In tv sci-fi a portal to the past cOULD be the path to a more exciting future

Pat Stacey

Science fiction is one of the toughest nuts in the television universe to crack. For every Battlestar Galactica there's a dismal reboot of V. For every Lost there's a FlashForward or a Heroes, or some other would-be epic that's either cancelled after a season or gradually disappears up its own fundament.

The X Files was followed by a slew of imitators, yet we had to wait for Fringe before JJ Abrams took a similar premise and spun it off into something with an identity all its own.

It's notable that the only Star Trek sequels Trekkies treat with affection-cum-devotion-cum-obsession is The Next Generation, which stuck closest to creator Gene Roddenberry's vision.

You would imagine that if anyone could bottle the secret of making good sci-fi TV, that person would be Steven Spielberg. His record in big-screen sci-fi is dazzling: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, the chilling and hypnotic techno-Pinocchio fable AI: Artificial Intelligence, and the utterly brilliant Minority Report, the best movie adaptation of a Philip K Dick story since Blade Runner.

Okay, so his modern-day War of the Worlds erred on the ordinary side, but his strike rate of successes is still hugely impressive. Yet Spielberg's ventures into TV sci-fi as a producer have been patchy.

The mammoth, 10-part 2002 mini-series Taken, which followed three families' encounters with aliens over a period of five decades, turned out to be an over-hyped bore, long on talk but short on excitement.

While Falling Skies, which began this summer and features ER star Noah Wyle as a history professor forced to take up arms against a race of humanoid aliens and their mechanical attack drones, is a lumpy mixture of polished action and sticky sentimentality (a Spielberg weakness).

There are higher hopes for Terra Nova, which splashed down on Sky 1 this week. Spielberg is just one of a platoon of co-producers, but his input is visible in every frame.


Terra Nova tells the story of the Shannon family -- Jason O'Mara, Shelley Conn and their three children -- who leave a dying future earth through a time portal and emerge in the titular colony 85 million years in the past in a landscape overrun with dinosaurs.

The most striking aspect of Terra Nova is how old-fashioned it is, calling to mind '60s childhood favourites such as The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and, with its theme of a family heading into the unknown, even the tongue in cheek Lost in Space.

The one thing Spielberg probably wouldn't want it compared to, though, is Land of the Lost, a corny American kids' show that ran in the '70s and featured a mixture of live actors and rubbery dinosaurs. Although with a budget of $50m, the CGI creatures in Terra Nova have more in common with the ones in Spielberg's own Jurassic Park.

It's oddly comforting to think that, at a time when computer-generated special effects can realise any kind of future-world a writer can dream up, television sci-fi seems to be going not back to the future but forward to the past.

>dOH! The future of The Simpsons is hanging in the balance, it was reported this week, as 20th Century-Fox Television claimed it can no longer afford to produce the show without the principal voice cast taking a massive pay cut.

The company wants the cast to work for 45pc less. The actors reportedly are prepared to accept a 30pc cut, in return for a share of the massive cash bonanza generated by Simpsons-related merchandise. Their proposal was rejected.

You could say the company can afford to grant the actors what they're asking, given that The Simpsons, now in its 23rd season on the Fox network, pulls in huge amounts of money every year from the sale of lunchboxes, mugs, T-shirts, slippers, pyjamas, and just about anything you can think of that can be worn, played with or eaten.

Or, that, with the world in an ever-deeper economic recession and people losing their jobs and their homes, the voice cast should be thankful to be earning even half of their $8m a year each.

Brilliant as they are, it's not as if the likes of Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Julie Kavner (Marge), Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Yeardley Smith (Lisa) were exactly choking on the fruits of stardom prior to The Simpsons. Aside from Kavner, who became famous as Brenda Morgenstern in '70s sitcom Rhoda, they were unknowns before Simpsons creator Matt Groening provided them with the parts of a lifetime.

There is a third view, of course: given that The Simpsons has been in serious decline for a long time and the new episodes are a pale yellow shadow of the glory days of the early-to mid-'90s, perhaps it's time for everybody involved to call it a day and count their blessings, along with their fortunes.

>RAcist restrictions EastEnders is hilarious. No, I haven't taken leave of my senses; I really mean it. One of the funniest things I've seen lately was Phil Mitchell's appalled reaction to Denise branding him a racist in front of a packed Queen Vic.

"You take that back!" he said.

Sorry, run that by me again. "Take that back"? Not, "I'll rip your 'ead orf" or "I'll break your jaw," but "Take that back". That's more like a line you'd expect to find in a book by Enid Blyton, probably followed by the words "you rotter", and not from the mouth of Albert Square's angriest man.

It also begs a question: could we finally have found the one subject that's too sensitive for even the most squalid, depressing soap on television to tackle in an honest, head-on fashion?

Over the years, EastEnders has featured storylines covering the ugliest aspects of human nature (were I to list even a fraction of them, we'd be here all weekend), many of them involving Phil. Yet when it comes to racism, it seems the scriptwriters still feel the need to tiptoe gingerly around the issue, to the point where it's a taboo personality trait even for the soap's most horrible, spiteful and vindictive character.

London is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. It's also one of the most racially divided. Surely there must be at least one racist in Walford. God knows, there are enough murderers, rapists, blackmailers and homophobes -- including Phil Mitchell.

>THE SKY FACTOR Saturday nights have been saved, at least for the next few weeks, from The X Factor and its evil orcs crawling all over our television screens.

As welcome as a cold glass of beer on a hot Atlantic City night during Prohibition, the brilliant Boardwalk Empire returns to Sky Atlantic tonight for its second series, which, by all accounts, is as good as, if not better than, the first. Sex, booze, bullets and Steve Buscemi, deservedly elevated at last to a lead role as Nucky Thompson . . . what can we say? It doesn't get any better than this.