Since I made the decision to give up on Chibnall’s travesty of a Doctor Who series, I have felt a palpable sense of relief. Sunday evenings are considerably less depressing now. For those of you in the same boat, I thought I’d recommend a few alternate ways for you to experience some good science fiction on TV. So here’s 5 of my favourites, all of which are considerably better value than any more hours with Whittaker’s Doctor will be.
1. Red Dwarf: The UK’s second longest-running Sci-fi series, Red Dwarf is about as far as you can get from Who. Political Correctness is usually mocked rather than adhered to. Comedy takes precedence over drama. The episodes are all around 30-40 minutes long. None of the characters are meant to be role-models, so they often get pushed into greyer territory. Most importantly, the series is meant for adults, not children, so we don’t get all this nauseating kindergarten-morality and dumbed-down explanations shoved in. As for the quality of the series, it is admittedly variable, but there’s some great runs in there (Series 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 are bloody brilliant) and even the more recent series, which can be comparatively weak, occasionally throw up an absolute gem of an episode (Series 8’s ‘Cassandra’, Series 10’s ‘Dear Dave’, Series 12’s ‘Mechocracy). The main cast are all brilliant, featuring Craig Charles (Corrie, Robot Wars) as the slobbish Lister, Chris Barrie (Lara Croft films) as the incompetent elitist Rimmer, Danny John-Jules (of this year’s Strictly) as the Self-Absorbed Cat and Robert Llewellyn (some tech shows on channel 5) as the subservient mechanoid Kryten. The interplay between the four of them is brilliant, and makes even less-funny instalments of the series watchable. The science fiction elements are quite good too, even if done in a knockout way. We get holograms, demented droids, time-travel, virtual reality and a lot of shade being thrown at Star Trek. What more could you want? Available on Netflix and UKTV play.
High Point: Series 6. One episode got a BAFTA nomination, but to be honest, all 6 episodes are comedy gold.
Low Point: Back to Earth. It may have got the series re-commissioned on Dave, but this three part special is short on laughs and high on stupidity.
2. Star Trek: Voyager: If you fancy a more serious alternate to Doctor Who, Star Trek is the obvious option that springs to mind from across the pond. With aliens, space battles, timey-wimey episodes and a MUCH larger budget than Doctor Who, it seems like a natural fit for Whovians. But which one to go for? Trekkies would probably either recommend the Original Series (the one with William Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock) or the Next Generation (with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard). Both have their plus points, as does Deep Space Nine (the third series), but to be honest, they can all be hard to get into, as they’ve either aged a lot or don’t have stellar first series. I’d recommend avoiding Enterprise (the least loved prequel series) or Discovery (Netflix’s appalling spin-off). Personally, i’d go for Voyager. It’s got a more episodic feel to it, which makes it more accessible to casual viewers and people who aren’t all that familiar with Star Trek. It also has arguably the most engaging cast of any of the Star Trek shows. It’s very much an ensemble piece, including Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black) as the formidable Captain Janeway, Robert Beltran as her stalwart but spiritual First Officer, Robert Picardo as the ship’s hologrammatic Doctor (who has a terrible bedside manner), Tim Russ as Tuvok, a Vulcan Security Officer, Roxanne Dawson as the half-Klingon engineer with serious anger issues and Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, a reformed Borg Drone (and arguably the best character in Star Trek) who turns up in Season 4. The show has a unique plot compared to most Star Trek series, as Voyager sees the crew utterly cut off from Star Fleet and any human contact, allowing for more inventive stories and a whole host of recurring alien races, most notably the Borg. The Borg are Star Trek’s answer to Cybermen, but honestly, it uses them far better than Modern Who has used the Cybermen. The Borg are relentless, genuinely scary, and while they do get overused later in Voyager’s run, they never outstay their welcome. The show was made in the late 90’s, so the effects still hold up very well, and while there’s a few bad episodes in the shows seven seasons, most are enjoyable on some level (and crucially, less dull than some of the other Star Trek series). Ultimately, this is probably my favourite Sci-Fi series at the moment. Best of all – its all on Netflix.
High Point: Seasons 4, 5 and 7 are very, very good. There’s so many strong episodes its hard to narrow that down much further.
Low Point: The Early part of Season 2 and the Middle Part of Season 3 are pretty bad, but both series’ eventually recover to finish on highs, so stick with it.
3. Blakes 7: While Red Dwarf is the UK’s second most known Sci-fi show, arguably the second best one is Blakes 7, which ran for four series from 1978-1981. It was created by Terry Nation, the man who created the Daleks for Doctor Who, and reflected the bleak, dark nature of his worldview and stories. Often described as ‘Robin Hood in space’ or ‘the dirty dozen’ in Space, it featured a regular cast of between five and seven rebels fighting against the tyrannical federation, a totalitarian regime that had control over Earth and the majority of human colonies in the milky way. Like Voyager, it works because of the characters, who are all various shades of grey, whether heroes or villains. There’s no boring ‘black and white’ morality here – the majority of rebels are convicted criminals (thieves, hackers, smugglers, murderers) and are somewhat justifiably presented by the federation as terrorists, while the villains are generally complex characters and never just moustache twirling villains. On the rebel side, you have the titular Blake, a fanatical but generally well-meaning leader, Vila, a cowardly thief, Jenna, a no-nonsense smuggler, Cally, a telepathic gunslinger/medic, Gan, a hulking if dim-witted giant and Avon, a thoroughly duplicitous hacker played by the marvellous Paul Darrow, who proved so popular he took over as lead actor for series 3 and 4. The villains include Travis, a ruthless federation officer with a penchant for leather outfits, and Servalan, his female superior, who is notably one of the first ever female villains in sci-fi and radiates power, malevolence and dangerous beauty throughout. There are some similarities to Classic Who and Classic Star Trek, but Blakes 7 is very much its own thing. While aliens play a part in events, its one of those sci-fi shows where humans are very much the real villains. There’s few high-concepts like time-travel, though teleportation and high-speed space travel play a big part. Overall its a gritty, dark thoroughly adult sci-fi show, which is still remembered on account of it having one of the bleakest and most infamous endings of any TV show. You have been warned. (For god’s sake don’t look it up in advance – that would be akin to spoiling the Red Wedding). You can buy the complete box set for around £20, which is pretty damn good for 52, fifty minute episodes.
High Point: Avon might just be the best anti-hero in Science fiction, while Servalan is definitely one of the all-time great female sci-fi villains.
Low Point: The special effects vary between dire and mediocre. Blame the BBC for giving it a shoestring budget.
4. Stranger Things: If you’re after something more modern, the best current sci-fi show I can think of is Stranger Things. I’ve reviewed it before, so I won’t go into as much detail, but Stranger Things is a great episode of how to mix drama, comedy, horror and fantasy into one great Science Fiction show. Set in the 80’s, it feels like a homage to a whole variety of 80’s cult and sci-fi films, including Aliens and many Spielberg films. The direction is universally good, the writing is consistently strong (even if both seasons take 3-4 episodes to properly get going) and the music is absolutely sublime. But the main reason you’ll stick with it is the cast, featuring established greats like Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Dave Harbour and Paul Reiser, but also young stars like Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard. Given how often Star Trek and Doctor Who have been let down by poor child-actors, it’s refreshing to see an adult-oriented show that actually has a really engaging young cast. The sci-fi elements are really great, featuring alternate dimensions and creepy government labs, you’ll have seen it all before, but not as compellingly done as it is here. On Netflix, you’ll probably binge the whole thing in 4 or 5 days.
High Point: Hard to say, but the last three episode of season 1 and episodes 5-9 of season 2 are unmissable television.
Low Point: The first few episodes may not hook you, but there isn’t really a bad one so far. It’s a pretty consistent show to be honest.
5. (Classic) Doctor Who: Slight cheat this, but given how few ‘fans’ have ever really gone back and watched the classic series its a valid option, and given its stories are normally 4-6 part instalments of 25 minutes each, it feels quite different from the Doctor Who you’re probably used to. Given there are 26 series from 1963-1989, featuring 7 very distinct Doctors (most people would plump for Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton as the best, but Jon Pertwee is up there too) you can sate your fix for Doctor Who without bearing with Chibnall’s clusterfuck or re-watching Eccleston-Capaldi for the umpteenth time. While you may struggle with the cheap and lacklustre special effects and some mediocre stories and companions, there’s plenty of great Doctors, great companions (Sarah Jane, The Brigadier, Jamie, Ian and Barbara, K9, Romana – just to name a few) and some stories that are equal to anything the modern series has produced: The Invasion (1969), Inferno (1970), Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Earthshock (1981), The Caves of Androzani (1984) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) are all some of my (and the fanbases) favourites, and are good ones to try out to see if you can handle the classic era. Don’t start with Hartnell and go chronologically – the majority of bad who stories come from either the early 60’s or the mid eighties. I’d recommend you start from Patrick Troughton’s second series (The Tomb of the Cybermen onwards) through to when Peter Davison exits. You’ll find the odd bad episode, but you’ll get some of the best Dalek and Cybermen stories out there, as well as seeing the introductions of Davros, the Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, the Ice Warriors and UNIT, so there’s plenty of things to watch out for. Just don’t expect it to look anywhere near as good as the modern series. It doesn’t. The direction can be quite good though, even if the composers aren’t in Murray Gold’s league. Not all the episodes are easy to find, but many are on dailymotion and most are relatively cheap to buy on dvd.
High Point: Tom Baker’s 2nd (1975), 3rd (1976) and 5th (1978) series are about as good as you can get, but Pertwee’s 1st series (1970), Sylvester McCoy’s last series (1989) and Patrick Troughton’s third series (1969) all feature some great stories and are pretty good throughout.
Low Point: There’s some really bad William Hartnell stories, and Colin Baker’s tenure was very hit-and-miss, but you can’t get worse than McCoy’s first series in 1987. It’s probably the only one worse than the series currently airing. It features four stories, all of which are bad, and Bonnie Langford’s Mel has to be the worst companion in the series 55-year history.
So there you go: my take on some shows disillusioned Whovians might appreciate at the moment. Or you can just go and rewatch Torchwood. Your call!