Favourite SF TV shows: part 1

TV has a long, rich history of supporting speculative fiction. Ever since Star Trek (the original series) and Lost In Space debuted way back in the 1960’s, there has been science fiction and fantasy on television. Ranging from the sublime (everything I’m about to mention, which is subjective, I know!) to the ridiculous (let’s hear it for It’s About Time, for starters!) tv producers and writers have thrown their hearts into the fabulous worlds of sword, sorcery and space ships.

Read on to find out which shows (in no particular order of merit) have left an indelible print on this fangirl’s heart … then chime in with comments about your favourite SF tv!

Fringe

One of the great injustices of this world, to my way of thinking anyhow, is that John Noble was never recognised, awards-wise, for his extraordinary work as Walter Bishop in the JJ Adams produced series Fringe. Truly, it’s an acting tour de force unmatched by the great work done in many, many SF tv shows. There isn’t just one Walter, there are many: and while I fully credit the writers for their vision and quality of their scripts, at the end of the day if they hadn’t had John Noble they’d never have gone there.

So, what’s Fringe about? At its heart, it’s about family. About love transcending time and space and alternate dimensions. Everything that happens in the story happens because Walter Bishop loved his young son so much that he was willing to risk two worlds to save him. And it’s about the consequences of that one desperate act, to individuals and whole societies. At stake is the future of humanity itself.

I don’t want to say more than that about the plot, because spoilers for those who’ve never seen it. Just trust me when I tell you it has everything you could ever want in a great SF show.  What I will say is that Fringe has some of the best female characters you’ll find in SF: Olivia Dunham – FBI agent and unwitting lynchpin for unfolding events; Astrid Farnsworth – FBI agent and Walter-sitter par excellence; Nina Sharp – corporate mogul and ambiguous ally. And then you’ve got the guys: Walter Bishop – genius, madman, devoted father, duplicitous scientist; Peter Bishop – a little shady, a lot conflicted, courageous and terrified and dedicated to the cause; Phillip Broyles – FBI agent, hard-nosed, compassionate, loyal and brave.

One of the best things about Fringe is that it ended on its own terms. It ran for 5 seasons, and the story concluded with an ending that – for me – hit all the right notes. No unresolved story points, no cliffhangers, none of that crap. With Fringe we get a beginning, a middle and an end.

I can’t think of a single Fringe episode I don’t enjoy, but a standout for me is Brown Betty. It’s amazingly inventive – with music!

I love Fringe because it’s fabulously inventive, speculative, character-driven drama with some terrific writing and astonishing performances. It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and I find something new in it every time I do a rematch. It’s dramatic, romantic, challenging and life-affirming … just like all the best SF.

Supernatural

There’s a caveat with this one: I only really love the first 5 seasons. For me, after that – even though Castiel was still part of the story, more or less – things started going downhill and they never really recovered. The show is still going, 10 seasons now, and there’s every chance it’ll be picked up for an 11th season. But, much to my sorrow, the connection I once felt to it is pretty much faded out. That’s not to diss anyone who still loves the show and thinks it’s wonderful these days. What works in a story is always subjective and cannot be right or wrong, because everybody reads and responds to a story in their own way.

However! I still go back and rewatch those first 5 seasons, and get caught up in the story all over again. There are some really great episodes and story arcs to be found, great characters and dilemmas and some truly wonderful supernatural fantasy narratives.

The original idea was simple: two brothers on the road, hunting down supernatural creatures that pose a threat to society at large. The Winchester boys, Dean (the older) and Sam, have a tragic past. Their mother was murdered by a demon and their father, overwhelmed with rage and grief, took them out of the mainstream, raised them to be monster hunters, and took them with him on his quest for revenge.

But as the story unfolds the Winchesters discover that their lives contains secrets even more strange … and deadly.

Like Fringe, family lies at the heart of the Supernatural story. Dean is the brother most affected by their mother’s death and the life their father chose for them afterwards. Sam is trying to leave the past behind, but the past – and Dean – won’t let him go that easily. So the stage is set for much family dysfunction, monster-hunting, curse-evading and death-defying adventure. The series mixes it up with stand-alone and long-term narrative arc episodes. The brothers battle many familiar urban legend monsters, but often with unexpected results. Enemies become allies and friends turn into enemies as the brothers seek to destroy the demon who murdered their mother. Sacrifice and consequences are a constant theme of the series … and those consequences lead to some fairly amazing twists and turns.

Again, don’t want to get more specific than that. Spoilers! Arrgghh!

When it works, which is most of the time in the first 5 seasons, Supernatural is engrossing and emotionally engaging entertainment. There are many genuinely moving moments in the story, some very strong acting – most often by Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins – and some fabulous writing – most often by Ben Edlund. A secondary cast of support characters does great work – Jim Beaver as fellow hunter Bobby Singer is a stand-out – and helps to give the world of Supernatural depth and heart.

A few of my favourite episodes are: Faith, Home, What is and What Should Never Be,  In My Time of Dying, Lazarus Rising, On the Head of a Pin, The Rapture, The End.

Unfortunately the show’s track record with female characters is pretty dire – which is so often the case with any show lacking a strong female presence on the production team. Leaving that aside, though, there’s a lot to enjoy about this show.

Star Trek

I guess this one isn’t a total shock, right?  But in fact what I’m doing here is treating the entire Trek family – from the original series to Enterprise – as one entity. That’s because, for me, it’s one long narrative, inextricably entwined. Sure, it can be said that some components are stronger than others, but taken as a whole I think Star Trek has to be one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the history of dramatic speculative fiction.

What can get lost with the passage of time, and the distorting lens of hindsight, is just how ground-breaking the original series really was. Absolutely, when viewed from today’s vantage point the show seems appallingly sexist. But in the 60s it was revolutionary. Women on the bridge! Women with careers! Women in the official chain of command! To his credit, Roddenberry tried to push the boat out even further – his original idea had a woman second in command. That idea was scuttled by the network, but that was the aspiration. The same can be said of Roddenberry’s approach to casting. Non-WASP characters were rare in 60s prime time tv, unless they were villains or menials. In original Trek, though, we had Uhura and Sulu front and centre in every episode. It may seem no big deal now, but back then that was huge. Likewise, original Trek gave audiences the first inter-racial kiss in American tv history. Amazing.

The first 2 seasons contain some truly classic episodes: The Corbomite Manouver, Space Seed, City on the Edge of Forever, The Naked Time, Amok Time, Mirror Mirror, The Trouble With Tribbles.

But the less said about Spock’s Brain, the better.

Original Trek ended after 3 seasons. Then, after a long, long hiatus, the story roared back with The Next Generation. After a reasonably tentative and sometimes cringeworthy 1st season the show found its feet and forged ahead with some of the best SF storytelling to be found on dvd. For me the stand-out performer in the series is Patrick Stewart, playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard. He kept the bar high and for the most part the rest of the cast kept up with him. For 7 seasons he fought the good fight. For me, the best episodes were Picard-centric. And when he worked with Brent Spiner (as Data, the android) and John deLancie (as the mysterious alien Q) the show reached sublime heights of humour and drama. Episodes like Best of Both Words, The Inner Light, Q Who, Tapestry, The Measure of a Man – and that’s just scratching the surface – are tremendous.

It should also be noted that enormously accomplished writer/producer Ronald D Moore got his start on Next Generation.

Next came Deep Space Nine. A darker show, with darker themes, it broke from Trek tradition in that it was set on a space station. DS9 has the distinction of being the only Trek story with a non-WASP leader/hero: Benjamin Sisco. It also broke the mould in having a woman as his second in command, Kira Nerys, and a woman as his best friend, Jadzia Dax.  In a sharp departure from Roddenberry’s rather Pollyanna view of the future, the world of DS9 tackled themes of religion and war and greed and ambition, exploring a great deal of moral ambiguity on all sides. For that reason I think it’s the most realistic and emotionally mature of all the Treks. Standout favourite episodes for me are Our Man Bashir, Little Green Men, The Visitor and  Trials and Tribble-ations.

Spinning off from Deep Space Nine was Voyager. Ah, Voyager. I know there are folk who don’t much care for it, but for me there’s a lot to really enjoy. It’s great, I think, because this time the leader is a woman, Kathryn Janeway. And I think they did a pretty fine job portraying a woman in command, all in all. The character-work is uneven – I think some of the dullest characters ever can be found in Voyager. On the other hand, Voyager gave us the holographic doctor and in Robert Picardo they found an actor of fabulous range and talent. It also – and controversially – gave us Seven of Nine. The costuming of this character, played by Jeri Ryan, is problematical, to say the least. But luckily Ryan is a phenomenally good actress, she got some great material, and I think she transcended the situation with grace and skill.

Also? The whole ‘Captain Proton’ storyline is, for me, a creation of absolute genius and those two episodes are worthy of a place in the Best SF Episodes Hall of Fame.

Last but not least, there’s Enterprise.  I could write an entire blog post on how many different ways they found to ruin a good thing with this show. In a nutshell, not even Scott Bakula could save it. Perhaps if they’d put Manny Coto in charge from the start it might have turned out differently. As for the series finale episode? Biggest, most insulting slap in the face to Trek fandom ever. And seeing what they did to all the previously established series continuity and canon, that’s saying something!n Still. There are some bits of it I do really enjoy, and I think it’s worth watching. But all in all it was a dud, and it was cancelled after 4 seasons, unlike its 2 predecessor which went for a full, glorious 7 seasons.

Best stuff for me in Enterprise? Trip Tucker, and the wonderful Jeffrey Combs as the Andorian commander Shran. Combs has the distinction of playing nine different onscreen roles in Trek, including two in the DS9 episode Dogs of War: Weyoun and Brunt. Apparently Manny Coto was going to make Shran a regular if they’d gone to a 5th season. Sigh. I’d have paid to see that!

Trek really is a unique creation. I think everyone should watch it, in every incarnation!

Space Above and Beyond

Now this, I think, is a show that came before its time. If you could wiggle your fingers and do some timey-wimey magic and do it today, with the same cast and crew, on cable, I think it would fare really really well. It ran for one season, 24 episodes, and sort of had a resolution … only not a proper one, like Fringe.

But don’t let that put you off, if you’ve never had a look at this ambitious series. Created by James Wong and Glen Morgan, who got their start on The X Files, it’s military SF in the style of Ronald D Moore’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Wong and Morgan were inspired by stories of US Marines in World War II, and used that history to inform their SF series.

The issue of gender is handled brilliantly in this series. One of the most respected and capable characters is Shane Vanson, a woman with a tragic, violent past. She’s a natural leader and is viewed as such by the other characters, both male and female. Gender issues are dealt with by not having any –  the year is 2063, and that kind of nonsense has been dispensed with. But not by making Vanson a male character in drag, and not by emasculating and dumbing down the male characters. The characters are people first, gender last. This future is gender neutral in all the right ways.

The action takes place in space and on giant spaceworthy aircraft carriers. Earth is at war with an alien race that has apparently attacked without provocation. Vanson and her cohorts are Marine pilots, led by the legendary commander Ty McQueen. He has a past, too, also violent and tragic. As leaders go, he’s far from ordinary. It’s a wonderful performance by James Morrison.

For me, the overwhelming positive of this series is its compassion and character work. It really captures the fear and loneliness and camaraderie of war. It also examines questions of cowardice and courage, of fighting an enemy and what that costs, how truth is often a casualty of war, friendship and sacrifice and family. Probably my favourite episode is The Angriest Angel.

Short-lived, yes. Not entirely concluded, yes. But worth the journey, absolutely.

And that’s it for now. Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon …

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