Article – British TV Sci-Fi

The Fantasy Channel

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, February 2004)

Sea of Souls, another TV sci-fi series, starts this month, which will most likely join a long list of failures. So why do TV companies continue to try their luck with this frequently derided genre?

A lot of people’s earliest memories are of being driven behind the sofa by that perennial of television formats, the sci-fi/fantasy drama show. Whilst films have used the genre as a spectacle and an excuse to use a lot of special effects – whether it be the stop motion extravagance of Ray Harryhausen or the latest computer-generated wonders – television has preferred to concentrate on the psychological aspects of other-worldly stories, often to great effect.

Over the years many shows have left indelible images which have mentally scarred whole generations, which is why, although these shows are often regarded with contempt and hilarity by the more urbane members of society, there are still the odd attempt to re-capture the magic of this genre. This month the BBC’s latest attempt Sea of Souls – a paranormal drama set in Scotland – hopes to be the latest show to engross a new generation.

The BBC were also responsible for the grandaddy of all TV fantasy serials with Quatermass. Back in the fifties an entire nation was truly gripped by this adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s dark science-fiction drama about the eponymous professor and his well-grounded adventures in the then modern world tales of the British Rocket Group. The makers of the show wisely realised that they simply didn’t have the budget to bring to life most of the wilder ambitions of Kneale’s novels, so they concentrated on the intimate aspects and suggested much with things like shadows and looks of terror.

In the sixties the BBC didn’t want Doctor Who to be like Quatermass; the original proposals for the series wanted it to be wholesome family entertainment, educating the nation’s children in matters historical and with “no bug-eyed monsters” (God knows how Tom Baker got the part then). But the introduction of those evil mechanical pepperpots the Daleks soon changed all that, and gave a whole new generation something to be scared of. They may look ridiculous today, but the sink plunger-wielding ones genuinely had kids terrified with their grating voices, as well as saying pertinent things about fascism and eugenics to keep the adults disquietened.

Doctor Who was a huge show in the 60s and 70s and inspired many lesser rip offs. In the 70s ITV gave us Doomwatch, a ecologically-themed sci-fi series which gave us all the willies about what we were doing to our planet. ITV also gave us perhaps the ultimate psychological head trip with Sapphire and Steel, starring David McCallum and Joanna Lumley as the titular time travelling agents investigating anomalies in the continuum. These ‘anomalies’ usually turned out to be ghosts or other creepy oddities and the show genuinely managed to be both disturbing and enticing on the minuscule budget left over from paying the high profile stars’ wages.

The 80s suffered under the joint attack of big budget spectacles like Star Wars and piss-takers like Douglas Adams, whose Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was essentially a satire of TV sci-fi. Although Doctor Who limped on into the eighties, TV fantasy essentially came to an end, being banished to children’s TV or sitcoms like Red Dwarf. When the BBC tried to revive the genre by getting a bigger budget and employing a Hollywood star (Fred Ward) for Invasion: Earth, it was generally regarded as both crap and laughable.

Then in the 90s something strange happened when American TV suddenly rediscovered TV fantasy. The revival of Star Trek had a lot to do with it but it was spearheaded by the wildly successful Buffy The Vampire Slayer, whose creator Joss Whedon grew up in England and was an unashamed anglophile, both putting two British characters in the show (and one in spin-off Angel) and displaying a great love of British TV sci-fi.

In truth, British TV executives have long wanted this generation’s Quatermass or Doctor Who. Inspired by the success of Buffy, the BBC tried a laudable revival of ITV show Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), which failed mostly because of the non-acting talents of stars Reeves and Mortimer. Another spin-off from Buffy starring Anthony Head’s character was mooted but ultimately rejected in favour of the similar Strange, a decent attempt at modern sci-fi hamstrung by some woeful scripts. Sea of Souls is a further attempt, and does look intriguing not least in the casting of Bill Patterson in the lead role. Let’s hope it gets a chance.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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