Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Sci-Fi Shows Part One

I am not sure when I first saw Star Trek. I know that it wasn't while it was in its first run on NBC, although I know I had to be very young. I am thinking that it may have been a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1971, when one of the St. Louis or Kansas City stations were showing it. I do believe that the episode I saw was "The Doomsday Machine." Regardless, I was hooked. I would become a Star Trek fan and eventually a sci-fi fan. And over the years I would wind up watching a lot of science fiction TV shows.

Of course, Star Trek was not the first sci-fi show I ever watched. That dubious honour would probably go to Lost in Space. Well, that is if Lost in Space can even be described as a sci-fi show; it might better be considered outright fantasy. Lost in Space concerned the Robinson family, who, following an act of sabotage, found themselves lost in space aboard their spaceship Jupiter II. The Robinsons were a fairly bland bunch, so it should be no surprise that the star of the show became Dr. Zachary Smith (played to perfection by Jonathan Harris), technically the villain of the show. Smith was self centred, cowardly, greedy, and scheming, although oddly enough possessed of a fondness for his fellow passengers. A product of Irwin Allen, Lost in Space was pretty bad as science fiction goes. The Robinsons and Smith encountered cowboys, pirates, magicians, et. al. with little explanation of how such individuals got to the deep reaches of space. Neither logic or science played a major role in Lost in Space episodes! Still, the show could be quite enjoyable on the level of a comedy. Indeed, I think it may well qualify as camp--something that is so bad that it is good. Regardless, Lost in Space initailly did well in the ratings and ran from 1965 to 1968.

While Lost in Space was apparently made for children or simply made for laughs (it is hard to tell which), Star Trek was a serious attempt at a science fiction series. Indeed, the reason that Star Trek has a place in television history is that it was the first science fiction show with continuing characters, aimed at adults, which focused more on the characters than the science or technology. On the surface, Star Trek was not particularly original. As everyone knows, it followed the exploits of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a heavy cruiser in the Starfleet of the United Federation of Planets. Spaceships on exploratory missions had long been a fixture in science fiction literature, perhaps the most notable work being The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt. Even in motion pictures, the classic movie Forbidden Planet portrayed a spaceship that explored the galaxy. Regardless of any lack in originality in its format, the fact that Star Trek was aimed at adults and centred on the characters rather than science made it a revolutionary TV series for 1966.

Of course, none of this would have mattered if Star Trek had not actually been good. Although the creation of Gene Roddenberry, much of the credit for the high quality of the show must go to producer Gene L. Coon and script consultant Dorothy Fontana. Between the two of them they provided the show with much of its mythos, including their archnemeses the Romulans and the Klingons. It also helped that Roddenberry sought out top writers to write many of the episodes. Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Richard Matheson, and Harlan Ellison all contributed episodes to the series.

Despite the quality of the series in its first two seasons, Star Trek performed miserably in the ratings. There has been much speculation as to why this happened. Some have argued that the show was ahead of its time. I have always disagreed with this for two reasons. The first is that in the United States of the Sixties there was a craze for anything space oriented. Toys, comic books, even food often had a space theme. Star Trek would seem to be simply another manifestation of the American space craze of the Sixties. Second, to a large degree Star Trek was another in a long line of American action series in the Sixties, such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West. In each of these series the heroes were generally young men in their Thirties (somewhat reminiscent of John F. Kennedy): Napoleon Solo, James West, and James T. Kirk would all appear to be cut from the same cloth. In most episodes of these series, there would usually be a beautiful damsel for the heroes to rescue. If anything, Solo, West, and Kirk had very active love lives! And each of these series had formats that permitted the use of guest stars in every episode, often guest stars with very big names. Joan Collins, Janet Leigh, Jack Palance, Agnes Moorehead, and others all guest starred in various episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Star Trek. It seems to me that Star Trek was not ahead of its time, but very much a show of its time. A more likely explanation for its failure in the ratings in its original run is simply bad time slots. In its first season Star Trek faced My Three Sons on CBS and Bewitched on ABC. Its second season saw it opposite Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. on CBS. Against such high rated, well established series, it would be hard for any young TV show to do well in the ratings, let alone one as different as Star Trek was.

While Star Trek failed in the ratings during in its original run, it did spectacularly well in the ratings when its reruns entered syndication. It proved to be one of the biggest success stories in television history. This success led to an animated series, major motion pictures, and four spinoffs. I have always preferred the original to its spinoffs myself. The best episodes of the original Star Trek always seemed to me to be better even the best episodes of any of those of its four spinoffs. And in the case of Star Trek: the Next Generation, it seemed to me that many of its characters were little more than cardboard cutouts, as opposed to the original series in which even peripheral characters like Sulu and Chekhov were fairly well developed.

One would think that with the success of Star Trek, sci-fi series would have taken a quantum leap in quality. This was not the case, as Battlestar Galactica is a prime example. For those unfamiliar with the series, Battlestar Galactica was a 1978-1979 series aired on ABC. The series was the creation of producer Glen Larson, who was very prolific during the Seventies, although not particularly well known for the quality of his work.

Battlestar Galactica centred on a ragatag fleet of refugees from human colonies who were fleeing the Cylon Empire, a robotic race intent on destroying humanity. Led by the battlestar (sort of a space going aircraft carrier) Galactica, the fleet was searching for the lost 13th colony Earth (or maybe it was the homeworld--they were never really clear on that...). The series was very expensive for its time. The pilot alone cost $7 million and the average budget for episodes was somewhere around $1 million. Battlestar Galactica also created a bit of controversy, when George Lucas sued Universal Studios, claiming that Battlestar Galactica plagiarised Star Wars. The lawsuit was dismissed in 1980 as being without merit. Indeed, the average person viewing Battlestar Galactica would notice very little resemblance to Star Wars. Star Wars centred upon a rebellion againt an evil empire, while Battlestar Galactica centred upon refugees fleeing a hostile, foreign power.

Regardless of whether Battlestar Galactica was a Star Wars rip off or not, it only lasted one season. The series received somewhat respectable ratings, but was cancelled by ABC, probably due to its exceedingly high costs. The cancellation sparked protests from fans and even an effort to save the show. It was perhaps because of this that a spinoff was aired in 1980 called Galactica 1980, in which the fleet had discovered Earth. Galactica 1980 only lasted a few episodes and was considered by many fans to be largely inferior to the original series.

Not that the original series was actually very good, in my humble opinion. I watched Battlestar Galactica loyally as a youngster. I never missed an episode. A few years ago I was able to see it again when the Sci-Fi Channel held a Battlestar Galactica marathon. I watched one episode and thought, "This is horrible (well, actually, I thought something else, but this blog is supposed to rated PG-13....)." I then thought, "Well, every series has its share of bad episodes. Maybe this was just one of Battlestar Galactica's poorer episodes." So I watched another episode. And another. After the fourth episode, I came to the conclusion that as much as I had loved the show as a kid, Battlestar Galactica just wasn't very good. One thing I do have to say for Battlestar Galactica. At least it was better than Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, an update of the classic comic strip which debuted not long after Battlestar Galactica went off the air. Even as a kid I did not like that show... Regardless, a substantially different revival of Battlestar Galactica is currently airing on the Sci-Fi Channel.

Throughout the early Eighties there would be very few science fiction series on any of the networks. For a time it seemed as if television had largely given up on the genre. All of this would change in the late Eighties with the debut of a spinoff/sequel to the original Star Trek, Star Trek: the Next Generation.

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