From the ancient past to the distant future, Kevin Sorbo trades playing Hercules for a new role as starship Capt. Dylan Hunt on "Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda" (10 tonight, WCWB). But his past haunts him in at least one weak joke.
"The guy is huge," another character says in describing Hunt. "He's like some kind of Greek god or something."
That's illustrative of the kind of obvious humor and not-so-great dialogue that abounds in the first two "Andromeda" episodes available for review. It's kiddie-minded science-fiction with average special effects, costumes that look like they're leftovers from J. Michael Straczynski's "Crusade" and a set that was clearly built on a lower budget than the "Star Trek" shows.
Oh, and just because the show has Roddenberry's name on it doesn't mean much. "Andromeda" isn't based on a script written by the "Star Trek" creator, just his notes.
After his ship comes under attack by genetically-engineered humans, Hunt is trapped in time -- a temporal distortion -- for 300 years. When he wakes up, Hunt discovers the government he knew has been destroyed and a salvage crew is trying to steal his vessel.
By episode two, Hunt has convinced the salvage crew to join him. They include a purple-skinned girl (Laura Bertram, who looks like Brittany from CBS's "Big Brother"), a Terminator with his hair in dreadlocks (Keith Hamilton Cobb), a priest (Brent Stait) who spouts current cliches that evidently will survive hundreds of years into the future ("Nothing worth doing is easy," he preaches) and the requisite tough woman first officer (Lisa Ryder).
Other recycled sci-fi concepts include "the slipstream" (a.k.a. warp speed) and a "living" ship with artificial intelligence, similar to Sci-Fi Channel's "Farscape."
Actually, there are a lot of incidentals in "Andromeda" that bring to mind "Farscape." But the differences are more important. "Farscape" benefits from superior writing, production design and story telling. "Andromeda" does not.
'Queen of Swords'
Before Kevin Sorbo's crew goes zooming through space, "Xena: Warrior Princess" does her grrrl thing at 8 p.m. Then it's time for the introduction of a new wonder woman. She's "Xena" with a Spanish accent.
That's pretty much all you need to know about "Queen of Swords." Actually, that's all there is to know.
Like Xena, Spanish aristocrat Tessa Alvarado (Tessie Santiago) has a female sidekick, a gypsy (Paulina Galvez), who may or may not have romantic feelings for her. It was difficult to tell in tonight's pilot. Maybe she's just a close talker.
Tessa also has a male rival, Capt. Marcus Grisham (Anthony Lemke), with whom she also shares some sexual tension (a la Xena and Ares).
The biggest difference in the two female action shows? "Queen" is nowhere near as clever. Plus, Tessa's enemies in the California town where she settles after her father's murder are such dopes that they get confused by her lacy Lone Ranger-style mask. They don't realize Tessa and the Robin Hood-like Queen of Swords are one in the same.
Early in tonight's premiere the show plays things straight, but later, the camp factor increases as Tessa and Grisham thrust and parry.
"I guess I'm a little more than you expected," he boasts.
Then she brings her sword up between his legs. "You could be a little less," she responds.
With more humor, "Queen of Swords" could be fun, but the hour of mostly bad dialogue tonight offers little hope of that.
At least it's something different for Saturday night TV.
ABC and NBC have given up airing programs in favor of movies, leaving CBS as the only other broadcast network with Saturday night series.
WCWB offers an alternative, at least for tonight. Hockey will pre-empt the drama block frequently over the next couple of months, which will move "Xena" and "Queen of Swords" to 3 and 4 p.m. respectively. "Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda" will air immediately following hockey.
Craig T. Nelson stars as the newly appointed police chief of Washington, D.C., who comes in to motivate seemingly lazy cops to clean up crime.
Nelson is white. Washington is mostly black. White guy swoops in to save the black folks. That dynamic has made "The District" a thorny proposition.
Some critics have found the premise offensive. But Nelson's Jack Mannion is based on real-life crime cleaner Jack Maple, who is white. Maple has never been hired to fix up D.C., but most recently he was working in Baltimore.
Whatever the politics of it, "The District" is a decent drama. Not great, but certainly interesting, especially if it actually deals with issues of race and politics.
The mayor of D.C. (guest star John Amos) agrees with deputy mayor Mary Ann Mitchell (Jayne Brook) when she suggests hiring Mannion.
Mannion struts in like a show tune-singing salesman, angering chief of patrol Joe Noland (Roger Aaron Brown) who wanted the top job. This is where it gets dicey. Mannion, who is white, demands daily crime statistics from every part of the District. Noland, who is black, cooks the books.
In this sensitive, politically correct era, it's somehow become wrong to have a black villain. Yet Noland's corruption is balanced by the decency of smart, hard-working statistics clerk Ella Farmer (Lynn Thigpen), who also is black. It doesn't help PC matters that a rapist/murderer is Hispanic (another killer is white).
Racial politics aside, "The District" pilot has some ridiculous sidetracks -- police officers shoot a buffalo at The National Zoo while in pursuit of a suspect -- but the show shines when Craig T. Nelson is on screen.
Nelson has his charisma turned to full wattage as the eccentric Mannion, who hires a driver, and then insists on driving himself. He's thoroughly entertaining, and his friendship with and admiration for Lynn Thigpen's character is palpable.
More problematic than any racial issue is the inclusion of an Irish cop on the D.C. police force. It's a character from out of left field that doesn't fit. His inclusion can easily be traced to series creator Terry George, an Irishman who wrote the film "In the Name of the Father."
When work on "The District" began this summer, George and fellow movie producer Denise Di Novi were executive producing "The District" with TV veteran Lynn Latham ("Homefront," "Knots Landing"). Latham has since bowed out.
Latham knows how to run a TV show. George and Di Novi do not. That alone causes me some concern about the dramatic future of "The District."
David E. Kelley's ABC courtroom drama returns for its fifth season with several cases that continue over the course of the show's first three episodes. Tomorrow's season premiere is a bit bland, the drama somewhat toothless. But the tension builds in subsequent episodes.
Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) defends a man (Bruce Davison) accused of killing his wife and disguising it as suicide.
Wrangling by prosecuting attorneys Helen Gamble (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Richard Bey (Jason Kravits, now a series regular) influences the outcome and leads to a crisis of conscience by Gamble. This is a surprise after her own overzealous pursuit of prosecution victories in the past, but it at least ups the conflict ante as Helen's boss (guest star Anna Deveare Smith) threatens to fire her.
The other main case brings to mind "Erin Brockovich" as Ellenor (Camryn Manheim) and Lindsay (Kelli Williams) sue the Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of clients whose children were damaged by chemicals leeching into the soil from wooden play equipment. The EPA is charged with negligence for not revealing the damage the chemical could cause. Of the two cases, this one takes the most surprising twists and turns.
The season's third episode challenges good guy Jimmy (Michael Badalucco) when a former client (Tracy Middendorf) returns, now pregnant and addicted to crack cocaine.
Her case poses questions that put Jimmy's legal duties at odds with his moral obligations. It's a thought-provoking episode that also resolves part of the EPA case.
Last season, "The Practice" became uneven, perhaps because Kelley's attention drifted to "Snoops" and the increasingly erratic "Ally McBeal."
The first three episodes of "The Practice" this season show the series is back on track, with Kelley's impulses to have the characters shouting at one another kept in check.
"The Practice" may no longer be perfect TV -- any series at this age becomes harder to keep fresh and exciting -- but it remains comparatively close to TV drama perfection.
Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.