "Star Trek" veteran. "But to buy
into it week in and week out is another story. You're either a fan of
the genre or you're not."

Or you are without knowing it. "There are a host of science-fiction
writers who work on 'CSI,' " Cooper says. "In many ways, that's a sci-
fi show."

The other alternative is to wear your science-fiction label proudly —
but to use it as a hook rather than as a reason for being. That's
what a show like "The 4400" is trying to do.

"I know people will be watching this whose instinct is not to watch
anything with people in funny costumes or transporters," Behr
says. "A large segment of the population turns off to that
immediately. But this show has the feeling of reality — and people
are fascinated with the abduction thing."

"The audience is out there for it," Peters says. "Even if you're a
fan of straight character stories, you'll tune in and see that
they're not running around with laser guns and space ships."




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Morjana

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