My Sci-Fi Big Five

The five underrated science fiction shows I champion, and the reasoning behind it.
July 06, 2015
One of the most-stereotyped aspects of fans of certain segments of popular culture is their slavish devotion to what I have termed the 'Big Five' of science fiction television and film. Those five, to the best of my experience, include but aren't limited to:

1. Doctor Who
2. Star Trek (1966-68) and its sequels and spin-offs.
3. Star Wars and its sequels and spin-offs.
4. Battlestar Galactica (1978) and its 2003 remake.
5. Firefly (2002-03) and its 2006 film Serenity.

Now, I'm sure others have their own idea of this, I'm just saying these are the most-known and high-profile. While I do like the Star Wars films (I had a lot of the toys too), and enjoy a good Trek every now and then, and recently finally saw what all the fuss was about for Firefly, for me though, about a year and a half ago, I decided what my personal 'Sci-Fi Big Five' would be as an alternative to the franchises I mentioned up above. This stemmed from my having watched these shows over the course of four years at different times, and forming my own appreciation for their places in the overall pop cultural big picture. These are also shows that have their own respective followings, but may not be as well-known to the broader public. With this piece, I hope to change that, even a little bit.

Here and now, join me as I make the case for my Sci-Fi Big Five, a group that would provide a worthy challenge to those held dear by Mr.'s Cooper, Hofstadter, Wolowitz, and Koothrappali.

Going in chronological order, we begin with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea:

From the imagination of Irwin Allen, the man behind other 60's sci-fi television fare such as Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, the series was adapted from his own 1961 film of the same name.

The show, which aired for four seasons from 1964-68 (and went from black-and-white to color), took place in the 'far-off year of 1978' and focused on the missions undertaken by the crew of the research submarine Seaview, headed by Admiral Harriman Nelson (Richard Basehart) and his officers: Commander Lee Crane (David Hedison), Lt. Commander Chip Morton (Bob Dowdell), and Chief Petty Officer Francis Sharkey (Terry Becker). Their adventures would range from Cold War-type suspense and intrigue to fighting all manner of strange monsters and aliens, as well as the usual perils of the ocean. The series also utilized many similar props from both the other Irwin Allen shows and even the Adam West Batman show that was airing at the same time.
I was originally made aware of the show years ago when I'd see it mentioned in the TV guide section of my local paper, back when it was rerun on AMC (where it was usually followed by reruns of Land of the Giants). I had never seen an episode until around 2009, when I was introduced to the retro TV channel Me-TV. I then started watching the earlier seasons via Hulu in my junior year of college, and I've been hooked ever since. Some may deride it as being merely 'Star Trek underwater', but in addition to having debuted two years before Trek, it reminded us that the oceans are just as much unexplored as the vast reaches of space. 'Voyage' may not have had the same things Star Trek had going for it, but it is still an entertaining show, and is probably one of the few times the seas would be utilized for story potential (at least until SeaQuest debuted in the early 90's).
Jumping into the 1970's, we come to one of the early Japanese anime aired in the United States, the space epic Star Blazers:

A dubbed version of the anime "Space Battleship Yamato" (1974 for Part I, 1978 for Part II, and 1980 for Part III), "Star Blazers" (1979-80 in the U.S.) told the space-faring adventures of the crew (dubbed the Star Force) of the retrofitted battleship Argo, led by Captain Avatar (in season 1) and later Derek Wildstar (in season 2). The first season dealt with the crew's mission to the planet Iscandar, whose queen, Starsha, will provide them with a device called the Cosmo DNA in order to save Earth from the Gamilon Empire and their deadly planet bombs. Season two, which took place a year after the events of the prior season, saw the Star Force face off against the mobile Comet Empire. Season three sees the Star Force searching for a new home for Earth's population after the planet finds itself in the crossfire of an intergalactic war.
I had seen glimpses of the show years ago in promos for the late-night version of Cartoon Network's Toonami block, but it wasn't until my sophomore year in college that I found the show, once again via Hulu. I decided to give it a shot then and there, and found it to be a very entertaining series (and thankfully, they didn't have the third season, which is considered weak). According to the now-archived Star Blazers website: "Significantly, it was the first popular English-translated anime that had an overarching plot and storyline that required the episodes to be shown in order. It dealt with somewhat more mature themes than other productions aimed at the same target audience at the time. As a result, it paved the way for future arc-based, plot-driven anime translations." Despite the corny dialogue at times, I found that statement to be true. Plus, it doesn't hurt that the artwork on the series is just beautiful. Interestingly, the second season featured early voiceover roles for future G.I. Joe and Transformers cast members Chris Latta and Morgan Lofting. One more thing I learned, and this was only last week, was that the original anime series got remade in 2012 by the original producers, with newer and more diverse additions to the cast, a more modern art style, and a modified story, as "Space Battleship Yamato 2199". Something tells me a new Star Blazers dub could be done if someone in the States played their cards right....

With that, we move on to the only other anime in my group--Robotech:

Originally aired in the U.S. in 1985--and re-run a number of times since then--the show was a Harmony Gold-produced (in association with Tatsunoko Productions) amalgamation of three different anime series loosely-connected to one another to create a story involving three generations of humanity, utilizing reverse-engineered alien technology, fighting to protect Earth from multiple alien invasions. Season one, dubbed 'The Macross Saga', was adapted from the first 36 episodes of 'The Super Dimension Fortress Macross'; season two, 'The Masters', was built upon 'Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross'; season three, 'The New Generation', was a reworked version of 'Genesis Climber Mospeada'. Under the supervision of producer and pioneer Carl Macek, the three series were interwoven into one expansive saga, one that has yet, as of late, to recieve a proper ending.
Toonami was again responsible for me being introduced to this series, though I only saw two episodes during its run on the block. It was then during my sophomore year in college that I got curious about the show once again, after I had found ADV's first two boxed sets at a local used bookstore. I became highly interested in the series as a result, and began to collect the remaining DVDs of the series as I found them, with only a few discs of extras left to go (including one containing the 1987 'Robotech II: The Sentinels' pilot). While I understand that Robotech is a polarizing subject among anime fans, I still find the series, and its subsequent movie sequels made in 2006 and 2013, to be very enjoyable. One can argue that it is one of the great gateway anime series that helped increase the consumption of the animation form stateside. IGN, as of 2009, has it ranked as the 34th greatest animated show in their top 100 list.

We now enter the 1990's with another robo-suit series, Exosquad:

Supposedly made by Universal Cartoon Studios as, according to Will Meugniot, an American response to Japanese anime, 'Exosquad' (airing from 1993-94), set in the 22nd century, sees humanity fighting an interplanetary war against their own creations, the artificially-bred Neo-Sapiens. The narrative, in particular, focused mostly on the Exo-Fleet's Able Squad, made up of team leader Lt. Commander J.T. Marsh (Robby Benson), Lt. Nara Burns (Lisa Ann Beley), Lt. Maggie Weston (Teryl Rothery), Sgt. Rita Torres (Janyse Jaud), Alec DeLeon (John Payne II), Wolf Bronsky (Michael Donovan), Kaz Takagi (Michael Benyaer), and their lone Neo-Sapien member Marsala (Garry Chalk). A big part of what made the show stand out was its narrative realism and its character development, earning it much critical praise. Both Meugniot and story writer/editor Michael Edens compared the narrative of Exosquad to the climate of World War II.
I vaguely remembered a cousin of mine had a few of the toys made by Playmates Toys, but aside from that, Exosquad didn't so much as register a blip on my radar until I found it on, once again, Hulu. I decided to check it out after reading up about it, and all of the above claims definitely hold up. It's a show that could hold up even by today's standards, and even go up against genre heavyweight Battlestar Galactica in terms of story and characters. I'm surprised that no one has thought of bringing this to the big screen, which was being considered even after the show was cancelled before a third season could get off the ground. On an interesting note, in regards to the toys, it's ironic that both Exosquad and Robotech are on this list together, as some of the latter's Matchbox-made toy molds would be reissued in a special subset of the former's toyline.

Last but not least, we have the second 90's show and the only other live-action series in my group--Sliders:

Originally airing from 1995-2000 (first on FOX and then on the Sci-Fi Channel), the series told the story of Quinn Mallory (Jerry O'Connell), a grad student of physics who invents a remote control capable of opening portals to parallel universes. In his testing of the device, he accidentally pulls himself, along with his best friend Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), his professor Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), and a washed-up soul singer named Rembrandt Brown (Cleavant Derricks) into a portal; thus begins their journey across the multiverse to return to their own world. In later seasons, the quartet would go up against an alien race called the Kromaggs, while members of the group would get replaced by others, such as Marine Captain Maggie Beckett (Kari Wuhrer); Quinn's long-lost brother Colin (Jerry's real-life brother Charlie O'Connell); and in the final season, physicist Dr. Diana Davis (Tembi Locke) and her assistant, her world's Quinn Mallory (Robert Floyd). The series is known for a lot of creative tension that ocurred behind the scenes, mostly between the networks and writers, and sometimes with the cast themselves. It was due to all this tension that the quality of the series varied as time went on, right up to the show's unresolved cliffhanger ending. Still, the premise of a series built around exploring alternate universes proved very entertaining, hence a following almost rivaling that of the Trekkies.
I first got into the show after catching reruns on Hasbro's short-lived Hub network, and then started watching the episodes in order (save for two) via Netflix. I do agree with those that feel the back half of season 3, and most of if not all of seasons four and five, weren't as good as the prior episodes, but I still find the series to be entertaining based on the premise alone. Alternate universes can allow a writer to get as creative with the scenario as they want, and some of the parallel earths were interesting. Plus, it also provided a good amount of influence one of the few Family Guy episodes I do enjoy, "Road to the Multiverse" (which was originally going to be called Sliders as a homage to the old show). And of course, there's that Funny or Die production....

There you have it--these are the five sci-fi sagas I stand by when I proclaim my nerdhood. Your mileage may vary, but for me, these are highly underrated alternatives to the Doctor, Kirk and Spock, Darth Vader, Starbuck and the Cylons, and Mal Reynolds and crew, and I believe are worth your time. Disagree? Convince me.
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