The Five Most Important TV Shows In Science Fiction

Posted: January 7, 2013 in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

This is the text of one of my emails to the SciFi Diner podcast. It is a great show and I’d encourage you to look them up on iTunes.  They have a good discussion of my points.

The Five Most Important TV Shows In Science Fiction

A few weeks ago, I had made some Tweets regarding the most important TV shows in science fiction. This generated a variety of responses that has nudged me into writing a bit more reason behind my selections. Going into this, it’s important to note that my criteria here is “most important” rather than “best.” I also am not including non-SciFi shows though they often get lumped in together. Thus, you won’t see any fantasy, horror, or super-hero shows in the list. Likewise, you will not see shows like Night Gallery, even though they did, at times, dip into science fiction. So here’s that list from the least to the most important.

5. Firefly
Yes, Firefly was *great* science fiction. Yet it only lasted 13 episodes, so why is it so important. As I said, good does not necessarily equate to importance though this show was both. It’s the nature of what happened to the /show/ that makes it so important. It’s pretty universal that few shows had as raw a deal as Firefly. The shows of this serial were aired out of order. The “Suits” interfered in the production. It was summarily canceled without really being given a chance. However, it was a critical reminder to both viewers and network of the power of the fans’ voices. While not enough to save this show, the outcry certainly rattled Fox. Fortunately, Fox seemed to learn its lesson. I believe that it’s thanks to Firefly that shows like Dollhouse got a second season, in spite of the terrible ratings or we are getting a fifth season to finish the story in Fringe. Fox, as well as other networks, pay a lot more attention to the fans as a result of Firefly.

4. Battlestar Galactica
I’m talking about the original “Classic” show rather than the 2000’s reboot. People today may not be aware of it, but introducing phrases like “Frack” or having a main character, Cassiopia, as a “Socialator” (i.e. prostitute) were huge steps in prime-time programming that caused considerable discussion. Equally ground-breaking was the use of cinema-caliber special effects. Largely because of this, the show was also the first show to break the $1,000,000 per episode barrier — an enormous sum in 1978. The Bridge set was one of the largest regular sets ever for a show and was functional with working electronics, communications and computer displays. It was primarily the very high cost of the show that led to its cancellation after the first season.

Unfortunately, BSG is important in one negative area. This is the show more important than even Lost In Space for the “Cute Kid” problem. After BSG, every serious SciFi show until Babylon 5 was crippled by having to have a “cute kid” for the youngsters. I believe in my heart-of-hearts if we didn’t have Boxey here, we would have never been inflicted with Wesley Crusher a decade later.

3. Doctor Who
You cannot have a list of important SciFi shows without including the longest running science fiction series of all time. Doctor Who will be celebrating its 50th birthday in 2013 having gone on the air in 1963. It’s initial run was for 26 continuous seasons ending in 1986. It wasn’t cancelled, but put on hiatus, with a TV movie in the 90’s and resuming regular airings in 2005.

Aside from the run time proving the staying power of a science fiction show, the Doctor brought us such iconic items as sonic screwdrivers, K9 and the TARDIS. Dimensional transcendence (“It’s bigger on the inside than out.”), time travel, parallel universes, racism, women’s rights, cyborgs, paradox, nuclear war, ethics — I’ve commented many times that there are few science fiction themes that Doctor Who hasn’t done first. The show was always serial rather than episodic; sometimes being 4-6 episodes, sometimes being whole seasons. With such a low budget for effects (the subject of MANY jokes) the show had to focus on being story and character driven.

Doctor Who also gave us some of the great villains/enemies in SciFi: Cybermen, Sontarans, the Master and of course Daleks. The resumed series has also added probably the scariest monster of all time: the Weeping Angels. Science fiction television owe a huge debt to this long running and innovative show.

2. Babylon 5
It was a close call between Babylon 5 and the #1 choice. Star Trek won only because that without Trek, we never could have gotten Babylon 5. At some point I will probably write a full blog article on Babylon 5 just to cover all the “Firsts” it represents to not only SciFi TV, but TV in general.

Just to cover a few of these, it was the first successful serial sci-fi series, first fully scored for each episode, first Hi-Def show, first all CGI effects, and first to prove you *don’t* have to follow the Star Trek model for success. In season 2, it beat Star Trek for the Hugo and next year, did it again to prove it wasn’t an accident. Characters were only used when needed and even killed when it served the story. The series *began* intended as a 5-season serial with all five seasons mapped out in advance, though with enough room to allow the story to “live.”

The story was cohesive and well written and the characters were compelling. The show proved that it takes BOTH story and characters to achieve true greatness. I’m re-watching it with my son and the story is as relevant today as it it was 20 years ago. The alien cultures were very well developed and the makeup was amazing; NOT just a different nose bridge or ear caps. Space flight was based on Newtonian physics and the resulting battles were dizzying with ships flying in all directions and every orientation: sideways, backwards, upside down.

Bottom line, every SciFi show since 1993 – including the Star Trek franchise – owes a huge debt to Babylon 5.

1. Star Trek
First, note well that I am referring to the Original Series only. None of the other Trek series makes this list — and that includes Next Generation. More than any other show, Star Trek made televised SciFi serious. The show was initially rejected by CBS as “too cerebral.” Star Trek made a conscious effort to put the Science in the Fiction, though some purists such as Arthur C. Clark disparagingly wrote it off as fantasy.

Though an adventurous “Wagon Train to the Stars,” Star Trek still hit hard on the serious social issues humanity did, and still, faces – racism, war, equal rights, medical ethics, religion and on. It did it honestly and without fear of stepping on toes. The bridge crew included a Russian, the ultimate alien in Spock and women. Even more ground-breaking was that a senior command officer was a black woman.

Except for Doctor Who, without Star Trek, none of these other shows would have been.

There could be a lot of honorable mentions, the BSG Reboot, Fringe, Stargate, Farscape; just to name a few. These and others are all good and sometimes great shows. However, in importance I think it is these five that set the precedents upon which all the others depend. These five shows set standards for stories, characters and effects that all the others have had to live up. They have proven themselves to be timeless in that they still hold their popularity today. I would love to hear your comments.

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