Television and Radio: Spaced Out

Sci-fi series are lost but not forgotten

Lost in Space started out good, but then it went bad.

Successful science fiction is hard, especially on television. Two recent DVD releases from 20th Century Fox help define that. Lost in Space: The Complete First Season (on CBS, 1964-1965) and Firefly: The Complete Series (14 episodes that aired on Fox in 2002) show that producers have always struggled to make science fiction acceptable to the masses. Both series had strong casts, experienced producers and initial support from their networks. Yet both met untimely ends. The cast of Lost in Space, in fact, read about their cancellation in Variety.

In 1964 things were different, as evidenced by a five-minute clip of the network presentation to advertisers included in the LIS package. America was in the midst of the "space race."

Producer Irwin Allen already had a hit series with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea; his new project about a family sent into space would be based loosely on Swiss Family Robinson. Guy (Zorro) Williams was joined by June (Lassie's mom) Lockhart. With resources of a big studio (20th Century Fox), the series looked promising.

Most people remember the series' later episodes, campy "monster-of-the-week" yarns.

The first season was different, and not only because it was black-and-white. Stories were adventurous and compelling. In the very fine "Return to Earth," young Will is transported home to a very un-modern New England town. Though it's supposedly 1997, it looks like the 1940s. And no one believes Will's fantastic tale.

What went wrong with LIS? In 1966 rival NBC reluctantly debuted Star Trek. Although they aired on different nights, CBS was worried by the competition and took LIS in a new direction, leaving headier stuff to Gene Roddenberry's Trek, which didn't fare much better in the ratings, departing after three seasons.

Its true popularity came in syndication. Roddenberry remembered this 20 years later with Star Trek: The Next Generation, one of the most popular syndicated series in TV history.

Despite the demise of these series, others kept trying. ABC's Battlestar Galactica (spurred on by Star Wars) and Buck Rogers (NBC) in the late '70s and early '80s both gained followings, like their predecessors. But with no mass audience, both were soon cancelled. In the '90s, Babylon 5 enjoyed a successful run — in syndication.

In 2002, producer Joss Whedon, seeing the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, created the space adventure Firefly for Fox that he described as a Western in space. Strangely, a similar description — "a wagon train to the stars" — had convinced NBC to pick up Star Trek.

The description is fairly accurate for Firefly. Although it's five centuries in the future, Western music plays under many scenes, and the characters look like they could be roping cattle in Texas. Firefly's cancellation was distressing but not surprising.

The DVD includes commentary and three episodes never broadcast.

Science fiction, it seems, will remain a niche genre on television. While Stargate SG-1 does well on cable's Sci-Fi Channel, Enterprise, the latest in the Star Trek franchise, struggles on UPN. Ironically, both draw similar-sized audiences, but a broadcast network needs big numbers for a series to be considered successful and viable.

Even with the Mars Rover at work, America's interest in science fiction remains relatively low. It's almost the TV viewing equivalent of wearing a "kick me" sign. In the end, science and technology will keep the genre alive, thanks to cable and satellite TV.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Stay tuned. ©

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