Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Boston.com's "50 Best Sci-Fi TV Shows of All Time"

Every now and then, somebody on the Net publishes a list of their top 50 genre shows of all time, and just recently, Boston.com did the same. A friend of mine, James, pointed this out to me in an e-mail.

You can find the list
here. Firstly, I'd like to thank the authors of the piece for doing it; it's interesting and it gives us all a starting point to debate. We don't have to agree with it all, it's neat that they commmissioned and posted the piece.

But...

This is an odd list. It's very superhero heavy (Batman, Lois & Clark, The Greatest American Hero, The Bionic Woman, Xena: Warrior Princess, The Six Million-Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, The Adventures of Superman, and Dark Angel all make the list), it is a little too trendy (Stargate: Atlantis, Lost and Battlestar Galactica's "re-imagination" are all rated highly even though they've been on the air not very long), and some choices are plain baffling, like the inclusion of the anthology The Hitchhiker at # 20, and sitcoms such as Third Rock From The Sun and My Favorite Martian.

Missing from the list are some of the best series including: Blake's 7, Farscape, UFO, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, Sapphire & Steel, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Millennium, Land of the Lost, and American Gothic. Yet included are Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Earth: Final Conflict?

I give props to the list-makers for including Mystery Science Theater 3000 at # 9, but question much of their ranking. Logan's Run: The TV Series is hardly remembered by anyone and yet it is relatively high on the list at # 15, while Space:1999, which has survived 30 years, has been released on laserdisc, DVD and is still having original novels written about it, is down at # 37? And I wonder if anybody on the list actually ever watched 1999, because the list says that Martin Landau played Commander Walter Koenig. Er, no, that was the actor who played Mr. Chekov. Martin Landau played John Koenig. Oh well.

The first problem I see with the list is this: Too much focus on the new and untested. Space:1999 and Battlestar Galactica (original) are rather low on the list (35 and 37), yet they've survived for three decades, while other shows have spiked and waned in popularity. I believe it is far too early to put the new BG, Stargate: Atlantis and Lost on this list, because we don't yet know if they will stand the test of time, and it seems like that benchmark indeed should be one of the criteria for inclusion on this list. Yes, right now the re-imagination of Battlestar Galactica is quite trendy. But how will it look in five years? Ten? Fifteen? I submit it has neither the production values nor the imagination to hold in good stead for thirty years. Maybe not even ten.

Secondly, the Boston.com list includes horror-oriented series like Tales from the Crypt (23) and The Hitchhiker (20). That's cool. But including them opens the door to far superior horror series, such as Millennium, Brimstone, G vs. E, American Gothic and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Perhaps two lists should be made? No?

Thirdly, I think nostalgia plays too much of a role in the selections. I enjoy Wonder Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space and the like, but do they really deserve to be on a list of 50 BEST? I don't really think so. And why choose to include Star Trek Voyager (#14) over the far superior Deep Space Nine? Hmmm?

As someone who's studied the genre for a lot of years - and yet still admits that any such list is totally subjective - I present a list of my own personal choices. Anyway, here's my top 50; read 'em and weep (or complain)...

The top 50 Genre (Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror) TV Series, per John Kenneth Muir:

1. Space: 1999 (1975-1977)
2. Star Trek (1966-1969)
3. The X-Files (1993-2002)
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
5. Blake's 7 (1978-1981)
6. The Prisoner (1969)
7. Sapphire & Steel (1978-1982)
8. Millennium (1996-1998)
9. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
10. Dr. Who (1963-1989)
11.The Outer Limits (original)
12. UFO (1969-1970)
13.Twin Peaks (1990-1992)
14.Farscape (1999-2004)
15.Firefly (2002)
16.Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974)
17.Battlestar Galactica (1978 original)
18. One Step Beyond (1959-1961)
19. Land of the Lost (1974-1976)
20. American Gothic (1995-96)
21. The Greatest American Hero (1980-1982)
22. Brimstone (1998-1999)
23. Now & Again (1999)
24. Star Blazers (1978)
25. Planet of the Apes (1974)
26. The Adventures of Superman (1951-1955)
27. Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999)
28. The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982)
29. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
30. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
31. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981)
32. V (1982 - 1985)
33. The Fantastic Journey (1977)
34. Get Smart (1966)
35. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968)
36. Mission: Impossible (1966-1972)
37. 24 (2001 - )
38. Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1972)
39. The Avengers
40. Space: Above and Beyond (1995)
41. Neon Genesis: Evangelion
42. Flash Gordon (1982; animated)
43. Wizards & Warriors (1981)
44. Forever Knight
45. Alfred Hitchcock Presents (original; 1955)
46. Beauty and The Beast (1988-1990)
47. Dark Shadows (original)
48. Quark (1978)
49. The Twilight Zone (1985)
50. Werewolf (1987)

No doubt people will complain about my # 1 choice, but I'd be glad to argue it in a court of law any day. Space:1999 is a fantastic and watershed program for the following reasons:

1. Visual imagination (or scope): Never (and I mean never, to this very day...) have alien environments, spaceships and planets been portrayed with such variation and verisimilitude. If you want to know what I mean, check out the episodes "Mission of the Darians," "Guardian of Piri," "Missing Link" and "All That Glisters" for a few examples. This is one of the few programs ever created that can be spoken about in the same breath as 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in terms of visuals.

2. The written word: I submit that Space:1999 is as close to science fiction literature as has ever been achieved on television. In other words, episodes are by turns ambiguous and mysterious ("Another Time, Another Place," "Collision Course"), and even Shakespearean ("Death's Other Dominion"). The series imagines worlds, characters and more importantly, a universe that - in its mind-blowing approach - resembles the wildest and most impressive flights of genre fiction.

3.Design and execution. The environs of Moonbase Alpha and the Eagle spaceships are fantastic, streamlined, elegant, utilitarian and believable, yet beyond that, the series is directed with an understanding of how in any filmed entertainment, form must echo content. In other words, it brilliantly manipulates "film grammar," the idea that certain camera angles and positions make us -as viewers - feel certain emotions and feelings. How did this happen? Well, the British film industry was in sorry shape when Space:1999 went on the air, so many of the best and most experienced technicians (cinematographers, lighting experts, and directors) ended up working on the series. Watch "Force of Life," for instance, to see how camera flourishes enhance the suspense and terror of that episode, and literally turn Moonbase Alpha upside down.

4. On screen talent. Find one other series, please, with an Academy Award winner and three-time Emmy Award winner headlining the cast.

5. A trail blazer: Just consider this: Space:1999 was a hit in syndication, the road Star Trek: The Next Generation eventually took a decade later, showing that the genre had a vast potential outside the strictures of network sponsorship. The special-effects breakthroughs of Space:1999 went on not only to affect future TV shows, but the whole industry. Special effects magician Brian Johnson moved from his work on Space:1999 to The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, and Aliens. Finally, content wise, here's something to chew on: Victor Bergman had an artificial heart; so did Captain Picard. Commander Koenig was in love with Dr. Helena Russell, who had lost her husband on a dangerous space mission years earlier. Oh, and Captain Picard loved Dr. Beverly Crusher, who lost her husband on a dangerous space mission years earlier. Need I go on? The series was obviously influential to somebody important, because it's been imitated for years. Oh, and the last episode of the series features the line "Resistance is futile." Wonder where I've heard that before?

6. Longevity. Well, Space:1999 ran for two seasons and forty eight episodes. That might have been the end. Instead, it was still airing in reruns on WPIX in 1986 (granted, at 2:00 am), a decade after cancellation; approaching Star Trek's record. Then laserdiscs brought it back to the fans in 1990. The Sci-Fi Channel ran it in 1993-1994 on their station. Columbia House released a collector's edition in 1997. A&E released DVDs in 2000-2001. And now, a new High Definition version is being released. How many other series that lasted for only two years in the 1970s, are still this beloved, and commercially viable? (Battlestar Galactica, certainly.) Why is it still - in 2005 - being referenced in the pop culture, on shows such as The Family Guy?

7. Trademark episode or image. Ask anybody who remembers Space:1999 and what they recall, and they'll tell you one of the three things: the gorgeous woman who could change into animals (Catherine Schell's Maya, my sexiest resident alien of all time), the Eagle spaceship (pictured top left), or the episode with "the monster" ("Dragon's Domain.")

8. Consistency and individuality. Until the changes of Year Two, Space:1999 featured a consistent universe where space was a realm of terror, awe and mystery. Every episode hammered home this point; in part because the 24 episodes were created before they aired - thereby precluding the possiblity of including "viewer feedback" about what audiences liked and didn't like. This gives the series a unity of theme and aura that is hard to match. But more to the point, Space:1999 is original because it views outer space differently than other programs. In Star Trek, Babylon 5, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Doctor Who, Blake's 7, and Farscape, outer space is like the United Nations in space. There are various political factions (whether they be Klingons, Daleks, Peacekeepers, Narn, Minbari or Draconians), and our heroes must outmaneuver them. One race represents "Yankee Traders" (The Ferengi"), another represents a military dictatorship, etc, the Cardassians represent Israel and the Bajorans are Palestinians. It's all reflecting political realities here on earth. Faraway planets are really just other countries, except separated by void of space instead of oceans. Space:1999 was different, for the most part. It focused on space as a realm of bizarre physics, strange bends in time, mystery, unknown categories of order and the like. It just didn't take for granted that you could head out into space and meet people just like us (a fault of the new Galactica, where the Cylons look like us and are really just Al Qaeda sleeper agents that we can torture in cosmic Abu Ghraibs; and the destruction of the Colonies was just another 9/11. Yawn...).


Well, there you have it. You can check out some of my old blogs in the archives, my cult TV flashbacks, to read why Star Trek, One Step Beyond, Dr. Who, Blake's 7, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sapphire & Steel and Millennium rank so high on my list.

What's your top 10, top 25 or top 50? See any I missed. (I know that Babylon 5 isn't on the list. Neither is Star Trek: Voyager. Those weren't omissions. Voyager doesn't belong, and for me the jury is still out on Babylon 5. I have watched 20 episodes of the first season, and I think the show is horribly acted, terribly produced, and written at a high school level. But, I have friends and associates who claim that the series just goes nuts and really picks up in the second season. So I'm reserving judgment until I watch those shows. I'll be blogging my thoughts on Babylon 5 in the days to come. I may have the mother of all retractions to print here if my budz are right, but the general crappiness, pomposity and unintentional hilarity ("The name of the place...is Babylon 5!") of the first season would still yank the series well down on my list of fifty "best" anyway. But hell, this is the Net, I can publish a revised list, can't I?)
So, absolutely despise my choices? Read me the riot act! Leave a comment!

2 comments:

  1. i think twilight zone is my no. 1. of course you may have a point about the inclusion of anthologies and horror themed series opening up a whole new can of worms. a few of the boston picks i think justified a nod to twin peaks, which would be in my top five. i don't have an exhaustive knowledge of historical tv genre entries (particularly, i never latched on to any of the star trek iterations beyond generally honoring the common wisdom that the even numbered film sequels are great entertainments). i watched a lot of x files, all of the prisoner (loved it because of the surreal quality of the whole enterprise and a filmic quality making it look like it could have been made by antonioni) and the original versions of anthologies the twilight zone, the outer limits, night gallery, and one step beyond. so i don't have much room for debate. however, i contest the lack of futurama on your list (i thought it's spot at 41 on the boston list did it injustice). i can agree that third rock from the sun and my favorite martian don't belong there, and i felt the jetsons, the other animated sitcom on the boston list, coasts there on nostalgia and kitsch. so i can see futurama losing some regard as it is a sitcom, a spoof, and a cartoon. but as a sitcom, i think it deserves a lot more credit than third rock, which was occasionally funny due to a great cast but essentially wasn't for sci fi audiences. it used the alien premise as an excuse for wackiness and farce and was created by former saturday night live writers whose previous career highlight was writing wayne's world. futurama, however, was created by matt groening and employed several one time simpsons writers, many of whom were ivy league sci fi devotees. the quality and density of the series, crammed with homage, science both accurate and satirically preposterous, and some of the most sophisticated language and verbal humor i've ever seen on television, is really coming out in repeat viewings on dvd and the cartoon network. ironically, the spoof futurama probably employed more writers with advanced degrees in scientific fields than most "straight" sci fi series. in the four brief seasons it was buried by fox, it displayed a level of quality and development that probably surpassed even its cousin the simpsons, my favorite television show. one last thing, perhaps because it was a cartoon and the overall goofiness of its tone, futurama got away with a lot of pretty transgressive humor, its innuendo is often shocking if you think about it. so i would urge you to give it a shot without cramming it into the goofy spoof (gspoofy?) ghetto.

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  2. Futurama was a great show. Leaving it off my list is definitely a bad omission. I agree with you that it should be on the list. Something has to come off to make room for it, though. I forgot all about it! I enjoyed that show a great deal and have watched it over the years and considered buying the DVD sets. Hmmm...

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