Science fiction on television

A broadcast of the long-running and popular British science-fiction series . Photo credit: Paul Hayes.
A broadcast of the long-running and popular British science-fiction series Doctor Who. Photo credit: Paul Hayes.
Science fiction is one of the most eclectic and varied of all the genres of fiction. Such is its appeal that it has been a popular element of television drama since its very beginnings. Science fiction programmes can go anywhere, do anything, and show and tell stories that could not be done in other, more conventional productions.

As there is no universally recongized definiton of "science fiction", there is some ambiguity as to what exactly "science fiction" covers in terms of television. In recent years, the term has come to cover any programme that deals in the fantastical or even merely the horrific, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed or Xena: Warrior Princess. Those programmes do not fit into the most common definition of "science fiction" (speculative fiction principally dealing with the impact of imagined science and technology or both upon society and persons as individuals and are perhaps more comfortably covered under the generic term "telefantasy").

History of this genre has been shaped virtually by only three countries. First would be the precursor of this genre, the United Kingdom, responsible for such defining milestones as Quatermass (1953-1979), Doctor Who (1963–1989), and Blake's 7 (1978-1981). Second, its successor and today's undisputed leader, the United States, responsible for majority of the most popular shows aired over the last decades, such as Star Trek (1966-1969) and Twilight Zone/Outer Limits (1959-2002) franchises and Babylon 5 (1993-1998), The X-Files (1993-2002) and Stargate SG-1 (1997-present) series, to name just a few. Third, Japan, whose anime shows like Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex are rapidly gaining worldwide popularity. Today, without a doubt, science fiction as a genre has firmly established its place in the make-up of many countries' programming.


British television science fiction

The first known piece of television science fiction anywhere in the world was produced by the BBC's fledgling television service, then less than eighteen months old, on February 11 1938. The piece was a thirty-five minute adaptation of a section of the play R.U.R., originally written by the Czech playwright Karel Capek and performed live from the BBC's Alexandra Palace studios. Concerning a future world in which robots rise up against their human masters, it was the only piece of science fiction to be produced by the BBC before the Corporation closed its television service down for the duration of the Second World War in September 1939. Sadly, the BBC had no facility for recording programmes in those pre-war days, so bar a few on-set publicity photographs and reviews in the press, all records of this production are lost.

After the resumption of the service in 1946, R.U.R. was produced a second time, this time a full production of the play, adapted for television by the producer Jan Bussell, who had also been responsible for the 1938 effort. Running to ninety minutes and again performed entirely live, the play went out on March 4 1948, and repeated again live for a second time the following day. Following this, the BBC did begin producing more science fiction, with further literary adaptations such as The Time Machine (1949) and children's serials like Stranger from Space (1951-52).

It was not until the summer of 1953 that adult-themed science-fiction drama specially written for television rather than adapted from other sources arrived on British television in the form of the six-part serial The Quatermass Experiment, by BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale. Taking up the majority of the BBC's drama budget for the year and again produced live from their Alexandra Palace studios, the serial was a huge hit with audiences who had never been treated to anything of its kind before. It led to three further Quatermass serials and three feature film adaptations from Hammer, and was very much the basis upon which an entire generation of British television science fiction was established. The Quatermass Experiment is also the first piece of British television science fiction to survive in the archives, albeit only in the form of poor-quality telerecordings of its first two episodes, the latter four being lost.

Kneale knew that as his serials were being transmitted live, he could not rely on film style special effects to tell his stories, although Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59) were both admirably served by the newly-formed BBC Visual Effects Department. Instead, he based his stories around characterisation and those characters' reactions to the strange events unfolding around them, using science-fiction themes to tell allegorical stories, most effectively parallelling real life racial tensions with the Martian "infection" of Quatermass and the Pit.

It is perhaps important to note here a crucial production difference between the manner in which British – in particular BBC – and American television science fiction and indeed television in general was produced during this period. As the BBC was based mainly around live productions right up until the early nineteen-sixties (the facility to telerecord programmes onto film did exist before the advent of commercial professional videotape, but was almost always used to repeat a live broadcast rather than pre-film a production) their studios were purely electronic environments, using video cameras to transmit and later record dramas to videotape. This is different to the American system of pre-shooting television dramas and comedies directly onto film, and although the BBC and other British broadcasters did use film for pre-shot inserts into live broadcasts and later for location material that couldn't be mounted in the studio, the majority of British TV science fiction and almost all of that produced by the BBC was shot on videotape well into the 1980s.

On Sunday 12th December 1954 a live adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, produced by the Quatermass team of writer Nigel Kneale and director Rudolph Cartier, achieved the highest television ratings since the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was so controversial that it was debated in Parliament, and campaigners tried to have the second performance the following Thursday banned. The BBC's Head of Drama Michael Barry refused to concede.

Even though the Quatermass serials had helped to popularise science fiction amongst the rapidly increasing mainstream television audience of the 1950s – with Quatermass and the Pit famously "emptying the pubs" – science-fiction productions were still few and far between and almost always one-offs. Popular serials such as A For Andromeda (1961) (which starred a young Julie Christie) would occasionally be given a sequel serial (The Andromeda Breakthrough, 1962), but for the most part on the BBC they would remain one-offs.

Britain's independent television network, ITV, and its constituent local franchise holders first began dipping their toes seriously into the waters of science fiction in the early nineteen-sixties. One of the driving forces behind their experimentation was Canadian producer Sydney Newman, who had been tempted over from Canada to become the Head of Drama at the ABC company (ITV franchise holders for the Midlands and the North at weekends and one of the providers of programmes for the entire network). At ABC, Newman produced the science-fiction serials Pathfinders In Space(1960) and its sequel Pathfinders to Venus (1961), and span the science-fiction anthology series Out of This World, the first of its kind in the UK, from the mainstream drama anthology Armchair Theatre.

Two vitally important events for the future of the British television science fiction, the results of which still influence the course of the genre today, occurred in 1962. The first was that the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment, Eric Maschwitz, asked Head of the Script Department Donald Wilson to have some members of his department prepare a report on the viability of producing a new science-fiction series for television. The second was that Sydney Newman was tempted away from the ABC to take up the position of Head of Drama at the BBC, joining the Corporation in December.

These two events led in 1963 to the BBC developing an idea of Newman's into Britain's first long-running science-fiction television series, a programme that would go on for year after year rather than simply being a one-off serial with perhaps a sequel or two as had previously been the pattern. Taking advantage of the research Wilson's department had already done, Newman initiated the creation and along with Wilson and BBC staff writer C.E. Webber oversaw the development of this new series, which Newman named Doctor Who.

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The ten faces of the Doctor.

The importance of Doctor Who to British television science fiction cannot be overstated. It lasted for twenty-six seasons in its original form, has been revived twice and as a result is now an ongoing concern again, produced most of the writers who would go on to create nearly all the successful British genre shows up until the nineteen-eighties and influenced nearly all those working in the genre in British television today. It is the most popular genre series ever to have been screened on British television and one of the few to have become part of the mainstream popular consciousness, and on an international scale is the only series to seriously rival the longevity and cult status of the Star Trek franchise.

After much development work, the series was launched on November 23 1963 and within the space of a few months had become much more successful than any of its creators ever could have imagined. Its popular success throughout the nineteen-sixties perhaps influenced the BBC in the production of other genre efforts, of particular note being its own sci-fi anthology series Out of the Unknown, which ran for four acclaimed seasons in the late sixties and early seventies.

During this time the ITV companies had been developing their production techniques and moving over to more American styles of production, shooting on glossy film rather than clunky videotape and producing a variety of action / adventure series such as The Avengers, Danger Man and The Saint, many of which became international successes but few of which could be really said to be actual science fiction as such. One producer who was keen on making science fiction for the independent companies was Gerry Anderson, who wanted to make live-action series but didn't have the money, so used puppetry instead. His science fiction shows such as Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Stingray became huge successes and are still well-known to this day.

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North American DVD release of the Captain Scarlet series

Anderson's great success in the children-aimed puppet show market eventually led to him being given the money to develop the live-action shows he so desperately wanted to make. The first of these was UFO, which starred American actor Ed Bishop (Anderson often cast American actors with a view to lucrative US sales) as the head of an undercover military organisation with responsibility for combating aliens who came to Earth in the eponymous space craft. Although the series is today well respected and has impressive production values for the time, poor scheduling meant it was never as popular a hit as it could have been. A planned second season was delayed and eventually re-formatted as an entirely new show, entitled Space: 1999, which ran for two seasons and was a moderate success. Although again impressively and expensively produced, it lacks some of the strong scripting and characterisation that usually underpin the most successful genre programmes.

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Left to right: Barbara Bain, Catherine Schell and Martin Landau from Space: 1999's second season.

The 1970s in particular can be said to have been the "Golden Age" of British television science fiction. Across the board there were generally good production values and interesting scripts, and few sci-fi series of any great note were being exported from the US at the time, leaving a concentration on UK product. Doctor Who was going through its strongest period with first Jon Pertwee (1970-74) and later Tom Baker (1974-81) in the leading role, already firmly entrenched in the public consciousness but still surprising and entertaining.

Various former Doctor Who alumni had moved on to produce their own acclaimed genre programmes as well. The series' former scientific adviser Dr Kit Pedlar and former Script Editor Gerry Davis combined to create a programme entitled Doomwatch, which told the story of a governmental scientific group formed to investigate and combat ecological and scientific threats to humankind. Very much in the Quatermass tradition of allegorical storytelling (Nigel Kneale was indeed invited, although declined, to contribute scripts to the programme), it used its science-fiction basis to try and convey real warnings about the state of the world, as well as telling tense, dramatic stories and not being afraid of shocking its audience, such as in the killing off of popular lead character Toby Wren (played by Robert Powell).

Writer Terry Nation had been one of the formative influences on Doctor Who's popularity, creating the legendary Dalek race for the show's second serial in 1963, and thus assuring much of its early popularity and later longevity. For the rest of the 1960s Nation had concentrated on writing for ITV film series such as The Baron and The Avengers, but in the early 1970s he returned to science fiction, contributing Dalek stories to Doctor Who again from 1973 to 1975 and in 1975 creating his own science-fiction show, Survivors.

Survivors was a post-apocalyptic tale of a small group of people who were the only ones left over after an infection of some kind has wiped out most of humanity. Although it ran for two seasons and was generally interesting and well-received, its impact was minimal compared to the second series that Nation conceived on his own, a space opera entitled Blake's 7.

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Liberator spaceship from Blake's 7 tv series

Pitched by Nation as "The Dirty Dozen in space", Blake's 7 told the story of righteous freedom fighter Roj Blake, his battle with a corrupt Galactic Federation and the rag-tag group of pirates, criminals and smugglers who are reluctantly forced to work with him after an escape from a prison ship together. Running for four seasons from 1978 to 1981, Blake's 7 is one of the few British television science-fiction series to have really engrained itself into the popular consciousness, and along with the likes of Doctor Who and Quatermass has certainly been one of the most influential. Although its production values were never as glossy as they could have been, the storytelling was nearly always impressive and the crucial point about the series was its hard-edge. The moral ambiguity of the leading characters made them more appealing, and as with Doomwatch it wasn't afraid of shocking the audience by killing off the leading characters, most famously wiping out the entire regular cast in its iconic final episode.

ITV was producing other science fiction in the 1970s as well as the aforementioned Gerry Anderson film series. Keen to garner some of the young audience who eagerly followed Doctor Who, many of the ITV companies sought to create their own youth-orientated genre programmes, such as Timeslip (1970) and The Tomorrow People. The latter ran for six years from 1973 to 1979, but although it presented some intriguing (if bizarre) storylines, it never attained the status of Doctor Who, possibly because unlike the BBC programme it attempted to identify with children by starring children, thus making the cross-over appeal to an adult audience much more difficult. It is still very fondly remembered by those who watched it at the time, however.

A much more respected show, produced by midlands ITV franchise holders ATV in a similar production style to Doctor Who (i.e. on videotape with various serials made up of between four and eight episodes of twenty-five minutes each) was Sapphire & Steel. The tale of two "time detectives" played by David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, Sapphire & Steel was a superbly atmospheric piece of television, although its production run was often hampered by the unavailability of its two leads and it was brought to a premature – if memorable – end in 1982 when ATV were forced to transform into Central Independent Television.

During the 1980s, television production in general in the UK was beginning to change, and longer-running science-fiction series became few and far between. Although Doctor Who was still running, in terms of audience it was struggling to compete with US genre shows such as Battlestar Galactica, which could be bought in by broadcasters for much less cost than producing their own programmes. Its audience figures began to crumble and it began to lose its place at the heart of British television viewing.

Nonetheless, in the early part of the decade there were several one-off serials produced, albeit mainly for the BBC, ITV concentrating mostly on buying in American series if it wanted science fiction. Adaptations of novels such as Day of the Triffids, The Invisible Man and Child of the Vodyanoi (as The Nightmare Man) were produced to great acclaim, and the BBC began an adaptation of The White Mountains novels, under the name The Tripods.

The Tripods had run for two of its planned three series in 1985 when it was cancelled by the Controller of BBC1, Michael Grade. At the same time Grade attempted to cancel Doctor Who, although the public still had immense affection for the series even if they no longer watched it, and the resulting outcry made him turn the cancellation into an eighteen month suspension.

It appeared to be generally felt, at the BBC at least, that science fiction was more expensive to produce than other types of programme but did not return any higher audiences for that outlay, so it seemed uneconomical to make. Although there were some big popular hits around this time such as Edge of Darkness, these were more mainstream dramas and thrillers with science-fiction elements than out-and-out genre shows. Edge of Darkness is important however as it was one of an increasing number of BBC shows to be mounted entirely on film rather than using any VT, a production method to which the BBC was increasingly switching over for everything bar soap operas and sitcoms as it was becoming apparent how cheap videotape made productions looked, in comparison to both commercial television productions and US imports.

Perhaps the very last original series of its kind in the videotape era of BBC science fiction was Star Cops, which ran for only nine episodes in the summer of 1987 to poor viewing figures on the corporation's second channel, BBC Two. Written by Chris Boucher, who had contributed three popular scripts to Doctor Who in the late 1970s and then script edited all four seasons of Blake's 7 and written some of that show's greatest episodes, it was a well thought-out programme, but poor ratings and being at the end of a tradition had doomed it from the start.

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Red Dwarf logo
The 1980s also saw the arrival on the BBC of two science fiction comedy series both of which had their origins on radio. The first was ‘’The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’’ by Douglas Adams which amalgamated aspects of the original radio series with that of the subsequent novel and aired in 1981. The second was Red Dwarf, created and originally written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. It parodies most (if not all) of the sub-genres of science fiction but is first and foremost an 'odd couple' type comedy (the couple in question being the characters of Rimmer and Lister). The first series aired on BBC2 in 1988. Seven further series have so far been produced, and a film is currently in production. The idea was originally developed from the Dave Hollins: Space Cadet sketches introduced on Grant and Naylor's 1984 BBC Radio 4 show Son of Cliché.

Doctor Who survived until 1989, although at a much reduced episode count and with dwindling viewing figures in a poor slot, before the BBC decided to farm the series out to independent production. This process took seven long years and resulted in only one television movie in 1996, before another seven years passed and the BBC announced that it was returning as an expensive, high-profile in-house production. This has much to do with the fact that many of those in a position to write and produce the series now were fans of the show when they were younger and had a keen desire to see it resurrected, a sign of how strong the influence of the programme has been.

Perhaps the most high-profile of those behind the movement to return Doctor Who to the screens is writer Russell T. Davies, who initially worked in the BBC children's department earlier in his career, and it was here that he first contributed to British TV sci-fi. With very few adult sci-fi programmes being made, in the early 1990s children's television was one of the few places you would find British TV sci-fi, with other slots being filled with US imports such as Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Davies' first sci-fi serial was the 1991 six-parter Dark Season, which co-starred a young Kate Winslet as well as former Blake's 7 star Jacqueline Pearce. This was very well-received by even adult genre fans, and two years later Davies wrote a second, much more complex serial called Century Falls. On ITV, children could see an updated version of The Tomorrow People (1992-94) made as an international co-production with companies in the US and Australia, and there were various other child-orientated sci-fi type series such as ITV's Mike & Angelo and the BBC's Watt on Earth, although these lacked the crossover adult appeal that Davies' shows had possessed.

The interest in making British TV science fiction seemed to return to broadcasters towards the middle of the 1990s, perhaps fuelled by the success of the US imports that had helped persuade them to cut back on the genre in the first place, in that companies began to see the possibility of lucrative overseas sales and tie-in products that other genres couldn't match. In the mid-1990s the BBC screened four seasons of the glossy sci-fi action adventure series Bugs made by independent company Carnival. In 1998 they co-produced the six-part serial Invasion: Earth with the US Sci-Fi Channel, and even ITV began attempting to market British sci-fi again with serials such as The Uninvited (1997) and The Last Train (1999). While these shows all had their merits, they suffered from mostly being attempts by writers of conventional drama to ‘do' science fiction, rather than being made by out-and-out science-fiction writers who knew how to work the genre to its best advantage.

As of 2005, there seems to be some degree of optimism for the future of the genre in the UK, with good reason. Most of the highest-profile US shows have gently wound down and production of science fiction has become much cheaper with the rise of computer effects technology. Doctor Who returned to television screens on March 26, 2005, and a "live" remake of The Quatermass Experiment, was broadcast on BBC Four on April 2. Whether this proves to be a full renaissance of the genre in the UK or merely a brief fad remains to be seen, however.

US television science fiction

Main article: US television science fiction

Science fiction has been a popular genre with television viewers in the United States almost since its inception, and the country has produced many of the best-known and most popular sci-fi shows in the world. Most famous of all these – indeed, perhaps the most famous science-fiction program of all – is the iconic Star Trek and its spin-off shows. Further hugely influential programs have included the 1960s anthology series The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and other productions such as Battlestar Galactica, Quantum Leap, V, Buck Rogers, Babylon 5, Amazing Stories, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Lost in Space, and The Six Million Dollar Man.

The first really popular science-fiction program on American television was the children's adventure serial Captain Video and His Video Rangers, which ran for six years on the short-lived DuMont Network from June 1949 to April 1955. Broadcast live in regular half-hourly installments, it chronicled the adventures of Captain Video and his sidekick The Ranger, who in the year 2254 defended the Earth from various threats in their space ship, The Galaxy. It proved to be a very popular programming, at its peak drawing audiences of 3.5 million, which was more than respectable for television of that period. It fired the imaginations of many young children who watched it, who had never seen science-fiction outside of the cinemas before, and had never been able to follow the same characters in a science-fiction setting over such a prolonged period of time, week-in week-out.

ABC's own attempt to cash in on the success of Captain Video was a small screen version of Buck Rogers, which had already proved to be a huge success as a film serial in the cinemas. Running from 1950 until just the following year, ABC's Buck Rogers starred Kem Dibbs and later Robert Pastene in the lead role, and like its DuMont counterpart was the victim of a very small budget, which restricted most of the action to one single laboratory set, hardly the most thrilling of situations for the young viewers being targeted. Another former film series and comic book character who was resurrected for the small screen during the 1950s was Flash Gordon, who, as played by Steve Holland, was the star of thirty-nine episodes of a syndicated television series which ran for again just one year, from 1953 to 1954.

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The Twilight Zone original opening.

One of the stalwarts of science fiction television in its early decades was to be the anthology series, in which a completely new story would be presented with each episode, with new actors, settings and situations, the only link being the producers, genre and the series title. The first really popular series of this kind was Science Fiction Theatre, a syndicated series which ran for seventy-eight episodes between 1955 and 1957. Two years after it had finished its run, a new program in the same vein, but one which was to have far greater and longer-lasting success, began on the CBS Network: The Twilight Zone. in 1963 followed by the equally iconic The Outer Limits.

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Opening titles – 1960s

The years 1964 and 1965 were to prove an important period in the history of US television science fiction. They saw the conception of two brand new "space opera"-based science fiction shows, both featuring broadly similar galactic exploration themes, each show dealing with them in very different manners. The first of these to reach the screens was the new CBS show Lost in Space, which ran for three seasons from 1965 to 1968 and was from the stable of producer Irwin Allen.

The starship Enterprise from the
The starship Enterprise from the Star Trek: The Original Series

The second show to come out of this period, with an unscreened pilot made in 1964 before the series proper began in 1966, and one that would leave a longer-lasting and more meaningful science-fiction legacy, in some ways changing the face of the genre across all media, was called Star Trek. Conceived by the producer Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek was seen as a show that would depict a future of galactic exploration and struggle, with all creeds and colors of humanity working together to explore the stars in a similar manner to the pioneers of the old West in America (Roddenberry, in fact, described his concept for Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars" to studio executives). Produced by Paramount for the NBC Network, Roddenberry's original 1964 pilot for Star Trek, called The Cage and starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, was regarded as being too intellectual and slow-moving by the network: however, they had sufficient faith in the ideas behind the program to commission a second pilot, which replaced the character of Pike and all but one of the rest of his crew with the new crew commanded by Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner.

Star Trek was cancelled in the late 1960s crisis that affected the entire American television science fiction market. It was not until the late 1970s, inspired by the post-Star Wars boom of 1977 and beyond, that the science fiction series began to return to prominence. One of those particularly keen on exploiting the Networks' new interest in the genre was producer Glen A. Larson, who created two new science fiction series in quick succession: another television version of Buck Rogers, this time entitled Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81) and his own original creation Battlestar Galactica (1978-80).

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North American DVD release of the 1979-81 Buck Rogers in the 25th Century TV series.

The most significant US science fiction television series of the early 1980s was the 1983 mini-series V, which aired on the NBC network. An allegorical tale paralleling the rise of the Nazis in Germany of the 1930s with the arrival on Earth of an apparently friendly alien race with hidden motives, the mini-series proved to be highly popular and iconic, spawning both a sequel (V: The Final Battle) the following year, then a full-blown television series for the 1984-85 season, although neither of these were as successful as the original, being more action-orientated and somewhat less cerebral.

1987 saw the arrival of what is perhaps the most successful (in terms of sales and worldwide viewing figures) science fiction series of all time, Gene Roddenberry's re-launching of his Star Trek franchise, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Taking place on a new starship Enterprise 76 years after the events of the original series, unlike its predecessor it was not supported by a network, but instead sold directly into syndication. The program was a huge success, running for seven seasons and like the original series spawning several feature film spin-offs.

It also led to further Star Trek series which took place within the same time frame, firstly Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99) and later Star Trek: Voyager (1994-2001). The only series currently running in the franchise is UPN's Star Trek: Enterprise, a prequel to the original series which has been running since 2001 and will conclude at the end of its fourth season in May 2005. All of these series have helped affirm the iconic status of the Star Trek franchise, but as well as this they helped lead to a science fiction boom of the 1990s, as many networks and production companies sought to make their own shows in a genre which had shown itself to be incredibly popular and profitable again.

Although there were many run-of-the-mill series that did not get past a single season, this boom decade for science-fiction produced many imaginative shows that have in a very short period of time been able to establish themselves in the popular consciousness of television viewers not just in the US, but worldwide as well.

One was seaQuest DSV, which had the advantage of having a star name attached in the form of Roy Scheider, who played Captain Nathan Bridger from 1993-95. He was replaced for the 1995-96 season by Michael Ironside as Captain Oliver Hudson. The show was cancelled after that season. Space: Above and Beyond also lasted just one season, from 1995-96, with its basic premise of space Marines defending Earth against hostile aliens.

The  Station
The Babylon 5 Station

One of the more successful and most artistically ambitious series of this period was Babylon 5. Produced and largely written by J. Michael Straczynski with creative input by Harlan Ellison, this show attempted to create a series long epic tale that avoided many of the cliches of the television genre. While generally not considered entirely successful, the series was highly acclaimed for its writing and its innovative visuals as the first television series to extensively use computer generated imagery to create spectacular visual effects for an economical price. In addiition, its five season run (1993-98), the intended length of the series, was longer than any American non Star Trek space series up to that time.

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X-Files intro from first 8 seasons

The 90s also brought Earth-bound, non-space opera shows. There were time-travel and dimension-hopping series in the vein of Quantum Leap (1989-93) and Sliders (1995-2000), and mysterious conspiracy thrillers such as The X-Files (1993-2002), the latter series achieve cult status and embedding itself within popular culture.

Two other subgenres were comic science fiction, and youth science fiction (children and teenagers). Examples of the former are My Favorite Martian, CBS, 1963-66; Mork & Mindy, ABC 1978-1982; ALF, NBC, 1986-90; and 3rd Rock from the Sun, NBC, 1996-2001.

And then there's Futurama (1999-2003). It can be described as an adult, situation-comedy cartoon. It was created by Matt Groening, who also created The Simpsons. Futurama tries to be funny while stretching the bounds of good taste and delivering packages for the Planet Express Corporation. In this show, comparable to such shows as British Red Dwarf or Japaneese Martian Successor Nadesico, science fiction became not only a vehicle for laughs, but evolved enough to pay witty homage to its earlier incarnations.

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Futurama title screen

At the turn of the century, however, a change began in the type of telefantasy program that was popular with the viewing masses. Most of the genre programming to be found on the Networks was horror or fantasy based rather than science-fiction as such; there was perhaps a sense that audiences were tired of science-fiction, and sought other types of programs. Thus the rise to popularity of such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin off Angel and the stylistically similar Charmed. All of these were set in the real world of the present day, but involved fantastical and horrific threats to the central characters, and possessed a wit and self-awareness that had perhaps been lacking in some of their science-fiction predecessors.

Nonetheless, the popularity of science fiction as a genre means that several notable programs are still on-going. Stargate SG-1 has aired since 1997, and is somewhat unique in being a successful spin-off series from the 1994 movie. The aforementioned Star Trek: Enterprise has reached its fourth and final season, and recently the Sci-Fi Channel aired a mini-series Battlestar Galactica based upon the original series; the mini-series proved so successful that it ran a full thirteen episode season from January 2005 and will return in July 2005 for a second season.

Stargate SG-1 characters. From left to right: Daniel Jackson, Samantha Carter, Teal'c, George Hammond and Jack O'Neill.
Stargate SG-1 characters. From left to right: Daniel Jackson, Samantha Carter, Teal'c, George Hammond and Jack O'Neill.

Japanese television science fiction

Known for meticulous use of miniatures and hundreds of sci-fi themed anime, Japan has a long history of producing science fiction series for TV. Only a few of these series are aired outside Japan and even when aired, they tend to be edited, rarely retaining their original storyline. While reasons like violence and sexual context are often presented, these edits are never a perfect solution and needlessly make story confusing. Yet non-anime sci-fi are still largely unknown to foreign audiences. An exception is Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and their subsequent series that used battle sequences from Japanese shows and combined them with American actors who acted out entirely original story lines.

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Astro Boy Volume 4 (English version)

Many Japanese TV drama and anime have elements of science fiction casually added as one of the story devices. A reason for this is that to an average Japanese, no technology is too far away or unthinkable. Only 10 years ago, an autonomous robot pet in a home was unthinkable; in 1999 the Aibo from Sony trounced that thinking. People who worked to create Aibo openly claimed that they started their project so one day, they can have Doraemon. To most Japanese, this was no surprise at all; Doraemon was released in 1970, Astro Boy was even farther back, in 1952. Most, if not all Japanese older than 52 or even over 60 as of 2004, once dreamed of their own robotic friend or a robotic pet as his or her company living together and had been waiting for the technology to catch up with "reality". After watching the 2004 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, Ai Fukuhara, a table tennis player, commented that she thought those "gods" were robots and surprised that real actors were acting them out.

Television science fiction with actors

Tokusatsu (特撮), lit. special filming or more commonly SFX is the loose term used to describe the televised science fiction. Before World War Two, tokusatsu artists used their modeling techniques to make movies. However, after the war, the occupation forces under General MacArthur prohibited making war movies and many of them were fired under pressure for being involved in making war movies. Those that did not give up making movies used their skills to create sci-fi television series. Called "Kami of Tokusatsu", Tsuburaya Eiji was one of such producers known for producing Godzilla. He produced Ultra Q (1964) and Ultraman (1966) series and set the standard of televised sci-fi. He used wireworks and fire crackers for making dramatic scenes and suit actors for aliens and monsters. Unafraid of being the target of criticism, he had already been targeted and fired from his job once, he cut into social issues while keeping audiences entertained.

A special widely used technique need to be mentioned here, the Rambada (ランバダ) sequence. Originally from Ultraman where a section of the secret base opens up to launch super vehicles, the name is taken from the special BGM that sounds strangely like "Rambada dada, Rambada dada..." and is used to refer to the meticulously sequenced and recycled scene where the hero dresses up, gets on a vehicle, or where a machine transforms into a robot. This idea is from Thunderbirds sequence in which the family travels down tubes to ride vehicles and the island reveals launchpads.

The earliest credible claim to the first television science fiction show is not the famous and history making "Ultra Q". Six years earlier in 1958, Gekkokamen (月光仮面) became the first science fiction to be aired. The basic story line is simple. Doctor Yanagi invented a fictional powerful bomb called HO-Johatsu Bakudan (HOジョー発爆弾) lit. Hydrogen and Oxygen Evaporation Bomb and to caution the world that the next war must not begin or the human race will destroy themselves. The strange evil organization tries to steal the bomb's secret and the masked hero, Gekkokamen stops them riding a special bike and with a powerful handgun. Satisfied with the show's success, TV station became eager to produce the superhero themed TV shows. The next series clearly showed that audiences did like science fiction. It was titled, Yuseiouji (遊星王子) lit. A Prince from Wandering Planet (1958) and like the television series Superman (1956) in the United States, the hero was a humanoid alien.

Kamen Rider (仮面ライダー) (1971), is also noteworthy series originally of manga by Ishimori Shotaro. Loosely styled after ninja stories where a renegade ninja fight the evil organization that trained him, it was not a simple good-fight-evil story. "Villains" that the hero had to kill was genetically engineered human who were brainwashed into serving the evil organization. If the hero had not escaped, he would have been a "villain". The name of "Kamen Rider" is passed on to a new series every year and Masked Rider Blade (2004) is currently being run.

While Kamen Rider was a great hit, there was a problem, these "single superhero" meant only one kid can be a superhero when kids played together. Also, the hero had to appear "perfect" in any occasions and this led to difficulties in making stories. The solution was simple, make "a team of superheroes" with shorcomings who cooperated to fight a greater evil and Sentai (戦隊) series, lit. battle team, was introduced in 1975 with Himitsusentai Gorenjya (秘密戦隊ゴレンジャー), lit. secret battle team five rangers. Unsurprisingly, this theme is also copied from ninja and samurai television series where a team of them thwarted evils from harming hapless citizens. On the third series of sentai, Battle Fever J (バトルフィーバーJ), a gigantic robot was used by the team to battle the equally giant opponent. Both giants were performed by suit actors.

These "hero" shows were considered "kids shows" and until recently, focused on how to interest kids. Few of actors got promoted into performing for other television shows but these were considered very isolated events. Many of actors who performed as a hero had their reputations stuck as stereotypical "good guy" and "pretty woman" and more serious minded actors declined to perform. In 2000, Kamen Rider Kuuga received a strong support from wives and working women as well as older teenager by having cool-looking Odagiri Joe star as its hero. The early morning hour of Saturday and Sunday these hero stories are run, let these previously forgotten audience groups take a break with their kids or by themselves. Other tokusatsu followed by having young promising actors perform and strongly supported their careers outside acting as "hero".

Many TV drama also had some markings of science fiction but they are too numerous to list. Satorare (サトラレ) (2002), originally from a manga with the same title was about genetical geniuses equal to Albert Einstein or Newton whose thought would always be "radioed" to those around them, hence Satorare, the one whose thought would be known to all around. The facts and knowledges of Satorare is kept away from Satorare themselves and they are never let known that they are Satorare to keep them 'happy' and 'safe'. The main character, Kennichi Satomi is a skilled and talented physician and Satorare. Except for theoretical knowledges of Satorare, this story lacks strange and powerful gadgets, abominable aliens, spaceship, etc. that are the set piece of science fiction and it can be considered over-dramatization of the human interaction. But it is a science fiction nevertheless, as Flowers for Algernon is considered as such.

Science fiction in anime

Main article: History of anime

Though there are thousands of anime with science fiction theme, it is very easy to tell who and what started this trend, Tezuka Osamu with his Tetsuwan Atom (1952) or more commonly Astro Boy. Anime has always been assciated with elements from science fiction and only the imagination limited the extent of content. Unlike cartoon, where the main audience is a young child and a strict censoring of contents and storyline is enforced to make them "safe", anime is given freer hand to express. In more than a way, even though it is a movie, Innocence: Ghost in the Shell offers how far anime can go when using science fiction as its theme when compared to Monsters, Inc. or Treasure Planet by Disney.

Early science fiction anime strongly influenced Japanese live-action works and vice versa. Gatchaman (1972) had five members like most sentai (combat team) tokusatsu (special effects) series that followed it.

Tetsujin 28-go (鉄人28号) or Gigantor started another trend called Robottomono (ロボット物), lit. robot stories or Mecha. In Robottomono, the hero pilots one of the kind super robot made by his father or grandfather to battle evil opponent. This is a spinoff of the superhero theme and in the Mazinger Z (マジンガーZ), many tricks like the new powerful super-super robot for hero to pilot are perfected. Yet, these "super robot stories" were still made within the limit of tokusatsu, the hero shouted the name of attack or weapon before using them, enemies were custom made robots much like villains from tokusatsu, enemies were sent by an evil organizations bent on conquering the world, etc.

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Akira film brought anime to an international scene

Mobile Suit Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム) (1979) by Tomino Yoshiyuki brought the change by offering the sense of reality and believable settings to Robottomono. While mecha or robots remained an important story device, things like interactions between characters, political dealings that main characters cannot control, and even romance gradually increased their importances. In last several episodes of Armored Trooper Votoms (装甲騎兵ボトムズ) (1983), there are hardly a scene where a robot appears, the entire section is devoted to the politics. In The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (超時空要塞マクロス) (1982), the humanity was effectively saved in a final attack against the conquest by an alien race with the help of a Bubblegum pop sung by the heroine.

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Still from the famous anime movie Ghost in the Shell

There are many sub-genres within anime science fictions that are unique. The magical girl genre is often fantasy themed yet science fiction themes are also present. Bishounen and Bishoujo are common subgenres. The sub-subgenres of Bishoujo is series of anime sometimes referred to gun maiden where the "Bishoujo" girl touts a gun and kills cooly or rides a powerful robot while male characters have little or no importance. Noir, Boogiepop Phantom, and Galaxy Angel are some of the example. Gensomaden Saiyuki is a Bishounen version of this sub-subgenre. Though it is clear that Bubblegum Crisis is the forerunner of this subgenre, the reason for success of these series is a mystery. Some claim that the shock effect of killer girls heightens the drama, while others claim that these "girls" are not really girls, but are androgynous. Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino has an animated sequence in which this theme is explored.

Other countries television science fiction

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Although the US and the UK have produced the bulk of the world's most famous television science-fiction shows, the popularity of the genre insures that just about every country which produced television drama has produced some sci-fi at some point. The Australian / American production Farscape has been a popular hit in recent years, as have other Australian science-fiction productions such as the 1990s' children's serial The Girl from Tomorrow. The quirky sci-fi show Lexx garnered a huge cult following in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was a German / Canadian co-production. The memorable Raumpatrouille was a German series first broadcast in 1966. Also well remembered in Germany are the movies by Rainer Erler, including the mini-series "Das Blaue Palais".

Notable series and people

For a list of notable science fiction series and programs on television, see list of science fiction television.

People who have influenced science fiction on television include:

See also



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