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The Worst Sci-Fi TV Shows of All Time


This is the week we honor the worst of geek culture at its lowest moments. At least until we run out of list ideas, which will be the day after “never.”

This time, we’re honoring the lowest points of sci-fi TV, but we have to limit this to broadcast TV (pre-streaming) because modern streaming services make it impossible to catch everything with all the originally-produced content on every micro-service. We’re going to have to stick to networks and cable channels.

Science fiction on TV is tough to do. We can’t blame any of the creators of these shows for at least giving them a try (well, maybe a little). At the same time, it’s tough to predict the hits in sci-fi. We’re just inserting this preamble to point out that there might well be a few of you who are fans of the shows on our list. That’s fine. We will just laugh at you along with the shows.

ALF (NBC 1986-1990)

Modern generations look back on all the ALF memes and wonder: What was with ’80s people? Did they actually like this show? And the answer is, no, nobody watched ALF and there were no ALF fans. We just liked the idea of ALF as a meme template. You would find people running around in ironic ALF Tshirts and buttons, sporting branded lunchboxes and shoes, and they’d openly admit they never saw the show. Do not believe the fake reviews from people who weren’t even alive when this show aired.

ALF (the name was an acronym for “alien life form”) was about an alien come to Earth to live with a bland suburban family, absolutely drained of the slightest personality. His one joke was that he had a taste for eating cats. If you take the premise from better shows like Mork & Mindy and My Favorite Martian, replace the talented leads with a Muppet they couldn’t even get Jim Henson to play, and make it all gross-out humor, you get ALF. Even the cast and crew hated the show, possibly with the root issue that they were in on a shallow cash-in off of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial‘s fame, only their hell lasted four seasons instead of the quick-shot Mac & Me.

Small Wonder (first-run syndication 1985-1989)

“Was That Real?” indeed! Right up front, we have to confess that some people did watch this show, because it was just weird enough to draw your attention in short spats – especially if you partied late into the night and woke up on the couch at 3AM repulsed at late-night rerun limbo but too petrified to shut it off. So generic and low-budget that it never had a network to call its own, it was endlessly rerun in the wee hours of the night.

So it’s just a show about this robot little girl living in sitcom suburbia. The dad of the family invented her and yet the family scrambled to keep her robotic nature a secret instead of applying for an M.I.T. research grant, for unexplained reasons. With an obnoxiously overbearing laugh track and stale sitcom humor, it was still just too surreal to ignore, and was especially popular with kids. Credit due, actress Tiffany Brissette (now retired and working in nursing) pulled off the role of the robot marvelously, with a creepy monotone and Uncanny Valley mannerisms that could easily have played in a horror movie.

Manimal (NBC 1983)

If the previous two picks on this list were controversial, Manimal should be no surprise. It routinely makes the list of not just worst sci-fi, but worst TV shows ever, full stop. Living for a mere eight episodes before cancellation, we would have forgotten the show today were it not for a blitz advertising campaign where NBC built this show up like the second coming of entertainment. They also splurged on the budget, remarkably attracting guest star talent like Ursula Andress, Keenan Wynn, and Robert Englund.

So the show is about a shapeshifter, Dr. Jonathan Chase, a man who has “trained in African techniques” so he can turn into different animals. Of course, this were-everything fights crime. That sounds like a great Marvel Avengers premise, how did it miss? Well, this was before CGI, and no amount of budget could conceal the fact that they only managed to handle about three actual animals for Dr. Chase to turn into. Once you’ve seen him in action as a hawk, a panther, and a snake, and realize that animals have limited abilities in the crime lab or doing things like opening doorknobs, the idea starts to show its flaws. To their credit, the practical effects of the transformations were up to par with An American Werewolf in London, but just took up too much time on the screen.

Shazam! (CBS 1974-1976)

Oh boy, are we in murky water! Captain Marvel is the superhero that everyone really wants to like, but every time we try to revive him, we learn once again that what happens in the golden age of comics should sometimes stay there. This show has ordinary ’70s dude Billy Batson able to henshin into Captain Marvel by yelling “by the power of Greyskull!” – oops, that’s “Shazam!” – at the sky for no reason.

“What was so bad about this show?” Your answer lies in the studio logo, the spinning Filmation circle of suck. The show had rock-bottom budgeting, the laziest possible production, and stripped everything else about Captain Marvel away, including his villains, for fear of being too intense for the kiddies. You have three seasons of him rescuing cats from trees and stopping runaway buggies. It was just bland and sapped of all personality, right down to his elevator-music stock “action” theme. Far inferior to the accidental spin-off show, The Secrets of Isis.

The Powers of Matthew Star (NBC 1982-1983)

This virtually unknown show is remembered almost solely for being on TV Guide‘s list of worst shows. But why? This is complicated. The show had top-name talent including award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. in a lead role, Leonard Nimoy directing one episode, and Walter Koenig writing another episode. The premise was a bit questionable, as an alien of a blown-up planet, casualty of war, has to dwell on Earth now while trying really hard not to be Superman.

“Bungled production” is the biggest flaw with this series. They couldn’t get the lead character’s name right, calling him “David” in the pilot. They drastically switched him from being a high school student to a government secret agent. In between, they had this alien being doing mundane things like captain the football team while we’re supposed to care. Despite the show’s title, we never got to see much of his powers. The network seemed to do everything in their ability to trash the show, making it a sympathetic underdog in modern memory – when it’s remembered at all.

Friday the 13th: The Series (first-run syndication 1987-1990)

What, a TV series about the slasher stalking around Camp Crystal Lake? How would they pull that off? The answer is: They didn’t! They used nothing but the title, slapping it over the front of this unrelated series about a cursed antiques store whose heirs have to try to get all the devil’s junk back from its purchasers so the curse can be lifted. So now you have a decent X-Files-type genre show, unfortunately buried under the biggest, loudest fart of a bait-and-switch title in TV history.

Once you get past the title, the show was reasonably well-done and has a tidy cult following to this day. When we say “decent” we mean by the standards of the day for anthology horror – Tales From the Darkside or the show this show was obviously thrown together to compete with, Freddy’s Nightmares. So even after the title, the show was uneven with some especially mean-spirited plot devices and characters mixed with standard Twilight Zone retread plots. Better than some shows, but no Black Mirror. However, in this case saying “once you get past the title” is like saying dating the Swamp Thing isn’t so bad once you get past the fishy breath.

That Concludes This Segment of Turkey Week

Stay tuned this week as you seek out diversions while avoiding your family or ducking Zoom calls, because we have much more in the turkey gallery to carve into! Reminder: Is your turkey defrosting yet?

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