The conventional wisdom is that you can't plan a cult hit, but on some level, that is what the science fiction show Lexx was always meant to be. As series creator Paul Donovan told me when I interviewed him last March, ten years after the show first aired, "I never intended to make something mainstream—with a moderate appeal for a wide audience—I wanted to make something that had a deep appeal for the sick-minded people like me."
All facetiousness about just who the show was intended for aside, the simple fact was that he "liked some science fiction a lot and hated most" of the rest. In particular, he'd more than had his fill of "do-gooders trying to save the universe in highly derivative plots."
Instead Donovan "wanted to make a show that had the elements [he] liked: satire and a free flow of the imagination." He had "always liked the idea of losers in space—this was the core of Alien as well as Dark Star, which were both influential pictures for [him]." He also had a fondness for "black humor, whether [the films of] Luis Buñuel . . . or the Ichikawa Japanese WWII film Fires on the Plain" or the work of Monty Python—particularly their film Life of Brian. "With Lexx, we were trying to make a Sci-Fi show with that sort of black humor."
The tone he strove for comes through instantly. Countless books, films, and television shows featured planet-killing space weapons, but this time around the weapon, the eponymous Lexx, is a giant talking bug of a ship—sentient, but very slow on the uptake. And its master and commander, Brian Downey's Stanley Tweedle, is a sexually frustrated security guard dressed like an organ grinder's monkey who more than fits the bill for a "loser in space."
Along for the ride with him in this "most powerful destructive force in the two universes" is the most beautiful woman in the two universes, who happens to be just as frustrated as Tweedle. After her conversion into a "love slave," the gorgeous Zev Bellringer has a hyper-charged libido that leaves her desperate for sexual contact and romantic love—with just about anyone but the security guard. (Originally played by Eva Habermann, the character became "Xev" Bellringer when Xenia Seeberg took over the role.)
In particular, Zev is head over heels in love with the third passenger Kai (Michael McManus). The last of the Brunnen-G, a race of "romantic dreamers," his punishment for resistance to the Divine Shadow was transformation into one of his "undead assassins" two thousand years earlier. He's since gone renegade, but still being dead (and as he constantly reminds us, "The dead do not have wants"), he is pure superego to Stanley's id—and can never be with Zev. That is, of course, unless he was to somehow come back to life, which may or may not be harder than granting the wish of 790, the lovestruck robot head who desperately wants a body (voiced by series writer Jeffrey Hirschfield).
The series covers the group's picaresque adventures as they roam the cosmos not on a mission of exploration or a struggle against tyranny (even though they do find new worlds and battle their share of tyrants), but in search of food, sex, and a home to call their own. That may sound simple enough, but their story is baroque in its complexity, and reminiscent of 1960s New Wave in its sheer weird extravagance, not least of all in its astonishing variety of modes. It was "a sex farce one week, political satire the next, and a horror story after that," as Hirschfield told me, and a great deal more besides. The four seasons and sixty-five hours encompass romances of doomed heroes and tragic lovers that are nothing short of Wagnerian in scope and sensibility, an exploration of Heaven and Hell that played like an absurdist version of Dante, and a warped portrait of an even more warped "little blue planet" on the brink of self-annihilation.
At the same time the writers thought nothing of capping off a typical episode with the destruction of a planet, leaping millennia in a single narrative bound, and offering nothing less than the end of the universe as a season finale, and why not? "Time begins and time ends, and then time begins again" goes the Time Prophet's refrain—but that's all that can be said of it. In contrast with the quasi-religiosity of a great deal of science fiction, there is no higher order, no justification for the things that happen; whole worlds and universes are snuffed out with a word, a gesture, a move in a game. As Downey put it, in the entire series "there is most often . . . no defense, no excuse for behavior other than 'it happens,' or 'it happened'"—just as with evolution, and perhaps, those evolutionary drives (sustenance, reproduction) that kept the crew going forward. If there's any idea, it's that "No god exists, no religion exists, time is easily manipulated, and humanoids are both easily manipulated and easily destroyed."
The whole history of metaphysical speculation, from wars of light and dark to eternal recurrence to final judgments after death, was one huge box of toys for the writers to play with. And while a good many other shows boast moral ambiguity and flawed characters in place of earlier simplicities, this existential outlook gives this series' claim to those things special weight. Andromeda offered "Nietzscheans" as supporting players, but Lexx gave us a truly Nietzschean tale. This can be heavy stuff, of course, but Donovan's view is that "most good comedies are dramas with funny moments."
Predictably, not everyone got it. The satirist's lot in life is often exasperation at the incomprehension of his audience, especially the members of it who should know better. Still, he "was always surprised by the complete dismissal, bordering on hostility, the show seemed to receive outside of its core fan base." The Canadian media was particularly contemptuous; any references it made to the show were "something like 'the embarrassing Lexx' or the 'ridiculous trash Sci-Fi show Lexx' and [were] usually made in the context of what [was] wrong in Canadian production." If anything, he said, "most Canadians were vaguely embarrassed by it—they wished it came from another country."
While the response was better in the rest of the English-speaking world, particularly Britain and the United States, "most Americans thought it was a weird piece of low budget crap." Showtime, which was where the four made-for-TV movies that comprised the first "season" ran back in 1997 as the miniseries Tales From a Parallel Universe, was insufficiently impressed to continue its relationship with Donovan's production company Salter Street, and so the show had to look elsewhere for funding. They cobbled together financing from Canada, Germany, and other countries, the plan being to make a U.S. sale later, something that proved to be far from easy. As Donovan put it, when "we first produced the show we basically could not give it away to the SciFi Channel. That is because the execs in charge of the SciFi Channel at that time did not want anything to do with a loser Canadian production company making some weird low-budget show."
What changed that was less a serious reconsideration on the channel's part than insider wheeling and dealing. A well-connected Los Angeles talent agent "needed something our company had (money for another show) and as part of the deal they agreed to help sell Lexx to the SciFi Channel. They called up the head of the SciFi Channel and asked her to buy the show and she said sure, as if she had never heard of it before and it was a good idea. It was a lot like ordering a pizza."
The lesson was an old one, namely that "insiders can do deals in Los Angeles and outsiders can get lost," but the show got its chance in the U.S. market—even if SciFi's handling of it was not all it might have been. While the channel's marketing campaign contributed to an impressive 2.0 Nielsen rating for the premiere (at the time, a record for SciFi's one-hour programming), the first episode the channel aired was "Nook," right in the middle of the second season, despite the complex story arc. After that, SciFi continued airing the episodes out of order for several months.
Donovan didn't have much to say about that, however, and for the most part the show's relationship with the channel was positive. Executives Tom Vitale and Chris Regina, he reports, were "completely passionate about the idea of making interesting, quality shows for their channel," putting the two of them on the very short of list of executives in television-land of whom that can fairly be said in his book. Because they aired it a "few million Americans—and that's all that mattered—enjoyed its freshness and humor," which not only convinced the channel to buy more, but gave them a fourth season. Initially a simple acquisition, the channel rebranded it as a "SciFi Original," funding and treating it as an original show of their own, spurred in part by a vigorous fan campaign that included a one-page ad in Variety.
Likewise, the cast and crew members I spoke with viewed the experience of working on the show positively, several saying it was the most satisfying of their careers. Those who worked behind the camera, however, were also very frank about where they felt the show fell short. Writer Lex Gigeroff described Lexx as "hit and miss," and Hirschfield too "thought the quality of the show varied wildly." Donovan, who said in an earlier interview with Joe Nazzaro in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy Television that the episodes usually started to get flabby by mid-season, from series one on, said it "often had bad special effects, bad direction, weak supporting performances, and sloppy storytelling."
Still, they all believe that the show got a great deal right. Harsh as he can be in his assessment of its flaws, Donovan nonetheless takes pride in the fact that the "key cast were excellent, and the show is peppered with wonderful little things that you just didn't normally see on mainstream television."
Those wonderful little things, particularly evident in popular favorites like the musical episode "Brigadoom" and "The Game," went a long way to making Lexx a cult hit. The show's low profile was frequently an asset in this regard, not least of all because its content was rather more risqué than American viewers were accustomed to. There were the usual limitations—the censors carefully edited around or blurred the nudity in the U.S. broadcasts of several episodes, and as Gigeroff points out, "occasional idiocies would pop up." In the episode "Lafftrak," "we had to change the word 'scumbag' to 'scumdog' because someone at the network thought that 'scumbag' meant a 'used condom,' and wanted it changed." Still, Donovan believes Lexx was "able to go a lot farther than other shows because we had a small audience who were in tune with what we were doing . . . if Janet Jackson had slipped a nipple onto the screen in Lexx, no one would have paid the slightest attention."
In addition to the abundant skin and sexual innuendo, the show pushed plenty of political buttons. Americans and American culture were routinely the targets of the satire, from the earnest astronauts of the planet Potatoho in "Lyekka" to the denizens of Vermal in "White Trash." And of course, Stan, Xev, and Kai spent much of the last season traveling the United States from rural Texas to the small-town Midwest, from Las Vegas to Washington D.C., finding a land of apocalyptic cults, unscrupulous government agents, and backwoods militias—and of course, no shortage of the greedy, the neurotic, and the trigger-happy—where everything ends with a shoot-out.
Lexx even sent up the way Americans send up their culture. "Prime Ridge," the episode in which the crew of the Lexx try to make a home for themselves in Prime Ridge, Ohio, "the best little town in the whole wide world," Donovan explained, was more "a satire of American Beauty" than a comment on the American way of life: "I thought that American Beauty was a smug piece of shit. I felt it reflected a particularly facile view of the U.S. (and especially its suburban 'culture'). . . . I grew up in a suburb in Canada, and boy did it deserve to get destroyed from space, but I still did not like the Holier-than-Thou approach of American Beauty." But as he notes, "hardly anybody got it."
If that joke went over viewers' heads, others certainly didn't. On the show, the President of the United States (Rolf Kanies's Reginald J. Priest) is a short, witless, laughably inarticulate man with a disoriented look permanently plastered on his face, and a fake record of Vietnam-era military service as a pilot, who comes to power in a very dubious election. As it happens, he's taking his orders from a shadowy adviser who is none other than the "Prince" of Darkness (Nigel Bennett's Isambard Prince)—and soon enough the nukes are flying fast and free. After one of his schemes misfires and destroys Orlando, he frames Cuba for it by dressing up as Cuban general "Juan Piñata" and taking credit for it, then bombs the country out of existence.
Keep in mind that these episodes aired in July, August, and September 2001—and while the show took its mid-season break shortly afterward, it came back full force just a few months later, when the terrible sight of the Twin Towers collapsing was fresh in most minds, and political humor was still extremely restrained. Of course, the story had been planned out long before those events, and the satire had actually targeted events that had fallen off the radar screens of many Americans by then. As Gigeroff explained, making Prince the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (and writing the "American Freedom Rangers" militia into the story) was "an indirect response to Waco," helped along by the fact that "government agencies like the FBI and the CIA had already been mined to death," unlike the virtually ignored ATF. Nonetheless, as Donovan explained, "Season Four got a little bit surreal during production, especially the day we all stopped shooting to watch television—that would be September 11. Prior to that, I saw George Bush as an entertaining and harmless dunce, and an easy target for satire, but the stakes changed when real life started imitating fiction."
Those particular disasters and depredations ultimately proved to be just one item in a buffet of converging apocalyptic possibilities—which this time around work out to their logical conclusion. Just as it never had to hold back or tone down, Lexx never suffered being rudely yanked off the air in the middle of the tale. Instead it gracefully wound up all the plot threads and closed with one of the most satisfying series finales in genre history—one which reminded viewers that the show gave them the sublime as well as the ridiculous. It "finished the way we wanted to finish," Donovan said, the crew's arrival on Earth, and the planet's going the way every other place they visit, always the ending he planned. Precisely because the show went out that way, "with a little bit of integrity, I hope . . . to continue on after that would have been, from my point of view, extremely cheese ball. . . . For me, Lexx ended with the last show. I hope no one ever does anything more and I don't think the show was successful enough to motivate money to give it a further try."
Consequently the spin-off projects that have helped keep up the profile of many other old series have been absent in Lexx's case, despite innumerable rumors. There were never any plans for a continuation of the series in comic book, television, or feature film form, as so many of the fans believed, and apparently still believe to judge by what's being written on the message boards. While "unlike, say, The Prisoner, or even Lost in Space, there seems to be no general warm and fuzzy feeling for Lexx," the show "largely forgotten, except by a hardcore few" as Donovan said, those hardcore few remain active indeed, especially in cyberspace. From the very beginning, the internet played a key role in spreading word about the show and building up the fan base, over a hundred spontaneously created fan sites up and running around the world in 2001. Some of those web sites, as well as quite a few newer ones devoted to the show, are going concerns.
Two of the most active are the personal sites of Brian Downey and Ellen Dubin, who played the cannibal Giggerota the Wicked. Dubin's character died in the second of the TV movies, but she came back again and again—in Stanley Tweedle's nightmares, as the ruler of her corner of her hell on the planet Fire, and to top it all off, a Miami real estate agent who, out of the blue, is elected Pope. Perhaps most widely recognized as Ilene from Napoleon Dynamite, she's since gone on to do a great deal of television science fiction and fantasy. Her credits include a regular role on the Canadian series The Collector and an appearance on the new show Blood Ties, but her web site identifies her as Ellen "Gigerotta" Dubin because "that character put me on the map for my fans."
The show remains highly visible on the convention circuit as well, with cast members putting in regular appearances at events ranging from Timeless Destinations in Vancouver to MegaCon in Orlando, Florida. Patricia Zentilli, whose career has followed a different path from Dubin's since her time on the show as aerobics instructor and First Lady Bunny—she's currently appearing in the Canadian sitcom The Jane Show and just won a Merritt Award for her role in a stage production of Noises Off—concurs about fan enthusiasm. "I have never experienced anything like that since. I still have some great fans who send me cards and letters and gifts."
Lexx's legacy may be evident in recent television science fiction as well. There had been living, biological ships on television before (they were prominently featured in Babylon 5, for instance), but this was the first time the crew of one was at the center of the story. A good many observers, in fact, have seen something of the Lexx in Farscape for that reason, as well as for Farscape's eclectic band of fugitives and quirky sexuality. (In fact, according to Hirschfield, at "one time Farscape fans and Lexx fans got into a huge grudge match about it, firing off hate- filled emails, attacking sites—all that sort of thing.") The living ship apart, Firefly also shared those elements, and many a Lexxian can be found in the ranks of the Browncoats. And of course, just a couple of seasons later, there was another Canadian-made comedy on the SciFi Channel featuring a less-than-perfectly heroic space captain and a beautiful love slave aboard a talking ship, Tripping the Rift, which ran for two seasons.
It can be pointed out that these other shows all proved to be cult phenomena as well, below the mainstream's radar for the most part, with more conventional fare getting most of the attention, particularly the highly publicized Battlestar Galactica. A remake of a 1970s show that even in its day seemed highly derivative, for all the darkness of its outlook it remains essentially about "square-jawed good guys" in military uniforms saving the universe—and awfully inclined to take themselves too seriously.
Of course, tastes change and it's always possible that a zanier sensibility will return, and so it seemed only natural to ask my interviewees where they see Lexx "at twenty." While they were generally disinclined to make any grand predictions about the show's future, Patricia Zentilli offered one: "I have no doubt the fans will still be there and maybe the show will air more. It will be even more of a cult TV show then!" I'll go even further than that in making a prediction of my own: between now and then Lexx may well be "rediscovered," and graduate from cult hit to cult classic. It will be seen to have anticipated too much, influenced too much, and after all those years, still be too different from everything else out there to rate anything less.