Posted by: jgurner | May 8, 2013

Three sci-fi shows that deserved better

Sci-fi has a troubled history on television.

Usually, and often mercifully, it tends not to last too long. But occasionally, something works and a sci-fi or fantasy show will catch on and find a wide enough audience to be successful (defined as lasting long enough to get off the ground – three or four seasons at least). Not necessarily good, but successful. (I’m looking at you Sliders. I would have said Babble-yawn 5, but , just in case anyone actually reads this, I don’t want hate mail.) The X-Files ruled television during the 90s even though it started off in the Friday night Fox “time slot of death.” It may have gone out with a WTF?, but, for at least the first four or five years, it was a pretty good run. Star Trek managed to rise again on TV in the late 80s through syndication to produce four shows that ran a total of 18 years – six time longer than the original series. Stargate managed three shows before it petered out. But there may still be stories to tell in that universe as well.

But, for every X-Files (9 seasons, 202 episodes), there’s a Firefly (14 episodes), Surface (15 episodes) or Earth 2 (21 episodes). (Surface, solid but not great, seemed to be heading in that direction when it was canned. It got to be about more than Lake Bell in a swim suit, which in itself was pretty entertaining.)

I have recently watched, or am planning to rematch, three shows that I’ve always felt deserved much better than they got. Each lasted only a season, had great stories, actors and writing and did a great job of establishing their world almost from the get-go. There are more than three that deserved better, but I wanted to touch on some that are less obvious than Firefly or Stargate: Universe.

So, here we go…

Space: Above and Beyond – Fox, 1995-96, 23 episodes.

This was a hard sci-fi military series created by Glen Morgan and James Wong, who were both co-producers and writers for The X-Files. It centered around a squad or space Marines, the 58th Wildcards, as humanity battled an alien race known as the Chigs. Based on the spacecraft Saratoga, the 58th fought on land, sea and in space against a seemingly relentless enemy, with each of the six main characters  dealing with their own personal issues and lives.

While it did have its fair share of cliches and a couple of forgettable episodes (the very special Christmas episode comes to mind), it was an otherwise solid series. You have to ignore some of the bad science in the first few episodes, but that’s par for the course in even the best sci-fi. It gave you most of the important pieces of the world in which these Marines lived and fought in the first episode – a world filled not only with enemy aliens, but artificially created humans called Invitros and a rebellious sect of androids called AIs. Two of the main characters were Invitros, including the 58th’s commanding officer and a number of episodes dealt with the prejudice they encountered both in the military and in civilian life. There was a squadron leader haunted by the death of her parents at the hands of the AIs and another member of the squad whose fiancee was a captive of the Chigs after a distant Earth colony was attacked to start the war.

As with The X-Files, Space: Above and Beyond had its fair share of mystery and intrigue as well, though, lasting only one season, most of it never pays off. Most of the episodes were stand alone, connected by the overall arc of the war, so it was a series that you could get into without having seen it from the beginning. The special effects were very high quality – not a lot of reused shots in the battle scenes (Just how many times did the original Battlestar Galactica reuse the same battle scene, often in the same episode?). It’s nice to watch a scene with well done, practical effects and models rather than todays almost too slick CG. The acting was good, solid TV acting and the main actors did a good job of selling you characters with veteran actor James Morrison really owning the role of Col. T.C. McQueen, the commander of the 58th and also an Invitro.

Sadly, the series suffered from the beginning from being in that other Fox TV “time slot of death” – immediately after Sunday afternoon football. Sometimes it started on time, but often through the entire first half of the series, it was delayed, making it all but impossible to view in the pre-Tivo age of time shifting by VCR. Plus, while a dark, militaristic sci-fi show might seem like old hat now, this was pre-9/11 TV. At the time, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was just dipping its toes into darker, more serious stories and characters and the new Battlestar Galactica was years away. The story lines featuring intensely flawed main characters, intense battle scenes, stories of drug addiction and deciding whether the life of artificially created Invitros was worth the same as human life may have spooked some viewers who were just waiting for The Simpson.

I’m just finishing up re-watching the series. It still stands up, for the most part, after 18 years and America’s plunge into seemingly endless war. In fact, some parts of it are even more relevant today than they were when the series first aired. I could easily imagine this series being revived, the war still raging years later and some of the original characters brought back after rising through the echelons (or maybe not having so great a career in the years between). I think in the post Battlestar Galactica (new version) world of TV, it would work well.

The Dresden Files – The Sci-fi Channel (Not Syfy!), 2007-2008, 12 episodes (11 episodes, plus an unaired two-hour pilot which was whittled down to an hour and shown out of sequence..)

Okay. It’s an urban fantasy series, not science fiction. Still, the rules apply.

Based on the series of books by Jim Butcher, it focuses on a private detective in my second adopted home town of Chicago, who just also happens to be a wizard.

At first, I really didn’t have much interest in this series. I had never read the books and I wasn’t a real big fantasy fan, outside of Tolkien. But, in the pre-wrestling and reality TV days of the Sci-fi Channel, I’d give anything a try. Fortunately, and sadly, I did because this short-lived series proved to be greatly entertaining. Fortunate because I really came to enjoy the series and plan on getting to the book series soon. Plus, it really introduced me to the urban fiction genre, which I had paid almost no attention to previously. Unfortunate, because after its short run, I was left wanting more. So much more.

Harry Dresden, the down and out private eye and wizard, is greatly entertaining and Paul Blackthorne plays the role for all it’s worth. The stories are fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, just seriously enough.

It has been a while since I’ve re-watched the series, but it’s up soon on my rotation list and I’m looking forward to it. It was smart and clever. It took some of the best things about you average TV private eye and cop shows and mixed them with the fantastic in a way that complimented each.

The series had strong behind the scenes sci-fi and fantasy creds with Star Trek: TNG and DS9 veterans Hans Beimler and Robert Hewitt Wolfe serving as producer/writers. Plus, TNG and Generations director David Carson behind the camera on a couple of episodes. (Okay, maybe Generations isn’t the best sell for Carson. How about Yesterday’s Enterprise for TNG?)

Ultimately, The Dresden Files got dumped in favor of Eureka, which was a fun, enjoyable show, but not reality worth the trade to me. I think with the success of shows like Once Upon A Time and Grimm, The Dresden Files would be a great candidate for a reboot. I’d love to see Blackthorne reprise the role, but I also think it could be recast and be successful as well. But, like the original series, it would need to be handled with a light touch, humor and focus more on the story than on the fantasy.

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. – Fox (Surprised?), 1993-94, 27 episodes.

Bruce Campbell should be enough to sell this one.

But, you might be saying to yourself, self, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. isn’t really sci-fi or fantasy. It’s kind of a western comedy. Well, self, you’re wrong. While it is true toward the end of the series, it was headed in that direction, it definitely started off sci-fi with alien artifacts, people with fantastic powers and a mid-season twist, which I won’t give away, that is 100 percent sci-fi.

If that doesn’t sell you, think of Brisco as the 90s equivalent of The Wild, Wild West – the original, not the 1979 and 1980 TV movies and definitely not the Will Smith movie that’s just best forgotten about. See. I’ve forgotten already. I could definitely see a crossover with Brisco teaming up with James West and Artemis Gordon to go after Dr. Loveless, who has managed to get his hands on one of the golden orbs.

To give you a little background, Brisco County Jr. is the son of famed lawman Brisco County, who is killed by the Blye gang. Brisco Jr. is hired by a mysterious group to hunt down the gang, aided by former bounty hunter rival Lord Bowler,  trusty assistant Socrates Poole and, of course his horse Comet. Along the way, the find out about an otherworldly golden orb, fragments of which give people incredible powers. Joined occasionally by Prof. Wickwire (played by John Astin. I mean, come on! Bruce Campbell and John Astin together? How can you pass this up?), Brisco and friends find excitement, adventure and really wild things across the turn of the century west.

Though it started to change directions toward the end, and would have drastically changed in season two, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. was a well-writen, smart and clever show with a fantastic cast led by Campbell. Ultimately, it was done in by the fact that westerns really aren’t that popular with people. (And how long has it been since you’ve seen a western make much of a dent on TV?) Plus, the changes in the direction of the show, removing most of the sci-fi elements, probably scared off someof the audience, even though there was still plenty of steam punkishness scattered throughout.

Now twenty years gone, this is one show I don’t think could be brought back. Bruce Campbell might still be game, but Julius Carry, who played Lord Bowler, died in 2008.  Though he wasn’t a regular, John Astin was perfect sprinkled over the series run, but, at 83, I doubt he’s up to the challenge. Plus, seeing how the series was set close to the turn of the century, you’d have to move it forward too much to accommodate the aging of Campbell and Clarence Clemenson (Socrates). And a reboot? Forget it. Who could take Bruce Campbell’s place?

Sadly, this one falls into the”What could have been” file as opposed to the “What could still be” file.
So, those are three that I feel deserved better. There are many more, believe me, but these three are fresh on my mind. They say there’s no use crying over spilled milk (or beer,if you’d rather), but that doesn’t keep you from thinking about what it would be like to have another glass. I guess for now, I’ll watch the final season of Fringe when it arrives (haven’t seen it yet and don’t know how it ends, so, hush!) and just be glad Fox gave it a chance to wrap up so it won’t be on any future lists.

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