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)

SF Labels and Categories – Useful, or a Waste of Space?

SF fans just love to categorize and pidgeon-hole their fiction, to label it so that it fits neatly into certain little boxes with other fiction of exactly the same kind. I’m referring primarily to all those little categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, and so on, that we invent to identify and promote the various kinds of SF&F that we read.

We’ve got Hard SF, Soft/Social SF, Space Opera, New Space Opera, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Military SF, Alternate History, Parallel/Alternate Universe SF, Time Travel/Temporal Paradox SF, Superhuman SF, Utopian/Dystopian SF, Apocalyptic SF, Alien Invasion SF, Space Westerns, Anthropological SF, Comic SF, Feminist SF, Scientific Romances, Slipstream, Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Magical Realism, Epic Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Mainstream/High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Superhero Fantasy, Comic Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy… the list of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres goes on and on and on endlessly, and there are new ones popping up all the time.

Let’s take the Hard SF sub-genre, for example, which is based on a worldview projected ahead from theories of real, existing science (usually physics, or one of the other hard sciences), creating a future reality that may be possible, with none of the unrealistic, fantastic elements seen in other types of SF. I think that the classic definition of Hard SF was that the writer was allowed ONE element as a “maguffin”, a plot device that doesn’t have to be extrapolated from real science (something like a time machine, or FTL, both of which are, some would say, actually as much fantasy as fairies, elves or vampires, with absolutely no basis in real science), but the rest has to be true extrapolation from currently understood science.

However, in practice, most Hard SF novels contain more than one non-Hard SF element, and the category seems to have been slightly “watered down” in recent years, to allow a few “maguffins” in each story, rather than only one, just as long as the overall science and extrapolation in the story is “real”. There also seems to be a widening trend towards expansion within the modern Hard SF sub-genre itself, a trend which promotes including everything from ultra-hard, to generic SF, with a few Hard SF elements in among the non-hard stuff. There’s even a relatively new sub-genre within Hard SF known as New Space Opera, which fuses the best elements of Hard SF and Space Opera, two sub-genres so far apart on the SF spectrum (pretty much at opposite ends, actually) that classic Hard SF and Space Opera fans of days gone by would never have believed that they could ever mix.

If we were to truly apply the “only one maguffin allowed” rule of classic Hard SF rigidly, many of the great SF stories of the past fifty years or more would really have to be re-classified as generic SF, or some other sub-genre, rather than Hard SF. Even the mighty 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the benchmarks of classic Hard SF cinema, has at least TWO non-Hard SF elements (if not more) – alien visitation in the past by near-godlike beings, who manipulated and altered the man-apes to enable them to survive and evolve into modern humans (more Erich von Daniken than Hard SF), and a stargate to allow FTL travel (pure fantasy according to current scientific theory).

As far as I’m concerned, labels and categories are merely guidelines, useful pointers so that fans of certain sub-types of SF can search out and find the shades of SF that they are most attracted to, from among the huge spectrum of assorted sub-genres. SF fans should never lose sight of the fact that the Real Deal is the story itself, and how good it is. The labelling is only to help them find and classify it, and is quite unimportant outside of that purpose.

But sometimes we can get a little bit too caught up with labels, and unfortunately there are some really obsessive fans out there, a small percentage of the Faithful Adherents in each sub-genre, who tend to go way, way overboard in their compulsion to keep their little corners of the SF meta-genre pure and untainted by anything from “outside”, anything that doesn’t fit their limited and restricted worldview. A symptom of this is their extreme obsession with labels and categories, and excluding anything from those categories that they believe doesn’t belong, even on the flimsiest of rationalizations.

I’ll give an example. I was witness to an online discussion a few months ago (can’t recall exactly where) about SF author Peter Watts and his excellent novel Blindsight. Now Watts is usually categorized as a Hard SF author, and a good one, too. And Blindsight is a pretty good Hard SF novel. But a few so-called fans were slating it for daring to commit a “cardinal sin” – there were vampires in the story. And vampires are Horror, not SF (never mind Hard SF), right? You can’t possibly have vampires in a Hard SF story, right?

This is all totally ignoring the fact that Watts had given his vampires a “scientific rationale” for existing. Sure, not exactly Hard SF, but they certainly weren’t the fantastical, supernatural vampires of horror legend, either. But you’d have thought that Watts had murdered someone, the way these obsessive fans were having a go at him about it. One second they were praising him for writing such an enjoyable novel, and next they were tearing into him for having the temerity to have vampires in a Hard SF novel.

I found myself rolling my eyes in disgust and disbelief at these sad, anal-retentive idiots. I mean come on, Get a Freakin’ Life. WHO CARES? It’s a great novel, and that’s all that matters. And in defense of Blindsight, if we were to consider the vampires as the single, permissible, non-“hard” extrapolated item or plot device, then the rest of the novel could definitely be considered true Hard SF. I certainly consider it Hard SF. Even by the classic Hard SF definition, it still fits the label.

But, to be honest, at the end of the day, I really couldn’t give a hoot what label is stuck on Blindsight or any other book, just as long as the book is good. I don’t really care if Blindsight is labelled as pure, undiluted Hard SF or not, or merely “mostly” Hard SF, or even “Hard SF/Horror”. I really, really don’t give a damn. I just prefer to enjoy it for what it really is, a cracking good read.

So yes, I consider labels and categories to be useful, a good thing, but they are not the be-all and end-all, and are important only as a useful way to locate, indentify and classify certain types of story. That’s all they are for, and they are not important in themselves. And they should never be held so self-important or inflexible that they “lock out” any story from that genre, just because it contains a few things that don’t fit the overall category. If the general essence of a story places it in a certain category, say Hard SF, then it doesn’t matter if there are a few elements in it that aren’t “hard”, just as long as most of them are.