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The 5 Most Influential SciFi Shows of the ‘90s
Remember these shows? You’ll find hints of them all over today’s television landscape, which makes them the most imitated, most remembered and most influential SciFi shows from the previous decade.
5. “Xena: Warrior Princess”
Itself a spinoff of the 1995-1999 series “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” with Kevin Sorbo, this 1995-2001 fantasy cult favorite may seem an odd choice—but it’s not. For one thing, it’s one of the first TV shows to feature buddy-buddy action between two sexy women heroines who kick butt (“Charlie’s Angels” notwithstanding). It wasn’t until the ‘90s that shows featuring girls and women in the top roles became common—and before “Xena,” your viewing choices of female TV headliners would have included “Blossom” and Nickelodeon’s “Clarissa Explains It All.”
But that wasn’t all. There were the romantic overtones as well as the true, abiding friendship between main characters Xena (Lucy Lawless) and Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor), along with episodes that really pushed the envelope. Who can forget “The Bitter Suite,” a musical episode/parody from the third season featuring Lucy Lawless’ own voice (and nude scenes from both actresses)? Since then, we’ve seen lots of musical episodes from other TV shows—but none with the lightheartedness and fun of “Xena.”
4. “Star Trek: The Next Generation”
How could we not include this one? It revived the “Star Trek” franchise in a big way when it aired in syndication in 1987 and lasted seven seasons. Since “Star Trek: The Next Generation” we’ve had the world of “Star Trek” on air in some form ever since. And for good reason. This show had it all—a captain who could rival Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, a great supporting cast and adventures that stayed true to the heart of the original while pushing television boundaries.
Creating a template for SciFi TV adventures in general, Picard and crew encountered ethical dilemmas, new lifeforms and languages along their route, exploring human emotions and weaknesses along with alien worlds. That’s the best kind of science fiction, and “Star Trek” did it well. Remember the episodes where Data’s “humanity” was questioned? Or “The Outcast,” in which Commander Riker fell in love with an individual whose culture brutally enforced androgyny? How about “Darmok,” in which Picard must decipher a language that no one seems to understand even when translated? Then there were the big space battles, as when they fought the Borg. Every week, we got this sort of adventure from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and all other SciFi shows have been trying to live up to it ever since.
3. “Babylon 5”
There’s no question that this 1994-1998 show was influenced by “Star Trek”—but there’s no question that “Star Trek,” in turn, was influenced by “Babylon 5.” Aired around the same time as “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” this series was unique because of its vision—the five-year story arc that informed and deepened every episode. In fact, it was hard for newbies to get into “B5” because they wouldn’t understand what was going on without some work. But after “B5,” other SciFi shows started to utilize multi-episode stories more—just look at the Xindi plotline in “Enterprise,” or the Cardassian-Bajoran conflict in “DS9.”
The nuanced writing, the complex stories, the relationships between ambassadors, the Psi Cops, the different alien cultures on the United Nations that was Babylon 5—all of these things made “Babylon 5” a groundbreaker, and a fun one. It proved that someone other than Gene Roddenberry could do a quality one-hour drama that was true SciFi and infuse it with life and density and new ideas. We’ve not seen its like since—but people have tried.
2. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
Just take a look at the SciFi shows in your TV Guide right now and you’ll see why “Buffy” is one of today’s most influential shows. Without her, we wouldn’t have “Charmed,” or “Smallville,” or the recently cancelled “Point Pleasant”—heck, there’s a question as to whether “Alias” would have made it on the air without “Buffy” having made an example that others could emulate. What these other shows haven’t been able to imitate, as yet, is the fine writing that marks “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and turned it into one of TV’s most popular shows from 1997-2003.
The formula is now a familiar one: a cast of good-looking kids who have special powers or knowledge to fight the evil emanating from a Hellmouth in Sunnydale, California. Buffy Summers is the chosen one—unfortunately for her. Played by the luminous Sarah Michelle Gellar, Buffy grows up with her high school pals while fighting vampires and demons. “Buffy” pioneered the formula—and though many other shows have tried, they haven’t quite been able to mimic the complex character development or the originality of this truly great series.
1. “The X-Files”
In 1993, “The X-Files” breathed new life into the television scene with its talk of conspiracy and alien abduction, and continued to do so for nine years. No one can deny that the dark plots and ambiguity of “The X-Files” has informed dozens of TV shows ever since. For awhile, it seemed every new SciFi offering was trying to capitalize on “The X-Files” in some way. But Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully’s (Gillian Anderson) adventures have yet to be duplicated in such a spine-tingling way (remember those roaches?).
Today, the more or less straightforward SciFi plots of a “Star Trek” are in short supply. No, viewers would rather be frightened and amazed in the way “The X-Files” pioneered. The plot twists of shows like “24” or “Lost” owe much to the ongoing drama of “The X-Files,” and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Oh, and the romance—in the 1990s, there was no more interesting couple than Mulder and Scully. Would they? Or wouldn’t they? Fueling our paranoia was a way of life for the writers on “The X-Files,” and we’re a much more sophisticated television viewing audience as a result.
Do you agree or disagree with any of my choices? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you!
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