It’s always been a rough go on network television for series which require viewers to think and suspend their disbelief at the same time, but despite this, many brave producers and writers have tried to capture the imaginations of couch potatoes. Sometimes it works, as evidenced by the long runs of such shows as “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” “Smallville,” and “Supernatural,” but more often than not, it doesn’t, which is why IMDb is littered with listings for sci-fi series that lasted for only a single season. Looking back at the decade (which, if you hadn’t noticed, is what we’re doing with all of these TV of the 2000s features), you can also find way too many shows which survived into the second season, proved that their first season wasn’t a fluke, sometimes even improving on it, and then got canceled…and, man, does that hurt. Heck, I even included three- and four-season wonders in this list, one because it had scored such a huge upswing in quality, the other mostly because it seemed like such a gyp when it got the axe. But, then, you could say that about all of these shows, really…
WARNING! LIST CAVEAT! – To be included within this list, the show cannot have started at any point prior to Jan. 1, 2000. Without that caveat, you can bet that “Angel” would’ve been included…and, yes, probably “Farscape,” too. But definitely “Angel.”
15. Masters of Science Fiction (ABC): As an anthology series in the 2000s, it’s not like it ever had a chance in Hell of surviving, anyway, which is why it comes in at the bottom of the list. Still, it deserves mention here, partially because it was really good, but mostly because it got an even bigger shaft from ABC than “New Amsterdam” got from Fox.
Get this: during ABC’s executive panel during the TCA Press tour of summer 2007, someone asked Stephen McPherson, the network’s president of entertainment about the origins of the series, and he responded, “It was a low-cost initiative that we tried. We did this series of movies to see if there was a way to spark something different at a really low cost point. You know, I think there is some good work done there, but it’s very unseen. So it’s just been…it’s been a little bit problematic.” Okay, now, to be fair, he’s acknowledging that there’s “good work” inherent somewhere in the series, but to put these comments in a better perspective, they were made before the show had even premiered. And how did he decide to remedy this problem of the series being “unseen”? By premiering it at 10 PM on Saturday night. Hey, way to get behind your programming, Steve!
In fairness, I’m sure no one, not even the series creators, ever expected “Masters of Science Fiction” to be anything other than a short-lived midseason entry, but it’s not like it had to be. The series harked back to classic dramatic anthologies like “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits,” and the like, and while its budget might not be through the roof, the performances – including turns from Malcolm McDowell, Anne Heche, Sam Waterston, Judy Davis, Terry O’Quinn, Elizabeth Rohm, Brian Dennehy, and John Hurt – were top-notch. But, then, that’s what happens when you bring in directors like Mark Rydell (”On Golden Pond”), Michael Tolkin (”The Player”), and Jonathan Frakes (”Star Trek: First Contact”) to helm adaptations of stories by Robert Heinlein (”Starship Troopers”), Howard Fast (”Spartacus”), and legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, who actually adapted his own story, collaborating with Josh Olson (”A History of Violence”). If any of this sounds like it might be up your alley, you can at least take comfort in the knowledge that the entire series is available on DVD, including two episodes that ABC couldn’t be bothered to air.
14. Dark Angel (Fox): Nowadays, it’s best remembered for the fact that it introduced the world at large to the assets of Jessica Alba (which, by the way, look damned good in black leather), but when “Dark Angel” premiered, its high profile came from the fact that it was the first thing that it was produced by James Cameron. What not nearly as many people remember, however, is that the show also starred Michael Weatherly, who would get a much longer running gig a few years later when he took on the role of Anthony DiNozzo in “NCIS,” and Jensen Ackles, now better known as Dean Winchester on “Supernatural.”
But I digress. The slightly-futuristic (it took place in 2019) “Dark Angel” was predominantly about Alba’s character, Max Guevara, a genetically enhanced super-soldier who has escaped from the government that created her and is using her job as a motorcycle courier to cover for the fact that she spends most of her time searching for her brethren, i.e. the other 11 super-soldiers who escaped with her. She does this with the help of Logan Kale (Weatherly), a.k.a. cyber-journalist “Eyes Only,” whose unparalleled computer skills go a long way toward making up for the fact that he’s paralyzed from the waist down. The series looked great, and having John Savage serve as one of its primary villains (Colonel Donald Michael Lydecker) was inspired, but trying to get the general public to embrace the cyberpunk movement – even the highly diluted version of it that “Dark Angel” offered – was a lost cause. Truth be told, we’re probably lucky that we got as much of the show as we did. If Cameron’s name hadn’t been on it, it probably would’ve been over at the end of Season 1.
13. Kyle XY (ABC Family): Ironically, I’m writing this mere moments after getting word that a copy “Kyle XY: The Final Season” has just been sent my way. Even if you aren’t familiar with the series, you’ll nonetheless have deduced from the appearance of the word “final” in the set’s subtitle that this isn’t a show that came and went within the span of a single season. Yes, “Kyle XY” actually lasted for three seasons, but it was still going strong creatively when ABC Family decided that it just didn’t match up well enough with their other content, like “Greek” or “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” Now, look, I dig those shows as much as the next thirtysomething who wants to vicariously relive his youth through semi-realistic TV characters, but is that any reason to kill off a great sci-fi melodrama like “Kyle”? No, sir, it is not.
12. The 4400 (USA): If I’m to be completely honest, I’m much more of a fan of this show’s concept that I ultimately was of its execution. When a series kicks off by depositing a group of exactly 4400 people at the foothills of Mount Rainier, each of whom had disappeared at various times from 1946 onward but haven’t aged a moment since then and don’t remember where they’ve been…I mean, damn, how can you not be intrigued? And the premise further expands to reveal that several members of the 4400 have begun to develop paranormal abilities, that’s icing on the cake! But while I loved the episodes which focused on individual members of the group and how they dealt with their return, I wasn’t nearly as enthralled with the ongoing storylines with the regular cast members. Still, when it was good, it was really, really good, and with well over 4300 stories left to be told, I have to imagine that, statistically speaking, there would’ve been quite a bit more sci-fi goodness yet to come.
11. Star Trek: Enterprise (UPN): No series wants to be remembered as the worst in its franchise, but you’d be hard pressed to find any “Star Trek” fan that wouldn’t use that label on “Enterprise.” The concept of stepping back in time to the pre-Kirk era and exploring the origins of Starfleet Command and the United Federation of Planets was unquestionably an intriguing one, but Rick Berman – who took the “Trek” reigns of command when Gene Roddenberry died – seemed insistent on rewriting established canon than putting together a good TV show. So why should such a mediocre series have continued? Because in its 4th season, uber-fans Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens came aboard the writing staff and turned things around in a big way, providing tributes to the original series and “The Next Generation” every time you turned around. The ratings didn’t change, though, and “Enterprise” was canceled. Give Berman credit, though: he managed to stab at us from Hell’s heart one last time by offering up an absolutely crap-tacular series finale.
10. New Amsterdam (Fox): When I think of this series, I always think of the panel for the show during the TCA Press Tour, when one of the journalists just absolutely refused to accept that the creators of “New Amsterdam” had never seen “Highlander.” I mean, seriously, it was starting to get ugly. The funny thing, though, is that aside from the fact that the lead character of the series was an immortal, the comparisons really weren’t all that dramatic.
The show was about John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a NYPD homicide detective who’s 400 years old but looks 35. That’s because, way back in 1642, Amsterdam saved the life of a Native American girl, who in turn cast a spell that granted him immortality, with the caveat that his aging would resume when he found his one true love…which was darned nice of her, because, really, no one should have to outlive the love of their life. Though you’d expect the show to spend the majority of its time on Amsterdam’s search for his love, “New Amsterdam” didn’t take the obvious route. Instead, it spent a great deal of its time exploring the long life of its titular character, revealing that he’d been in the Army three times and also did time in the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard (but not the Air Force, ostensibly due to a fear of heights), served as a doctor during the Civil War, worked for the CIA, taught history, made furniture, and – at some point – became an alcoholic. (He’s been in AA since 1965.)
I’ve never really gotten a handle on why “New Amsterdam” was so disliked by Fox, but it’s clear that it was. It was supposed to have premiered in the fall of 2007, but then they stopped production after the first seven episodes had been completed and proceeded to sit on the series until mid-season; once it finally got on the air, they did very little promotion on it, making it completely unsurprising when they pulled the plug on it. I’m still mystified. Like “Journeyman,” the romantic bent of the show was one which seemed perfect for cross-demographic success, but they never even gave it a chance.
9. The Dresden Files (Sci Fi): As someone who stepped into this series without having read any of the Jim Butcher novels which served as its inspiration, maybe I had an advantage, because fans of the literary franchise seemed to universally hate this adaptation. Me, I thought it was pretty cool. Paul Blackthorne played Harry Dresden as a cocky wizard who helped out the police department with their more eccentric cases, i.e. the ones that would be classified as supernatural if anyone on the force dared to claim a belief in such things, and the series managed to have a decidedly dark tone while still maintaining a sense of humor. But when you kick off a TV series by instantly alienating the majority of the people who made it a success as a book series, you’re pretty much doomed to failure, which is what “The Dresden Files” proved to be.
8. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (Fox): Here’s one one that we already detailed elsewhere, but, again, it deserves repeating that, when “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” it did so far too soon. Season 1 had its highs and lows, but the show’s sophomore year was consistently intriguing throughout, starting with the season premiere and the introduction of Catherine Weaver (Shirley Manson), the co-founder and current CEO of ZeiraCorp…except that, as we discovered immediately prior to the closing credits, she wasn’t actually Catherine Weaver but, indeed, was a shapeshifting T-1001. As the season progressed, however, her physical transformation became less interesting than her emotional evolution, with the T-1001 being forced to maintain the façade of its new identity in its entirety, which required her to raise Catherine’s daughter, Savannah (Mackenzie Smith), and try to understand her. (I have a suspicion that all of the parents in our readership just snorted en masse and said, “Uh, yeah, good luck with that!”)
The T-1001 wasn’t the only Terminator to get a crash course in humanity during Season 2. Cameron (Summer Glau) spent much of the season suffering from a serious chip malfunction, leading her at one point to adopt the approximate memories of future resistance fighter Allison Young, on whom her personality had originally been patterned, but we also saw her interacting outside of the Connor camp; elsewhere, the Terminator formerly known as Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt) had his chip destroyed, but his body was connected to ZeiraCorp’s artificial intelligence known as the Babylon A.I., leading him to take on a new name – John Henry – and leading the series to explore matters of spirituality by querying whether his sentience means that terms like “life” and “death” now apply to him. Oh, right, and there was also some pretty good stuff with the human characters, too.
Sure, there were moments which defied credibility, but when you’re dealing with a show that lives and dies by time travel, suspension of disbelief and acceptance of pretty much everything that’s handed to you is a necessity. Fortunately, executive producer Josh Friedman found a way to combine the necessary technological components of “Terminator” with deep characterization. It seriously sucked that “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” was canceled just as those who’d followed it from the beginning were really feeling rewarded for their steadfast viewership, but it was just insult to injury when “Terminator: Salvation” bombed, taking down any decent chance that the series might be revisited at some point.
7. Miracles (ABC): I feel a little weird about including a show with religious themes in the midst of a list about sci-fi series, but when even the show’s creator – Richard Hatem – is willing to acknowledge that it bounces back and forth between religious phenomena and paranormal phenomena, it’s hard to argue against its place here.
Starring a pre-“Jericho” Skeet Ulrich, “Miracles” introduced viewers to Paul Callan, an investigator of modern miracles for the Catholic Church at the Archdiocese of Boston. Though he’s dealing with the inevitable frustration of disappointing groups of believers each time he investigates and disproves the authenticity of their “miracles,” Paul’s faith is restored after he’s involved in a car accident: not only does he have a first-hand experience with a young boy’s ability to heal, but when his injuries lead to blood spatter on the windshield, he watches in astonishment as his his blood forms the words, “God Is Now Here.” But, wait, hang on: maybe it actually said, “God is Nowhere.”
Either way, these events lead to a schism between Paul and the church when his report on the incidents is dismissed, but he soon crosses paths with Alva Keel (Angus Macfadyen), who propositions him with a job offer at his organisation, Sodalitas Quaerito (“Brotherhood in search of truth”). From there, “Miracles” followed Paul, Alva, and Evelyn Santos (Marisa Ramirez) as they crossed the globe and investigated various phenomena, some less religious than others but all connected to life, death, and the afterlife in some fashion, rather like a spiritual version of “The X-Files.” Unfortunately, the series was manhandled by ABC, running three episodes, then preempting it for three weeks, then moving it all over the schedule. No wonder it never caught on. With that kind of treatment, it would’ve been a miracle if it had.
6. The Middleman (ABC Family): I used to say that the reason this series failed was that ABC Family was the wrong network for it, but when I spoke with the show’s creator, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, he set me straight and assured me that they were the right network. Why? Because they let him do it. “It would have been very easy for any group of people to pick up the show and say, ‘Gosh, we really like the idea of this girl fighting monsters, but can you make her sexier and kind of make the dialogue a little bit more accessible and make the sensibility of the show a little bit more accessible?’” he said. “And to ABC Family’s credit, they never asked me to do that.” When you go back and watch the show from start to finish (which is easy to do, what with Shout Factory having released a complete-series set), you really get a feel for the kind of freedom that Grillo-Marxuach was granted, but it still must be said that “The Middleman” might have been better served in the ratings if it had aired on a network that more readily catered to unabashed geeks. Or, then again, maybe it wouldn’t have. Given that the dialogue flies fast and furious, like a Kevin Smith movie on speed, and the amount of science fiction and fantasy concepts thrown at the viewer are only matched by the number of references to science fiction and fantasy movies and TV series, maybe it was always destined to be a future cult series.
5. Journeyman (NBC): What’s this? Another “Bullz-Eye” favorite? Certainly, several of us on the staff were thrilling to the weekly adventures of reporter Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) as he involuntarily traveled through time, doing so as much to see the next cool set piece – I particularly loved it when he was on a smoke-filling flight during the 1970s – as to find out how his unexpected disappearances and impossible-to-predict returns would wreak havoc on his life in the present. It was also unique for a sci-fi series in that it was unabashedly romantic, with Dan trying to reconcile his love for his wife in the present (Gretchen Egolf) with the revelation that his former fiancee (Moon Bloodgood), who he’d believed to be dead, was actually alive, well, and a fellow time traveler.
I talked to producer Kevin Falls at a point when the fate of “Journeyman” was in limbo, and he was understandably frustrated at the way the network was treating the series, even if he understood that they obviously had more stake in saving the shows that were produced by NBC-Universal. (“Journeyman” was a Fox production.) When I pitched the idea of moving from series to movie, a la “Firefly,” he was enthusiastic but realistic about the suggestion. “I would do anything to keep this show alive,” he said. “If there was interest and somebody wanted to make a movie, nothing would make me happier. But I have to be realistic: Joss Whedon had quite a following, and I don’t know that Kevin Falls has quite that following.” Unfortunately, it appears that he was right: not only was “Journeyman” canceled, but it wasn’t even released on DVD after its cancellation.
4. Reaper (The CW): I think this cancellation hurt more folks at Bullz-Eye than any other in this list. It’s a bold statement, but when you look back at our TV Power Rankings, you’ll see that I’m not kidding. Of course, its success there is probably – but not definitely – why got it canceled, but, dammit, we had to show our love. The trifecta of slackers in “Reaper” were great, but let’s not kid ourselves: as much as we laughed at their antics, it was Ray Wise who kept us coming back every week. It’s a crime that that man never got an Emmy nomination for his work as the Devil. Series creators Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters had a lot of battles with The CW about their desire to expand on the mythology of the show (the network, as is so often the case, was more comfortable with self-contained episodes), and given that the duo had departed by the end of the show’s second season, it’s a fair bet that Season 3 wouldn’t have been the same “Reaper” that we’d come to know and love, anyway. But, man, we sure would like it if Fazekas and Butters could find the backing to do a “Reaper” movie…and we have it on good authority that Bret Harrison and Tyler Labine would be back in a flash. So what are you waiting for, Hollywood? Let’s get moving on this thing!
3. Firefly (Fox): I feel like the majority of what I might have to say about this series has probably already been said somewhere within Bob Westal’s love letter to Joss Whedon’s best work of the 2000s…and if Bob himself didn’t say it, then surely one of the folks who commented on it did. Still, I’ll go ahead and throw in my two cents worth and reconfirm that, yes, the idea of a Western set in space was indeed a wonderful one…and it would’ve worked, too, if it wasn’t for those pesky network executives at Fox. As someone who literally grew up in the world of television (his father, Tom Whedon, was one of the original writers for “Captain Kangaroo” and went on to serve as the head writer of “The Electric Company”), Whedon tried to kick it old-school with “Firefly” by starting things off with a two-hour pilot to set the stage for the series. Fox, however, decided it would be a better move to just dump viewers into the deep end and had the series debut with the second episode instead. I think we all know how well that plan worked.
“Firefly” was set in the 2500s and offered a less than upbeat look into the future, suggesting that, although technology had reached a point where gravity-drive engines made travel beyond our solar system possible, things were pretty tough all over. Earth’s population was such that people pretty much had to leave the planet if they wanted to survive, but while terraforming had allowed humanity to set up colonies on many different planets, their existence tended toward the rough-and-tumble, not unlike America’s wild west during the late 1800s. As such, Whedon took several stereotypes of the era – cowboy, preacher, hooker with the heart of gold, blacksmith, doctor, and even stagecoach driver – and tweaked them to fit his new premise. Nathan Fillion’s performance as Captain Mal was such a career-defining role that he spent seven years trying to find another one that worked as well for him (you can bet that he kissed the sky when he got word that “Castle” had received a second-season pick-up), and Summer Glau’s creepy vibe while playing the troubled River was no doubt directly responsible for earning her the later role as a Terminator on “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” but like Whedon’s other shows, the whole ensemble played well together from the start. “Firefly” had enough of a following to move from cancellation to the silver screen, but while the odds of ever seeing a sequel to “Serenity” are pretty slim, hey, it’s more of an afterlife than any other show on this list had.
2. Invasion (ABC): More love for another favorite of the Power Rankings. The premise of the show, more or less, was that a race of aliens had begun their takeover of Earth by slowly infiltrating the residents of a small town and possessing them…or bonding with them…or maybe they replaced them altogether but just retained their memories. I can’t quite recall – it’s been a fair while since I’ve revisited the series – but I’m not entirely sure that re-screening all 22 episodes would necessarily provide me with a definitive answer. There were a lot of mysteries lurking within “Invasion,” and creator Shaun Cassidy had big plans to considerably expand upon the mythos of the series in future seasons, but, as we know, he never got that opportunity.
“Invasion” was, at its heart, a show about family. You’ve got Sheriff Tom Underlay (William Fichtner), whose wife, Mariel (Kari Matchett), is the ex-wife of park ranger Russell Varon (Eddie Sibrian); Tom has a daughter from his first marriage (Alexis Dziena), and Mariel and Russell have a daughter (Ariel Gade) and a son (Evan Peters), plus Russell is remarried, and he and his wife Larkin (Lisa Sheridan) – who’s expecting – live with Larkin’s brother, Dave (Tyler Labine), an amiable conspiracy nut who regularly blogs about his theories…which, yes, include the possibility of alien invasion. Yes, the show had its faults, most notably an insistence on spending too much time on teen angst, but as the season progressed, “Invasion” evolved into must-see sci-fi TV. The concept that the aliens weren’t always successful in their attempts to possess their human hosts was an intriguing one, as was the question posited as the series progressed: what if an alien race wanted to infiltrate Earth but their ranks were divided on how to go about it? Unfortunately, this mystery and all of the others within “Invasion” remain unsolved.
1. Threshold (CBS): Dr. Molly Anne Caffrey (Carla Gugino) is a crisis management consultant for the US government who gets a major surprise when her worst-case-scenario plan for what to do in case of an alien invasion is activated. Pulls together a team of experts, including microbiologist Dr. Nigel Fenway (Brent Spiner, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), linguist Arthur Ramsey (Peter Dinklage, “The Station Agent”), and aerospace engineer Lucas Pegg (Robert Patrick Benedict, “Felicity”), the group begin to investigate the aliens in order find out if they’re hostile or not. Hey, guess what? They totally are! Produced by Brandon Braga and David S. Goyer, both possessing seriously strong sci-fi backgrounds (“Star Trek” and “Blade,” respectively), “Threshold” did a really good job of building the histories of the characters, exploring the aliens and making them legitimately terrifying, and, perhaps most intriguingly, presenting a realistic view of how the government would probably handle such a situation, with various senators being let in on the top-secret organization out of necessity so that funding would continue. Although the series only lasted for 13 episodes, “Threshold” had actually been designed for three specific plot arcs, with its creators planning to change the title accordingly for each: “Threshold” was meant to indicate that the aliens had made contact, and from there it would’ve moved on to the self-explanatory “Foothold,” followed by “Stranglehold,” wherein the aliens would’ve overthrown the indigenous population – that’d be us – and become the overlords.
With such an awesome cast and a solid creative team, it’s still shocking to me that the series never took off, especially when you consider that, while it certainly maintained regularly-progressing plotlines, “Threshold” had an arguable advantage over the rest of these series by not ending each episode with a cliffhanger…or, in other words, you could miss an episode and not be completely and totally lost the next time you tuned in. Maybe the problem came from the tussle between the network and the show’s creative team. “It was always intended to be a serialized show,” said Goyer in a 2009 interview with Bullz-Eye. “Once we got going into the series, (CBS) wanted episodes to be more closed ended. And they have had a lot of success with that, but we hadn’t really designed it for that, so it felt like we were stalling…and I think the audience unfortunately sensed that as well.” That’s just the sort of thing you’d expect a frustrated creator to say, and you can’t blame him, but the potential for the show was so tremendous that it never occurred to me that they were stalling. I just thought they were just building anticipation.
Tags: Dark Angel, End of Decade TV, Firefly, Invasion, Journeyman, Kyle XY, Masters of Science Fiction, Miracles, New Amsterdam, Reaper, Star Trek: Enterprise, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, The 4400, The Dresden Files, The Middleman, Threshold