Six Sci-Fi Shows That Deserve A Do-Over

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With the middling, J.J. Abrams-produced Alcatraz hitting Blu-ray and DVD this past week, it’s occurred to me that there are a lot of science fiction shows out there that just plain need a do-over. I don’t mean a show like Firefly, which was short-lived, sure, but which is also a damn near perfect run of television. It may have only shot 14 episodes, but it knocked those 14 out of the park so hard that it spawned a movie and a fanbase that’s just as a passionate a decade later. No, I’m talking about shows that had potential but got a raw deal. Maybe it was a case of wrong time, wrong network. Maybe the suits with the purse strings poked and prodded till all the life was drained out of the premise. Maybe it just didn’t get enough time to find its footing.

This is a look back at the shows that, to borrow a line from Superman’s dad, “coulda been a contender.” I’ve picked out six shows that still irk me when I think about them. Shows that had a great premise or an amazing cast or even just that certain indefinable something that meant you could sense that the show was just waiting to catch fire. To clarify, I’m not suggesting these need a reboot, although that could be worthwhile in some cases. I’m just saying that these shows deserved better than they got. And some of them didn’t even air on Fox! (I’m also specifically focusing on short-lived shows, so that counts out shows like Enterprise, which I think had the potential to be better than it was, but which still lasted four seasons.)

Max Headroom (1987 – 1988)
Of all the shows on this list, this is one I think has the most potential for an outright reboot. While the show obviously looks dated, it’s amazing how ahead of its time the show’s style and ideas were. And let’s face it, outside of the sort of people who read Giant Freakin’ Robot, most TV viewers out there are either too young to have ever heard of Max Headroom, or only remember him as the annoying Coke pitchman. Originally based on a British TV pilot, the short-lived Max Headroom series was a pitch-black slice of cyberpunk satire back when the genre was virtually untouched by television. It starred Matt Frewer as Edison Carter, an investigative journalist in a dystopian future effectively ruled by television networks. After he’s killed in a motorcycle crash, a copy of his brain is uploaded into a computer and thus is born “Max Headroom” (so named for the vehicle-clearance warning he sees before he dies…it had that sort of sense of humor).

Honestly, you don’t even have to hear much more than the show’s logline to see how Max Headroom is, if anything, even more timely now than it was during the ‘80s. The media landscape has expanded to countless channels competing for viewers’ eyeballs. Reality television continually redefines the lowest common denominator. The show’s cynical gaze would find no shortage of targets, from social media to emergent artificial intelligence to our society’s unhealthy fascination with being famous as a goal rather than a byproduct of actually doing something noteworthy. In the right hands, Max Headroom could play like a bastard child of South Park and Warren Ellis’ back-catalog, mercilessly butchering every preposterous corner of our culture while also spinning tales of the crazy fringe science that is blurring the boundaries of fiction and fact.

You can pick up the original Max Headroom series on DVD right here.

Space: Above and Beyond (1995 – 1996)
This is one that I don’t think I’d champion for a reboot simply because the cast was so great at the time. Created by X-Files wunderkinds Glen Morgan and James Wong, Space: Above and Beyond followed the men and women of the “Wildcards,” otherwise known as the United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry, 58th Squadron. They serve as both infantry and spacefighter pilots in humanity’s war against the insectile “Chigs,” a species that came out of nowhere to attack mankind’s first extra-solar colony world. The top-notch cast included genre veterans such as Kristen Cloke (Millennium, Final Destination) and James Morrison (Quantum Leap, The X-Files), but honestly there wasn’t a weak link in the entire cast, and it actually helped the show’s veracity that most of them weren’t recognizable faces.

While the concept of a “military space campaign” is hardly original, Morgan and Wong still found ways to tell fresh and interesting stories, and the world is one I would have loved to explore more, a world of vat-grown “in vitro” humans and rebellious A.I. “silicates” who collaborate with the Chigs against their creators. To this day, some 16 years later, the almost dialogue-free “Who Monitors the Birds?” is still one of the best hours of science fiction television I’ve ever seen. And while part of me feels that the show’s time has come and gone, and certainly Morgan and Wong have moved on to many other things, I think about the fact that the show’s creators purportedly planned for a five-season run, and man…I would have liked to see what those other four years had to offer.

You can pick up Space: Above and Beyond on DVD right here. And a bright light at the end of this tunnel: Spartacus: Blood and Sand creator Steven S. DeKnight is working on Incursion, a military SF series for Starz that sounds like it could become the show Space: Above and Beyond might have if given time.

Dark Skies (1996 – 1997)
Back in the ‘90s when everybody was desperate to capture a little bit of that X-Files magic, somebody thought, “Hey, what if we made The X-Files but set it during the ‘60s?” Okay, that’s dismissive, because I think that simple idea of shifting the “UFO investigator” concept to a different era made for a very different show, and it’s a concept still ripe with potential. Dark Skies was the baby of Bryce Zabel and Brent V. Friedman, and while it definitely developed a following, it never really emerged from the shadow of the X-Files comparisons and died after one season on NBC.

And that’s a real shame, because when you think about it, setting an X-Files style show in the 1960s actually makes more sense than setting it in the 1990s. That placed it square in the middle of an era rife with conspiracies both real and imagined, weaving its stories of alien invaders around real-life historical figures and tragedies in a time when American trust of its government was on the wane. The X-Files sketched out a labyrinthine, decades-old history of conspiracy via flashbacks, but Dark Skies tried to set up camp in that world rather than just using it as background. With so many different networks getting into the business of original content, with period-set shows such as Mad Men and Magic City becoming hits, and with “respectable” networks embracing genre content (HBO’s A Game of Thrones, AMC’s The Walking Dead), I think a Dark Skies reboot could be something special. And with Fringe bowing out this season, we’re going to be in dire need of a new “new X-Files.”

You can pick up the complete set of Dark Skies on DVD right here.

Crusade (1999)
Of all the shows on this list, Crusade is the one that pains me most to write about. As a ground-floor fan of Babylon 5, that series is still one of my favorite genre shows of all time. I admired and respected J. Michael’s Straczynski’s decision to keep that series limited to the five seasons he had always imagined, but man, 1999-era me was also giddy at the prospect of more from the B5 universe and the mind of JMS. And like so many other fans, I watched with a mixture of dismay and morbid fascination as Crusade was “networked” to death by a meddlesome TNT, resulting in what I still consider one of the most tragic and wasteful fates for a science fiction series.

Even aside from the fact that it was from JMS, I genuinely loved the idea of “archaeological science fiction,” of a show steeped in wonder and with the potential to play out like a far-future Indiana Jones at times. I loved the characters, many of them already fascinating despite only having 13 episodes to introduce themselves. All these years later, I still want to see Galen train Dureena. I want to learn the secrets of Gideon’s Apocalypse Box. Damn it, I miss Max Eilerson. And, as somebody who was privileged to work on a series of books about the behind-the-scenes history of B5 and Crusade…I sooooo wish we could have seen the stories that were planned, but which were cut short. I realize it’s extremely unlikely given how much time has passed, but if JMS wants to start a Kickstarter to fund a ground-zero remake of Crusade, I’d probably start robbing banks to pitch in.

You can purchase Crusade on DVD right here.

John Doe (2002 – 2003)
And now a show that I must include here, for fear that my friend Peter will murder me in the dead of night if I overlook it. All kidding aside, though, John Doe is another tragic case of a great premise, great lead, great promise…and a spot on Fox. Sure, I could easily compile another of these lists made up solely of genre shows killed by the threshing maw of the Fox network, but the early death of John Doe still irks fans because it had such a great central mystery: a man wakes up on an island off the coast of Seattle, with no memory of who he is…but the ability to bring up pretty much any other fact or piece of knowledge you could imagine.

Aside from ensuring that nobody would ever challenge John Doe (Dominic Purcell) to a game of Trivial Pursuit, it’s also one hell of a great setup for a series. As often happens in movies and TV when somebody suddenly develops strange abilities, Doe sets about helping people while also trying to solve the mystery of the Google lodged in his head. John Doe is another example of why I’m calling this a “do-over” list. After the series’ cliffhanger and cancellation, creators Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson actually answered the big question of Doe’s amnesia and super-brain, and honestly their answer is a lot less compelling than the mystery. Maybe it’s just as well that it ended rather than drag us on longer, but I’d still love to see the concept given a fair shake by a network that isn’t the genre TV version of Vlad the Impaler. And if they come up with a different explanation for the whole thing, that’d be fine by me. (Then again, that doesn’t always work out too well…witness the American remake of Life on Mars.)

Journeyman (2007)
It’s hard to find a new twist on the time travel story, especially in the television format where you — ideally, at least — have to keep the narrative rolling for years. Journeyman managed to do so by taking a basic Quantum Leap premise — somebody being tossed about in time in order to “set right what once went wrong” — and throwing in a couple of clever twists to build the framework of a really intriguing mythology. There were hints that Dan’s (Kevin McKidd)’s leaping had something to do with his father, or with tachyons, or with a comet passing when he was born. There were other time travelers, including one who died shortly before Dan’s first leap.

The twist that really won me over, however: the revelation that Dan’s believed-dead fiance, Livia (Moon Bloodgood), was also a time traveler, and was actually from the year 1948. Where Dan was leaping back to help people, she was leaping forward. Unfortunately, Journeyman was only able to construct the barest framework of what looked to be a very cool cosmology before being axed by NBC. There was so much potential untapped: to see more of Dan and Livia’s relationship, and how their time leaps interrelated; to learn if there were even more people experiencing the leaps; to find out if there was truly a guiding purpose behind it all, or did there only seem to be? That last question gave the series, had it run longer, the chance to delve more deeply into questions similar to those posed (and answered, sort of) by Quantum Leap’s finale years earlier. Journeyman had all the appearances of a show with the narrative potential to last for years…but, ironically, it simply didn’t get the time.

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  1. Aaron Smith says:

    Max Headroom and Space: Above and Beyond were both good shows. I would add Earth 2 to the list as well.

  2. Del says:

    I’d like to add SeaQuest: DSV to that list!

  3. Space: Above and Beyond was so fraken cool!!

  4. Desdinova says:

    I really enjoyed Max Headroom and would HATE to see a remake of it. It’s one of those things that is a product of its time, IE the 80’s. We have the technology to make a technically much superior show however Follywood lacks something to make the personality of the show. Look at all the other reboots from various shows of the time. Technically good but lacking something. Crusade or another B5 spinoff i would like to see.

  5. Peter Ehm says:

    Crusade, most emphatically. I saw a preview of the show at the 1998 WorldCon and the audience reaction was… incredible. I was heartbroken( which rarely happens to me regarding TV )to see how Crusade was left to die on the vine.

    Max Headroom also deserves a second visit, if only to update it for today’s media and it’s pervasiveness in our lives.

    And finally, S:AAB was my watch-by-the-firelight fave on TV. As you so aptly stated “Who Monitors The Birds?” remains one of my Top25 SciFi TV Episodes. Lovely.

  6. S.Roberts says:

    Crusade and Space: Above and Beyond Hell Yeah!

  7. Max Headroom was one of my favorite shows. I’d also add “Earth 2” and “Mann & Machine” to this list.

  8. I really liked the U.S. Life on Mars. Perhaps the mystery would have been resolved differently if it had had more seasons. I appreciated having an answer.

  9. A recent show that might fit in this category is Awake. I don’t know if it could have been sustained, but I thought the writing and acting of this series was first rate (except for the wife, whom I just couldn’t take). I would have loved to have seen where the creators wanted to go.

  10. Space:Above and beyond… And how about a british show. Space:1999.

  11. What about New Amsterdam. Liked that one, too.

  12. Another show you might consider is “Defying Gravity”. Excellent show with a lot of untapped potential. The mystery in it was intriging.

  13. Troy Brooks says:

    I’ve thought about how to reboot Max Headroom before, one change I thought would be good is that Network 23 be a series of stations. A bit like Fox networks.

  14. What about The Event? It had a fantastic beginning, and what I thought was a lot of potential. But then it sort of got lost in itself by the 3rd or 4th episode, mired down.in too many ideas/subplots that moved agonizingly slow. But just after the midway point of the season.it shed much of that extra weight and picked up the pace again all the through to the final episode of the season, ultimately leaving us with 5 questions for every 1 answer we got. I have reached the point where I won’t start watching a new show – specifically a sci-fi show – until it has been on for at least two seasons. I’m tired of investing my time in shows like Flash Forward, The River and others just to have them disappear as quickly as they arrived!.

  15. StainlessSRat says:

    Edison Carter didn’t die in Max Headroom and I cannot agree with you more about Who Monitors the Birds, all round one of the best written best acted hours of television ever!

  16. BS says:

    The Fantastic Voyage – I was a kid when it came on but still think about it from time to time.

  17. Rachel Caine says:

    Love the list. I loved and lost every one of those shows right along with you.

    Here’s a brilliant little series that exploded on contact: THE LOST ROOM. As a writer, I was so blown away by the concept and the great, intricate storytelling … I ended up contacting the writers and thanking them personally. So. Check it out.

  18. Richard says:

    Earth 2 was another one I’d like to see remade, but it’s not hard to think of Terra Nova as the remake. How about Odyssey 5? Peter Weller as a space shuttle commander sent back in time 5 years with his crew to discover the reason Earth was suddenly destroyed during a shuttle mission. Also wouldn’t mind seeing more Bruce Campbell on the small screen with Brisco County Jr, even though he’s already a regular cast member on Burn Notice. Nowhere Man came to a satisfying end, even though that end easily opens a new door to a very interesting second season if one could be made (plus it stars Bruce Greenwood, Capt Pike from the last Star Trek movie!).

  19. lake says:

    I was hoping to see Time Trax on this list. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_Trax (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

  20. superscope68 says:

    I would like to add Darren McGavin’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker

  21. scifiguy says:

    space above and beyond,what a blinding series,everything about it was right on the money,

  22. naviman says:

    what about sliders

  23. Edward says:

    You need to go back and watch Maxx headroom that show was way a head of its time. would of loved space above and beyond to have gotten at least one more season to wrap up. also would loved to have had defying gravity get a full season if just to wrap up.

  24. Yootha says:

    V deserved more of a chance than it got, however I don’t think the show went in the best direction…

  25. BG3 says:

    Defying Gravity… Why isn’t this on the list? I want to know what happens when all the things are connected. UNANSWERED QUESTIONS OMG.

  26. Erica Rose says:

    I’m sorry, but I disagree about Crusade, in my honest opinion, it was the worst sci-fi show ever made. Some things can’t be saved, ever.

  27. Kris Webb says:

    I’d hoped Caprica would be mentioned.

  28. Ken Nichols says:

    I agree with all of these choices. So many other shows also got the ax early. Sci-fi shows always hurt the most when they don’t get renewed after one season. I wish that sci-fi series were only greenlighted if they knew they were gonna be on long enough to tell their main story arc. Maybe someday.

  29. DJ Jarak says:

    Max Headroom? Wow. That’s a blast from the past.