Science vs. Sci-fi: TV Has Wrong Mix
`LADIES and gentlemen, you are now on Venus.'' I still recall the thrill I got as a kid reading that line in a forgettable book of the period. Venusians had traveled to Earth and brought a few Earthlings back with them. On the trip over, passengers danced ecstatically to the music of the spheres, piped in from outer space. On the Venusian surface they walked unsinged in temperatures we now know can melt lead.
Not long after reading that novel, I lost my innocence about science fiction, especially the outlandish kind. Even the relatively little I was learning about science made it harder for me to respond in the same engrossed way to sci-fi. My amateur interest began attaching itself to reports and theories about the real thing.
Today on TV, the truly breathtaking stuff, in my experience, is found in formats that are the most fact-based and least fictionalized. The trouble for viewers who feel this way is that TV tends to be long on sci-fi and short on the kind of documentaries that excite wonder from their very realism. When the medium isn't actually airing sci-fi space epics, it seems to be reminiscing about them. Last Wednesday CBS offered a long, loving look back at the remarkable history of ``Star Trek,'' hosted by William Shatner (``Star Trek's'' Capt. James T. Kirk).
On Tuesday, Dec. 13, Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (``Star Trek's'' First Officer Spock) host a review of the whole TV sci-fi genre through the years. ``The Museum of Television & Radio Presents: Science Fiction, a Journey Into the Unknown'' (Fox, 8-10 p.m.) covers some 40 years of fantasy and science fiction, from the penetrating to the absurd.
The program skillfully reveals how instructive and entertaining the fables can be at their best, when they give viewers a vision of life beyond human prejudice and limitation. The program also reveals how tidily TV has managed to fit sci-fi into its programming needs. In the 1940s and 1950s, ``Captain Video'' managed to fulfill many a child's dream of macho exploits. In the 1960s, ``Lost in Space'' put an all-American sitcom-style family adrift in the universe. ``The Outer Limits,'' also in the 1960s, used some wonderfully exotic extraterrestrials (one was buglike, with a British accent) at a time when formats often reached for the unusual.
This is all unabashedly fantasy material, of course, but even an ostensibly science-based space show such as ``Searching for Extraterrestrials,'' (airing Sunday, Dec. 4, 9:30-11 p.m. on TBS) looks and sounds too much like sci-fi - even though it's an edition of ``National Geographic Explorer.'' We are truly in little-green-men country, reviewing the prospects of contacting life on other worlds in what purports to be a realistic look at the subject. To eerie music, we approach planet Earth from a UFO's vantage point. People are interviewed who minutely describe abductions by alien creatures (with triangular heads, pupilless eyes, and skinny legs).
The show does bring on respected scientists to pooh-pooh all this and point out that matter cannot travel fast enough for aliens to reach Earth from very far away. But equal time goes to a psychiatrist who says other beings would have overcome such limits.
I suppose astronomy on TV could never compete with dramas played out in space. But ``Stargazers'' - airing Monday, Dec. 5, 9-10 p.m., on the Discovery Channel) is a good example of how a realistic show can possess the edge of wonder missing from most sci-fi vehicles. Narrated by Patrick Stewart (Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of - what else? - ``Star Trek: the Next Generation''), it describes the founding of Arizona's Lowell Observatory by Percival Lowell, a 19th-century Boston Brahmin, amateur astronomer, visionary, and genuine eccentric. He was sure there was life on Mars, and although the observatory he established never found any, it did lead to historic discoveries like the ninth planet, Pluto.
``Stargazers,'' though full of production effects, is more subdued than ``Search for Extraterrestrials.'' For that very reason it is also more awe-inspiring, both in the material it discusses and in the way it evokes the zeal of scientists pursuing facts. If nothing else, it is a good reminder that science makes the best viewing when in its least adulterated form. @QUOTE = The most breath-taking science shows tend to have formats that are the least fictionalized. The trouble is, today's TV tends to be short on these and long on sci-fi.