Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When Critics Applaud and Attack SFTV


by Mark Phillips

When Frank Garcia and I wrote our book, Science Fiction Television Series in the 1990s, we covered the histories of 62 SF series produced between 1959-1989. This ranged from the obscure, such as Aaron Spelling's The New People, to famous hits such as Bionic Woman and Quantum Leap. We tried to cover each show as objectively as possible, without including any reviews written by the media. But now, we thought sharing these old reviews would be interesting, from when Daily Variety said Star Trek "wouldn't work" and famed rocketeer Wernher von Braun "recommended" Space 1999 as a good show. Some reviews are controversial, others insightful, some amusingly contradictory and a few plain ludicrous. Here is how some in the media perceived, praised or crucified these 62 SF shows during their initial run.

When CBS launched Men into Space in 1959, it was to capitalize on the space race between America and the Soviet Union. William Lundigan played Col. William McCauley, an astronaut whose low-key adventures took him to the moon and Mars. Real-life scientists and Air Force officials provided technical advice. But The New York Times rapped the show as, "Hokum in outer space," while The Chicago Tribune drew a bead with, "It's a fine show - for children. The miniature rocket ships and space stations employed are absurd." TIME magazine was initially doubtful. "It can be as updated as tomorrow's astronauts or yesterday's comic strip." But a month later, TIME sang a different tune. "This series is made up of the best kind of SF stories, where careful research turns them into documentary-like tales of tomorrow. The action is always trimmed closely to expert predictions and this show could spin into orbit."

The first SF TV heavyweight was Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone in 1959. It would attract diverse fans such as philosopher Ayn Rand and actress Jodie Foster. "The Twilight Zone is rare," stressed TIME. "Dramatic entertainment with fresh ideas presented by people who have a decent respect of the medium and audience."

Critics generally praised the anthology of the fantastic. "It's a compelling series," said The Bennington Evening Banner. "It's a real tour de force," added AP News columnist Cynthia Lowry. "The quality of Serling's series has remained consistently high and imaginative." Serling told Lowry, "If I had been turning out something like Hawaiian Eye, I'd probably hide. But I'm not ashamed of Twilight Zone." Neither were famous performers, some just starting their careers, such as Robert Redford, Lee Marvin and Elizabeth Montgomery. A then-unknown Sally Kellerman even appeared in a uncredited bit part in "Miniature."

The Hollywood Reporter called it, "A powerful series...Serling's stamp on a Twilight Zone script has consistently spelled quality." But Serling was getting tired by its third year and had no qualms about the show possibly ending. "Serling takes pride in his material," noted The Milwaukee Sentinel. "And he admits, he's running out of material." Serling added, "It's a tough grind but we try to do sheer entertainment as intelligently as possible." Toward the end of the series' run in 1964, some critics saw the Emmy-Award series losing its luster. "Twilight Zone has tumbled from the level of great science fiction to the bleak, pedestrian world of pulp SF," lamented TV critic Edward Matesky. Reruns of the series were launched in 1965, where it has remained the iconic gold standard for SF anthologies.

Another classic anthology received a more hostile reception. Outer Limits ran from 1963-65, with a control voice that delivered hour-long dramas billed as "TVs first adult SF series." Many critics disagreed. "It's pure absurdity," groaned The New York Times. "It is only a pre-text of SF. It is dreadful. The Twilight Zone never looked better." TIME magazine dismissed it too, predicting a quick cancellation. Cynthia Lowry had enthusiastically previewed the series as "different,'" but she turned off quickly. "It's a poor series," she said. "It reaches the limits of one's patience with Grade D fodder. This show is designed to scare an audience too old for Godzilla but too unsophisticated for Twilight Zone. That is obviously too big of an order for such a silly series."

Florida's Lively Arts column was encouraging. "By letting your imagination have a free reign, you will have a fine time watching Outer Limits." The New York Daily News liked the pilot ("Frankenstein fans will love this one") and added, "This may shape up as a slightly fantastic but nevertheless fascinating series." But some critics kept harping. The Chicago Tribune enjoyed the pilot episode ("chilling") but by year two, pleaded, "Please, ABC! Take back control of your television set!" Australia's The Age was torn. "Some episode zoom to cosmic heights while others should have been destroyed in the laboratory."

A young mother wrote TV Guide and protested, "Why is the network programming a horror like this in the early evening hours?"

The fiercest criticism was from American politicians who saw the series as downright dangerous. Concerned over juvenile delinquency, they blamed television. Scenes from Outer Limits were screened in Washington DC as part of an investigation into "brutal television violence." Producer Joseph Stefano struck back. "I would rather have my five-year old son see my TV monsters than watch a TV show where a bunch of black-jacketed thugs beat up people." Stefano did withdraw a story idea where cats were possessed by hostile alien beings, realizing it could be upsetting to children. Outer Limits later went on to become a classic.

Historian John Baxter said in 1970, "Outer Limits gave television some of its finest moments and for consistency of imagination, it had few equals. The result is something of which both science fiction and television should be proud."


Producer Irwin Allen, purveyor of the spectacular (Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure) launched Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1964, about the adventures of the futuristic submarine Seaview. "The series is well mounted and has a good cast," remarked The New York Times, saying the series had a lot of dramatic potential.

But The Los Angeles Times had a different take. "ABC sinks to new depths. Richard Basehart, an outstanding actor, and David Hedison, star in this disaster and they must secretly cringe at every cliché. Without a question, this new adventure series ranks along with such dramatic achievements as The Test Pattern." AP News chuckled, "There's an undersea battle between divers and the biggest, phoniest octopus ever seen on the small screen. Small boys of all ages might find it fun."

The scariest criticism came from the often humorless National Association for Better Broadcasts, who kept an eagle-eye on offensive TV shows and ranked Voyage near the top of bad influences. "For a show that purports to be a realistic depiction of current undersea exploration, Voyage's nightmarish scenarios are built around incredibly far-fetched gimmicks." They also took umbrage over the show's violence. "People are seen being devoured by seaweed and impaled by knife blades," and questioned why politicians and bureaucrats who boarded the submarine often turned into "terrifying characters such as werewolves and monsters. This is a most inappropriate show for youngsters."

Forrest Ackerman of Famous Monsters magazine said, "It's one of television's greatest adventure shows," while The Seattle Post-Intelligencer claimed that, "along with I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan's Island, Voyage is one of the worst television shows ever made for television."

Daily Variety loved the show's sets, photography and special effects but questioned why Basehart and guest star Victor Jory were giving Emmy-Award calibre performances for what was "essentially a children's show."

Basehart vigorously defended the show, telling Edgar Benton that, "We must not be fooled by the trappings of Voyage. Morality is action, the rest are platitudes and if you analyze most of Voyage's stories, someone is in deep trouble. The characters of Seaview do not look the other way. They take action and they take responsibility. Despite the danger, they go and help them out. It demonstrates that people will rise above their concern for their own skin. In that sense, it's the test of a philosophy and in these times that is an important statement to make."

Irwin Allen was as contradictory as the critics, saying, "I love the sea but I never go near it. I get seasick!" When Voyage was cancelled in 1968, Cynthia Lowry lamented that of all the shows dropped that year (including Man from Uncle, I Spy, Monkees and Tarzan), there was only one show worth saving: Voyage. "It will be missed,'" she said. "partly for its interesting special effects but more for its charming and ingenious assortment of scary monsters that, week after week, put the submarine crew in deadly peril." But media writer Dave Kaufman said, "Voyage deserved its cancellation. It will not be missed and is best forgotten."

Allen's Lost in Space premiered in 1965, sending Guy William and June Lockhart into a flying saucer that carried a family through the cosmos. Set in 1997, the show also featured a sinister stowaway, Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris). Williams felt the series was so realistic that, "we need a hot line from Cape Kennedy to our studio." Professor George Horsley Smith of Rutgers University said the series mirrored a realistic future. "This is a good science fiction series with real people transported to a plausible future."

TV critic Hal Humphrey voted Jonathan Harris "as giving the worst single performance of the year. He should be ashamed of the hammy faces he makes!" Yet TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory voted Harris as "the best supporting actor of the year." Rick du Brow found the series ridiculous. "This thing plays like a live-action cartoon, complete with a robot that runs around yelling, 'Destroy! Destroy!'" Daily Variety complimented the sets and special effects but warned, "This show will need better scripting if it is to stay in orbit." The American PTA loved Lost in Space. "It's a fun, imaginative series, with good moral concepts." The National Association for Better Broadcasts (NABB) said, "This is a low quality show with absolutely nothing to recommend. It is far too frightening for young children." The LA Times said the show "should get lost....we watched this thing in a flush of disgust but your five-year olds will eat this up."

The Chicago Tribune took one look and said, "CBS has done no favor to this nation by giving us Lost in Space." Two fans who watched Lost in Space every week as kids were John F. Kennedy Jr. and Michael Jackson.


The 13th Gate was supposed to be the big SF show for NBC. Michael Rennie and David Opatoshu starred as investigators of strange alien phenomena. But the pilot disappointed the network and so Star Trek was put into its 1966 time slot instead. Trek's first episode, "The Man Trap," about a salt vampire, ranked in the top 30 ratings. A later episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," ranked 38th out of 80 shows for that week in the Nielsen ratings. But critics took a long time to warm up to the Trek. "A dreary won't work." said Daily Variety. Columnist Win Fanning found "Man Trap" torture to get through, much preferring Time Tunnel. But he liked the mini-skirted women of Star Trek. "If Hugh Hefner wants to know where his Playboy bunnies are moonlighting, he need not look further than the crew roster of the Enterprise!"

Variety agreed, noting that "amidst the turgid dialogue," the ship's officers "spend their time staring at women in tight spacesuits!" Cleveland Amory of TV Guide spoofed the series, saying it was for kids but he later apologized and admitted, "There are many things we like and admire about this series." Don Page said, "This is a quality SF show that stands out over the normally gutless, non-committal, play-it-safe, fun and games of commercial television."

Star Trek merchandise went into hyperdrive. A December 1967 toy advertisement screamed, "Every child will be thrilled to be a part of the USS Enterprise, with these exciting Star Trek toys!" These included photos of a Star Trek rocket pistol, buzz ray gun, astro walkie-talkie, space helmet, astro tank, space helicopter and space wrist radio.

Some supporters of Trek had problems with certain episodes. The St. Petersburg Times told viewers to beware of "Metamorphosis." "Star Trek is usually very imaginative but tonight are you really ready for a love affair between a man and a space cloud? Duck when this episode heads your way!"

Newsweek magazine was never receptive to the show, calling it, "Bad," and later, "Hardly an esthetic masterpiece," and even later, "all of this attention for a show that is basically an updated Buck Rogers is puzzling." Dr. Carl Sagan shook his head over its popularity. "The suspension of disbelief crumbles in many episodes...the ship's officers are embarrassingly Anglo-American."

When the series was threatened with cancellation or being changed by adding Kirk's nephew to the show, a woman wrote in and said, "We've heard that NBC is upset because Lost in Space has a bigger rating than Star Trek. For Pete's sake, NBC, leave Star Trek alone! It's the best thing to happen to TV in years. If it's cancelled or if the format is changed, I will personally organize a sponsor boycott among my fellow housewives!"

NBC said it received 118, 299 letters by March 1968, protesting the show's possible cancellation. This helped secure Star Trek's renewal for a third year. When the series was officially cancelled in 1969, the network received even more missives, over 126, 518 letters. This encouraged NBC to consider making a Star Trek Movie of the Week for 1969-70, which didn't materialize. (By contrast, during other seasons, The Lawrence Welk Show's demise attracted 85,000 letters of protest, Bill Bixby's The Magician 700 letters and Laugh-In's demise garnered a paltry 25 letters).

Irwin Allen's third series, The Time Tunnel, premiered with many high hopes. "It's a well scripted show that should give a good account for itself," said Daily Variety. The Deseret News said the pilot episode, set aboard the Titanic, "is positively eerie. The producers are pulling out all the stops on this one!" James Darren, one of the scientists tumbling through different time eras, said of his character, "He finds it frustrating that he can't change history, even though he knows what is going to happen." That was AP News' major problem with the series' format. "It's an interesting premise but it destroys much of its suspense because we know they will be unable to prevent the Titanic tragedy. The real excitement is back at the time tunnel complex, with its stunning sets."

The NABB said, "It's silly, with involved plots that make it unsuitable for younger viewers," but 568 students in a Chicago high school voted Time Tunnel as their favorite show of 1966-67. The Free-Lance Star called the show, "The only real novelty this year, with a different approach. The series offers youngsters dramatic insights into some of history's most noted personalities." TIME magazine found the pilot, "preposterous, targeted at viewers with an IQ between 9 and 90." Yet, weeks later, the same magazine highlighted the episode "The Day the Sky Fell In,"(where Darren's character tries to unlock the mystery of his father's disappearance after Pearl Harbor) as one of that week's best shows, praising it as "chilling."

The Toledo Blade liked, "its Fugitive gimmick and the variety in its settings. It may develop into something very special in the realm of SF television, whereas the new Star Trek is strictly from the pulps."

The Evening Independent found, "It has endless story possibilities that will attract youngsters and their parents. The production values are absolutely first rate and the actors play it straight and it adds up to a good hour of high adventure."

Cynthia Lowry called it, "Dazzling to watch and full of action. It's full of feature-film production values." Win Fanning noted, "As one of the most expensive shows in television history, it is definitely aiming higher than the teenage audience and Time Tunnel may make it with the SF group. But those with a knowledge of the past may question some of its research." Isaac Asimov found the series riddled with scientific errors and "silly" while TV Guide said, "It's one of the most annoying shows we've seen." The St Petersburg Times also had reservations. "Time Tunnel is so handsomely and expensively produced that you wish it were better written. Too often it employs child-like dialogue. But there is still suspense as you wonder if the scientists can change history."

Hal Humphrey of The Los Angeles Times celebrated Time Tunnel's demise a year later. "Lee Meriwether [as Dr. Ann McGregor] deserved much better than this series, which thank heavens is going off after this year," he said. Many years later, Tom Hanks would enthusiastically recall Time Tunnel as one of his favorite shows.

Quinn Martin's The Invaders debuted in 1967 and immediately ascended in the ratings. "We've beaten [our competition] The Red Skelton Show badly," Invaders producer Alan Armer boasted of the show's high ratings success. This drama of one man's battle against alien invaders was hurt by comparisons to Martin's other critically acclaimed hit, The Fugitive. Daily Variety felt the show looked great, "and star Roy Thinnes is an able and attractive actor but the show plays better as action-adventure than SF." Cleveland Amory of TV Guide said the show was only for kids and that "adults should run for the hills!" Historian John Baxter found the series, "Excellent," and Rex Reed praised it as, "Having an unbeatable formula. It threatens to replace the Batman craze." The Pittsburg Post Gazette claimed, "Flying saucer adherents will have a field day with this new series. The first episode starts off with eerie undertones of tension and suspense but the story's tensions relax as the alien encounters become repetitive." AP News said, "The Invaders isn't likely to bore viewers but it is likely to give youngsters scary dreams. The pilot has plenty of action but viewers will occasionally snort impatiently at the hero's silly conduct. Roy Thinnes is a good actor but the character he plays is not very bright."

The Chicago Tribune was harsher. "The show's cost is high but its quality is low. The Invaders is an easy show to get tired of."


NBC filled a summer slot in 1968 with The Champions, a British espionage show about three agents with super powers. The series received good ratings but terrible reviews. Newsweek bluntly barked, "Who cares?" One person wrote to a newspaper and asked, "What are they trying to prove with The Champions? I can't recall a more silly, badly acted, poorly produced series since the days of live wrestling." The TV Key Bag editor replied, "According to most of the letters we've received from viewers, this series has worn very poorly. It definitely will not be returning in the fall." Yet today, The Champions is represented with a superb website, a DVD collection (including a touching reunion with its three stars) and there has been talk of a feature film revival. The Champions, indeed.

Irwin Allen returned with his last 1960s series, Land of the Giants. It was billed as TVs most expensive hour and selected by TV viewers in a nationwide poll as number 5 (out of 25) as best new show of 1968-69.

Co-star Kurt Kasznar signed up reluctantly as one of the little people marooned on a giant planet but his agent assured him that such "a ridiculous show" wouldn't survive more than 13 weeks. APs Cynthia Lowry agreed. "This show has little hope of surviving the season. Sadly, it will not set the world on fire."

The New York Times called it "a winner," Newsday chimed, "It's a visual gas," but Rona Barrett called it "an unsophisticated update of Gulliver's Travels," while Rex Reed snapped, "It looks like it was written in 30 minutes over a pastrami sandwich."

The Seattle Times praised its social progression for starring a black actor [Don Marshall] and for examining story themes "that are more sophisticated than the monster of the week." The Hollywood Reporter said that Irwin Allen had finally got things right "by doing a series that is refreshingly free of rubber-suited monsters and instead focuses on the human element and the characters." Hal Humphrey praised the cast and said, "Irwin Allen has done a pretty good job of pulling off the optical illusions." Even legendary singer Frank Sinatra watched several episodes and called it, "one hell of a groovy show." But Rick Du Brow could only shake his head. "Watching this show was like entering some kind of dull void. It left me totally unmoved."

The on-set shenanigans were lively. Hogan's Heroes' Col. Klink (Werner Klemperer) picked the Giants set as the place to learn about movie-making by watching Harry Harris direct. Kasznar encouraged the other cast members to play the mandolin, and this resulted in some surrealistic jam sessions in the jungle soundstage. Gary Conway, the star, praised the series for its lack of gimmicks and for examining issues such as totalitarianism, prejudice and gun control. He admitted that the biggest challenge as an actor was speaking to giant actors who weren't really there while trying to ignore perspiring studio technicians who were fanning themselves from stifling heat. "With the current moratorium on television violence, I'm proud that our show contains no violence, yet it is still exciting," said Conway. Daily Variety agreed, praising Giants for its low levels of mayhem. But the NY Times Sam Blum found Giants was a chief offender in terror. "A recent episode had a sadistic giant girl laughing as she did these terrible things to the little people," he snarled.

The hits continued. The LA Free Press called the series "a monstrosity" and the NABB said, "It is a technically unimpressive series that is obviously subjected to budget limitations. Crime and violence make this an unsuitable show for children."

As Giants drew to a close in 1970, Cynthia Lowry opined, "Once you've ceased being amazed by the ingenious props like telephones the size of a small room, the hour is likely to become a bore. It's a contrived, one-dimensional series not worth saving." When the show went off the air, Kurt Kasznar celebrated with a gourmet dinner. "I'm tickled pink it's all over," he rejoiced. "No one I knew ever watched it because it was so awful."

Another castaway show was courtesy of Rod Serling, Aaron Spelling, Danny Thomas and executive producer Cary Grant. It featured 40 survivors of a plane crash, which included a doctor, a bad girl, a bully, a former soldier and a pregnant girl. They were marooned on a remote Pacific island, where flashbacks provided characterization and strange "future flashes" sent the characters forward in time. Sound familiar? It should. It was the unforgettable and ground-breaking The New People, a 45-minute entry on ABC. With no hope of rescue, the young people must create a new society. This included visits from guest stars such as Billy Dee Williams, Tyne Daly and Richard Dreyfus. "The pilot is an exciting film, with the dying State Department official beautifully played by guest star Richard Kiley," said Cecil Smith. "The show's appeal is that it offers dissident youth the opportunity to run the kind of society they have always wanted." The Free-Lance Star called it, "A unique program that promises interesting stories." But The New York Times grew impatient with The New People's inability to get its act together. "This series has yet to sort itself out." When it ended after 17 episodes, the castaways remained trapped on their lost island.

The 1960s ended with a British summer replacement series that stretched the minds of all critics. Patrick McGoohan was The Prisoner, a former secret agent trapped in a coastal village by mysterious captors. His efforts to escape are stymied by Rover, a giant white balloon. "An extremely imaginative, brilliant series," said The Los Angeles Times. "It's a fascinating metaphysical extraordinary experience."

But The St. Petersburg Times felt, "It has a very good idea that doesn't quite sustain your interest. It leaves you wondering what the point is. It's still fun to watch, mainly due to the fine acting of Patrick McGoohan."

Cynthia Lowry of AP didn't get it. "The nicest thing I can say about The Prisoner is that Patrick McGoohan is its star. The obvious flaw in its format is that he is a loser every's an exercise in electronic gimmicks and SF. The hour is one of frustration and confusion."

TIME magazine was also wary. "Its downbeat endings and murky symbolism seem unlikely to win it high ratings," but conceded the show's selling point was "Patrick McGoohan, who has a contemplative personality that suggests greater dimension than is commanded by standard leading men."

The Age felt that certain aspects of the show could be mistaken as a comedy. "It's The Fugitive in reverse," they said. "It will end only when audiences have had enough. On the credit side, the show is well photographed. It's a pity that is not matched in the continuity department, which is really put to the test in trying to explain the jig-saw like scripts."

The St. Petersburg Times found "The Schizoid Man" segment, where McGoohan's Number Six character meets his double, as "excellent" and "the uniquely qualified talents of Patrick McGoohan pulls this one off."

Veteran actor Howard Duff told The Los Angeles Times that The Prisoner was his favorite TV show and Rick du Brow of UPI said, "The Prisoner adds some class to the American television schedule." TV Guide reported that its readers over-whelmingly liked the show, aside from one dissenter who called it "tripe." The Chicago Tribune reported that the real-life North Wales village of Portmeirion, where The Prisoner was shot, was getting many bookings from American tourists because of the series. People couldn't wait to be imprisoned in the village, if only for a weekend.


AP News reported in 1970 that science fiction on television was deader than a doornail. The lone effort for that season was The Immortal, based on James Gunn's novel, about a man (played by Christopher George) whose super blood promises him several lifetimes as he is pursued across America by greedy businessmen. "It's filled with action and its theme has a certain popular appeal but after watching three episodes, I have reached the limits of my endurance," said Ohio Blade columnist Norman Dresser. "This is nothing more than another version of The Fugitive," said Martin Driscoll of The St. Petersburg Times.

Rod Serling returned that same year with Night Gallery, strolling through an art museum as he introduced tales of terror. "I think it will be a better show than Twilight Zone," he mused. He was proud of that first year but his script control lessened by year two. Cleveland Amory of TV Guide felt the series' stories cheated viewers. "What you have here is highway robbery." The LA Times was equally disappointed, saying, "Viewers expect more from Night Gallery since Rod Serling is involved." AP News called the show a macabre version of Love, American Style "and it bombs! The program is a tasteless exercise in horror." The Free-Lance Star felt the stories suffered from "a sick Laugh-In complex." The Evening Independent's Betty Jean Miller liked the show. "Its offerings are spooky, reminding me of good old ghost stories." The Chicago Tribune called it "one of the surprises of the year," for getting good ratings, a real accomplishment since it was an anthology airing late at 10pm (one episode, on December 29, 1971, ranked number 17th out of 80 shows). Trivia buffs quickly recognized the voice of Mike Road (Race Bannon on Jonny Quest) as Night Gallery's title announcer. Guest stars included Sally Field, Mark Hamill, Bobby Darin, Diane Keaton and Lindsay Wagner. But Serling remained frustrated by his lack of participation. "They want my presence but not my pen,'" he remarked sadly.

The British-made Gerry Anderson series, UFO, featured purple-wigged women on moonbase who launched Interceptor craft against green-skinned, purple-eyed aliens who attacked Earth with flying saucers. The Associated Press could see script possibilities and hoped for better characterization as the series progressed but called the special effects, "fair to middling." The Sarasota Herald-Tribune claimed UFO was the top-rated syndicated series in America while Barbara Holsopple of The Pittsburg Press could only sigh, "It is comforting to know that even the British can turn out a bad TV show."

The Canadian-made Starlost tried to bring life to the genre in 1973 as a video-taped show starring Keir Dullea. He played an explorer on a giant spaceship comprised of domes of lost civilizations. The Toronto Star's Jack Miller called it, "A world ahead of Star Trek. The best SF series ever made." Joan Irwin of The Montreal Star said, "It shows every sign of inheriting the mantle of Star Trek." Critic Win Fanning liked the basic idea but said of the pilot, "Kids will find too much of that mushy love stuff and not enough SF but the performances are adequate." Castle of Frankenstein magazine was horrified by the series, rendering a painful expression of, "Oy!"

The Night Stalker got praise - sort of - from APs Jay Sharbutt. "It's so tongue-in-cheek bad that it's one of the funniest capers on TV." The Evening Independent stated, "It's fairly well paced and surprisingly, not too heavy on the gore. Darren McGavin's fanciful style is effective." Yet the doomed series would finish 74 out of 84 shows for the 1974-75 ratings season.

The other SF offering was Planet of the Apes, based on the film series. Roddy McDowall was Galen, the friendly chimp who befriends two stranded astronauts in the far future. The LA Times said, "This makes a smooth transition to television. Roddy McDowall could become the best known ape since King Kong. It's as much fun as a barrel of monkeys!" But The Toledo Blade said, "This series is no barrel of monkeys." TV Guide concluded the first episode was "largely a silly business" but called it "a lively effort" with "a delightfully ingratiating performance by McDowall." The Evening Independent also liked McDowall. "He makes Apes palatable. The wooden astronauts and apes riding around on horseback may be silly but McDowall is good and kids will love him and make him chimp of the year." The big debate was whether Apes could cut it as a weekly series. "This show won't monkey around in the ratings," TV Guide predicted. UPI said, "It will wipe out all of its competition." The Chicago Tribune stated the series "will generate huge ratings." But one Florida paper predicted, "It will slip on a banana peel," and it did. The first episode ranked 43rd out of 80 shows and by the end of the season, ranked a dismal 67th place in the ratings. "Nearly all of the insiders bet on Apes as a winner but it has been doomed to the losers bracket," said The St. Petersburg Times.

Around the same time was the first modern superman, The Six Million Dollar Man. It proved such a hit that soon its hero, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) was encountering aliens, Bigfoot, androids, giant robots and mutants. Movie critic Judith Crist thought the basic premise "offers an interesting point of view" but "as entertainment, it is intolerable." The St. Petersburg Times called the pilot film, "Provocative and entertaining," while The Los Angeles Times said, "It's a fine piece of humanistic SF," and referred to the subsequent series as, "larger-than-life adventure at its best." TV Guide found the series painfully ridiculous and ended its review with a disdainful quip, "See you later, alligator!"

By December 1975, the series was a top ten hit and the holiday rage was a Six Million Dollar Man doll. One Dallas retailer reported getting over 100 calls a day for the toy. A bewildered Boston Santa Claus reported that every fifth kid he met requested either the bionic doll or a Star Trek exploration kit. When The Bionic Woman premiered in 1976, critics praised its star, Lindsay Wagner. At the time, future Dynasty actress Linda Evans admitted she had turned down the Jaime Sommars role and had no regrets but it led to an Emmy award for Wagner. When ABC cancelled the show in 1977, NBC quickly picked it up for another year. The show continued to rank in the top ten with women, kids and teenagers. Jay Sharbutt of AP said, "Lindsay Wagner is a very appealing actress," but TV Guide called both bionic shows, "transistorized cartoons." As Bionic Woman entered its third year, executive producer Lee Siegel said the show was going to adopt a "space format" with aliens, prehistoric civilizations, other dimensions, ESP and a proposed two-parter called "The Star Man," about a friendly alien who takes Jamie for a ride aboard his ship. "The box office records of Star Wars and Close Encounters is a factor," admitted Siegel of the introduction of space aliens.

Two other superheroes in the mid 1970s were harder to see. David McCallum as The Invisible Man elicited this reaction from John Leonard of the NY Times. "It's an exercise in witlessness and is so unrelenting that if one didn't know better, one might imagine everybody associated with this program wanted it to turn out badly. It's an insult to H.G. Wells. The dialogue appears to have been composed with a computer during a brown-out."

A secret agent, The Gemini Man, followed. TV Guide reported, "It's slightly better than Invisible Man but it has no chance." John J. O'Connor called it, "Weak," and UPI, "Unbelievable." The Toledo Blade said, "Junk," but praised star Ben Murphy as "a charming hero." The cancellation of both invisible series prompted their executive producer Leslie Stevens to exclaim, "Invisibility sucks!"

Fantastic Journey tried for a more ambitious premise, that of scientists marooned on a island where past and future co-exist, usually in the form of hostile futuristic civilizations. TV editor Howard Pearson was not impressed by the pilot and he challenged producer Bruce Lansbury to explain how the series, "will be any different from Star Trek or Twilight Zone." Lansbury said, "Just wait and see!" But it was a short wait of ten episodes. Although TV Guide urged viewers to give the show a chance, by April 1977 it ranked 66th out of 68 shows in the ratings.


The first big SFTV epic of the 1970s was the British-based Space 1999. Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Barry Morse starred as scientists trapped on the moon, which was zooming across the galaxy. The series was wildly successful in syndication in North America and gained a loyal following. Some critics were not impressed. "This series wasn't produced, it was committed, like a crime," said a snarky Cleveland Amory. The Sacramento Bee simply sighed, "It's dreary." Richard K. Shull observed, "Space 1999 was billed as the answer to a Trekkies' prayer but what fans got was dazzling SF wrapped in stony-faced theater. Landau and Morse register perpetual alarm while Barbara Bain stares blankly." The Toledo Blade said, "It won't make fans forget a classic series like Star Trek but all in all, not a bad show." Meanwhile, Jay Sharbutt noted, "It might end up a winner, if only for its outstanding special effects. It's fun to watch and if the dialogue improves it may have a profitable future." Dr. Wernher von Braun (famed developer of rocket technology) commended Space 1999 as a good show, but science guru Isaac Asimov said that its scientific lapses "have contributed unnecessarily to the raising of a misinformed generation."

The St. Petersburg Times called 1999, "One of the most highly acclaimed TV series in the history of television," but cautioned, "It will either end up as a new chapter in the annals of American television or wind up as a footnote. But there's no disputing that Space 1999 is significantly unusual, with fantastic special effects." Producer Gerry Anderson responded to critics (and falling ratings) by trying to make the second year stories more character oriented. "If this doesn't work, it may be the end of SF on TV for a very long time," he warned. The series was scrubbed shortly thereafter.

With Star Wars raging in popularity in 1977, the networks tried to jump-start the moribund SFTV genre. CBS attempted with Logan's Run, a continuation of the 1976 feature film. AP News quipped, "The Force is not with it and it will be out by November." TV Guide was equally bleak. "10 years ago, such a show would have been well worth the try. But here and now? No chance!"

The other effort was Man from Atlantis, starring Patrick Duffy. It had already scored in the top ten ratings as four TV-movies but once it submerged as a weekly series, there were media barbs aplenty. "This will sink for keeps by December," AP News stated. The LA Times called it "crass idiocy." The Evening Independent liked what it saw. "It has an interesting premise and kids will enjoy the comic book heroics."

Knight Ridder predicted, "It looks to be the most popular show on NBC this season." Executive producer Herbert Solow was quoted as saying 150 actors had been auditioned before Patrick Duffy, a certified scuba diver, was picked as the heroic amphibian. "This is going to be a quality SFTV show, not junk,'" stressed Slow. "We are not going to do the creature of the week." Yet within weeks, a parade of creatures materialized: a two-headed seahorse, giant jellyfish, sea elf, mermaid, and an enzyme that turned people into Jekyll/Hyde monsters. The series was gone within a year but its reruns became a huge hit in China.

Comic book superheroes met with success, especially The Incredible Hulk, which producer Kenneth Johnson imbued with human dimension. Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) journeyed across America to find a cure for his inner beast, a metamorphosis that was triggered by sudden anger. Jack Colvin, who played the investigative reporter chasing Banner, discounted rumors that his character was going to be spun off into his own show. He did muse to columnist Robert Bowden over one peculiar question: how did his character obtain the financing to chase the Hulk cross-country every week?

"Don't let its title fool you," The Spokesman Review said. "That is the toughest part of the show to get past. It offers us a harmless and vicarious release of frustrations." Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, who visited the show's set, praised the series as "a very fine show." Lou Ferrigno (the Hulk), told APs Tom Jory, "I never refuse to sign an autograph. Kids today need a superhero and in a year or two, the Hulk is going to be a model for kids, like Superman used to be."

Jack Webb, producer of cops and robbers fare such as Adam 12 and Dragnet, took to the skies with Project UFO, a mid-season entry in 1978 that was based on files from the Air Force's Project Blue Book, which examined UFO sightings. His two Air Force heroes followed UFO sightings across the country and it was an immediate hit. "Jack Webb launches Project UFO in search of space bucks!" exclaimed The Milwaukee Sentinel's Greg Moody but Webb's interest in UFOs was genuine. "With millions and millions of planets, I cannot believe that we're alone," Webb said, speculating about the "primitive and advanced civilizations" out there. Moody liked the show's spaceware, saying, "The visuals make for some of the best special effects ever seen on television." But he had real trouble with the rest of the extra-terrestrial package. "The acting, from the leads on down, is absolutely would swear that they were trying to play this thing strictly for laughs....the sightings of UFOs are always made by classic loonies, with every sighting eventually debunked by our two heroes."

The St Petersburg Press said, "Project UFO has been well received by the nation's critics. But almost everyone has commented on the clipped dialogue style used by producer Jack Webb and they have urged him to change it. Let's hope that he does." The Chicago Tribune raved, "It's out of this world," and the LA Times praised, "It's TV fun for saucer buffs!"

A big success, Project UFO soon suffered the fate of many a SFTV show - being moved to a new day in its second season. Ratings plummeted and it was cancelled. Webb was crestfallen and disturbed by the "current TV trend for prurient and sensationalistic TV fare." But Project UFO had reached a milestone. Its seasonal rating of 19th place during its first year made it the highest rated SFTV series ever aired on network television.


The biggest 1970s epic for SFTV was Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica. Lorne Greene led a human caravan through space while being chased by the robotic Cylons. The three-hour pilot film was heralded with spectacular publicity. "It is not a Star Wars clone," affirmed The Milwaukee Sentinel's Greg Moody. "Galactica flies on its own. It is one of the most impressive shows I have ever seen. It's fun, fascinating and exciting."

The Chicago Tribune agreed. "For the SF cult, it is galactic nirvana." TV Guide noted, "It is the only innovative show of the season. Razzle-dazzle aside, there is one heck of a story here!" Steve Trueman of the Bryan Times was hopeful. "I believe Battlestar Galactica will set a new trend in serious SF shows for the coming years. The special effects are very well executed and the scripts have developed a logical plot that is consistent in every detail." Boca Raton News readers voted Galactica as their favorite show of the season, with comments ranging from "a good family show," to "realistic space adventure with good actors." One dissenter griped, "Its rubbish!"

As Galactica progressed, it fell out of the top ten and sunk to 16th place by October and 28th place by November. The reviews now became treacherous. "A ponderous series that takes itself too seriously," said Jerry Buck of AP. The Wilmington Morning Star said, "It has gone from runaway hit to a relative flop...although it is generally a harmless show, it's a pleasure to see it drop in the almighty ratings." Tom Shales of The Washington Post said, "Somebody took a wrong turn on the way to Utopia. Galactica was unanimously predicted last summer as being the number one hit of the television the old trawler is limping into port with so-so ratings and a uncertain future."

Gary Deeb of The Sunday Star News said, "ABC treated Galactica like the second coming of Star Wars. Even Newsweek gushed all over it hilariously, labeling it as `stunning.' But Battlestar Galactica is a dud."

By spring 1979, Galactica, struggled with a 27% share while its CBS opposition, All in the Family, soared with a 47% share. Galactica was cancelled after one year, but revived briefly as the cheaper Galactica 1980, which did even worse.

The next space offering was Buck Rogers. Gil Gerard starred as an astronaut from 1987 who awakens in the 25th century. Critic Edward Jones said the pilot film, "doesn't get into orbit. The no-name cast is forever spouting would-be comedy that could only come from writers driven by a weekly deadline. The women reflect a Charlie's Angels approach to comic book characters. The sets suggest a giant version of Atlanta's Peachtree Plaza Hotel." The Chicago Tribune was particularly pugnacious. "It's simple-minded, thinly scripted, video garbage," but Jerry Buck of AP was optimistic. "Some people didn't think Buck Rogers would make it past January, let alone the 25th century. The series doesn't quite qualify as a hit yet but it is one of NBCs highest rated new is razzle-dazzle good fun, jazzed up with eye-popping special effects with a touch of the bizarre and sometimes even the erotic."

But Peter Boyer of AP felt the fun stopped after the two-hour pilot film. "As one-shot kiddie fare, it was fine but as a weekly series, it is destined to drop faster than Battlestar Galactica did." Any mention of the dead Galactica was a continuing sore spot for this new space crew. "What brought Galactica down was that it had too many characters," said Gerard, who was getting tired of his series being lumped in with the former space saga. "They also made bad mistakes with their humor which diluted the jeopardy," although he admitted he was concerned by the potential over-use of humor in his own show.

Gerard told the press he had turned down the series twice, without even reading the script. However, when his agent urged him to read it, Gerard found, "a three dimensional hero." Meanwhile, NOW (the National Organization for Women) angrily protested the skimpy and tight fitting costumes worn by the females on the show but no one listened to their criticisms.

Still, when the series returned for a second year, revamped with Buck Rogers now leading a spaceship on a search for new civilizations, it was a woman critic, Janet Woods, who said, "Last season's Buck Rogers struck me as high camp - outrageous, preposterous, fun. This season is still fun but it is not the same show. I believe it has now evolved into the Star Trek of the 1980s. It has won over this Trekkie. Star Trek never failed me. At long last, I think I've found its successor."

Yet the new producer, John Mantley, was candid when he told APs Jerry Buck, "I get very intelligent letters that go into great detail on how I should do the series. I thought the first year was empty but I don't think I've done a hell of a lot better."

Another superhero soon zoomed into the ratings stratosphere: A schoolteacher becomes The Greatest American Hero when he is granted an alien costume that enables him to fight crime. If only he hadn't lost the suit's instruction manual! "This ABC series spoofs the superhero genre, and was the kind of success networks pray for but rarely see," said AP. The star, William Katt, liked the show but admitted he hated wearing the suit. "It's terribly embarrassing."

Voyagers featured a boy and an eccentric time traveler who correct historical anomalies by using their Omni History watch. But the series got clobbered in the ratings. Adding to its woes, TV Watchdog labeled the series, "One of the most violent prime time show in recent seasons." Even the sounds of every explosion was considered an act of violence - truly overkill. Rick Sherwood of The Pittsburg-Post Gazette said, "It's the best kids show to debut in 1982-83. It wasn't the quality of the show that killed it, it was the quality of the competition. It's up against 60 Minutes, the year's most popular program." "If the Voyagers really existed, you would know it," cracked the LA Times "because their competition, 60 Minutes, would have suddenly disappeared from the air!"

V, based on Kenneth Johnson's hugely successful and critically acclaimed mini-series, carried on a weekly rebellion against reptilian invaders, led by Marc Singer. "The show has nifty special effects in what some say will be the most expensive series ever done," Knight News service said. The Toledo Blade was sympathetic to V's falling ratings, which had toppled from a top 30 show to a mid-50s position in the ratings. "The aliens are bumping heads with The Dukes of Hazzard and the Dukes are the perennial winners." The Sacramento Bee liked the show, praising, "It's more evil than Dynasty and more fun than Star Trek." When NBC cancelled the show after a year, critic Rick Sherwood thought the network had acted too rashly. "It should have been given another chance. It might have added to its already cult following of fans. Too bad we will never know."


Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories was a big budgeted anthology. "It's just plain ordinary," The Orlando Sentinel deemed. The Chicago Tribune said likewise of the pilot episode, "Ghost Train." "This is amazing? An old geezer with a yellowed ticket to ride boards a ghost train?" Steve Sonsky of Knight Ridder looked deeper. "The stories are not nearly as amazing as the original Twilight Zone or Outer Limits. They should call it Amusing Stories. They're simple, light whimsy and not the light fantastic. ...they are human stories, not exercises in SF." Sonsky noted the show was picking up steam as it progressed and asked viewers to "pay attention." The series finished its 1985-86 season at a laudatory 35th place out of nearly 100 shows. Advertisers were happy with its demographics, which included a lot of women aged 18-49 but NBC admitted, "We skewed a little more silly than we had to," and promised changes for year two, but that didn't improve the show's fortunes.

Starman, based on the 1984 film, was about an alien in human form criss-crossing America. "Chances are slim but if it turns into a hit, the credit will chiefly belong to Robert Hays," said Ron Weiskind of the Pittsburg Post Gazette. "He imbues Starman with a befuddled charm and a touching naiveté that cannot fail to move the viewer." Hays said he loved the original film (starring Jeff Bridges) but felt a TV version was "a dumb idea" until the scripts won him over. But the series struggled. The Dallas Morning News called its time slot, "A bad joke. It's in the wrong place at the wrong time." The LA Times asked, "Can a bewildered space alien find happiness and Nielsen ratings at 10pm Fridays?" It couldn't, despite a write-in campaign by its literate and loyal fans.

Less thoughtful and a lot noisier was the Canadian made Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. A peace activist was so angry over the show's violence that he went on a food fast for 43 days. The Los Angeles Times said, "It resembles a cross between a regular program and a video game."

The most bizarre show of the 1980s was Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future. Matt Frewer played a dual role, that of an investigative reporter and that of his A.I. alter-ego that appeared on television, Max Headroom. "It is wicked, fast, funny and sophisticated," said Kathryn Baker of AP. But there was always controversy. A speech therapist told the NY Times that Max was setting a bad example for young people by "encouraging them to stutter." A publicity agent for ABC struck back. "His speech is a computer glitch. It is not my interpretation that he is a stutterer."

Other reviews included comments from The Washington Post: "Stunning to the max...exhilarating." The Chicago Tribune charged, "Max Headroom is a bore."The Toronto Star was thrilled. "TV this good always scares executives...there is much about Max Headroom that is different and challenging and not a little confusing." As ratings quickly dissolved by year two, UPI was grateful to see Max shown the exit. "Happily, there is no longer room for the most annoying freak in television history."

The real blockbuster of the 1980s was Star Trek: The Next Generation. Gene Roddenberry brought the Enterprise and her new crew into the 24th century. It was no easy feat but it was an immediate hit. But it had a lot to prove. "No matter how good Next Generation is, and it's plenty good, it will never be good enough," claimed The Orlando Sentinel's Greg Dawson. "Will the Enterprise fly? Yes, but it probably won't soar. The loyalties and memories are too stubbornly fierce for it to be more than the stepson of Star Trek...for the Trekker, it will always be 1966."

Robert Justman, one of the producers, responded with a philosophical read-between-the-lines comment: "Basically, man resists change," he pointed out. "But humanity progresses." The series ran for seven years and outpaced any critical doubt. Said The Philadelphia Inquirer, "Next Generation is growing more polished and popular every month." The series boasted such high-profile fans as General Colin Powell, Robin William and Jean Simmons. It also won a prestigious Peabody Award. "Star Trek has grown up," said TV Guide.

Alien Nation, another series based on a feature film, arrived courtesy Kenneth Johnson, in 1989. "A TV series based on a failed movie is not a good idea unless the series is better than the movie - and that's exactly what has happened here," opined The Sacramento Bee. When one of the alien colonists on Earth, George (played by Eric Pierpoint) gave birth, newspapers all over the nation buzzed over the event. "This will nuke the laws of nature," gasped The Los Angeles Times. Other critics heralded the baby's birth as, "eye-opening," extraordinary," "different," "the big surprise of the season," "touching," "an otherworldy event not to be missed," and best of all, "unusual programming that really delivers!" The Philadelphia Inquirer called Alien Nation, "The best SF show since Star Trek: The Next Generation." But when it was cancelled a year later, cast member Michele Scarabelli was stunned. She told UPI's Joan Hanauer, "We get letters from psychologists, teachers and SF writers, saying the show has reinstated their faith in television." Alien Nation later returned as a series of TV movies.

The last SF show of the 1980s was Quantum Leap, with Scott Bakula as Dr. Samuel Beckett, who leaped into people from the recent past and corrected things for the better. Dean Stockwell played his partner who appeared alongside in holographic form. "Odd couple, odd show," mused the LA Times. "but it is a joy ride for viewers." The Washington Post called it, "an admirable leap." Jon Burlingame noted, "It's a pleasant surprise - a clever concept, two strong leads and a broad potential for story telling." When Beckett got pregnant (leaping into an unwed teen) Burlingame said, "It's a funny, suspenseful hour and another example of the show's boundless imagination."

And so it was, from way back to 1959s Men into Space to 1989s Quantum Leap, you could always count on the critics to have their say.