Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Biased Opinion - The Top Ten Science Fiction Television Shows

So recently IGN.com put out their list of the top fifty science fiction shows of all time. And, well, in my opinion their list is moronic. One of the primary reasons is that as their top show of all time they picked the revamped Battlestar Galactica, and despite the fact that actors like Edward James Olmos and Jamie Bamber did everything they could with the material they were given, the reimagined Battlestar Galactica was a completely derivative piece of shit. The show was little more than a collection of rehashed World War II movie cliches overlaid with a pile of pretentious and badly thought-out theology. It also got tons of praise for dealing with issues like religion and racism "first" that, well, shows like Babylon 5 and Farscape actually dealt with first and did infinitely better job doing so. And believable characters? Are you kidding me? The cardboard characters on the original Battlestar Galactica had more depth and believability than the collection of walking stereotypes that populated the reimagined version. For anyone who ever thinks that because I have written about other science fiction shows that it might be fun to watch me review the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, just realize that it would be an unrelenting hate fest as I thrash the piece of crap episode by episode for being the horseshit that it is. If you think that would be fun to read, then by all means, send me a copy of the DVDs and ask me to review them.

The fact that junk like Lost and The X-Files (both awful for their own reasons) are also on IGN's top ten list tells me that someone should have hit their selectors with a clue-by-four before they let them try to spell their own names, let alone select a list of the top science fiction shows. Compounding this, the IGN top ten list is missing actual good science fiction shows like Babylon 5, Farscape, Stargate: SG-1, and they only include Dr. Who because of the revamped version, but even more unforgivably, Blake's 7 is not even in the top fifty. So, to rectify this, and to provide the world with the actual list of the best science fiction shows of all time (as selected by the completely unbiased panel consisting of me, me, and only me), here is my top ten list.

10. Red Dwarf: It's cold outside, especially if you are the last human left in the universe. Double especially if your only companions are a senile ship A.I., a hologram of the biggest jerk you knew when you were alive, and the descendant of your pet cat a million generations removed. Eventually add in a stuffy robot butler, and you've got the life of the chicken vindaloo loving Lister, the lowest ranking crew member of the mining ship Red Dwarf, saved only because he was in suspended animation in the brig of the ship when everyone else was killed. Comedy is hard. Comedy mixed with science fiction is even harder. And the odd thing is that so many of the people who seem to be able to make consistently good genre fiction comedy are British: Douglas Adams with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Terry Pratchett with his Discworld series, and Doug Grant and Rob Naylor with Red Dwarf. The series dances at the edge of insanity and absurdity, and pretty much always delivers snarky humor and pretty good (although never sensible) science fiction.

9. The Prisoner: Take Kafka. Mix it with some Orwell, add some 1960s influenced psychedelic elements, throw in a retired spy and a bunch of science fiction, and you have The Prisoner. Co created by and starring Patrick McGoohan as the title character, the show is only seventeen episodes long, but packs more creepy and scary psychological drama than most televisions shows were able to generate in years of airtime. Most importantly, the show is filled with a set of mysteries that are actually mysterious, and the actions taken by characters to unravel them or escape the consequences of living in the Village actually lead somewhere and have a story related point (as opposed to the crap that passed for "mysteries" on a show like Lost). Set in a secluded location where enemies of the authority have been spirited away to, stripped of their personal identity and various means of pressure are used to try to obtain the results that the authority desires, The Prisoner has maintained its relevance for more than forty years, and likely will be just as topical and pointed forty years from now.

8. The Twilight Zone: It is a mark of the pervasive influence of a television show that it has the ability to spawn pop songs. It seems almost inconceivable now that a network would air a show that was basically a collection of unrelated science fiction, horror and paranormal short stories, and not only that, it would be a television classic watched almost sixty years later. Rod Serling's opening monologue has become so iconic that it is routinely the the subject of parody. Television programs routinely do spoofs and homages to the program. People who would never be caught dead watching Star Trek or reading a book that contained science fiction fondly remember their favorite episodes of the show. That said, I do have some problems with the show. Due to the format of the program, a large proportion of the plots and characters are little more than cliches, and far too many episodes rely upon the "one twist at the end" formula for their impact. The show also definitely suffered in quality when the network decided to shift the program from half-hour episodes to full hour episodes. Finally, when taken as a "science fiction" show, the science fiction episodes were leavened with a generous helping of paranormal and fantasy focused installments, which I enjoy but serve to pull down its ranking a bit when considering it as a science fiction show.

7. Doctor Who: In their list, IGN ranked Doctor Who in their top ten list, but pooh-poohed the original run of the series, effectively saying that it was only the 2006 relaunch of the series that resulted in the show meriting inclusion on their list. This is simply hogwash. Sure the 1963-1989 run had cheesy special effects and unconvincing aliens with awful make-up clad in badly fitting costumes. But despite it being fun to look at, eye-candy is the least important element in good science fiction. What made Doctor Who great was not flashy cool special effects, but rather the broad palette available for its stories, and the fascinating (and constantly changing) character of the Doctor as well as the panoply of interesting companions and iconic villains. With the entire range of space and time as the backdrop for their stories, the series left almost no possible science fiction idea unexplored (and in many cases, was the first to explore it in televised science fiction: When Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the implacable supposedly unstoppable Borg, they were more or less just walking down a path originally laid by Doctor Who with the Daleks and the Cybermen). While the current version with Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant remains great television, pretending that, for example, the John Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davidson years wouldn't result in the show meriting inclusion is just silly.

6. Blake's 7: In many ways the post-apocalyptic dystopian world of Blake's 7 is the anti-Star Trek. Whereas Gene Roddenberry's vision of a future interstellar government was of a benevolent, almost utopian Federation, the Federation of Blake's 7 was a totalitarian nightmare. Featuring a band of escaped convicts on an alien ship reluctantly led into acting as a resistance movement by the idealist titular character (until he is replaced by the mercenary-minded Avon), the show had a dark and and gloomy atmosphere that wouldn't be replicated in science fiction television until Farscape (which was clearly influenced by Blake's 7, even down to the insane military commander pursuing the heroes) was produced in the late 1990s. The show was also one of the first genre shows to attempt to have something of a continuing storyline that ran through the entire series, although efforts to make this a reality were hampered by network politics and changes in the roster of writers for the show. One of the most interesting elements of the show is that the petty criminals Blake cajoles into becoming his freedom fighters are still petty criminals at heart, and only reluctantly do anything noble or self-sacrificing. From the opening episode featuring the framing and show trial of the lead character, to the final mayhem and death-filled scene of the show, Blake's 7 is a thought-provoking ride through the dark dystopian flip side of utopian Star Trek-influenced science fiction.

5. Firefly: Joss Weedon combined space opera with the classic western, threw in some Chinese influence, and created a masterpiece. The abuse of this short-lived series is Exhibit A in the prosecution's case against the intelligence of network television executives. During it's initial eleven episode run on FOX, Firefly was repeatedly preempted, moved in the schedule, and the episodes were shown out of order (which had some rather negative effects on continuity). After mistreating the show in this manner, FOX decided to cancel it for "low ratings", presumably blaming the quality of the show for this problem rather than admitting that the "low ratings" were the result FOX's own stupidity in handling the show. Despite its all too short and cruelly truncated run, Firefly remains one of the best science fiction shows ever put on television, and one of the better shows of any kind ever to air. Melding science fiction with the western and revolving around the inhabitants of the space ship Serenity captained by Mal Reynolds, a veteran who fought on the losing side in a civil war against an authoritarian government, the show has a gritty and rustic feel that is somewhat unique in televised science fiction. Fortunately for people who want to see the show now, it is available on DVD in the correct intended order with two additional episodes that were filmed but not aired by FOX. In addition, fans of the show got a bonus when series creator Joss Weedon was able to give an ending of sorts to many of the main plot lines via the movie Serenity, which delved more deeply into River Tam's background and the mystery of the Reavers. Though the initial projected seven year arc of the show will never be played out properly (and doubtless the show would rank higher on the list than it does if it had), what little there is of the show is stellar.

4. Star Trek: (Star Trek: The Original Series Reviews Page) I'm talking about the original series here featuring Kirk, Spock, and McCoy with it's five year mission to boldly go where no man had gone before. Quite frankly, Star Trek: The Next Generation has aged badly, and is nigh-unwatchable now, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is basically a collection of Star Trek lore grafted onto the ideas that were original to Babylon 5 and executed better by Straczynski. And the less said about Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise the better. But the original is the eight hundred pound gorilla of televised science fiction (as evidenced by the numerous spin off series, movies, and books that it has spawned). Though the series lasted only three seasons, its influence is pervasive, even outside of the science fiction genre: almost everyone recognizes the term "redshirt", the catch phrase "Beam me up, Scotty", and a dozen other references that have worked their way into the popular lexicon. The heart of the show was the interplay between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, but all of the regular characters on the series are memorable. Despite some fairly obvious flaws, a hopelessly utopian outlook, and the absurdity of the Prime Directive, the popularity of the series endures for a reason, and that is because it is just that good.

Honorable Mention: Star Trek: The Animated Series. The best of of all the Star Trek spin offs by far. The animated format allowed the creators to do things they could not do in the live action show, including the second crew with several very alien members added to the inhabitants of the Enterprise. It also has an episode adapted from Larry Niven's short story The Slaver Weapon featuring Kzinti as opposition for the crew.

3. Stargate: SG-1: Spun off from a movie of modest popularity, Stargate: SG-1 became the longest running science fiction show ever to air on U.S. television. The show was built around one of the greatest props of all time - the Stargate, and developed a stunningly engrossing mythology upon the bare bones left behind by the movie. Having replaced Kurt Russell with Richard Dean Anderson in the role of Colonel O'Neil(l), the series even felt comfortable poking fun at the switch with a recurring gag. In many ways, the structure of the primary interstellar travel technology in Stargate: SG-1 made the odd quirks of Star Trek (such as why are all the planets habitable, why does everyone speak English, why is there always a settlement within walking distance of where the crew touches down, and why do they send a tiny away team consisting of the command crew, and so on) make sense. The camaraderie of the tight team of O'Neil, Carter, Jackson and Teal'c drove the show for much of the series, and for the most part changes in the roster of the team worked fairly well. The show also featured interesting (and often theatrically over the top) long running villains such as Apophis, Anubis, and the Replicators as well as allies such as the Tok'ra and the Asgard. While the Ori seemed like a good idea, for the most part the episodes dealing with them as the main antagonist were just not as strong as the rest of the series. Even so, the show managed to turn out excellent science fiction week-after-week for a decade. The show was popular enough to spawn two spin-off series - Stargate: Atlantis, and Stargate: Universe, although neither was nearly as good as the original.

2. Farscape: (Farscape Reviews Page) Shot through a wormhole while testing an experimental spaceship, astronaut John Crichton falls in with a collection of escaped prisoners on a living ship and flees from a series of insane military commanders seeking the knowledge locked inside his head. Along the way Crichton deals with the weirdness of being the lone human in a world dominated by aliens, makes frequent references to Earth based pop culture, and tries (only somewhat successfully) to avoid being driven insane. The true strength of the series was the well-defined characters and their interplay as well as the richly imagined universe it was set in. The show gets major points for being the only show (that I know of) to incorporate two puppetry driven characters as series regulars, and it was able to pull it off successfully to boot. Anyone who criticizes the show for having "muppets" gets to go sit in the corner and think about how much better the special effects in this show were than those of their favorite series. Badly dealt with by the SciFi Network, if Firefly is Exhibit A in the case against network executives being permitted to tie their own shoes, and Crusade is Exhibit B, then Farscape is Exhibit C. The show ran for four seasons, was promised a fifth, and was abruptly cancelled by the SciFi channel in the middle of an ongoing dramatic arc intended to serve as the primary story line of the fifth season (leading to the series ending with a "To be Continued" card on the screen). Though the fans got closure in the form of the miniseries Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars, this compromise required jamming what was intended to be twenty-two episodes worth of story into four hours of programming, which was obviously a suboptimal outcome. Despite the network abuse the show suffered, it remains one of the best science fiction shows ever made.

1. Babylon 5: (Babylon 5 Reviews Page) I have said this before, and I will say it again - Babylon 5 is not merely the greatest science fiction show of all time, it is the best television show of any kind ever made. Created, produced, and mostly written by J. Michael Straczynski, the show is almost unique in television history in that it was conceived from the start as a complete five-year story. Because Straczynski was so heavily involved in the show from start to finish, it has a level of internal consistency that is simply alien to television. (Not to say there aren't a few missteps, but they are fairly minor). Granted, network executive idiocy resulted in fifth season that wasn't up to par with the rest of the show, and cost the show the services of Claudia Christian (and thus, the character Susan Ivanova), but taken by itself even the subpar fifth season of Babylon 5 is better than the best season of the revamped Battlestar Galactica. Straczynski's involvement also meant that the show incorporated many elements drawn from classic literary science fiction: one can see the influence of books such as The Demolished Man, A Canticle for Liebowitz, and the Lensman series among others. While Farscape told its space opera from the ground level perspective, Babylon 5's ranges from the gritty underworld of Michael Garibaldi and Marcus Cole, all the way to the corridors of galactic power inhabited by Sheridan and Delenn. The show featured storytelling strong enough to turn a villain into a prophet and a buffoon into a villain into a hero and finally into a tragic figure. Quite simply, Babylon 5 was the best use of television ever.

Honorable Mention: Crusade. Spun off by popular demand following the end of the original Babylon 5 series, Crusade was just getting a head of steam when it was shut down, leaving nothing but tantalizing unrealized promise. Almost as soon as it was launched, TNT executives started doing their very best to kill it with moronic demands and the show only lasted half a season. But for the sad mistreatment of Firefly, Crusade would be the most ill-used science fiction show of all time. As it is, it is Exhibit B in the prosecution's case against network executive asshattery.

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  1. Wow, coming up with 50 is hard, but cutting that down to 10 is guaranteed to generate some controversy.

    One thing that strikes me, looking at both lists, is just how often Fox took a chance on the genre . . . even if they didn't know how to support it. Farscape, Space: Above and Beyond, The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., Alien Nation, and X-Files (at least, the early seasons) are all shows that bring back fond memories. It's funny, but I would have sworn Nowhere Man belonged on the Fox failures list too - I don't remember UPN at all.

    How the reimagined Battlestar Galactica made the list, or the Caprica spinoff is beyong me, but at least IGN had the good sense to recognize the original 'V' as opposed to the brutal reimagining.

  2. @Sally Sapphire: One of these days I may tackle a top fifty (without going into as much detail about each show though).

    Fox was actually not involved in Farscape - it ran on the SciFi network back when they actually had some science fiction on that network. I think Fox may have picked it up in reruns later.

    But yeah, Fox seems to try on science fiction pants every now and then, but most of their efforts don't last more than a season (if that).

    One of my problems with The X-Files revolves around Scully - she's supposed to be the skeptic and so she pooh-poohs every paranormal explanation that Mulder puts forward. And then of course, Mulder turns out to be right. You'd think after the twentieth time or so she'd say "You know what Mulder, maybe it is a deranged cat ghost licking people's faces". But no. She's still the skeptic, even when the evidence piles on her that (in the context of the show) Mulder's paranormal conspiracy theory delusions are actually the correct answer.

  3. My top two - Firefly and the original Star Trek. However, I did love the revamped BSG but hated Lost with a great passion.

  4. @Julia If Firefly had not been cut down so quickly, it probably would have ranked higher. It is one of the great unrealized promises of television history.

    It is hard to look back at Star Trek with an objective eye, given numerous movies, books, and spin-off series, but the reason it wasn't my top show is that some of the episodes are just downright bad. Most are good to great, but there are enough that are just painful to watch (Spock's Brain, for example).

    Most of my loathing for BSG stems from two sources. One is that it was just overly lauded in the press for things that were not unique to BSG in the science fiction field. That's not really the show's fault, but rather television critics uneducated in the field of science fiction. Second, because the show promised all kinds of cool mysteries, but when you reached behind the curtain, it was just a morass of incomprehensible, self-contradictory, poorly-thought-out goup (much like Lost, actually). The show was basically a cool-looking coat of paint on a car made from shit and vomit.

  5. Spock's Brain! LOL! It is to laugh! Here's my thing with BSG. I grew very attached to Hilo and Sharon/Athena. Loved their stories - together and separately, especially in Seasons 1-3. If I remember correctly (not sure of the season) Sharon having tea in her prison with Adama was brilliant, just brilliant.
    Were the story lines original? Some were. Many were not. Kara Thrace becoming an angel or whatever? Gag-worthy. Gaius Baltar and Six as the Trickster figure and his sidekick? "You are made in God's image..." Shoulda seen that coming!
    Ellen Tigh and Saul Tigh as the mother and father of all skin jobs? What a cop out!
    Nevertheless, several seasons kept me up at night.

  6. @Julia: I agree that the reimagined BSG had some interesting imagery and some decent seeming set-up elements. When the first season (or so) wasn't aping World War II cliches it seemed like there was something interesting going on.

    But the key word there is seemed, because every time they peeled back the curtain and revealed what was going on behind the mysterious and portentious appearing scenes the proffered answer turned out to either be incredibly stupid, completely meaningless, or entirely nonsensical. Basically, the creators had a lot of cool sounding premises, and then made them suck by failing to have any kind of payoff worth bothering to pay attention to.

    Like I said: if I did what I am doing with Farscape (and soon Babylon 5) with the reimagined BSG, it would be constant stream of invective.

  7. The IGN list was a joke. They couldn't even spell "Brisco" correctly and it ranks 24th (which is a crime since it should be higher).

    The new BSG started strong and quickly fizzled out. I really like the first mini and most of the first season. But, then it started crumbling fast. By the end, I really hated it, but finished watching just because I had already invested the time into it.

    I can see where X-Files would make the top 50, but I would agree that it is not good enough for the top ten. It's a frustrating show with only a stretch of about two and a half decent seasons. The lead character (Mulder) was unlikable and you already mentioned the issues with Scully. The over-arching plot was contrived and unsatisfying.

    Great choice in Red Dwarf. It would probably make my top ten list as well. The first six series are phenomenal. The later two are also enjoyable. I haven't been able to bring myself to watch "Back to Earth" yet mainly because I fear that it isn't good.

    The Prisoner would not make my top ten. There is some great stuff in this show and I like it a lot, but ultimately, it's ending ruins it for me. I much prefer LOST and what it was to The Prisoner. I would include LOST my top ten list. I really don't get the hate that show got.

    Twilight Zone has definitely gotta be on this list. Rod Serling made the "Mount Rushmore of Nerdom" that we did a year ago over at the Nerd Lunch blog.

    Even though I can't stand to watch some of the old Doctor Who, I have a great respect for it and what it did for science fiction television. Good choice.

    I can't speak to Blake's 7 since I haven't seen it. That's a failing of mine, I know. This will be rectified sometime after I finish grad school.

    Firefly, despite it's short run, definitely should be on this list. Good choice.

    Star Trek was a great show for the first year, tapered off the second, and was abysmal for it's final season. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a solid group of episodes that were produced that I could (and do) watch over and over. I'd put both on my top ten and bump Stargate SG-1 which is a Star Trek: The Next Generation wannabe. I also really happen to like DS9 a lot and don't buy that it is a B5 rip-off. DS9 would make my top ten list.

    Farscape would be my top choice. Excellent show all the way around.

    Babylon 5 was a great experiment and very well executed for what it was. It also was one of the first shows to push the envelop as far as cgi special effects and long-form story arcs. I just feel that so many shows since have taken that template and done better, like Farscape for example. I like it and appreciate it that show, but it wouldn't make my top ten.

    I think I wind up with nine on my list which leaves me with an open spot. I'd probably stick Futurama in that tenth spot.

  8. You know, even though we disagreed on a few things, we actually agree on quite a bit. And even things like The Prisoner and B5, I don't like as much as you, but still think are pretty awesome. That's pretty cool actually.

    Awesome blog, by the way.

  9. @CT: That's definitely pretty comprehensive. I (obviously) disagree with you taste-wise on some things - I think that to the extent that Stargate SG-1 has Star Trek influences, it uses them in a way that actually makes more sense that the tropes used by the Star Trek shows themselves. Plus, none of the Star Trek series ever had a set of ongoing villains as over the top theatrical (and therefore as fun to watch) as the Goa'ould.

    I definitiely agree with you on The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. - and note that it was another show with great promise cut short by clueless Fox executives. It would be ranked just outside my top ten.

    To address the other shows in turn:

    One of the reasons I love The Prisoner is the final episode. It is so gloriously Kafka-esque and laden with Cold War influences paranoia crossed with 1960s psychadelia. So I pretty much disagree with you there.

    The main problem I have with Lost is that none of the mysteries and intrigue ended up meaning anything at all. The problem I have with it is pretty much the same problem I had with the reimagined BSG - once they pulled back the curtain and began revealing the supposed meaning behind the portentious seeming events, it turned out they were pretty much trivial or entirely meaningless.

    As to whether ST: DS9 explicitly copied Babylon 5, I don't think we'll ever know for sure. For certain none of the UPN executives are saying anything. But what is known is that before he signed his deal with PTEN, Straczynski pitched the idea for Babylon 5 to UPN (who turned him down). And then, lo and behold, a Star Trek series containing a bunch of elements that seem very similar to those used in Babylon 5 was greenlit. That's not proof of course, but it does seem pretty coincidental.

    But even if it was actually coincidental, the DS9 storyline that led to the Dominion War (the only element of DS9 that was really worth watching) popped up after Babylon 5 had delved deeply into the Shadow War. In effect, Babylon 5 got there first, and did the story better. I wouldn't put DS9 on my top ten list even if Babylon 5 didn't exist though, because there was far too much chaff to wade through to get to the Dominion War.

    I love the campiness of the old Doctor Who (which is one of the reasons it is on the list). For me, the quirky personalities of the various Doctors and the relationships they have with the ir companions is what makes the show. As a note I'll say that Blake's 7 has 1970s quality BBC special effects. It looks a lot like the Doctor Who episodes of the era. If that bothers you, skip it, because what makes Blake's 7 great is the story and characters, not the visuals.

    I still think Babylon 5 is the best show ever made. I'm hoping that over the course of the next 110 episodes, half-season of Crusade, five movies, and piles spin-off material, I'll be able to explain why.

  10. @CT Sorry for the oddity in how the comments are presented now - I was rewriting my comment to correct a few spelling and grammar errors and now my original response comes after your second comment. Oh well.

    Thank you for the compliment. I try to make the blog entertaining. It is always nice to see someone get some enjoyment out of it.

    I think our disagreements are one of degree rather than kind - for example, even though it is not in my top ten, I would put ST: TNG in my top twenty. I suspect that if we both came up with a top twenty list, we'd agree on more than 90% of what should be on the list, even if we didn't agree on the exact rankings.

  11. Interesting list - always great to see Farscape getting the credit it deserves, it would be my number one if not for Red Dwarf, which has been part of my life since childhood. Stargate SG-1 deserves more credit too, though I started to lose enthusiasm from season five onwards when it seemed to lose some of its intangible 'fun' spark, something those other two shows had in abundance.

    I've yet to crack open classics the The Prisoner and Blakes 7.

    1. @Dave: I love Farscape (obviously), and it might have broken through to number one had it been given a fifth season to complete its story.