Today, we’re going to talk about mid-century science fiction shows that AREN’T Star Trek. That’s because Star Trek, the lucky dog, had the good fortune to luck into just the right combination of elements to keep a solid fanbase long after it was canceled, until it got revived into what is perhaps the greatest triumph for TV sci-fi ever, Star Trek : The Next Generation. It is credited today with single-handedly saving science fiction on the silver screen forever.
But a bunch of accidents had to come together to make Star Trek happen at just the right time. Which makes us wonder…
If there had been no Star Trek, what would have taken its place?
So much for the bride; what about the bridesmaids? A couple of whole generations have come along without ever hearing about these series which were not so fortunate. For every founding geek culture staple we remember now, there were ten more also-rans which didn’t quite hit it off, but they all still have tiny cult followings today.
The two names to know are Irwin Allen and Gerry Anderson. Those were the two cinematic rivals vying with Gene Roddenberry for domination of the TV sci-fi market. Allen was a New York producer better known for disaster movies and in fact had earned the title “master of disaster,” while Gerry Anderson was a British producer whose chief claim to fame was “Supermarionation,” half animatronic puppets. Both had an appetite for the campy.
Both Allen and Anderson have had their signature works parodied. Airplane (1980) was a parody of Allen’s disaster movies. Team America : World Police (2004) was a parody of Anderson’s puppet work, particularly the Thunderbirds series. Irwin Allen produced the first three series on the below list; Gerry Anderson produced the trailing two.
Mid-century sci-fi TV series are worth remembering for their crazy theme songs alone, but the goofy premises, wacky sets, and bizarre visions of the future are a nice bonus. Queue these for binge watching and discover the forgotten characters we could very easily have been talking about today instead of the Enterprise crew:
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968)
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is the venerated senior of mid-century sci-fi TV series. You may not believe it now, but this show was basically the only episodic sci-fi adventure series that mattered for its first couple years. It predates the first airing of Star Trek by two years.
It makes more sense when you realize that before outer space became the chief domain of science fiction, the ocean or “liquid space” was actually the more popular and exciting frontier. Space travel was seen as an unimaginable far-off fantasy, but anybody who had gone for a swim could suspend disbelief for a submarine. Jules Verne’s serialized novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870) had thus far been one of the most successful sci-fi stories, and arguably this series was at least inspired by that.
It was also among the first to copy the Wagon Train (1962-1965) formula. Trekkies often hear of how Gene Roddenberry pitched the original series as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Wagon Train set a very distinct pace: a group of adventures, American frontier settlers in this case, on a long journey encountering “the adventure of the week,” no matter how outlandish. If you watch a few episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, you will instantly recognize the same pace: the submarine crew encounters unlikely adventures every week – including sea monsters, Cold War enemies, and a UFO – and the episode becomes the story of dealing with them. Look for the Wagon Train formula wherever sci-fi adventure pops up!
Lost in Space (1965-1968)
Lost in Space is the closest show we have to being a Star Trek competitor. It’s also the one show on this list still remembered today, thanks in part to some sputtering attempts at revival. Lost in Space simply had the Swiss family Robinson and the perpetual “guest star” Dr. Smith careening around the galaxy as vagabonds without a mission beyond simply surviving. But otherwise, this was another “Wagon Train to the stars”: encountering perilous adventures of increasingly ridiculous varieties as the show wore on. We have to show this top-4 favorite episodes clip from a fan just to do it justice:
What makes Lost in Space stick is just how goofy and campy the show was. At the time, Lost in Space considered its chief competitor to be Batman (1966-1968) rather than Star Trek. As many zany villains as Batman could dig up, that’s how many zany situations Lost in Space kept getting into to top it. Both shows found themselves losing ratings to the opening season of Star Trek though.
Time Tunnel (1966-1967)
It’s odd how seldom we even see a TV series about time travelers. There was Quantum Leap (1989-1993), the BBC’s Dr. Who of course, and our contemporary 12 Monkeys. The Time Tunnel was time travel done as – wait for it – an adventure of the week in time! They traveled to eons of yore to tangle with the likes of Hitler, Chief Crazy Horse, or Genghis Khan.
With all of history to explore, you’d think this series could at least stay focused on factual events, but oh no! They had to have an episode with Merlin the wizard from King Arthur’s court too! The series only lasted one season and was a fish out of water even for the free-wheeling 1960s science fiction climate. But it still pulled off some of the most psychedelic sets and effects ever to make a network broadcast.
This one is a contender for the most whacked-out theme on the list at least, sounding like what you could only describe as “Austin Powers in space.” UFO being very British in the very British shagadelic ’60s, it was unashamedly preoccupied with showing cute butts in tiny skirts always filmed with butt-level cameras following them down the hall. When it wasn’t ogling babes, it was about a government elite operation battling space aliens invading Earth, which made for a surprising amount of action set on Earth and very little happening in space for a series called “UFO.”
Stills from the series have spawned Internet memes with no context, resulting in everybody recognizing the purple-wigged space chick but being unable to place her. The show is also a cult classic for its retro-future look set in the far-off year of 1980. Yeah. Despite the silly formula, the show was ahead of its time in the way it managed to scavenge together some interesting sci-fi premises. For instance, the agency would intervene with any human who had borne witness to an alien, in order to scrub their memory of the event… decades before Men in Black (1997) brought us the neuralyzer.
Now when the rest of the series in this list, plus Star Trek, had all played out, Gerry Anderson returned with Space 1999, this time with a more thoughtful and serious take. Despite the acid-rock opening theme, the show was high-concept, with a more mature attitude towards space adventure that was clearly goaded by the success of Star Trek. We’ll let this review give it its due:
As noted in that magazine cover shown about the 3:12 mark, Space 1999 was pitted as the chief rival to Star Trek, or at least the UK answer to the show. In part thanks to grieving Trekkies looking for a replacement after the original series ended, Space 1999 also had its American fanbase. Doubtless it had Star Trek‘s reputation to thank for its larger budget.
What Have We Learned?
As we noted in our epic Batman post, the ’60s were a time with a hearty appetite for camp. Mediums like superhero comics and space-faring sci-fi were treated as “just for kids” or “goofy escapist entertainment for adults.” Fiction in this period tended to the post-modern, avant-garde, and just downright silly. Star Trek, in the original series, certainly did take a swig of camp once in awhile…
…but it wound up bringing dignity back to fantasy and speculative fiction. We went into the late decade with Dr. Smith (hammed to the max by the immortal Jonathan Harris) pitted against a tribe of vegetable people (yes, really, SE03EP24, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion“). We exit to Star Trek, even through the ravages of episodes like “Spock’s Brain,” winning back some respect for science fiction. This paved the way for Space 1999, which even rose to the level of some pretty adult horror with suspense, tension, and atmosphere layered on.
Crazy time in history, and with the way things are going right now, we might have to bring back camp and go through this whole process all over again. If so, that’s one thing to look forward to.