Love Slaves, Beehives and Lots of Attitude in Outer Space

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The brooding hero has a beehive hairdo, the stuttering captain wears a red skull cap straight out of a Shriner's convention and the robot's mouth recently got upgraded from a finger puppet to a real pair of human lips. The dragonfly-shaped spaceship has the IQ of a dog and sometimes gets the munchies, while the resident sex slave wears a fire-engine-red fright wig that wouldn't look out of place under Barnum & Bailey's big top.

Welcome to "Lexx," the bawdy sci-fi soap opera that begins its second season tonight at 10 on the Sci-Fi Channel.

"Lexx" creator Paul Donovan, speaking by phone from his production office in Halifax, Nova Scotia, explains his quirky take on the science-fiction genre. "I liked 'Star Trek' when I was a kid, but I really don't like the modern variations--they're too sanctimonious, they're too clean. We wanted to do a Felliniesque series that got its hands a little dirtier."

Enter bikini-clad love slaves, the outrageously phallic-shaped spaceship, crew visits to intergalactic brothels and dialogue groaning with over-ripe double-entendres.

"Some people don't find it funny," Donovan admits, "but I don't look at 'juvenile' as a pejorative term, necessarily. This show is made for adolescents ages 8 to 80." Donovan cites "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Beavis and Butt-head" and "Monty Python" as influences but saves his highest praise for "Dr. Strangelove."

"Is it a horror movie or is it a comedy? It's very hard to do both, but at least you don't end up with something that feels like it came out of some story committee."

"Lexx" launched on Showtime a couple of years ago with a quartet of two-hour movies, then bowed as a 13-episode series in January on the Sci-Fi Channel, garnering the cable network's highest ratings for an original premiere.

Treading the line between camp and melodrama last season was a sickly villain named Brizon. Dressed in a cape and Shakespearean-frilled collar, Brizon chewed the scenery while toting his liver in a tin canister connected to his body with a piece of tubing you could probably buy in a hardware store for two bucks. What's up with that collar?

"In Shakespeare's day, people wore those collars to hide syphilitic sores, and we have Brizon hiding his lesions the same way, so it's not a totally arbitrary wardrobe choice," Donovan says.

The new season offers equally striking imagery: To power an antiquated spaceship, captive slaves peddle furiously on exercycles with their heads poking through guillotines rigged to each bike. Anyone who loafs on the job gets decapitated.

As for story lines, a huge explosion concluded the previous season, so new episodes find the Lexx crew waking up in the "Dark Zone" after a 4,000-year nap, only to find themselves drawn into a war between the Fire and Ice planets. To capture the look and feel of the Fire planet's terrain, cast and crew were dispatched to the Libyan desert for several months of location shooting. Each episode also offers dozens of computer-generated special effects to complement the series' cheesy costumes and low-tech gadgetry. But more than the visual panache and epic story lines, it's the four core crew members who have attracted a following for the series.

"You've got to have characters who are likable," says Donovan, and he clearly favors foibles over heroics. The robot 790 (Jeff Hirschfield), whose body was eaten by a cluster lizard, swoons like a lovesick teenager whenever the character Xev walks by. Stanley Tweedle (Brian Downey) is the 60ish commander. The handsome assassin Kai (Michael McManus) is, technically, dead.

"We figured," Donovan recalls, "if there has got to be a love interest, we're going to make him be a dead guy, and we're giving him a beehive. Then we wondered, 'Can we really do this?' "

Then there's Xev, played by Xenia Seeberg. The 28-year-old German actress remembers being awed by "Barbarella" when she was a girl but now is hardly a hard-core sci-fi devotee. She trained at the Lee Strasberg School and the Actors Studio in New York. After spending most of her first few episodes squeezed into a lizard-patterned tutu, Seeberg is, not surprisingly, looking to stretch this season: "Xev will have more important dialogue and almost becomes the moral voice of the crew."

Catching herself sounding too serious, she quickly adds, "But don't get scared. Xev still has a past and has to fulfill her nature as a love slave."

* "Lexx" can be seen tonight at 10 on the Sci Fi Channel. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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