Sci-Fi on Television (Part 2)

If the 1970s were the golden years of telefantasy for me, the 1980s were a bit of a disappointment, with many of my favourite series going into decline or disappearing off the air altogether, and very few decent new sci-fi series stepping up to take their place.

My favourite TV series, Doctor Who, after the glory decade of the 1970s with Pertwee and Baker in the role, was now on the slide. After Tom Baker left in 1981, the series began to go into decline, and following Peter Davison’s departure in 1984, Doctor Who rapidly degenerated into a pathetic parody of its former self, sliding towards its final demise in 1989. As a hardcore Doctor Who fan, I was NOT a happy bunny from 1981 onwards.

The early 1980s also saw a few of my other favourite telefantasy series wrap up – Sapphire and Steel, Blake’s 7, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Battlestar Galactica/Galactica 1980. With the exception of V and the remake of The Twilight Zone, the period from 1982-1987 was pretty crap, filled with bland, silly, formulaic US series such as Knight Rider, Airwolf, Automan and The Greatest American Hero. It wasn’t until 1987, and the first appearance of Star Trek: The Next Generation, that the Eighties started getting interesting for me again, at least as far as telefantasy is concerned. With both Quantum Leap and Alien Nation appearing in 1989, at least the end of the decade had three decent sci-fi series that I liked on the air at the same time.

As the 1980s moved into the 1990s, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager were pretty dominant in the US telefantasy world, each with an impressive seven-year run (Quantum Leap was the only other decent sci-fi series on the air at that time). TNG and DS9 were favourites of mine, but once DS9 ended, my love of new Star Trek started to wane drastically, as Voyager was the only Trek left on the air, and I didn’t rate it highly at all.

I’d been a hardcore Star Trek fan since the original series, and Voyager was the first Trek that I actually really disliked, to such an extent that I never even bothered following it on a weekly basis. I thought the scripts were really lame, excessively based around and padded out with treknobabble nonsense, and most of the characters were less likeable and less well defined than those in earlier Trek series. There were very few truly stand-out episodes in the entire seven-year run, and the only real redeeming features were the holodoc’s sarcasm and 7 of 9, who was absolute heaven on the eyes.

Aside from Quantum Leap, the only real competition Trek had in the early 1990s was when both Babylon 5 (my favourite 1990s sci-fi series) and the X-Files burst upon the world in 1993. This was a complete game-changer, as the X-Files, in particular, rocketed to the top of the popularity charts. Star Trek (of ANY kind) was now no longer top dog among telefantasy shows. And by the mid-to-late 1990s, it was no longer even in second or third place, as the three really big telefantasy successes of that era, in terms of popularity, were the X-Files, Stargate SG1 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I really like both the X-Files and Stargate, although I’d agree with the common criticism that they both might’ve gone on a bit too long and run out of steam in their last few seasons. I watched the X-Files religiously when it was on TV, but for some totally unfathomable reason, and despite the fact that it became a big favourite with me when I watched it on DVD a few years later, Stargate SG1 never registered with me at all back in the day. I have absolutely no recollection of ever seeing it on TV back in the Nineties.

Buffy (and its spin-off Angel) never really did much for me although it was extremely popular. I did watch the occasional episode whenever it was on, and I thought it was okay, but I’m not really a big vampire or zombie fan, more of a time travel, space adventure kinda guy. Two other very popular series, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off series Xena: Warrior Princess also weren’t what you’d call huge favourites of mine, as I’m also not big into fantasy either. I thought they were both ridiculously silly and formulaic, and I could take them or leave them, only watching the odd episode when nothing else was on.

The second half of the Nineties also gave us the new version of The Outer Limits, which ran for seven years. I quite liked this one, although some episodes were better than others. But in my opinion it was, overall, never as good as the original classic 1960s series, and I was really surprised that it actually made it to seven seasons.

On the downside, there were a few Nineties telefantasy series that I liked which unfortunately never got a fair crack of the whip, and ended well before their time. The ones that I recall (there were quite a few others, but these were favourites of mine) were Babylon 5: Crusade, which was cancelled after only thirteen episodes, Dark Skies, Space: Above and Beyond and American Gothic, all of which got axed at the end of their first season, and Chris Carter’s Millennium, which also suffered a premature end, although it, at least, made it to three seasons. Even Babylon 5 itself, although it did make it to the end of the fifth and final season, had its last two seasons totally messed up by network interference and cancellations.

Unfortunately, telefantasy series are very expensive to produce, compared to mainstream TV programming. During the 1990s, US and UK television networks seem to become much more inclined to quickly cancel even relatively successful series, if viewing figures weren’t good right from the outset, or so much as dipped slightly. For every Buffy, Stargate or X-Files, there were many other potentially classic telefantasy series that were cut short or never even got off the ground, while crap US and UK sitcoms, soaps and reality TV shows seemed to breed like rabbits.

To Be Continued…

Sci-Fi on Television (Part 1)

I’m a big fan of sci-fi on television, which I almost always refer to by its “proper” name, telefantasy. The 1950s-1990s were, in my opinion, the Golden Age of telefantasy, and the first real telefantasy started about a decade or so before my birth (in December 1960), when Captain Video and His Video Rangers first appeared on US television in 1949, followed closely in the early 1950s by the likes of Space Patrol, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger.

UK telefantasy was slightly slower to get off the mark, and it was mostly with one-offs like the 1949 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and the prestigious 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The first ongoing, serialized sci-fi productions of any note were the three Quatermass serials which aired in 1953, 1955 and 1958. These were the first real stars of pre-Doctor Who UK telefantasy, and, in my opinion, the classic 1958 six-part serial Quatermass and the Pit remains, to this day, one of the greatest examples of telefantasy ever produced.

But those were all produced and televised well before I was born, and it’s only really been in more recent years that I’ve discovered and begun looking back at some of the much older telefantasy series, which aired in the years between the first appearance of Captain Video and His Video Rangers in 1949 and the very first episode of Doctor Who, in November 1963. It would be the mid-1960s before I started to show the first glimmers of interest in any kind of sci-fi on contemporary television.

I’ve been an avid viewer of sci-fi television of all kinds ever since the time that Doctor Who first began to register in my very young and impressionable mind around 1966-1967. But it was when Jon Pertwee first fell out of the Tardis at the beginning of Spearhead from Space, in January 1970, that marked the moment where I can definitely say that I made the leap from merely enjoying Doctor Who, to becoming an obsessive, life-long fan.

I also became a huge fan of the original Star Trek, which first appeared on UK television channel BBC1 in July 1969, and also the new live-action Gerry Anderson series UFO, which first aired on ITV in 1970. I’d previously watched, and enjoyed, the various Anderson puppet shows such as Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Stingray, but I preferred the live shows, and UFO was where I first became a real Anderson fan.

By December 1970 (when I’d reached my tenth birthday), with Pertwee almost a year into his tenure on Doctor Who, Star Trek at the height of its popularity on BBC1, and UFO featuring prominently on ITV, I was now old enough to really start understanding and appreciating television sci-fi in general. These were the first three telefantasy series that I really got into, and it’s no big surprise that these series have always remained right at the very top of my list of favourites.

As I moved into the 1970s, things really started to heat up. I began to get heavily into other UK telefantasy series such as Timeslip, The Tomorrow People, Space: 1999, Blake’s 7 and Sapphire and Steel. I was also hooked on then-current 1970s US telefantasy such as the animated Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. And, of course, UK television was also awash with re-runs of the various Irwin Allen series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space, plus re-runs of other classic US “cult” TV sci-fi series such as The Invaders, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Take all these great telefantasy series, and the fact that the early 1970s marked the time that I was moving into my teens, and it was a great time for a young fan of sci-fi television like myself.

To Be Continued…

Classic British Telefantasy: My Top Ten Favourites (Part Two)

Here’s the second part of my rambling list of favourite Classic British Telefantasy series:

At Number Four is Sapphire and Steel, one of the strangest telefantasy series ever. Short on budget, hence relatively scarce (but effective) special effects, but oozing with quality writing, and oppressive, frightening mood and terror, this was a truly classic sci-fantasy series, featuring two of the most charismatic and mysterious central characters in telefantasy history, Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (played by David McCallum). The sheer mystery, the fact that nobody ever found out who or what the main characters really were, where they came from, or what the hell was actually happening most of the time, added greatly to the attraction of the show. The fact that Sapphire and Steel was rarely repeated on television also added to the effect, as all we had to go on for many years were our fading memories. Luckily the series has been made available in recent years, firstly on VHS video, and then on DVD. And even more fortunately, it definitely lives up to our fond memories of the show.

At Number Three, it’s UFO, by far my favourite of the Gerry Anderson shows, not a stone’s throw from the top of my list of favourite British telefantasy series. First airing in 1970, and set in the not so far off future of 1980, the gorgeous hardware, the aliens, sexy women (those gorgeous moonbase babes – Gay Ellis, oh my poor heart!), and interesting characters were a huge attraction for a young boy like me. From an adult perspective, that totally kitsch, retro futuristic feel (unintended at the time, of course), gives UFO an undeniable charm that allows the series to still hold up really well today. The complex alternate-universe 1980-that-never-was, combining a mix-mash of styles from 1970 and the imagined future “1980” (which actually feels more mid- or late-21st Century) give it a retro but also an undefinable “sometime just a few years from now” feel which makes the show work even in 2013, although its version of a 1980 “future” is actually thirty-three years in our past.

At Number Two, it’s Quatermass. If there’s any British telefantasy that might give Doctor Who a run for it’s money, it has to be Quatermass. The original Quatermass serials were well before my time (I wasn’t born until 1960, and those serials appeared in 1953, 1955 and 1958), although I really enjoyed the three film versions and the 1979 Quatermass serial featuring John Mills as the Professor. Reading a number of excellent Quatermass articles in various telefantasy fanzines during the 1980s really fired up my interest in the original 1950s serials. I was also fortunate, at some point during the early 1980s, to come upon three books containing the scripts/teleplays of all three original 1950s serials (complete with nice b&w photos). I was hooked on the original serials even more by that time, and, just to complete the circle, soon afterwards I also bought the novelization of the 1979 serial. I was now a hardcore fan of Quatermass in all its forms, both serials and films.

A few years later, I was absolutely elated to get my hands on the VHS video release of the third (and the best of the three) 1950s serial, Quatermass and the Pit, and finally got to see what all the hype was about. I’d always loved the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit, but the original serial absolutely blew my mind. It was way, way better than the film, and remains, to this day, my favourite ever single piece of British telefantasy. If the first two serials had been as good as the third (only two episodes of the first serial still exist), Quatermass might’ve made it to the Number One spot in my list. I was doubly delighted, about ten years ago, to get my hands on the excellent three-DVD release of The Quatermass Collection, featuring the beautifully restored Quatermass and the Pit, the entire (unrestored) Quatermass II, and the two surviving episodes of the Quatermass Experiment. This remarkable DVD set is an absolute treasure, and any British telefantasy fan worth their reputation should have a copy of this in their collections.

And finally, at Number One, it’s Doctor Who, just about my favourite telefantasy series of all time. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was five or six years old, way back in the mid-1960s. I like the modern version of Doctor Who, but not as much as the classic 1963-1989 series. I love the classic 1960s Hartnell and Troughton b&w stories, but my favourite Doctor Who eras were the Jon Pertwee years and the first half of Tom Baker’s run on the show. In my opinion, the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years were, without a shadow of a doubt, the best ever in the show’s history. This show had (and still has) so much history, continuity and detail. The Doctor(s) and the Tardis, travelling anywhere in time and space, Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sutekh the Destroyer, Omega, the Master, the list goes on and on and on, spanning the alphabet, from Autons to Zarbi, Doctor Who is immense. It was a huge part of my growing up process from early childhood right up into adulthood and to the present day (I’m now 52), this is the British telefantasy series (indeed THE telefantasy series, British or not) that has had the biggest effect on my life.

And just outside the Top Ten, in no particular order:

The Avengers – I quite enjoyed the weekly exploits of John Steed and Emma Peel, and later Tara King (I was too young to remember the earlier stories with Cathy Gale). Emma and Tara were certainly extremely easy on the eyes, and those two ladies absolutely kicked ass each and every week. The series was extremely psychedelic (hey, it was the Sixties!) and was overly camp at times. I was never a fan of the camp thing (hated it, actually), a major reason why I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as other UK telefantasy shows. I also quite liked The New Avengers, although it only occasionally crossed into telefantasy from its primary action adventure format. But it was worth watching for Joanna Lumley, playing Purdey, another gorgeous yet kick-ass Avengers female.

The Champions – enjoyable super-spy hokum in which three super-powered agents save the world each and every week from mad scientists and other menaces. I quite enjoyed this, although, with the exception of a handful of episodes, there was very little real sci-fi in the series, other than the agents showing their weekly portion of super strength, super speed or telepathy. I mostly liked it for the great theme tune and the epitome of eye candy provided by the absolutely gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo (who played Sharon McCready), who was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful women ever in the history of telefantasy.

Thunderbirds – loved the hardware, but, unlike Captain Scarlet, most of the stories themselves were not sci-fi enough for my tastes, even at that early age. Also, and despite my liking for Captain Scarlet, I was never really a fan of those damned puppets. I hate those wooden actors! I always preferred the live-action Gerry Anderson series.

That’s about it for the more famous British telefantasy series. At some point in the future, I’ll be devoting one or more blog posts to other, more obscure British telefantasy, particularly series aimed at children. My own memories of most of these are very incomplete and vague, so I’ve been buying a few of the more recommended classic children’s sci-fi series on DVD from Amazon UK. So far, I’ve got my hands on the entire original series of The Tomorrow People, Timeslip, Sky, Children of the Stones, The Owl Service, The Demon Headmaster and the 1980s version of Tom’s Midnight Garden. I think I’ll nab a few more series so I can post a reasonably comprehensive blog review.