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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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