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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

15 Great SF & Fantasy TV Shows (Part 1 of 2)

editorial by David M. Switzer

2009 Note: I watched all of Babylon 5 and Crusade again not too long ago. Babylon 5 holds up extremely well -- the second, third, and fourth seasons are staggeringly brilliant episode after episode. Crusade doesn't really belong on this list -- although it had the potential to become a great series, it hadn't become one by the time it was cancelled.

I didn't call this "15 Best..." because I haven't seen every SF and fantasy TV show. It's certainly possible that there are others that would find themselves on this list if I were to watch them. As for shows that are on now, I haven't seen much of Stargate SG-1 or The Dead Zone but I'd be interested in watching more of them. In this part I've included Star Trek shows and J. Michael Straczynski shows; in the next issue I'll talk about Chris Carter shows, Joss Whedon shows, Earth 2, and Futurama.

Star Trek (1966-69)

Star Trek isn't just a TV show -- and it's not just several TV shows, movies, and books. Star Trek gives us hope that there will be a future, and that humans will become better. For more thoughts on this topic, see my editorial "What Can We Learn From Star Trek?" in issue #3.

On a starship named Enterprise in the 23rd century Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the crew are on a mission to "seek out new life and new civilizations."

Created by Gene Roddenberry, the series was cancelled by NBC after three seasons. It would have been cancelled after two seasons, but there was a huge letter campaign. The third season, when Gene Roddenberry was less involved, wasn't as good. (There are also six movies featuring this crew.) I've been a fan for more than 20 years. My favourite character is the logical Spock.

In "The Cage" (the original pilot) Pike and crew (Kirk hadn't shown up yet) visit a planet where different alien species are kept in cages -- it was declared "too cerebral" by the network but they took the unprecedented step of ordering a second pilot. In "The City on the Edge of Forever," Kirk falls in love with a woman from the 20th century and then finds out she's going to die.

Kirk: Are you out of your mind? You were told to report to me at once.

Spock: I didn't want to, Jim.

-- "This Side of Paradise"

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94)

Another ship named Enterprise, this time in the 24th century. Same mission, but this time the show is given seven seasons (and four movies) in which to flesh out the characters and visit strange new worlds.

Created by Gene Roddenberry, it hit its stride in the third season and had many great episodes. They always wrote the season premiere after the summer break, even if it was a continuation from a cliffhanger -- this wasn't the best plan, as the second parts routinely failed to live up to the first part. My favourite character is the aspiring-to-be-human android Data, with the wise and enigmatic Guinan as a runner-up.

In "The Best of Both Worlds" Picard is turned into a Borg and pitted against his former crew. In "Samaritan Snare" the Pakleds show up looking for help with the great line, "We look for things... things to make us go." In "The Inner Light" Picard lives out a life on a planet as an iron weaver with a wife and children. In "All Good Things..." (the finale) Picard finds himself switching between three different time periods, and then Q shows up; it has one annoying flaw -- at one point they see the anomaly when logically they shouldn't be able to see it.

Beverly Crusher: If there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong with the universe.

-- "Remember Me"

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-99)

Deep Space Nine is a space station, and it stays in one place. So they're not boldly going, but other people are boldly coming to them. Because the station is next to a wormhole -- the only stable wormhole known to exist. This show takes place in the same era as The Next Generation, so crossovers are possible -- in fact, Worf transfers from the Enterprise and becomes a main character. Sisko, the commander of the station and later captain of the starship Defiant, is also "the Emissary" to the Bajorans, the people living on the planet near the station.

Created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller, episodes were consistently great in its later years. They pushed the boundaries of what Star Trek could be. For one thing, they learned from Bablyon 5 and started doing longer storylines. They spent a bit too much time on the war with the Dominion, and they should have wrapped that up before the finale. But we got to know the characters better in this series than any of the other Star Trek shows -- the main characters, as well as many minor characters. My favourite character is Garak, the friendly and dangerous tailor/spy.

In "Necessary Evil" Odo revisits a murder from the past and realizes that Kira might have had something to do with it. In "The Visitor" the Jake Sisko of the future is obsessed with bringing back his father, who had demateralized into subspace many years before. In "Trials and Tribble-ations" the crew travels back in time to stop James T. Kirk's assassination -- using Forrest Gump-like technology to insert the actors into the original series episode "The Trouble With Tribbles." In "Far Beyond the Stars" the main actors get to play human science fiction writers in the 20th century, in a story about racism.

Sisko: Welcome in the name of Bajor and the United Federation of Planets. I am Commander Benjamin Sisko. On behalf of the senior members of my staff... Major Kira, Lieutenant Dax, and Doctor Bashir --

Falow: Yes... yes... yes... now, where are the games?

-- "Move Along Home"

Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)

Although this series takes place in the same era as The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, the premise precluded most crossovers. This time the ship is named Voyager, and it's trapped in the Delta quadrant -- 70 years away from home. Their mission is to get home, but they do some exploring and battling unfriendly aliens along the way. Seven of Nine, a Borg that is severed from the collective, becomes part of their crew.

Created by Rick Berman, Michael Piller, and Jeri Taylor, it had its moments but was never as consistent as Deep Space Nine. It seemed like the writers never really figured out what they wanted to do with the characters. There was one time when I thought for sure Captain Janeway had been taken over by an alien or replaced by a duplicate -- but no, everything was ostensibly normal. They did a bit too much time travel, but whenever they had a Borg episode they always managed to come up with something new. My favourite character is the smart and sweet Naomi Wildman, the daughter of one of the crew, with the sarcastic Doctor as a runner-up.

In "Death Wish" one of the immortal Q decides he wants to die -- Janeway and Tuvok end up visiting the Q Continuum. In "Course: Oblivion" mimetic duplicates of Janeway and crew believe themselves to be the real Janeway and crew. In "Body and Soul" Jeri Ryan does an excellent job portraying the character of the Doctor, who is controlling Seven's body. "Endgame" (the finale) shows off the talents of Kate Mulgrew, who plays Janeway from two different time periods.

Caretaker: Aren't you contentious for a minor bipedal species?

-- "Caretaker" (premiere)

Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-05)

Yet another ship named Enterprise, this time in the 22nd century, before the original series. Not too many crossovers are possible -- although I thought we might see a young Sarek. Humans are exploring the galaxy for the first time, and it's a dangerous place. Captain Archer forms an important bond with Shran, an Andorian.

Created by Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. The third season was better than the first two, although the running storyline wasn't my favourite -- the Xindi kill millions on Earth, so Archer and crew rush off to defeat them before they can return to finish the job. The show really hit its stride in the fourth season -- and was promptly cancelled. My favourite character is Tucker.

The scene at the end of "The Andorian Incident," where it's revealed that the Vulcans have been spying on the Andorians, is a highlight of the first season -- what's going on with the Vulcans? In "Twilight" it's 12 years later and Archer finds that he's lost his memory -- and Earth has been destroyed by the Xindi. In "Borderland" some genetically engineered superhumans take over a Klingon ship -- I could watch guest star Brent Spiner all day.

Tucker: So if we're bonded, what does this have to do with me not being affected by the Orions?

T'Pol: I'm immune to the pheromones because of my Vulcan physiology.

Tucker: And you're making me immune.

T'Pol: Apparently.

Tucker: Well, I don't know whether to be relieved or really worried.

-- "Bound"

Babylon 5 (1993-99)

Babylon 5 is a space station where humans and aliens are trying to work out their differences peacefully. The station is commanded by a human, and there are ambassadors from the other four major races in the galaxy aboard. It's a more realistic show than any of the Star Trek shows (with the possible exception of Deep Space Nine), in that even the "good guys" aren't completely good all the time, and also people change and move on.

Created by J. Michael Straczynski, Babylon 5 is the best TV show ever made. Every episode is at least good, many are great, and quite a few are absolutely brilliant. Straczynski, who wrote almost all the episodes, is a genius. Since I was already taping Deep Space Nine and Voyager at the time it first came on TV, I told myself I wasn't going to tape another show -- but I did, because it was so unbelievably good. Straczynski did something that was unprecedented -- he planned out the whole 5-year storyline ahead of time. He didn't plan every detail, and some things changed along the way -- but knowing what was coming allowed him to make the show much more complex and interesting. The pilot wasn't great as a standalone movie or episode, but you could tell that there were things going on -- there were mysteries you wanted to find out about. The longer storylines made it harder for new viewers to get into the show, but for people who were with it since the beginning it made it much more satisfying. My favourite characters are Londo and G'Kar, whose scenes were always memorable -- whether they were good or bad, funny or tragic. With the differently-moralled Bester as a runner-up.

The two-part "War Without End" is mind blowing in its intricate tying together of the past, present, and future. The scene in "The Coming of Shadows" where G'Kar buys Londo a drink is moving -- G'Kar doesn't know yet that Londo has ordered the destruction of one of his people's outposts. "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars" gives glimpses into several eras of the future, include one million years from now.

A theatrical movie, The Memory of Shadows, was recently in production but unfortunately got cancelled.

G'Kar: Let me pass on to you the one thing I've learned about this place: No one here is exactly what he appears. Not Mollari, not Delenn, not Sinclair... and not me.

-- "Mind War"

Crusade (1999)

The Drakh have left behind a plague that's going to kill everyone on Earth in five years. The starship Excalibur is sent out with the mission to find a cure to the plague. Matthew Gideon has been chosen as the captain of Excalibur because he has a lot of experience with alien cultures and he's willing to do what it takes to get the job done. One of the people who joins him (when he feels like it) is Galen, a Technomage, who has seemingly magical abilities accomplished with advanced technology.

Created by J. Michael Straczynski, this spin-off of Babylon 5 had potential but only lasted half a season. TNT had different ideas than Straczynski about the show, and so they parted ways. My favourite character is the wise and mysterious Galen.

In "Racing the Night" they're investigating some ruins on a supposedly uninhabited planet when people start getting killed.

Lochley: You know what you are?

Gideon: Ruggedly handsome?

Lochley: A control freak.

Gideon: Can't I be both?

-- "Ruling From the Tomb"

Jeremiah (2002-04)

Jeremiah is looking for his dad 15 years after a plague wiped out all the adults in the world. He's looking for a place called "Valhalla Sector" that his dad mentioned before he disappeared. Jeremiah hooks up with Kurdy and they travel around together until they reach Thunder Mountain, where there's a group of people who have organized themselves. The group at Thunder Mountain have remained hidden from the rest of the world, but they know that they must soon reveal themselves and try to unite the people scattered across the land.

I just started watching this show recently, so it's the newest addition to this list. It's J. Michael Straczynski's series about a post-apocalyptic world. It's based on a comic book, so that would be interesting to check out. The premise isn't as interesting as the others on this list. But after watching a few well-written episodes it drew me in, and now I want to find out what happens (unlike the other series on this part of the list, I haven't seen all the episodes yet). The series only lasted two seasons. My favourite character is the mysterious Mister Smith, who God occasionally talks to.

"Deus Ex Machina" contains a great scene in which Markus finally convinces a bunch of groups to unite.

Markus: We will carve out the framework for a new country and a new future. Because if we fail to do so, others will do it for us and generations yet unborn will live to regret our failure.

-- "Things Left Unsaid, Part 2"

Even though there won't be any new Star Trek on TV next year, there is a movie in the planning stages. Apparently it won't have any of the characters we're familiar with in it, which seems odd -- it might take place between Enterprise and the original series. There was a rumour a few years ago that they were going to do a movie set during the original series, with younger actors playing the roles -- along with the usual requirement of a great script, if they could get brilliant actors to play those roles this could be extraordinary.

J. Michael Straczynski, along with Bryce Zabel, has written a 5-year arc for a new Star Trek series. I hope that when the powers that be have decided Star Trek has had enough rest they produce this series -- what could be better than the combination of Star Trek and Straczynski?

In other Straczynski news, he has a new series coming out next year. Whatever it is, it will be worth watching.

Dave Switzer recently read and enjoyed the anthology Give Me Liberty edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Mark Tier, the collections First Meetings by Orson Scott Card and Iterations by Robert J. Sawyer, and the novel Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson. Dave asserts that Eats, Shoots & Leaves is the funniest book on punctuation you'll ever read. History Television's show The Real Da Vinci Code changed his opinion about The Da Vinci Code dramatically. You can find Dave's web site here.

Cover artist Bruce Jensen has been working as a science fiction illustrator for the past 20 years. You can find his web site here. Bruce was the artist guest of honor at the science fiction convention known as PhilCon 98. You can find Linda Nagata's essay about Bruce that appeared in that convention's program book here.

Last modified: October 3, 2009

Copyright © 2005 David M. Switzer

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