Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Sci-Fi Shows Part Two

The Eighties saw almost no sci-fi series airing on any of the networks. This did not mean that there would be no sci-fi series whatsoever to air during the decade. Indeed, 1987 saw the debut of Star Trek: the Next Generation in syndication. Like the original Star Trek, Star Trek: the Next Generation was created by Gene Roddenberry. And like the original series, Star Trek: the Next Generation followed the exploits of the crew of a starship called Enterprise as they explored strange new worlds. Essentially, Star Trek: the Next Generation was a sequel to the original Star Trek, set 95 years after the five year mission of the original Star Trek.

While I know that there are many who would disagree with me, I have always thought that Star Trek: the Next Generation was inferior to the original Star Trek. In the first season it seemed to me that many of the characters were very underdeveloped. In many cases they might as well as have been cardboard cutouts. At the end of the first season, I believe only Picard, Worf, and Data could be described as fully developed characters. Now this would change over the seasons, although some of the characters remained underdeveloped until the end of the series' run. It also seemed to me that while Star Trek: the Next Generation produced many of the best episodes of any Star Trek series, its best episodes were still not as good as the best episodes of the original series. This would not be so bad, save that Star Trek: the Next Generation's absolute worst episodes were the very worst of any Star Trek series before or since. Over all, I do think Star Trek: the Next Generation turned out to be a very good series, although it is of a lesser quality than the original.

Regardless, Star Trek: the Next Generation proved very successful enough to produce a spinoff of its own. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was the first Star Trek series not to be created by Gene Roddenberry. It was also the first not to be set on a spaceship, being set on the space station Deep Space Nine instead. I always thought its characters were better developed than those of Star Trek: the Next Generation. I also thought that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine produced some of the best episodes of any Star Trek series, while at the same time its worst episodes were not nearly as bad as the worst episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation. I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I think in overall quality it could be the best Star Trek series since the original.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was followed by Star Trek: Voyager in 1995, the first Star Trek series to air on a network since the original (in this case, the fledgeling UPN network). Star Trek: Voyager utilised the classic "lost in space" theme. The series found the U.S.S. Voyager flung to the far away Delta Quandrant, the crew trying to make their way home to Earth. I always thought that, like Star Trek: Deep Space, Star Trek: Voyager had very well developed characters (the best perhaps being the holographic Doctor). And while its best episodes sometimes fell short of the best episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, its worst episodes were not nearly as bad either

Star Trek: Voyager was followed by Enterprise (later renamed Star Trek: Enterprise) in 2001. Enterprise differed from the previous three Star Trek spinoffs in that it was not a sequel to the original series, but a prequel set even before the founding of the United Federation of Planets. It followed the first warp powered Earth vessel Enterprise as it explored the galaxy. I have always thought that Enterprise shared the same advantage of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager of having well developed characters. Unfortunately, it also seems to me that it produced only a very few remarkable episodes in its first two seasons.. While its worst episodes were not nearlly as bad as any of those of the previous series (including the original), it had fewer truly outstanding episodes. Enterprise improved dramatically in its third and fourth seasons, producing some of the best episodes of any Star Trek series. Unfortunately, it was too late. Enterprise had the worst ratings of any Star Trek series since the original. It was then cancelled by UPN.

Star Trek: the Next Generation did not simply pave the way for more Star Trek series. It also accomplished two other things. First, it proved that original, hour long TV series could be successful in syndication. As a result, the Nineties saw a number of original, hour long series, from Hercules: the Legendary Journeys to Highlander: the Series. Second, it paved the way for more science fiction series. Among these was another successful series in syndication, Babylon 5. Babylon 5 was set on the space station of the same name. The space station was the result of the Babylon Project, which sought to provide a meeting place where the various planetary nations could negotiate and work out their differences. In many ways, it was an interstellar United Nations. Four Babylon stations had been attempted prior to Babylon 5, each meeting with disaster either before or at completion. Fortunately, Babylon 5 was completed.

Created by J. Michael Straczynski and debuting in 1995, Babylon 5 was unlike any sci-fi show before or since. The series was conceived as a single story spread out over five years. In many respects, it could be considered the ultimate mini-series. Because Babylon 5 was conceived as one, long story, it differed from previous sci-fi shows in other ways as well. Characters died. Characters married. Characters were given new assignments that took them away from Babylon 5. Moreso than other sci-fi shows, the lives of Babylon 5's characters changed as the series proceeded. Of course, all of this would have been for nought if the series had not been successful. And it would not have been successful if it had not been good. I honestly believe that Babylon 5 was one of the best written sci-fi shows of all time. Not only were the characters well developed, but the series often followed the consequences of their actions to their logical conclusion and examined the effects those actions had on others. It was a very complex show. Beyond the very quality of the series, I also liked Babylon 5 because it did not pretend that the 20th century never happened. On the Star Trek series it often seemed as if pop culture ended with Arthur Conan Doyle. Not so on Babylon 5. There would be a few pop culture references from the 20th century scattered throughout the series. Indeed, security chief Garibaldi was an unabashed fan of classic Warner Brothers cartoons!

While the occassional pop culture reference from the 20th century would appear in episodes of Babylon 5, pop culture references were rampant on Farscape. Farscape debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1999 and went onto become its own most popular show. Farscape centred on 21st century astronaut John Crichton, who entered a wormhole while testing an experimental spacecraft and found himself hurled across the galaxy. Emerging amdist a space battle, Crichton must join a group of escaped prisoners and an exiled Peacekeeper officer (Aeryn) simply in order to survive.

Alongside Babylon 5, Farscape is one of the best written sci-fi series of all time. In fact, it may be the best written sci-fi series of all time. It may also be the single most character driven sci-fi series of all time. Over time the characters change and grow. Relationships begin and end. Characters even die. Indeed, one of the great things about Farscape was its sheer unpredictability. One never knew just how an episode might turn out and often the end result would be totally unexpected. Farscape also benefited from a keen sense of humour and plenty of pop culture references from Crichton (who may well have watched too much television as a kid). Another thing that always appealed to me about Farscape is that it may well have been the only sci-fi series with truly alien aliens. On most sci-fi shows the aliens are all humanoid, with perhaps only a few variations. This was not the case with Farscape. Produced by Jim Henson Productions and Hallmark Entertainment, the Jim Henson Creature Shop produced aliens that looked nothing like human beings. Indeed, one of the continuing characters, Dominar Rygel XVI (who was also my favourite character), resembled an amphibian more than a human being!

Farscape developed an extremely loyal cult following. Unfortunately, it never brought in the ratings that the Sci-Fi Channel wanted. The series was cut down in its prime in 2003. A follow up mini-series, Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, was aired in 2004. To me the Sci-Fi Channel's cancellation of Farscape was one of the worst mistakes that cable channel ever made. While its ratings were not particularly high, it did have a fanatically loyal following. This made Farscape a sure thing, as it was certain that there would always be someone tuning in to watch the show. Beyond which, I rather suspect that if Farscape had been given a bit more exposure (for instance, if it had been aired on the Sci-Fi Channel's parent channel, the USA Network), its ratings may well have risen appreciably.

It is difficult to say what the future will bring with regards to sci-fi shows. On the one hand, the older networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox) have not shown much interest in the genre for the past thirty years, which in some ways makes it seem unlikely to me that any new sci-fi channels will debut on those venues. UPN having long been the home of the Star Trek series and the WB having aired such genre shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel would seem much more likely to consider new sci-fi shows. On the other hand, the success of Lost and Desperate Housewives have proven that viewers are willing to watch shows that are off the beaten track. If the success of those two shows generate a desire on the parts of the older networks to experiment more, then we could possibly see another sci-fi show of the quality of a Star Trek, a Babylon 5, or a Farscape airing on one of the older networks. Of course, the cable channels (in particular the Sci-Fi Channel, obviously) are a different matter. New sci-fi shows have emerged from time to time on the various cable channels and will probably continue to do so. At any rate, one can only hope that we will not see another repeat of the Eighties, when sci-fi shows were few and far between.

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