Space is the Place

Exploring TV's final frontier: The syndicated action series

Tune in to any network and you're going to be smacked around by voices demanding gravely that you tune in to see what your old friends are up to in the White House, in the operating theaters of the Chicago hospital, in the tobacco-stained corridors of the New York City court building. Week in and week out, TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly dutifully chew their way through the fresh buffet of garbage known as the start of the television season, systematically examining all the shows that have a network to call their own.

But who will love the syndicated shows? Me, for starters. Find me another TV genre where a voiceover repeats the show's basic premise each week ("Space, the final frontier...") while the theme music revs up, and where the opening credits introduce every character by name. Syndicated shows may be dopey but they're not stupid: Hooking the accidental viewer is an imperative.

Syndicated shows also have their own distinctive aesthetic: clean cities, fresh-faced actors who look a little too normal to be from Los Angeles, slightly rounded vowels. If you're thinking, "That's not really an aesthetic. That's Canada," then you're right on the money. Part of the fun in watching a syndicated show is waiting for a bit player to say "about." Syndicated shows also feature fantastic fisticuffs and lots of computer-generated explosions; they've come along way since Gene Roddenberry was shaking the camera and Leonard Nimoy was spazzing out with his prosthetic ears. These are shows that don't lie awake at night wishing they were The Sopranos; they're too busy wondering how to work another multidimensional space hottie-cum-oracle into standard plot exposition.

In short, these serials aren't just for watching when TBS launches into the 500th airing of The American President. Three of the most ubiquitous syndicated series out there--Andromeda, Mutant X, and She Spies--are also among the most watchable. (Funny the way mass culture works that way! All three shows can be seen locally in various weekend and late-night time slots on a slightly bewildering variety of broadcast and cable stations.)

It turns out all these series have hit the "reset" button, so any concerns you may have had about not understanding three years of Andromeda backstory are now moot. This might be frustrating to the passionate fans who have been obsessively collecting the made-up space literature citations that open each episode of the series (sample citation: "What clings to a wall, but travels all the world? --Unsolvable riddle of Ski, Patriarch of Jill. CY 1111"). But it's a stroke of genius from an audience-development perspective.

Andromeda had spent the last three years accumulating a weighty history. Anyone who doesn't know what the trouble was with Tribbles should probably skip the next paragraph or two. For those of you left reading: Captain Dylan Hunt (Minnesota's own Kevin Sorbo) has been frozen in time along with his super-intelligent space battleship Andromeda (whose "avatar," or hot, know-it-all woman, is played by the uncannily robotic Lexa Doig). He's awakened by a rag-tag team of space grifters (Brent Stait, Gordon Michael Woolvett, Keith Hamilton Cobb, Laura Bertram, and Lisa Ryder) in a dystopic future. Along with whipping this crew into shape, the good Captain has set about restoring the golden age of space to a fractious universe.

Yet all his hard work has been undone over the course of the summer. One of the crew members mutinied his way right off the series, and the team has to start over. If you're Captain Hunt, that's not good news. If you're a TV viewer who wants a quippy, occasionally campy space opera, your Glorious Heritage-class Heavy Cruiser has come in.

¬ Orbiting even more distant worlds is the quippy and campy She Spies, the show that is everything Charlie's Angels wishes it were. Here's how the program's entire premise is summed up each week: "They're three career criminals with one shot at freedom. Now they're working for the Fed who put them away. These are the women of She Spies--bad girls gone good!"

And how. Cassie (a surprisingly funny Natasha Hensridge) is a con artist, Shane (Natashia Williams) is a burglar, and D.D. (Kristen Miller) is the ditsy computer hacker. They can also work the miniskirts, which comes in handy when they're forced to go undercover as sexy nurses or call girls. Which is, like, every week.

Although She Spies sounds like a feminist nightmare on paper, there isn't another show on the tube that offers women who are unabashedly and equally into pedicures and ass-kicking. The bad girls-gone-good also get all the best lines. A recent episode found their new boss Cross (Cameron Daddo) smugly bragging, "We're the government. We can do anything." Without missing a beat, the She Spies countered, "You can't balance the budget," "You can't save the spotted owl," "You can't make me vote." The government can't make you watch She Spies, but you should do it anyway.

Of the three syndicated shows you're likely to see, Mutant X demands the greatest viewer commitment--which, given the skimpy payoff, is a little like studying the bound stacks of Us magazine at the library. The storylines often require reference to fan websites to figure out who wants to kill whom and why. Mysterious mutant origins are rarely resolved (who on Earth thought "secret government agency" GenomeX.net was a good idea?). And the action sequences should probably skip any attempts at hand-to-hand combat in favor of a rousing game of Battleship. To Mutant X's credit, it's built a rich and varied universe in which there are good science geeks and evil, mad science geeks, an underground mutants' rights movement, and crime-fighting do-gooders who just want the world to give them a hug. Yet it's missing the wink-and-nod the other two series have.

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