While reboots are typically maligned by TV critics and snarky internet writers as an example of network laziness, a recent wave of sci-fi reboots have served to bring a new audience to some underappreciated material. Smart sci-fi revivals like Battlestar Galactica, Lost in Space and Roseanne (in the new series, John Goodman is actually playing his 10 Cloverfield Lane character, fooling Roseanne into thinking he’s the deceased Dan Connor) have reminded viewers of tossed off gems of yesteryear that had much more to offer than audiences of the day realized.
But we here at CBR believe we shouldn’t have to wait for some revival decades from now to bring some brilliant sci-fi back into the public consciousness. Memory is a tricky thing — it can hide, it can warp and distort. Brilliant works may fade from your mind completely, while others once hated might seem great in the light of nostalgia. We hope to set the record straight, and highlight some remarkable shows that deserve a second look, and solidify the fact that some shows should stay forgotten. Who knows, maybe some eager showrunner will turn one of these forgotten gems into the next Westworld; or, judging by the darkness of this current timeline, we could end up with a primetime reboot of Baywatch Nights.
22. REMEMBER: BABYLON 5
Before you jump to the comments with an “I remember Babylon 5, it’s not forgotten,” of course there are still plenty of us who have scenes of Babylon 5 resting in the back of our minds! Some of us might even have merchandise from Babylon 5 resting in the back of a storage unit our spouse keeps telling us we need to clean out. Dang it, Diane, they’re not dolls, they’re action figures and they’re only going to increase in value!
The point is, when you walk around a Comic Con and still see such fervent love for dearly departed shows like Firefly and Stargate, it’s disappointing to see that this massively innovative work from comic and sci-fi writer J. Michael Straczynski hasn’t so fervently stood the test of time. From its groundbreaking use of computer effects to its anticipatory experiments with aspect ratio, Babylon 5 easily invites a revisit. We expect to see some G’Kar cosplay from here on out, people!
21. FORGET: TOTAL RECALL 2070
If you were asked to think of an attempt to continue the story of an iconic sci-fi film based on a Phillip K. Dick novel, framed as a neo-noir, set in a dark Tokyo-inspired dystopia that used the title of the original work while tacking on a 20__ year to express the passage of time, what jumps to mind? We’re all thinking of Total Recall 2070, right?
That’s right, in 1999, Art Montrastelli really wanted to make a Blade Runner TV show, but seemingly couldn’t secure the rights. He could, however, get the rights to Total Recall. So Montrastelli locked down soap actor heartthrob Michael Easton, got some Canadian production tax credits, and set about making the Blade Runner show he always wanted. Cheap, tedious and uninspired, Showtime clearly had hoped the series would give TV viewers the full Phillip K. Dick experience. Instead, viewers simply left never wanting to recall it.
20. REMEMBER: THE TIME TUNNEL
With the riveting Lost in Space revival on Netflix, some younger fans are starting to discover the works of ‘60s sci-fi showrunner and later “Master of Disaster Movies” Irwin Allen. Along with getting the Robinsons “lost in space,” Allen took wild-eyed Baby Boomers to the Land of the Giants and on a Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. However, his most dazzling and inspired work was The Time Tunnel.
Buried in the DNA of time travel stories as wide-ranging as Stargate and Austin Powers, there’s a measured elegance to the writing of The Time Tunnel that runs parallel to its surprisingly textured visuals, which allows it to still stand up where many shows of its ilk fell to the wayside of history. New viewers will be impressed by its Saul Bass-esque opening titles, it’s early John Williams score and the unflinching way it handled historical tragedies like the pilot episode’s Titanic setting.
19. FORGET: MANIMAL
Look, we get it. The ‘80s were the age of excess. Everybody was riding high on illicit powders and Reagonomics. Return of the Jedi and WarGames were keeping America’s minds hungry for tales of the fantastic. So it makes sense that NBC would green-light a series like Manimal. At least, it makes sense if you haven’t seen a frame of the mess that was Manimal.
Manimal was the story of Jonathan Chase, a crime-fighting NYU professor with magic powers that allowed him to transform into any animal. The only limit was Chase’s imagination… and NBC’s budget, which meant if producers forked over the money for a panther, Chase was turning into a panther constantly that episode. Between the countless contrivances necessary for the villains to always reveal their plans in the presence of exotic animals, the atrociously stoic acting of lead Simon MacCorkindale and competing against smash-hit Dallas, Manimal was put to sleep after only four episodes.
18. REMEMBER: ALIEN NATION
If you’ve never heard of either the film or the TV series Alien Nation, we’ll get you up to speed pretty quick: Imagine if Netflix’s Bright was about aliens instead of orcs, and now imagine if it was written by people who understood subtlety and social commentary. That’s Alien Nation.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but here was an innovative sci-fi series with a fervent fanbase that was killed far too soon by the Fox Network.
Alien Nation was cancelled after just 22 episodes along with Fox’s entire 1990 slate of drama shows over financial concerns. However, the demand was so strong for a resolution to Season 1’s cliffhanger finale that Fox finally relented years later, producing a series of TV movies to resolve the dangling threads. While some of the “slice of life” elements feel dated, there’s no denying Alien Nation still has a lot to say today.
17. FORGET: GILLIGAN’S PLANET
It’s hard to imagine in this age, where works like Adventure Time and Steven Universe endeavor to innovate and impress upon the minds of viewers young and old important philosophical and socially inclusive ideas, but cartoons used to be something haphazardly thrown together to distract America’s impressionable youth.
There were plenty of cynically crafted, stiltedly animated shows that relied on cheap intellectual property rights to take the place of plot, but none more nonsensical than Gilligan’s Planet. The premise was that The Professor had invented a rocket ship to get off the island, and accidentally stranded our entire cast of characters on an alien planet. The full original cast, minus Tina Louise as Ginger, took on voice roles in the series, which also paired Gilligan with a zany alien sidekick named Bumper. After this endeavor, America was content to leave Gilligan and co. stranded.
16. REMEMBER: THE WILD WILD WEST
Hard as it may be to believe, the iconic 1999 Will Smith blockbuster Wild Wild West was not an original idea conceived by producer John Peters in a haze of spider-based fever dreams. Instead, the film responsible for inspiring a generation of steampunks and killing an entire slate of planned Warner Bros. blockbusters for almost half a decade has its roots in a once-popular ‘60s show.
Like the film, the show did revolve around secret agent Jim West, sent on a mission by President Grant to go undercover in Southern and Western society, foiling the plots of evil villains like Dr. Loveless. The show managed to blend elements of the fading Western genre with emerging spy and sci-fi tropes, and proved to be a huge hit, running for four seasons and cancelled only after Congress cracked down on depictions of violence on television. But, to be fair, the show didn’t feature the Fresh Prince and Sisqo saying “wiki-wiki-wild”, so point: movie.
15. FORGET: MY MOTHER THE CAR
The seemingly whimsical story of a man who discovers his dead mother’s soul is playfully imprisoned in a jalopy, My Mother The Car was infamously bad, staining the career of star Jerry Van Dyke and later dubbed the #2 Worst TV Show Of All Time by TV Guide. Some may be reticent to label this Mr. Ed-esque farce science fiction, but if there’s a rational, non-sci-fi explanation for a woman’s restless soul residing inside a 1928 Porter, we’re all ears.
Some might forgive My Mother The Car by suggesting that, for its day, it might have been all the sophistication sci-fi fans could handle But this was 1965: In cinemas, Jean-Luc Godard debuted Alphaville, Doctor Who was traversing screens big and small, and Lost In Space and The Outer Limits were beaming into American homes every night. That any executive thought this feeble farce could hold up was proof that the times, they were a’changin’.
14. REMEMBER: FOREVER KNIGHT
Sure, Angel may have scratched your “compassionate, hunky vampire who becomes a detective” itch, but if you’re still thirsting for more, we have a lesser known Canadian series to send your way. Preceding the Buffy spin-off by seven years, Forever Knight had its origins as a CBS TV Movie starring “Jessie’s Girl” singer Rick Springfield as Nick Knight.
Knight was a Toronto cop who works the night shift in order to hide his true identity as an 800 year old vampire.
The show recast Nick with Geraint Wyn Davies and ran for three seasons, garnering a slew of Gemini (the Canadian Emmys) nominations. The show followed Knight’s attempt to once again become mortal, and his constant conflicts with the charismatic Lucien LaCroix, whose alter-ego as a talk radio host is one of the show’s more satirical elements. Arguably ahead of its time, Forever Knight did maintain a small cult following after its cancellation, and is well overdue for a reevaluation.
13. FORGET: BAYWATCH NIGHTS
Whoo-boy, whether it’s the original show, this absurd spin-off or the recent Rock-led reboot film, Baywatch is a cultural sin we’re all going to have to explain to our children some day. “But CBR writer,” you might say, “I remember Baywatch Nights, and it wasn’t sci-fi at all!” Whelp, technically you’re right, equally nameless reader. If you watched the first season, it was simply a show about David Hasselhoff and Gregory Allan Williams running a detective agency inside a nightclub owned by Lou Rawls (who co-performed the theme song with Hasselhoff).
However, alarmed by low ratings and desperate to cash in on some of that sweet, sweet X-Files money, producers dumped Williams’ detective in favor of paranormal investigator Diamont McTeague. The show then followed he and Hasselhoff as they tussled with sea-creatures, aliens, sea-creatures, vampires and… sea-creatures. Look, it’s ultimately still a show about lifeguards, there’s not a lot one can do with an aquatic sci-fi setting.
12. REMEMBER: FOREVER
The most recent show on this list, Forever was a 2015 series starring the original cinematic Mr. Fantastic, Ioan Gruffud, as an immortal doctor living with his now elderly adopted son, trying desperately to figure out why, every time he dies, he wakes up once again in the New York waterways. What could have been rote and tedious proved to be delightful and intriguing due to its compelling central mystery and its electric cast-chemistry.
Popular online, winning several “Best Of” new show polls and garnering respectable DVR-ratings, ABC cancelled the show after a single season citing poor live ratings.
Sure, the way “live ratings” are determined is a broken, archaic system that doesn’t keep up with the contemporary culture. But hey, ABC had to make room for the smash hit Inhumans, right? Outraged fans hoped to see Forever continue in some form, be it a revival or even a comic book sequel, but thus far the story of Dr. Henry Morgan remains dead.
11. FORGET: SEALAB 2020
While dystopian sci-fi has existed since H.G. Wells gave readers a glimpse of the horrifying Morlocks in The Time Machine, the ‘60s and ‘70s were rich with a subgenre now virtually unseen: aspirational sci-fi. These were shows that endeavored to explore what we as a society could be; visions of utopia, of mankind united in a common cause, using new technology not for destruction, but for exploration and innovation.
Sealab 2020, the brainchild of Hanna-Barbera and Space Ghost creator Alex Toth, was one such program. However, Sealab 2020 swiftly discovered the central problem that faces most aspirational sci-fi stories. A lack of conflict, while ideal for utopias, isn’t super great for serialized storytelling. There’s a lot more dramatic tension to be garnered from a failed underwater endeavor like Bioshock’s Rapture than the constant exclusively-external conflicts that faced Captain Murphy and his crew.
10. REMEMBER: SEALAB 2021
If you love Archer or the irreverent Adult Swim attitude of shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Rick & Morty, you have a single show to thank. After the success of Space Ghost Coast To Coast, Cartoon Network realized it could create the kind of edgy, adult-oriented late-night material that was a hit with the MTV demographic, and do it using only the archived Hannah-Barbera shows they owned and some truly twisted minds.
Future Archer creator Adam Reed was given free reign when it came to his re-editing of the unremarkable Sealab 2020, and what we got was one of the most bizarrely brilliant shows to ever air.
Rather than settle for a hodgepodge of stoner giggle-worthy lines (though there were plenty of those), Sealab 2021 was rife with dadaist humor in a pre-meme time. Characters like the “Bizarro” and the infamous, single joke “Uh Oh” that ran through an entire episode serve as a landmark moment for future animators.
9. FORGET: KINGDOM HOSPITAL
Shortly after American audiences took their final trip to Twin Peaks (before the recent revival), an equally demented auteur was melting minds across an ocean. In 1994, Lars Von Trier brought Riget to Danish TV screens. The series, set inside the neurological wing of a hospital known as “The Kingdom,” was a groundbreaking miniseries that drew critical acclaim and was the only miniseries to appear on the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list.
So, when the decision was made to remake the show for American audiences, they needed a big name. A person who truly understood horror. When Stephen King came aboard, it seemed a match made in heaven… or more appropriately hell. Turns out folks focused too much on King’s literary skill, and forgot his failed attempts to translate those scares to the screen (his only directorial credit is Maximum Overdrive). The result was a dry and lifeless drama, a hollow shell of the original series.
8. REMEMBER: THE LOST ROOM
Back before its name was changed to the inexplicable “Syfy” and became a Sharknado factory, The Sci-Fi Channel was unabashedly nerdy and exceptionally nervy when it came to taking risks. Everyone knows it took a big swing rebooting Battlestar Galactica and it paid off heartily. But few remember Sci-Fi’s other original series, like the riveting The Lost Room.
Sci-Fi’s original miniseries certainly was original. Rather than tackling aliens or other well-worn tropes, The Lost Room found Six Feet Under star Peter Krause in search of indestructible objects. The objects are the “keys” to unlocking the Lost Room, a seemingly normal 1960’s hotel room lost in space and time, where his daughter disappeared. An entrancing series with a rich, complex mythology and an easily digestible run time, The Lost Room is not one to miss.
7. FORGET: THE POWERS OF MATTHEW STAR
A show created by the writer of Die Hard, written and directed in part by Star Trek alum, and featuring an Oscar winner? What could possibly go wrong? Well, in the case of TV Guide’s #22 Worst Show of All Time, quite a lot. The overly complex story of Matthew Star, secretly the alien prince E’Hawke from the planet Quadris, and his bodyguard D’Hai was all laid out in a rushed introductory monologue delivered by Lou Gossett Jr. at the start of each episode, potentially turning off viewers who’d only just tuned in.
Even the talents of Gossett Jr., who had just won an Oscar that same year for An Officer and a Gentleman, couldn’t rescue the show from it’s goofy premise, its poor writing (one episode was written by Star Trek’s Walter Koenig, another directed by Leonard Nimoy), or its bland lead Peter Barton.
6. REMEMBER: THE SECRET WORLD OF ALEX MACK
Plenty of shows from the Nickelodeon ‘90s will awaken nostalgia in your average millennial, but few will elicit quite the awestruck “Yoooooooooo!” as The Secret World of Alex Mack. Then again, few shows on any network quite struck the balance of unabashed ambition, rich but uncomplicated mythos and broad storytelling potential like this teen sci-fi series created to replace Clarissa Explains It All.
Struck by chemical GC-161 on her way to middle school, teenager Alex Mack discovers she has strange powers ranging from telekinesis to the ability to turn into liquid.
With the help of her scientist sister and her best friend, Mack must evade the evil corporation hellbent on subjecting her to experimentation, or worse. Running for four seasons and launching the careers of star Larisa Oleynik, Will Estes and Jessica Alba, the series inexplicably went without a home video release until 2017.
5. FORGET: CLEOPATRA 2525
After producing the syndicated hits Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, producers at Renaissance Pictures must have thought they could do no wrong. That, or they wanted to see just how far they could push an audience’s willingness to tolerate shows that thought so little of them, and seemed almost spiteful in their patronizing premises.
Sure, Hercules and Xena were fine family entertainment, but it’s hard not to feel the creator’s disdain for its audience with Cleopatra 2525, the story of a stripper whose breast augmentation surgery goes awry, freezing her and stranding her in a scantily clad, low-budget future where sexy gals fight robots. On its own, the show is already irredeemable garbage, but how it squanders future sci-fi TV icon Gina Torres (Zoe from Firefly) is downright inexcusable.
4. REMEMBER: THE IMMORTAL
Creating a TV show solely to try and replicate the success of a different hit program isn’t exactly the recipe for memorable television. More often than not, a hit show will yield a slew of cheap, forgettable knockoffs no one ever needed; but every once in a while it can inspire something truly noteworthy.
In the case of The Immortal, ABC was clearly trying to replicate the success of The Fugitive by crafting another “man on the run” saga, but with a sci-fi twist.
However, thanks to clever writing and an empathetic hero, the story of test car driver Ben Richards, who discovers that his blood makes him immune to all disease including old age, and his unending pursuit from deranged billionaires seeking immortality, made for an absolutely riveting season of television.
3. FORGET: THE SECOND HUNDRED YEARS
The year 1967 was a time of confusion. The war in Vietnam was escalating and Americans didn’t know how to feel about it. In New Orleans, Jim Garrison claimed he’d unraveled the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. And at ABC, somebody somehow thought The Second Hundred Years was a good idea.
The show told the story of Luke Carpenter, a prospector frozen in a glacier in 1900, thawed out in 1967, and living with his son, now biologically 30 years older than his father. Monte Markham played not only Luke Carpenter but also Luke’s grandson Ken, and their resemblance led to some painfully zany mishaps. Ironically, in real world 1967, James H. Berdford became the first man to ever be cryogenically frozen in the hopes of being revived in the future. Whether he did so solely to avoid having to sit through The Second Hundred Years is merely a matter of speculation.
2. REMEMBER: THE MIDDLEMAN
America’s long-term love for retrofuturism is rivaled only by its fervent initial dismissal of it. The Iron Giant, while now universally recognized as one of the finest animated films of all time, was brushed off in its day. Initially maligned films like The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are receiving recent reevaluations. Hopefully, ABC Family’s The Middleman garners a similar second look.
This delightfully self-aware and acutely silly show starred Natalie Morales as a directionless temp recruited by a paranormal policing unit known only as The Middlemen.
With rich art direction and infinitely funny writing, The Middleman garnered great reviews and a strong cult following but failed to land with ABC Family’s core demographic and was nixed before it could film its finale. In the age of binging and re-watchability, a streaming service would be smart to pick up this densely funny series and mine it for all its worth.
1. FORGET THE SHOW, REMEMBER THE SONG: FIREBALL XL-5
Modern American audiences may not be familiar with Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi marionette shows like Thunderbirds, Supercar or Stingray. Indeed, most Americans would likely only recognize the style of Gerry Anderson from, well, Team America, the satirical film that spoofed Anderson’s stilted puppet style.
And to be clear, we’re not going to sit here and pretend that Fireball XL-5 is some revolutionary work in Anderson’s oeuvre. Even to those fond of Anderson’s work, Fireball is little more than a bland space romp, lacking the vibrancy of Thunderbirds or Stingray. However, even if you toss the show to the rubbish bin of history, its jaunty theme tune is well worth remembering on its own. The song actually charted in Britain and even popped up in the 2000 gangster film Love, Honor and Obey. The show may be bland, but when was the last time a sci-fi song was this fun?
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