Thursday, December 29, 2011

The best science fiction shows of all time . . . hide your guinea pigs.

If you can’t already tell, I’m a huge proponent of television, books, movies, music, video games – well, just about all media really.

My heart truly belongs to science fiction, though.

Growing up, I remember being allowed to watch ‘Jaws’ when I was five and ‘Aliens’ when I was seven. I liked the movies, don’t get me wrong, in fact I’m still traumatized by ‘Jaws’ to this day. When I was eight, however, something magical happened.

NBC started showing a miniseries about aliens coming to earth to steal our resources. They looked like us, but when you ripped their faces off they were really lizards underneath. Oh, yeah, they wanted to eat us, too.

I remember watching ‘V: The Original Miniseries’ without being able to take my eyes off the screen – especially the scene where Jane Badler’s Diana eats a guinea pig whole. Even though the special effects are dated by today’s standards, the series still holds up because of the acting and heart of the story. I still watch it on a regular basis.

With New Year’s Day upon us, the one thing that comes to mind when watching television on the first day of the year (most people nursing hangovers, I’m sure) is college football and holiday marathons. When I looked through the list of marathons running this year I was appalled at the lack of science fiction options.

Sure, ABC is running a full day of ‘Once Upon a Time’ to catch up viewers and Soap Net is running classic episodes of ‘One Life to Live’ – hey, soaps are more fantasy than reality – but other than that, there’s really no marathon that caught my eye.

What happened to the days of 15-hour ‘Twilight Zone’ marathons, or even ‘The X-Files’ marathons?

Then I started thinking even more, I mean science fiction television shows have really left an indelible mark on society. When I think about my favorite television shows of all time, a lot of them are fantasy and science fiction shows.

So, as I expanded my mind even further, I thought why not, a list of the best science fiction and fantasy shows of all time in honor of the New Year.

So, without further ado, welcome to the jumble of science fiction memories that occupy my head.

10. Seaquest DSV – When this show debuted in 1993 I was a senior in high school. Despite my busy social calendar (read: stalking boys) I became immediately fascinated with it. Not only was Steven Spielberg one of the producers of the show, but it also starred one of my all time favorite actors Roy “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” Scheider. The first season of Seaquest was truly wonderful. While I opted to pass on crushing on then teen heartthrob (now sad child actor cautionary tale) Jonathan Brandis in favor of Don Franklin, I was enamored with the eclectic stories (special shout out to the ghost ship episode) and talking dolphin. Then, in season two, NBC mandated that the show have more "fantastical" elements, for lack of a better word. All of a sudden the crew were being taken over by ghosts from Atlantis, threatened by prehistoric dinosaurs, fighting flesh-eating plants and traveling to the future. The true strength of 'Seaquest' was in character development, not gimmicks. Scheider was so disgusted by the turn of events he quit before season three. That season, the show jumped 10 years in the future, brought in the always wonderful Michael Ironside as the captain and dropped the ridiculous season two stories. Unfortunately, it was too late and NBC cancelled the series halfway through the third season.

9.  The Incredible Hulk – If you listen to my mother, I was always a super hero when I was a kid. When I was in a good mood, I would wander around in my Wonder Woman bracelets being sunny and nice and fighting whatever crime happened to be loitering around the house. If someone ticked me off, though, I would spin around really quickly and turn into the Hulk, where I proceeded to walk around the house and growl for the remainder of the afternoon when anyone deigned to talk to me. My love of the big green guy goes back to the late 1970s – and it has sustained since then. I’m a big fan of the late Bill Bixby and I think Lou Ferrigno is 10 times the Hulk that the last two CGI characters have been. I own all five seasons of the show and, yes, it’s silly that we’re supposed to believe that somehow Ferrigno’s massive thighs and Bixby’s teeny tiny thighs could inhabit the same denim space. But most of the stories still hold up well today and if you look closely, you’ll see a lot of recognizable stars in guest spots. There were also three follow up movies, one involving Thor, one involving Daredevil and one involving the Hulk’s death. I own all of them and at least once a year I pull them out and throw them in the DVD player. Oh, and ask my co-workers, even to this day you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

8. Alien Nation – Kenneth Johnson is responsible for three of my all-time favorite science fiction television shows, including ‘The Incredible Hulk,’ ‘V’ and the early Fox show of the 1990s ‘Alien Nation.’ The show was based on the movie of the same name, but if you ask me it had a lot more heart. Focusing in on the central alien family and their bizarre cultural differences – they got drunk off spoiled milk, the man helps carry the egg before it hatches into a baby, etc. – was only part of the show, though. The central theme was one of discrimination. With the aliens, they were forced into shanty towns and FEMA-like camps to keep them away from a disgruntled Earth population that was really scared of their superior strength and odd looks. Even though it only last for a season – and a handful of follow-up movies – ‘Alien Nation’ really is one of those shows that turned the alien into the everyday.

7. Star Trek: The Next Generation – The original ‘Star Trek’ is really the quintessential ‘Trek’ but when it comes to quality and continuity 'The Next Generation'  really was superior. I mean, I love William Shatner more than just about anybody (If you haven’t heard his cover on ‘Common People’ I insist you go here to listen to it now) but Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean Luc Picard really was superior to James T. Kirk. The Next Generation ironed out those pesky problems associated with sending both the captain and first mate on every away mission. It also gave the women more to do than essentially answering the phone. In addition, 'The Next Generation' introduced us to two of the best Trek characters ever in Brent Spiner’s android Data and Michael Dorn’s conflicted Klingon Worf. Not everything about The Next Generation was perfect, though. I mean, their chief engineer wandered around with a banana clip over his eyes and Wil Wheaton’s Wesley Crusher could have been the most annoying boy genius to ever grace the screen. Even with those drawbacks, however, 'The Next Generation' remains quality television today – and Picard never found the need to wear a hair piece.

6. Buffy The Vampire Slayer – This is a show that a lot of people wrote off because they thought it was for teenyboppers and had a dumb name when in reality it was really one of the best quality shows on at that time. It had a talented cast, great writing and story arcs that had meaning and were full of symbolism. So why isn’t it higher on the list? The first five seasons of ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ were some of the best television to ever grace the small screen. The final two seasons are a different story, however. In the grand scheme of things, seasons six and seven were still a lot better than the dreck that was on other shows at the time – but they weren’t up to the quality of the first five seasons. While some fans argue that season six of Buffy is really about growing up, it’s actually about character assassination and the propping of James Marsters’ Spike character. Now Marsters is a tremendous talent and Spike was an entertaining character (until they turned him into a total wet rag) but there is only so much of one character you can take and the show essentially made Spike the vampire that ate Sunnydale – and sucked all the life out of the show at the same time.

5. Angel – It’s rare for a spin off show to get rated higher than the original – but that’s the case in Joss Whedon’s wonderful vampire series. David Boreanaz, who played the brooding good vampire with a soul long before Robert Pattinson came on the scene moved his Angel character to the city of angels after the third season of Buffy. Unlike it’s source show, though, the quality of Angel never went down. After hitting a few stumbling blocks out of the gate early  (mainly due to some cast problems), once the show settled in it never fell back. By the time the third season of Angel rolled around (coinciding with the sixth season of Buffy) the underdog spin off show was almost always outperforming Buffy. Another plus in ‘Angel’s’ favor is that it didn’t  overstay its welcome. While Buffy should have gracefully bowed out after the fifth season, ‘Angel’ did just that and the overall legacy for the show is much stronger than that of ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer.’ In addition, ‘Angel’ did something that Buffy couldn’t – it redeemed the Spike character.

4. The X-Files – When this show first debuted on FOX I didn’t know what to think. I found it interesting. I liked the chemistry between the two main characters. But, let’s face it, it was a genre show at a time when there weren’t a lot of genre shows succeeding. ‘The X-Files’ managed to hang on despite my dire predictions at the time, though, and it became one of FOX’s signature shows. I think the show really hit its stride when it started doing the “funny” episodes, like season two’s ‘Humbug.’ I think a show – whether it’s science fiction and fantasy or not – really needs to find the balance between the serious and slapstick. ‘The X-Files’ greatest gift was that you could laugh one minute and cry the next. Now, despite heaping all this praise on the show, it too hung on a little longer than it should have. It would have been better if it ended with  Mulder’s exit at the end of season seven. The damage the show’s legacy underwent over the next few seasons without his character was really too much for it to recover from.

3. Battlestar Galactica (2004) – This show really did everything right. It cast diverse actors in strenuous parts. It didn’t force itself to remain faithful to an original that was often weighted down by cheese. It also wasn’t scared to kill off a big character here and there. Yeah, ‘Battlestar Galactica’ really had it all. I honestly think the show benefited from the fact that it was on SyFy (or whatever they’re calling the network these days – I can’t keep up with the name changes). Being the biggest and essentially first true hit the network produced, show runners had a lot of leeway to do what they wanted and not bow to network pressure. Of course, if the big four networks really want to recapture the quality that is flourishing on the cable networks these days, maybe they should stop trying to cater to the masses and instead bring quality to the masses and let them decide themselves.

2. Lost – This is a polarizing show. I can admit it. But you know what I like about it? Just about everything. Let’s start with the fact that the actors were all top notch. Matthew Fox, Terry O’Quinn, Michael Emerson, Elizabeth Mitchell and Jorge Garcia were some of the greatest talents that JJ Abrams could have found to anchor a show. The story was also engrossing and, yes, they didn’t answer every mystery but the people clamoring for everything to be tied up in a neat little bow aren’t generally the type of party people I want to hang with anyway. Every week I couldn’t wait for the show to return so I could see what would happen next. ‘Lost’ was one of those rare shows where you could laugh one minute and cry the next. I mean, who didn’t have a great time with a Hurley-centric episode and then bawl their eyes out a few episodes later when Charlie sacrificed himself to save Desmond? As for the ending? I don’t think that ending could have been a bigger success. You want to know why? We’re all still talking about it and debating its merits years after the fact aren’t we?

1. V (1983-1985) – This should really come as no surprise given the beginning of this column. I was enthralled with this show from the very beginning. As a kid, I wanted to fight alongside Mike Donovan, Juliet Parrish and Ham Tyler. I never wanted anyone to get what they had coming as badly as I wanted Steven and Diana to get run over by a truck. Yeah, the weekly series had some issues, but from what I’ve read those were going to be addressed and fixed with the return of Michael Ironside and the death of the star child Elizabeth at the start of the second season. Unfortunately, that second season never came to fruition. Now I liked the reboot a few years back, but it lacked the heart the original had. For me, I’ll always manage to clear a day every three months or so to pop in one of the miniseries installments and spend a whole afternoon with the visitors and rebellion.

And since every great list isn’t complete without a few honorable mentions, here is my list of shows that I also loved but couldn’t quite make the cut.

·        Heroes – Actually, I really only loved the first season of this show. It was a great first year. Then, of course, it fell apart in fantastic fashion. I believe, if they had kept the arc of the first season and let it run its course over several years, the show would have been that much better over the long run.

      Falling Skies -- I really love this TNT gem I discovered this summer. It had a great freshman season and I’m looking forward to its second year this summer. Of course, much like 'Heroes', ‘Falling Skies’ could, well, fall apart in the second season. Let’s cross our fingers that doesn’t happen.

·        The Twilight Zone – Yes, I know, this really should have made the list. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find one show I would bump in its favor. Loving science fiction often has its limitations – and scaling a science fiction television list down to 10 also has a few casualties. Unfortunately, this was one of them.

·        Being Human – We’re talking the BBC version, not that SyFy travesty here. The first few seasons of the little known on this side of the pond show have been funny, entertaining and heartbreaking – all in the same breath. I’m curious, given Mitchell’s untimely death at the end of last season, how things are going to shake out for our heroes this season. I’m a little worried things won’t be the same and I won’t be able to stick around for the long haul.
·        The Dead Zone – This was really Anthony Michael Hall’s comeback vehicle – and what a star turn it was. I had little hope when the show debuted – remember this was long before USA became known as a haven for quality television. Boy was I surprised by not only how well written the show was, but how well acted as well. Unfortunately, the show stuck around a little too long and in an effort to cut costs, almost the entire secondary cast was cut by the time the finale aired. I would have rather had the show end a full season earlier than lose all the fun that was Bruce, Purdy and Walt.

What do you think? What are your favorite science fiction and fantasy shows? Did I miss anything?


Blogger kaankaan said...

Angel was supposted to continue after the 5th season. It was cancelled because Joss Whedon wanted an early renewal and they cancelled because he was inpatient and they were going to renew it in summer.
And how can you say Buffy's season 1 is better than 6 and 7. It was so stupid and those monster-of-the-weeks were hard to watch.

December 31, 2011 at 3:21 AM 
Blogger Amanda Lee said...

Angel was on the fence in its final season. The reason it's better than Buffy in the long run, though, is because it went out while it was creatively still on top. While the first season of Buffy wasn't perfect, it did have a better arc than the horrific final two seasons of Buffy. Had Buffy not wussed out on the "dark Willow" arc, the sixth season might have ranked higher. It can't, though, because the whole season was pretty much dreck except for "Once More With Feeling" and "Tabula Rasa." The seventh season is even worse. There are only a handful of episodes that are even watchable in the season. It's filled with character wrecking and a horrific finale that hurt the entire Buffy story that had already been set out. Anya was given short shrift in death, the potentials were the most annoying characters ever, Xander was turned into a pirate, Buffy made speech after boring speech, Spike's whole purpose seemed to be serving as Buffy's lap dog and Giles turning on Buffy -- which is something we know he would never do -- was so out of character that it seems like a crackhead wrote season seven.

December 31, 2011 at 1:24 PM 

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