Welcome back to the increasingly unpopular and yet determined-to-win-you-over occasional series of lists of five types of thing I think are great.
We’ve had foreign language films, books and obscure albums and now it’s time to launch a subject that will either divide the audience or make them turn away immediately.
OK – so for those of you thinking “I don’t like science-fiction” please don’t despair – and please don’t dismiss a whole genre of fiction. When it’s good Sci-Fi is the most creative and imaginative form of writing and often takes risks that other types of fiction can’t. Really good Sci-fi uses the trappings of the genre to comment on our own society and should not merely be dismissed. Don’t forget that only a generation or so ago the concept of humans being able to fly from place to place in planes would have seemed like science fiction.
And, of course, it’s not possible to produce a definitive list of five greatest Sci-fi, because there’s so much that is great – for instance I’ve left off (Ridley Scott’s) Alien which is a horror film using Sci-fi trappings and (James Cameron’s) Aliens because it is an action film that uses Sci-fi trappings (although I love both films) and am ignoring Avatar on the grounds that it was self-indulgent over-long rubbish (sorry guys, it just was).
So I’ve decided to divide it into two categories – TV Sci-fi, or Telefantasy as it’s sometimes known, and Movie Sci-fi
#1: Blake’s 7
What: Main BBC rival to Doctor Who from 1977-1981 the plot revolved around a bunch of political criminals attempting to sabotage a corrupt Federation of planets and win freedom for mankind.
The nominal leader of the “dirty dozen in space” was Roj Blake (played by Gareth Thomas), a political activist deemed too dangerous to kill in charge of a group of criminals and a mysterious alien ship. Plots revolved around attempts to sabotage Federation installations or to keep “independent” planets free of the Federations reach.
It all went a bit downhill after season two when Thomas left the show and the program lost its focus. The remaining characters had no particular reason to carry on the fight and so plots shifted to revenge and seeking personal wealth. By season four the original strong characters were being replaced by weaker ones and the show was cancelled – leaving generations of children with a cliff hanger ending that would never be resolved.
Having said this Paul Darrow (as cold, logical Kerr Avon) and Jacqueline Pearce (the ruthless federation leader Servalan) remain two of the most iconic characters in telefantasy and the first two seasons, slow as they may be (and full of rubbish monsters) by modern standards, are definitely still worth watching. The series also featured the most kick-ass spaceship in all Sci-fi: The Liberator.
Today: there is still interest in the show and the BBC recently commissioned some radio plays set in season four of the show. These were of mixed quality. There was some talk of a new show to feature Paul Darrow as an exiled Avon, but the last update I heard on this was that Darrow had fallen out with the creators and the project was indefinitely on hold.
#2: Doctor Who
What: Time-travel romp initially envisioned as a no bug-eyed monsters education show. This remit lasted all of four episodes and then the Daleks came along.
The original series ran from 1963 to 1989 and probably hit the height of its popularity from 1970-80 under the tenure of Jon Pertwee and later the legend-that-is Tom Baker when the show regularly drew 13-14 million viewers (figures undreamed of in modern TV). However, by 1987-89 the budget had been slashed, production values thrown out of the window and Bonnie Langford had been cast as an assistant (shudder)
The show was cancelled, briefly came back as an American pilot episode and finally returned five years ago – subsequently David Tennant became the Tenth actor to play the Doctor and was amazing (although clearly not better than Tom Baker).
Today: the most recent series, now starring Matt Smith, was a bit disappointing – but we continue to hope for better.
#3: Star Trek (original series)
What: the five year mission of the USS Enterprise that initially only lasted three. Full of 60s optimism the program was carried by the triad of Kirk, Spock and McCoy and that gung-ho spirit, combined with the Shatner/Nimoy/Kelly dynamic is still as good and as fresh as ever.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – of all the spin-offs this seems to have aged the worst, stuck – as it is – in 1980s America (come on guys, a councillor on the bridge?) Patrick Stewart is great as Jean-luc Picard, but of the minor characters Riker is unintentionally hilarious (watch the man walk – he seems to be on the verge of falling forward), Data is too smug (and the whole wanting to be human thing is wearisome) and only Worf is really of any interest.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – I didn’t really like this first time around, I found it slow and ponderous. Things get better when the Dominion war starts and the program rewards repeat viewing
Star Trek: Voyager – despite the annoying nasal voice of Captain Jane-a-way and her French-loaf hairdo this is my favourite of the spin-offs, although the speed that it sells out the initial interesting concept of rebels/federation having to come together is breathtaking
Star Trek: Enterprise – it had Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap in it. This is the only good thing about it. It got cancelled. Nuff said.
#4: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Teen-tearaway Buffy Summers discovers she is the chosen one to fight off the forces of darkness and moves to Sunnydale, which is conveniently located over a hellmouth
Funny, fast and incredibly intelligently written the first three series of Buffy should be shown to anyone even considering making a TV show as an example of how things should be done. Sadly during seasons four to six things become a bit more like Dawson’s Creek with vampires – but the final season just about manages to make up for it.
#5: Quantum Leap
Sam Beckett is lost in time thanks to his own experiment – he leaps about in time writing wrongs with the help of his hologram friend Al
OK – so the show is a bit of fluff. OK – so every other episode the writers seemed to find an excuse for Scott Bacula to sing, but who cares: it was genius. The on-screen chemistry between Sam and Al was always great and it was an unashamedly feel-good show. Just a shame about the rubbish final episode. Turn your brain off and enjoy.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
What: after the destruction of the Death Star at the end of what I must grudgingly refer to as A New Hope (It was just Star Wars when I saw it – OK!!!!!!) the rebel forces are on the run from a vengeful empire and Jedi-in-training Luke Skywalker is forced too soon into a confrontation with the evil Darth Vader
Much, much darker than the original film this is, I think, what we all wanted when George Lucas announced he was making three darker prequels. What we got was more muppett nonsense. Even though this is a middle episode and even though it ends with a cliffhanger this is easily the best of the Star Wars films and the scene on the gantry between Luke and Darth still remains a classic.
Future: There are still rumours of three more sequels to come – no, just no – ok?
What: Neo, a freelance computer hacker, comes across rumours of a matrix. He discovers he has an existence as a human battery and may or may not be destined to be a chosen saviour of the enslaved masses.
OK – great special effects, Keanu Reeves actually on form and delivering – fast and furious with some really neat ideas behind the effects this is a great film only ruined by two rather poor sequels. Watch it on its own and make up your own ending to the story.
Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan
What: Many years ago Kirk et al abandoned genetically enhanced Khan on a planet that turned out to be doomed – now he is back and wants revenge. Mix in a plan to colonise hostile worlds and the death of an old friend and you have a classic.
After the worthy but dull first film ST had to deliver and it is no co-incidence that Wrath Of Khan is still held as a classic. Not only is it a good Star Trek film, not only is it a good sci-fi film, it is a good film period. Leonard Nimoy particularly delivers the performance of a lifetime and Shatner still has the hint of the devil in his eye
Today: The latest Star Trek film was pretty good after the turgid Next Generation movies but, for my money, it lacked the Shatner factor and the time-travel plot was silly.
Clones (or replicants) are banned from Earth – those who disobey are hunted down and terminated by Blade Runners. Rik Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a Blade Runner who after coming in contact with a replicant begins not only to doubt his mission but the nature of his own existence.
The first three times I saw this film (the first time with the Sam Spade voice over still attached) I didn’t much like it. Why did I watch it again? Because the film was hailed as such a classic that I felt I must be wrong.
It’s one of those films that, like my favourite film Brazil, rewards repeated viewing and I like the fact that the ending is still up for discussion and not just given to you on a plate (though I haven’t seen the latest re-cut yet). The scene in the rain with Rutger Hauer is pure genius.
#5: Plan 9 From Outer Space
What: famously the second worst movie of all time (only beaten by Santa Claus Conquers The Martians) this features aliens so inept that plans 1 through 8 to curb humans from destroying the cosmos have presumably failed and they are forced to re-animate the dead to get our attention.
Made by notorious director Edward D Wood (and for more of the same watch Tim Burton’s excellent “Ed Wood”) on a budget conned from a religious group who thought the profits would go to making a film of the Bible, with stock footage of Bela Lugosi (intercut with Ed Wood’s dentist) and a not-so-psychic TV-psychic the lighting shifts from moment to moment and the dialogue is unbelievably forced. This is a must for every sci-fi fan who takes the genre too seriously to remind us that sometimes it is pretty bad too
Oh – and sneaking in at #6: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Just watch it, then watch it again. It will take about four or five viewings and suddenly you will realise that it is both a great movie and a great musical. Brilliantly paying homage to the weird and wonderful plots of the 1950s b-movies and with a performance from Tim Curry that will leave your jaw open with surprise long after the movie has finished.