Welcome to “Don’t Touch That Dial,” a series in which I, your friendly neighborhood television addict, break down some of the shows screaming for your attention. In this very special two-part episode we’re covering summer reruns: shows that have ended but deserve to be seen. I already told you what’s new this summer and what television I’m pulling out of my back catalogue to fill in the long days and warm nights. Now we’re diving a little deeper. Part 1 tackles SFF, from serious drama to space western comedy to sexyfuntime aliens to Mark Frost and David Lynch are out of their frakking minds. Be warned, these reviews contain moderate SPOILERS, nothing worse than what you’d get by checking out the show’s summary on its network site, but still, don’t come into this post expecting to keep your televisual virginity intact.
The Road So Far: Ronald D. Moore, veteran of all three Nineties-era Star Treks (and, much to 16-year-old me’s great delight, Roswell), developed a re-imagining of the late-1970s Battlestar Galactica. Both feature the same general plot: after nearly being destroyed by a thousand-year war with the Cylons, a fugitive fleet of humans wander the galaxy in search of the legendary thirteenth tribe of humanity on the possibly mythical planet Earth. However, Moore’s version cranks the political commentary up to eleven. Think space opera less like soap opera and more like operatically epic. Like the next show on this list, BSG exists in an alien-free universe, and the technobabble that usually inundates sci-fi is notably absent. The series finale was about as divisive as Lost’s (though I personally liked it, well, except for the unnecessary denouement). Not only was BSG a critical hit, but a ratings hit as well for Sci Fi Channel/Syfy, though the same can’t be said for its spinoffs, Caprica (set during the creation of the Cylons) and Blood and Chrome (set during the Cylon Wars). If you count the backdoor pilot/3-hour mini-series, the show aired for 4 seasons, from 2003-2009.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The worst—read: laziest—sci-fi throws around a bunch of technojargon and lasers and people in bad prosthetics and calls it a day. The best sci-fi treats its subject matter as an allegory for the current state of civilization. Rather than preaching at your audience about the evils of the modern world, science fiction tends to use symbolism. Not only can the futuristic story teach us about our present selves, it can also help to warn us what we are about to become if we don’t change course. It isn’t hard to guess which of these states is Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. You could watch the show as an allegory for 9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and pretty much the entire Bush presidency. You could also watch it as a soapy melodrama about love and relationships. It could be a wild action shoot ‘em up with spaceships and killer robots. You could choose to watch a philosophical exploration of human nature, a theological debate, or a debate about why theology even exists. Or maybe you just want to give Lt. Felix Gaeta a hug. Whatever your reasons, you’ll get them and more with BSG.
I wish I could tell you all the great reasons to watch this show, but there are just too many. The familial struggles between Boomer and Galen got me probably more than anything else, but President Roslin’s cancer storyline was almost as devastating. The show stumbled quite a bit toward the end of its run—the writers admitted they had no plans when it came to Starbuck’s season 4 arc, and boy howdy, does it show—but overall, there’s a reason it routinely tops lists of the best sci-fi TV. Word of warning: the DVDs are ludicrously complicated and incomplete, and the show must be watched completely and in a certain order or you’ll miss some key intel. Make sure to watch the mini-series first, the movie Razor in season 1 betweenepisodes17 and 18, the movie The Plan after season 3, and at least the webisodes for The Face of the Enemy (the rest of the webisodes are negligible) between season 4 and 4.5.
TL;DR: If ever there was a show meant for marathoning, BSG is it. Whether you want to or not, you’ll find yourself reaching the end of each episode looking at the clock, then back to the remote, then back at the clock, then back to the remote, then saying with “Frak it. One more episode, then I’ll go to bed.”
The Road So Far: A Joss Whedon-created space western starring everyone who is awesome. I shouldn’t need to say more, but here goes. Basically, there was a galactic civil war and Capt. Mal Reynolds and crew played for the Browncoats—the right but losing side. Mal owns a Firefly class spaceship called “Serenity,” and they fly it from planet to planet aimin’ to misbehave. On the way they pick up Dr. Simon Tam and his crazytown banana pants little sister who was the subject of many nefarious Alliance experiments. Firefly aired for part of its single season, 2002-2003.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Like everything else Joss Whedon touches, this show is quotable to the millionth degree. I dare you to find a geek who can’t quote the “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” scene verbatim. Whenever I’m stressed at work, I tell myself “I am a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.” I will cry myself to sleep at night over what happens to Wash in Serenity, just as I will with Ianto in Torchwood. And when I grow up, I want to be Gina Torres. Yes, the transition between the sci-fi and western elements can be jarring at first, but not enough to be entirely off-putting. And yes, the budget is so low, it’s glaringly obvious they shot a lot of the scenes in the Los Angeles backcountry. But what you’re really watching Firefly for is the sparkling repartee and enchanting acting. Everything that was good about Whedon with Buffy and Angel he did better in Firefly. Not that it was perfect. There were signs that it could falter as seasons went on—just as Buffy and Dollhouse did—but it tragically never got the chance.
There is a very special level of hell set aside for child molesters, people who talk at the theatre, and network executives who unfairly cancel Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller shows. The television branch of the Evil League of Evil will have a big chunk of that special hell after what they did to Firefly. Just as they did with Fuller’s Wonderfalls, Fox screwed the pooch with Firefly, especially by airing it on the deadzone of Friday night. Remember, this was the era before DVRs, so Fox chose to air a show at a time when its target demographic was out being young and stupid on a weekend night. It also didn’t help that Fox aired the show out of order, then cancelled it without showing the final 3 eps. What did it in the most was that a lot of people just didn’t get it. BSG could get away with 1 million viewers on their niche cable channel, but on network television, Firefly’s 4.45m was peanuts. At this point, the show being brought back to life a la Arrested Development is about as likely as Deadwood returning from the grave.
TL;DR: With only 14 episodes, you don’t really have any excuse for not watching Firefly. I think more recent editions of the DVDs have theepisodesin the correct order, but check first.
Lois & Clark: New Adventures of Superman
The Road So Far: Ya’ll know Superman’s origin story. On the show, Clark falls off the turnip truck in big ol’ Metropolis, stumbles into The Daily Planet, and is paired off with intrepid reporter Lois Lane. Clark falls instantly in love, Lois falls instantly in annoyance. Lex Luthor turns up to be evil in their general direction, and eventually the star-crossed lovers swap the “and” for an “&” and become an official couple. Their relationship is complicated by more than just his alien superpowers. Baddies pop in and out and make a royal mess of Metropolis, which Superman has to keep cleaning up. Kal-El flies off to New Krypton, and their relationship brings new meaning to “long distance.” Lois & Clark aired for 4 seasons, from 1993-1997.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Look, I’m not gonna pretend this is the best Superman interpretation ever made (that honor belongs to the late-90s animated version). Nor is it an exemplary television show. It is completely a product of its time, sometimes embarrassingly so. But damn it if it isn’t fun. It’s also a very different take on our studly caped hero. It’s the televised Superman version of Tim Burton’s Batman: campy, ridiculous, and entertaining as all get out. Series creator Deborah Joy LeVine—and the rest of the writers—left/was fired after the first season, which tends to be the dividing point for most people. The first season was more realistic, and a more traditional TV drama/adventure, while the remaining seasons were heavier on the fantastical comic book elements (hello, Mxyzptlk and Metallo). Not all their creative decisions were well-thought out, particularly the obstacles constantly thrown at Lois and Clark’s relationship. But this isn’t a show you watch for the stunning plots, stellar writing, or strong acting. This is a show you watch for the characters and the schmaltzy romance.
Like her contemporary animated counterpart—and unlike the last few filmic Loises we’ve gotten stuck with—Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane is a winning combination of guts, brains, and eye rolling. She bowls right over Dean Cain’s Clark. She doesn’t even wait for him to catch up; she’s got things to do and people to interview and if Clark can’t keep up, too bad for him. Heck, she even gets top billing. Unlike most rom coms, Clark doesn’t chase after her or attempt to “win” her affections, nor does she alter herself to fit his vision of the perfect woman. They work together as a couple because they work together. Most of their relationship troubles boil down to trust issues. Not cheating or picking work over their partner, but making sure they’re both on the same page.
TL;DR: Lois & Clark is cut from the same cloth as Christopher Reeve’s Superman. It’s four seasons of superheroes and schmoop, with a kick-ass chick in the lead.
The Road So Far: Captain Jack leads a team of alien hunters as they track down extraterrestrial and extratemporal flotsam and jetsam slipping through a time rift in Cardiff, Wales. The team works for the Welsh branch of the Torchwood Institute, founded by Queen Victoria in response to the threat of alien invasion. For the first two seasons, Jack, his new recruit Gwen, and other assorted zombies, lesbian scientists, and men who look great in three-piece suits, chase down sex monsters, exploitative humans, ex-boyfriends, and other threatening ne’er do wells. Season 3 brings about a major crisis which forces what’s left of the team into hiding in London, where they battle a sinister group demanding the deaths of the world’s children. Torchwood aired for 3 seasons, from 2006-2009. WE DON’T TALK ABOUT SEASON 4.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Oh, Torchwood. You’re so tantalizingly good yet so deliciously bad. I love you forever. I should warn you that I’m one of those weird people who likes the first seasons of Buffy, Angel, and Torchwood more than the later seasons. Everything that people typically hate about those shows—the cheesy effects, the silly Monster of the Week plots, etc.—are what I love most about them. That being said, I am willing to admit that while they may be entertaining, they definitely don’t make for good television. I’m also probably going to lose a few of you when I admit that I think I actually like pre-Starz Torchwood more than Moffat-era Doctor Who (I like just about everything more than Moffat-era Who…). TW was everything I wanted out of DW. It was fun, raunchy, crass, sexy, challenging, upfront, bold, daring, edgy. Where Who was ultimately family friendly, Torchwood was very much for adults. Davies was never shy about sexuality or diversity during his Whoverse tenure, and made sure even in such kid-friendly fare as Doctor Who that there was always someone like Capt. Jack Harkness to shake things up.
And Capt. Jack. Great Odin’s raven, but he’s fantastic. I could write a whole post on his fabulousness and John Barrowman’s even more fabulous fabulousness. He’s what the Doctor would be if he wasn’t a genocidal killer with a god complex and relationship issues. He’s a dude who wanders space and time gettin’ busy and fightin’ crime. He has a pterodactyl as a pet, an alien hand in a jar, and a universe of exes. He’s loyal yet selfish, charming yet evasive, caring yet arrogant. In short, he’s human. Jack was first introduced in Doctor Who, but the nature of his existence is played close to the chest on Torchwood, so I won’t get into that here. Needless to say, if you want to know how Jack became immortal, why he has a hand in a jar, and how he’s connected to the Face of Boe, watch the Nine and Ten seasons of Who.
If the campiness of seasons 1 and 2 don’t do it for you, season 3 was the 5-episode season called “Children of Earth.” It was powerful and devastating, and made for a great example of what a well-produced mini-series looks like. It also contains the Great Tragedy of Ianto Jones which has ruined my life forever. Torchwood ended after season 3, if you know what’s good for you. Starz acquired the show and forcibly migrated it to the States. It wasn’t just bad; it was awful, atrocious, and a crime against its very medium.
TL;DR: John Barrowman is my spirit animal. He is the greatest thing to ever happen to anybody ever. John, if you’re reading this, if you and Scott are looking to adopt now that you’re legally married, I am available. Call me.
The Road So Far: I don’t even know how to summarize this show. It’s weird. Like, really, really weird. Not Tommy Wiseau weird, but…just…dude. Twin Peaks is ostensibly about an FBI agent (think Jeffrey Beaumont from Lynch’s Blue Velvet) who arrives in the bucolic, eponymous town to investigate the horrific murder of a local girl named Laura Palmer. But it’s also a show about a paranormal serial killer, a sexy, meta-noir mystery, and a darkly deadpan comedy. There was nothing quite like it before, and there’s never been anything like it since. Its wake turned the television landscape upside down. It single-handedly revitalized television dramas, hell, television itself. David Chase would do the same nearly 10 years later with The Sopranos, and, once again, the medium was never the same. It is a small-screen anomaly in the same way every David Lynch movie is a cinematic anomaly. It is what it is, and whatever it is, it’s…it’s…wow. And I haven’t even mentioned the Log Lady yet. Twin Peaks aired for 2 seasons, from 1990-1991, plus a feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, released a year later.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Tonally, the show’s all over the map. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Thematically, the show focuses on lies, multiple personalities, secrets, manipulations, deceit, Eastern religion, buddy cop bromance, and workplace comedy. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The soundtrack is both lush and grating and the screen quality is so utterly Nineties it hurts. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The acting ranges from underestimated talent to jaw-dropping perfection, and the casting is insane. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Storylines (Harold Smith, anyone?), oddball characters (why does One-Eyed Jacks have a hunchback seamstress?), and important plot points (who hit Dr. Jacoby on the head?) are dropped as quickly as they’re picked up. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. It’s a frustrating, confusing, inexplicable, beguiling, spellbinding, meandering, and unsettling. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The owls are definitely not what they seem.
Twin Peaks is one of those shows you just have to experience. None of it makes a lot of sense, but it’s also not supposed to. Even Lynch admitted the show lost its way once the Laura Palmer storyline was resolved (if you can call the whole Bob/Mike thing resolution), but even its most egregious episodes are still streets ahead of anything else based solely on its sheer bravado. Twin Peaks can never be accused of creative timidity. If Frost and Lynch wanted to try something new, they went all the way. Let me put it this way: Without Twin Peaks, you don’t get David Milch, David Chase, Matt Weiner, Joss Whedon, Bryan Fuller, or Dan Harmon. Twin Peaks proved that risky creativity could be a ratings knockout and a network cash cow (for a while, anyway).
TL;DR: HOW DID NO ONE TELL ME DAVID DUCHOVNY PLAYS A TRANS CHARACTER ON TWIN PEAKS?!
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.