Fantastic TV (50 Years of Cult Fantasy and Science Fiction)

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Fantastic TV (50 Years of Cult Fantasy and Science Fiction) 

by Steven Savile

Plexus, London (March 2010)

Reviewed by Steve Fahnestalk

Fantastic TV is a work of non-fiction, which may seem an odd thing to have in a magazine devoted to short fiction reviews. But we’re eclectic, we are, and if ye olde editor feels it’s appropriate, who are we to disagree?

At fewer than 300 pages, this is not an exhaustive catalogue of small-screen sf/fantasy; nor is it an attempt to be an episode guide for any series—rather, it’s one writer’s view (a British writer, living in Los Angeles, so there’s a definite British slant) of not only the significant television sf/fantasy series, but also what they might mean in a larger context—not only in science fiction and fantasy as a genre, but in societal values as a whole.

The book is divided into eight sections, with a round-robin interview with some TV writers, producers and other interested parties comprising section 8; the other sections are divided into some kind of logical order according to Savile’s design. I’ll touch on each section briefly before giving my review of the book as a whole. The chapter/section titles are cleverly cribbed from movies and books, and even TV episodes.

Section 1, “The Stars Our Destination,” covers such space-related series as Lost In Space, Star Trek, Blake’s 7, Babylon 5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (ST: DS9), Star Trek: Voyager, Firefly, and the new (and now extinct) Battlestar Galactica. The chapter gives (as all the chapters do) a synopsis of the series, brief or otherwise—depending on the series, and the author’s own thoughts about each series. Because Blake’s 7 was seldom seen outside Britain most American SF fans won’t be familiar with it, as they would be with the rest cited here. Savile finds it important mainly because unlike the various Star Trek incarnations, all was not rosy within the series’ version of the Federation—internal dissent was rife and formed a key point in the series.

Savile says (and not without justification) that Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager (especially) could have benefited from internal tension rather than always having the threat come from outside. He mentions that Chakotay’s little group of Maquis almost immediately became “assimilated” and good little Federation weenies once aboard Voyager—and even Jeri Ryan’s Borg Babe was less interesting than she could have been (for the guys, the tight jumpsuit helped keep some interest in her character, Seven of Nine) had she just been more of a thorn in Janeway’s side due to her Borg upbringing.

Section 2 is called “They Came From Outer Space” and covers V (the original), The Tripods, and Alien Nation. For various reasons, I never watched the original V (and got bored early with the new version), so I’ll have to take the author’s word on it; Alien Nation was good for its day, but was cancelled before it really found its feet—but I wish we’d been able to see The Tripods on American TV, because this description makes it seem they really used John Christopher’s books as a basis for the series, and the books were terrific YA fodder. For Savile’s money, the best of this group was The Tripods.

Section 3, “Rending Time and Space,” covers Doctor Who (various series‘), Sapphire and Steel, Stargate SG-1, and Tru Calling. I must confess I never cared for the original Doctor Who series, although I really like the current Doctor and Amy Pond… that being said, the series is covered in loving detail—because if you were a British SF fan, you were a Doctor Who fan. That’s a given, isn’t it? I wish we Americans had been allowed the opportunity to see Sapphire and Steel—it starred Joanna Lumley and David McCallum—what’s not to like about that cast? Lumley, of course, was fresh off her stint as Purdey in The New Avengers, and McCallum would have been familiar to American audiences as Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Invisible Man—but alas, the British shows never aired in the US that I know of, during that period. For this kind of information alone, this book is invaluable! Stargate SG-1 was the longest-running SF series on TV, although it has been supplanted by Stargate: Universe and Stargate: Atlantis—still good action-adventure SF, though. And finally, what red-blooded male wouldn’t like Tru Calling? With Faith, I mean Eliza Dushku, fresh off Buffy the Vampire Slayer—another Joss Whedon series about a young woman with mysterious powers. Tru Calling was cancelled early—a fate which seems to befall about half of Whedon’s series, though perhaps it would have found an audience had it been given a little longer.

Section 4 is “The Body Electric (We Can Rebuild You),” and is about The Six Million Dollar Man, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Max Headroom. In the seventies, many American kids (and, according to the author, an equal number of British kids) took to running in simulated slow motion, as if they, too, had been given “bionic” legs—like so many SF series, this one became part of general culture; despite the likeableness of bland Lee Majors as Steve Austin, the series soon descended into the usual action/adventure stuff you saw on every action/adventure series. The Amazing Spider-Man, with Nicholas Hammond, was obviously as disappointing for the book’s author as it was for me. The so-called “special effects”—even given that it was 30 years ago—were terrible; I never bought Hammond as Peter Parker for one minute (however; given Tobey Maguire’s awful performances, I’m beginning to be a bit nostalgic for Hammond), and even Stan Lee is reputed to have hated the show. It died an early, possibly well-deserved death. M-M-Max Headroom started as a British show (on the British version of MTV), but migrated to the US, and Matt Frewer soon became a household name. Oddly enough, Savile accuses Max of being a cocaine addict parody, but I really don’t see it myself.

In Section 5, “Stranger Things Happen,” we look in on Quatermass, The Twilight Zone, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Tomorrow People, Charmed, Afterlife, and Supernatural. Of the mentioned series’, only Quatermass, The Tomorrow People and Afterlife never made it to this side of the pond. I must confess I never watched Charmed, having a personal aversion to Shannen Doherty, but after reading this book I’d like to see it with Rose McGowan, who’s a much more likable actress (catch her in Planet Terror!). Savile covers The Twilight Zone extensively, finding a few new things to say about this icon of American TV SF, but it is for Quatermass that he reserves his finest kudos—the original 1953 broadcast serial, quite different from the big-screen movies that followed—appear to Savile to be the genesis of British (and indeed, he mentions X-Files and Aliens as being influenced) TV SF. Although the 1955 Hammer remake is available on BitTorrent, as well as the 2005 remake, I confess to never having seen the original BBC version which, according to Savile, contrasted the science of the rocketeers with an almost Lovecraftian universe “out there”! The Tomorrow People has appeared on American TV, but I’ve only seen a couple of episodes; Afterlife hasn’t—but it apparently somewhat resembles Medium or maybe Ghost Whisperer.

Section 6 says “Just Because They’re Out to Get You, It Doesn’t Mean You’re Paranoid”—and obviously includes such series as The Prisoner (original version), The X-Files, and Torchwood. I say “obviously,” because They were out to get Number 6, like they were out to get Special Agents Mulder and Scully—but I’m not so sure if that’s true about Captain Jack Harkness. (Just between you and me, I hear they’re bringing Torchwood back—but obviously the cast will be either smaller—just Gwen and Jack—or they’ll put a new cast in place to supplant Ianto, Tosh and the Doctor.)

Section 7 looks at “A New Kind of Hero,” with Wonder Woman, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ultraviolet, Angel, Smallville, Lost, and Heroes. With the possible exception of Smallville’s Clark Kent, most of the protagonists in this section could be said to be supernatural beings—after all, Wonder Woman was an Amazon princess given powers by goddesses, Angel was a vampire (and Buffy was The Slayer—there can be only one in a generation, or at least until the final few episodes when Sunnyvale was overrun by wanna-be Slayers); Xena originated somewhere in myth, Lost’s people deal with smog monsters, and the protagonists of Heroes, those “new people,” have nearly Godlike powers, although mostly one at a time.  Savile devotes an inordinate amount of space to Wonder Woman and her effect on “Jiggle TV”—I think maybe he was fascinated by Lynda Carter’s breasts. (But then, what young man wasn’t at that age?)

Finally, Section 8, “Worlds of Their Own,” ties it all together with a round-robin interview with Joe Ahearne (British TV writer, producer & director), Paul Cornell (British TV writer), Kenneth Johnson (American TV series creator and writer), Andrew Cartmel (British TV writer and script editor), Kevin J. Anderson (American genre and tie-in writer), Keith DeCandido (American genre novelist and tie-in writer), as well as Stephen Volk (British TV writer). In this series they discuss the trials and tribulations of either writing original TV works or adapting to TV work; Kevin Anderson talks about how TV helped him develop his writing skills by analyzing TV shows and so on.

The group also talks about why some genre TV is so good and why some is so bad. Perhaps the most telling comment is made by Joe Ahearne, developer and writer of several British TV shows as a response to Kevin Anderson’s comment about TV followers spilling over and becoming readers of his own books thanks to his media tie-in novels: Ahearne says, “Haven’t read any novels since Asimov, so can’t help you there….”

I found the book fascinating, not the least because being British biased, it forces an American viewer to examine his/her own biases in genre TV viewing—but also because it’s interesting to see what series were left out! No Man From Atlantis, Invaders, The Outer Limits—what about Superman—heck, you can pick lots of common series that weren’t mentioned.

At $20 for a trade paperback, I think Savile delivers value for the money. Recommended.