Favourite SF TV shows: part 3

And here’s the third and final part of my list of favourite SF TV dramas …

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The show that put Joss Whedon on the map, launching an amazing career.

Here’s another case of a TV show spun off from a theatrically-released movie. The difference between Buffy and Stargate, though, is that Whedon wrote the script for the movie. Horrified by what the directors and producers did with his story (see, Whedon was a showrunner from the start!) when he got the chance to retell it his way, he took it. The show had extremely modest beginnings, with a half-season order of episodes that were shot on a shoe-string budget for a brand-new TV network – the WB. Frankly, nobody really thought the show would last. But the internet had grown since the X-Files days, and word of mouth saw the show do well enough to get a second season.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It may seem strange, but for the most part I don’t much like Buffy, the character. And I really don’t like Xander. But I adore all the other main characters: Giles, Willow, Cordelia, Oz, Wesley, Angel, Spike and Drusilla. At the end of the day I think Spike is one of my all-time favourite characters of any show, closely followed by Wesley.  And the way they shifted over from Buffy to Angel? Two of the most brilliantly written long-term character arcs ever executed, to my way of thinking.

On the surface, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about a high school girl with supernatural powers who’s been chosen to fight the forces of evil in a small US town that happens to sit on a hellmouth. As a rule a slayer’s life is brutal and short, but Buffy isn’t one for following rules – something her official Watcher, Rupert Giles, learns very quickly. So the rule book goes out the window, Buffy gets to keep her team of friends who are in the know (when it’s all meant to be a big secret) and as a result, she keeps winning and the vampires and demons and other supernatural bad guys keep losing. She also gets to keep her highly unusual vampire boyfriend, at least for a while.

Of course, the themes explored in Buffy are anything but adolescent. While Buffy wins a lot, she loses a lot too. She is forced to sacrifice a great deal to keep the world safe. Whedon says he wanted to take the stereotype of the blonde cheerleader who walks down the dark alley and gets eaten by a monster and flip it – and that’s what he did, to great effect. Buffy is the thing the monsters fear, and with good reason. The show is about love and sacrifice and family and consequences, of making tough choices and living with them, and how even the most evil heart can be redeemed. Sure, there are some dud episodes (Yes, Inca Mummy Girl and Beer Bad, I’m wincing at you) but on balance there are many, many more great ones … and some are truly extraordinary.

It’s nice to note that both Jane Espenson and Marti Noxon got their big breaks on Buffy, and both women have gone on to solid TV careers.

My favourite Buffy episodes? Too many to list, but the cherry picks would be The Dark Age, Passion, Band Candy,  The Wish/Dopplegangland, Something Blue,  Hush, A New Man, Once More With Feeling and The Body.

For me, the most brilliant thing about Buffy is how Whedon and his fabulous team of writers managed to balance humour and tragedy, drama and supernatural craziness. This show will make you laugh, make you cry, make you think and maybe even change your life. It is often movingly profound in its commentary on the human condition: for me, The Body is the most courageous, brutally honest meditation on loss and grief ever created for TV.

So if you’ve glossed over the show because of its title, or because it seems silly, allow me to persuade you otherwise. Yes, the first season is a bit rough around the edges. But stick with it. Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

Angel

Hollywood legend has it that David Boreanaz, the actor who plays Angel in the Whedonverse, was discovered by a casting agent while he was walking down the street. As a result he landed the role of Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, yet again, the rest is history.

With the success of Buffy, and the realisation that the Buffy/Angel storyline needed a plausible resolution, Whedon and his fellow producer David Greenwalt (now showrunning Grimm) came up with the idea of giving Angel his own show. Set in Los Angeles, and taking Cordelia with it, Angel is by design a darker, more adult-oriented drama about redemption. Angel is no angel, and he knows it. His demonic alter-ego Angelus is one of the most reviled supernatural creatures in history. Tormented by his past, despairing of forgiveness but unable to stop reaching for it, he works as a private investigator with Cordelia as his feisty team-mate. His motto? Helping the hopeless. Over time he’s joined by Gunn, a streetwise vampire hunter, the once bumbling Watcher, Wesley Wyndham-Price, psychic demon Lorne, slightly whacko genius Winifred Burkle, and Spike – the brother vampire he both loves and hates.

My favourite season of Angel is the last, season 5, because that’s when they put Angel and Spike on the same team. I will always regret the stupid decision to end the show then, because the Angel and Spike show was just getting warmed up. Comedy gold, those two, as well as searingly human – even though they’re both vampires. Some of the show’s best work came about as a result of their interactions. Like Duchovny and Anderson, David Boreanaz and James Marsters had a chemistry that can’t be created, only gleefully exploited.

But the whole cast is great, especially Amy Acker as Fred and Alexis Denisof as Wesley. Acker’s transformation in season 5 is a revelation, while Denisof makes Wesley one of the most sympathetic characters ever. His shift from bumbling fool to bona fide hero is also a revelation.

For me, Angel showcases Whedon’s evolution as a storyteller. Even though he was less hands-on with this show, his stamp remains upon it and his journey is illuminated. It’s also interesting to note that Ben Edlund, Shawn Ryan, Tim Minear and Stephen S.  DeKnight worked on the show … and all have gone on to do great storytelling work.

Favourite episodes? Too many to list all, but for starters: In the Dark, I Will Remember You, Parting Gifts, Dead End, Destiny and Damage. Plus the whole transformation of Fred arc.

If you’re a Buffy fan, I think you’ll go for Angel too.

Firefly

This was Whedon’s third foray into TV storytelling and, it could be argued, the one treated most poorly by the network who gave it a home. The reasons for that aren’t known. Who among us can fathom the minds and motives of TV network executives???? But for my money they screwed up, monumentally. It’s almost as though they tried to sabotage the show from the beginning.

Unlike Buffy and Angel, which are supernatural horror/fantasy shows, Firefly is space opera. Set in the distant future, it’s about Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a former soldier who supported the losing side in an interplanetary civil war. Humans have left Earth and colonised a solar system and, after the war, the survivors on the losing side were left to pick up the pieces of their lives as best they could. For Mal that meant turning his hand to freight transport. His offsider is Zoe, who fought beside him in the war, her pilot husband Wash, a dubious mercenary named Jane and Kaylee, a sweet young girl who happens to be the best engineer/mechanic Mal’s ever met. They’re joined by a group of passengers with various agendas and a professional courtesan, Inara, whose relationship with Mal is complicated.

Thanks to the network’s lack of support and active interference, Firefly only lasted one season. That means the story was never fully or properly told. Even so, it’s totally worthwhile investing your time and emotion in this series. It’s uniformly excellent, with Whedon’s trademark use of drama, comedy and tragedy. The cast is wall-to-wall wonderful: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, Ron Glass, Summer Glau and Sean Maher never miss a beat. One of the best ensembles you’ll ever see.

For me every episode is wonderful, but the absolute standout – and one of my favourite episodes of anything, in any genre – is Out of Gas. Written by Tim Minear, with a narrative that seamlessly cuts between the past and the present, it’s the story of how Mal found his ship and assembled his crew and passengers … and how they feel about each other now. Beautifully directed by David Solomon, Out of Gas is a rare beast indeed: flawless storytelling.

Thanks to the steadfast support of Firefly‘s fans, and Whedon’s dedication to his cast, crew and the story he never finished telling, the series was capped off by a theatrically released movie, Serenity. Truth be told, I don’t like it. I have it on dvd, because I’m a tragic completist, but I have no urge to rewatch it. In truth, I prefer to pretend it never happened. If you have seen it, I suspect you know why I feel the way I do. On the other hand, you might love it! Horses for courses.

Anyone who loves great writing, acting, directing and overall storytelling should watch Firefly. I can’t imagine there won’t be something in there for you to adore.

Farscape

The story of Farscape is a tale of dedication, commitment, love and bloody-minded passion. It’s the little show that could, that refused to lay down and die, that inspired fans around the world to push and push until they got their story resolution. Bare-bones facilities in Sydney, an operating budget that needed a microscope to find, a virtually unknown cast and a bizarre hodgepodge of international backers who probably never really understood what they were getting themselves into. It’s a mystery how this show ever got made at all.

People who have no clue dismissed, and still dismiss, Farscape as the muppets in outer space. That’s because it was the Henson Creature Shop who created the amazing animatronic creatures in the show. But there’s nothing whatsoever muppet-like about  Rygel – one of the most venal, conniving characters to be found in TV.

Farscape is the tale of John Crichton, an astronaut who encounters a wormhole while test-flying his experimental space shuttle and as a result is flung to the far-distant reaches of the galaxy. He finds himself in the middle of a fire fight, is brought on board one of the alien vessels – and discovers it’s a prison transport ship trying to escape local law enforcement. Given no choice, he joins the escaping prisoners and, like them, becomes a wanted fugitive pursued by the fearsome Peacekeepers.

Farscape is space opera at its very best. It’s also a romance, because within the first hour of his adventure Crichton encounters the love of his life – Peacekeeper commando Aeryn Sun. What’s interesting about this is that unlike many shows – The X-Files and Stargate SG-1, for example – romance was built into the narrative from the get-go. David Kemper, the main showrunner, always meant Farscape to be the epic love story of John and Aeryn. And epic it is, beautifully so. According to Shakespeare, the course of true love never did run smooth … and Farscape does its best to prove the bard right.

But there’s more to Farscape than the romance – though that is pretty great. There’s also John’s quest to find another wormhole and get home … the totally mixed-up epic bromance between him and D’Argo, a hyper-belligerent Luxan warrior … the fact that they’re all on the run from the Peacekeepers – especially Captain Crais, who has a dangerously personal reason for wanting Crichton dead … the conniving machinations of their fellow prisoner Rygel … the disconcerting secrets of Zahn, another fellow-prisoner who’s a very unusual priest … their spaceship, which happens to be alive, and its pilot, who has his own agenda … and last, but not least, the other Peacekeeper who has designs on Crichton: the truly terrifying Scorpius, one of the best villains ever created.

The pilot episode is very strong. After that, Farscape takes a while to find its feet and a couple of early episodes, well, they’re just pretty damn ordinary. (Jeremiah Crichton, I am wincing at you!) But others – like A Human Reaction – are pretty great. Then we get to A Bug’s Life – and yowza, we’re off to the races.  The writers’ confidence is palpable, they have a narrative and a direction and they run with it hard and fast. The rest of the first season is absolutely electric. Scorpius arrives, Crais is transformed from an unambiguous villain to an almost sympathetic anti-hero – and Crichton’s journey becomes infinitely darker, more dangerous and more painful. Wonderful stuff.

For me, the show continues brilliantly for seasons 2 and 3, with the narrative reaching some fabulously operatic heights. They took huge risks, really pushed the storytelling envelope, and for me those decisions paid off in spades. Also, the puckish and morally ambiguous Chiana joins the crew, another wonderful female character. The narrative reaches an extraordinary crescendo at the end of season 3 … and then, for me, things got a bit tricky. By the skin of their teeth Farscape was granted a 4th season, and because of pressure from various executives they tried to reset the story. Ultimately it didn’t work, and the show was cancelled at the end of the season. But it ended on a cliffhanger, the fans were incensed, and after much lobbying Farscape got its proper ending. Let’s hear it for fan power!

My favourite episodes? Again, it’s a case of sharing the highlights: Nerve/The Hidden Memory, Crackers Don’t Matter, Out of Their Minds, Infinite Possibilities and Revenging Angel.

There is no show quite like Farscape. Unashamedly romantic, gloriously operatic, fabulously character-driven, it’s not afraid to explore the human condition from the heights of courage to the depths of cowardice – and back again. Drama, comedy, tragedy, farce: they’re all there, all wonderful. This is another show that will make you laugh, cry, think, and dream. Kudos to the production team, and especially to the cast: Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgely, Lani Tupu, Wayne Pygram, Jonathan Hardy and Virginia Hey.

And there you have it! Of course, this list only scratches the surface of the SF TV shows I love. But if I talked about them all I’d never get a book written.

Now it’s over to you. What do you think of my choices? What shows do you love to bits and happily rewatch more than once?

6 thoughts on “Favourite SF TV shows: part 3

  1. I have not seen any of those shows. (I take it back, I’ve seen one or two Farscapes.) Two questions: How can I watch them without buying them? How does one get past the commercials? What about Lexx, how do you feel about this one?
    Warm wishes.
    Stephen

    • I’m guessing something like Netflix is your best best, Stephen. Or re-runs on a cable network like SyFy, both here in Oz and in the US. I’m not sure what the UK equivalent is! Or else you can grab dvds 2nd hand pretty cheaply from a variety of online sources. When it comes to ads, I confess I tend to record stuff then ff through it because I’m with you on that – ads drive me nuts! As for Lexx, well — it’s a tad off the wall for me. I confess I’m not much for sitcoms and comic-like stuff. It’s all sturm und drang for me!

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