SCIENCE FICTION PROGRAMS

Although not one of television's predominant genres in terms of overall programming hours, science-fiction nonetheless spans the history of the medium, beginning in the late 1940s as low-budget programs aimed primarily at juvenile audiences and developing, by the 1990s, into a genre particularly important to syndication and cable markets. For many years, conventional industry wisdom considered science-fiction to be a genre ill-suited to television. Aside from attracting a very limited demographic group for advertisers, science-fiction presented a problematic genre in that its futuristic worlds and speculative storylines often challenged both the budgets and narrative constraints of the medium, limitations especially true in television's first decades. Over the years, however, producers were to discover that science-fiction could attract an older and more desirable audience, and that such audiences, though often still limited, were in many cases incredibly devoted to their favorite programs. As a consequence, the eighties and nineties saw a tremendous increase in science-fiction programming in the U. S., especially in markets outside the traditional three broadcast networks.

As a children's genre in the late 1940s and early 1950s, science-fiction programs most often followed a serial format, appearing in the afternoon on Saturdays or at the beginning of prime time during the weeknight schedule. At times playing in several installments per week, these early examples of the genre featured the adventures of male protagonists working to maintain law and order in outer space. These early "space westerns" included Buck Rogers (ABC 1950-51), Captain Video and His Video Rangers (Dumont 1949-54), Flash Gordon (Syndicated 1953), Space Patrol (ABC 1951-52), and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (CBS/ABC/NBC 1950-52). Each series pitted its dynamic hero against a variety of intergalactic menaces, be they malevolent alien conquerors, evil mad scientists, or mysterious forces of the universe. All of these programs were produced on shoe-string budgets, but this did not stop each series from equipping its hero with a fantastic array of futuristic gadgetry, including radio helmets, ray-guns, and Captain Video's famous "decoder ring." Viewers at home could follow along with their heroes on the quest for justice by ordering plastic replicas of these gadgets through popular premium campaigns. Of these first examples of televised science-fiction, Captain Video was particularly popular, airing Monday through Friday in half-hour (and later, fifteen-minute) installments. One of the first "hits" of television, the program served for many years as a financial linchpin for the struggling Dumont network, and left the air only when the network itself collapsed in 1954.

As was typical of much early programming for children, Captain Video concluded each episode by delivering a lecture on moral values, good citizenship, or other uplifting qualities for his young audience to emulate. Such gestures, however, did not spare Captain Video and his space brethren from becoming the focus of the first of many major public controversies over children's television. In a theme that would become familiar over the history of the medium, critics attacked these shows for their "addictive" nature, their perceived excesses of violence, and their ability to "over-excite" a childish imagination. In this respect, early science fiction on television became caught up in a larger anxiety over children's culture in the fifties, a debate that culminated with the 1954 publication of Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, an attack on the comic book industry that eventually led to a series of Congressional hearings on the imagined links between popular culture and juvenile delinquency.

Science-fiction programming aimed at older audiences in early television was more rare, confined almost entirely to dramatic anthology series such as Lights Out (NBC 1949-52), Out There (CBS 1951-52), and Tales of Tomorrow (ABC 1951-53). As with other dramatic anthologies of the era, these programs depended heavily on adaptations of pre-existing stories, borrowing from the work of such noted science-fiction writers as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Ray Bradbury. Tales of Tomorrow even attempted a half-hour adaptation of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. When not producing adaptations, these anthologies did provide space for original and at times innovative teleplays. Interestingly, however, as science fiction became an increasingly important genre in Hollywood during the mid-late-1950s, especially in capturing the burgeoning teenage market its presence on American television declined sharply. One exception was Science Fiction Theater (1955-57), a syndicated series that presented speculative stories based on contemporary topics of scientific research.

Science-fiction's eventual return to network airwaves coincided with the rising domestic tensions and cold war anxieties associated with the rhetoric of the Kennedy administration's "New Frontier." As a response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik, for example, CBS' Men Into Space (1959-60) participated in the larger cultural project of explicitly promoting interest in the emerging "space race" while also celebrating American technology and heroism that had been threatened by the Soviets' success. Other series were more complex in their response to the social and technological conflicts of the New Frontier era. In particular, The Twilight Zone (CBS 1959-64) and The Outer Limits (ABC 1963-65), programs that would become two of the genre's most celebrated series, frequently engaged in critical commentary on the three pillars of New Frontier ideology--space, suburbia, and the superpowers.

Hosted and for the most part scripted by Rod Serling, a highly acclaimed writer of live television drama in the fifties, The Twilight Zone was an anthology series that while not exclusively based in science-fiction, frequently turned to the genre to frame highly allegorical tales of the human condition and America's national character. Some of the most memorable episodes of the series used science-fiction to defamiliarize and question the conformist values of post-war suburbia as well as the rising paranoia of cold war confrontation. Of these, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" was perhaps most emblematic of these critiques. In this episode, a "typical" American neighborhood is racked with suspicion and fear when a delusion spreads that the community has been invaded by aliens. Neighbor turns against neighbor to create panic until at the end, in a "twist" ending that would become a trademark of the series, the viewer discovers that invading aliens have actually arrived on earth. Their plan is to plant such rumors in every American town to tear these communities apart thus laying the groundwork for a full-scale alien conquest.

More firmly grounded in science-fiction was The Outer Limits, an hour-long anthology series known primarily for its menagerie of gruesome monsters. Much more sinister in tone than Serling's Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits also engaged in allegories about space, science, and American society. But in an era marked by the almost uniform celebration of American science and technology, this series stood out for its particularly bleak vision of technocracy and the future, using its anthology format to present a variety of dystopic parables and narratives of annihilation. Of the individual episodes, perhaps most celebrated was Harlan Ellison's award-winning time-travel story, "Demon with a Glass Hand," an episode that remains one of the most narratively sophisticated and willfully obtuse hours of television ever produced. While The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits remain the most memorable examples of the genre in this era, science-fiction television of the mid-1960s was dominated, in terms of total programming hours, by the work of producer Irwin Allen. Allen's series, aimed primarily at juvenile audiences on ABC, included Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (ABC 1964-68), Lost in Space (CBS 1965-68), Time Tunnel (ABC 1966-67 ), and Land of the Giants (ABC 1968-70 ). Each series used a science-fiction premise to motivate familiar action-adventure stories. Of these, Lost in Space has been the most enduring in both syndication and national memory. Centering on young Will Robinson and his friend the Robot, the series adapted the "Swiss Family Robinson" story to outer space, chronicling a wandering family's adventures as they tried to return to earth.

Many other television series of the sixties, while not explicitly science fiction, nevertheless incorporated elements of space and futuristic technology into their storyworlds. Following the success of The Flintstones, a prime time animated series about a prehistoric family, ABC premiered The Jetsons (1962-63), a cartoon about a futuristic family of the next century. The sitcom My Favorite Martian (CBS 1963-66), meanwhile, paired an earthling newspaper reporter with a Martian visitor, while I Dream of Jeannie (NBC 1965-70) matched a NASA astronaut with a beautiful genie. The camp hit Batman (ABC 1966-68) routinely featured all manner of innovative "bat" technologies that allowed its hero to outwit Gotham City's criminals. Also prominent in this era was a cycle of spy and espionage series inspired by the success of the James Bond films, each incorporating a variety of secret advanced technologies. Of this cycle, the British produced series, The Prisoner (CBS 1968-69), was the most firmly based in science-fiction, telling the Orwellian story of a former secret agent stripped of his identity and trapped on an island community run as a futuristic police state.

By far the most well-known and widely viewed science-fiction series of the 1960s (and probably in all of television) was Star Trek (NBC 1966-69), a series described by its creator, Gene Roddenberry, as "Wagon Train in space." Although set in the 23rd century, the world of Star Trek was firmly grounded in the concerns of sixties America. Intermixing action-adventure with social commentary, the series addressed such issues as racism, war, sexism, and even the era's flourishing hippie movement. A moderately successful series during its three-year network run, Star Trek would become through syndication perhaps the most actively celebrated program in television history, inspiring a whole subculture of fans (known variously as "trekkies" or "trekkers") whose devotion to the series led to fan conventions, book series, and eventually a commercial return of the Star Trek universe in the 1980s and 1990s through motion pictures and television spin-offs.

Like Star Trek, the BBC produced serial, Dr. Who, also attracted a tremendous fan following. In production from 1963 to 1989, Dr. Who stands as the longest running continuous science-fiction series in all of television. A time-travel adventure story aimed primarily at children, the series proved popular enough in the United Kingdom to inspire two motion pictures pitting the Doctor against his most famous nemesis-the Daleks (Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD (1966). The series was later imported to the United States, where it aired primarily]y on PBS affiliates and quickly became an international cult favorite.

While most television science-fiction in the 1950s and 1960s had followed the adventures of earthlings in outer space, increasing popular interest in Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) led to the production, in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, of a handful of programs based on the premise of secretive and potentially hostile aliens visiting the earth. The Invaders (ABC 1967-68) chronicled one man's struggle to expose an alien invasion plot, while UFO (Syndicated 1972) told of a secret organization dedicated to repelling an imminent UFO attack. Veteran producer Jack Webb debuted Project UFO (NBC) in 1978, which investigated, in Webb's characteristically terse style, unexplained UFO cases taken from the files of the United States Air Force. Such series fed a growing interest in the early seventies with all manner of paranormal and extraterrestrial phenomena, ranging from Erich von Daniken's incredibly popular speculations on ancient alien contact in Chariots of the Gods to accounts of the mysterious forces in the "Bermuda Triangle." Such topics from the fringes of science were the focus of the syndicated documentary series, In Search Of (Syndicated 1976), hosted by Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy.

For the most part however, science-fiction once again went into decline during the 1970s as examples of the genre became more sporadic and short-lived, many series running only a season or less. Series such as Planet of the Apes (CBS 1974) and Logan's Run (CBS 1977-78) attempted to adapt popular motion pictures to prime time television, but with little success. A much more prominent and expensive failure was the British series, Space: 1999 (Syndicated 1975). Starring Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, the program followed a group of lunar colonists who were sent hurtling through space when a tremendous explosion drives the moon out of its orbit. The series was promoted in syndication as the most expensive program of its kind ever produced, but despite such publicity, the series went out of production after only 48 episodes.

 

 

Two of the more successful science-fiction series of the era were The Six Million Dollar Man (ABC 1975-78) and its spin-off The Bionic Woman (ABC/NBC 1976-78). The "six million dollar man" was Lt. Steve Austin, a test pilot who was severely injured in a crash and then reconstructed with cybernetic limbs and powers that made him an almost superhuman "bionic man." Austin's girlfriend, also severely injured (in a separate incident) and rebuilt (by the same doctors) debuted her own show the following season (complete with a "bionic" dog). The moderate success of these two series sparked a cycle of programs targeted at children featuring superheros with superpowers of one kind or another, including The Invisible Man (NBC 1975-76), Gemini Man (NBC 1976) Man From Atlantis (NBC 1977-78), Wonder Woman (ABC/CBS 1976-79), and The Incredible Hulk (CBS 1978-82).

Also moderately successful in the late-1970s were a pair of series designed to capitalize on the extraordinary popularity of George Lucas' 1977 blockbuster film, Star Wars. Both Battlestar Galactica (ABC 1978-80), starring Bonanza's patriarch Lorne Greene, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (NBC 1979-81) spent large amounts of money on the most complex special effects yet seen on television, all in an attempt to recreate the dazzling hardware, fast-paced space battles, and realistic aliens of Lucas' film. Less successful in riding Star Wars' coat-tails was the parodic sitcom, Quark (NBC 1978), the story of a garbage scow in outer space.

In England, the 1970s saw the debut of another BBC produced series that would go on to acquire an international audience. Blake's Seven (BBC 1978-81) was created by Terry Nation, the same man who introduced the Daleks to the world of Dr. Who in the early 1960s. Distinguished by a much darker tone than most television science-fiction, Blake's Seven followed the adventures of a band of rebels in space struggling to overthrow an oppressive regime.

Alien invasion was once again the theme on American television in 1983, when NBC programmed a high-profile mini-series that pitted the earth against a race of lizard-like creatures who, though friendly at first, were actually intent on using the earth's population for food. V (NBC 1984-85) proved popular enough to return in a sequel miniseries the following year, which in turn led to its debut as a weekly series in the 1984-85 season. More provocative was ABC's short-lived Max Headroom (ABC 1987), television's only attempt at a subgenre of science-fiction prominent in the eighties known as "cyberpunk." "Max," who through commercials and a talk-show became a pop cult phenomenon in his own rite, was the computerized consciousness of TV reporter Edison Carter. Evoking the same "tech noir" landscape and thematic concerns of such cinematic contemporaries as Blade Runner, Robocop, and The Running Man, Max and Edison worked together to expose corporate corruption and injustice in the nation's dark, cybernetic, and oppressively urbanized future.

Less weighty than Max, but certainly more successful in their network runs, were two series that, while not necessarily true "science fiction," utilized fantastic premises and attracted devoted cult audiences. Beauty and The Beast (CBS 1987-90) was a romantic fantasy about a woman in love with a lion-like creature who lived in a secret subterranean community beneath New York City, while Quantum Leap (NBC 1989-93) followed Dr. Sam Beckett as he "leapt" in time from body to body, occupying different consciousnesses in different historical periods. The series was less concerned with the "science" of time travel, however, than with the moral lessons to be learned or taught by seeing the world through another person's eyes.

By far the most pivotal series in rekindling science-fiction as a viable television genre was Star Trek: The Next Generation (Syndicated 1987-94), produced by Paramount and supervised by the creator of the original Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. Already benefiting from the tremendous built-in audience of Star Trek fans eager for a spin-off of the old series, Paramount was able to bypass the networks and take the show directly into first-run syndication, where it quickly became the highest rated syndicated show ever. In many ways, Next Generation had more in common with other dramatic series of the 1980s and 1990s than it did with the original series. In this new incarnation, Star Trek became an ensemble drama structured much like Hill St. Blues or St. Elsewhere, featuring an expanded cast involved in both episodic and serial adventures. Broadcast in conjunction with a series of cinematic releases featuring the original Star Trek characters, Next Generation helped solidify Star Trek as a major economic and cultural institution in the eighties and nineties. After a seven year run, Paramount retired the series in 1994 to convert the Next Generation universe into a cinematic property, but not before the studio debuted a second spin-off, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Syndicated 1992-), which proved to be a more claustrophobic and less popular reading of the Star Trek universe. A third spin-off, Star Trek: Voyager (Syndicated 1995-), served as the anchor in Paramount's bid to create their own television network in 1995.

The success of the Star Trek series in first-run syndication reflected the changing marketplace of television in the 1980s and 1990s. As the three major networks continued to lose their audience base to the competition of independents, cable, and new networks such as FOX, Warner Brothers, and UPN, the entire industry sought out new niche markets to target in order to maintain their audiences. The Star Trek franchise's ability to deliver quality demographics and dedicated viewership inspired a number of producers to move into science fiction during this period. These series ranged from the literate serial drama, Babylon 5 (Syndicated 1994), to the bizarre police burlesque of Space Precinct (Syndicated 1994-). Also successful in syndication were "fantasy" series such as Highlander (Syndicated 1992-) and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (Syndicated 1994).

For the most part, the three major networks stayed away from science fiction in the 1990s, the exceptions being NBC's Earth 2 (1994-95) and Seaquest DSV (1993-), the latter produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. By far the most active broadcaster in developing science fiction in the 1990s was the FOX network, which used the genre to target even more precisely its characteristically younger demographics. FOX productions included Alien Nation (1989-91), M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-95), Sliders (1995), VR.5 (1995), and Space: Above and Beyond (1995). FOX's most successful foray into science fiction, however, was The X-Files (1993-). A surprise hit for the network, The X-Files combined horror, suspense, and intrigue in stories about two FBI agents assigned to unsolved cases involving seemingly paranormal phenomena. Although the series originally centered on a single "spook" of the week for each episode, it eventually developed a compelling serial narrative line concerning a massive government conspiracy to cover up evidence of extraterrestrial contact. Like so many other science-fiction programs, the series quickly developed a large and organized fan community.

By the early 1990s, television science-fiction had amassed a sizable enough program history and a large enough viewing audience to support a new cable network. The Sci-Fi Channel debuted in 1992, scheduling mainly old movies and television re-runs, but planning to support new program production in the genre sometime in the future.

-Jeffrey Sconce

FURTHER READING

Bellafante, Ginia. "Out of This world." Time (New York), 3 April 1995.

Coe, Steve. "Networks Take a Walk on Weird Side: Programmers Tap Into Taste For Fantasy, Sci-Fi and the Bizarre." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 30 October 1995.

Fulton, Roger. The Encyclopedia Of TV Science-Fiction. London: Boxtree, 1995.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Lentz, Harris M. Science Fiction, Horror & Fantasy Film And Television Credits. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1994.

Littleton, Cynthia. "First-Run Faces Unreality: Fantasy, Sci-Fi and the Unexplained Have Proved Fertile Field for Syndication." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 30 October 1995.

Menagh, Melanie and Stephen Mills. "A Channel for Science Fiction." Omni (New York), October 1992.

Okuda, Denise, Debbie Mirek, and Doug Drexler. The Star Trek Encyclopedia. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.

Peel, John. Island In The Sky: The Lost In Space Files. San Bernardino, California: Borgo, 1986.

Phillips, Mark, and Frank Garcia. Science Fiction Television Series: Episode Guides, Histories, and Casts and Credits for 62 Prime Time Shows, 1959 Through 1989. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1996.

Rigelsford, Adrian, and Terry Nation. The Making Of Terry Nation's Blake's 7. London: Boxtree, 1995

Schow, David. The Outer Limits: The Official Companion. New York: Ace Science Fiction Books, 1986.

Sconce, Jeffrey. "The 'Outer Limits' of Oblivion." In, Spigel, Lynn and Michael Curtin, editors. The Revolution Wasn't Televised: Sixties Television and Social Conflict. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Spigel, Lynn. "From Domestic Space To Outer Space: The 1960s Fantastic Family Sit-Com." In, Penley, Constance, editor, with others. Close Encounters: Film Feminism, and Science Fiction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Tulloch, John, and Henry Jenkins. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr. Who And Star Trek. London: Routledge, 1995.

Van Hise, James. New Sci Fi TV From The Next Generation To Babylon 5. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer, 1994

_______________. Sci Fi Tv: From The Twilight Zone To Deep Space Nine. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1993.

White, Matthew, and Jaffer Ali. The Official Prisoner Companion. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1988.

Wright Gene. The Science Fiction Image: The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction In Film, Television, Radio And The Theater. New York: Facts on File, c1983.

Zicree, Marc Scott. The Twilight Zone Companion. New York: Bantam, 1982.

 

See also Captain Video and His Video Rangers; Dark Shadows; Doctor Who; Max Headroom; Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Nation, Terry; Pertwee, Jon; Prisoner, The; Roddenberry, Gene; Serling, Rod; Star Trek; Troughton, Patrick; Twilight Zone, The