When I think of how his brainchild took the pulp out of sci-fi, I do sometimes wish the late, great Gene Rodenberry had found another calling— scoutmaster, say. A dutiful sort, I’ve tried to keep tabs on the Star Trek emporium over the years. But for all this channel serf cares, Seven of Nine, the character Jeri Ryan plays on Voyager, might as well be called Six of One instead. Designed to feed a cult rather than involve a new audience, the franchise’s spinoff shows have been more ceremonies than entertainments, extracting a purposeless solemnity from the earnest humanism that makes the original series such an endearing Great Society curio. The inquisitiveness that Rodenberry championed as guilelessly as a progressive Reagan (back when liberals, believe it or not, were in the optimism business) has long since lost its point as well, dwindling into ever more hermetic elaborations of self-referential lore— the geek ethnography that the sort of fans who study Klingon dictionaries dotes on. Sure, The Next Generation was a much sleeker, more poised show than its often ramshackle prototype. But it was also far more ponderous— its makers knew they didn’t need to be interesting to keep the target audience riveted, just impressive. And that was the good one.
Yet on TV, the Star Trek template has long dominated the genre to the point of marginalizing any sci-fi show that doesn’t emulate it. That’s one reason to be grateful the franchise is finally petering out— with both Voyager and DS9 apparently warping toward pasture after this season, and perennial wannabe Babylon 5 due to wrap things up November 25. If noncultists have by now all but forgotten the more expressive uses to which sci-fi formats can be put, I think they should check out UPN’s nifty new Seven Days. Since its debut early last month, this under-the-radar series has been parlaying a hokey time-machine gimmick into an inventive, unexpectedly heartfelt pulp saga that owes more to Borges than the Borg— while also being humane enough to do Rodenberry proud.
Series creator Christopher Crowe’s last TV project was The Watcher, which never became The Watched for good reason. But even though audiences wouldn’t touch it, his syndicated remake of The Untouchables in the early ’90s put an intriguing, self-consciously nostalgic spin on that pop warhorse, and he also cowrote Michael Mann’s rapturously romantic Last of the Mohicans— a movie whose refusal to cop to its own silliness was an unacknowledged landmark in the development of today’s postironic tastes. So it may be no wonder that he’s ready to approach comic-book stuff that Stephen (The A-Team) Cannell would have camped up or patronized in the ’80s not only in good faith, but as if there were no reason it couldn’t accommodate all sorts of adult nuance and emotional intensity. Without being showy or trying to “elevate” the material, he’s given Seven Days a distinctive, appealingly forthright tone that never hedges its bets by going tongue-in-cheek.
Yet for all Crowe’s unexpected commitment, the show isn’t out to transcend its pulp pedigree; it doesn’t see any need to. In every far-from-unimportant external, this is a boys’ adventure series, and an enjoyably old-fashioned one at that. The hero’s mentor figure is an elderly scientist conveniently yclept “Mentnor” (Norman Lloyd), and his unconsummated love interest is a sexy Russian lady doctor named Olga (Justina Vail), who’s all business on the surface but simmers underneath her lab coat. They all work for the usual top-secret government agency, running something called “the sphere” that’s able to send a single passenger as far back in time as the title advertises. (Bidding for an already dated pop cachet, the show traces the technology’s provenance to the Roswell alien spacecraft, and locates the agency’s headquarters in good old Area 51; luckily, nothing gets made of this gambit.) The unhappy guy in the sphere’s hot seat is one Frank Parker (Jonathan LaPaglia), exNavy SEAL, intelligence op, and need I say maverick, who gets bounced into last week whenever something happens that the masters of all they survey deem worth undoing, like someone blowing up the White House or the outbreak of a deadly virus.
Where the concept improves on Early Edition‘s is that the disasters Parker has to stave off aren’t merely foretold. By the time he goes back to correct them, they’ve already occurred— and since his actions keep spawning unforeseen consequences, he’s often got to go back more than once, letting the show play ingenious hall-of-mirrors games with varying scenarios for the same event. You’d almost want to call it Last Week at Marienbad, except that instead of nothing happening all hell usually breaks loose. It’s also lots funnier: in one Groundhog Daystyle episode, by his third reprise of a visit to the diner where the man whose life he had to save was preparing to chow down yet again on a salmonella-riddled sandwich, an exasperated Parker didn’t wait to hear a loutish small-town sheriff sass Olga before decking him, and tossed money at a petulant waitress a second before he’d have to hear her complain one more time about the lousy tip she’d just gotten. Yet he’s also one haunted soul, because the alternative realities he hopscotches among mean he’s witnesssed all sorts of horrible things happening to everyone he cares about. Even after he’s averted them, they’re still real to him as memories, affecting his behavior.
By emphasizing Parker’s stress, Seven Days makes what he’s going through oddly believable. At one level, the series is a workplace dystopia as bleak as La Femme Nikita; the hero loathes the way his job chews him up, keeps rebelling against its demands, and bitterly resents the bosses who treat him as simultaneously indispensable and expendable. At another, it’s a parable of anxiety easily recognizable, for instance, by any parent who can’t stop vividly conjuring up hypothetical catastrophes as soon as the kids are out the door. The tension in Parker’s situation is that his head isn’t only stuffed with bad dreams that he’s actually experienced, but wistful might-have-beens he’s lived through too. Crowe’s best and most compassionate stroke is in appreciating that the character is estranged from those around him as a result, because he’s had all sorts of encounters with them they don’t know anything about; he’s seen how vulnerable they are to randomness and caprice, and how different their relationships with him might be in altered circumstances. As a metaphor for the rifts between imagination and reality that so bedevil modern consciousness, the hero’s isolation hits home. Yet the resonances and undercurrents aren’t belabored. They’re built right into the action, and if you want to call them existential or something fancy like that, that’s up to you. But “neat” will do just fine.
LaPaglia’s testy Parker is a genuinely unhappy, peevish action figure— GI Joe as the sad sack in a cosmic joke, and forlorn for all his derring-do. The rest of the cast— a surprisingly blue-chip bunch for a UPN sci-fi show, and good for them or their agents— is equally deft, with Lloyd bringing no less old-trouper conviction to his Yoda part than he did to the same role on St. Elsewhere and Nick Searcy adding a satiric note as the team’s jingoistic security chief: “Crazy and lucky are what keeps this country one step ahead of the game,” he blustered in one recent episode. The sexual tension between Parker and Vail’s buttoned-down Olga puts real smoke into a lukewarm cliché— and the old will-they-or-won’t-they question makes you appreciate the premise’s ingenuity all over again, since in Parker’s multitracked existence the answer could be that they will and they won’t. As if the poor bastard isn’t already miserable enough.