Earlier this year, Matt Wallace, in amongst the couple of dozen other things he does, began making lists. Specifically, he began making his Definitive Top Ten All-Time Desert Island Works of Speculative Fiction. His reasoning was as follows:
“I don’t think so. You’re not a casual or even ardent viewer/reader. You are a writer. By asking yourself what you love the most, what you return to the most often and why you do it, you learn more about yourself; your tastes, what compels you the deepest, what drives you and attracts you creatively, what you love about stories the most.”
Can’t say fairer than that, so off I went. The end result, my first list, is of TV shows. I wrote it before the back end of 2013 proceeded to put its foot to the floor and keep it there, but the list stands. However, you should be prepared for some sacred cows not being there. Here’s why.
There’s so much of it that it became a constant background chatter rather than a distinguishable show. Also when your show is so hobbled by middle management two separate members of two separate casts go public with complaints about your scripts? Then you don’t make this list. The movies list though? Will have all the Star Trek movies on it. Yes including V. And Into Darkness.
I love what I saw. I have yet to see all of it.
Shone fiercely and brightly as the sole piece of British SF TV in my childhood but, what works for Who, weirdly, works against Red Dwarf. There’ve been too many drastic stylistic changes to be consistently placed here.
There’s a Whedon show on here but, with the greatest respect to the Browncoats amongst you, Firefly winged me rather than hitting me right between the eyes.
So what did make the list, well, to start with…
1. Doctor Who
On some level I didn’t actually want this here. It’s obvious, it’s a cliché and my normally dormant hipster gene kicks in in full force when it comes to this sort of thing. Plus, Doctor Who has had a rough couple of years. I loved Day of the Doctor, but the lumpy pseudo-season before it? Not so much.
That sound you can hear? That’s thousands of outraged Who fans clacking away to tell me how wrong I am.
That other sound you can hear? Thousands of others writing to agree with me.
Doctor Who is a difficult show to love right now, not just because of the irregular writing and screamingly frustrating long form plotting either. It’s so engrained, such a relentless magnet for over analysis and dissection that you almost don’t want to write about it for fear of sparking a dozen mini-fandom wars or crushingly awful, gif-laden CAPITALS and italics laden blogs by people making exactly the same points as 100s of others already have. Then there’s the real ale enthusiast fans who think it died when he first regenerated and the nitpickers and the cheerleaders and Oh God Oh God Oh God aim for my head.
Here’s the thing;
No TV show in the history of genre TV drama has been responsible for more epically piss poor writing both on screen and off.
Here’s the other thing;
No TV show in the history of genre TV drama has been more responsible for more incredible writing both on screen and off. Who is unique, it’s like BBC Radio 4 with frequent monsters and occasional social commentary, a TV show that’s been allowed to grow as much as it’s been developed. Sometimes it’s easy to love, sometimes it isn’t but its core idea is never less than beautiful;
A desperately intelligent, compassionate character that tries to help people by using their brain.
The show’s often at its best when the operative word is ‘tries’ too. My era (And I hate the phrase ‘My doctor’ almost as much as ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey’) is the Sylvester McCoy run, where the Doctor was a small, odd man who was clearly not even a little human. MCcoy’s ruthless clown was incredible and the seeds of Christopher Eccleston’s run in particular were most definitely planted with him; a genius who tries to help and is driven to awful things when he fails. It’s a fascinating idea and a fascinating character, wonderful and awesome in the original sense of the word.
The beautiful thing is, every single incarnation has moments where that basic definition has shone through. McCoy’s closing speech still makes me cry, just as much as Matt Smith’s ‘I was the Doctor, and you were most welcome.’ Don’t even get me started on the ‘Just this once, everyone lives!’ speech or Tenant’s final moments either let alone Peter Davison and the most tragic stick of celery in all of time and space. The Doctor is a genius, a desperately intelligent, compassionate character who tries to help using his brain and goes down very hard when he fails. Which he does. A lot.
He’s a fascinating contradiction, the broadest of all possible fictional churches. He’s also written on the soul of a huge amount of British geeks in particular, and in a different hand on every single one. That’s the fantastic thing about the show and also, frequently, it’s greatest weakness. But I wouldn’t be who I am without it and that means it has to be at the number one slot.
2. The X-Files
I own a copy of UFO Secrets of The Third Reich. It’s hilarious too, a ‘documentary’ that wraps a genuinely interesting pair of ideas (The desperate final throes of Nazi aerodynamics before it became, well, NASA and the very odd polar voyage of Admiral Byrd) up in a huge ball of crazy and dribbles it up and down for 45 minutes. In fact, if any of my school friends who I persuaded to watch this are reading? I’m really sorry. But in fairness I did have a mullet so vengeance has already been served.
In 1995, I was neck deep in millennium fever and the bow wave of parapsychology it pushed before it. I watched the shows, read the Fortean Times, read a couple of the books. But it was The X-Files that hit me right between the eyes; a skeptic and a believer, a double act who make a whole person shining FBI torches on the outer edges of human understanding and, frequently, getting knocked out just before absolute proof surfaced.
That was the first carrot The X-Files dangled in front of me; the geek myth of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ recast as massive intellectual validation. Mulder’s right, about very nearly everything, and even if nothing ever comes of it you know he’ll go to his grave yelling ‘HA! YOU DIDN’T LISTEN AND NOW WE’RE DOOOOMED! DOOOOOOMED!’ or something similar.
The second was the clear-eyed look at everything from the paranormal and black budget science to religion. Scully’s Catholicism remains one of the best handled looks at religion in recent TV history. This show peaked and crested around the time I buried my best friend and for a 17 year old too numb to work out how angry he was at God to be shown someone like Scully struggling with her own faith was revelatory in every sense of the word.
The third reason was that The X-Files was the herald to the two decade and counting golden age of TV drama that would follow it. Without it’s enduring success and long-form storytelling you don’t get The Sopranos, 24, Breaking Bad or in particular the next entry on this list. The X-Files broke every rule and made it work. It and Mulder were both mavericks and even if Mulder was denied his vindication, the show most certainly was not.
As an extra bonus point by the way, much like The West Wing years later, the regime change at The X-Files is infinitely more successful than anyone chooses to remember. The Doggett and Reyes years are some of the ballsiest TV storytelling I’ve ever seen and remain so.
Supernatural is to TV horror what Hellblazer is to comic horror; the gold standard against which everything else is judged. This is a show that built from an absolutely bog standard monster of the week into something which is frequently extraordinary and runs headlong at postmodernism and metafictionality like an over enthusiastic puppy.
The entire thing lives and dies, inevitably, on the performances of the leads and, somehow, nine years in they’re all still finding new things in the characters. Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki are the angriest, most photogenic Rosencrantz and Guildensterna-likes in TV history and the reluctant double act of the brothers (And the car) has gone to some incredibly brave places. These are, fundamentally, two men who have been raised to be something just north of survivalists, who are just one bad day away from being on Death Row and will die hard, and young, soon. Sam and Dean are knights, people forced to live by a code engrained into them at a young age and struggling to cope not only with that but with their massively destructive, incredibly strong relationship. Seriously, the family dynamic in this thing is brilliant and if you still think modern TV drama can’t examine male emotions convincingly? You have nine seasons and counting of reasons why you’re wrong.
Much like Who’s versatility that’s both a strength and a weakness. The show’s incredibly good at male characters and has killed, brutally, all bar one of its female characters. If you want to read more about that element of it, throw a rock online, trust me you’ll find some genuinely great, massively intelligent critical writing on it.
For me though, the show rates this highly because, in the Winchester brothers and Castiel, it has three of the most interesting protagonists of the last couple of decades. Massive issues including multiple religious faiths, the concept of Heaven, the absence of God and how that equates to making your way out of your family’s shadow are all dealt with absolutely head on. This is a show, like its characters, that doesn’t just stare death in the face it smiles and tells a filthy joke as it does so. I love every AC/DC old school rock soaked episode of it, from its ridiculous sense of humour to its moments of angst and that’s why it’s on the number 3 slot.
That? And this scene.
4. Babylon 5
My first exposure to the idea of a coherent arc, Babylon 5 reached into my head and taught me about story in a way nothing else ever has. It remains an incredibly well plotted show; five seasons, each with an overarching plot and standalone episodes, all of which built the foundation for what was next. I’ve not seen, before or since, a genre fiction TV show with such an incredibly clear vision of what it needed to be and the ambition to tell a five year story with almost no reset buttons.
In fact, B5 was one of the first shows to actually be pragmatic about the future. People are still assholes, humanity is still fractious and easily led and the alien races in the show are little better. Huge amounts of it is politics and, somehow, it manages to not make you want to rock backwards and forwards and weep like real politics always does. Alliances shift constantly, enemies are closer than friends and acknowledge that common ground and tiny mistakes balloon into horrific, world-damaging catastrophes. It’s stunningly ambitious scripting, even now.
It also has two of my heroes in it. Michael Garibaldi and Marcus Cole had huge effects on my adolescence for very different reasons. Garibaldi, the spiritual father of Carl ‘Helo’ Agathon in Battlestar Galactica, was a jovial, articulate, balding man who quietly believed his job was to jump in front of every single bullet. He was damaged in a way that was very familiar to me at that time in my life and I’ve never, even now, been gripped with as much worry as I was about Garibaldi during the period of the show where his heroic sacrifice looked inevitable. Michael Garibaldi is one of the best perfectly normal characters in abnormal situations genre TV has produced and Jerry Doyle knocked it out of the park week in week out.
Jason Carter as Marcus Cole did much the same thing. In a kinder alternate universe, Carter was the 9th Doctor a good decade earlier than Eccleston’s run at the role and Marcus remains one of the greatest audition reels ever made for the show. He was eloquent and British and polite, odd and funny, politely angry and quietly broken. Marcus came along at a time in my life when that description fitted me too. He, just like Garibaldi, and Dean, and the Doctor and Mulder and Scully, showed me that was okay.
5. Stargate Universe
The first ‘Oh bite me, haters’ entry on my list. I have a lot of time for all of the various Stargates for two reasons; firstly because they’re actually a long form story about humanity undergoing a soft cultural singularity and secondly because no other US show has ever embraced the ‘Wing it!’ approach so beloved of good tabletop RPGs.
Stargate Universe was its final iteration and was dead on arrival for three reasons; the fact that Stargate Atlantis was prematurely killed to make way for it, the fact that Stargate fans were looking for reasons to hate it and the production office’s years of open feuding with fans, topped with a string of epically boneheaded casting page leaks. Combine that with a brave, and flawed, attempt to go for decompressed storytelling and the only way the show could have been more doomed would be if it had cast Summer Glau.
I’ve behaved so far, I’ve earned a sole Glau joke. Let me have this.
Despite a flotilla of faults including these and a charmless desire to always shoot one female character at chest level, Universe still did a lot of things very, very right. The opening half season featured stories where the situation was so dire that getting air filters working was a massive victory and seeded a string of really interesting plot threads that paid off across the entirety of its remaining run. Likewise, those first few episodes played with elements of the Battlestar Galactica character model, focusing on the fractious, terrifying nature of what these people were doing. It was frequently brave, frequently clever and everyone involved clearly struggled heroically to fix it on the bounce for the entirety of the first year. When it missed, it missed epically, and when it hit, it was perfect. I still maintain these bookends to one episode are one of the best uses of music I’ve ever seen.
It also contains another one of my guys; Eli. Played by David Blue, Eli was a genius, a whip smart young man who had put his life on hold to look after his infirm mother. He was funny, compassionate and overweight.
He was us. He was me. Or at least he contained elements of me that I responded to very strongly. Blue’s a hell of an actor and the end of the show, as it happens, gave him the swansong moment.
That gets me every single time and it’s all in Blue’s face. That combination of heroism, absolute excitement and sheer, wide eyed terror is one of the most human reactions I’ve ever seen on TV. In a fairer universe, he and Nick Brendon would have had careers the size of planets after their respective shows ended. They both deserve it and this show absolutely deserves its slot here.
6. Edge of Darkness
The 1980s BBC TV adaptation of Edge of Darkness was about as perfect as TV gets. Based on the radio play by Troy Kennedy Martin, it followed CID detective Ronald Craven whose daughter, Emma, is brutally gunned down in front of him. Barely functional, Craven forces his way onto the investigation and soon discovers just how fragile his world is. Harcourt and Pendleton, mysterious civil servants, recruit him for a covert operation alongside Darius Jedburgh, ‘diplomatic liaison’ and CIA agent who you can see in action above this paragraph. They have reason to believe an illegal weapons grade plutonium processing plant has been built under the Yorkshire moors. Emma’s murder, the nuclear state, proto-environmentalism and the age old battle between good and evil are all touched on in a series which starts with a death and ends with a very peculiar kind of life.
It’s absolutely wonderful and a lot of people will tell you it’s aged badly. It has, but only aesthetically. Bob Peck’s central performance is still fantastic as is Joanna Whalley as Emma and, perhaps, Emma’s ghost. The show never admits whether it’s real or a Socratic dialogue, never gives her any special effects and is all the more impressive for that. Craven is either mad or talking to his daughter’s ghost. Or both.
There is nothing quite like these six hours of television. It wraps spirituality, science fiction horror and one splendidly batshit moment of radioactive Bond-esque gun play around a story about a father and daughter and the end of the world. It was so successful at the time it was repeated in quick succession, twice and it remains an amazing piece of TV that changed how I thought about genre, fiction and the world.
7. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The greatest theme tune in genre TV history hangs off this show. I know, I know, the Doctor Who fans are back to angry clacking but it’s true. Buffy’s thirty-second surf guitar B-movie sprint is the best audio mission statement on TV.
It’s also wrapped around a fiercely brave show. Look at how the thing evolved over time from three leads to the ragtag fugitive fleet of the last couple of seasons. Look at the issues it dealt with; love, sex, sexuality, sacrifice, death substance abuse and the complex web of nuance and meaning and untidy strands that being an adolescent and a twentysomething means. Yes some of it was awful, but so was adolescence. It’s a peculiarly horrific time where everything feels over blown and important and so little is. The show captured that terror, that sense of being strapped to the handlebars of your own personal hormone motorcycle perfectly and did it for seven straight years.
It also never once let a character off easy. Time and again the writers returned to an earlier decision or episode and showed how the consequences of that. To this day I still have friends who will passionately argue Xander is evil because of a choice he makes at the end of the second season. I also have friends who argue that the sudden addition of another Watcher-style organization in the closing season upended its gender politics and universe in a way that it never recovered from.
They’re talking about a show that started airing 16 years ago. One which people still cling to like a life raft at times and still feel strongly about, even now. Part of it was the writing, part of it was how perfectly suited Buffy was to the millennium fever soaked later ‘90s and a lot of it was the cast. The obvious names, Hannigan and Gellar impress but the show lives and dies for me on Nick Brendon and Anthony Stewart Head. Brendon’s revelatory performance casts Xander as a young man talking so he doesn’t have to think about his awful home life and the show’s brave decision to never fully show that home life really pays off. Xander is the control, the normal guy in an abnormal world and he’s changed forever by that in a way that’s both positive and horrifying.
Giles is arguably a couple of decades down the same road. Bear in mind Head was best known in this country for a series of Coffee ads prior to this role. Seeing him unpack Giles into this complex figure who was equal parts ashamed and proud of his past was amazing. Also, as someone clinging to the tattered fragments of whatever self-esteem he could grab at that point in his life, Giles and Xander were very useful psychological crutches. Others shows on this list changed how I think. These two men helped teach me I was allowed to be me.
8. War of the Worlds: The Resurrection
My second ‘bite me, haters’ entry. This was an early ‘90s show that ran for two seasons and died and it was easy to see why. The tone changed constantly, the central premise was both beautiful and flawed and the whole thing frequently rushed.
But that central premise was just beautiful. Here it is; the War of the Worlds movie happened. It was a real invasion that humanity has suppressed due to the incredible trauma associated with it. Only Doctor Harrison Blackwood, the adopted son of the two leads from the original, believes it’s true.
When terrorists steal nuclear waste (topical!) and accidentally spray mysterious barrels with it, they wake up the ‘dead’ aliens from the invasion. They were dormant and now, sustained by the radiation, have the sort of disgusting ‘90s gore-drenched bodysnatching powers that enable them to hop between different guest actors every week.
First off that premise is genius. It’s a 1950s b-movie rolled out to the 1990s and it frequently works really well. Secondly, Blackwood was a Doctor-analog and the show came along just as Doctor Who was winding down so I glommed straight onto him. The show’s best episodes were frequently the ones where it leant on Blackwood and the original movie heaviest, balancing the 1950s b-movie terror with wide eyed amazement at the reality of alien life.
There was also one where the aliens invented evil, deadly soft ‘90s rock but we won’t go there.
The third reason this is on here is it’s the first show I ever saw that really embraced the idea of an unusual team dynamic. In order you had;
Harrison Blackwood-Genius, weirdo.
Suzanne McCullough-Single mom with teenage daughter. Ethical. Scientist who actually did science.
Norton Drake-Computer genius. Black. Hacker. Martial artist.
Colonel Paul Ironhorse-Yes. A deeply conservative Native American special forces operator.
Make no mistake, good chunks of their interaction were very awful. McCullough was often the ‘as you know, Bob’ character whilst Drake laboured under a pseudo-Caribbean accent for his first few appearances because clearly all black people have to come from Jamaica. Oh and in one episode Ironhorse used a specially designed, US military issue ‘aerodynamically designed throwing tomahawk’.
A lot of the stuff they did, a lot of their interactions were cringe worthy. But it was also frequently great. The constant push me/pull you of Blackwood the cuddly academic and Ironhorse the conservative soldier was genuinely fascinating at times and the reveal on Norton’s staff fighting expertise was wonderfully subversive for the time. This wasn’t a normal group of leads, it never once tried to be and that made them both revolutionary and memorable. If you want an idea as to how memorable, I last saw this show roughly 16 years ago. I only had to double check one character name.
It was frequently awful, frequently clunky and the second season collapsed in short order. But it was also brave enough to try something different and run headlong at it when it did. Without War of the Worlds: The Resurrection, you may not get The X-Files and you certainly don’t get Fringe or Torchwood. It was the first through the door, the first show to teach me about unusual character dynamics and it remains an influence even today.
Aside from the evil soft rock episode.
(That appears to be the entire show in 15 minute chunks on youtube by the way, if you fancy giving it a look)
You need to understand that the ‘90s were a very dark time for science fiction TV in the UK. What we got was either butchered or patronised to death. As an example, Channel 4 did such a relentlessly piss poor job of treating Stargate SG1 with respect their purchase of Agents of SHIELD was met with mistrust a full ten years later.
The BBC were quietly much worse. The ‘90s were a time of police thrillers, medical shows and a never ending taffetapocalypse of costume drama. Until Invasion:Earth.
In 1944, a bomb disposal team is called to what they assume is an unexploded bomb. Instead they find two clearly non-human, badly injured pilots. The UXB team leader, Lt. Charles Tyrell, establishes a rapport with one of the survivors.
In 1998, Lt. Chris Drake becomes the first RAF fighter pilot to engage and shoot down a UFO. In the ensuing crash, his backseater is killed and Drake is grounded. At the same time, Doctor Amanda Tucker, the leader of a group of amateur SETI scientists, detects an odd transmission from deep space. She follows it to Scotland where in short order she meets Drake, a NATO task force and the surviving member of this UFO’s crew.
The action cuts between the present day and the past as we see the stories inter-connect. It also becomes clear, much sooner to us than the characters, that they’re being outmaneuvered. There’s more than one alien race involved, the events of 1944 are key to understanding what’s going on in 1998 and in the last couple of episodes everything takes a massive left hand turn into some very, very dark places. Time and again the show opens up an avenue of hope and slams the door until the last couple of minutes are, well let’s just say drastic.
At least one cast member hated it. Vincent Regan, one of those actors I’m always pleased to see, had his first lead role in this thing and did great work as an endlessly cocky but self-deprecating fighter jock. I remember reading an interview with him years later where he said this job nearly made him quit because he felt the show could have run for years and instead was shut down in one season due to the writing. Given just how bad things get, I don’t blame him but it’s still a memorably dark, very interesting take on the ‘alien war’ sub-genre. Like War of the Worlds, this one stays with me.
10. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
One of my earliest memories is the credit sequence for this; an astronaut floating in space and then through an immense version of the book’s logo; I was absolutely terrified and completely entranced. When I was finally old enough to both walk and watch the show, I loved it even more. This, for me, is one of the two definitive versions of Ford and Arthur. There’s a quality to good double acts which makes them funny just by standing next to one another and Simon Jones’ perennially disappointed Arthur and David Dixon’s wonderfully nervy, over articulate Ford are a perfect example of that. Plus, much like Jason Carter in Babylon 5, Dixon is one of the greatest Doctors never to have had the role. Look at how energetic he is, a kind of ramshackle swashbuckler who is very clearly not even a little human. The pub scene in particular is perfect where Ford communicates the imminent doom of the planet whilst still somehow being desperately cheerful.
Those two are the core reason I love this series, combined with Peter Jones’ wonderfully cheerful Guide and the sense of glee that pervades the whole thing. It careens from the absurd to the poignant, throws your sympathy from character to character at will and has one of the most beautiful endings I’ve ever seen. Therefore it makes the list.
So that’s my first ten. I’m on Twitter at @AlasdairStuart if you want to chat about my list. There’ll be another one up for comics in a little while.