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Space Programs

From ”Aliens in the Family” to ”Hypernauts,” a look at TV’s continuing fascination with extraterrestrials

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Is it something in the polluted air? Is it some desperate sign of a national need for escapism? Is it because no one wants Aaron Spelling to find a time period for another show like Malibu Shores? For whatever reason, aliens are all over prime-time television in a way rarely seen before, whether they are being used as metaphors for our troubled psyches, as in the great X-Files; as the butt of crowd-pleasing slapstick, as on the unaccountably popular 3rd Rock From the Sun; or as excuses to make surprisingly good jokes, as in the new sitcom Aliens in the Family. And that’s not all: Directed at younger viewers are Hypernauts, a more self-aware version of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and Space Cases, whose mix of deadpan humor and charmingly cheesy special effects can be just as appealing to grown-up sci-fi devotees.

The barely explained back story of Aliens in the Family is that normal Earth guy Doug Brody (John Bedford Lloyd), a divorce, was abducted by an alien, Cookie, played by Margaret Trigg. They fall in love, return to our planet, and now live with a Brady Bunch blend of his kids (Chris Marquette and Paige Tiffany) and hers (Spit, Snizzy, and precocious baby Bobut, all creations of Jim Henson Productions).

As conceived by Andy and Susan Borowitz, along with cocreator Brian Henson, Aliens doesn’t, even on its own terms, make a heckuva lotta sense (humans unblinkingly coexist with extraterrestrials, and the alien mom has a curvaceous human form while her kids are creatures whose eyes protrude from stalks on the sides of their heads). But it sure is funny. The Borowitzes are working the same territory as alien sitcoms like My Favorite Martian, Mork & Mindy, ALF, and 3rd Rock — each crammed with jokes that rely on outsiders’ peculiar takes on things familiar to us. In the case of Aliens, they’re good, recondite jokes that use subjects as various as Albert Einstein, Shari Lewis, Pat the Bunny, and Edvard Munch’s painting ”The Scream” as targets.

Little Bobut gets most of the punchlines, but it’s sulky teen Spit — who eats Pop-Tarts, then the toaster they pop out of to get at the crumbs — who strikes me as most amusing. Among the adults, Lloyd and Trigg are more subtle than their parts demand, with Trigg doing an especially good job of blending the alien-in-human-form slapstick aspects of her role.

No such subtlety is necessary on Hypernauts and Space Cases. In the former, a trio of young cadets from the Academy of Galactic Exploration try to get back to Earth after being accidentally launched into space. In Space Cases, five fledgling space explorers are stranded on the other side of the galaxy. Both premises turn Aliens in the Family inside out, making Earthlings the outsiders.

The Hypernauts‘ cute, racially mixed trio (Marc Brandon Daniel, Glenn Herman, and Heidi Lucas) spend a lot of time in their space capsule gripping engine controls while the camera jiggles up and down to convey a rocky ride. The ‘nauts do weekly battle with an alien race called the Triiad, who look like test versions of Star Trek‘s Klingons. The predictable comedy comes from the jokey teen byplay of our heroes; the action is supplied by Star Wars-y flight skirmishes and Morphin-ific fistfights.

You can tell that Space Cases was developed by people steeped in sci-fi and comic-book lore: Peter David, a writer for DC Comics, and Bill Mumy, once young Will Robinson in the ’60s show Lost in Space and more recently a writer for space comics. Just as Lost in Space was about a group of intergalactic screwups, so Space Cases is filled with a hardy band of students flunking Starcademy, a school for, um, hypernauts, I guess. While the stories fulfill Nickelodeon’s desire to include socially redeeming messages with the hip teen posturing, Space Cases manages to achieve a loose, funky, almost weightless atmosphere of fun.
Aliens in the Family: B+
Hypernauts: B-
Space Cases: B