Watch This: Sci-fi television

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In this latest instalment of our ongoing Watch This feature — in which Adam and I give you a rundown on movies you absolutely have to see — we don’t talk about movies at all. Instead, we’ll be running down some of our favourite science fiction television series.

The main reason? We spend way, way too much time talking amongst ourselves about the various pros and cons of the shows we like to watch. The other reason? We can.

Scott’s comments will be in Blue Sun blue, and Adam’s will be in Red Alert red.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993)

Starring: Avery Brooks, Nana Visitor, Rene Auberjonois, Armin Shimerman, Terry Farrell, Alexander Siddig, Colm Meany, Michael Dorn, Cirroc Lofton, Nicole De Boer

In my opinion (thus, the only one that truly matters), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the single best Star Trek series. A wonderful sweeping plot, fantastic characters and a gritty “borderland” setting where the Federation has only tenuous control.

Granted, the first season is a little dry. But I promise you that it picks up, sinks its hooks into you, and drags you into a Dominion War you’ll be sticking around to watch. DS9 loses the “episodic” nature of its predecessor (The Next Generation) by the second season, and really starts working toward a proper narrative, with a meta-plot that is actually quite riveting.

One of the things that also really sets DS9 apart from its predecessors is with the fantastic character arcs. You really get to see the crew of the station grow over the course of the 7 season run — with a surprising amount of development also given to a number of secondary characters. Gul Dukat, Kai Winn, General Martok, Garak, Damar, Rom and Weyoun in particular get a great deal of screen time and become full characters in their own rights and integral to the plot.

Frankly… I just can’t recommend DS9 enough to science fiction fans – even if they tend to steer clear of the Star Trek franchise.

About six months ago, I’d have heartily disagreed with Scott about which of the Star Trek series was the tops. However, after giving it the old Star Fleet Academy try, as they say in the 24th century, I think I’m starting to come around. Like any good Star Trek series, DS9 takes a good two seasons to really find its feet (in spite of what Scott might say above — most long-running series worth their salt need some time to not suck). But once it does, oh man: you can enjoy the depth of characters, story arcs, and the opportunities to make all manner of “wormhole” jokes you could imagine.

One of the chief criticisms from naysayers at the outset of the series was concern over whether or not a space station would be an engaging enough locale from which to stage a series. Hence the wormhole. Also, the USS Defiant. Also two run-abouts, which I think is British for “shuttlecraft”. What was a concern for fans, quickly turned into one of the series greatest and most interesting keystones.

DS9 was the forerunner of science fiction blended with polytheism, and though I don’t know it for certain, I would imagine DS9’s religious and war aspects went some way to inspire Ronald D. Moore, the chief architect of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series to explore polytheism in depth.

Firefly (2002)

Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass

After the destruction of Earth-that-was, the remains of Sino-American influenced humankind set out to colonize planets and eke out a living in a galactic Alliance. Some humans — the independents — wanted no part of this imposed Alliance. So they fought against it, and lost.

Enter the rag tag crew of the Firefly-class starship Serenity, which includes a priest, doctor on the lam (and his lobotomized sister), a homicidal moron, and a classy prostitute. Also, a pilot, some soldiers, and a cute engineer named Kaylee. These group of miscreants make their way across the galaxy, guns blazing, looking for their next job, their next meal, and their next adventure. Throw in some Chinese expletives, western-style speech, and outstanding comedic timing as well as deep, riveting plot points, and you’ve got Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

The series is truly unique in the realm of science fiction, blending the genre with very strong Western overtones. The result is a series only 14 episodes deep that was cut short way too soon. Firefly is one of my favourite television shows. Period. You should watch this… and then watch the follow-up film Serenity.

The best science fiction series to last only 14 episodes, thanks to Fox.

Firefly was — basically — cowboys in space.  It had a wonderful “space western” feel to it, from the visuals to the broader themes. This was a future that wasn’t shiny and polished. No sir; it was dirty, dusty and grimy. It had colonists in a lawless frontier who were more than willing to shoot first and ask questions later. It had archaic starships that were barely holding together. And it had space savages ready to skin you and wear your hide.

Basically, it was awesome.

And it starred Edmonton’s own Nathan Fillion! Always a plus to have some local content.

If you haven’t seen Firefly, you should. If you can find it on DVD (not hard), I highly recommend you pick it up. The only disappointment is that there isn’t more of it.

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

Starring: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sakhoff, Kamie Bamber, James Callis, Tricia Helfer, Grace Park, Michael Hogan, Tahmoh Penikett, Aaron Douglas

I was turned on to the BSG series by my friend George. I was house-sitting one summer and he gave me the entire first season on disc. That was the day… my life changed.

Like the West Wing in space, BSG tackles some of the biggest issues society is dealing with, and they do it all while trying to avoid being completely genocided out of existence by the hell-bent Cylons. This series represents the power of pairing outstanding and unexpected plot devices with an outstanding ensemble cast. Not only that, but the writers and actors take huge risks — if you haven’t seen the series at all, I’ll say only this: BSG isn’t afraid to kill off critical characters to advance the main story arc.

Bonus for this show: it was filmed in Vancouver, and shots of the Caprica city square are, in fact, the quad of Simon Fraser University. In fact, in one shot of Cylon-occupied Caprica, you can see one of downtown Vancouver’s building, obviously marked with a giant Scotiabank logo.

Critically acclaimed, award-winning drama. Indeed, I would argue that the Battlestar Galactica reboot of 2004 took a niche of television that was largely considered “for nerds” and brought it to the mainstream.

A gritty military drama set in space, BSG follows the survivors of the Twelve Colonies as they flee from invading Cylon forces. And holy frak was it good. Great characters and some truly thrilling twists and turns make for 4 excellent seasons of television — and various spin-offs.

On an interesting side note, Battlestar is a rare television gem that purposefully went out strong, despite having been capable of perpetuating. The producers basically said, no, the story is coming to a close, and we don’t want to drag it on pointlessly. That, my friends, is integrity. Something many other shows sacrifice to keep on going long after they should be done.

Doctor Who (2005)

Starring: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Billie Piper, John Barrowman, Elisabeth Sladen, Freema Agyeman, many, many others.

Okay. Yes. I just got finished talking about how I respect Battlestar Galactica for finishing strong, rather than perpetuating needlessly. Meanwhile Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction television series ever.

The difference is that while Battlestar Galactica had a plot that it was flowing from episode to episode like the chapters in a novel, Doctor Who remains largely episodic. Sure there are little meta-plots that run through it, or a few mutli-part episodes here and there — but overall it’s totally self contained.

Oh yeah, and the quality is fantastic.

Basically, Doctor Who is the story of a time-travelling alien and his human hitchhikers, as they roam time and space looking for adventure. Pretty simple premise with plenty of possibilities.

Now, I’m familiar with the earlier Doctor Who series from the 1960s onwards, but I’ve recently discovered the 2005 reboot and it’s really, really good. Even if you’re not often a fan of British TV, I highly recommend giving Doctor Who a chance.

Witty, well-written dialogue, excellent special effects, and great plots combine to make Doctor Who worth checking out.

I have not yet watched Doctor Who, because Scott still hasn’t lent me the First Series. In his defence, I don’t know if he’s finished watching it.

I am. And I’ll be lending it to you soon. You’ll thank me.

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4 Responses to “Watch This: Sci-fi television”

  1. Dathon
    January 9, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Temba, his arms wide!

    • bingofuel
      January 9, 2010 at 12:37 pm #

      Temba when the walls fell!

  2. Adam Snider
    January 12, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

    I was talking to a friend about DS9 a while back—saying how I liked the war storyline that ran for most of the series, and such—and he made a good point that I hadn’t thought of before. If everyone has spaceships with weapons that are ridiculously powerful, why not just bombard your enemies from orbit and then send in a relatively small ground force to mop up what’s left, afterward?

    All of the phaser battles between two ground-based armies didn’t actually make much sense in the context of Star Trek. Of course, I haven’t watch the series in years, so maybe there are plenty of things that counter his argument. Care to tackle that one?

    • scottybomb
      January 13, 2010 at 11:21 am #

      I’m going to argue it was a point of realism sacrificed for story. It’s not very exciting if your enemies aren’t chivalrous enough to refrain from turning planets into molten slag just to make quick work of you.