It seems that most weekends lately the Earth is being attacked by space aliens. Kids are enjoying watching the big- and little-screen accounts, and they even seem to be learning a few things.
There's nothing really new about these stories, but now they're enlisting bigger movie stars--even sports figures--in the effort to defend the planet. Nowadays we have Michael Jordan, Bugs Bunny, Jack Nicholson and Jim Brown facing off the evil invaders in "Space Jam" or the soon-to-be-released "Mars Attacks."
Kids already know most of the story lines--the plots were old hat when people were still wearing hats. For instance, a version of H.G Wells' novel "War of the Worlds" appeared nearly 100 years ago. It was followed by a sequel, of course--a novel in which Thomas Edison led Earth's counterattack against Mars.
But there are some new developments fueling kids' increasing interest in science fiction, says two local observers of the sci-fi scene. Stephen Furst is a Moorpark-based actor and TV director, and Glenn Norberg is a teacher at Buena High School in Ventura.
Furst has somehow combined acting in "Animal House," "St. Elsewhere" and lately, the science-fiction series "Babylon 5" with work as a real-life youth counselor at the juvenile correctional facilities in Sylmar and Malibu.
And while show business has been keeping him busy lately--he is currently directing an episode of "Babylon 5"--Furst managed to find time to pick up a master's degree in family and child counseling from Cal Lutheran University in 1993.
And as one who has worked with children, in the real world, and with extraterrestrials, in the celluloid and videotape realm, what is his take on the relationship between Earth kids and aliens?
"Everybody needs a common enemy--and it's politically incorrect these days for the enemy to be from this planet Earth," he said. "We can't have Russians, Columbian drug lords or even the Iraqis coming to get us."
The science-fiction genre, he said, offers kids "infinite possibilities for (finding) villains. Adventures on Earth can only get so exciting without dealing with tragedy," he said, "But contacts with space aliens provide stuff kids can't see in everyday life."
Furst said he has dealt with all manner of real-life tragedies--including those caused by racial tension and child abuse--in working with kids at juvenile correctional facilities. And he knows first-hand how children escape into fantasy in dealing with tragedy.
"Babylon 5," he said, provides him an opportunity to combine fantasy with historical and moral lessons, so that it is not just candy for the mind.
"We're paralleling things from history," he said. "Last year we did a [science-fiction] version of 'Schindler's List' in which I (in the character of Vir) hid people of another species from my own people the Centauri, who were behaving like Nazis."
But, Furst said, "It's great to be able to teach [kids] about things in this world--about right and wrong--where they don't even realize they're being taught about them."
Meanwhile, at Buena High School, Glen Norberg is using science-fiction TV shows in class--episodes of "Babylon 5" by coincidence--to teach communication arts and TV production.
"In my class I show clips to demonstrate what can be done," he said. "We have some of the same computers as the show's producers. It's inspirational to the kids to see what they've done."
In this case, the interest in science fiction is not moral instruction but vocational training. Studying the genre is a way of learning job skills for the future.
Norberg, a fan of "Babylon 5" since its beginnings in 1993, said the show's special effects are made on an Amiga desktop computer--a brand already used in his classroom. "I like the show and the way they use intelligence instead of expensive equipment for their effects," he said.
It may come as a surprise to some readers that kids in a public school would be able to get their hands on special-effects equipment similar to that used at Hollywood studios.
One reason for this situation is cost: Even advanced equipment has become a department store item. So has some of the software. The very name of the software Norberg's students and Furst's production people use--Video Toaster--is indicative of such a trend.
Now you know what kids know. When aliens attack, don't panic. Nowadays we can handle the situation with a Video Toaster.
* FYI: For a glimpse of "Babylon 5," tune your TV to KCOP Channel 13 at 9 p.m. Thursdays or your computer to http://www.thestation.com any time.
* ON CABLE: To see what Buena High School students are doing with their TV and computer equipment, tune into Ventura Cable Channel 6 (Avenue or Century Cable) every other Monday at 6 p.m. The next show is Dec. 16.