Simple geek math will tell you that for every Battlestar Galactica there are thousand Harsh Realms. Most new sci-fi shows are either a) derivative rip-offs of superior shows, b) ratings deprived or c) ahead of their time. Sci-fi is a tricky genre that, when done right, challenges viewers and pushes the limits of television as a medium. But mainly, these shows are still TV’s red-headed stepchildren. (Even a mainstream success like Lost didn’t reveal itself as balls-out sci-fi until after it was a critical and ratings success). There’s always a number of complex reasons why any show is cancelled, and all the letter-writing campaigns in the world can’t change that, Jericho fans. Fortunately, we are live in a magical time where nothing ever dies on the Internet. With that in mind, let’s celebrate ten shows that were just too intelligent, esoteric or downright culty to please the masses during their initial airings.
10) Dead At 21
MTV’s first—and so far only—stab at genre television, 1994's Dead at 21 followed 20-year-old genius Ed Bellamy (Jack Noseworthy) as he attempted to prevent the microchips implanted in his brain from going boom upon the arrival of his next birthday. Why did he have microchips in his noggin? He was part of a secret government experiment in enhancing mental abilities. The chips gave him the smarts of Einstein but a short shelf life. Mmm chips. Anyways, as the test subjects grow up, the implants break down, resulting in maddening dreams and death at, you guessed it, age 21. In an effort to silence him, Ed is framed for murder by smarmy government agent Winston (Whip Hubley) and is forced to go on-the-run while still trying to track down a shadowy doctor who can help fix his potentially explosive predicament. Joining him is Maria Cavalos (a post-Doogie Howser, M.D. Lisa Dean Ryan), a beautiful party crasher who witnesses the killing for which Ed is blamed. Part The Fugitive, part Reality Bites, the show melded serialized storytelling with an oh-so-1990s dose of grunge-infused nihilism over the course of 13 half-hour episodes before it was canceled following an unresolved cliffhanger in which the three main characters seemingly bit the dust. While the show has never been officially released on DVD, torrents are freely available for you to relive all of the flannel-infused drama.
No YouTube clip is available. But look, here’s Jack Noseworthy in a production of Pippin!
9) Galaxy High School
The only cartoon on this list (sorry Clone High enthusiasts), Galaxy High School was Chris Columbus’ attempt at creating a Saturday morning sci-fi toon for kids of the Star Wars generation. It worked beautifully. The show’s simple premise—a popular jock and a bookworm beauty from Earth are chosen to attend an intergalactic high school whereupon they switch social roles—is perfectly summed up during the show’s theme song.
Playing fantastical concepts for laughs—a student with a transparent brain, a professor made of ice, etc.—Galaxy High School’s lasting legacy is that is was a smart, merchandise-free show in an era when most other kids programs were all about the big sell. Of course, the lack of swag available likely contributed to its downfall. Come to think of it, I still wouldn’t say no to an action figure line...
The only genre show to feature a main character named after a cherubic indie rocker, Chris Carter’s Millennium offered up compelling, if uneven, viewing on Fox from 1996-1999. During it’s three seasons, it was a show about serial killers, a head-scratching mindfuck and a bloodless X-Files clone. After the third year, the various cast and crew shakeups that plagued the series’s production took their toll, and the once-hyped jewel in Fox’s crown was unceremoniously dumped. Despite the numerous behind-the-scenes changes, friend-of-Bigfoot Lance Henriksen managed to keep viewers interested through his haunted and haunting portrayal of quasi-psychic/FBI profiler Frank Black, a man who wanted nothing more than a peaceful life with his family in a yellow house in Seattle. Of course, this plan went to shit fairly quickly, and Black found himself dealing with everything from a Polaroid-snapping psychopath to some diner-loving demons. In the second season, Space: Above and Beyond (itself canceled before its time) creators Glen Morgan and James Wong took over show-running duties and promptly created an intense mythology about the show’s mysterious Millennium Group that culminated in the world seemingly ending to the sounds of Patti Smith.
By the time the series returned from hiatus for what would be its last season, Morgan and Wong were out/Chris Carter was back at the reins, the virus that supposedly decimated humanity was lazily written off and Frank Black had rejoined the FBI and been given a cute new partner. Oh yeah, he got to meet Kiss too. Um, okay, ignore that. By the end of the season, elements of the mythology began to slowly reappear, and things were getting interesting again. Then the show was canceled and Black’s story was sorta wrapped up on a 1999 episode of The X-Files. Although rumors of a Millennium feature abound, one can’t help but wonder why Frank Black isn’t joining Mulder and Scully in their upcoming film.
7) Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Has there ever been a sexier couple than Buck Rogers and Col. Wilma Deering? As portrayed by Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, these sensual space cadets infused the cosmos with intergalactic hotness throughout the show’s two seasons. How many of you had your first sexual thoughts upon watching Wilma getting attacked by the Vorvon? Did the way Buck always strutted around in his form-fitting space duds get you off? Maybe Twiki’s penis-shaped head did it for you. Hey, whatever. We don’t judge here at Topless Robot.
Sure, the second year of the show sucked, Hawk was lame and Dr. Goodfellow was clearly a pedophile, but sometimes sci-fi can be all about the eye-candy too. For that reason alone it should have stayed on forever.
Set 15 years after the events of John Carpenter’s film, this TV series starred Robert Hays as an alien who returned to Earth and took the form of dead photojournalist Paul Forrester. Together with his teenage son Scott Hayden (Christopher Daniel Barnes), he attempted to track down old love Jenny Hayden (Erin Gray, making her second of two appearances on this list) and avoid being captured by asshole government agent George Fox (Michael Cavanaugh). What followed was a series of heart-warming adventures in which father and son traveled around the United States, learning how great mankind can be along the way. Awww. It was the sci-fi equivalent of comfort food, and my prepubescent self ate it up.
Bummer for Christopher Daniel Barnes fans: this, along with the 1988 sitcom Day by Day and the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon, is not available on DVD.