A look back at some great SF and fantasy TV shows that died an all-too-early death, and some that deserved their early sonic shower
There’s a dusty closet in the corner of TV-land containing a cobwebby pile of shows chopped down in their youth. Not enough viewers… too expensive to produce… worried advertisers… the reasons are many, but the result is the same: another programme taken off our screens just as we were falling in love with it.
We thought we’d honour some of the soldiers that have fallen over the years with this list, all of them shows which were only gifted with one season and then cruelly yanked by the networks airing them. We mourn them all! Apart from the ones at the end of this feature, which we were glad to see the back of...
THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JR
1993-4 • 27 Episodes • Created by: Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse
This is was what the Will Smith movie Wild Wild West wanted to be when it grew up. True, there’s not much in the way of a budget and there certainly weren’t any "wiki-wiki wah-wahs" to be heard along the way but The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr had something else: Bruce Campbell. Never has an actor fitted so perfectly into a role as Campbell into his cowboy alter-ego Brisco, on the trail of the no-good gang who killed his Pa in a Wild West that’s half Blazing Saddles and half steampunk comedy.
Some of the episodes were a bit hit and miss, true, but this was a fun, frantic series which didn’t take itself too seriously and had some impressive guest turns (special kudos goes to Billy Drago as Brisco’s evil nemesis, John Bly).
Plus it was co-created by Lost ’s Carlton Cuse… who also appeared in a couple of episodes. How’s that for a pedigree?
Still not sure? Check out the opening titles . The horse gets its own credit . What’s not to love?
The idea behind Sleepwalkers was great: scientist Dr Nathan Bradford (Bruce Greenwood) builds a special device to enable him to walk in other peoples’ dreams, observing the ker-razy shenanigans going on inside their heads so that he can come back to the real world and analyse them. Using his new-found inside knowledge, he and his team can help unravel awkward problems, solve murders or even try to bring catatonic patients back from comas.
Each episode was part mystery-thriller and part psychological investigation, with surreal dream sequences and Bradford’s own issues with his comatose wife adding to the mix. Co-dreamwalker Kate was played by Naomi Watts, long before the actress broke through with her star turn in Mulholland Drive , and she’s excellent value for money alongside Greenwood’s troubled doctor (Greenwood, incidentally, was fresh from the cancellation of 1996’s Nowhere Man , in which he played a photographer whose life was erased by a shady society – seems he has a knack for picking doomed shows).
Some of the plotting was a little up-and-down and Sleepwalkers has dated by today’s standards, but it was without a doubt a promising series that deserved more airtime than NBC allowed it.
In 2007 The CW launched a new show called Reaper in which a young man has to track down and capture a bunch of bad guys escaped from Hell, with his instructions coming straight from the Devil. It’s silly, it’s daft, it’s ridiculous, and it’s an almost complete rip-off of a show named Brimstone which aired just over a decade earlier. Except that where Reaper ramps up the laughs, Brimstone was about as cheerful as listening to a Radiohead album when your girlfriend/boyfriend [delete as applicable] has just dumped you for your best friend. But if you’re thinking that sounds dire – don’t! Brimstone was GOOD.
It starred former thirtysomething star Peter Horton (a man who will forever be known as “former thirtysomething star”) as a cop who kills the man who raped his wife, is sent to Hell and then finds himself back on Earth again. The Devil – played with delicious, Satanic devilishness by John Glover; just picture Lionel Luthor smelling a little sulphurous – gives him a mission to track down escaped souls and so Ezekial Stone (gotta love the name!) is set to work.
Brimstone was sometimes traumatic to watch, sometimes amusing; Horton made for a magnetic lead and Glover was solid gold. But a show about murderers, rapists and Lucifer was probably a little strong for Fox and they hit their big, well-worn “CAN IT” button sharpish.
Quite rightly, Firefly has become the poster child for all TV shows cancelled before their time. The moment a new series starts wobbling in the ratings everybody cries, “The network’s gonna Firefly its ass!” Its notoriety is well-deserved, too. Most of the people reading this already know that Joss Whedon’s plucky space western managed to create an entire living, breathing universe filled with well-rounded, believable, likeable characters in its short lifespan, something many shows which have been running for years fail to manage (we’ll refrain from making the obvious Smallville gag here).
It was bold, it was daring, it was bloody good fun and it could have been classic, wonderful television… but the brave ship Serenity was unceremoniously junked before it had even had a chance to fly free. Thank heavens we got the movie so that we could dip our toes in that enticing ’Verse again – but it still didn’t beat five years of the best kind of Whedon/Minear mythmaking.
(Also – and we know it’s not sci-fi but it was very nearly fantasy – let’s spare a thought for the Nathan Fillion/Tim Minear combo Drive , too, another fine show which had its tires shot out just as it hit top speed. Jeez, Fox, are you paid by the cancellation or what?)
Never has a television series started with something quite as epic as the idea of a bunch of astronauts seeing the shining blue Earth beneath their ship suddenly and inexplicably destroyed, leaving them hanging in space with no home to go to. After a opening like that you don’t really have anywhere left to go, do you? Except, for the five members of the spaceship Odyssey, back in time by five years (courtesy of a friendly alien) to try to figure out what caused the big kablooie in the first place...
It’s a grand idea given suitable gravitas by Peter Weller as the head of the Odyssey five – the kind of gravelly, no-nonsense butt-kicker you’d want to investigate the end of the world if such a thing were required. The rest of his team spread out and do their own thing: one tries to get rich because he knows who’s going to win every sporting event for the next five years; one tries to prevent her daughter from dying. But these are domestic distractions away from the bigger picture: what destroyed the Earth, and how?
Guess we’ll never really know, seeing as this stylish and intelligent series went all kablooie itself. Curses! At least Manny Coto, a man of great taste and class (he reads SFX – cough) went on to better things: after jazzing up the ailing Enterprise , he’s now making Jack Bauer’s life a living hell in 24 .
Please allow us a moment to shed another tear at the demise of this intriguing supernatural series, which was, as is the grand tradition of such things, just starting to really find its feet when the Grim Reaper hacked them off and then kicked it in the balls just to make a point. Miracles was a spooky, thinky forerunner to Supernatural – indeed, co-creator Richard Hatem went on to work on season one of that show – focusing on Skeet Ulrich’s conflicted “miracle-debunker” Paul Callan.
Working for the church and downheartened by the lack of any real miracles in the world, everything changes when his life is saved by creepy kid and he sees the words “God is now here” written in his own blood. Which is weird, because other people around the world have been seeing the words “God is nowhere” in their blood instead…
Teaming up with two paranormal investigators played by Angus Macfadyen (a great Scot) and Marisa Ramirez (definitely not a Scot), Paul spends the rest of the show’s limited run Scullying various phenomena until it becomes clear there’s more to him than meets the eye… And thus we have an example of the worst thing about shows cancelled before their time: a cliffhanger ending. The writers tied up a lot of plot threads but we’re left desperate to know more about Paul and the weird demonic forces threatening the world. It’s enough to make you want to punch your telly, but we’d suggest tracking down the (now quite rare) Miracles Region 1 boxset instead. It’s really worth it.
If there’s one word you could use to sum up Century City , that word would be “clever”. It really was a clever little series and it wasn’t afraid to flaunt that cleverness by not talking down to its audience, trusting them to keep up with its intelligent, complex scripts… and perhaps, sadly, that’s where it failed to connect with a large number of viewers. If you're wondering why we've included this in this list and not your own personal fave, that’s probably because you've never seen it.
Essentially LA Law set in an undisclosed but still familiar future, it had a magnificent cast (future Mr Fantastic Ioan Gruffudd, Lost enigma Nestor Carbonell, the wonderful Viola Davis and Hector Elizondo) and focused on a team of lawyers in a gleaming future metropolis who dealt with cases involving technology. Cyber-rape and DNA-fiddling certainly beat out the kind of things you’d see on Law & Order (showrunner Zuckerman is now a producer on said series) and the writers had a lot of fun figuring out new twists on old crimes, like diabolical Moriartys being handed the keys to the internet and told to go off and play.
There was even a foxy android (Kristin Lehman) to bring in the male viewers, although clearly they were all waiting for Number Six to come along and ignored her in droves. Oops.
Another slice of Bryan Fuller televisual whimsy, Wonderfalls can, in retrospect, be seen a themic and stylistic stepping stone between Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies . Weirder than the earlier show but more rooted in the real world than the later one, it told the stories of a slacker souvenir shop assistant, Jaye, at Niagara Falls whose life changes when toys start talking to her. Wonderfully quirky, weirdly witty and full of colourful characters, it probably failed to find an audience because it was pretty much as aimless as its heroine. The writers seemed to enjoy fleshing out Jaye’s dysfunctional family more than explaining what the Hell the talking toys were all about. Which is why we wish there had been more than one season – if only to discover more of the backstory.
Don’t go thinking we’ve lost our brains somewhere down the back of the sofa, oh no: we understand that Moonlight wasn’t that great. It was unoriginal, poorly plotted and predictable… but holy cow, did it start pulling its socks up towards the end of its ill-fated run, so much so that when the axe finally fell on vampire Mick St John (Alex O’Loughlin) a whole horde of fans kicked up a right royal fuss.
And they had a point: the show, which co-starred Sophia Myles and Veronica Mars bad boy Jason Dohring, really did have a bright future. Set in a neon-glared LA and focusing on O’Loughlin’s vampire private investigator, who teams up with Myles’s journalist to solve crimes and fall in love (but of course!), Moonlight tried its damnedest to spin an interesting mythology while at the same time turning up the romantic elements to almost- Twilight levels of angst. By its final few episodes it was even starting to succeed.
Its real weapon, however, was O’Loughlin, who brooded as ably as Angel ever did while also being able to turn on the twinkly Irish charm and fling his curly locks about. Whether he could have made a second season a must-see, we’ll never know, but it would have been nice to find out, wouldn’t it?
And so we ask you to rise to your feet, remove your hats and cast your eyes downwards in a moment’s silence for one of the most criminally-cancelled shows in television history. Never has a programme been so suited for readers of SFX magazine; never has one tried so hard to be as funny, as witty and as loveable and actually managed to pull it off; never have we mourned so hard for its loss.
Lovingly based on the comic series by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and starring Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales as two secret agents fighting evil (so you don’t have to), The Middleman was a laugh-a-minute example of clever wordplay, deliberately hammy acting and primary-coloured fun stuffed with so many geeky gags you have to watch every episode three times to catch them all. Those who watched it LOVED it, but, alas and alack, there simply weren’t enough of them.
If we ruled the world The Middleman would be back in action in a minute, but sadly we don’t. So we’ll just have to tell you to hunt it down and watch it if you haven’t already. How can you not love a show that contains episodes titled “The Flying Fish Zombification”, “The Ectoplasmic Panhellenic Investigation” or “The Obsolescent Cryogenic Meltdown”? In Morales, feminists also had a TV feminine they could be really proud of – a woman fronting a show who wasn't either a kick-ass babe merely designed to get the lads watching or a cypher for dealing with women's issues.
We miss you, Middleman . Sniff.
Shows that deserved to crash and burn… Not all shows are cancelled unfairly. Here are a few that we were happy to see the back of…
It might sound like sacrilege to say out loud but we’re going to say it anyway: the original series of Battlestar Galactica was rubbish. Entertaining rubbish, but rubbish nevertheless. Quite how it was spun off into a 21st century series that became one of the greatest shows in TV history baffles us, but it happened, and we’re grateful. What we’re NOT grateful for is the show that came in between – Galactica 1980 , which was spun off from the original Battlestar after ABC decided it couldn’t afford to make a space-set series any longer. Bringing the Galactica to Earth seemed like a good (read: cheap) idea at the time but it really, really wasn’t. It was like taking a western and setting it in a farmyard in Devon.
With barely any of the original cast making it to Earth, nonsensical plots, utterly dreadful FX, a bunch of space kids, flying motorbikes and a teenage genius Galactica 1980 didn’t so much kick off the ’80s as it limped into them. Truly, galactically awful.
Here’s a handy hint for anybody who wants to make a TV series: before you come up with a concept, make sure you will be able to afford to carry it on for more than one episode. Manimal hit upon the stonking idea of casting Simon MacCorkindale (who no doubt Tip-Ex’s the show off his CV to this day) as a crimefighter who can change into animals just by thinking about it – great stuff! Except NBC didn’t give the show any budget to speak of, it was filmed on a schedule that didn’t allow for lengthy FX set-ups and, oh yes, it was 1983 and the FX were terrible.
Never has the sight of a man morphing into a snake been so tedious. By later episodes morphing was out completely (except in stock footage) and MacCorkindale would change by, say, walking behind a pillar and emerging as a horse.
And as for the plots… What plots?
1994-95 • 21 Episodes • Created by: Michael Duggan, Carol Flint, Mark Levin
Even if you’ve never seen this show, chances are you might recall Langly in an episode of The X-Files announcing that he was going to, “hop onto the internet to nitpick the scientific inaccuracies in Earth 2 ”. Getting a shout-out by a Lone Gunman was probably its finest hour, to be honest, because Earth 2 was really, desperately poor.
It was pretty – shot in the wastelands of New Mexico, it really doesn’t look like any other show before or since – and it had a great premise: a bunch of colonists sent to a new planet crash-land and have to fend for themselves in a brave new world. But it also had whiny characters, repetitive scripts, an absolutely ridiculous guest-star arc from Tim Curry and, worst of all, KIDS. Two of the buggers, with one of them doing something naughty every single week until you just wanted to throttle her for being so dense.
We’d have shot it ourselves after the first two episodes if only we’d had a gun.
Somehow the star of this prequel to Hercules: The Legendary Journeys went on to be nominated for an Oscar – but that’s the only shining light in this drab series consisting of 50 (yes, 50!) 30-minute episodes. Focusing on, you guessed it, young Hercules (Ryan Gosling) as he hangs around with his buddies and learns to be a hero in ancient Greece, it was preachy and moralistic, aimed solely at kids.
What really made it a waste of time, however, was how unnecessary it was – just one of the many shows spun-off the Hercules formula, from Xena to Cleopatra 2525 . The world really didn’t need more slapstick fun filmed in New Zealand, and its death was a mercy killing.
You might have noticed that we’ve focused on American shows for our One Season Wonders list – that’s because the only British show we could think of that shouldn’t have ended after one year was Ultraviolet , and that wasn’t technically cancelled; it ended because the creator wanted to move on. Fair enough.
We don’t want to be left out, though, so we’ve found a show that lasted for one series that we were glad to see the back of. It’s the tale of a time-travelling cop solving crimes using fierce (ahem) logic and clever (cough) plotting. This is what prime-time Saturday night telly used to look like before Doctor Who came back.
So, yes. Crime Traveller . BIG PILE OF PANTS.
2007-8 • 21 Episodes • Developed by: Monkeys (apparently)
A show that had cancellation written through it like a stick of Blackpool rock, Flash Gordon was a show with a "kick me" sign pinned to its backside. A cheap, braindead de-invention of the classic space opera cliffhanger serials, it replaced spaceships with cheaper "stargates", turned Ming the Merciless into Ming the Civil Servant and spent 21 episodes trying to make a water shortage sound exciting. The Hawkmen were blokes in longcoats that they flapped about a bit, Zarkov became the comedy sidekick and Dale had a permanent expression that was somewhere between inflatable sex doll and empty plate. It started off so bad it was funny, but soon just became boringly derivative and offensively slapdash, with "special" effects that could be sued under the Trades Description act.