Telefantasy – Ten Programmes Vital To An Understanding Of The Genre

Exploring science-fiction on the small screen, from its inception right up to the 21st century.

Introduction

Telefantasy (or television sci-fi, or sci-fi on television, or fantasy sci-fi, or any one of many monikers) is one of those terms that covers a wide range of programming and has been around from the mid-40’s in America. The first notable science fiction show was the marvelously-named children’s programme Captain Video And His Video Rangers, and in Britain sci-fi was launched in 1938 with an adaptation of Karel Capek’s almost indescribably influential R.U.R

In the early days of the medium U.S. science fiction tended towards comparatively straightforward programming, much of it (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers) carrying a degree of cultural impact but still little distinguishable from Westerns but for the setting – the resurgence of interest in actual Westerns pushed science fiction off the air entirely for a few years in the mid 50s – with lots of square jawed heroes dashing about Being Good because Being Good is what those sorts of heroes do.  In Britian, the tendency was to lean towards literary adaptations which lent a degree of respectability – adaptations of something like The Time Machine or R.U.R. were much easier to pitch to skeptical and serious-minded television controllers looking for shows that wouldn’t be seen as silly and childish. Or make them look silly and childish for commissioning them.

However within a comparatively short period of time both sides of the Atlantic would provide pivotal moments in the genre.  In the UK this arrived with Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment, broadcast (live!) in 1953 and starring Reginald Tate.  The importance of Quatermass to the development of British telefantasy is simply impossible to overstate – its alien-invasion plot will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s seen Doctor Who, for one – and it remains a landmark piece of television and not just of science fiction, having as it does a quality, character-based script which sets an eerie atmosphere almost as much supernatural as science fiction.  In the U.S. the pivotal moment was The Twilight Zone, first broadcast in 1959.  An anthology-based series which foregrounded smart, adult-oriented morality plays with science fiction or fantasy settings, The Twilight Zone captured the imagination of an entire generation and still remains resonant in popular culture to this day, up to and including the 21st century Jordan Peele remake.  Though The Twilight Zone was not the first U.S. science fiction anthology series – Tales of Tomorrow and Science Fiction Theatre both preceded it – it was the first to really catch light with the public and provides the moment that telefantasy moved from the fringes of acceptability right into the centre.  

A year after The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast in Britain an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (starring a young Peter Cushing as Winston Smith, and adapted by Nigel Kneale) captured and shocked audiences across the country and provided much discussion about the content of horror in television broadcasts, to the extent of discussions in Parliament.  Though it provided much controversy it was an immense success and was repeated – in the sense that it was re-performed, the original broadcast going out live, the “repeat” being simply another staging as with a play, and this time it was also recorded so wonderfully it still exists – pulling in the largest single audience the BBC had seen since the Coronation.  But despite this success, both in Britain and the U.S. science fiction began to drift out of the mainstream again, despite the occasional one-of such as A For Andromeda in Britian.

All that changed in the Sixties when 1963 saw the launch of Doctor Who in Britain, and in 1966 Star Trek made its debut in the U.S.  Both shows have gone on to become absolute titans not just of the telefantasy world but of television in general – and in Star Trek’s case, also cinema – and paved the way for the successful franchises of the future. The MCU owes a lot of the starship Enterprise. Yet elsewhere in the 60’s programmes such as The Prisoner provided sharp, Earthbound satire which owed as much to the spy thrillers of the 50’s as they did to the space opera of Star Trek or the directionless ramblings of the Doctor, and proved that down-to-Earth science fiction could be every bit as compelling and complex as it’s space-based brethren.  Britain developed its own smart, adult anthology show in the 60’s, the BBCs Out Of The Unknown, and in the U.S. a veritable cornucopia of new programmes cropped up of extremely variable quality – Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Time Tunnel, The Invaders, Land Of The Giants, amongst many, many others – driven by the arrival of colour television, vastly improved production techniques and an audience hungry for more and more science fiction. And, significantly, sponsors prepared to pay for it.

The 70’s saw most of those shows going off the air, few outlasting the decade (the mildly popular Star Trek went off the air in 1969) but a second boom in science fiction programming in the U.S. arrived later in the decade, at least in part following on the heels of the absurdly vast success of Star Wars, where glossy, high-production shows like a revived Buck Rogers In The 25th Century and the original Battlestar Galactica provided frothy, entertaining, but ultimately rather unchallenging fun.  The more earth-bound shows that dipped their toes into similar waters (The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk) were equally glossy but provided little substance and ultimately remain remembered as much for their kitsch appeal and nostalgia rather than for any intrinsic qualities. Well cast, though. In Britain, by contrast, a raft of relatively low-budget, high concept shows took to the air to provide a bleaker, more skeptical alternative to the U.S. offerings of the decade.  Survivors showed a post-apocalyptic community of, well, survivors who struggle to maintain civilization and law in the face of the complete collapse of society, Blakes 7 was the bleakly cynical anti-Star Trek, Doomwatch investigated scientific and ecological threats to humanity in a way not a million miles away from Quatermass’s British Rocket Group, and, at the end of the decade, Sapphire and Steel wandered almost entirely off the reservation, with deeply perplexing supernatural investigations which only just hold on to the title of science fiction by the thinnest of margins.

The 80’s saw a shift in emphasis.  In Britain, telefantasy was dying a slow death – Blakes 7 went off the air in a blaze of glory – and one of the best series endings of all time – in 1982 and Doctor Who would be pushed increasingly into the margins until its cancellation in 1989.  There were occasional signs of life: the BBCs adaptation of The Tripods was well-regarded but little watched (resulting in the final of three seasons never making it to production), Chis Boucher’s much under-appreciated Star Cops attempted to provide a realistic basis for a space-based show – very much The Expanse of its day in terms of attempts to show the realitiles of living in space – but floundered after just one season, and a memorable adaptation of The Day Of The Triffids in 1981 scarred many a young mind.  But despite these, the tide was in general turning away from telefantasy, though sole outlier Red Dwarf made its debut in 1988 with an unusual mix of sitcom shenanigans and genuinely compelling sci-fi ideas at its heart.  In the U.S., the biggest piece of event science fiction, at least in the early part of the decade, was the mini-series V. A thinly-veiled Nazi allegory – that’s slightly insulting to thin veils, in fact, given how explicit the Nazi origins were – the original mini-series is a triumph of both smart scripting and then-cutting-edge special effects that provide an energetic, propulsive science fiction event that the full series never quite managed to capture.  The 80’s also saw the rise of a certain kind of techno-fetishism in telefantasy, driven less by the emergence of cyberpunk in literature and cinema and more from the love of big things going boom.  Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Automan, Airwolf and many similar shows provided a sort of  telefantasy that allowed full reign to TV producers inner teenage boys, providing a steady diet of talking cars, explosions, pneumatic female sidekicks and very little else.  Then in 1987 Star Trek: The Next Generation arrived and changed everything.  The idea of a revived Star Trek had been doing the rounds since before the 1979 release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the original show gained traction in syndication and became a legitimate cult hit, and though there was some initial resistance to doing a new series with a new cast those objections quickly fell away and Star Trek: The Next Generation conquered all with its highly sophisticated special effects, increasingly morally complex scripts and absolutely killer lead performance from Patrick Stewart.  Its success would pave the way for three further TV shows (Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise), a series of TNG cinema outings, a rebooted movie franchise that is now three films in, and a host of new 21st century offerings (Discovery, Lower Decks, Picard and more). TNG proved there was a market for science fiction and space opera at a time when many had given up on the genre.  Just two years later, in 1989 , Quantum Leap arrived with its desire to put right what once went wrong offering an entirely different kind of telefantasy from Star Trek’s space-based adventures and by that stage the floodgates to successful U.S. telefantasy had opened once again.

The early 90’s, by contrast, saw little in the way of telefantasy coming out of Britain, despite the glut of programmes being produced in the U.S.  It took until the middle of the decade for anything of note to emerge, starting with “The Avengers meets Spooks” amalgam that is Bugs.  Tonally it feels slightly misjudged – never quite serious enough to be taken seriously, never quite flippant enough to be taken lightly – but it’s almost always entertaining and occasionally even compelling, despite its status as a fairly minor show.  A handful of others – the sporadically entertaining The Last Train, the great-but-ignored Invasion: Earth, a tediously unremarkable remake of The Tomorrow People – entirely failed to set the world alight.  Meanwhile in the U.S. things were continuing full pelt – Babylon 5 with its landmark CGI, seaQuest DSV with its talking dolphin, Stargate: SG1 and its many spin-offs, and Sliders with its infinity of alternative Earths.  But it was in The X-Files that the 90’s would find its archetypal telefantasy program.  Following the alien and supernatural investigations of FBI agents Mulder and Scully, the show was an immense hit, engraining itself into the public consciousness throughout the 90’s, becoming hugely influential and making massive stars of its two leads.  There are few programmes which are more 90’s than The X-Files.

In the 21st century, the passion for telefantasy continues unabated.  The triumphant return to the screen of Doctor Who in 2005 mark it as the BBCs most successful telefantasy show by some margin and it’s now exported around the world, one of the hallmarks of the institution and a far cry from the low-budget, largely ignored show it had been when it went off the air in 1989.  Three spinoffs, the more adult-oriented Torchwood, tween/teen targeted Class and children’s show The Sarah Jane Adventures, followed in its wake, and presaged a big revival in British telefantasy.  Life On Mars (and its sequel, Ashes To Ashes) took a more abstract approach to telefantasy, dealing with concepts of life, death and perception, and the short-lived Eleventh Hour (successfully remade in the U.S.) showed a return to the more environmental concerns of the 70’s.  Straddling the end of the 90’s and the start of the 2000s and both Australia and the U.S. in terms of its production, Farscape’s bizarre alien landscapes arrived on screens, finding a whole new audience for space opera tired of Star Trek’s increasingly diminishing returns, while Joss Wheadon’s One Season Wonder, Firefly, would successfully merge Western iconography with science fiction in a way that would have made the early pioneers of the genre feel vindicated.  However the most critically successful science-fiction show of the decade would come from the most unlikely of sources – a remake of the cheesy 70s sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica.  First aired with a mini-series in 2003, Battlestar Galactic tells roughly the same story as the original – human colonists forced to abandon their colony worlds after an attack by the Cylons, fleeing across the galaxy in search of Earth -and uses roughly the same characters, yet plays everything completely seriously and straight.  It was a huge critical success, and although not an entirely flawless show (the cracks show in more than just the Galactica’s hull by the end), its commitment to showing a realistic, politically astute show based in character studies marked it as one of the most impressive pieces of telefantasy ever to air.

The title “telefantasy” covers a vast array of programming, from the near-abstract ghost stories of Sapphire and Steel to the dark, bitter political allegory Battlestar Galactica, from the abject silliness of Lost In Space to the assault-to-the-senses that is Farscape, the proto-steampunk of The Wild, Wild West to the philosophical ramblings of Lost.  Telefantasy has always been a broad church, including programmes with a vastly different array of styles, outlooks and approaches, but all united by the desire to tell interesting stories about interesting people in unusual settings.  This, then, constitutes ten of the most important entries in the genre, though for a genre as broad as telefantasy, there will always be exceptions and no one list can ever define itself as “definitive”. 

Note: In this list there are some criteria which have been laid down. No outright fantasy (so no Merlin, Xena, Buffy and it’s ilk), only live action shows (so no Gerry Anderson, who deserves his own article in any case, or animation), and no “literary fantasy” (so no Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood et al). 

Quatermass:  As mentioned above, it’s impossible to overstate just how important The Quatermass Experiment is to the development of science fiction and telefantasy in Britain.  Professor Bernard Quatermass works for the British Rocket Group, investigating strange goings on from outer space (a sort of early version of UNIT in Doctor Who, including sharing it’s “near future” setting), and from that fairly simple premise the stories spiral out.  It was a great success at the time of its broadcast, and led to two further Quatermass outings, Quatermass II – broadcast in 1955 and starring John Robinson following the death of the original lead, Reginald Tate – and Quatermass And The Pit in 1958, this time starring André Morell in the title role.  Successful enough to be actually worth something, the rights to all three Quatermass serials were sold to Hammer Films and made into big-screen adaptations which focused more on the horror aspects of the scripts rather than Kneale’s darker ruminations on mankind.  The original Quatermass, such a big success in its day, sadly only has two episodes left extant – the BBC were experimenting with a new 35mm recording technique to capture live broadcasts, but they gave up after two episodes so those are the only two preserved in any way – the remainder went out live.  Although Quatermass II is a bit of a step down from The Quatermass Experiment it shouldn’t be dismissed – in particular the government conspiracy and alien life angle greatly presages The X-Files infatuation with similar topics, and there’s much Cold War paranoia running through the script which mirrors U.S. obsessions with the same subject though generally in cinema rather than television – The Day The Earth Stood Still being probably the best known example.  Quatermass And The Pit, though, is probably the finest of the loose trilogy, including the definitive on-screen portrayal of the titular character and a story of visiting aliens in the past being the basis of folklore and mysticism in the present.  It’s a confident, technically sophisticated piece (unlike its predecessors it wasn’t all done live and featured filmed insets) with allegories of racial tensions and the strongest overall script of the three.  Though Kneale choose to rest the character after Quatermass And The Pit, he did crop up one final time in 1979, this time on ITV rather than the BBC, in Quatermass IV (or The Quatermass Conclusion).  It’s not terrible but it is pretty inessential – John Mills takes the title role this time round, but the story, a vague musing on the collapse of power, the alienation of youth and the influence of cults lacks the bite of the earlier work, it often comes across as reactionary in an old-man-yells-at-clouds sort of way, and stark, 1970’s colour proves a poor replacement for moody 1950’s black and white.  But if Quatermass IV is inessential, the first three installments make for riveting, genre-defining television. 

The Twilight Zone:  Rod Serling’s compulsive, sharp morality plays were brought to life for the first time in 1959 and ran for five seasons until 1964.  Serling, a veteran TV writer, found the process of writing within television’s existing structures a frustrating experience and believed that using science fiction and fantasy settings would allow him to explore more controversial subjects without bringing him into conflict with sponsors or television executives.  The first season was a big critical success, though it had difficulty finding a steady audience, but seasons two and three were much more successful.  A change to an hour-long format for the fourth season (necessitated by an unexpected commission to replace axed show Fair Exchange) was not a great success and the fifth and final season reverted to the half-hour length that The Twilight Zone had made its own before its eventual cancellation.  American cinema had already developed smart, allegorical science fiction – the aforementioned The Day The Earth Stood Still, the creeping Communist overtones of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, amongst others – but that critical respect was absolutely vital to the impact The Twilight Zone had on popular culture. It also paved the way for the successful development of telefantasy on the small screen – no longer was a science fiction show something that the kids watched or something to wile away an hour, here was something compulsive, intelligent and engaging which didn’t pander to its audience.   Rod Serling wrote almost the entirety of the first season – a heroic effot by any standards – and continued to write notable chunks of the remaining four alongside a stable of regular writers. This lent a degree of consistency across wildly different genres, covering everything from ghost stories to science fiction to lost other worlds to dreamscapes and just about everything in-between.  Yet through the vast majority of the stories the repeated themes of morality play out, sometimes bluntly, more often ironically, leading to the shows signature, “and now! The punchline!” endings that make up so many of its best-remembered moments.  Viewed now, The Twilight Zone feels both of its time (there’s a streak of Cold War paranoia running through the show like lettering through a stick of rock) and strangely timeless (episodes like “It’s A Good Life” demand nothing more than to be sat and watched), that mixture of the two in many ways summing up exactly why The Twilight Zone remains such a cultural totem, but also why it remains so influential – styles and fashions might change but smart, well-constructed writing will always survive.

Doctor Who:  In November 1963, Doctor Who was broadcast for the first time to an unsuspecting public entirely unsure of what to expect – some people apparently tuned in expecting something like Doctor Kildare, which must have made the first episode something of a surprise.  With its roots equally planted in magic cabinets, Victorian adventure fiction and The Old Curiosity Shop, William Hartnell’s curmudgeonly yet likeable time traveler grumped his way onto TV screens and into the lives of millions.  From relatively humble beginnings – also humble middles and humble endings – Doctor Who has gone on to become the world’s longest-running science fiction show (well over half a century now) and in both Original and Shiny New flavours continues to draw in fans and critical praise alike.  Key to the longevity of the show are two factors – the ability for the lead actor to change, and a settings that can literally encompass anything from the beginning of time to the end of the Universe.  The concept of regeneration – necessitated partly by ill health on the part of William Hartnell and increasing disagreements between the star and the producers – allowed a variety of different actors to take over the role, and became an absolutely vital part of the shows mythology, ensuring its survival right up to the present day, an endlessly renewable lead that always retains the core of what the character is.  The influence of Doctor Who, in its original era, still resonates today, not just through the existence of a whole new, contemporary take on the series but in the raft of people now working in television as a result of having grown up with and having been inspired by the show.  The most high-profile example of this is of course Russell T Davies, an already-successful and lauded TV writer who headed the shows revival in 2005.  Doctor Who remained mostly a cult success in America during its original run, largely relegated to PBS and video/DVD releases, until the show’s 2005 revival. So much of its influence rests in British science fiction rather than American – something of a training ground in its original incarnation, there is a near-endless list of people who started on Doctor Who then went on to work on other science fiction programmes in both the British telefantasy genre and other parts of the industry, starting with original producer Verity Lambert, who went on to become one of the most important women in the history of the BBC, and working forward.  The importance of Doctor Who to understanding telefantasy is, however, comparatively simple – without it, it’s questionable whether there would even be any British telefantasy – and it forged a path that no other show in British telefantasy has been able to come close to.  With it, we have one of the two most important programmes in the genre, the other, it will come as no surprise to discover, is Star Trek. Speaking of which…

Star Trek (The Original Series)Star Trek is to American science fiction what Doctor Who is to British science fiction – the most high-profile, instantly recognizable product of its genre, with a huge reputation and fanbase around the world.  Conceived of in 1964 by Gene Roddenberry, it, like The Twilight Zone before it, sought to discuss real-world events through the lens of science fiction.  Whereas The Twilight Zone was always conceived as an anthology show, Star Trek is serialized, following the adventures of Captain Kirk and the crew of… ah but you know this already, right?  The fact that it’s almost entirely unnecessary to explain the premise of the show is a mark of just how entrenched Star Trek is on the public consciousness.  Though only a modest success at the time of its broadcast, Star Trek has gone on to be the world’s most instantly recognizable telefantasy series, and continues to inspire loyaly, fandom and a whole host of new material more than fifty years after first airing.  The reasons for its success (in its original form) are many – William Shatner’s charming, approachable lead performance contrasted with the turbulent McCoy played by DeForest Kelley and the emotionless Spock played by Leonard Nimoy, a comparatively high budget and slick special effects (especially compared to the meagre resources afforded something like Doctor Who) and whip-crack smart scripting which, while often allegorical, also embraced the trappings of other genres to make its points and to tell entertaining, engaging stories – Cold War paranoia in “Balance Of Terror”, Shakespearian melodrama in “The Conscience Of The King”, outright comedy in “Mudd’s Women”, courtroom drama in “Court Martial” and that’s just from the first season.  That ability to be light on its genre feet helped provide a great variety of storytelling while allowing the central character triumvirate space to breathe life into their relationship.  Star Trek’s influence resonates in every space-based telefantasy show since and it has come to be the defining text of the space opera genre.

Sapphire And Steel:  As created by TV writer PJ Hammond, Sapphire And Steel is the polar opposite of Star Trek’s space opera – an intentionally obscure, obtuse, frequently surreal show that dabbles in concepts of time, memory, narration and character to bewildering effect.  Born of the 70’s (and it very, very much shows in the production), it starred David McCallum as Steel and Joanna Lumley as Sapphire, two inter-dimensional agents dispatched – via a God-in-a-box voiceover during the show’s title sequence – to deal with cracks and breaks in time, which manifest themselves as a variety of different phenomena.  In stark contrast to Doctor Who or Star Trek’s approach to time (something to be navigated, essentially), Sapphire and Steel treats time as if it is alive, a malevolent force trying to break through into “our” realm to gain life or freedom, its very existence in our dimension inimical to life as we understand it.  Everything in Sapphire And Steel is implicit – we learn next to nothing about the origins of the agents or who dispatches them, what motivates them, why they even care about whether our life survives, or even what Sapphire and Steel are. It’s certainly implied they’re not human, and they have special powers – Sapphire can play with time and roll it back, Steel can drop his internal temperature to almost absolute zero, and a few other agents that we meet during the course of the series (Lead, Silver) share similar abilities.  It has a very staged, blocked atmosphere which lends itself very well to the remoteness of its leads, and very poised and lyrical, almost fairy-tale like, plotting that revels in the impossible and frequently employs child-like perspectives to provide resonant imagery (children stepping out of old photographs, ghosts haunting an abandoned railway station and so on).  It also pushes the science-fiction/fantasy element as far as it can go without it breaking – the “cracks in time” conceit is vaguely science fiction, the indeterminate nature of much of what happens is much closer to fantasy and ghost stories.  The show ran from 1979 until 1982, ultimately done in by rising budgets (though they were still miniscule) and the increasing success of its two leads. And though its final episodes were also its strongest, it faded fairly quickly from collective TV memories, which is perhaps fitting for a show that spent so much time musing on memory and how it is both found and lost.  Although not the most influential show on this list, it is important to consider for just how far it stretched the definition of what telefantasy was able to achieve. 

The X-Files – For nine seasons, the adventures of Mulder and Scully (and latterly Doggett and Reyes) connected with viewers across most of the 90’s, proving to be one of the first of what would go on to be called zeitgeist shows.  In creating The X-Files, Chris Carter reduced much of his own folk memory of TV shows from his youth – Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Twilight Zone, and any number of paranoid conspiracy pieces – to produce a show which not only distilled those elements but found something new to say about them in the context of a world suddenly bereft of the Cold War and the USSR.  Instead of focusing on the enemy without the enemy within because the prime motivator, with government conspiracies to cover up the existence of alien life, experiments on the populace and a whole gallery of monsters-of-the-week to keep the investigating duo busy while the government schemed away.  One of the most important innovations of The X-Files was introducing what we would now call its mythology – the threading of overall story arcs and elements into and around the monster-of-the-week procedural elements of the show.  Story arcs weren’t new in telefantasy – Blakes 7 had them fifteen years earlier, and constructed in a noticably similar fashion – but the integration and building of the mythology was done in new and more complex ways and proved to be vastly influential, paving the way for similar approaches from everything from Lost to Battlestar Galactica via Life On Mars (and many more).  And in its two leads The X-Files was able to find two actors who entirely embodied their characters, but moreover provided a template that proved it was possible to write this sort of show without having a traditional hero/sidekick setup, giving much more scope for moral ambiguity.  Mulder is, if not an outright anti-hero, a remote, difficult to access character who plays his cards close to his chest, and Scully, his doubting, skeptical sidekick, provides a dash of reality that constantly threatens to bring the whole premise of the show crashing down – a sort of walking narrative collapse to be negotiated carefully (until they finally allow her to believe as well).  Come the new millennium there seemed little need for The X-Files any more, and it went off the air in 2002 to little fanfare and with an overburdened mythology than no longer seemed to make any sense to anyone, something the show stuck doggedly to during its brief revival. But in its time it was one of the most important shows on television, not just in telefantasy, and laid down a template that shows are still following today.

The Prisoner:  One of the most Earthbound and least sci-fi examples of the telefantasy genre, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prinsoner lasted for just seventeen episodes yet remains one of the most important and influential entries in the entire genre.  McGoohan, who co-created the series, starred and provided the show’s singular narrative stance- to put it mildly – had already been a star, taking the lead in spy action TV show Danger Man before embarking on the altogether more ambitious The Prisoner.  Telling the story of an un-named (but definitely numbered) agent who on announcing his retirement for reasons unspecified is abducted and forcibly incarcerated in The Village, the show documents Number 6’s increasingly desperate attempts to escape The Village and hang on to his individuality in the face of unceasing attempts to break it down and destroy it.   Much of the narrative drive of the series is caught up in understanding what power is, who wields it, and why – almost every week saw a new Number Two assigned to The Village to try and crack Number Six, and each would meet with failure only to be replaced.  The interchangeable nature of Number Two provides much of the initial allegorical structure of The Prisoner, the faceless power (almost) at the top of the tree, and a cog in a machine that Number Six doesn’t even who is controlling.  It is kept intentionally ambiguous as to whether “his side” – since he’s abducted from somewhere that is visibly London in the opening title sequence each week, he must be an agent of a Western power, and probably MI-6 – or “the other side” (implicitly the Soviet Bloc) have chosen to incarcerate him, leaving him in a truly isolated position, able to rely only on his own individuality, the very thing they The Village is trying to rob him of.  The Prisoner has a bright, bold, colourful 1960s holiday-camp aesthetic that cheerfully clashes with the increasingly dark and vicious battles between authority and individualism.  As the show progressed it began to leave behind its competent and slick spy show trappings and became more visually challenging and stylistically diverse, with episodes like “Living In Harmony” being a sort of acid-trip Western and “Once Upon A Time” resembling an almost bare-stage play delivered by just two actors sitting opposite each other.  After sixteen weeks of wondering who Number One was (as Number Six constantly demanded to be told), the final seventeenth episode proved a controversial, challenging ending that was never going to produce something as simple as a straightforward answer – had it proved to be Communists or corrupt government officials running The Village much of the allegorical nature of the show would have been reduced to the mundane world of mere politics.  By producing a unconventional finale that offered little in the way of concrete answers and refused to produce simple resolutions it also managed to suggest as much as anything the prisons we all have are the ones we hold inside ourselves. 

Airwolf:  As telefantasy moved away from the expensive space opera goings-on of the late 70’s in the U.S. a new side of the genre began to emerge in the 80’s.  Often loud, brash and frequently featuring a mode of transport (a car, a motor bike, a helicopter and so on) this peculiarly 80’s side to the genre exploded and briefly became the dominant form of telefantasy for a few years before falling away never to really emerge again (as several failed attempts to reboot Knight Rider have proven, there’s just not traction for it any more).  Airwolf managed to distinguish itself by taking a slower, more thoughtful approach to big things going boom – not that there wasn’t plenty of that going on too – but it’s that approach that makes it stand out.  Featuring a still, controlled central performance from Jan-Michael Vincent as the unconventionally-named Stringfellow Hawke, the lead was allowed a great deal more depth and scope than most characters in this type of show.  Rather than an abstract desire for justice or just turning up for This Week’s Adventure, Hawke was haunted by the loss of his brother during the Vietnam War after they became separated on a mission, which caused him to withdraw entirely to become a recluse on return to the U.S.  The thread of searching for his MIA brother is woven through Airwolf, allowing Vincent much more scope to stretch his dramatic muscles and Hawke much more range as a character.  Even the smaller details (his refusal to eat red meat, his cello playing, his remote log cabin) mark the character as a million miles away from the Michael Knight’s of the world and greatly contribute to probably the most fully rounded character of the big-things-go-boom genre.  Enthusiastic support was provided by the ever-reliable Ernest Borgnine, lest things get too moody and serious, and the Firm – the organization determined to re-capture Airwolf from Hawke after his theft of the helicopter in the pilot – was represented by “Archangel”, played by Alex Cord, who struck an uneasy alliance between Hawke and The Firm in a way not dissimilar to Skinner in The X-Files.  The moral duplicity of the Firm, rumblings of cold war doubts about the government, the still-open scars of the Vietnam War, and questions of who could be trusted lent, in the first season, a much more mature edge to Airwolf than any of the shows contemporaries.  Though a retooling in the second season moved the show away from its darker origins and the murky world of international espionage that provided much fodder for the early episodes, for a while Airwolf could legitimately claim to be the only smart entry in a poorly-regarded ghetto of the telefantasy genre which is now all but dead and gone but for a while lit up the TV schedules as brightly as any explosion.

Survivors:  Of all the bleak, mid-70’s telefantasy that came out of Britain, Survivors crystalized many of the concerns of the age (environmentalism, the collapse of society, out-of-control science, the breakdown of law and order) into a single programme that not only dealt with those concerns head-on but also pre-empted many later series’ attempts to cover the same territory (much of Survivors today looks like a zombie-free, British The Walking Dead).  The show tells the story of a group of people who survive “The Death”, an accidentally-release plague that wipes out almost the entirety of the human race but for a handful of remaining people.  Falling back on a whole host of names familiar to anyone who knows their British telefantasy history – it’s created by Terry Nation, produced by Terrance Dudley, and features guest turns from the likes of Patrick Troughton, Brian Blessed, June Brown, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Philip Maddoc – the show ran from 1975 to 1977. Over the course of its 38 episodes focused on Abby Grant, played by Carolyn Seymour, and a small group of people she encounters, and throughout the series her constant quest to find her lost son, Peter, re-establish society and build once more.  Abby Grant is a remarkably strong female protagonist for the time, and in a show which delves in to the depths to which people can sink, never shrinks away from confronting the stark realities of life after the fall of civilization.  In particular, the end of the first season deals head-on with the question of capital punishment and its effectiveness and worth in a society which calls itself civilized, and pulls no punches when delivering its verdict.  The second season continues to explore themes of what it takes to survive in such a brutal environment and retains the shows commitment to dealing with the implications of the new society for both good and ill, including how the society deals with the arrival of a child killer, the re-emergence of religion, and an eventual self-induced abortion.  One of the great strengths of the show is that it never comes across as judgmental or exploitative when dealing with these subjects and both the cast and production lend much weight to the material while dealing with the hot-button topics of the time.  The third and final season of Survivors shows a few chinks of light as society slow starts to re-establish itself and the show ends with the return of electricity, and though it would be a stretch to call it an optimistic ending to the programme it also shows that Survivors never wallowed in its dark side for its own sake.  Today it stands as a remarkably mature, successful example of how to do a post-apocalyptic show right.

Life On Mars:  Of the big resurgence in British telefantasy that’s taken place since the turn on the millennium, Life On Mars has marked itself out as one of the smartest and most unconventional takes on familiar material in recent years.  Like The X-Files before it, Life On Mars took familiar material and put an unfamiliar twist on it, in this case merging a traditional police procedural with a sort of abstract underpinning that never allowed the viewer to be certain exactly what was going on.  The central dilemma of the main protagonist Sam Tyler, played by John Simm (“am I in a coma, mad, or back in time?”) is played for existential angst, as he tries to come to terms with exactly what has happened to him after getting hit by a car in 2006 and waking up in 1973.  The characters of the show are all routed in archetypes – the gruff boss, the naïve sidekick, the new boy – but as written and played by an extremely gifted cast get new life breathed into them, allowing them to transcend their more simple origins to produce characters that are both instantly recognizable and easy to care about, but who also possess enough depth and originality to carry the core concepts of the show.  The question of the mode of Sam’s existence, like that of the capture of Number Six in The Prisoner, is never given a simple resolution and an ambiguous ending allows for a multiplicity of interpretations (including the potential for it to be the death of the lead character).  Sam’s quest for the truth of his existence is paralleled by his quest to solve each case of the week, clashing with his DCI, Gene Hunt (an instantly popular and real breakout character, played by Philip Glenister) with the conflict between the two playing out as the conflict within Sam’s own mind (the skeptic and the believer), and the more surreal hints about his plight that are scattered throughout the two seasons are blended seamlessly into the more nostalgic, backwards-looking elements of the show with consummate skill. Life On Mars proved to be a big hit and its sequel, the excellent and much under-appreciated Ashes To Ashes, picked up the same threads, providing further answers without undermining the core concepts of either show (and though it came in for some criticism as a series, the final episode of Ashes To Ashes provides a bravura send-off to both shows).  Life On Mars showed the continuing evolution of telefanasy in the 21st Century, and also how picking up and incorporating elements from telefantasy’s own past could still make for innovative, challenging television.

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