Classic British Telefantasy: My Top Ten Favourites (Part One)

I love television sci-fi (also known as telefantasy). But as much as I like the US sci-fi television shows, I’ve always been an even bigger fan of British telefantasy. So I’ve compiled a list of my favourites, in this case sticking to the more famous classic series, avoiding the more obscure shows, as they’ll be a subject of another article at a later date. I’ve also made a point of staying away from more modern series, preferring to concentrate on series from the 1980s and earlier.

There are also a few other series that I haven’t listed, as I never really watched them when they were on TV. Star Cops is a perfect example. I liked what little I did see of it (and it was VERY little), but I didn’t see enough of it to make any kind of informed comments about the series as a whole. Maybe one of these days I’ll get around to picking up Star Cops on DVD from Amazon UK, and rectify that situation.

I’ve also deliberately avoided listing the classic children’s telefantasy series, as those are a different category, and will also be the subject of a later article. Some of them, like The Tomorrow People and Timeslip, are quite well known, but most are pretty obscure these days, at least in comparison to Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and the other more famous telefantasy shows, and are remembered only by those people who saw and loved them back when they were kids. I have only vague memories of most of them from my own childhood (I was only nine years old when Timeslip aired back in 1970). The ones I do remember, or that I actually have on video/DVD, will be the subject of a later post in the Classic British Telefantasy series.

So here, in reverse order, is the first half of my list of Top Ten Classic British Telefantasy series, spanning the period from the 1950s to the 1980s:

Firstly, at Number Ten, we have Survivors, the extremely grim Terry Nation post-apocalyptic series in which 95% of the human race has been wiped out by a plague, and a small group of survivors tries to piece together a semblance of normal life and re-establish civilization. Despite most of humanity being eradicated by a virus, thankfully there isn’t a single bloody zombie in sight. Every viral apocalypse in telefantasy these days ends up with freakin’ zombies taking over the world – I’m totally sick and tired of the endless zombie crap pushed in our faces. The most dangerous enemies that our central characters faced in Survivors were themselves and other humans. With the structure of society gone, we saw the best, and worst of humanity in this dog-eat-dog world. I also really liked the modern version of Survivors. A very good remake indeed.

At Number Nine, it’s Captain Scarlet, the direct predecessor to UFO, and the only Gerry Anderson puppet show that I ever really liked. Almost certainly this was because of the more overt sci-fi content of the series, compared to, say, Thunderbirds, which was more of a hi-tech thriller with a few sci-fi elements, gadgets and visuals thrown in. I was too young to have anything but the most vague memories of anything before Thunderbirds (although I reckon I’d have enjoyed Fireball XL5, as it was a hardcore space opera series, my kinda thing). As a sidenote, I’ll also add that I REALLY liked the more modern CGI incarnation of Captain Scarlet. I actually preferred it to the original, to be honest, with the exception of the dire theme music, which doesn’t remotely compare to the gorgeous theme music in the original series. It’s a great pity that Gerry Anderson is no longer with us, as CGI could’ve been the way forward for future possible revamps of other Anderson series, such as UFO and Space: 1999 (2099, 2199?). We’ll never have the chance to find out now.

At Number Eight, it’s Red Dwarf, the funniest sci-fi comedy, ever. I know a few sci-fi fans would consider this opinion as sacrilege, but I always greatly preferred Red Dwarf to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I usually found to be very… unfunny. HHG was a good satire on serious SF concepts, but I guess I’ve just never been a fan of the Douglas Adams brand of humour. Give me the crazy shenanigans of Lister, Rimmer, Cat, Kryten and Holly any day. Red Dwarf “sent up” sci-fi themes in a much more grass-roots, funny way that appealed to me and all its legion of fans. Some of the daft situations that Lister and co. ended up in were both mind-bending and hilarious.

At Number Seven, we have Space: 1999. As with UFO (and most Gerry Anderson series), I absolutely loved the hardware and visuals, although, I couldn’t always say the same about the acting and stories, which could be hit and miss, particularly in the “revamped” Season 2. But my biggest beef with the series was the science, or, rather, the lack of it. I know that realistic science in UFO and the earlier Anderson shows was also pretty much non-existent, but Space: 1999 really took the biscuit, even by Anderson’s usual naff-science standards. And by the time Space: 1999 appeared on UK television, I was a bit older, in my mid-teens, at grammar school, and increasingly interested in and savvy about science. I was starkly aware of just how ridiculously stupid the science and many of the plots in Space: 1999 really were, and it bugged me quite a lot, despite my overall enjoyment of the show, which was visually gorgeous and trippy, in a post-2001: A Space Odyssey kinda way.

At Number Six on the list, aptly enough, it’s good old Number Six himself, The Prisoner. This was a really weird series, very cerebral and complex, and half the time, I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but it was definitely great fun. To be honest, I think that everyone involved with the series was smokin’ weed or something, it was so trippy. All I know is that I enjoyed it a lot, and made a point of tuning in every week to watch the adventures of Number Six, and his attempts to escape from The Village. My favourite bits always involved Number Six getting chased all over the place by those big, white ball thingies making those weird roaring noises. I certainly got a rollicking great surprise in the final episode, when it was revealed that the elusive Number One was none other than Number Six himself.

At Number Five in my list of Top Ten Favourite Classic British Telefantasy Series, it’s Blake’s 7, an inverted, dark mirror image of Star Trek. The human Federation of this series rules much of the galaxy, but this is no enlightened civilization. This Federation is a monstrous, oppressive, totalitarian dictatorship of a kind that the likes of Hitler or Stalin could only have had wet dreams about. Opposed by Roj Blake, Kerr Avon and their motley band of honourable outlaws, the ruthless and evil Servalan gave us one of the smoothest, most glamorous and icy-cold female villains in all of telefantasy. Despite liking the entire four-season run of Blake’s 7, I had a preference for the “Liberator Years” of the show, as I got really miffed when they destroyed the Liberator and replaced it with that crappy garbage scow, Scorpio. Imagine replacing one of the best ships in all telefantasy with that POS! This was a stupid and overt attempt to imitate the Millenium Falcon, with Star Wars being the then-current box office phenomenon. Star Wars was riding a huge wave of popularity in all forms of media, and everyone was tripping over each other trying to imitate it in some way or another. It’s a pity that the producers of Blake’s 7 decided to downgrade from the Liberator to the Scorpio in order to follow a damned media trend.

OK, that completes the first half of my Top Ten Classic British Telefantasy series. The second half is coming up in Part Two.

(To Be Continued)

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Iain M. Banks (1954-2013)

I was really saddened to learn of the death of science fiction author Iain M. Banks on June 9th. It wasn’t really a surprise, given that he’d announced to the world two months before that he had terminal cancer. But most of us thought he’d be with us for a few more months at least, and it was a bit of an unexpected shock that he had passed away so quickly so soon after making the announcement.

Banks was a giant both in the science fiction genre, and, without the “M” in his name, in the literary mainstream field as well. Others have elaborated at length on his mainstream literary books such as The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road, The Bridge, Walking on Glass and Espedair Street. I’m not particularly interested in those books, excellent as they undoubtedly are. I don’t read literary mainstream fiction, nor, indeed, any other form of genre fiction except for SF. I’m almost totally a reader of factual literature – history, science, computing, web design, autobiographies, linguistics, indeed almost anything factual. From the world of fiction, it’s only SF that holds any attraction for me. The rest just bores me to tears.

So it’s Banks’s SF books, both Culture and non-Culture (Against a Dark Background, The Algebraist), that I’m primarily interested in. Over the past couple of years, I’ve picked up most of his Culture novels, and they all sit in my huge “to read” pile. Despite knowing quite a bit about Banks, the Culture and its background, I’m in the extremely weird situation that I have actually not, as yet, gotten around to actually reading most of the Culture novels. With the exception of Player of Games and the State of the Art short story collection, I haven’t read any of the other Iain M. Banks books yet. Some Banks fans might consider that to be an extremely enviable situation to be in, as I have all those great novels still ahead of me. With the announcement of Banks’s passing, they certainly have all been moved right to the top of the pile of books that I want to read. If I enjoy Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter, Surface Detail and The Hydrogen Sonata as much as I have Player of Games and State of the Art, I have some great reading ahead of me.

Banks is rightfully credited with being at the vanguard of a group of modern SF authors who have, since the 1980s, helped reintroduce a more traditional, optimistic brand of SF, which had, up until then, been pushed aside by the deluge of pessimistic dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF that had seemingly taken over the genre. They also played a fundamental role in reinventing and rehabilitating the humble space opera within the SF genre, after it had almost totally disappeared from serious SF literature for many years before.

The previous generation of “New Wave” SF writers had considered space opera to be, let’s call a spade a spade, totally beneath them. They argued (perhaps justifiably) that space opera had become tired, cliched and unhip, and they even went as far as declaring the space opera to be “dead”, with the bloody knife in their own hands. They certainly did their damnedest to kill it off. Most of those SF authors had much loftier literary ambitions than their predecessors, and space opera, as the ultimate symbol (in their eyes) of the tired and childish “Old SF” was a particular target of their ire. It was unfashionable, unthinkable even, for these authors to even consider writing space opera. From their point of view, any author with aspirations of becoming a “serious literary figure”, writing space opera would be a kiss of death for their career. And the readers, particularly fans of space opera, had absolutely no say in the matter. Who gave a damn what they wanted?

But fortunately for all of us, those literary snobs were wrong, the readers and fans of space opera got what they wanted, and space opera has outlived most of the outdated, pretentious and almost unreadable “New Wave” SF writing, and still entertains new generations of SF fans to this day. Iain M. Banks and a few others were responsible for making it fashionable again, and they helped to usher in a new era of much more literate, intelligent and adult space opera, which has remained a huge favourite and a focus for a large number of SF readers, myself included.

Without Space Opera, its modern descendant New Space Opera, and some Hard SF, I would read virtually no modern SF at all, as there is very little else being written in the “Speculative Fiction” field these days to interest me or older readers like myself who prefer classic-style SF. I’d be stuck with reading only my huge collection of classic pre-New Wave SF. For that alone, Mr. Banks, you have my deepest, heartfelt gratitude.

Iain M. Banks died tragically young (he was 59, only seven years older than I am, and I consider myself to still be a relatively young man), thus undoubtedly depriving us of many more fantastic books, both SF/Culture and literary mainstream. But the incredible body of work that he leaves behind already assures his immortality in both the SF and literary mainstream worlds. He also leaves behind a huge number of heartbroken, faithful fans, and his fantastic writing will certainly attract many, many more fans in the years to come.

And I know that I, for one, definitely have some great Iain M. Banks SF books to look forward to reading, most of them for the very first time.

Fanzines – Creative Genius at the Grass Roots (Part Four)

Okay, here’s the fourth and final part of my ramblings on my memories of and experiences with fanzines. This one takes us right up to the present day and the most modern fanzines.

I’ve already mentioned how I faded away from collecting fanzines in the late-1990s, and have only really rekindled the passion for zines again over the past five years or so. I’ve seen some really big changes since I came back to collecting fanzines again. The number of print zines has obviously declined drastically over the years, at least since I last collected fanzines on a regular basis, back in the mid-1990s. Things are obviously very different nowadays compared to how they were “back then”, and many former zine editors and writers have either turned professional, or moved on to different creative activities, totally unrelated to fanzines.

At one point, particularly in the 2000-2005 period, I was beginning to think that the traditional paper Doctor Who fanzine had become an extinct species (which is the main reason I didn’t get back into them again much sooner). But fortunately there are still a few traditional paper zines out there, if you look hard enough for them, and there seems to have been a minor resurgence in Doctor Who zines in recent years, most likely as a result of the popularity of the modern Doctor Who television series.

Of the modern DW “paper” zines, I’ve managed to get together a nice little collection of a few of the best:

Richard Farrell produces the excellent Plaything of Sutekh, a new A5 kid on the block, which has two issues under its belt so far. This one certainly looks like it’s going to be a front-runner among the new breed of Doctor Who zines. Richard also produces the equally excellent Andersonic, another high-quality A5 zine dedicated to the Gerry Anderson television shows, in particular the two live shows, UFO and Space: 1999. Both of Richard’s zines are inspired by the classic Circus, which he was a great fan of (and a contributor to, if I recall correctly). This should give you an idea of how high the quality is of both these zines.

Oliver Wake produced seven issues of the excellent Panic Moon, a sexy little A6 Doctor Who zine, before calling it a day. Most of the issues are still available from him.

Grant Bull edited three issues of Blue Box, before moving onto bigger things. Blue Box is an unashamedly retro/cheapo A5 zine, deliberately produced in the old pre-computer DTP style, paying tribute to the classic cut ‘n’ paste photocopied Doctor Who zines of yesteryear.

Kenny Smith has just put out the 12th issue of The Finished Product, an excellent A5 zine dedicated to the niche market of Big Finish audio adventures of the Doctor and his companions.

Richard Bignall has produced three issues of the classy Nothing at the End of the Lane, a huge A4 prozine of incredible quality, dedicated to behind the scenes aspects of Doctor Who. Issue three is available directly from him, and an omnibus of the first two issues is available from Lulu.com.

Colin Brockhurst and Gareth Kavanagh have put out two issues of the simply amazing Vworp Vworp!, another high-quality and colorful A4 prozine which pays tribute to the classic official Doctor Who Monthly/Magazine of days gone by.

Most of the above still have a few back issues in stock. All fans of Doctor Who, or of fanzines, or of both, should do themselves a huge favour and try out some of these zines. They cover a wide range of types, from tiny A6, through traditional A5 (both retro cut ‘n’ paste and more slick DTP), to gorgeous, full-sized A4 glossy colour prozines. They also cover an enormous range of subject matter, but each and every one of them is stuffed to the gills with amazing Doctor Who (and in the case of Andersonic, Gerry Anderson) goodness.

They’re unmissable gems, every single one of them, and there’s absolutely nothing on the newsstands remotely as good, as enjoyable or as deserving of your meagre pennies. Support these zines, buy a copy of each, and encourage the editors to keep producing these wonderful slices of fannish goodness. I know one thing for sure – my life would be a lot poorer and less interesting without them.

There are also many other fanzines out there, both physical/paper and electronic, most of which I haven’t gotten around to trying out yet (but I will). Go find them, and enjoy. Happy hunting!

Fanzines – Creative Genius at the Grass Roots (Part Three)

In my previous two posts, I’ve talked about my general experiences with, and thoughts on, fanzines. Now I’ll share a few more specific thoughts about the actual zines that I’ve come across over the years.

The earliest zines that I collected date from the 1970s and early 1980s, and were mostly based around SF literature and comics. But these were sporadic, one-off zine purchases, and I didn’t really become a hardcore zine collector until well into the 1980s. The pattern of zine purchases in that latter period was also different to what it had been before, in that most of the zines that I collected from the mid-80s onwards were deliberate, regular purchases of individual titles, in order to have a complete collection of each of my favourite zines. The pattern was also different in that the vast majority of these newer zines were based around my favourite sci-fi television series, rather than SF literature and comics.

My first regular fanzine (which I have every issue of, more than twenty of them) was published in the mid-80s, the excellent Flickers ‘n’ Frames, a reviewzine, which now has its direct descendant on the internet in the form of The Borderland website. Flickers ‘n’ Frames ran the gamut of pretty much everything, publishing reviews of sci-fi films, TV series, books, graphic novels, music, and the occasional piece of fiction. This one zine pretty much kick-started my current obsession with collecting zines, and I immediately moved on to collecting other fanzines, mostly based around telefantasy and SF.

My main fanzine collecting years coincided with what is known as the “Golden Age” of Doctor Who fanzines, circa 1985-1995. And so most of the zines in my collection are therefore based on Doctor Who, which just happens also to be my favourite ever TV sci-fi series. Although I’ve got quite a few non-Doctor Who zines in my collection, such as the previously mentioned Flickers ‘n’ Frames, and a large number of other zines covering various cult television shows ranging from Star Trek, to Blake’s 7 and the various Gerry Anderson TV shows, the bulk of my collection is made up of Doctor Who zines. That love of Doctor Who zines continues right up until the present day, and I still collect as many of the current batch of zines as I can.

The hoard of zines that I collected over the years covered many different themes and types, but most of them tended to fall into several different categories.

The first, and largest, category was the general review and article-based zines, which covered not only Doctor Who and other telefantasy series, but often other completely unrelated topics as well. They usually also included the occasional piece of fan fiction. These were mostly traditional A5 zines, and included (off the top of my head):

Circus (which also went A4 for several issues out of the eight-issue run).

Star-Begotten.

Soft Targets (A6).

625.

Brave New World.

Purple Haze.

Peladon.

Cygnus Alpha.

Auton.

Game of Rassilon.

Club Tropicana.

Burning the Ground.

the original Skaro.

Rumours.

Apocrypha.

Shockeye’s Kitchen.

Timelines (the fanzine of the Grand Order of the Time Lords).

Frontios.

Cybermag.

Sonic Screwdriver.

Queen Bat/Space Rat.

Eye of Harmony.

Vipod Mor.

Drake’s Drum (an A5 Star Trek zine).

and a few others that I can’t recall right now. But occasionally the zines were A4 and glossy (or sometimes not), such as:

Celestial Toyroom (the news/reviewzine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society).

Second Dimension.

Matrix.

Skaro.

Antoinine Killer.

Metamorph.

Metamorph II.

Shadowsphere.

Neutron Flow.

The Tomb.

and a few others that I can’t remember off the top of my head.

The second category was fictionzines, mostly A5 but sometimes A4, zines composed almost totally of fan fiction based on Doctor Who, Star Trek or other telefantasy series. I’ve always had a soft spot for good quality fan fiction, so I have a LOT of fictionzines in my collection, including:

A5:

Mandria.

Silver Carrier and many other one-off fictionzine “novels” by the excellent Seventh Door Fanzines.

Chronicle.

Cosmic Masque (the fictionzine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society).

Inner Door.

The Key and The Key Presents.

the various Gallifreyan Presses publications.

A4:

Inferno Fiction.

Fan Aid – The Storytellers.

Wondrous Stories.

Black Pyramid.

Universal Dreamer.

Vortex.

Trenchcoat (US Letter).

Myth Makers (US Letter).

and, again, quite a few others that I can’t recall right now. Again, mostly Doctor Who zines.

The third category was the larger A4, glossy (and often more colourful) semiprozines such as:

The Frame, which contained an enormous amount of photographs and background information on Doctor Who.

DWB, which started off as a semi-prozine dedicated to Doctor Who, but then morphed into Dreamwatch Bulletin and finally the professional newsstand magazine Dreamwatch, which covered telefantasy and sci-fi cinema of all shades.

Century 21 (based, obviously, around Gerry Anderson shows).

Portal 31 (a tribute to the classic TV21 comic).

There are quite a few other zines that I haven’t mentioned, as this is all from memory, but this is a good sub-section of them, all falling into the three categories which cover most of the zines in my collection.

To Be Continued…