Racooning Through Fantasy & Science Fiction TV
Several years ago I was asked to be part of a SpoCon panel discussing what are the best shows on TV now and how has SF TV changed over the decades. The decades I can definitely do, as I've been watching this genre for long time. Also, through the advent of DVDs and now streaming services, I've been able to catch up with a lot of stuff that I only read about as part of some long lost broadcast heaven.
The "now" is a little more problematic. I don't have cable. I don't subscribe to the more typical streaming services like Hulu, CBS, or Disney+. For years, I received much of my TV series consumption by checking out DVDs from the library. In 2020, I finally added Netflix streaming and I've got Amazon Prime. Both services have some very odd but often interesting stuff filed under "fantasy" or "science fiction." So I will stray off the beaten track to check Italian Anime & Sangue, pitting fictional characters, including a gender switched Peter Pan, against rampaging angels, and highly recommend Malaysian mini-series Ghost Bride, based on the wonderful novel by Yangsze Choo. But I'm still indebted to my library for making possible to see series that don't run on my two streaming services, like Resident Alien.
Be warned. My writer friend Nate calls me the racoon of popular culture. I do tend to go rummaging around to find what I call the "popcorn entertainment." And he calls "down in the trashy end."
However, given those limitations, here's some recommendations for when you've finished watching Star Trek, Firefly, Dr. Who, and the other better known fantastical shows. What has changed is that the television has become as diverse and as hard to categorize as written science fiction and fantasy. And that's a very good thing.
Orphan Black (2013-2017)
Ethics of science as it impacts our bodies is debated endlessly. Every time you think you know what's going on, the writers turn it around and dump another dilemma on the characters. Plus the range of diversity embodied in one body as the clones portrayed by Tatiana Maslany is a tour de force performance that should make us all think about how we tend to stereotype women and how we can shake up our characters.
This parallel universe drama manages a few unexpected twists and a lot of time wasting fun...about every time that I decided it was just a low-rent X-Files wannabe (complete with several star turns from former X-File cast members), they'd pull out an idea that made me grab the next DVD and stay up way too late to find out how that plot problem resolved itself. Also the exploration of a father and son relationship that is way, way stranger than you think it is and makes for unusual television on any level.
The X-Files (1998-2002)
All the alternate science that you could stuff into a series and a female lead who was the pragmatic, less emotional member of the partnership. It’s interesting to see how much technology changes from start to finish…and how very old some of it looks now. But there's nothing to top Scully in full science explanation mode. We have Gillian Leigh Anderson OBE to thank for a fantastic performance and the number of tough, thinking women who followed as leads in series.
The problems with time travel explored, especially how much you can and cannot change the past. The fact it centers on a billionaire prodigy growing up to a corporate overlord keeps it relevant. Not every episode is a winner but stick through the first couple of seasons and you'll be hooked on Erik Knudsen's performance as young Alec Sadler.
Warehouse 13 (2009-2014)
Steampunky fun and a little science history mingle in this raiders of the lost artifact warehouse show. Not every science fiction show has to be dour. Warehouse 13 was at its best when it was at its lightest. As was its crossover companion Eureka (2006-2012) about a small town where people invented the kind of stuff that might end up in the warehouse in another hundred years or so.
Yes it’s Muppets in a living space ship but also the first time that aliens looked and felt very alien, both the space ship and its crew. The Henson legacy made it possible to believe these creatures were real. The plotting as the series went on started to stretch the narrative boundaries of the spaceship show as well as how an hour's action should be constructed. The wonderful Claudia Black as space warrior Aeryn Sun is one reason that you should crossover to watch the first six episodes of The Nevers (2021-??). Besides The Nevers is an equally weird science fiction story that appears to be an gaslamp fantasy twist on Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan--until Black shows up.
This bounty hunters in space show featured crazy, offbeat plotting like Farscape with more low rent technical effects--and even greater diversity of characters! It’s a delight for its ability to not take itself too seriously and the constant shaking up of audience expectations. Also the prop department loved, loved, loved their green goo.
There's several stories out there with this title, but hunt down the 1998 British mini-series that treats vampires as a scientific fact and how that might lead to some very scary manipulations of modern government. Other people have done this theme but this one ladles out the chills better than all the rest. Plus the always great Idris Elba in a fascinating performance.
Max Headroom (1987-1988)
The steampunk, dystopian design kept this show from feeling as dated when it popped up on various cable channels or streaming services. Still hard to believe that it started out as a "regular" TV show broadcast. The main satire/plot point of the media corporations taking over our heads still seems almost too likely. Coupled with Matt Frewer’s unscrewed performance as both Max and his human alter ego Edison Carter, this is always one of my top ten.
Photo by Murai .hr on Unsplash