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

Here’s the second part of my rambling list of favourite Classic British Telefantasy series:

At Number Four is Sapphire and Steel, one of the strangest telefantasy series ever. Short on budget, hence relatively scarce (but effective) special effects, but oozing with quality writing, and oppressive, frightening mood and terror, this was a truly classic sci-fantasy series, featuring two of the most charismatic and mysterious central characters in telefantasy history, Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (played by David McCallum). The sheer mystery, the fact that nobody ever found out who or what the main characters really were, where they came from, or what the hell was actually happening most of the time, added greatly to the attraction of the show. The fact that Sapphire and Steel was rarely repeated on television also added to the effect, as all we had to go on for many years were our fading memories. Luckily the series has been made available in recent years, firstly on VHS video, and then on DVD. And even more fortunately, it definitely lives up to our fond memories of the show.

At Number Three, it’s UFO, by far my favourite of the Gerry Anderson shows, not a stone’s throw from the top of my list of favourite British telefantasy series. First airing in 1970, and set in the not so far off future of 1980, the gorgeous hardware, the aliens, sexy women (those gorgeous moonbase babes – Gay Ellis, oh my poor heart!), and interesting characters were a huge attraction for a young boy like me. From an adult perspective, that totally kitsch, retro futuristic feel (unintended at the time, of course), gives UFO an undeniable charm that allows the series to still hold up really well today. The complex alternate-universe 1980-that-never-was, combining a mix-mash of styles from 1970 and the imagined future “1980” (which actually feels more mid- or late-21st Century) give it a retro but also an undefinable “sometime just a few years from now” feel which makes the show work even in 2013, although its version of a 1980 “future” is actually thirty-three years in our past.

At Number Two, it’s Quatermass. If there’s any British telefantasy that might give Doctor Who a run for it’s money, it has to be Quatermass. The original Quatermass serials were well before my time (I wasn’t born until 1960, and those serials appeared in 1953, 1955 and 1958), although I really enjoyed the three film versions and the 1979 Quatermass serial featuring John Mills as the Professor. Reading a number of excellent Quatermass articles in various telefantasy fanzines during the 1980s really fired up my interest in the original 1950s serials. I was also fortunate, at some point during the early 1980s, to come upon three books containing the scripts/teleplays of all three original 1950s serials (complete with nice b&w photos). I was hooked on the original serials even more by that time, and, just to complete the circle, soon afterwards I also bought the novelization of the 1979 serial. I was now a hardcore fan of Quatermass in all its forms, both serials and films.

A few years later, I was absolutely elated to get my hands on the VHS video release of the third (and the best of the three) 1950s serial, Quatermass and the Pit, and finally got to see what all the hype was about. I’d always loved the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit, but the original serial absolutely blew my mind. It was way, way better than the film, and remains, to this day, my favourite ever single piece of British telefantasy. If the first two serials had been as good as the third (only two episodes of the first serial still exist), Quatermass might’ve made it to the Number One spot in my list. I was doubly delighted, about ten years ago, to get my hands on the excellent three-DVD release of The Quatermass Collection, featuring the beautifully restored Quatermass and the Pit, the entire (unrestored) Quatermass II, and the two surviving episodes of the Quatermass Experiment. This remarkable DVD set is an absolute treasure, and any British telefantasy fan worth their reputation should have a copy of this in their collections.

And finally, at Number One, it’s Doctor Who, just about my favourite telefantasy series of all time. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was five or six years old, way back in the mid-1960s. I like the modern version of Doctor Who, but not as much as the classic 1963-1989 series. I love the classic 1960s Hartnell and Troughton b&w stories, but my favourite Doctor Who eras were the Jon Pertwee years and the first half of Tom Baker’s run on the show. In my opinion, the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years were, without a shadow of a doubt, the best ever in the show’s history. This show had (and still has) so much history, continuity and detail. The Doctor(s) and the Tardis, travelling anywhere in time and space, Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sutekh the Destroyer, Omega, the Master, the list goes on and on and on, spanning the alphabet, from Autons to Zarbi, Doctor Who is immense. It was a huge part of my growing up process from early childhood right up into adulthood and to the present day (I’m now 52), this is the British telefantasy series (indeed THE telefantasy series, British or not) that has had the biggest effect on my life.

And just outside the Top Ten, in no particular order:

The Avengers – I quite enjoyed the weekly exploits of John Steed and Emma Peel, and later Tara King (I was too young to remember the earlier stories with Cathy Gale). Emma and Tara were certainly extremely easy on the eyes, and those two ladies absolutely kicked ass each and every week. The series was extremely psychedelic (hey, it was the Sixties!) and was overly camp at times. I was never a fan of the camp thing (hated it, actually), a major reason why I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as other UK telefantasy shows. I also quite liked The New Avengers, although it only occasionally crossed into telefantasy from its primary action adventure format. But it was worth watching for Joanna Lumley, playing Purdey, another gorgeous yet kick-ass Avengers female.

The Champions – enjoyable super-spy hokum in which three super-powered agents save the world each and every week from mad scientists and other menaces. I quite enjoyed this, although, with the exception of a handful of episodes, there was very little real sci-fi in the series, other than the agents showing their weekly portion of super strength, super speed or telepathy. I mostly liked it for the great theme tune and the epitome of eye candy provided by the absolutely gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo (who played Sharon McCready), who was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful women ever in the history of telefantasy.

Thunderbirds – loved the hardware, but, unlike Captain Scarlet, most of the stories themselves were not sci-fi enough for my tastes, even at that early age. Also, and despite my liking for Captain Scarlet, I was never really a fan of those damned puppets. I hate those wooden actors! I always preferred the live-action Gerry Anderson series.

That’s about it for the more famous British telefantasy series. At some point in the future, I’ll be devoting one or more blog posts to other, more obscure British telefantasy, particularly series aimed at children. My own memories of most of these are very incomplete and vague, so I’ve been buying a few of the more recommended classic children’s sci-fi series on DVD from Amazon UK. So far, I’ve got my hands on the entire original series of The Tomorrow People, Timeslip, Sky, Children of the Stones, The Owl Service, The Demon Headmaster and the 1980s version of Tom’s Midnight Garden. I think I’ll nab a few more series so I can post a reasonably comprehensive blog review.

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)