Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sci-Fi Channel Upfronts Via Press Release

I'm not sure about most people who blog about TV, but from time to time I get press releases sent to me by various networks or publicists. Most of the time these are condemned to the trash section of my email client for what I regard as a couple of good reasons. One is immediacy. It really doesn't make much sense for me to mention that Larry King will be interviewing Senator Obama on Thursday on CNN, or to run excerpts from an interview of General Petraeus by Kyra Philips of CNN, just to give a couple of examples of material that dropped into my email box on Wednesday. Another consideration is my ability to give an informed review of what is actually on the screen. Because I'm a Canadian I don't always get to see shows at the same time that they debut in the United States either because a Canadian station or cable network doesn't have the show or because it has appeared on a Canadian service that I don't have access to (because I can't afford it or Shaw Cable doesn't offer it or – in the case of something on HDNet or other Hi Def only channels I don't have an HD TV). I would have loved to have written about John Adams but it was on Movie Central which I'm not prepared to pay an extra $11 for, and it probably won't make it onto the Canadian version of History Channel for a year or two. Then there are shows that just don't make it onto a Canadian station. Since I'm going to be talking about the Sci-Fi Channel's upfronts, I'll just mention that the Tin Man mini-series, which was just one of the highest rated shows that that network had last year, still hasn't aired in Canada. I don't get network preview DVDs or press packages (not that I'd say no by the way if anyone wants to contact me about it) so when it comes to writing about new shows I am dependent on what I see on TV. Worst of all is the occasional sense that I might not be doing the "right" or ethical thing.

Still, I increasingly feel like I'm missing a bet when it comes to at least some of these press releases, at least ones like this where there's a long lead time and an effort to promote, or at the very least to inform readers of something to look forward to, rather than to get me to review something that I haven't seen and maybe won't see. At the very least I can express an opinion on what the press releases say without making myself look like too big an ass right? And come to think of it since when has that ever stopped anyone in the media or the TV business.

For me the biggest announcement was undoubtedly the long anticipated Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica. Caprica will be presented as a "backdoor pilot" which may be turned into a series. Set fifty years before the Cylon attack on the Colonies, the series will followthe rivalry between two families, the Adamas and the Greystones during the time when developments were occurring in artificial intelligence were being made. These developments would eventually lead to the creation of the Cylons. According to Mark Stern, the Sci Fi Channel's Executive Vice President for Original Programming, "We couldn't be more excited to see this long-anticipated project get off the ground. It's an amazing script, and, though clearly inspired by the Battlestar mythology, it is not just a pale spin-off. This is a smart, thought-provoking, emotional, and compelling character drama in its own right." Battlestar Galactica's co-Executive Producer David Eick added, "While Caprica will have its own personality, it will carry on Battlestar's commitment to

pushing the boundaries of the genre, and we're thrilled that SCI FI has seen fit to giving us another opportunity to tell character-driven stories in challenging ways."

From a fan's perspective – or maybe I should say from this fan's perspective – Caprica offers an opportunity to see the society that spawned the characters who make up this series, and perhaps answer some of the questions that have been bothering me a bit – like the fact that they have advanced space travel but never seemed to have developed weapons more advanced than what we have. It is a society that is advanced in some ways and backward in others and it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

In other "scripted" series news from Sci Fi, three pilots and a mini-series were announced by the network. True Believer is described by the network as "a quirky, contemporary dramedy about a 20-something comic book nerd who hires a washed-up real-life Superhero to be his crime-fighting sidekick and teach him the ropes. Together, this unlikely duo set out to save the World." Actress and comic book writer Rosario Dawson will be the Executive Producer while David Atchison (who is Dawson's co-creator on the Image Comics book Occult Crimes Task Force) will write the pilot along with Matthew Spradlin. The Stranded is a project which comes out of Sci Fi's partnership with Virgin Comics to create comic book titles that "integrate the unique spirit and vitality of both brands and create intellectual properties that can be developed across all mediums from publishing, film and television to digital and gaming." The Stranded is one of Virgin Comics' top sellers. The series deals with five seemingly ordinary people who discover that everything they remember about their past is a lie and that in fact they are actually from another world, called Standfire. Worse, the past that they are just discovering is coming back to try to kill them. The third pilot, called Deputized is about "an average Joe" who finds himself with special abilities after he is accidentally fitted with an alien exoskeleton that can't be removed. As a result he is enlisted as a member of "the inter-galactic police force that patrols the universe." The scripted miniseries that Sci Fi will be running is called Alice and is a modern retelling of the Alice in Wonderland story in much the same way that Tin Man, which was the network's most watched program ever, was a modern retelling of the story of The Wizard of Oz. It should probably come as a surprise to no one that Alice is being created by Writer/Director Nick Willing and Executive Producers Robert Halmi, Sr. and Robert Halmi, Jr. who were the people behind Tin Man.

I have to say that there seems to be a rather disturbing familiarity about a couple of these projects. The plot description for The Stranded sounds vaguely similar to Roswell and probably has a couple of references to other series as well. However the one that sounds really familiar is Deputized. Substitute "power ring" for "alien exoskeleton" and you have a plot description that is eerily like the concept that John Broome used for the revival of the Green Lantern in 1959, while the idea of an exo-skeleton or a costume that grants special powers or abilities but can't be removed is reminiscent of another DC Comics character, Blue Devil. Of course, much will depend on how this concept is executed.

In terms of reality programming, Sci Fi is promoting the return of Ghost Hunters International, a spin-off of their popular series Ghost Hunters in which a new team of "ordinary people" debunks stories of paranormal activity. In the first season Ghost Hunters International examined some of the "most haunted" locations in Europe. In the second season the show will extend its reach to include "notorious haunted hotspots" In South Africa and New Zealand as well as returning to Europe. Also returning will be a revival of the series Scare Tactics, to be hosted by comedian Tracy Morgan (30 Rock), in which unsuspecting victims are "are placed into elaborately staged scary situations involving movie-style special effects and makeup. The horror hoaxes are skillfully designed to tap into the wildest fears of the prank's prey." A more interesting show for me is Mind Control with Derren Brown, a British series in which the magician and "psychological illusionist" manipulates human behaviour while at the same time debunking the paranormal. I've seen some of what Brown does – it's been posted on YouTube – and I find him fascinating.

Estate of Panic is a new reality competition series in which seven people in each episode are challenged to find money in a massive estate. However there are challenges along the way. Two people are eliminated in each of three challenges, with the money that they've found being added to the pot that the eventual winner will take home. In all honesty it sounds like a redressed version of the NBC series Fear Factor. The other new reality series is called Brain Trust. In it a group of geniuses (a Mensa member with a perfect SAT score, an award-winning computer scientist/ neuroroboticist, the man with the highest recorded IQ in the United States, a behaviourist and gamer; a math whiz and author, and a successful software developer) are brought together to find new solutions to everyday problems. Once they've developed a new approach it is tried in a "real world" application.

Finally, in a tie-in with the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls, Sci Fi will be presenting Mystery of the Crystal Skulls hosted by Weekend Today host and NBC News reporter Lester Holt on May 18th. This is how the Sci Fi press release describes the special (because I can't summarize it and do it "justice" without wanting to burst in with my own sceptical nature): SCI FI feeds the Indy frenzy with the real story of and search for the legendary crystal Skulls. Glimmers of ancient civilizations and lost worlds have forever intrigued and tantalized but few ancient mysteries generate quite the fervor of the Crystal Skulls: 13 quartz crystal human skulls, now scattered to the four winds, discovered amid ruins of Mayan and Aztec societies. Legend tells us that should they ever be united, they may unleash untold energy, revealing secrets vital to the survival of humankind. In the new special Mystery of the Crystal Skulls, SCI FI and host Lester Holt (NBC News/Weekend Today) explore the history of the Crystal Skulls: the myths, the legends, the controversies and the scientific tests performed behind closed doors. It digs even deeper for the truth with new lab tests, as well an expedition into the jungles of Belize to track down the missing skulls, a quest worthy of Indiana Jones himself.

Finally, Sci Fi is pushing the fourth and final (*sniff*) season of Battle Star Galactica with website content including a one-time streaming presentation of the fourth season premiere episode on the Sci Fi website on April 4th at Noon Eastern Time (the press release says Noon EST which would be Noon CDT so you might just want to show up at the site early). This is nine hours before the episode is broadcast on the Sci Fi network. And no doubt this won't be available to anyone whose Internet Address doesn't say that it's American. There are also going to be "webisodes" and a "social gaming experience" called "Join The Fight! Cylon or Human," in which players pick a side and engage in battles for points through various games and challenges. Also available online is an original Web series called Starcrossed, written by David Hewlett of Stargate: Atlantis, about the behind the scenes "antics" at a long running science fiction soap opera.

Sci Fi has also posted a number of videos related to Battle Star Galactica at their YouTube Channel. They include the four part Battle Star Galactica Revealed program, and these two short videos previews:

Finally, just because it's fun, we have this clip from Wednesday night's Late Show With David Letterman.

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