Sci-Fi Songfest

10 great pop music moments in sci-fi and fantasy television

This week, we’re concentrating on pre-existing rock and pop songs co-opted for use in SF and fantasy TV episodes. In the near future, we’ll have a sequel feature covering songs specially written for screen sci-fi. So what are you waiting for? Get your dancing shoes on and boogie.

Text by Jayne Nelson, Dave Golder and Jordan Farley. Positions decided through lots of arguing.

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10 “Hurt” Smallville

Episode: “Shattered” Artist: Johnny Cash (covering Nine Inch Nails)

Around 2003-4 you couldn’t escape “Hurt” – it seemed to turn up on more soundtracks than the Wilhelm scream – and it wasn’t truly replaced as unimaginative producers’ fave choice for upping the angst ante until they all suddenly discovered Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” instead. But Smallville got in there early, so kudos to the show’s creators for recognising the amazing, elemental power of the Man In Black’s rolling thunder vocals married to Trent Reznor’s most wrist-slitting lyrics. More than that, though, it was the perfect combination of song and images, accompanying a harrowing montage showing Lionel Luthor having his son committed to a mental asylum purely to cover up his own past misdemeanours. Smallville has rarely felt so raw and so traumatic. Listen to it here.

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9 “Mister Roboto” Chuck

Episode: “Chuck Versus The Ring”

Artists: Jeffster, via Styx

Who wouldn’t want Jeffster as their wedding band? Yeah, okay, forget I asked that. But while you wouldn’t actually want Buy More’s wannabe prog rock heroes to be any part of your real life, they sure as hell make for good TV. Seizing the opportunity when Ellie and Awesome’s wedding ceremony needs to be stalled, the “Indian lesbian and Sam Kinison” lookalikes strap on the synth guitars and give the congregation a blast of “Mister Roboto”… that goes on and on and on until the massed relatives look like they might turn feral, and ends with a firework display that sets off the sprinkler system. What the congregation doesn’t realise is that next door, Chuck and Sarah are fighting off members of FULCRUM using the reception cutlery. It’s all utterly bonkers, like a drunken rave on a bouncy castle.

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8 “Full Of Grace” Buffy

Episode: “Becoming, Part Two”

Artist: Sarah MacLachlan

“The winter is cold, and bitter/It’s chilled us to the bone/We haven’t seen the sun for weeks/Too long, too far from home...” Ah, the mournful tones of Canadian songstress Sarah MacLachlan – perfect for adding a beautiful layer of musical misery to any sad scene. “Full Of Grace” is a drippy dirge about the end of a relationship, all soulful strings and plaintive whining; the kind of song that should be accompanied by a glass of red wine and some candle-burning. And yet, when layered over the final scenes of “Becoming: Part Two”, the song takes on a new life: suddenly it all makes glorious, heartbreaking sense. Listen to the track here (accompanied by a nifty Buffy montage).

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7 “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon” Misfits

Episode: 1.02

Artist: Neil Diamond

Here’s a unique track among this list, in that its full significance only became clear after you watched on a bit further. Yes, this is music-as-potential-spoiler. Except that this early in the show’s run, nobody quite knew how fiendishly clever and warped the writing could be, so the first time you hear Neil Diamond warbling away you don’t pick up on the hints. Only after Nathan’s girlfriend turns out to be a granny in disguise does it all suddenly makes rather horrifying sense.

Listen to the track below, accompanied by an image of the pyramids (for no earthly reason we can fathom).

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6 “Voodoo Child” Doctor Who

Episode: “The Sound Of Drums”

Artist: Rogue Traders

Ever since that human trampoline Cassandra celebrated the end of the world with a blast of “Tainted Love” from her "iPod", new Who has integrated rock and pop into the show’s mix in no end of unexpected and cheekily daring ways. Okay, Slade during a Christmas episode is hardly revolutionary, but using “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to drown out the screams of people being converted into Cybermen? Genius. And what about Doctor-hunting Elton’s passion for ELO? And yeah, we were tempted to put Athlete’s “Chances” in this list for making us cry at the end of “Vincent And The Doctor”, but in the end there was only one real contender. As the Master prepares to unleash the massed ranks of the Toclafane onto Earth he joyously declares to his captives, “Here come the drums!” And indeed they do, courtesy of Rogue Traders' “Voodoo Child” bursting from the Valiant’s sound system – “Here come the drums! Here come the drums!” – with a dance gusto that makes the Master’s wife do the cutest little jig. It's all so, so deliciously insane. It certainly beats all those villains who insist on listening to opera.

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5 “History Repeating” Being Human

Episode: “Though The Heaven’s Fall”

Artist: Propellerheads featuring Shirley Bassey

A simply brilliant and cheekily appropriate choice of track in so many ways:

1) History is indeed repeating as vampire boss Herrick regains his full senses and immediately returns to his bloodsucking ways.

2) It’s sung by Shirley Bassey, who comes from Tiger Bay, just down the road from the Barry B&B (and remember, vampire Mitchell has just bemoaned the fact that his downfall, “can’t be happening in Wales!”, so on one level the track seems to be case of rubbing salt into sore wounds).

3) It’s a collaboration with Propellerheads, who were part of the Bristol music scene (though they actually came from Bath). Being Human had, of course, recently relocated to Wales from Bristol.

4) It’s just so wonderfully anachronistic – all that jaunty dance music while life is falling apart around the character’s ears. It’s why you love Being Human .

(And apologies to ageing New Romantics who loved “Hungry Like The Wolf” in the same episode – it was great, but kinda an obvious choice, waiting to happen.)

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4 “A Simple Man” Supernatural

Episode: “Free To Be You And Me”

Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd

Instead we’ve gone for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “A Simple Man” from early season five episode “Free To Be You And Me”. Adding a tinge of melancholy to the episode’s opening montage, Skynyrd’s twangy guitar and impassioned vocals are poignant at the best of times, but here achieve tear-duct threatening levels, arriving as they do at the low point of the Winchester’s relationship. With Sam and Dean having gone their separate ways after Sam’s apocalyptic bender, we can think of no song more appropriate for the brothers’ internal soundtrack.

The masterstroke, however, is the way the song transitions into Dean’s car radio at the end – the lyrics perfectly mirroring Dean’s “simple”, solitary existence – hunting the things that go bump in the night, and the mundane nature of Sam’s – a monster-free new life serving in a bar. The writers even squeeze in a bit of light relief with a top Twilight gag. Perfect.

Watch the sequence in full here .

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3 “The World Spins” Twin Peaks

Episode: Episode Fourteen

Artist: Julee Cruise

How do we even begin to praise this magical scene? It appeared at the end of the episode which revealed to a ravenous waiting world who killed not-so-innocent cheerleader Laura Palmer, bookending a scene which showed the murderer killing for a second time. Composed by Twin Peaks ’ music maestro Angelo Badalamenti, with lyrics by David Lynch, it’s sung by an ethereal Julee Cruise to a room full of loggers and bikers who should probably be pining for some country or bluegrass. And yet they lap it up – another of Twin Peaks ’ famous contradictions.

Most notably, however, it’s the way the music is the perfect counterpoint to the utter horror of Maddy Ferguson’s murder that sticks with us: a gentle, soothing lullaby that, post-kill, seems to signal to the crowd that something terrible has just happened, even though there’s no way they could have known. Donna starts crying; Bobby looks stunned; the old waiter from the Great Northern Hotel comes over to Agent Cooper and says, “I’m so sorry.” This is music as some kind of psychic connection, and it’s about as gorgeous as it comes.

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2 “All Along The Watchtower” Battlestar Galactica

Episode: Various

Artist: Bear McCreary channelling Bob Dylan

[No spoilers here!]

Forget the fact it’s set in another solar system thousands of years in the past /future (we won’t clarify which in case you’re still watching it – there’s always someone watching Battlestar Galactica for the first time out there...). Jimi Hendrix’s groovy guitar riff jumped time and space, was fed through BSG composer Bear McCreary’s brainpan and became an enigmatic, creepy and entrancing leitmotif that fed through vast swathes of the show’s arc plot.

From an obsessed Starbuck picking out the notes on a piano in a bar to the final few Cylons hearing it drift through the air until it brought them together, “All Along The Watchtower” was the defining tune of the series. And no Hendrix-style guitar burning was necessary to make it memorable, either.

Here’s McCreary performing it during a BSG concert, given a little help by Katee Sackhoff. Seriously, could it get any cooler?


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1 “Life On Mars” Life On Mars

Episode: Series One, episode one; Series two, episode eight

Artist: Duncan Jones’s dad

Of course a show named after a song as iconic as David Bowie’s wistful ode to the silver screen would use the tune to great effect, and boy, did it ever. All but bookending the series, “Life On Mars” was playing when Sam Tyler was flung into 1973 and it was playing to even greater, more emotional effect when he threw himself back there from 2006. Pining for the old-fashioned family he left behind in the ’70s, Tyler tosses himself from a roof while Bowie caterwauls about “the lawman beating up the wrong guy”, words that seemed to mean so much more at the end of the series than at the beginning. Unlike a lot of “pop music” moments on TV, this final fanfare for the show doesn’t set it against a montage of images. Instead it bravely lets the song run its full course as – for most of its duration – the camera just spins around Sam’s head as he stands on a rooftop, capturing John Simm’s wonderfully ambiguous face. The effect is mesmerising. It would have been so easy to opt for a succession of flashbacks, but the song and the acting negate the need for that. It’s a brave, dauntless, uncompromising bit of TV storytelling and a breathtaking way to close the show.

Not that its sequel, Ashes To Ashes , was a slouch in the jawdropping musical moments stakes either. "Uptown Girl", anybody?