Favourite SF TV shows: part 2

Now, back to the SF TV I love best …

Xena, Warrior Princess

Now this one was spun off from The Adventures of Hercules, and it launched Lucy Lawless as an international fannish icon. An amazingly talented and versatile performer, Lawless owned the role of Xena and during the show’s six season run never missed a beat. Comedy, drama, musical — you name it, she did it. Brilliantly supported by a large, almost ensemble back-up cast, she’s the reason the show worked as well as it did.

But here’s my confession. With a couple of exceptions, the only episodes I actually really enjoy are the comedy ones and the musicals. For some reason I find it almost impossible to take the ‘serious drama’ story lines seriously – with the exception of the Julius Caesar episodes, because Karl Urban, and any episode with Ares in it – played by Kevin Smith, who tragically died in a filming accident.

The light-hearted episodes, however, especially those featuring the hapless Joxer – played by the incredible Ted Raimi – and the musical episodes are, for me, the best kind of rompish entertainment. Lawless has genius comic timing and a wonderful, trained singing voice. Paired with Raimi, who is also a master of comedy but with some great dramatic chops too, and Bruce Campbell, and with solid supporting work by Renee O’Connor, Lawless lights up the screen.

Yeah, so I can’t help myself. I’m humming Joxer the Mighty under my breath even as I type!

Xena isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I know. But I find it wickedly witty and outrageously entertaining. The people who made it are very smart, most especially when they’re indulging in some nudge-nudge wink-wink at the audience farce and slapstick. And here’s some trivia for you: speculative fiction aficionados Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci got their career start writing for Xena.

Some of my favourite episodes? For Him the Bell TollsThe Xena ScrollsWarrior .. Princess … TrampThe Bitter SuiteBeen There, Done ThatLyre, Lyre, Hearts on Fire.

Stargate SG-1

Given that I’ve written tie-ins for this series, I guess its inclusion here is a no-brainer! But there is a caveat. This is another series where I only like part of it. Bottom line? For me, the Stargate story ends at the end of season 8, with  the original (and only!) SG-1 team – Jack, Sam, Daniel and Teal’c – sitting together on the pond dock at Jack’s cabin, fishing. Jack and Sam are a couple, Daniel and Teal’c are their best friends, and the rest of the world can go to blazes.

I know that might not be your reality, but you’d better believe it’s mine! *g*

For my money, Stargate SG-1 is a brilliant example of how to spin a tv series off a moderately successful theatrically released film. I really like the original Stargate movie. Yes, it’s a bit pulpy, but I don’t care. I really liked Kurt Russell and James Spader and I thoroughly enjoyed the action/adventure aspects.

Of course, if you’re going to expand a self-contained movie story into a long-term tv series, you need to give it a lot of careful thought. I think Jonathan Glassner and Brad Wright did a fabulous job. I think they cast the show perfectly, with Richard Dean Anderson taking over the Kurt Russell role and newcomer Michael Shanks stepping into James Spader’s shoes.  I think it was a stroke of genius to cast Amanda Tapping as the female co-star, and also great casting to get Christopher Judge as the alien warrior Teal’c. Rounding out the central cast is the late Don Davis as General Hammond, and Teryl Rothery as Dr Janet Fraiser. It’s a strong team, ably supported by other great actors like Carmen Argenziano and Tony Amendola.

It’s only fair to acknowledge that the science of Stargate is sometimes … wobbly. There’s some handwaving going on with things like – how come every alien or ancient human race they encounter speaks colloquial American English????  It’s a silly oversight, really. All they had to do was technobabble an explanation about there being a built-in translator device in the Stargate, courtesy of the Ancients who built it. Easy fix.

So, if you don’t know the show, what’s the deal? Well, a device was discovered in Egypt that turned out to be alien technology that opens a wormhole to destinations scattered all through the galaxy. The network of Stargates was used in the distant past by hostile aliens, who took humans from Earth as slaves and seeded them on the many, many planets they controlled. Then Earth was cut off, and contact with the aliens was lost until the discovery in Egypt. After new hostile contact, the US military sets up a facility to deal with the threat, then explore the galaxy through the Stargate.  Mayhem and exciting adventures ensue.

Like most great space opera (and really, this is more space opera than serious SF, wormholes notwithstanding), the heart of the show lies with its characters. On balance, I think the strongest work came in the earlier seasons, before Richard Dean Anderson got a bit complacent and things started getting a bit goofy and undisciplined and uneven.

But when it was good, Stargate SG-1 was really, really good. Strong dilemmas, tight plotting, some thorny ethical challenges, and lots of fun character work. Unfortunately it can’t be denied that there are gender issues with the show, but over time they were largely addressed. Interestingly, not so long ago the original pilot episode was re-edited and re-released to address some of the most egregious gender issues. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the original and the remake.

While never as gritty or dark as shows like Battlestar Galactica and Space Above and Beyond,  nevertheless Stargate SG-1 has a really good spread of tight, exciting episodes. Some of my favourites are: Solitudes, There But For the Grace of God, A Matter of Time, Point of View, Entity, Window of Opportunity, Tangent, Red Sky, Moebius.

There were two spin-offs from Stargate SG-1Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe. I never bonded with Atlantis in the same way, though I found it mostly enjoyable, but I’m afraid I had serious issues with Universe and its woeful gender issues – among other things. They were even worse than the crap that happened on SG-1 and Atlantis, and that made me cringe.  Like Supernatural, there was a dearth of female producers, writers and directors … and it shows.

Still … for me, the original remains the best. If you’ve never watched it, give it a go. Either you’ll be able to hand-wave the dodgy science or you won’t. If you can, you’ll have a lot of fun – probably!

The X-Files

On the whole, I consider us really lucky that X-Files was a 90s show. Because if it had been made these days it likely would have been cancelled before the end of the first season … and the world would’ve been cheated of a pop culture phenomenon. See, it was created by an unknown, starred a couple of unknown actors, was filmed in Canada, and aired on Friday nights on the fledgling Fox network. It barely raised a blip in the ratings and the only reason it wasn’t cancelled then was because Fox had nothing else to put in its time slot. So it was left to burble along … and in those early days of the internet, and social networking communities, word started to spread and then before you could say I want to believe bam! It was a breakout hit.

This is another show that basically ends, for me, before the actual end. In my world the X-Files is Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. When David Duchovny left the show at the end of the 7th season, for me the air went out of it. He did a few guest spots after that, and came back for the somewhat unsatisfying and – to me – ridiculously convoluted and complicated series finale … but it wasn’t the same. So I tend to stop at the end of season 7 when I do a rewatch, and only pick it up for the bits that bring the Mulder/Scully relationship to a close. And then, of, course, the final X-Files movie. Which gives them a kind of oddly satisfying closure.

But that’s fine, because those 7 seasons contain some of the most iconic, wonderful, heartwarming, engaging and genre-bending episodes to be found in SF TV drama. The success of the show rests mostly on the shoulders of the lead actors, Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, with some great back-up work from Mitch Pileggi and William B Davis.

The X-Files is really two shows in one. Sometimes it’s a stand-alone, creepy supernatural mystery of the week involving a special division of the FBI, and other times it’s an ongoing narrative about alien invasion and government conspiracy and families in crisis as a result. At some point, I have to say, I suspect the writing/producing team kind of lost sight of the story they were telling. It really does get ridiculously convoluted. But, like I said, the story still holds because of the two main characters.

In fact, because of them, you could even say The X-Files is also a romance. I have no idea if Chris Carter intended the Mulder/Scully pairing to be a romance from the start, or whether the off-the-charts insane chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson drove the story in that direction. However, by the end of the series it’s a narrative fact that the characters are in a romantic and physical relationship.  And somewhere along the line there is a shift in the way the characters interact with each other. The trick is trying to pinpoint where exactly they made the leap from platonic to romantic. Most probably that switch happened in season 7, after the episode Millennium (that was the back door pilot for the spin-off tv series of the same name) but still — given all the stuff that was going on past the season 5 episodes  Redux I/II and Detour I’m tempted to say things changed then. Of course, we all know the producers were playing silly buggers with the fans by then, because of all the internet speculation …

Really, The X-Files is the kind of show that has to be experienced. Once its enormous popularity was established, the writers/producers felt safe enough to start some experimentation. So on the one hand you have profoundly creepy episodes like The Calusari, and Soft Light, and Squeeze – and on the other, whacky episodes like Bad Blood and The Post-Modern Prometheus. One episode, Home, was for a time actually deemed too disturbing to be re-run. Compare that episode to something like The Unnatural (written and directed by David Duchovny),  about an alien who plays on a baseball team, or The Field Where I Died, which looks at reincarnation,  and you could say the show is beyond simple classification.

Certainly there’s been nothing quite like it, before or since. I have so many favourite episodes – at the top of the list you’ll find the aforementioned The Field Where I Died, Detour, Bad Blood, The Unnatural.

This is one show I think every SF fan should see.

Doctor Who

Aaaaand … yet another caveat. I never watched Who as a child. The first episode I ever saw was The Runaway Bride. And I stopped watching when David Tennant’s tenure ended. So for the purposes of this discussion, for me Doctor Who comprises the first 4 seasons of the new era, and the specials contained therein. Yes, I understand this is a very, very narrow sliver of the chronology. But even though I’ve tried I can’t take the older Who seriously, and I haven’t been able to emotionally connect to the material that came after Tennant.

In case you’re reading this and have never met the show, it’s about the last Time Lord of the planet Gallifrey, who travels through time and space in a unique machine called the TARDIS, usually with a human companion. Together they explore galaxies, save worlds and have a lot of fun.

The reason I love the Russell T Davies-era Who is that it’s unabashedly emotional and romantic. I love all the companions, Rose and Martha and Donna, every one of them a strong, independent, fully realised woman. And I love both Doctors, the same man and yet two different men. I think the transition between them is really well done, and interesting. I love the depth and breadth of their inner, emotional lives, and how their experiences manifest in the outer world.

I think one of the things that make this sliver of the Who-niverse so attractive to me is the quality of the actors across the board. Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant, of course, but also Billy Piper, Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate. And the guest actors were uniformly excellent too.  Now, I don’t think Davies’ work is without flaw. I think sometimes he got a little carried away, and sometimes his endings weren’t as strong as his beginnings. But on balance I really love what he brought to Doctor Who.

Some of my favourite episodes are Dalek, Father’s Day, The Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature/Family of Blood, Blink, The Runaway Bride, and Midnight.

If you’ve always resisted Doctor Who, like I did, because it seems silly and childish and hardly plausible, I urge you to start with the Christopher Eccleston episodes and see how you go. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised.

And that’s it for now! Stay tuned for the conclusion of this series …


2 thoughts on “Favourite SF TV shows: part 2

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