Ah, Fall TV Season. That magical time of year when we are gifted with whole new slates of television shows that, it is always hoped, will soon become part of our lives. In many ways, the next few weeks will be like a giant speed-dating session. If you’re anything like me, you’ll jump around, sampling shows in one or two episode chunks. And, if you’re very lucky, you might even fall in love.
But like human love, media love can be bittersweet. Relationships don’t always work out. Sometimes it’s because they fail to live up to their initial promises—that first spark just fades. It’s sad, but natural. Sometimes, however, this new romance never gets to blossom because some asshole in a suit says “it’s cancelled!”
We all know that pain. And, for some reason, it seems to be even more familiar to us fans of Science Fiction television. This may be because, while dramas and sitcoms tend to be cancelled when they’re horrible, derivative, painful to watch, or all of the above, being a well written, well-acted masterpiece is no protection against cancellation for those “genre” shows. (The reverse is true too, of course. Some genre shows should be cancelled, but seem to go on forever anyway.)
The following list is very subjective, mostly because you can’t mourn the passing of a show you never watched. But these are five times my television brought me something beautiful (in space!), then snatched it away.
5. Star Trek: Enterprise
I have a feeling this will be my most controversial choice.
You see; the first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise were a horrible, horrible mess. The characters were flat, the plots were stupid, there was no respect for the integrity of the franchise… it was just bad. It was everything your dad who hates science fiction thinks science fiction is.
The consensus in the Star Trek fandom seems to be that the cause of the awfulness was the leadership of the show runners, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga. (Incompetent showrunners who ruin everything? Why does that sounds familiar?) To be fair to B&B, (omg…) the third season, with its overarching focus on the Xindi and its honest attempts to challenge the characters, was a huge improvement (at least in my opinion), but it wasn’t until those two clowns were kicked to the curb and Manny Coto took over, that the show finally became “good”.
Season 4 was given a bunch of sow’s ears and told to make a silk purse, and by god did it actually come close. Like, season three ended on a cliff hanger of time travelling space Nazi (no, no, literal ones…) and somehow Coto and his new team actually managed to take that stupid concept and make a passable two- parter out of it. Then they went on a mission to restore the show’s place within the franchise. They touched on the Eugenics War, the Klingons and their famous bumpy forehead discontinuity, and started to seed the build up to Romulan War that was the foundation of one of my favourite episodes of the Original Series. It was a whole new show, there was even a romance subplot that didn’t make me want to hurl. And they were willing to make the humans look bad.
You could argue that the fourth season of Enterprise was really another attempt at a first season, the first season of a far better show. But unfortunately, it was too little too late and the rating couldn’t recover from the constant downward slope. And just as it was getting worth watching, the show was gone.
And then B&B popped back out of the woodwork to fuck up the finale, but let’s not talk about that.
Joss Whedon may be literal trash, maybe, but you have to feel for his inability to get a show off the grounds after the absolute juggernaut that was Buffy. This one was promising. The concept was rather clever, an evil corporation fucks with the brains of people to make them into “dolls”—blank human slates who can have a temporary personality programmed into them for a variety of reasons.
Mostly sex reasons.
This was an idea that had a lot of potential for exploration in areas like consent, free will, autonomy, the role of corporations in public life, scientific ethics, personal responsibility… and it also allows for there to be an overarching plot, about the evil corporation, while still maintaining a basic episodic structure. Each episode is a new story, and a new personality for one of the main characters.
I believe I’ve admitted before that I’m rather a sucker for post-apocalyptic scenarios, And the world that is presented by the two season finales, “Epitaph One” and “Epitaph Two”, presented a rather unique one. I’m glad at least it managed to give the series some kind of closure.
The show was not free of problems, and that also stemmed from its concept. That depiction/endorsement line was always going to be a tricky one to balance on. Especially because we were expected to always be at least a little sympathetic to all the non-doll lead characters, even as they willingly participated in this super-gross form of exploitation. In general, however, the show managed to avoid falling into that abyss.
So why didn’t this one last? Well, according to serial Whedon show-killers Fox, it was just a ratings issues. But they always say that, don’t they? And they also said that they only renewed it for a second season to begin with because they were afraid of the show’s legions of fans. So… none of these legions were actually watching the show, I guess.
3. Stargate Universe
When it comes to successful science fiction franchises on television, the only thing that even approaches Star Trek is Stargate. It breathed new life into a rather half-baked concept from a middling Roland Emmerich movie, mostly by making sure it never took itself very seriously, and gave us a 10-year run of Stargate:SG1. It was like Star Trek: The Next Generation, but with characters that actually had personalities. This was followed up by Stargate Atlantis which lasted four season and was rather the franchise’s version of Star Trek: Voyager. It was, you know, fine. Kind of like the narrative equivalent of vanilla pudding. But it entertained you for forty five minutes.
Then there was Stargate Universe and it was very clear what show this was trying to be too: Battlestar Galactica. That show, at least before it went down the path of mastrabatory incoherence (if you’re interested, that happened the moment Caprica Six started sniffing Baltar’s crotch pen,) pulled off grim-dark very well. It broke your heart, but damn if it didn’t earn it.
SGU was always a little obvious in its desperation to do the same. The concepts of the two shows were similar as well. A group of people, both military and civilian, are trapped in space beyond the reach of help. They have to cobble together a political system, learn to obtain and divide resources, and try to get out of this situation.
I think there are several reasons SGU was no BSG. Firstly, they refused to commit to the whole “beyond the reach of help” thing with their Ancient communication stones, and secondly, very related to that, there was never really a moment when you truly felt like they crew of Destiny was on the brink of anarchy. There were dark corridors, and people were justifiably a little depressed, but I was not up all night pondering the human condition after watching an episode of Stargate Universe.
That being said, this show is on this list, so obviously I think that it didn’t get a chance to reach it’s potential. The truth is that this show had a lot going for it. The characters were by far the most interesting in the franchise, at least as a group, and the overarching story was really starting to get interesting when the series ended on a sort-of cliffhanger. (I’m also a sucker for quasi-religious themes.) There are those who still argue that the only reason the show was cancelled was because SyFy was a jerk and had moved it from shitty time-slot to shitty time slot.
Speaking of Battlestar Galactica… I loved that show. A lot. And despite its truly disappointingly horrible ending my memories of it are still mostly fond. One of the things that I admired about it from the beginning is the thoughtfulness and depth of its worldbuilding.
The Twelve Colonies of Kobol felt like a real place. It was a society similar enough to my own that I mourned its passing, but it also had all too familiar flaws. There was war, racism, religious intolerance and extremism, alienated youth, and some people with far too much money. It was just relatable. So when I heard that there was going to be a prequel series, one that explicitly dealt with the built up to the Cylon war and hullabaloo surrounding religion and artificial intelligence, I was in. Notwithstanding the bad break-up we all had with BSG.
And it was good, you guys. It was really, really good.
Caprica had a lot of the strengths of its parent show, excellent acting and well built relationships being chief among them, and the showrunners might have learned a little about when the philosophizing and the grimdark can go too far. But I would argue that the mains reasons for the show’s high quality lies mainly in the characters.
The series is essentially about two families, and the way they deal with their grief after their loved ones are killed in a terrorist attack. The “mystery” (the audience knows the answer from more or less the beginning) of who perpetrated the attack and the means Daniel Greystone and Joseph Adama take to try to “get their daughters back” just happen to have world changing implications.
This show ended too soon. Full stop. It was going to very interesting places and we only got to see flashes of it. Again, bad treatment by the SyFy network was a large part of it, but so was the unwillingness of fans to forgive the people behind BSG for their not finishing the finale 20 minutes sooner.
And, yeah, that anger wasn’t exactly unfair.
Is anyone surprised?
Yeah, this show was cancelled in 2002, and I’m still not over it.
On paper, I wouldn’t have thought I would like this. It’s essentially about libertarians in space who love their guns and think they’re above the law because they’re so just and the government sucks. But damn it! They are so just, and the government does suck. And they need those guns to be awesome!
There probably has never been a perfect television show, but it would also be hard to come closer than Firefly. Its worst episode (“Safe,” clearly) is better than most shows’ best episodes, and you become invested in the characters and their struggles so quickly that, yeah, you’re willing to overlook the small detail of their unabashed criminality.
Just… thirteen episodes of perfection. And if you disagree, well, just go away, I don’t want to hear it.
In the interests of fairness, I sometimes wonder if Firefly’s cancellation didn’t help it in some ways. Just think of all the shows that started off great then became less so. *cough* BSG *cough* On the other hand, maybe it would have gotten even better. Babylon 5 took a while to really get going, for example. But the first season was still decent.
Firefly has, of course, been the type specimen for Screwed by the Network since before it was cancelled. The story is so picked over I don’t want to get into it, but it’s entirely possible that Satan was secretly running Fox in the 2000s. But even if they refused to air the episodes in order, they will still always be there for us. No power in the ‘verse will ever be able to stop me from nerding out over “Out of Gas”.
So there it is. A short chronicle of my pain and anguish. I’m sure there are other worthy shows that caused others pain. Maybe they weren’t around long enough for my heart to get broken. No doubt you will tell me about them in the comments.