In the vast galaxy that is sci-fi TV, here are the stars. Today, No. 5 to No. 1.
Yesterday, we started the countdown of the top 10 science fiction television series. Today, it’s the top five.
5. The Prisoner (UK, 1967-1968)
“I am not a number, I am a free man!” No. 6 insisted at the beginning of each episode, to no avail. He’s a prisoner in a seemingly sunny seaside resort called The Village, amongst a largely docile group of ex-spies, ex-politicians, and ex-scientists who “know too much.” No. 2 appears to run the show, though he or she changes identity pretty well every episode. The brainchild of Patrick McGoohan, who also played the lead role and wrote and directed a number of episodes, The Prisoner can be read as one giant metaphor for modern industrial society, where we are all just passive numbers within massive bureaucratic and economic systems. Conformity is the rule of the day in The Village, escape prevented by a massive surveillance network and a bouncy balloon called Rover. “Be seeing you” takes on a whole new meaning there.
Best episode, by an inch: “Free for All” (1967), a brilliant satire on the ineffectiveness of modern democracy. One can almost make out Noam Chomsky smiling at the back of the crowd.
4. Babylon 5 (USA, 1994-1998)
Created by J. Michael Straczyinski, who managed to write most episodes, including the entire third and fourth seasons, B5 is the story of a gigantic space station run by the Earth military as a meeting place for hostile aliens species. B5 is unique for a number of reasons: its use of extended story arcs (the dominant one being the rising peril of the evil Shadows); the inclusion of alien races whose members aren’t reduced to a few simple stereotypes (e.g. the Minbari and Narn); its complexity of character interactions; and its fairly realistic picture of the devastating effects of war. I personally prefer the triad of station commanders from the first season: base commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), first officer Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian), and security officer Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), though Bruce Boxleitner’s Captain John Sheridan grows on one over the course of season two.
Best episode: “Severed Dreams” (1996) is a standout episode from the middle of the series. Sheridan declares independence from an Earth Alliance led by a corrupt president who is in league with the Shadows.
3. The X-Files (USA/Canada, 1993-2002)
For its first six years, The X-Files regaled the viewers with top-flight bizarre stories of the attempts by FBI agents Fox “Spooky” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) to track down the paranormal phenomena lurking behind crimes ordinary cops couldn’t solve. Scully was the cool dispassionate sceptic, while Mulder was the true believer who was convinced (as the show’s motto put it) that “the truth is out there”. There were two basic types of X-Files episodes: “monster-of-the-week” stories unconnected to each other, and episodes that were part of a longer story arc of an alien-government conspiracy dating back to the Second World War. All were set in an atmosphere of extreme paranoia, in which Mulder and Scully could “trust no one.”
Best episode: the Darin Morgan-penned “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” (1996), wherein a mystery writer named Chung (a Truman Capote parody) tries to sort out the half-dozen or so distinct accounts of a supposed alien visitation to a small rural town. The problem in this complex postmodern comedy is that there are too many truths out there, so the narrative of events Chung settles on sounds like pure fiction.
2. Battlestar Galactica (USA/Canada, 2003-2009)
The best SFTV show of the last 10 years is undoubtedly Battlestar Galactica, Ronald Moore and David Eick’s re-imagining of the somewhat cheesy original BSG from the late ’70s. Both series start with a Pearl Harbor-style attack on the 12 colonies of humanity by the robotic Cylons, followed by the flight of thousands of human refugees aboard a ragtag group of space ships guarded by the last colonial battleship, the Galactica. The new series aimed at a high degree of realism: gone were bumpy-headed aliens, time travel, transporters, and lily-white heroes. In their place was a crew of flawed colonial officers, including the drunkard Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), the hot-headed showboat Lieutenant Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), and the Cylon sleeper agent Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (Grace Park). To further thicken the plot, this time out not all the Cylons are killer robots: some are humanoid machines indistinguishable from ordinary organic humans. These “skin jobs” fervently worship the One God, seeing their attack on the polytheistic and secular colonials as a religious crusade against infidels. The parallels with 9-11 and the War on Terror are obvious.
Best episode: The only place to start is the 2003 miniseries; the best would have to be “33” (2004), when the colonial fleet is inexplicably attacked every 33 minutes by Cylon raiders. “Exodus” (2006) from the Vichy, France-inspired season three comes a close second.
1. Star Trek (USA, 1966-1969)
“Space, the final frontier…” So begins the most famous prologue in SFTV history. Sure, the special effects in Star Trek might seem cheap today – though some of them have been redone in CGI form for a recent DVD reissue of the series – but the writing and acting is superb. If you don’t believe me, just close your eyes and listen to the words. Despite a few clunkers, Star Trek wrote the book on how to do intelligent social commentary on television, usually in allegorical form. William Shatner’s James T. Kirk is still the starship captain, with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and DeForest Kelly’s Dr. McCoy acting as effective checks on Kirk’s Horatio Hornblower-style boldness.
Best episode: There are many fine episodes, but I’ll pick the one from the first season where the Enterprise first encounters the Romulans: “The Balance of Terror” (1966). It manages to combine a critique of racism and mediation on the morality of war with a Second World War-style sub-chasing film (the Romulans have a cloaking device that allows them to temporarily disappear). Kirk and the Romulan captain treat each other as noble enemies.
Tune in for Part III, on the 10 coolest characters in SFTV history.