The End Is Near, But First, This Commercial

Sci Fi Channel's
Sci Fi Channel's "Countdown to Doomsday" explores 10 nasty fates for Earth, including a hostile robot takeover. (Taken From Video)
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

There are a lot of really crummy ways we could all die, including nuclear annihilation or a flu pandemic.

And then, of course, there's the possibility that we'll be attacked by aliens. Or that robots might become smarter than humans and put us in zoos.

The Sci Fi Channel sponsored a discussion on Capitol Hill yesterday speculating on 10 exceedingly lousy ways our species might meet its end. It was part of an elaborate promotion for a television special called "Countdown to Doomsday," which airs tonight at 9.

Amazingly, the channel managed to lure two congressmen and some serious experts to essentially shill for the show by talking about the various paths toward mass extinction.

The event was moderated by Linda Douglass, a former ABC congressional correspondent, who kept saying that "Countdown" was so scary that she'd been having trouble sleeping. She apologized for arriving late:

"I could tell you that I was abducted by aliens -- and you'd probably believe me after watching this," she said.

The first topic for discussion was the possibility that Earth could be hit by a really big asteroid.

"Why haven't we suffered more terrible destruction?" Douglass wanted to know.

"Space is big," said Ed Lu, a NASA astronaut.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) mentioned an asteroid called 99942 Apophis, which he said might hit the Earth in 2036. There was discussion of something called a "gravity tractor," which might fix these sorts of problems.

Next up was a lengthy portion of the special dealing with nuclear terrorism, which included a clip of the Tom Clancy film "The Sum of All Fears." Douglass declared it "scary." She asked why terrorists hadn't yet gotten their hands on "loose nukes."

"There are many, many experts who believe that if we just keep doing what we're doing, a terrorist attack involving nuclear materials is inevitable over the next 10 years," said Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress.

Nuclear terrorism is indeed scary, but it seemed strange to tackle the issue through a TV show that treats aliens as nearly equivalent to al-Qaeda.

"Countdown" is a montage of real-life and imagined destruction along with chilling music and voice-overs taunting viewers to consider that life on Earth could end "tomorrow." It is hosted by Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show. (The Sci Fi Channel is owned by NBC Universal.) The segment on robots taking over the Earth shows a montage of real robots, such as Honda's Asimo, a small humanoid figure that can walk.

"Don't let these cute and innocent-looking machines fool you," Lauer says in the show. "Many believe they're the first soldiers on the front lines of a robot revolution that's taking over the planet."

As proof of how this could happen, the special then shows clips from "Battlestar Galactica," a show about robots battling humans that just happens to air on Sci Fi.

The news conference dealt with only three modes of mass extinction, although Sci Fi Channel Executive Vice President Dave Howe assured everyone that if they view the special, they will see "another seven terrifying scenarios."

"You wanna watch the robots," Douglass said. "Seriously."

Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), who participated in the panel on nuclear terrorism, said afterward that he had not seen an advance copy of "Countdown." We told him about threat No. 9, alien attack, and asked how he rated that risk.

"I would put that relatively low on the list of threats," he said. "Who are you with?"

The Washington Post.

"Okay," he said, he just wanted to "make it very clear" that he did not take the threat of alien attack "seriously."

The makers of the show said they thought a robot rebellion was slightly more likely than an alien attack.

"Only because," said Thomas Vitale, a Sci Fi senior vice president, "you don't know if there are aliens."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company