Here's something I thought I'd never say again: You should watch Syfy.
Basic cable's genre specialist made a name for itself a decade ago with the beloved space epic Battlestar Galactica. Recently, it had all but alienated its core audience with a slew of low-rent programming. But it seems the network has finally heard our cries.
On Monday, it will kick off two dramas bound to fire up hardcore fans: first, Childhood's End, a brainy three-night mini-series based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel that provides a new twist to the alien invasion story.
Following that, The Expanse, a gorgeous-looking action-thriller set in outer space takes viewers into the heart of a military and political showdown between Earth and Mars. Featuring a large cast headed by Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, the 10-episode Expanse is adapted from a cycle of acclaimed novels by James S.A. Corey.
The literary connection is no accident: Over the next two seasons, Syfy will roll out several high-profile adaptations, including Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Dan Simmons' Hyperion, and the third part of Clarke's space symphony, 3001: The Final Odyssey.
From Sci-Fi to Syfy
I was ready to jump ship five years ago, when the cable destination I so loved, the Sci-Fi Channel, dropped its grammatical trousers and rebranded itself as Syfy. It also adopted a new slogan: "Imagine greater," which prompted the question, "greater what?"
Syfy went for greater amounts of cheap, easy-to-produce fare that would make it attractive to a larger, non-genre-loving audience. Space exploration stories gave way to TV flicks such as Ice Twisters, Sharktopus, and the mother of all low-budget thrillers, Sharknado.
Featuring Tara Reid as a scientist (she put on glasses), 2013's Sharknado was made for $2 million and caught fire on social media. Its two sequels have drawn nearly 10 million viewers each, unheard of in Syfy's history.
Sharknado 4 is due in July.
Then a funny thing happened last year: Syfy rolled out 12 Monkeys, a surprisingly bold serialization of the Terry Gilliam film that's set to return for its second season in April. It was followed in February by the six-part Tricia Helfer-powered space opera Ascension.
To top it off, Syfy chief Dave Howe acknowledged the channel planned to offer a slate of sophisticated shows to woo back disgruntled fans.
From Syfy to science fiction
Childhood's End, which was adapted from Clarke's 1953 novel by Brit writer Matthew Graham (Life on Mars, The Last Train), will be shown over three consecutive nights starting at 8 p.m. Monday.
Charles Dance (Game of Thrones' dry, acerbic Tywin Lannister) gives a rollicking performance as most lovable alien invader Karellen. He shows up one day with an armada of spaceships that station themselves over major cities.
The scenario is familiar to fans of the mini-series V, which lifted the trick straight from Clarke's novel. Instead of attacking us Independence Day-style, the aliens pick a sweet Missouri farmer as their ambassador (Under the Dome's Mike Vogel) and issue a series of promises: They'll eradicate disease, disability, inequality, and injustice. Yippee ki-yay!
So what's the catch?
Karellen lets it slip that by making us content, the aliens intend to stop scientific inquiry.
The disturbing alien plot unfurls through a wondrous, hours-long act of dramatic magic that draws together elements from ancient religions and modern science.
This is heady stuff - but it's relayed with such intensity it'll sweep you along. The last act is a gut punch.
The joys of dystopia
No less a dystopian nightmare, The Expanse delivers classic space-travel tropes about a future where the very fate of the solar system is at stake.
The 10-episode season premieres 10 p.m. Monday with a rocking opening salvo that sucks you into a carefully designed fictional universe populated by memorable, if sometimes cartoonish, types. This is a drama that takes great pains to set up its mythology. Clearly, its creators hope it'll take on the mythic dimensions of a Farscape or Star Trek.
It's the 23d century and humans have colonized the solar system. Two superpowers have arisen, and they are on the verge of an all-out war.
On one side there's Earth, ruled by the United Nations. Then there's Mars. True to its name, this is an aggressive society pervaded by a war-loving martial ethos.
At stake is a large ring of industrial space stations around the asteroid belt. The folks who control them can rule the universe. Trouble is, the workers who live in these ugly little worlds themselves are angry, agitated, and discontented.
The Expanse is a discussion of political power and a nice shoot-'em-up actioner all at the same time. It has an outsize dramatic canvas with major characters and plot lines in each of these three sites - not to mention in the spaceships that travel between them.
It's a demanding show that really requires your full attention - but stick with it and you will delight in its clever writing, dark humor, and wonderfully perverse depiction of the Machiavellian power struggles that make the solar system go round.
Will Syfy manage to reinvigorate its old fan base? We'll find out soon enough.