TELEVISION


TELEVISION
   The first thing to understand about televised sf is that it has never been commercially successful (relative to the top programmes) on US tv, and seldom on UK tv. Advertisers in the USA seek new programmes that are likely to end up in the year's top 20; these are the programmes that get the top advertising and the big budgets. It has been reported that the only US sf tv programme ever to enter the top-20 category was the tabloid-style documentary drama programme PROJECT UFO (1978-9), which exploited widespread PARANOIA already much sensationalized by the popular press, and had little to do with true sf. Because producers know that sf does not normally pull that sort of audience, it tends to be regarded as filler material, with neither budgets, writers nor actors being top-drawer. Every now and then someone with power tries to break the hoodoo, as Steven SPIELBERG did with his anthology-series AMAZING STORIES (1985-7), spending a lot of money and getting good writers and(especially) good directors, but that too disappointed, in terms of both quality and commercial success.To concentrate for a moment on artistic rather than commercial success (though they are linked), we note that for a while everyone thought the turning point would come in about 1978, when sf in the CINEMA had made an enormous breakthrough, especially with STAR WARS (1977), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and SUPERMAN(1978). US tv may have had its chance then, but blew it, partly through the lowest-common-denominator populism of Glen A. LARSON, who created the infantile BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978), its successor GALACTICA 1980 (1980) and the only fractionally better BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979-81). US tv has failed consistently with sf adventure (the variousSTAR TREK series being, along with The WILD, WILD WEST , the main exceptions, and then only partially so) and SUPERHERO adventure (like The INCREDIBLE HULK [1977-82] and WONDER WOMAN [1974-9]); has had limitedsuccess with sf anthology series (like The OUTER LIMITS [1963-5], and The TWILIGHT ZONE [1959-64]); and has done quite nicely with borderline-sfsitcoms (like MY FAVORITE MARTIAN [1963-6] and MORK AND MINDY [1978-82]).Outsiders would argue that much of the problem of US tv restsin the advertisers, who have a vested interest in reaching as wide an audience as possible, and therefore tend to veto (especially in programmes aimed at younger viewers) anything remotely controversial that might upset a section of the potential audience. It would seem to follow that UK commercial tv should have just as bad a record, for the same reasons, but this is not entirely true, as witness The AVENGERS (1961-9), The PRISONER (1967-8) and the original MAX HEADROOM (1985), all originated by UKcommercial channels. Nonetheless, most classic sf tv in the UK has come from the BBC - including the first 3 Quatermass serials, DR WHO, BLAKE'S SEVEN, HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and RED DWARF - and the BBCoperates quite independently from advertising income, though it is open to, and occasionally suffers from, other pressures towards conformity, including ratings.The other main reason why sf has failed on tv in the USA, and to a large degree in the UK, is the almost invariable assumptionthat it is stuff for the kids. It is difficult to know if adult sf would succeeed on tv; few people have ever tried. The first sf series to appear on US tv, CAPTAIN VIDEO (1949-56), was primarily aimed at children, and it is arguable that the situation, over four decades later, has not changed.Captain Video, which began in 1949, was a series made on a very small budget and transmitted live every night. This situation ensured that sets and special effects were primitive (scenes involving special effects were pre-filmed and then inserted, usually clumsily, into the show, by cutting to a tv camera that was pointing directly into the lens of a movie projector), but its popularity with young viewers quickly produced a host of imitations, like BUCK ROGERS (1950-51), TOM CORBETT, SPACE CADET (1950-55), SPACE PATROL (1950-55), SUPERMAN (1953-7), CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT(1954-6) and COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE (1955). While the later series were more expensively produced and were pre-recorded on film, they all followed in the tradition of the movie and RADIO serials of the 1930s-40s rather than that of written sf. Science had little part in anyof these productions, with the exception of Tom Corbett, which had Willy LEY as scientific adviser, but it was prominent in one of the first"adult" sf series on US tv, OUT OF THIS WORLD (1952), which was a mixture of sf and science fact, with guest scientists interrupting the story to discuss scientific points with the narrator. This nonsensational approach to sf was continued in SCIENCE FICTION THEATER (1955-7), in which the host, Truman Bradley, and the show's various writers did their best (presumably unconsciously) to ensure that no trace of any SENSE OF WONDERremained in the stories. Nearer to written sf was TALES OF TOMORROW (1951-6), one of the earliest sf anthology series, which featured storiesadapted from sf books and magazines but, like the early children's serials, was handicapped by being transmitted live.The first major UK sf event on tv (apart from Nigel KNEALE's 1949 tv adaptation of George ORWELL's NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR [1949]) was the BBC serial The QUATERMASSEXPERIMENT (1953), a horror/sf mixture which was at the time considered suitable only for adults, though today it would probably seem no more disturbing than the children's serial DR WHO (1963-89). Even by the early 1950s the fundamental differences between US and UK tv had beenestablished; instead of having to produce self-contained programme "packages" that would be attractive to sponsors, the BBC producers hadeditorial freedom. One result was that the most popular format for BBC drama (apart from individual plays) became the serial, usually in 6-10 episodes, whereby the writers could build up atmosphere and concentrate on character development; in the USA, by contrast, the trend was towards long-running series whose episodes were self-contained. (The lack of commercial interruptions was itself an advantage in the pacing of the BBC programmes, which did not have their rhythm broken by false climaxes and cliff-hangers designed to entice the viewer to stay tuned during the ads.) With the arrival of commercial tv in the UK (the first channel in 1955,the second in 1982), US-style programming was also introduced (though the UK commercial-break pattern is much less intrusive), but the serial formatstill remains popular on all channels of UK tv.BBC TV's first productions of sf for children also took the form of serials, one of the earliest being The LOST PLANET (1954). Its sequel, Return to the Lost Planet (1955), came in the year that saw the first of the Quatermass sequels,QUATERMASS II (1955).1956-8 were sparse years. In the USA most of the juvenile series had ended, with the exception of Superman (already the steady erosion of the boundaries between children's and adult programmes on US tv had begun) and the sober and dull Science Fiction Theater, both of which lasted until 1957. From then until 1959 sf on tv was practically nonexistent. The situation was little different in the UK, though in 1958 there was the third and best of the Quatermass serials: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1958-9).In the USA WORLD OF GIANTS had 1 brief season in 1959, butthe most important new US series that year for sf fans was The TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-64), an anthology series created by Rod SERLING as a mixture offantasy and sf stories, more of the former than the latter. The 1960s saw an increase of sf-related series in both countries: the BBC serial A FOR ANDROMEDA (1961) was unusual in that it was cowritten by a scientist, FredHOYLE. In 1961 The Avengers (1961-9; followed by The New Avengers [1976-7]) began, though at that time it was called Police Surgeon and did not feature any of the sf or fantasy gimmicks that were to dominate this enjoyably bizarre and imaginative show in later years. Another UK series, OUT OF THIS WORLD (1962) - not to be confused with the earlier US seriesof the same name - tried to repeat the success of The Twilight Zone by adopting a similar format, with episodes based on the stories of many well known sf writers. It lasted only 1 short season.The most remarkable of all sf phenomena on tv began in 1963: the splendid BBC series DR WHO (1963-89), which was aimed at children but came to attract adults as well.It had many serialized stories run consecutively, each normally lasting for at least 4 episodes. Producers, writers and cast changed many times, but Dr Who ran for 26 years and, according to rumour, even now may be in suspended animation rather than dead.In the USA another series inspired by The Twilight Zone began in 1963. The OUTER LIMITS (1963-5) was moresf-oriented than Serling's series and also took itself rather less seriously; though inventive and entertaining, it could hardly be described as adult sf. The same year saw the first of many comedy sf series, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN (1963-6), a relatively sophisticated sitcom that provedpopular with audiences. Less successful, though in some ways superior, was MY LIVING DOLL (1964-5), an sf comedy about a ROBOT woman that ran foronly 1 season.It was also in 1964 in the USA that Irwin ALLEN, the Glen LARSON of the 1960s, produced the first of his sf action/adventure seriesfor tv, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1964-8). His lowest-possible-common-denominator approach to the genre has influenced the style and quality of US tv sf ever since. The same year saw the debut of The MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (1964-8), a by-product of the craze for James Bond movies (Ian FLEMING) but incorporating many sf devices and plotsituations. This was better, and better still was The Wild, Wild West (1965-9) which featured two secret agents, equipped with variousanachronistic devices, pitted against mad scientists in the 19th-century West. Another Irwin Allen series, LOST IN SPACE (1965-8), was moreobviously aimed at children than Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, though that made little difference in quality or plausibility.In the UK, 1965 saw the debut of the adult sf series OUT OF THE UNKNOWN (1965-71), an anthology show that presented adaptations of the work of sf writers including (among many others) Isaac ASIMOV, Clifford D. SIMAK and J.G. BALLARD; from this practice it derived an authority not often visible intelevised sf, which is normally written by professional tv screenwriters. The standard of the adaptations varied and the small budgets were ahandicap (another major difference between US and UK tv is that the former is usually produced on much larger budgets), but overall it was superior to most sf series before or since. This view was not shared by the BBC itself, however; after a couple of seasons it was turned into a series about the supernatural.Also from the UK came THUNDERBIRDS (1965-6), a series that used sophisticated puppets and clever special effects. Produced by Gerry ANDERSON, it proved very popular with children on bothsides of the Atlantic. Anderson had pioneered the use of puppetry for children's sf with SUPERCAR (1961-2) and FIREBALL XL5 (1962-3). Anderson's SuperMarionation puppet programmes are fun, but are really for quite youngchildren.In 1966 began TIME TUNNEL (1966-7), another Irwin Allen production, but it was not as popular as his other series. The important new US series of 1966 was STAR TREK, whose ever-swelling following (largely garnered during re-runs) has become legendary. Aimed primarily atadolescents, it featured the work of several established sf writers in the first 2 seasons, though their scripts were usually rewritten by the show's resident writers. Aside from Jerome BIXBY, no well known sf names appeared in any of the credits for the final season, which may account in part for the plunge in quality.The INVADERS (1967-8) was another US series of the late 1960s but, as based on a single plot gimmick that had to be repeated each episode, it lasted only 2 seasons. More interesting, and equally reliant on evoking total PARANOIA, was The PRISONER (1967-8), a KAFKA-esque UK series created by actor Patrick McGoohan (1928-), who alsostarred. But at the time it was popular neither with the UK company that produced it (ITC) nor with the public, and it came to a premature end, although its supporters continue to argue passionately that it was the finest sf ever to appear on the small screen, and it has been rescreened more successfully since. In the USA Irwin Allen launched yet another series, LAND OF THE GIANTS (1968-70), but the vogue for his type of programme was coming to an end. Also fairly short-lived was The IMMORTAL (1969-71), based on The Immortals (fixup 1962) by James E. GUNN, who alsoproduced a novelization, The Immortal * (1970).In the UK Gerry Anderson switched from puppets to live actors in his new children's series UFO (1970-73). A UK series with more serious intentions was DOOMWATCH(1970-72), which exploited popular anxiety about the dangers of scientific research; one of the creators of the series was the scientist Kit PEDLER.Rod Serling began another anthology series with ROD SERLING'S NIGHTGALLERY (1970-72), but it was less sf-oriented than The Twilight Zone and proved less successful as well. Then, in 1973, came the series which had the greatest influence on US sf tv in the 1970s, The SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (1973-8), which, though basically a live COMIC strip rather similar tothe 1950s Superman series for children, was successfully cloned; there were several near-duplications of the formula.The UK children's serial The TOMORROW PEOPLE (1973-9) began on commercial tv in 1973, and at timesapproached the level of Dr Who. The BBC in the same year attempted a more adult series with MOONBASE 3 (1973), a nonsensational serial set on the Moon, but it was not a success. That year the awful GENERATION-STARSHIPprogramme The STARLOST (1973) came from Canada (Harlan ELLISON). The following year in the USA saw 2 further short-lived series, PLANET OF THE APES (1974), based on the popular movie, and (much better) KOLCHAK: THENIGHT STALKER (1974-5), an anthology series primarily about the supernatural, which included a few sf episodes.In 1975 Gerry Anderson, after the failure of UFO, created a pale UK imitation of Star Trek with SPACE 1999 (1975-8). Surprisingly, it enjoyed some success in the USA, butonly briefly, and it ended after 2 seasons. The series represents a nadir in the quality of scientific thought in televised sf. A more typically UK series of the same year was SURVIVORS (1975-7), created by Terry NATION, a post- HOLOCAUST series in the UK manner established by John WYNDHAM and John CHRISTOPHER.One of the first of the many Six Million Dollar Manimitations was The INVISIBLE MAN (1975-6), but it did not prove as popular as expected, despite some ingenious special effects and the use of David McCallum, the star of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It returned the followingseason with a different actor in the lead role and a new title: The Gemini Man (1976), neither of which saved the series from being cancelled. Yetanother short-lived series was The FANTASTIC JOURNEY (1977) which utilized the Star Trek formula without spaceship or other planets (different cultures being encountered via "time zones" on a lost island in the Bermuda Triangle). WONDER WOMAN (1974-9), derived from the fantasy comicstrip of the same title, had made her debut in 1974; she was followed by The BIONIC WOMAN (1976-8), a spin-off from Six Million Dollar Man. In 1977the comic-book style trend was continued - but with none of the verve of the best comics - with The MAN FROM ATLANTIS (1977), LOGAN'S RUN (1977-8) and The INCREDIBLE HULK (1977-82). But while fantasy- and sf-related series were proliferating in the USA, mostly in a vain attempt to capture the charisma of the various SUPERHERO comics, UK tv was producing only the gloomy, Orwellian serial 1990 (1977-8) and, of course, the never-ending and still sprightly Dr Who. It was not until 1978 that UK tv made a comparatively formidable entry into the world of SPACE OPERA with Terry Nation's series BLAKE'S SEVEN (1978-81), which also began in Orwellianvein. While proficiently produced, and disarmingly cynical, it was still too close to the Star Trek formula.In the 1970s such anxiety-ridden UK series as Doomwatch, Survivors and 1990 reflected the fears of a society that seemed to find itself on the brink of something unpleasant, whereas, whatever fears may have been preying on the US mass-consciousness, the apparent reaction to them was (and is) to plunge wholeheartedly into a second childhood, not only with tv, but also in the CINEMA, as with STAR WARS and SUPERMAN.The 1980s in the USA saw increasing infantilism in sfseries. Short-lived movie spin-offs included BLUE THUNDER (1984), STARMAN (1986-7) and ALIEN NATION (1989-90), and a spin-off from a tv miniseries,SOMETHING IS OUT THERE (1989). Ray BRADBURY's stories barely survived the miniseries The MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1980), although they did rather better in RAY BRADBURY THEATRE (1985-6). A US series based on a UK original, MAX HEADROOM (1987-8), looked promising for a time but deteriorated rapidly.So did the big-budget sf series of the decade (whose budget shrank with each succeeeding segment), "V" (1983-5). This was an object lesson in the corrupting influence of the US tv system, for it worsened practically minute by minute. In the first part of the first miniseries, this story of alien invasion (for "aliens" read "Nazis") was interesting; by the end it was pure pabulum.Until the end of the decade, the most interesting US experiments in sf were probably the uneven anthology series TWILIGHT ZONE (2nd series 1985-6) and AMAZING STORIES (1985-7), but in both casesglutinous sentiment hovered too closely overhead. Then things perked up a little, with the romantic and sometimes very imaginative BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1987-90)-which may have been helped by the input of sf writerGeorge R.R. MARTIN - and the TIME-TRAVEL series QUANTUM LEAP (1989-current), which was sometimes amusing and certainly infinitely better than the earlier VOYAGERS (1982-3) on a similar theme. The end of the decade also saw the vigorous but silly WAR OF THE WORLDS (1988-90). But for many the most exciting development was STAR TREK: THE NEXTGENERATION (1987-current), which surprisingly enough was made for syndication (a demonstration of the effects of cable, and of the consequently reduced market sway of the old networks like NBC, home of the first series). Once viewers recovered from their sorrow at the absence of the geriatric Kirk, Spock, Scottie, Bones, etc., most agreed that it was rather better than its famous original.In the UK the 1980s were ushered in with the fourth (and slightly old-fashioned) Quatermass serial, QUATERMASS (1979), no longer from the BBC. The BBC was having a semi-success withBlake's Seven, the prisoners-on-the-run-pursued-by-the-evil-empire series mentioned above; it also successfully serialized John Wyndham's 1951 novel with The DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (1981). By casting cult-figures from earlier sf series, David McCallum (Man From U.N.C.L.E, Invisible Man) and Joanna Lumley (New Avengers), commercial tv signalled high hopes with thetime-police series SAPPHIRE AND STEEL (1979-82); in the event it was incomprehensible, but atmospheric and fun for Surrealism fans. The big UK sf theme of the 1980s was anarchic comedy, with two big successes from the BBC, The HITCH-HIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (1981), based on a cult BBCRADIO programme, and RED DWARF (1988-current), and one failure from the commercial side, Nigel KNEALE's disappointing KINVIG (1981). The 1980s also saw the so-so STAR COPS (1987) and Dr Who repeatedly changing his persona but somehow losing the plot; the 1970s had been Dr Who's peak decade.The pressures towards conformity and formula, especially in the USA but also in the UK, have meant that televised sf, in a history spanning well over 40 years, has never approached the intellectual excitement of the best written sf, or indeed the best sf in the cinema. Because televised sf cleaves to the expected, we are seldom surprised by it: we seldom feel any sense of wonder or even stimulation. At best we are amused by the occasional adroit variation on a familiar theme, or by bits of rather good acting. Televised sf is a cultural scandal; it is, on average, so much worse than it could be or needs to be. But there seems no way to combat the entropic forces that make it that way. The tv industry is something of a "closed shop", with its own well established writers and producers - one reason why it has generally proven inhospitable to sf writers - and it is difficult to influence from the outside. Until this is done, the standard of televised sf will not improve.Good references on televised sf are hard to come by, and the subject is surprisingly difficult to research, since tv is more ephemeral than cinema and is not nearly as well documented. The most up-to-date book on the subject is The Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction (1990) by Roger Fulton, which isdescriptive rather than critical, and good on UK sf, rather poor on US sf. A slightly amateurish monthly US magazine with useful episode synopses(but much vital information, including production companies, omitted) is Epi-Log, whose \#1 was Summer 1990, published by William E. Anchors Jr from Tennessee. Also useful is Science Fiction, Horror \& Fantasy Film \& Television Credits (1983) by Harris M. Lentz, which has a supplement (1989) through 1987.This encyclopedia includes a number of made-for-tv movies which we treat as if they were actual movies. Some have been good - like The NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (1975) and The LATHE OF HEAVEN (1980) - but most have not. We also include one entry on what, so far as we cantrace, is the only tv series about sf, the eccentric Canadian talk show PRISONERS OF GRAVITY (1990-current). The 96 entries for tv serials andseries in this encyclopedia (excluding made-for-tv movies and variant titles) are: A FOR ANDROMEDA; ALF; ALIEN NATION; AMAZING STORIES; The ANDROMEDA BREAKTHROUGH ; The AVENGERS ; BATTLESTAR GALACTICA; BEAUTY ANDTHE BEAST; The BIG PULL ; The BIONIC WOMAN ; BLAKE'S SEVEN; BLUE THUNDER; BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY; CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT; CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERONS; CAPTAIN VIDEO; The CLONING OF JOANNA MAY ; COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE; The DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS ; DOOMWATCH; DR WHO; The FANTASTIC JOURNEY ; FIREBALL XL5; GALACTICA 1980; The HITCH-HIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY ; The IMMORTAL ; The INCREDIBLE HULK ; The INVADERS ; The INVISIBLE MAN ; JOE 90; KINVIG; KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER; LAND OF THE GIANTS; LOGAN'S RUN; LOST IN SPACE; The LOST PLANET ; The MAN FROM ATLANTIS ; The MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. ; The MARTIAN CHRONICLES ; MAX HEADROOM; MOONBASE 3; MORK AND MINDY; MY FAVORITE MARTIAN; MY LIVING DOLL; 1990; The OUTER LIMITS; OUT OF THE UNKNOWN; OUT OF THIS WORLD; PLANET OF THE APES; The PRISONER ; PRISONERS OF GRAVITY; PROJECT UFO; QUANTUM LEAP; QUATERMASS; QUATERMASS AND THE PIT; The QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT ; QUATERMASS II; RAY BRADBURY THEATRE; RED DWARF; ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY; SAPPHIRE AND STEEL; SCIENCE FICTION THEATER; The SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN ; SOMETHING IS OUT THERE; SPACE 1999; SPACE PATROL; STAR COPS; STARLOST; STAR MAIDENS; STARMAN; STAR TREK; STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION; STINGRAY; The STRANGE WORLD OF PLANET X ; SUPERBOY; SUPERCAR; SUPERMAN; SURVIVORS; TALES OF TOMORROW; TERRAHAWKS; THUNDERBIRDS; TIME TUNNEL; TOM CORBETT, SPACE CADET; The TOMORROW PEOPLE ; The TROLLENBERG TERROR ; The TWILIGHT ZONE (1st and 2nd series); UFO; "V"; VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA; VOYAGERS; WAR OF THE WORLDS; The WILD, WILD WEST ; WONDER WOMAN; WORLD OF GIANTS. Some further tv series are mentioned in passing in film entries and elsewhere, but not normally with full production data.
   PN/JB
   See also: JAPAN.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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