Pulling the Plug
Top Ten SF & F Television Series That Were Axed Prematurely
Unless you’re into soap operas and bad sitcoms, the sad truth of television is that nothing lasts forever. The entertainment that burns twice as bright burns half as long. Speculative fiction has a difficult time in general, but even across the landscape of crashed spaceships and withered beanstalks, there lie scattered the remnants of programmes that were especially hard done by: shows that rated far below their worth; shows that were canned with their potential unrealised; shows that were loved seemingly by everyone except the executives who commissioned them. Here below lies a list of those taken from us far too early. If you haven’t seen them already, track them down and enjoy; but prepare yourself then to join in the great lament…
By mid-2007 Steven Moffat had written four outstanding episodes of New Series Doctor Who. In 2010 he would not only take over as that programme’s executive producer and head writer, but also co-create, produce and write for Sherlock. In the shadow of these successes, one of his endeavours that flowered only once — if no less spectacularly — was slick modern day gothic thriller Jekyll, starring James Nesbitt.
Jekyll is the story of Dr Tom Jackman, a family man and genetic throwback to the Dr Jekyll made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. Jackman has begun to transform periodically into a monstrous alter ego (Hyde) whose body he cohabitates but whose memories and actions remain distinct. Fearing for his wife and children, Jackman locks himself up in a fortified flat and communicates with Hyde via cassette recorder. When Hyde escapes, what follows is a tense, bifurcated search for answers and a winner-takes-all battle to determine ownership of their shared life.
Jekyll’s six episodes had everything: high production values; quality actors; a riveting, no-holds-barred storyline; outstanding ratings and reviews. What it didn’t have was BBC approval to carry on into a second series, notwithstanding that Moffat had planned for and written one.
Potential: wrested and forgotten.
Masters of Science Fiction (2007)
An anthology series that could have done for SF what The Twilight Zone did for tales of the paranormal, Masters of Science Fiction ran for just one six-episode season (which contrived to omit two of its better stories upon first broadcast). Its failure perhaps indicates the dire extent to which television audiences have come to crave familiarity in their viewing.
Each episode of Masters of Science Fiction was self-contained and adapted from a short story, by authors of such renown as Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison and Robert Sheckley. Each had a different cast — actors the calibre of Judy Davis; Sam Waterston; Brian Dennehy; John Hurt; Clifton Collins Jr. — and each was presented by Professor Stephen Hawking; or rather, given a voiceover by way of Hawking’s distinctive but dated speech synthesiser.
This moralistic ‘hosting’, offering familiarity and continuity but lacking (by way of comparison) the Buddhist mystique more poignantly laid down in Monkey (1978-1980), comes across as token at best, patronising at worst. Indeed, Masters of Science Fiction could be seen as taking itself too seriously, with preachy themes and — notwithstanding the absurdist satire of Heinlein’s ‘Jerry was a Man’ — downbeat stories almost entirely lacking in humour.
But with the entire corpus of science fiction literature to draw upon, surely these were just teething troubles. The Twilight Zone also had a shaky start. Masters of Science Fiction could have been given longer to hit the spot.
Potential: repudiated, by order of the great unknown.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
Having already proven a phenomenon in audio and written form, the next step for Douglas Adams’ inimitable comedy was television. So keen were the BBC to make the programme (and such was the cost of Hitchhiker’s), they dropped long-running favourites The Goodies from their production schedule.
Work on Hitchhiker’s was beset with creative conflict. Adams was determined for the show to be as innovative visually as the radio serials had been aurally — albeit that this was beyond the BBC’s capacity — while producer Alan Bell wanted nothing more than for the six episodes to be made on time and within budget. Hitchhiker’s was a success (of sorts) but not a happy production.
The underlying problem was that Adams was adapting his own work too faithfully. On radio or in a book, Zaphod Beeblebrox could have three arms and two heads. Why not? But in truth these embellishments amounted to one throwaway joke, which artistically (and certainly in terms of cost) there was no need to retain. Visually, Hitchhiker’s had its moments — the hand-drawn faux computer animation won awards and is still to be marvelled at — but for the most part the programme spent big only to look little; a minor let-down constrained by its own history.
Would this have continued to be the case had the BBC gone ahead as planned with a second series (which in an ideal world would have been produced by John Lloyd, script-edited by Geoffrey Perkins, and written by Douglas Adams to be more mindful of television’s constraints)? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Nothing eventuated. In 2005 America did finally consent to pick up a Hitchhiker’s feature film, but this did little more than repeat the same mistakes on a larger scale.
Hitchhiker’s could have improved much like Blackadder did, yet the tumultuous dichotomy of its first series — Douglas Adams didn’t understand television; Alan Bell didn’t understand Hitchhiker’s — ensured that it went no further.
Potential: inopportunely demolished.
The Lost Room (2006)
An abandoned highway motel contains a room that no longer exists but can be accessed from anywhere in the world using the Key: one of hundreds of magical objects created back in 1961 when the Room (capitalised) and everything inside was subject to some kind of supernatural Event. Peter Krause stars as a homicide detective whose eight year old daughter is lost to the Room’s mysterious properties. To bring her back he must first stay ahead of several ruthless and obsessive cabals trying to collect the Objects, and ultimately solve the mystery of the Event. Peter Jacobson (amongst others) co-starred in this foreboding and labyrinthine action drama.
The Lost Room is classified as a miniseries, yet when we run a hot iron between the lines it is hard not to see cancellation written there in lemon juice. The concept — one of television’s best ever — is impossible to explore in so short a run; the story, while unfolding with considerable intrigue for the first five sixths of the broadcast, suddenly breaks loose and cascades down in what seems a desperate attempt to reach an endpoint originally envisaged as being several series distant.
To rub salt into the wound, the final episode is some fifteen minutes shorter than the others. For all that the Room is situated outside of time and space, the helter-skelter finish smacks bitterly of the budget fading from existence.
Potential: lost in the ruins of 2006.
San Francisco news journalist Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) finds one day that he can time travel; in fact, he can’t help it, being shunted from present to past and back again, seemingly with a view to righting injustices and straightening out wrinkles in what should have been. The concept calls to mind Quantum Leap, but there are several differences.
Unlike Dr Sam Beckett, whose time wanderings were the result of a misfiring science experiment, Vasser is transported by supernatural means, or perhaps divine will; the exact cause is undetermined and given plenty of scope for development. As per Quantum Leap, Vasser needs to identify and solve problems in the past, but unlike Beckett he does not become someone else and his interventions aren’t limited to one particular date. Instead, he appears as himself, jumping often to several key points in the life of the person he is following.
The biggest difference between Journeyman and Quantum Leap (other than the latter’s having by far the better title) is that Vasser spends half his time in the present day. We are shown the problems caused by his frequent, sudden disappearances, both to his family life and to his day-to-day existence. Given that his displacements are more temporal than spatial, Vasser also interacts in the past with people from his own personal history, the consequences of these encounters then unfolding in the future/present.
Journeyman was well-acted and struck a nice balance between personal drama and science fiction mystery. Its scripting potential was near enough unlimited; but whereas Quantum Leap ran for ninety-seven episodes, Journeyman made it to only thirteen and wasn’t renewed for the backend of its first season.
Potential: consigned by paradox to a redundant timeline.
Doctor Who (1963-1989; 1996)
Is it facetious to talk of a programme that ran for 26 years being cancelled too early? By periodically regenerating its lead actor, Doctor Who hit upon television’s elixir of life, renewing itself and moving with the times while retaining and building its audience. Granted, the 1980s had seen a decline from the glory days of the 1970s; nevertheless the show’s axing elicited both shock and outrage, and rightly so.
In addition to new cast members, Doctor Who regularly changed its writers, directors, script-editors and (most importantly) producers. This unwritten policy died in 1980 with the appointment of John Nathan-Turner to the top job. Many would argue that Nathan-Turner not only outstayed his welcome but indeed brought the show to ruins during his nine-year tenure as producer. Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor) was unceremoniously sacked at the end of Season 23, then Doctor Who itself was cancelled after Season 26. In both instances the more obvious course of action would have been to replace Nathan-Turner.
In fairness, JNT was hampered by Doctor Who’s being afforded a smaller and smaller budget throughout the 1980s. The programme actually netted the BBC a significant profit by way of merchandising; but this fell to a different department and so doesn’t seem to have induced anyone — at least until the relaunch in 2005 — to bolster rather than bring down the show’s production values.
America threw some money at Doctor Who in 1996, resulting in the sumptuously visual but poorly received telemovie/pilot starring Paul McGann. In this instance what was lacking was patience: discarding McGann’s Doctor after one story was the sort of stillbirth that might have occurred in 1963 had Doctor Who’s first serial — the analogously lukewarm An Unearthly Child — not been afforded a game-changing follow-up in The Daleks.
Sylvester McCoy’s third and final season showed promise. Paul McGann could have soared if given the chance. Instead, Doctor Who was dumped, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Almost Human (2013-2014)
In a future somewhat reminiscent of Blade Runner, an explosion of technological advancement has allowed criminal enterprise to outpace policing. The solution: partner each police officer with a combat android; even Detective John Kennex, whose reluctance to work with mechanicals sees him paired up with an obsolete but highly personable older model.
As seems to be its want, Fox screened Almost Human out of order and cancelled it after one season. On this occasion, however, the low ratings are perhaps more a reflection on the mainstream tv-watching public than the executives who covet their attention. Unlike so many programmes nowadays, Almost Human kept each episode largely self-contained, rather than dropping breadcrumbs across a season-long plot arc. Without such a lure — ironically the very contrivance that sees many shows lose their credibility after two or three years — Almost Human failed to bolster its core audience with the necessary swathe of easily hooked casual viewers.
Almost Human succeeded visually in portraying the SF-rich future of 2048, and backed this up intellectually with stories centred around technological developments and concomitant social and ethical questions. The support cast boasted real talent (Mackenzie Crook a kooky standout) while principals Karl Urban and Michael Ealy struck up what should have been a winning dynamic as the loner detective and his previous-generation android partner. All told, Almost Human was so obviously good, the only explanation for its demise is that the television industry has turned bad.
Potential: superseded by soulless disposables.
Dirk Gently (2010-2012)
When Douglas Adams created Dirk Gently he gave us an exquisite blend of science fiction, mystery, comedy and the supernatural. All these elements appear in the television series, and while Dirk Gently in visual form does expand on some of the books’ minor plot points, the show was more about recreating the spirit of what Adams wrote, not merely squeezing it slavishly into a different medium.
Dirk Gently the character is part conman, part detective who investigates by way of the alleged fundamental interconnectedness of everything; in essence, acting out of self-interest and relying on what seem to be coincidences to solve his cases. His so-called holistic methods form one of Adams’ great contributions to comedy, and are cleverly explored across the show’s four episodes: from time travelling cats and murderous artificial intelligence to unerringly prescient horoscopes and killings where Dirk himself is the only link between victims.
Actor Stephen Mangan gives fair embodiment to Gently’s manic furtiveness, while Darren Boyd is stoically downtrodden and brilliantly British as straight man Richard MacDuff. The two in fact form a combination not dissimilar to Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in Sherlock, though arguably at a lower budget (as per the two programmes in general).
If Dirk Gently had one obvious failing, it was the show’s incidental music, which rather than taking its job seriously set out almost bombastically to convey quirkiness. Douglas Adams would not have approved. Still, it wasn’t an inappropriately jaunty score that led to Dirk Gently’s cancellation; that decision was all about money and the BBC’s new policy of outsourcing for all but the most high-profile of its showpieces.
In the fundamental interconnectedness of everything televisual, Dirk Gently mysteriously failed to register.
Potential: consigned to an old sofa and irreversibly stuck in the production stairwell.
Although boasting a quality cast and a killer premise, moody supernatural drama Brimstone lasted just one incomplete season before being dragged screaming from the air. Despite that its 13 episodes have a cult following and are frequently rescreened, the show hasn’t even been laid to rest on DVD.
Brimstone follows the exploits of deceased police detective Ezekiel Stone (Peter Horton), who having been damned for murdering his wife’s rapist, is returned to Earth by the Devil (John Glover) and tasked with tracking down 113 escapees from hell: the worst of the worst. The bounty for carrying back the Devil’s lost flock — a feat that requires Stone to first identify then shoot each soul between the eyes — is a second chance at life.
Horton brought considerable nuance to his character, playing Ezekiel Stone with tones of vulnerability, determination, rage and irony. His interactions with Glover (a gloriously shabby, used car salesman type of Devil) were particularly memorable, adding not just a measure of light relief but also a Socratic dialogue through which to explore the show’s moral quandaries. Brimstone from the outset proved intelligent, atmospheric and darkly compelling. It kept to a small cast and was all the better for it.
Perhaps the show just wasn’t facile enough to be countenanced by television bigwigs who stand so assuredly behind one-dimensional programming. Or maybe there is some other reason why Fox false-started Brimstone’s premier, bodged its scheduling through various timeslots, screened the episodes out of order and ultimately cut the series with six instalments still unmade. Incompetence springs to mind.
Of the 113 evil spirits who broke from hell (some of them presumably Fox executives), 100 were left unreclaimed.
Potential: shot in the head at close range.
In the history of television, few shows have burnt as shortly or brightly as this sweeping-but-gritty drama-focussed space opera by Joss Whedon. Firefly tells of an ex-military captain running a small cargo- and passenger ship at the law-blurred edges of a federally policed, American West-styled star system. In many ways the setup is reminiscent of British classic Blake’s 7, albeit with more punch and humour to balance out the interpersonal tensions and stark dystopian backdrop. Where SF always had tended to be somewhat formulaic, Firefly looked set to break all the rules.
Whedon was hot property at the time, having created hit programmes Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, which ran for seven and five seasons respectively and were still airing new episodes when Firefly came out. Whedon thought Firefly would match Buffy in running for seven years. Fox thought very differently.
Fox didn’t appreciate that Firefly spurned the powerbrokers of its universe and instead was about people living on society’s fringes. Fox didn’t approve of Firefly’s pilot episode, its pacing, its filming style, or the moral ambiguity of its less-than-traditional heroes. In fact, Fox was so untrusting of Whedon’s vision, it’s hard not to think of the network as having deliberately scuppered this would-be classic.
Firefly was screened out of order and with several gaps to accommodate baseball telecasts. Viewers trying to come to grips with nuanced character dynamics and a developing storyline were therefore served the following hodgepodge: episodes 2, 3 & 6; one week off; episodes 7, 8, 4, 5 & 9; two weeks off; episodes 10, 14 and finally (in every sense of the word), episode 1. Whereupon poor ratings led to Firefly’s cancellation. Episodes 11-13 were screened half a year later.
Firefly developed a cult following from the moment it aired. This fan base couldn’t dissuade Fox from readying the noose, but did in great measure pave the way for Whedon’s $39 million feature film Serenity (2005), which starred the same actors and now rates 8.0 on IMDB, offering at least some closure in the matter of Firefly’s untimely demise.
Firefly itself scores 9.1 on IMDB (and no doubt 1.9 on whatever distorted scale Fox uses to measure success).
Potential: strung up without trial.