Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2

Science/Fantasy Monday: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2

Last Monday, I started my personal  SciFi Top 10 list with Part 1, which included numbers 10-7.  This Monday I present Part 2, with numbers 6-3.  And next Monday, I will finish off the list with the first and second places.  If you missed the beginning of the list, I suggest you dash back real quick and skim that.  You can find it here: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 1.

Now, before I get into it, I feel I should warn some people about something.  I am about to incur the wrath of many people, but I’d like a chance to preemptively defend myself.  Battlestar Galactica is NOT on this list.  This is not an intentional insult to any fans.  I simply have NOT seen it, and so can’t legitimately make any claims about it one way or the other (when I say I have it seen it, I mean the new version; I watched the original and enjoyed it as a kid, but still wouldn’t put it in a top 10).  I have heard it is very good, and I believe it.  But folks, I’m in grad school, and I simply have not had the time to watch it.  I’ll get around to it one of these days, at which point I might have to change my Top 10 list.  Until then, however, please do not be insulted, okay?  Okay.

Moving on.  Here is my Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2:

#6: Firefly

Speaking of incurring the wrath of fans… some people are going to pissed that Firefly is not higher up the list.  As I was working on the list, I wrestled with this show; it was both higher and lower on the list at various points.  I finally settled on #6 because it is an fantastic show, and it definitely deserved to be higher than the bottom 3, but I cannot make the argument (as some people have tried) that it is the best scifi ever.  That is not to say, however, that it isn’t completely awesome.  Because it is.

Created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, Firefly takes place in a future where humans have colonized many planets.  The “core” planets are high-tech, wealthy, and governed by the Alliance (a mix of American and Chinese culture), but the out-lying planets are reminiscent of the pioneer culture of the American West.  Before the show starts, there was a war between the Alliance and the rebel “Browncoats,” who tried to halt the Alliance’s power over the outlying planets.  The Browncoats lost.  As the show opens, former Browncoat Mal Reynolds captains the firefly-class spaceship Serenity, with a crew: fellow Browncoat Zoe, Zoe’s husband and the pilot, Wash, engineer Kaylee, gun-hand Jayne, the Companion Inara, the preacher Book, and Simon and River – a brother and sister on the run from the Alliance.  Firefly only lasted 13 episodes, plus an awesome movie.  The mixture of spaghetti western with space opera was a brilliant marriage of styles/themes that led to a fascinating and detailed world construction, and some truly entertaining characters.  The dialogue, as always with Whedon, was sharp, snappy, fast, and often hilarious.  The production values especially the more movie-like camera work were highly impressive. And this little show led to a huge fan following and a reimagining of what could be done with scifi.

#5: The Twilight Zone

I honestly don’t know how any list of the best scifi tv shows could NOT include The Twilight ZoneThe Twilight Zone was created by Rod Serling, one of the most influential people in early television, who had serious love for science fiction and horror, and strongly believed in the power of scifi to reveal social problems and promote social change.  The Twilight Zone, as I assume most people know, was a series of individual, self-contained episodes with scifi, fantasy, and horror themes, which usually ended with a surprising, ironic, or macabre twist.  The original series ran from 1959 to 1964, and spawned two revivals, one from 1985-1989, and one from 2002-2003.

As a sign of how impressive and hard-working Serling was, he wrote a full two-thirds of the 156 episodes of the original series.  As a sign of how impressive and serious the show itself was, the other writers including some of the biggest names in scifi and horror, including Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner, Jr., George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Reginald Rose, Jerry Sohl, and two of the most brilliant prolific scifi writers ever: Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.  These writers often used scifi as a vehicle for social commentary, using plot devices, styles, and implicit argument to get past the censors of the time who often removed any hint of social commentary from mainstream dramas.  Some of the most popular themes were nuclear war, McCarthyism, prejudice, mass hysteria, the dangers of scientific advancement, etc.  The Twilight Zone gave birth to some of the most iconic and most-parodied scenes in scifi tv, including but not limited to the infamous scene of William Shatner spotting a gremlin on the wing of a plane in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  However, I think my all-time favorite episodes, and two of the most famous are: “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” which shows the lengths humans are willing to go to when they think they are in danger (and asks whether the rumored aliens are the residents of Maple Street are the real monsters), and “It’s a Good Life” in which Billy Mumy (Will Robinson on Lost in Space and Lennier on Babylon 5) plays a child who terrorizes a community with his psychic powers.

This show gave necessary space for some of the biggest writers of the time to try new things and make important social critiques.  It was new and original and provocative.  It is simply impossible to over-estimate the importance and influence that The Twilight Zone had on scifi.

#4: X-Files

Yes, the X-Files.  It HAD to make the Top 5, don’t you think?  Everyone (I think) knows the story.  FBI agent Fox Mulder is obsessed with the X-Files, a group of unsolved cases involved unexplained or paranormal phenomena, which are largely ignored by the rest of the FBI.  Mulder believes in aliens and conspiracy theories and a variety of other paranormal events.  His partner, Dana Scully, who is originally sent to monitor Mulder and report back to her superiors on his behavior, is a medical doctor, a scientist, and the quintessential skeptic. Some of the overarching plot-lines of the series include: an enormous conspiracy to cover-up impending alien colonization and experiments to create human-alien hybrids, clones, and super-soldiers (among other things), as well as Mulder’s continuing search to find his sister, whom he believes to have been abducted by aliens as a child.  At the same time, the show also held to the new-monster-every-week format.

This show had some of the fastest, wordiest, most intelligent dialogue of any show ever.  Though some people (my mother included) complained that it was almost nothing BUT talking, it also had intricate plot-lines, some very intense, exciting, action-oriented episodes, and one of the most complex tv mythologies ever thought up (though Fringe is trying to give it a run for its money).  It ran for 9 seasons (the last of which was, admittedly, a bit weak in parts), produced two movies, and created an enormous cult following that comes close to rivaling that of Star Wars and Star Trek.  It made the phrases “I want to believe” and “The truth is out there” and “Trust no on” cultural touchstones, it gave us some of the most recognizable scifi (or drama) characters ever: Mulder, Scully, The Smoking (or Cancer) Man.  It touched a powerful cultural nerve, an obsession with the supernatural, with UFOs, and most especially with government conspiracies.  It became one of the biggest cultural icons of the 90s, and its legacy, I think, will endure for quite a long time.

#3: Babylon 5

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love this show. I could go on for pages and pages about how much I love this show and why.  But this post is getting ridiculously long already, so I’m going to try to keep it short.  Babylon 5 was a scifi series that was created by J. Michael Straczynski and ran for five seasons, from 1993 to 1998 (the pilot episode having aired in 1993, but the first regular season not beginning until a year later).  Babylon 5 focuses on a deep space station called Babylon 5, which is neutral space and used an a hub for alien diplomatic relations with humans and each other, as well center of commerce, culture, and science.  The main characters include the Captain and command crew of the station, as well as several of the more important ambassadors who live on the station.  While many of the episodes follow the general “new adventure every week” format, the vast majority build a heavily connected story arc that deals with the corruption of Earth’s government and an imminent attack from an alien species with enough destructive power to effectively wipe out the entire universe.

J. Michael Straczynski envisioned this series as something vastly different from the only other serious scifi series around: Star Trek.  Whereas Star Trek is eminently optimistic with a fairly “pure” working government, a claim to the near-eradication of sickness and poverty, etc Babylon 5 is very much a reflection of all the problems humans have always had: corruption, oppression, war, prejudice, poverty, addiction, etc.  Straczynski made several promises: the show would have a reasonable budget (and indeed, always managed to go under budget), it would take a serious adult approach to scifi (and would therefore have no children or “cute” robots), and it would have a thoroughly planned well-written and executed overarching plot (that would not leave any loose ends).  To that end, Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes himself, and when he brought in other writers, they were told about the overarching plot-lines so that everything could be tied together effectively (incidentally, Harlan Ellison was a creative consultant on the show and is credited with 2 episodes).

And Straczynski succeeded.  Babylon 5 contains some of the most human, complex, fully-realized characters in television to date including but not limited to Susan Ivanova, Delenn, John Sheridan, and probably the two most complex and dynamic: G’Kar and Londo Mollari.  The plot is intricate, vast, intense, entertaining, and ultimately concluding with all the wrapped up satisfaction of a well-plotted novel.  One friend of mine has argued that Bablyon 5 is the most epic (in terms of scale and the consequences of the conflicts) of any story ever.  I’m not sure I would go that far, but with alien races capable of bringing about total oblivion, and a collaborative force of something like a hundred difference alien species trying to fight them (and looking like ants swarming a tiger), I can certainly see how someone might think so.  I might at least be the most epic scifi around.  Possibly.

So there, Ladies and Gentlemen are numbers 6-3 of my Top 10 Scifi TV Shows Ever.  I’d like to take a second to name a few honorable mentions: V: the Series, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda (both series created by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame, and produced by his wife Majel Baret after his death – both of these series had a lot of potential, but for a variety of reasons just could not be as good as Star Trek).

I’m assuming everyone can guess what first and second place will be, yes?  If not (and even if you can guess), please come back next Monday to see how I wrap things up!  And in the meantime, sound off! What do you think of the list so far?  Which of your favorites am I missing?  (If one of them is Battlestar Galactica, I refer to the explanation at the top, and beg that you don’t get too vitriolic.)

Five Television Shows Murdered Before Their Time

It happens more often than we care to think about.  That new show, that new show that has wined and dined us with interesting, strange, exotic characters and wonderful quirky plot lines, that new show that has stolen our hearts after a few dizzying exhilarating dates and promised us a long glorious affair… that new show has been canceled.  After only one or two whirlwind seasons.  Leaving us alone with fading memories, unfulfilled fantasies, and broken hearts.

It’s happened to us all, and no matter what anyone else says, we never really get over it.

Here are five of the brief affairs that still haunt me:

#1: Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

The basic premise of Freaks and Geeks was rather similar to any number of other teen dramedies.  It followed two high school students, sister and brother Lindsay and Sam Weir, as they attempt to survive high school in the early 1980s.  However, these are not your usually golden-girl/golden-boy, prom-queen/quarterback-hero students.  Lindsay belongs to the Freaks group, including: James Franco, Soth Rogen, Jason Segal, and Busy Philipps; and Sam’s group was the geeks, which included: Samm Levine and Martin Starr.

The focus of the show was on Lindsay, as she goes from straight-A, “proper” girl to Army-jacket-wearing rebel with slacker friends.  Linda Cardellini was charmingly unaffected as Lindsay.  And, in fact, that entire cast was absolutely excellent as is evident by the number of them who eventually went on to bigger television and movie roles.  Even though the show was set in the early 1980s, the plots were highly recognizable.  Everyone could see their high school in this show.  I definitely identified with the show, as “my” group in high school was effectively a combination of the freaks and geeks (with a few slightly more well-adjusted people thrown in for good measure).  Also, the soundtrack was amazing including such bands as The Who, Styx, Van Halen, Billy Joel, the Grateful Dead, and Rush.  And, in fact, the dvd release was actually held back for two years just so they could retain all the music rights for the release.

Unfortunately, the show was canceled by NBC after only 12 episodes.  3 more episodes were aired later due to a fan-led campaign.  But 3 episodes of the 18 filmed were only ever seen on the dvd release.  The show has an enormous cult following, and was named the 13th best show of the past 25 years by Entertainment Weekly in 2008.  Sadly, no amount of fan pressure could keep the show alive, and it was pronounced dead in July 2000.

(Purely by luck, one of today’s Freshly Pressed blogs is about Freaks and Geeks.)

#2: The Invisible Man (2000-2002)

Let me begin by saying, I LOVED THIS SHOW!  Inspired by the novella The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, but the concept of invisibility is the only thing that carries over.  The tv show opens with Darien Fawkes, a thief facing life imprisonment, who is offered freedom in exchange for being a test subject for his scientist brother, who works for a U.S. spy organization.  The brother has created the “Quicksilver” gland, which secretes a substance that coats the cells and bends light, making the person invisible.  After implanting the gland in Darien, the brother is murdered, leaving Darien in semi-forced employment as a spy for the organization.  He is saddled with a partner, Bobby Hobbes played by Paul Ben-Victor (yes, I talked about him on Wednesday too.  What’s your point?), whose job it is to keep the ex-thief control, especially when the gland begins to overload his brain and make him more than a little crazy for short periods of time.  The show kept the scifi side of things balanced with comedic buddy-cop elements Darien (played by Vincent Ventresca) and Bobby playing off each other to hilarious effect.  Add in a sub-plot about an evil secret agency called Chrysalis that tries to recruit and then kill Darien, and you’ve got a DIAMOND of a show.

Vincent Ventresca was (and still is) hilarious in a dead-pan way, but capable of carrying the more serious, weighted moments of the show, and was an absolute joy to watch.  And, as I’ve said before, Paul Ben-Victor is just plain awesome.  The supporting cast was strong.  And the plot lines, while sometimes wavering between interesting, strange, intense, and slightly-silly, were always entertaining and fun.

The show aired on The SciFi Channel, and lasted 2 seasons.  Then, in a fit of in-fighting between the SciFi Channel and its parent company, then USA Networks, the show was cancelled with warning or reason, despite a strong cult following and decent viewer ratings.  It was cold-blooded murder, and I have yet to recover from the loss.  To make matter worse, it was YEARS before the first season was released on Dvd, and the second season is STILL yet to be released.  That’s like shooting the victim in the head, kicked the corpse around for awhile, and then hiding the body in the walls of building so that no one will ever find it again.  I just don’t understand WHY!  One of these days, USA and SciFi Channel (now Syfy) are going to pay for this crime.  I swear.

#3: Dead Like Me (2003-2004)

Dead Like Me was strange and funny and sad and brilliant.  I think most people know what it’s about, but just to be sure: in 2003 Georgia “George” Lass, a somewhat aloof young woman who is distant with her family, dies (killed by a toilet seat, still one of the strangest scenes in any tv show ever).  However, instead of moving on to “the great beyond” she becomes a grim reaper one responsible, not for killing people, but for collecting souls and ushering them on to the afterlife.  What is most strange about this show is that the grim reapers are spirits, but un-dead.  They are still physical beings that people can see and interact with though people do not see what they originally looked like, but rather someone else entirely.  They still need to eat and sleep, and therefore, still need to hold down day jobs, while also fulfilling their duties as grim reapers.  This concept was so strange that it alone would have made the show charming.

However, the characters, and the cast that played them, really carried this show beyond an intriguing concept.  Ellen Muth (who plays the main character, George), Mandy Patinkin, Jasmine Guy, and Callum Blue play the main reapers, who meet every morning at Der Waffle Haus to receive their assignments, and were good enough to receive several award nominations.   Britt McKillip, who played George’s extremely eccentric/dysfunctional little sister Reggie whose strange way of dealing .with her sister’s death eventually leads her to being placed in therapy, was an absolutely brilliant addition to the cast and the story.

This show dealt with death and grief, suicide, choice, and fate, family and love and friendship.  And everything in between.  And in the middle of all that, managed to be completely hilarious.  And yet, after only two season and 29 episodes, it was cancelled.  Killed in the prime of its life.  The producers tried to pull a Frankenstein and bring it back to life with a direct-to-dvd Dead Like Me: Life After Death, with an option for a new season, but the movie was pretty bad (due in part to weak writing and the replacement of one of the major characters), so the experiment failed miserably.  And thus, another awesome show was laid to rest.

#4: The Dresden Files (2007)

Based on the hit urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher and aired by the SciFi Channel, The Dresden Files seemed like a sure thing to me.  The books were popular (and awesome), the pilot episode, while obviously not endowed with the best budget ever, was smart and entertaining.  And, though Paul Blackthorne didn’t really match the books’ descriptions of the main character Harry Dresden, he played smart-ass, slightly world-weary, and awkwardly-cool with such panache that I just didn’t care.

The Dresden Files (book series and tv show) followed professional wizard Harry Dresden, who helps the police on cases and works for hire on a variety of “cases” involving saving a boy from the monsters under his bed and helping a father catch his daughter’s killer and put her ghost to rest.  His backstory includes a witch mother who died when he was a baby, a father who was a stage magician (and not a particularly good one), and an wizard uncle who wanted to use Harry as a child and killed Harry’s father to do so.  Harry eventually “self-defensed” his uncle to death, and is now on the outs with the High Council, the governing body of the magic community.

Besides Harry, the other two semi-main characters are Bob: a very old spirit of a wizard whose soul was sealed into his skull as punishment for using black magic in 900 A.D. and who know works as Harry’s assistant; and Lt. Connie Murphy: the detective who often goes to Harry for help on strange police cases.

I’ll be honest, it was not the best show ever made.  But the episodes were fun, strange, and occasionally dark, and Paul Blackthorne as Harry and Terrence Mann as Bob were both absolutely fantastic.  I think the show could easily have stabilized its formula and become extremely good.  Unfortunately, the show only survived a single 12-episode season before being axed down and thrown in the dump heap behind SciFi Channel’s officers, right beside The Invisible Man.  And it’s a crying shame, I tell you.  It really is.

#5: Firefly (2002)

Firefly is possibly the KING of all shows cruelly murdered before its time.  It was sucker-punched, beaten, and finally lynched by FOX Network.  Firefly was awesome for more reasons than can possibly be discussed here, but let’s list a few.  It was the brain-child of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that’s enough right there.  It was a space western.  A SPACE WESTERN.  A sci fi, set in a galaxy filled with high-tech planets controlled by the Alliance, with out-lying worlds that look like something out of Gunsmoke how is that NOT awesome?  Also, Nathan Fillion is the lead.  ‘Nuff said.

The show follows Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds and his crew on the Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity.  Mal and his second-in-command, Zoe, are survivors of a rebel group that fought in a war against the Alliance some years before, and lost, and now they work as petty criminals stealing cargo from ships, gun-running, smuggling, etc, in order to get by and keep out of the Alliance’s hands.  The motley crew (could I resist?  No, not really), includes a young intelligent flirtatious woman as the ship’s engineer, a somewhat-crazed gunman, a surprisingly mild-mannered pilot who is married to Zoe, a preacher with a past, and an Alliance doctor on the run with his sister, who was experimented on.  Every single cast member was perfect; the dialogue was fast-paced and manic, the sets and costumes and special effects were surprisingly detailed, and the music was good.  And Mal, the heart of the show, was so torn between cynical and self-serving/loyal and honor-bound that was downright comical watching him trying to reconcile the two.

It was an awesome show.  It should have gone on for YEARS.  And yet, the viewer ratings averaged only 4.7 million per episode, so after 11 episodes, it was cancelled.  Such viewer ratings might indicate to some that the show was at fault.  But remember, I told you it was sucker-punched and beaten.  FOX, after giving Whedon the green light, for some inexplicable reason, seemed hell-bent on killing the show: changing the air time and air day several times, showing the episodes OUT OF ORDER, and promoting it as a comedy rather than the character-study it was intended as, as if they were attempting to so completely flabbergast viewers that they wouldn’t dare show there faces again in Firefly’s presence.

Of course, this failed, as Firefly has an astoundingly enormous fan base (who call themselves Browncoats), which tried several times to save the show.  Unlike in the case of Dead Like Me, the Frankenstein experiment worked long enough to give us the absolutely amazing full-feature film Serenity, but hopes of a continuation of the series were quickly dashed.  The series now haunts the earth as a ghost in the form of graphic novels, while those of us who loved the show still mourn it’s cold-blooded, pre-meditate, first-degree murder by the FOX executives.

And there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the list of 5 shows that I continue to mourn to this day and probably will for years to come.  But what poor innocent murder victims do you still mourn?  Which of your tv shows were cut down in their youth, before they had a chance to grow to maturity and show the serial-killer executives that they could be productive members of society?

(Also, this concludes my month-long tribute to television.  However, I really enjoyed writing about tv shows, and apparently some of you enjoyed reading them, so I will probably keep doing these kinds of posts from time-to-time.  Though not in one long month of themed blog posts.  ‘Cause that’s pretty exhausting.)