Pop Culture

Beyond ‘Buffy’: State of sci-fi on TV

“Buffy” is long gone, and the “Angel” TV series just had a stake driven through it. “Farscape” was cancelled long ago, and the “Star Trek” franchise has for years been zooming at Warp Nine to the Suckitude Galaxy.

Is there anything out there on TV for a science-fiction fan to look forward to? You won’t find much of it on the big broadcast networks, unfortunately — only one new show focused on science fiction or fantastical themes is debuting on the older, larger broadcast networks, namely NBC’s “Revelations,” and it looks pretty terrible.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing on the radar that looks promising—far from it. Here’s a quick roundup of the shows that have us most intrigued, some nearly ready for broadcast, some just wisps of rumor.

Buffy the Animated Series’STATUS: In development

Though this reimagining of the Buffy live-action series was just about ready for production a couple of years ago, the Fox network didn’t pick it up then, and producer Jeph Loeb moved on to help create “Smallville” instead. But the word we hear now is that a pilot for an animated series is moving forward.

Actress Giselle Loren is voicing the Slayer instead of Sarah Michelle Gellar (too busy with those weighty “Scooby-Doo” films, we guess). But original actors Alyson Hannigan (Willow), Nicholas Brendon (Xander) and Anthony Stewart Head (Giles) will return, along with Buffy creator Joss Whedon behind the scenes.

Other rumored Buffy projects include a possible “Angel” miniseries. And although “Ripper,” the BBC “Buffy” spinoff series starring Giles, has been stalled for several years, Head recently said that the project is officially still alive. Whedon is also taking over creative control of Marvel Comics’ “Astonishing X-Men” line and currently filming "Serenity," a two-hour theatrical-movie spinoff of his cancelled “Firefly” TV series.

"The 4400"STATUS: Premiered July 11 on USA Networks.

Once upon a time, the idea of a new USA series would make fans cringe, but the network has proven it can shepherd excellent work with the Tony Shalhoub detective series “Monk.” So we’re definitely giving this miniseries about the mysterious reappearance of 4,400 alien abductees a shot, especially since two of its executive producers, Rene Echevarria and Ira Steven Behr, worked on the best of the “Star Trek” bunch, “Deep Space Nine.” And it can’t hurt that one of our favorite character actors, Michael Moriarty, has a supporting role as returnee Orson Bailey.

"Doctor Who"STATUS: Premiering on the BBC in 2005

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Britain’s venerable series about the time-traveling hero known only as The Doctor. Though a good portion of the episodes from its 1970s era are still among the best of any small-screen science fiction, it’s also true that later seasons were often of amazingly poor quality and that the show deserved cancellation years before its death in the late 1980s. But like the Doctor himself, the show has beaten death many times and returned in new visages, the most prominent up to now being the disappointing American version in 1996.

At long last, the BBC has a new Time Lord at the controls of the TARDIS — Christopher Eccleston, last seen in the neo-zombie flick “28 Days Later.” I certainly hope the writing is better this time around, but it’s heartening to hear that a satiric edge is creeping in — one of the first shows will parody “Big Brother” by imprisoning historical figures like Shakespeare and Einstein in an alien-run takeoff on the reality series.

On the other hand, the latest news isn’t so good: The Doctor’s longest-running and most popular villains, the Daleks, are officially not returning to the show after negotiations broke down between the BBC and the estate of Terry Nation, the writer who invented the pepperpot-shaped cyborgs in the early 1960s.

"Stargate: Atlantis"STATUS: Premieres July 16 on Sci-Fi Channel

The original series “Stargate SG-1” starring Richard Dean Anderson of “MacGyver” fame gets my vote (if not enthusiastically) as the most compelling sci-fi show currently on the air, and so this spinoff ought to be worth a look.

The cast of “Atlantis” is populated by relatively unknown, mostly Canadian actors. David Hewlett starred in the worthy but low-budget movie “Cube” before appearing in “Stargate” as Dr. Rodney McKay, the grouchy scientist he’ll play on “Atlantis”; you might (or might not) remember Joe Flanigan from his season-long guest shot on the sitcom “Sisters.” But “Star Trek” fans will want to tune in for Colm Meaney (who played Miles O’Brien on two “Trek” series), who will guest-star in a three-episode story arc late in the season, and “X-Files” vet Robert Patrick guests in the two-hour “Atlantis” premiere.

"The Man with the Screaming Brain"STATUS: Due in 2005 on the Sci-Fi Channel

We don’t know much about this upcoming Sci-Fi-Channel movie beyond that the writer, director and star is Bruce Campbell (“The Evil Dead,” “Bubba Ho-Tep”), and that means this meal will be especially tasty for those who like extra cheese. Campbell plays a wealthy businessman out for revenge after a mad scientist replaces part of his brain with that of a Russian spy. It’s a story ripped from today’s headlines!

"Earthsea"STATUS: Airing in December on the Sci-Fi Channel

There’s a great cast involved in this miniseries adaptation of Ursula K. LeGuin's classic “A Wizard Of Earthsea” novels — Isabella Rossellini, Danny Glover, and Kristin Kreuk of “Smallville.” Let’s just hope it’s better than other recent adaptations of kid-friendly SF like the execrable “A Wrinkle in Time.”

And speaking of book-to-TV adaptations, we’re also intrigued by another of the Sci-Fi Channel’s announced series, a four-hour mini based on Larry Niven’s “Ringworld.”

"Farscape: Peacekeeper War"STATUS: Premieres in late 2004 on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Though it never got beyond a cult status even in the rarefied world of sci-fi fandom, the Jim Henson Company’s “Farscape” developed a reputation among its fans as a haven of intelligent storytelling. It returns from cancellation limbo briefly later this year for a four-hour miniseries that will pick up right after the final episode of the series’ original run.

"Justice League: Unlimited"STATUS: Premieres July 31 on Cartoon Network

The basic concept of building a show around the most popular half-dozen of the DC Comics superhero stable hasn’t changed, but what’s different this year is a vastly increased number of guest shots from some of DC’s most interesting minor characters, including the faceless Question (voiced  by Jeffrey Combs), magic-wielder Zatanna, and nuclear-powered Captain Atom.

"Star Trek: Enterprise"STATUS: Fourth season premieres on UPN later this year

The "Star Trek" franchise has been pretty boring now for quite a while, and I’ve left this item for last because, frankly, I'm the most skeptical about its chances for a real creative rejuvenation. (I've been around this block with “Trek” before.)

But good things might come about when Manny Coto takes over as showrunner for “Enterprise” next season — even if the show barely survived cancellation this year, moving to a new night with a lower per-episode budget and fewer episodes ordered. Coto wrote several of the most interesting of the recent episodes, and taking full control means that at last somebody’s in charge over there who has some inkling of how to create interesting drama.

The next season could very well take the show in a completely new direction, especially considering that in the season-three cliffhanger, the Enterprise crew has apparently become trapped in an alternate-history timeline in which Nazis won World War II with help from aliens. That said, I'll cast off my skepticism and beam back over to the “Trek” universe right away if “Babylon 5” creator J. Michael Straczynski were given the green light on his proposal to remake the “Trek” universe from the ground up in a series of his own.

Christopher Bahn is a freelance writer in Minneapolis