In more concrete terms, a dedicated viewer can gaze back at genre TV history and detect all these programs that began with tremendous promise and survived a difficult first year on the air, but -- for whatever reason -- got drastically re-formatted for the second season.
In this re-vamping process, the qualities that were initially so endearing about the series in the first year were often sacrificed. It's the proverbial "throwing out the baby with the bath water" syndrome.
Space: 1999 (1975-1977) is a perfect, early example of this. After Year One, which had garnered "amazing ratings" in the U.S. (Adler, Dick. The Los Angeles Times: "Some Lame Re-running." January 7, 1976, page 23), an American producer Fred Freiberger replaced Sylvia Anderson and, well, "Americanized" the British-made series.
Although the wonderful and charming character of Maya was added to the series format, and some of the new, pumped-up action was undeniably fun, the second season boasted no real sense of story-arc or "build-up" like the first season. More importantly, Space: 1999's overwhelming sense of atmospheric, Gothic terror was overturned for a familiar universe more in keeping with the then-popular Star Trek.
Now, I don't "hate" Space:1999's Year Two for a variety reasons. I don't hate any of these shows I'm writing about today. Specifically, I adore Catherine Schell's Maya, many episodes are solid ("The Metamorph," "The Exiles," "Journey to Where," etc.) and there would have been no second season without Freiberger's participation. Still...much of what worked so well about Space:1999 disappeared for the second season approach. A minor tweaking instead of such a drastic re-vamp seems to be the very thing that might have saved the series.
Over the years, this perspective has largely been re-affirmed in fandom -- though there are also strong Year Two advocates and devotees out there -- and also by the series cast and crew itself. "I liked the first season better," Martin Landau told Starlog in July of 1986 (Lee Goldberg: "Martin Landau: Space Age Hero," page 45.) Landau went on to say:
"It was truer. They changed it because a bunch of American minds got into the act and they decided to do many thing they felt were more commercial. I think the show's beauty was that it wasn't commercial, it had its own rhythm. I felt the episodes we started with in the first season were much more along the lines I wanted to go. To some extent, that was corrupted."
The late Johnny Byrne, who had been script editor on Space:1999's first year felt much the same way. He always praised Freddie Freiberger for ushering Space:1999 survival into a second year, and always felt Freiberger was a friend and a good man. But Byrne didn't necessarily like the new direction of the series.
"Freddie's priority was to make it more American, more pacey. He kept saying, 'Above all it needs more humour'. What that reduced itself to was a crass line at the end of a scene with fixed smiles coming on the faces of the unfortunates who had to endure it on screen. People were dashing around so much that when they did have a moment to speak, they had to deal largely with story. They became a bit too knowing, they understood too much; they were up against the odds, but they were there to kick ass." (David Richardson, TV Zone: "Writing 1999, Johnny Byrne," Issue 54, May 1994, page 11.)
Later in the disco decade, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) underwent a similar metamorphosis between seasons.
The first year was a jocular, swashbuckling, tongue-in-cheek venture that saw Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) and Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) basically acting as secret agents in the 25th century. They subverted space dictators, battled despots like the Draconians and Kaleel (Jack Palance), and even rescued a "defector" from a communist-styled (!) planet during the "space Olympics."
In short, the first season Buck Rogers played like an outer-space variation on Mission: Impossible, only with more colorful characters and a light-hearted sense of humor. Was it the deepest outer space drama of all time? Of course not, but the series had a distinctive groove and was extremely popular with audiences (it finished in the Nielsen top 40 against serious competition: Robin Williams and Mork & Mindy.)
Producer Bruce Lansbury departed the series after the first season and was replaced by Gunsmoke's John Mantley...who shepherded major changes. The second season re-vamped the formula to make Buck Rogers in the 25th Century more like Star Trek. Suddenly, Buck and Wilma were officers aboard an advanced spaceship, The Searcher, going from civilization-of-the-week to civilization-of-the-week. The series had a new resident alien like Mr. Spock, Hawk (Thom Christopher), who promptly became Buck's version of Tonto, or something. Wilma Deering became less assertive, reduced almost solely to the role of Buck's romantic interest. Buck and Wilma bantered a lot, but Wilma lost her edge.
Like Maya, I always liked Hawk and appreciated the actor who performed the role (Christopher), but very soon the second season of Buck Rogers felt like a bad Star Trek rip-off. By the end of the series' run, Wilma was being chased around by mischievous alien dwarves, in what had to be one of the worst hour-long episodes I've ever seen on network television.
Star Gil Gerard -- who had also not enjoyed the less-than-serious direction of the first season -- liked the direction of the re-vamped second season even less. He told an interviewer recently: "I hated that season, it was such a rip off of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. I was thinking: why are we doing this? I always wanted Buck to stay on earth, but we got a new executive producer who had no respect for the audience and the show."
Another example of this First Season Wonder/Second Season Blunders Syndrome: SeaQuest DSV (1993 - 1996), which began has a hard-science, hard-tech look the unexplored "universe" of the Earth's oceans, but became -- in its second season -- yet another derivation of Star Trek (do you sense a pattern emerging here?), down to resident alien-style characters like Dagood, telepathic doctors/counselors, and alien invaders/nemeses.
I still recall the fuss it generated when series star Roy Scheider noted in the press his displeasure with the format changes of the second season.
Specifically, he decried the alteration from "mostly fact-based programs to science fantasy." (Kachmer, Diane C. Roy Scheider: A Film Biography, McFarland, 2002, page 159.). Scheider also noted that he was "very bitter about it," and felt "betrayed." The second season stories, he suggested were not "even good fantasy" and Star Trek did that kind of stuff "much better than we do."
In a new wrinkle, however, SeaQuest returned for a third year with another revised format, and one that was arguably far superior. Michael Ironside portrayed a new, steely-eyed, hard-edged captain, Hudson, and a TV veteran, producer Lee Goldberg brought in some good writing and some much-needed character/situational tension.
But it was too late. The ratings sunk...and so did the SeaQuest. Perhaps if these third season changes had arrived during the second season...the format change would have worked in this instance. It's tough to say.
On and on you can travel, through the corridors and dead ends of genre TV history, gazing at this syndrome. Battlestar Galactica's second season became the dreadful Galactica: 1980, a cheapening and, dumbing-down of the original space opera format that gave the world invisible, high-jumping, "super scouts" playing baseball on Earth to save an orphanage. Again, a sad shift away from a program that had performed admirably in the Nielsen ratings and had earned a devoted fan base in just a year.
And what about NBC's Heroes, a 21st century sci-fi series which also saw a dramatic second season slump? Was the problem in that case adhering to an existing formula too closely, or shifting away from it (to take Hiro back in time?)
In all of these situations, I should add, producers surely did their best and acted in good faith to inject life into programs that were perceived as "failing" series. No one sets out to make a bad show. Did they aim too high? Too low? Would these series have been better off making only minor modifications? Again, it's impossible to know.
One important takeaway from these examples, however: Star Trek is great, but Star Trek is its own thing, and a fledgling sci-fi series would be better off developing new, inventive formats, rather than aping Gene Roddenberry's. If you look at recent outer space shows such as Farscape, Firefly and SGU, you might argue the lesson has finally been learned.
Historically-speaking, other genre series have undergone format changes too, later in their runs, and it seems that, critically and historically-speaking, we tend to judge them far less harshly than the shows which shift in the second seson. The Twilight Zone became an hour in length during its fourth season, and then promptly-shifted back to a half-hour for its fifth and final season. The Outer Limits eliminated most of the "bears" for its second season, and focused more heavily on science fiction than horror. Land of the Lost went from being about a closed-off pocket-universe in its first two seasons to a valley of mythical monsters (like Medusa, the Flying Dutchman and the Abominable Snowman...) in its third and final season under Sam Roeca's leadership. And in its last season, The A-Team went to work for The Man from U.N.C.L.E....
Which of these aforementioned format changes irked you the most? Or, contrarily, do you think that these shifts were not actually "blunders" at all, but improvements?