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Star Dreck

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Flaubert once said he preferred tinsel to silver, because tinsel has all the same qualities as silver--plus pathos. I think this is why, when it comes to cult sci-fi TV shows, I've grown so fond of VR.5 and Babylon 5. They have everything that great cult shows need: a freaky look, an enigmatic premise, a sinister mood--even that arbitrary number in the title to make them seem like some kind of cool sci-fi upgrade of regular TV product. But they've also got one thing more, something that the sleek and shiny sci-fi hits will never have: an endearing, distinctly human tackiness.

That feeling is particularly strong on VR.5, which may be the most incompetent series ever to make it into prime time. The show gives off a palpable stench of panic--the producers seem to be huddling offscreen and arguing about what the premise is supposed to be, while the actors are left to wander around in a Magoo-like daze. Characters are routinely stunned to learn of plot twists that they themselves had just explained. Story ideas seem to fizzle out during the commercial breaks, so that episodes keep starting over again from scratch--like one of those bottom-scraping Twilight Zone episodes where the hero turns out to be on his way to the gas chamber. I've never seen a show so befuddled by the task of turning out safe, ordinary TV tedium. It's spellbinding.

The heroine is a typical Gen-X computer geek named Sydney--played, thanks to TV's inexorable casting logic, by the classic beach babe Lori Singer. Sydney has discovered, or possibly evolved, the ability to drag people with her into something called Virtual Reality Five simply by calling them on the phone and then slamming down the receiver as soon as they say hello (I keep hoping she'll first say, "Is your refrigerator running?"). This somehow takes them on a long slide down a blobby tunnel that looks like the intestinal tract in an antacid commercial, and they end up in a woozy landscape filled with tacky video effects, which is either cyberspace, the subconscious of the person on the other end of the line, or a combination. I haven't quite got the hang of that yet. Whatever it is, nobody Sydney calls is ever surprised to find themselves there, and they are all willing to show her around and point out the Daliesque landmarks.

These crank calls of Sydney's have somehow brought her to the attention of a sinister bunch who call themselves the Committee. They're yet another of those supragovernmental omnipotent conspiracies, like the village in The Prisoner but without the real estate. Everybody in every episode always turns out to be a member of the Committee (except for Sydney, who only works for the Committee), but none of them seem to know what any of the others are up to, and they're all unable to explain to Sydney what's going on because they can only talk about the Committee in ominous Zen koans like "Everything about the Committee is true and false" and "Inside the Committee there's always another Committee." You've got to admit, this is paranoia of a rarefied order: a conspiracy so mysterious even the conspirators don't get it. The board meetings must be a laugh riot.

Sydney, though, is surprisingly lackadaisical about her curious employers, even when they periodically try to kill her and dissect her to find out how she performs her tricks. A paycheck's a paycheck, after all--and anyway she's suffering from a childhood trauma that prevents her from caring about anything (just the attitude an audience is looking for in the heroine of a TV series). She's never recovered from the death of her father, the world's greatest expert on virtual reality, and also, it so happens, a founding member of the Committee. This is why Singer acts in every scene like a panicky gazelle, using an inappropriately urgent whisper to deliver all her dialogue, which is entirely made up of variations on the basic sentiment "I'm not strong enough to handle this."

Lord knows, I sympathize. And we never even got to the real weirdness. The season-ending, and presumably series-ending, cliff-hanger suggested that Sydney's father may still be alive and pulling the strings of the Committee and also that he was doing a lot of DNA research--suggesting that Sydney herself may be the result of one of his secret experiments.

So, to sum up: Sydney thinks she can read people's subconscious minds by using her computer; she's convinced she's surrounded by a malignant conspiracy controlled by her dead father; and she darkly suspects she herself is a clone. I hope to God somebody connected with this show is seeing a licensed therapist.

Of course, there's really nothing going on here but routine TV. It's so bizarre only because the producers have no idea what they're doing. They've stolen every gimmick they could think of from every cult show in the history of TV (there's even a wacky neighbor knocking off "Chris in the Morning" from Northern Exposure), slathered it all together with a Blade Runner-noir ambience, and hoped viewers would think it was way cool how nothing made any sense. They didn't even bother to find out anything about their alleged subject: Sydney's virtual-reality gear is as antiquated and fanciful as the equipment in Frankenstein's laboratory (they must have been figuring that the kids in their target audience wouldn't know anything about computers); and Sydney's magic powers have nothing to do with high-tech anyway--she's just a slacker avatar of Samantha on Bewitched.

But look at the result. Your basic cult show may flirt with weirdness, but inevitably proves to possess a boring, cowardly soul, because beneath it all, it can't shake its commitment to TV's standards of bourgeois normality. (The classic The Prisoner is still the model here--for all its hip paranoia it was irrevocably committed to the fundamental sanity of its hero). VR.5 offers no assurance that anything or anyone is even momentarily lucid. I've never seen any show so disturbingly persuasive about what it feels like to go over the edge. I find myself rooting for it to make it to the commercial break, and glad for Sydney every time she says something remotely on point. I certainly haven't gotten this involved in the season's regulation sci-fi offerings.

Consider the latest emanation from the Star Trek conglomerate, Star Trek: Voyager. Here's a show so sure of its machine-tooled market research that it makes insultingly trivial alterations to the basic product and then proclaims its bold individuality. I feel like I'm watching a McBacon Double Cheeseburger swooping through the galaxy.

OK, granted, it's big news whenever TV attempts a strong female character who isn't psychotic. And I'll give Star Trek this much: Voyager's captain is indeed a strong female character. Kate Mulgrew plays her as one of those old-style, bomb-and-blast Star Fleet tough guys--like Kirk rather than that liberal sissy compromiser Picard. Hers is easily the most macho performance on prime time since Hunter went off the air. She delivers every line as though she were proclaiming she's ready right now to drink any damn Klingon under the table; and when she marches around the bridge with her hands surgically attached to her hips, I keep expecting her to throw back her head and laugh, like Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

But the rest of the show is mundane even by the ever-dwindling standards of Star Trek. At least they've been honest enough to drop that line about "to boldly go where no one has gone before." Every single episode so far has been a retread of an idea already worn smooth on an earlier series. Since aliens once stole Spock's brain (sometimes cited as the dumbest moment in the history of Star Trek), they were positively obliged to return and steal Neelix's lungs. The members of the Voyager crew have twice now arrived at some disaster to find evidence it was caused by their own blundering in a previous time track: this happened to Picard's gang so often, you figure by now they ought to be teaching seminars on it at Star Fleet. And, as always, the most interesting character is the emotionless alien/android/hologram--which reveals how helpless the scriptwriters are at devising characters who actually do have emotions now and then.

But it's already a big hit--unlike VR.5, which has no chance at all of being renewed for the fall. Voyager doesn't need imagination. It doesn't even need admirers. It relies on manifest destiny. The show sweeps the Nielsens as invincibly as the starship imposes its wisdom and charity (and a sweetness so cloying it makes The Brady Bunch look like Strindberg) on every planetary stop during its sold-out ten-year run. You know that all the aliens they meet are bound to be enlightened by the Federation's humanist ideology of noninterference and tolerance--that is, if they don't get in the captain's way. Those liberal imperialists are always the quickest on the phaser button.

Forgive me if I stick to shows that aren't so sure of their rectitude, like VR.5--or better yet Babylon 5. It's just as confused, except on a galactic scale. It's about a space station run by humans for the benefit of a bunch of alien civilizations. Having no money for special effects, it runs amok with subplots and continuing stories, to the point where it makes Melrose Place look like a model of Aristotelian linearity. But here again, that's just what I like. The story is so chaotic, it may be the only sci-fi show I've ever seen with a plausible take on the future.

The humans on the Babylon 5 space station aren't hurtling around the galaxy teaching a lot of blinkered aliens what's what; they're stuck out in the void, surrounded by a mob of ancient, hostile, mutually unintelligible civilizations--like the UN on a particularly nasty day. None of our heroes (granted, an unusually stolid and obtuse bunch) can keep a handle on the overlapping skirmishes and secret deals; back on earth, meanwhile, the political situation has been swallowed up by contending conspiracies; and as the title narration explains to us, the whole mess is sliding irrevocably toward galactic war. Compared to Star Trek, this is sheerest naturalism.

But it's also kind of an accident. The problem with Babylon 5 is that the producers have worked out their premise in way too much detail. Any given episode is impossible to understand because it's loaded with inscrutable foreshadowings of plotlines they're not going to resolve, or even explain, until somewhere in 1998. It doesn't help any that all these plotlines are pure sci-fi gibberish. The show recently announced the horrifying and sinister news that the ruling council on some alien planet had suddenly replaced a "priest-clan" delegate with a "warrior-clan" delegate, causing a subtle shift in their immemorial balance of power that may have devastating consequences down the road in season four...I mean, look: I have a hard enough time caring whether the Republicans or Democrats have control of the Senate; I can't be filling my head with this kind of nonsense or I'll lose track entirely.

In another way--though maybe a garbled and inadvertent way--it feels right. Why shouldn't we expect that if we meet up with aliens, we'll bumble into some interstellar version of Bosnia? It's not as though they're waiting for us to bring them the Federation. Babylon 5 assumes that we'll spend centuries trying to fathom these extraterrestrial civilizations and still not have the first clue what's up with them. And past their planets, in the rest of the galaxy, there'll be nothing waiting for us but a deeper mystery.

The most curious such moment in the series was an incidental subplot from the first season that's never been referred to again (though it will probably prove to be decisive 40 episodes from now). A human explorer taking her ship past the frontier is almost killed by the wake of what looked like a planet-size jellyfish. She asks the friendly alien who rescues her what it was she saw; he shrugs and says he doesn't know. Is it intelligent? she asks. His answer is: the only thing I can tell you about it is we have to leave it alone. The universe is immensely older than we are, he says; it's filled with things so strange we can't even guess what they might be--and a lot of them have made it plain they have no use at all for the likes of us.

If Voyager had bumped into that thing, you know what would've happened: a standard cosmic-perspective moral about the human and the alien, about how far we've come up the evolutionary ladder and how many rungs are waiting for us up ahead. But sometimes that easy eloquence about the poetry of it all is the absolute wrong response. Sometimes the real poetry is just to stand there in dumbstruck wonder. A classy show can't get away with that: its audience wants their fundamental mysteries in exactly calibrated doses. But on these fringe shows, shows filled with accidents and bungled ideas and that panicky aura of looming cancellation, you can sometimes find a moment of authentic grandeur. The tinsel gives way as silver never does, because it's capable of being overwhelmed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Konstantin Valov.

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