I was walking past the living room the other day when I saw Diane watching the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Once More with Feeling. That’s the famous musical episode from the sixth season. Diane recently got to see Hinton Battle (they actor who played Sweet in the episode) on Broadway in Wicked so that might have been one of the reasons she was watching it. I stopped to watch a bit of the episode with her and mentioned to her that it was easily on my list of ten best genre TV episodes of all time. It was at this point where she mentioned that she had never thought of making such a list and this made me realize I really hadn’t either which is why you are now reading this article.
I’ll note that the list is really twelve episodes as I include two honorable mentions at the end. They are not in any particular order except for the final entry which I will discuss there. Here is my list of top ten genre TV episodes and, if others want to post their own, I would love to see them.
1) Star Trek – Where No Man has Gone Before. Yeah, I know, why not City on the Edge of Forever? Well, to be honest, it really boils down to how often I have revisited the various episodes of the original series and this one wins hands down. I think the appeal for me could be best be summed up by an old work colleague in that I am somewhat obsessed with the definition of humanity and what it is that we collectively agree makes us human. This episode really kind of goes at the heart of the issue in that uniquely Star Trek way. I have also seen it a lot as it is my first “go to” episode to introduce new people to Star Trek which I think is yet another statement about my perspective of the quality of the story.
2) Battlestar Galactica – Downloaded. This is of course from the new series. I was really blown away by this episode which gives us our first glimpse into the Cylon culture, specifically from their point of view. This is one of the few episodes on the list I have not seen a bunch of times. I know I watched it a second time back when it first aired because I was so impressed and writing about it here makes me want to do so again. I was honestly surprised when I first heard that this lost the Hugo award for that year to a Doctor Who episode. That was until I realized the disparity in the relative size of the two series’ fan bases. While I love Doctor Who, I still really think that Downloaded should easily have won.
3) Doctor Who – The Parting of the Ways. Speaking of Doctor Who… One of the principle selection methods I used for my list was what had a clearly memorable emotional impact on me as a viewer. I tend to be somewhat disconnected from what I watch as I always have the “it’s just a story” filter going pretty strongly in the back of my head. I could tell you stories about eating dinner while watching the Walking Dead and not realizing how odd this behavior was until my friend Vince Rotolo at the B-moviecast brought it up. Anyway, the impact of this episode was as much contextual as theatrical. The return of Doctor Who pretty much made 2005 for me (yeah, pathetic, I know) but, here was probably my all-time favorite genre series back from the dead with a vengeance. Not only The Doctor but, his arch nemesis the Daleks were back as well. I’ll never forget the preview for this episode where the Emporer Dalek describes himself as the god of the Daleks to be hailed by a chorus of them screaming “Worship him! Worship him!” It sent a little chill up my spine in that here I thought it would be impossible to make the Daleks any more evil than they already were but, making them religious fanatics really did the trick. Plus, we get the whole resolution to the Bad Wolf story line with a regeneration that I didn’t see coming to top it all off.
4) The Twilight Zone – Eye of the Beholder. Most people will remember this episode for the shock ending where the ugly people are the norm. However, what I really like about the episode and that I think makes it hold up so well is the background dictatorial society that is gradually hinted at as the story unfolds. The state only gives three chances at plastic surgery to “normalize” deformed individuals. If unsuccessful, the “ugly” misfits are sent off to “camps” to be removed from the otherwise perfectly uniform society. The episode even ends with a speech by the “great leader” droning on about how the superiority of their culture is only maintained by their “glorious uniformity”. Scary stuff that tragically still resonates today.
5) The Outer Limits – O.B.I.T. In this classic Outer Limits episode we see a new surveillance machine being tested on a military base. The bases morale has collapse and a senator has come to investigate why. Mini spoiler alert here so stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet but, the idea of an alien invasion facilitated by our inability to avoid spying on one another struck me at the time and still does today as creepily way too plausible.
6) The Prisoner – Fall Out. Easily the most controversial entry on the list as The Prisoner is sort of an edge series as far as genre content goes. Also, this series finale episode is very much a love/hate affair based upon how much one is into surrealism as translated to the television medium. This was David Lynch style television 23 years before Twin Peaks so, it was way ahead of its time. The entire series is only 18 episodes to begin with so, it’s a short journey to this trippy piece of television. I remember the first time I saw this episode feeling like I had just come out of my first viewing of Eraserhead. Ever since I have never been able to listen to the song All You Need is Love without being reminded of this episode which tragically continues to plague my viewings of Yellow Submarine to this day.
7) Babylon 5 – Severed Dreams. Babylon 5 is a great series that a surprisingly large number of genre TV fans seem to be unaware of. It was the first serious genre attempt at telling one large story over the course of five seasons. Over the first couple of seasons things start to come apart for the Earth Alliance and this episode was the tipping point in which we would learn where the Babylon station loyalties would ultimately lie. Today the episode would best be described with the statement “shit just got real”. On top of this, we are lead into the maelstrom with an amazing monologue made by station Commander John Sheridan basically calling out the EA on becoming a tyranny.
8) Farscape – The Peacekeeper Wars. As readers of this blog know I only recently went through the entire Farscape series so, I have only seen this one once. This three hour made for TV movie might be considered a bit of a cheat here but it did act as the series finale so I’m sticking with it. Besides any television that makes me shed a few tears (when Aeryn and John announce the name of their son) more than deserves to be on this list. I know with absolute certainty that I’ll be revisiting this episode again in the future.
9) In the Flesh – Episode 1.3. Again, another one I have seen only once due to the recent nature of the show. I really can’t thank my friend Roger Domian enough for turning me on to this series. It’s about British society recovering from a five years earlier zombie apocalypse as told through the eyes of a small rural town. It came as no surprise to me when the series one finale came with a warning about adult content but, what was surprising was the nature of that content. It wasn’t violence or gore but, ideas instead. This show covered some pretty daring material in a very in your face sort of manner and didn’t really bother to pull any punches along the way either. This is great stuff that was reminiscent to me of the older series Alien Nation in that it was able to take on these issues because of the fantastic nature of the environment.
10) Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Once More with Feeling. This is the one that I mentioned earlier would easily be at the top of my list. I’m not a huge Buffy fan but there is a lot to like about this musical episode of the series. First , it was just a good musical and I still have one of the tunes on my Ipod to this day. The music actually helped advance the plot and, furthermore, actually makes some major advances in a couple of story arcs. The music wasn’t forced in that it was the result of a demon being summoned who made people perform until they burned. The singing also had the side effect of forcing people to reveal major secrets that they otherwise would have kept to themselves so, a number of character arcs got hammered as well. Once More is really television showing you what it is capable of in the hands of a talented producer, director and cast. This really is TV at its finest.
Also, like I promised above, I’ll throw in two honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut. The first is another Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life based upon the short story of the same name that is a fixture in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume one. The adaptation is actually quite faithful to the story, too. It’s about a child who is born with insanely superhuman powers. The story runs with the far more plausible thesis that instead of being a superhero, young Anthony is instead a self-centered monster with precious little regard for the inferior humans who surround him. The story is a positively chilling one as we watch what the local townsfolk have degenerated into in order to survive. Second is the classic Doctor Who story Genesis of the Daleks. While it is to some extent a retelling of the Frankenstein story, it is a very good one that actually puts the Doctor into one of those rare moments where he doesn’t necessarily know the right course of action. Given that, like most Americans, my first exposure to the series started with the first Tom Baker season this episode really drove home what the show could do when it dove head first into political territory. Enemy of the World might be an equally good or better political Doctor Who story but, this was my first which is why it still stands out for me to this day.
While watching the season three finale of Continuum today, I noticed that the SyFy channel has finally announced the premier of The Almighty Johnsons on July 11th. I watched the show when my friend Terry Frost at the Martian Drive-In Podcast recommended it to me. The short version is that the show is about the Norse gods who now reside in New Zealand (they’ve fallen on hard times ever since those uppity Christians showed up). They are now reincarnated, in large part, in the Johnson brothers who are not what one would call the most functional family in the world. The series is a subdued urban fantasy one with a good deal of humor mixed in and is definitely worth a look. Thanks to my multi-region player I was able to conveniently watch seasons one and two on DVD. Inconveniently, season three has not been made available yet so, I’m kind of hoping that seasons one and two which SyFy will be successful enough to allow me to ultimately catch season three. If you want to read a little more than the short version I have reviews of seasons one and two here.
In my continuing effort to catch up on one of the twp remaining big British SF TV dramas that I have to see (the other being Survivors) I finished series three of Blake’s 7. For those late to the game like me, this series started in 1978 with the third season starting in 1980. It was written by Terry Nation and produced by the BBC. This is a space based series that follows a group of escaped criminals fighting to overthrow the tyrannical Federation government. Spoilers abound so, continue reading at your own risk.
At the end of series two we saw an extra-galactic invasion force from the Andromeda galaxy on the verge of entering the Milky Way. Terry Nations’ original concept was for these invaders to be the Daleks from Doctor Who but this never ended up on screen. What also never shows up on screen was the invasion itself due to the series extremely tight budget. While this season opens with the conflict largely resolved (our galaxy won) we do get one battle scene in the opening episode. The Liberator ends up being abandoned by the crew as a result. This leads to a series of episodes focusing on their attempt to reunite with one another and the ship. Blake and Jenna are nowhere to be found (the actors left the series) and in their place we get two new characters in the form of Dayna and Del Tarrant. Dayna is the daughter of a secluded scientist who rebelled against the Federation prior to the invasion. Del is a rogue Federation space captain who becomes an obvious stand in for Blake to the point of being dressed in the same outfits.
We also learn that as a side effect of the conflict the Federation has been considerably weakened. Servalan, ruthless as ever, is trying desperately to restore some semblance of order under the condition that she is in charge. While this sounds like a continuing story arc, the third series really does return to a much more episodic format which I personally found to be less enjoyable than the previous season’s more story arc oriented writing. One of the things I did enjoy was that with the departure of Blake and Jenna we got more development on Villa and Cally. I was especially happy with the work on Villa as I felt it successfully took him from the role of comedic stereotype to a very real character that I found myself actually caring about.
There were two stand out episodes for me this season. Children of Auron takes us to Cally’s home planet that is threatened by some sort of plague. The society of Auron is really quite different and I found that part of the episode as interesting, if not more so, than the actual plot hatched by Servalan. The other episode was Death-Watch which gives us a good deal of background on Del as well as some of the more interesting political arrangements within the Federation and, again, the change of the standard pace and scenery was a welcome one.
The series finale introduces a number of interesting developments as well. We learn the final fate of Blake, assuming Servalan wasn’t lying, We also see the Liberator get infected by some sort of space fungus that ultimately destroys the ship. I really wanted to applaud the performance here of Peter Tuddenham who played the voice of the Liberator’s computer Zen. I found the death of Zen to be exceptionally painful to watch which is pretty amazing given that Peter did this with a purely vocal character.
This season of Blake’s 7 did not hold up as well for me as series two. I will certainly be finishing the series but, while I can easily see myself revisiting the second one at some point in the future, I’m not sure that the same applies for this season.
Sorry for the delay in getting this out and in the blog in general. I recently changed jobs so, that has consumed a good amount of my time lately. Now that things seem to be heading back to normal I hope to be less of an absentee blogger. But, no one is here to read about my personal life so let’s get into what I’ll be watching in the coming summer months. I’ll be going back to chronological for the genre stuff and cover the two non-genre shows at the end.
First up is Defiance. This is the second season of this SyFy original with an MMO tie in game. While I found the show entertaining enough it had a kind of slow build that would probably not grab most people right away. I’ll be honest that it’s not in my top ten genre shows at the moment but, I was surprised to find that by the end of the first season my younger son Alex was actually getting into it so, there must be something there as he is an incredibly tough critic. I’ll be sticking with it because it is the same producer who gave us Farscape which also started slow for me but quickly grew into one of my favorite genre shows of all time. The first season of Defiance ended with one hell of a cliff hanger so, it will be interesting to see what direction it takes for season two. Defiance starts on SyFy on June 19th.
Starting on June 22nd we have two returning series. The first is the fourth season of Falling Skies. I’m really not sure what to make of this show. As I think I’ve said here before, alien invasion story lines don’t make a great deal of sense to me given that any race that could build a power source big enough to push a multi-ton vehicle between stars is probably technologically advanced enough to come up with a more energy efficient way to get what they’re after locally. Fortunately, Falling Skies has kind of hinted (granted only once) at a Childhood’s End kind of element that would go a long way to explaining the alien’s motivations for hitting other planets so I’ll keep watching. True Blood also starts on the 22nd with its seventh and final season. This is one series that I watch largely because Diane does and while its had its moments of interest for me I can’t say I’m all that sad to see it go and I almost certainly don’t see a need to own it on DVD.
The summer series that I am most looking forward to is the return of Doctor Who in August. This is the eight series for those keeping track. I have been watching the show for decades now, so those sorts of things are minor details to me. I’m especially looking forward to Peter Capaldi as the Doctor as he is sporting a sort of Jon Pertwee look and Pertwee is pretty much my all time favorite Doctor with Tennant running him a close second. Of course, picking favorite Doctors for me is like arguing over which type of chocolate I prefer because I’ll take them all anyway. The new series starts in August with, as far as I can tell, no specific date given by the BBC yet.
The final two shows I’m going to talk about are non-genre ones so most of you can leave now. They are both entering their second season and Orange is the New Black has already started. This is actually a bad description because, being a Netflix original series, the entire second season arrived yesterday (June 6th). This show follows an individual named Piper Chapman who is serving 15 months in prison after surrendering herself on an old drug related charge. Along with Doctor Who in August, on the 13th, we get the second season of Masters of Sex. I was pleasantly surprised by this as last year it was a fall series. This series is set in the late 50s and follows the careers of sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. I started this series on a lark but stuck with it as the series got consistently better with each passing episode. If you have any interest in either of these series you can check out The Movie Waffler website for my season one reviews of both Orange is the New Black and Masters of Sex.
I have been a genre TV fan for a long time. As a result, from my “vast wealth” of experience I tend to notice things that others tend to miss. One of these is the sudden realization of when you are watching something that will become one of the next great genre TV series. The earliest time I remember this happening to me, although I would say that I wasn’t completely consciously aware of it at the time, was Babylon 5. That series had a number of those moments for me but, the first was the finale for season two when we first see Ambassador Kosh outside of his suit. Since then it has happened a few more times with the two most recent being Battlestar Galactica followed by the British anthology series Black Mirror. The reason I bring this up is that I just had another one of these realizations with the series Continuum whose third season is currently airing on SyFy in America. The episode Waning Minute from a few weeks back brought a major change to the main character of the series, Kiera Cameron, that my wife Diane had predicted last season. It was a great episode and a major shift for the character that will mark an equally large shift for the series as well and, as a side note, was directed by Amanda Tapping who played Samantha Carter on Stargate SG-1 (which I’m still going through on DVD, by the way). This was the moment for me when I understood I was watching what will almost certainly be remembered as one of the greatest TV science fiction stories ever told. By way of example, in the process of writing this article, it suddenly dawned on me that the other main character Alec Sadler’s first name is likely, because of the spelling, to be a reference to the American Legislative Exchange Council. You can type ALEC into Wikipedia for a more detailed description but, the short version is that it is a political organization that, amongst other things, actively promotes legislation to remove government restrictions to corporations. Given the corporate government of Continuum’s future I would strongly suspect that this name similarity is a little more than a coincidence. The series is definitely worth a look and it is especially easy to do so given that the first two seasons are conveniently available on Netflix streaming service. Check it out.
My friend Eric Hillis over at The Movie Waffler recently asked me to do an article on the history of the Godzilla movie franchise. Being a godzilla fan for most of my life I was more than happy to oblige. I know this is a blog about genre television but, I figured some of my readers may be interested in Godzilla as well and to make this post on topic for Fantastic Television, I thought I would give a brief run down of the four (yes, really) television series that Godzilla appears in. I’ll state up front, for the record, that I have never actually seen any of these myself but three of them are definitely on my “to do” list. Two of the series are Japanese and two American and I think I’ll go in chronological order just for convenience. The first series wasn’t actually a Godzilla series but, he Ghidorah and Gigan all appeared in it. The series is known in the US as Zone Fighter and ran for 26 half hour episodes in 1973. The series is sort of Toho’s answer to Ultraman. A family of aliens whose planet was destroyed by other aliens is hiding out on Earth. The oldest brother is Zone Fighter who, like Ultraman, grows to giant size to fight invading alien monsters. Being a Toho production it is fairly obvious why Godzilla shows up in five of the episodes (Ghidorah shows up in two and Gigan in one). The series has only been released in Japan on DVD but, does not include English subtitles. The second series, which is the only one I have no desire to see, even though I had ample opportunity to when it aired in America, is Godzilla the animated series. This was a joint project between Hanna-Barbera and Toho and somehow they managed to come up with an even more annoying character than Minya in the form of Godzooky. This character alone is what kept me from watching the series back when it originally aired back in 1978 and continues to do so today. This show ran for two seasons at a total of 26 half hour episodes. Going back to Japan again, in 1997 we had Godzilla Island. A friend of mine named Dave Van Cleef who had moved to Japan first told me about this series. This was another live action show that had a couple of unique features. It used action figures as puppets for the series and, it ran in three minute segments for a bunch of episodes. Like Zone Fighter, this series is only available on DVD in Japan. Finally, returning back to America, we have Godzilla: the series from 1998 which ran for two seasons of 40 half hour episodes. While this series was based on the Emmerich and Devlin movie, it is actually supposed to be pretty good. In fact, all the people who have told me about said it was better than the movie. Mill Creek just released the complete series on DVD. Oh yeah, to jump back to the HB/Toho animated Godzilla for a second, mysteriously, only the first 13 episodes series are available on Netflix streaming and have also been released on DVD for whatever reason. If you want to read my article on the history of the movie franchise it is available here.
As a postscript to this, my wife Diane reminded me of two appearances that, while not Godzilla himself, were other monsters created by modifying Godzilla suits. Both appeared in Ultra series. What most people are unaware of is that Ultraman was the follow-up series to an earlier anthology series called Ultra Q which is conveniently available on DVD in the US from Shout Factory. The first episode of this series features a kaiju named Gomess that was built on the Godzilla suit from Mothra vs. Godzilla. The kaiju proved popular enough that he was considered for a second episode but, Toho needed the suit back for Invasion of the Astro Monsters so the plans where scrapped. The success of Ultra Q lead directly to the first Ultraman series. In episode 10 of that series we see the monster Jirass who is again Godzilla but with a frilled lizard mane attached. Ultraman strips the frill off of Jirass at one point just in case some of the viewers didn’t notice.
You can blame the CW for this one. I recently learned about a new show of theirs called The Messengers. The show sounds like it’s about these angels that fall to earth who are apparently heralds of the coming apocalypse. This sort of created a bit of a tipping point for me that I promise was not caused just because I’m not religious. We now have four, count ‘em four, new genre tv series that are based upon the biblical book of Revelations. The other three are Dominion on SyFy (Legion the tv series), The After (an Amazon original series) and, finally, The Leftovers on HBO. This seems to be the normal television practice of networks predating on each other concepts which, in this case, has probably been fueled by the current rise of religious fervor in America. What really puzzles me about this flood of these shows is that the excellent series Supernatural has already covered this ground and covered it well, I might add. On top of that we had the highly successful new series Sleepy Hollow show up last year which is also covering the same ground. Normally this would be a big turn off for me but, the show does it differently enough, with it’s own unique panache and features a lead actor who totally owns his role. While I’m not surprised by this run to what seems to be popular as well as successful, the quantity here is pretty staggering. I mean, I get that the Bible is public domain which seriously cuts down on the royalty payments and all but I still find myself asking at what point do we hit the whole market saturation wall with all this apocalypse stuff? Are Christians, ignoring the two previously existing series for now, likely to tune into all four of these new shows? I’m going to hazard a guess of not likely. More specifically my complaint, if one can call it that, here is that it seems one or more of these new series are seriously hammering their potential survivability by stomping on each other toes as far as subject matter. And the only reason it gets close to complaint territory for me is that I’m probably just annoyed over the lack of space based genre tv content at the moment. I know that I’ll be getting Ascension and The Expanse from SyFy sometime soon but, I guess I’m getting less patient with age. I’m also more aware that I’m not exactly getting any younger here although I’m not quite at the point of telling these shows to “get off my tv” yet. Ultimately, I’m not begrudging anyone who likes any of the four new series mentioned above and I’m always a fan of more rather than less genre content on television. However, I also feel that variety is not only the spice of life but, something that also helps to keep your show’s ratings from tanking and, thus, improving your chances at further seasons.