We scifi fans are used to disappointment. Our shows are always being placed on the bubble, bumped for ice skating specials, getting put on hiatus while a reality show airs instead. Complex story lines are cut off right in the middle and good shows don’t even get a chance at any kind of Emmy, except for in the special effects category. Shows that had promise lose their way—take as a prime example, “V.” The miniseries was smart and allegorical and politically complex. The series, not so much. I’m not sure the writers knew that scifi fans actually do appreciate logic and common sense. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the show anyway (I was 13), but it lasted exactly one season and deserved the axe.
And on the flip side, when a show is popular, it goes on so long that it loses its main actors and its soul and becomes something entirely different, like “The X-Files” in its last two seasons. But if a scifi show goes on that long, it’s a real rarity. Here, I’ve listed what I consider to be the most shortsighted cancellations in scifi TV history. Some are notable for the sheer longevity of the franchises after said cancellation.
I’m sure you’ll all disagree with my picks, and there is an amazingly huge plethora of cancelled shows that I could have chosen for this list considering how unkind the television landscape has been to scifi TV. I welcome any email to enlighten me to any gems I missed. In fact, I’d really love to hear from you on this topic, since it’s one near and dear to my heart. And the countdown begins…
CBS started airing “Jericho” on Wednesday nights (in competition with shows like “Lost”) last year to decent reviews and ratings. Unfortunately, the series took a rather protracted hiatus during the winter, and lost around 25 percent of viewers between its 11th episode, which aired in the end of November 2006, and the 12th, which aired in mid-February 2007. CBS cancelled “Jericho” in May, but the promising show had gained a cadre of loyal fans that weren’t willing to take no for an answer. After viewers sent over two tons of nuts to the executives at the network in protest, CBS decided to renew “Jericho” for seven more episodes.
Starting in July, “Jericho” repeats began airing again on Fridays—usually a death knell for many series—and new episodes will come during 2007-2008’s midseason. It’s not the first time in recent memory that a series has been resurrected from the dead—but it is unusual, especially for a scifi show. And once a show has been resurrected, it’s not necessarily guaranteed its original cast, a fair chance, a big audience or decent storylines, so we’ll have to see what happens.
We list “Jericho” because it was a typical cancellation story (network places show on a difficult night, gives it very little chance to capture fans, then drops the show without much ceremony) that became a coup for fans. It clearly showed the power of a grassroots effort, along with the organizing power of the Internet, and how we really can make a difference in the modern age. It gave us hope.
4. “Doctor Who”
The original “Doctor Who” was cancelled in 1989 after 26 years of production (it first aired in 1963). At the time, it was the longest-running British TV program, outside the prime time soap opera “Coronation Street.” In fact, the show is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running science fiction television series in the world. It was not losing viewership at the time of its cancellation; in fact, the seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, is still listed as one of the favorite actors to play that role. The show was in the midst of taking a darker turn, with more episodes focusing on a companion’s past than at any other time in series history. John Nathan-Turner, the producer, was determined to bring mystery and menace back to the series.
But the BBC was tired of “Doctor Who” and had wanted to cancel it for years. By many accounts, it was simply tired of the series and its production costs. At the time, it was common knowledge to even us American fans that the show was teetering on the brink. They network implied repeatedly that if Nathan-Turner were to step away from the show, it would be gone. This forced the producer to stay with the show much longer than he wished, just to keep it on the air for another couple of seasons. But in late 1989, as the early episodes of the last season were airing, it became clear the BBC was going to drop the show no matter what. Nathan-Turner, tired of fighting, packed it in and called it a day. A voiceover was recorded for the last episode, “Survival,” to close up shop.
The “Doctor Who” mythology continued in books published between 1991-1997. A joint American/British TV movie aired on FOX in 1996 to introduce the eighth Doctor, Paul McGann. It did well in the U.K. but not so well in the U.S. and FOX declined to do anything more with the franchise. After 1999 the series mostly lived on through audio adventures featuring old cast members. The show then reappeared on TV in 2005 as the new, critically acclaimed “Doctor Who.” Clearly there was still an audience for the show, since it survived so long in different forms and is back and better than ever.
3. “Battlestar Galactica”
The original “Battlestar Galactica” series was one of the most-hyped shows of the 1978-1979 season, not least because it was riding the coattails of “Star Wars,” which it was accused of copying. A year later, it was dropped despite still being in the top 20, despite viewers’ choice awards and Emmys and a lot of viewer loyalty. Why? It’s hard to say. There were so many rumors swirling around in those days, no one knew for sure. But some of the possible factors included: it didn’t live up to ABC’s lofty expectations, it cost a lot (figures ranged between $750,000 to over a million per episode); it got preempted 15 times out of 32 weeks for repeats of other shows and special events, it received mixed reviews, there were accusations of plagiarism and a lawsuit from 20th Century Fox (possibly based upon a Time magazine critic’s take, who apparently hadn’t even seen the show). On top of all that, crew members have speculated that the producers wanted someone else in the role of Starbuck and cancelled the show at the first opportunity in retaliation for Glen A. Larson getting his way with Dirk Benedict’s casting.
But the result was a mistake. Some media outlets compared the resulting fan furor to be second only to the hoopla surrounding “Star Trek”’s cancellation. Viewers were tenacious, fighting ABC all through the following TV season even as sets were being dismantled and the cast was being fired. By all accounts, the cast expected to return to their jobs and some heard of the cancellation from the media while on vacation. ABC was forced to attempt some sort of appeasement, and “Galactica 1980” was the result. Most of the cast could not return due to other commitments, so only two of the original actors, Lorne Greene and Herbert Jefferson, Jr., were regulars. The show failed. No one fought for “Galactica 1980.” ABC suffered, too. For years, none of the shows it put in “Galactica”’s time slot matched its supposedly low ratings, and it lost money as a result. And then the show went into syndication all over the country.
Some say “Battlestar Galactica” didn’t exactly elevate itself to classic status, although it’s definitely a cult favorite. But in response I dare you to tell me how many one-season series from before 2000 you still recall. For such a short-lived show from the cheesy disco ‘70s, it’s pretty well remembered, don’t you think?
We’ve included this one for the sheer potential of the show, marred and mismanaged by FOX Network. This one is the textbook example of How To Sabotage A SciFi Series Into Cancellation. Let’s start with one well-acted, well-written show with original ideas, created by Joss Whedon. Let’s put it on Friday nights when no one’s watching TV, give it a tiny budget, make Whedon fight for every little technological triumph, and force him to air it out of order so the plot makes no sense. Then let’s promote it as an “action-comedy” so no one will take it seriously, bump it for any and all sporting events, change the airtime every once in a while for no reason and then cancel it after just 11 episodes.
It was the DVD release of 2002’s “Firefly” that gave it cult status. The fans bought it because they wanted to see the episodes in order, along with the three episodes that were filmed but never shown on TV. The episodes were shown in widescreen, the way Whedon intended. Then others bought it because of the buzz. The series became a bestseller on Amazon.com, and the result was the movie “Serenity,” released in 2005. “Firefly” lives on—Dark Horse Comics is planning a new comic series for this fall.
1. “Star Trek”
I doubt I even have to explain this one. If you’re alive on this planet and have participated in pop culture at any level, you know why “Star Trek” is number one on the list. At the time of “Star Trek”’s cancellation in 1969, write-in campaigns were virtually unknown. “Star Trek” was groundbreaking in that respect, as it was in so many other ways. From the beginning, “Star Trek” did not perform well on NBC. During its first season in 1966 ratings were low and the show did not attract many advertisers. During the second season, it looked like the show was headed for the scrap heap.
Then fans started writing in. Ultimately, they did not save the show. “Star Trek” was canceled after 79 episodes aired. It lasted just three seasons, but quickly went into syndication. There, it got the audience it needed to become a classic—nay, a phenomenon. And it snowballed from there. The first film, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” was created to capitalize on fan sentiment and saw a 1979 release. Three more movies followed before a new series popped up on syndicated TV: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” graced airwaves over two decades after the original, starting in 1987.
Every year from that point on, up until 2005, there was a “Star Trek” series broadcasting new episodes. And J.J. Abrams’ upcoming movie—the 11th in the series, in case anyone’s counting—promises to breathe new life into the franchise just three years after “Enterprise” left the air. This is truly the story that will not die. Thank goodness—the humans in all the “Star Trek” series always optimistically strived toward a perfect human society, and our version of utopia wouldn’t be complete without “Star Trek.”