- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Ever seen a man dissolve into nothing under oozing quicksilver? Know who powder-blue Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan is? Heard any women connecting with "crossed-over" husbands?
You must be watching the Sci Fi Channel.
The USA Cable offshoot, which started in 1992 and went into 10 million homes, is now attracting more than 70 million subscribers.
Programming executives are now hoping that a splashy summer schedule, showcasing established series and introducing new ones, will spark an even brighter future.
Quicksilver transformation will be seen in "The Invisible Man," kicking off the weekends (Fridays at 8 p.m. ). It's followed by the top-rated "Farscape" (Fridays at 9 p.m.), now in its third season, featuring a "living" spaceship's motley crew of every hue — including powder blue — shape and species, only one of whom is a human.
The late-night hit "Crossing Over With John Edward," which explores after-death communication, will continue to link the living with their dearly departed as new-season episodes air at 8 p.m., Sundays through Thursdays.
On July 14, Sci Fi will debut "The Chronicle," an hourlong comedy-drama about a tabloid with the scoop on real monsters.
Bonnie Hammer, president of the Sci Fi Channel, credits USA Network bosses with believing in the channel as "an entity unto itself."
She also mentions "some good and lucky decisions" by the programming team.
But, above all, Miss Hammer believes that the growing acceptance of high-powered technology as part of daily life "exposes us to what feels like a piece of sci-fi every day," and has created "a generation willing to believe."
Advances in special effects and animatronics also have been a key element, enabling Sci Fi — which now produces more originally scripted series than any other cable network — to fulfill the expectations of fans accustomed to the quality of big-budget movies.
Vincent Ventresca, who plays the title role in "The Invisible Man," notes improvements in matching film footage and computer animation during the two seasons of his show, which is produced in San Diego.
The camera no longer has to remain still for the computer to be able to exactly correlate his disappearing act, as it did in the pilot episode.
Mr. Ventresca says the result enables the audience to feel "suspended in the illusion of this reality, able to just fall into it naturally, not be jolted out of it because of something false."
"Farscape," which is filmed in Sydney, Australia, relies not just on computer animation, but also on skillful makeup, costuming and props, and the sophisticated art and craft of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
"The puppets are great. As long as you don't look below the waist, they seem just like people," says Ben Browder, who plays Cmdr. John Crichton, a 20th-century astronaut who has slipped through a wormhole and landed on board Moya, a biomechanical spaceship.
Some of his fellow travelers look human enough (they're not) to be played by actors. Some are glamorous, such as Claudia Black's renegade Peacekeeper officer Aeryn Sun and Virginia Hey's Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, a plant-evolved powder-blue priestess from the planet Delvia. (Miss Hey's character was killed off earlier this season, but many fans have expressed hope on "Farscape"-oriented Web sites that Zhaan will somehow return.)
Some are fierce-featured, such as Anthony Simcoe's Luxan warrior Ka D'Argo.
But Pilot, whose lower half is fused to Moya's systems, is a combination of the work of seven Henson puppeteers. The deposed Hynerian monarch, Rygel XVI, who doesn't like to stand up because he's only 2 feet tall, is manipulated by about a half-dozen pairs of hands.
Miss Hammer, who was a programming executive with Lifetime Television, says her goal is to attract more women viewers.
"We can deal with breaking down stereotypes — in science fiction, anything can happen and anything is OK," she says.
Humor also is welcome.
David Janollari, co-producer of "The Chronicle," says the success of such movies as "Men in Black" has opened up the science-fiction genre to a crossover audience, allowing the development of his show, which is "infused with humor" and "more subversive."
The new hourlong series stars Chad Willett as Tucker Burns, a journalist who works on a tabloid where one of his co-workers is a pig-man.
The pilot was developed for NBC. "We were chomping at the bit, really hoping NBC wouldn't pick it up," says Miss Hammer, who kept calling the producers to keep tabs on the show's fate.
When NBC didn't order the series, she swooped. Budget cuts had to be made, but the original cast was maintained, and both executive producers are pleased with the production quality.

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