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Star Gazing

July 29, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With its Friday night lineup of "The Invisible Man," "Farscape" and "Lexx: The Series," the Sci Fi Channel has discovered science fiction is not only for men.

"Our demographics are pretty amazing," says Bonnie Hammer, president of the basic cable network. "Most people assume wrongly that science fiction is a male-based genre, when in fact there are far more women who tune into sci-fi than anyone expects."

It's all relative, of course. Sci Fi's audience remains small compared to the broadcast networks, but the block of original programming on Fridays has boosted ratings by more than 40% over the past two years. And 41% of the Friday night crowd is female, the channel says.

Paul Donovan, the executive producer of the off-the-wall "Lexx," assumed the series would only attract males. In fact, he recalls when pitching the series he told the Sci Fi Channel the arget audience was "adolescents--ages 8 to 80--the implication being adolescent boys. The reality is quite different. There is a huge female following."

The reason, he says, is actor Michael McManus, who plays the 2,000-year-old dead assassin Kai. "He is very hunky," Donovan says. "There are a lot of women who love him to death. He can go to any hotel in most of the world and there will be people camped outside his door. It's ntense."

David Kemper, executive producer of "Farscape"--the network's most popular show--says he and the series' creator, Rockne S. O'Bannon, set out to attract females by creating several strong women characters.

"Now we have four strong women," Kemper says. "They pick up guns and shoot a monster. They dive off a cliff. They are brave and spiritual. What happened is, son of a gun, the boys love these strong women and the women love the strong women. We aimed [the series] in that direction and we kind of fired with eyes closed and it paid off. It worked."

Over the decades, such acclaimed sci-fi series as "The Twilight Zone," "Star Trek," "The X-Files" and "Stargate SG-1" aired on Friday nights.

"For some reason there has always been a built-in audience [for science fiction] on Friday night," Hammer says. "It's kind of an alternative viewing opportunity. The networks kind of go away to some degree on Friday nights. The night may have a lower general viewership, but sci-fi always seems to grow."

The Sci Fi Channel's lineup kicks off with "The Invisible Man," which is based on the classic H.G. Wells' novel and 1933 movie. Vincent Ventresca plays Darien Fawkes, a very unwilling secret invisible agent for an underfunded intelligence agency.

"We like to think of ourselves as being kind of a subversive show," executive producer David Levinson says. "We take that which has been seen before and try to stand it on its head."

Unlike "Farscape" and "Lexx," the science-fiction element of the series is kept to just Fawkes' invisibility. "So we haven't got aliens or space ships and time warps. But what we have is Vince Ventresca, which is great, and this kind of subversive approach to our stories and as much humor as we can possibly get into them."

Humor is also the key to "Farscape," a fanciful and exciting epic about a wisecracking American astronaut (Ben Browder) who is sort of an outer-space version of "Moonlighting's" David Addison. Because of a freak accident during a test flight, he's sent through a wormhole, landing on the far side of the universe. Now he's part of a renegade crew aboard a living ship.

Filmed in Australia, "Farscape" features innovative animatronic creatures from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Brian Henson is also an executive producer of the series.

"We constructed the show as if the whole series is a giant novel," Kemper says. "Every year is like a chapter in a book. But we don't have a grand design. We write it and let the creative winds blow. If it scares us, it's good because it will shock people. If it surprises us, it's good because it will surprise people."

There are a lot of surprises in "Lexx." In fact, the Sci Fi Channel is very upfront about the fact that "Lexx" is not for everyone.

The quirky, risque series deals with four misfit characters--a former security guard with an eye for the ladies, a love slave, a dead assassin and a lovesick robot head--who travel the galaxies in a huge, living insect named Lexx.

"We describe it sometimes as the evil twin of 'Star Trek,' " Donovan says. "We are in the weird category."

*

* "The Invisible Man" airs at 8 p.m. Friday on the Sci Fi Channel, followed by "Farscape" at 9 p.m. and "Lexx: The Series" at 10 p.m. The networks have rated "Invisible Man" and "Lexx" TV-PG (may beunsuitable for young children) and "Farscape" TV-PG-V (may be nsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)

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