Supernatural Invasion ; A Handful of Otherworldly and Futuristic Shows Are Pulling TV in a New Direction

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We were interested in what it all means - the big questions of life," says Rockne O'Bannon, creator of the Sci-Fi Channel show "Farscape." "Are we alone in the universe? Is there good and evil elsewhere?"

Speculative fiction is hot stuff right now on TV: NBC's ghostly "The Others" debuts tomorrow at 10 p.m.; a new post-Apocalyptic series, "Total Recall 2070," premired in national syndication last month; and as a special-event all nine episodes of the near-future show "Harsh Realm" air this spring on the FX channel.

So why is this genre of "what if?" shows expected to attract devoted audiences?

"Speculative fiction gives us the ability to do allegorical stories that cut very close to the bone of what people care about - and do it in a disarming way," says Mark Stern, executive producer of Showtime's "The Outer Limits," an updated version of the classic 1960s sci-fi anthology.

In a coming episode called "Judgment Day," the show lambastes the future of scandal TV. A man is framed for a murder, tried, and convicted by the Judgment Day Network, and then released for the murdered woman's sister to hunt down and kill. In the futuristic context, the episode attacks the entertainment industry's cynicism, the danger of privatization of correctional institutions, and what is arguably a growing trend toward vengeful retribution. It asks "what if" TV could mete out capital justice, as Judge Judy metes out small claims?

Speculative fiction, from sci-fi to fantasy, horror, and the supernatural, asks "What if?" Space operas like "Farscape," "Stargate SG-1" (Showtime), and "Star Trek Voyager" (UPN) propose worlds beyond our own. "What if" technology makes deep-space travel inevitable? What will other worlds be like? Other life forms? What will be the issues facing humankind in such an expanded experience?

In "Farscape," the various species on board the spaceship Leviathan distrust and care for each other by turns - each wanting only to return to their own worlds. Loyalty, courage, compassion, and tolerance are important to survival.

Near-future and futuristic earth sagas like "Now and Again" (CBS), "Pretender" (NBC), "Harsh Realm," and "Total Recall 2070" ask what if technology changes us? What could happen to human societies as technology becomes more advanced? How will mores change? In their own way, each of these shows deals with moral issues without sounding simplistic or moralistic.

'What science can do' and ethical dilemmas

Scholar and writer Jennifer Krammer says that "some sci-fi represents hidden fears of science - and what science can do." That is, euthanasia, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and cloning present new ethical dilemmas.

"Total Recall 2070" suggests a bleak future where democracy and personal freedom have been relinquished in favor of a corporate culture. The stunning design of the show recalls the retro-future look of "Blade Runner" rather than the movie "Total Recall."

Smartly written and performed, this high-minded, entertaining thriller takes on the dehumanizing prospect of a machine-centered culture, corporate greed, and environmental and human-rights issues that would not be tolerated in any other TV genre.

"Harsh Realm" was precipitously yanked from Fox after only three episodes last fall. It pictures a virtual-reality world in which the hero, Hobbes, is trapped. The only way out creates a terrible predicament for him, because in order to return to reality, he must destroy the virtual world. But the virtual characters "have some kind of validity," says executive producer Frank Spotnitz. In other words, souls.

Meanwhile, Hobbes's sidekick, the ever-selfish Mike Pinocchio, "is better than he knows and he keeps doing the right thing despite himself."

Both "The X-Files" (Fox) and "Harsh Realm" are the offspring of Chris Carter, and "what they have in common is that there is more in the universe than we can understand," Mr. …