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April 23, 2013

How Canada is becoming the sci-fi nation

April 13th, 2013 - The Globe and Mail

Call it wall-cracking chemistry: At his audition for the part of Dyson on Lost Girl, Kris Holden-Ried read with Anna Silk, who had been cast as Bo, a supernatural sexual omnivore with a tendency to literally suck the life out of her partners, but who can also be healed by sex. The scene called for a big kiss. Holden-Ried had Silk up against the wall. When they were done, executive producer Jay Firestone pointed behind them: They had cracked the plaster.

“They were so involved in the scene, they didn’t realize they did it,” recalls Firestone. Holden-Ried got the part.

Three seasons later, the chemistry continues to steam up the Faedom on Lost Girl, one of a current crop of shows that is taking sci-fi out of your parents’ basement and into the genre-defying almost-mainstream. No Dungeons & Dragons T-shirt required; this is not your geeked-out old-school science fiction. You could call these shows sci-fi mash-ups: complex in terms of categorization, they’re also compelling, cosmopolitan – and Canadian. Not just made in Canada. 

There’s a distinction, of course. 

Canada has a rich history of American shows coming up north to shoot. That’s particularly so in Vancouver, where The X-Files was a game-changer way back, and continues today with series like Supernatural. Along the way, Canadians went from staffing the American productions to creating their own. Now, shows such as Continuum, Lost Girl and Orphan Black are generating some out-of-this-world (or at least out-of-this-country) buzz and deals; even the cancelled Canadian series Sanctuary has recently struck a syndication deal. Fuelled by all that experience, by the rise of the specialty channel, and by Canadian-content requirements, Canadian science fiction is undeniably having a moment.

“There’s been great science fiction that’s come out of Canada,” says Thomas Vitale, executive vice-president of programming and original movies for Syfy, whose schedule includes both Canadian productions and such shot-in-Canada U.S. series as the big-budget Defiance, which was shot in Toronto last year and premieres on Monday (in Canada, on Showcase).

“They may not have been Canadian-created [shows] at the beginning, but we got really good at making them,” says Graeme Manson, writer and co-creator of Orphan Black, which recently premiered to effusive reviews. “Sure enough, we’re steeped in it; and sure enough, we’re going to start creating it and writing our own.”

Manson, whose past work includes Flashpoint, notes that, because of the versatility of Canadian TV writers – they do sci-fi, drama, comedy, features – these shows have a tendency to blur genre boundaries. Continuum is part sci-fi, part police procedural. Orphan Black is a sci-fi conspiracy-themed thriller. Lost Girl has elements of a buddy film, a rom-com and a crime procedural, as well as being a sort of supernatural adult fairy tale. Without necessarily watering down the elements that thrill the sci-fi base, these more genre-agnostic shows have the potential to appeal far beyond it.

Continuum, which begins its second season this month, follows Kiera (Rachel Nichols), a police officer in 2077 Vancouver who in the pilot is zapped back to 2012, along with a group of terrorists responsible for a deadly bombing. While trying to figure out how to return to her 2077 life – in particular her son and husband – Kiera also manages to join the Vancouver police department, and hunt for the escaped cons. With echoes of contemporary issues – Occupy, 9/11 – the show resonates beyond the sci-fi sphere.

“Yes, it’s science fiction, yes it’s about time travel, but it’s about where we are and where we’re going,” says actor Brian Markinson, seen most recently on Mad Men as Don Draper’s physician neighbour, but who’s also a sci-fi veteran with a long list of credits that includes The X-Files, Caprica, Supernatural and Sanctuary.

Continuum premiered last spring to record ratings for Showcase and went on to be the No. 1 rated specialty series of the summer in Canada. It was subsequently picked up by Syfy in the United States, where it has earned attention and some good reviews. Entertainment Weekly, for one, called it a “crisp, crackerjack series.”

“I’ve had many people say, ‘This does not look like a Canadian TV show,’” says Nichols, who is American. “And I didn’t really know what that meant, because I’m not Canadian.” ”

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