Millennialism produces intriguing impulses in a culture. Around the year 1000, European manuscript artists and poets limned their visions of the Apocalypse. Today's equally important purveyors of world culture--American television producers--are approaching the next millennium with less dismal thoughts. They are offering an onslaught of science-fiction series replete with brilliant techno-fetishists, emoting robots and impassioned parapsychologists.
"As we near the year 2000," explains Fox programming executive Bob Greenblatt, "people are becoming more open to what might lie beyond that magical moment." Greenblatt's employer is responsible for much of the current science-fiction barrage. It has been sparked largely by the astounding success of The X-Files, the hit Fox series that focuses on two FBI agents assigned to investigate cases for which there may be only paranormal explanations. Hailed by critics, the show is one of the network's top rated and has spawned an Internet discussion group 10,000 members strong.
In the time period just before The X-Files, Fox has launched the eerie cyberthriller VR.5 (Fridays, 8 p.m. est). Last Wednesday the network introduced Sliders, about a charmingly disheveled physics student who creates a void in his basementthat transports him to different parallel universes every week. Elsewhere, Showtime has just launched a revival of the 1960s anthology series The Outer Limits (Sundays, 10 p.m. est), which will prey on fears of everything from alien organisms to virtual reality. These shows are joining a sizable armada of sci-fi programming already on the air, ranging from nbc's SeaQuest DSV and Earth 2 to the syndicated Star Trek sequels, as well as the fare offered on cable's Sci-Fi Channel, now seen in over 18 million homes.
Despite their otherworldly obsessions, the new sci-fi shows are hardly radical in terms of storytelling. They dabble in shadowy bureaucracies. They feature heroes and heroines maniacally driven to resolve the unanswerable. And the shows often conclude in standard good-vs.-evil showdowns. In the first episode of Sliders, the young physicist and his friends find themselves in a communist California, where they join an underground movement to oust the Soviets, who in this world have won the cold war. Sliders, filled with dialogue like "The guy is Three Mile Island--it's going to take him years to cool down," is a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for teenagers who actually read newspapers. The Outer Limits also dampens its chills with banal dialogue. In one episode, a voluptuous robot falls in love with a paralyzed scientist. His response to her kiss: "I couldn't stop thinking about your saliva. What is it made from?"
VR.5 is the real standout among these new series in part because it does not succumb to campiness. The show revolves around the treacherous cyber-exploits of Sydney Bloom (Lori Singer), an emotionally deadened young woman who can travel through her computer into a virtual universe in which she can tap into the minds of other people. A genius in a T shirt and Timberlands, Sydney has devised this technology herself, but she cannot control the environments she enters. As a result, she often finds herself in peril. Neverthe-less, she is unable to stay in the real world and relinquish virtual-reality voyaging. "You give it up, and you'll be free," says her mentor. "I'm free when I'm in there," Sydney blankly responds.