25 Television
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Author:  Andy [ Mon Mar 05, 2007 11:23 am ]
Post subject:  25 Television

In each of the 2007 issues of Interzone we're running top tens from the last 25 years of various media, which we thought we'd post to the forum as well for you to comment on and put forward your own top tens.

We begin in issue 209 with Afterlife creator Stephen Volk's unashamedly personal highs in the last 25 years of genre television:

10. DOCTOR WHO – “DALEK” (2005)

To resurrect the dead had to be a poisoned chalice, and many wouldn’t have touched it with a bargepole. But Russell T. Davies wittily went back to the inner nutter: a paranoid schizophrenic, this time regenerated as Christopher Eccleston, who talks in earnest about aliens and time travel, and teamed him with an EastEnders-style Buffy.

The episode “Dalek” written by Rob Shearman was the best (for a series that lurched effortlessly from moments of brilliance to moments of cringe-inducing crassness); a masterful concept where the doctor’s deadliest foe is presented a la Hannibal Lecter, in captivity. Result? The BBC basked in its glory. Whoever doubted it would work? Well, actually, everyone.

9. GHOSTWATCH (1992)

I’m including this programme (written by me) not out of vanity but because I think, for a genre piece, it put a flag in the map at a certain point in TV history. My intention was to write a good ghost story for TV, yes, but also I wanted it to be a satire, a warning about who and what we trust. In the early 90s documentaries had begun to be shot like drama, dramas shot like documentaries, even CNN newscasts from the Gulf War were overlayed with music – and I wanted the audience to ask, what are they telling us? What are we watching? Is it true? Ironically, for some viewers at the time, Ghostwatch was.


The sheer guts of Troy Kennedy-Martin’s writing, combined with future Bond-director Martin Campell to produce a tour de force unafraid of stepping over genre boundaries: cop show, political drama, conspiracy thriller, ghost story and finally, most riskily, terrifying science fiction.

As in Vertigo, the mystery Bob Peck’s cop has to figure out ultimately is himself: where he stands, where we all stand. Joe Don Baker is the mad-dog nuclear hero-monster to end them all, and possibly us in the process. Clapton’s guitar is haunting, as well it might be: the bomb of Edge of Darkness’s ecological message is still ticking today.


In this neglected, brilliant TV movie Charles Dance plays an army officer in 1941 sent to investigate rum talk in rural England about German spies, and gets embroiled in a taut psychological spiral born of prejudice, hysteria, misogyny, and plain old hatred of the “other” – resembling the flavour of a medieval witch craze.

Writer David Pirie is no stranger to the motifs and devices of horror - he wrote “A Heritage of Horror,” the seminal critical work on Hammer Films – and he’s on record as saying that Rainy Day Women was inspired by the paranoid thrillers of the 50’s, in particular Quatermass 2. Outstanding.


Classic Trek blew my mind. But as I grew up the series soured for me. When I saw on TV the fresh-faced but earnest Lt Calley, responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, I couldn’t help thinking “Captain Kirk”.

The truth is, the Federation was all about Empire: America being the cops of the universe. Now, in the actual future, they’re merely cops of the world. But hey, it’s a start.

For me the standout characters were always the inhuman ones – God save us from emotions – and wouldn’t we all like Mr Data in the White House? A robot programmed by others? God forbid.


When writer Russell T. Davies pitched this idea, TV execs must have thought he meant a comedy. “No,” he said, “I’m serious. What if Jesus Christ comes back? Today.”

The result is a single-drama with a Spielbergian scale but none of the sentiment. This stupendously ambitious “what-if” is by turns funny, moving, vivid, surprising, and cruel: because it’s about human beings.

Cuddly Mark Benton makes a chilling Satan, Chris Eccleston as a pre-Who nutter pulls off the miraculous, and Lesley Sharp grounds it all (as she always does, brilliantly) as his girlfriend: the spaghetti scene is Harold Pinter with metaphysics.

4. RIGET (aka KINGDOM) (1994)

Not to be confused with Stephen King’s disappointing remake for the US called Kingdom Hospital, this extraordinary Danish TV series, with its ghostly ambulance, voodoo-obsessed surgeon, and Down’s Syndrome savants in the boiler room was written and directed by Dogme manifesto wunderkind Lars Van Trier.

It’s clear, not only here but in his movies, that Von Trier is having fun. Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Manderlay shock in a tongue-poking, schoolyard way, disguised only by the director’s brilliance. Here in Riget/Kingdom he announces each episode Hitchcock-like in a tuxedo, in arch, stupid prologues. But still what follows is scary as hell.

3. THE X-FILES (1993-2002)

Chris Carter’s Mulder and Scully are of course The Avengers and Silence of the Lambs put in a blender: two partners who show up mysteriously and address each other by their surnames. Add subtextual romantic attraction. Add Outer Limits monsters. Close Encounters aliens. Urban legends? Popular folklore? Come on down.

I was never a massive fan of the series for this very reason. Too often it used chimeras reinvented from movies or back issues of the Fortean Times - though there’s no denying the chemistry of the laconic Duchovny and the radiant Anderson. Not to mention Eugene Toombs. Till the format went AWOL and the show overstayed its welcome.

2. TWIN PEAKS (1990-1991)

At the creative helm of Twin Peaks was David Lynch, who Mel Brooks called “James Stewart from Mars,” and the under-credited Mark Frost, formerly of Hill Street Blues, and therefore no slouch. The result was a clash of logic and irrationality not matched since Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the similarly outrageous and similarly ridiculous tale of a detective and a murder.

The allure of this nasty hometown dreamland faded with familiarity and the show fired blanks as often as it scored bulls-eyes, but, let’s face it, that cherry pie was damn fine.


Joe Ahearne, now slumming it with the regenerated Doctor Who, deserves icon status for writing and directing a vampire show with wit, intelligence, style, atmosphere and, that rare thing, a steady authorial hand. UV is dark and unapologetic, sucking you in and seducing you with its po-faced seriousness. Plot? As recently ripped off in the oh-so-inferior Torchwood, cop Jack Davenport stumbles over a secret cell, and they’re forced to take him in. Bloodsuckers are all around us. It’s an invisible war. Corin Redgrave played one of them and should’ve got a BAFTA. So why was it axed? Because the new regime at Channel Four didn’t “get” horror. Enough to make you spit. Blood.

Stephen Volk’s television credits include the notorious BBCTV Halloween special Ghostwatch, Channel Four’s horror anthology Shockers, and ITV1’s multi award-winning paranormal series Afterlife starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln. He’s currently developing a new science fiction series with the same producers, Clerkenwell Films.

What do you think of Steve's choices? What would be in your top ten?

Author:  Tony [ Mon Mar 05, 2007 3:07 pm ]
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I'd agree with Stephen's choices of X-Files and Ultraviolet, but not much else from that list.

For starters, I think Star Trek: Voyager was far superior to TNG.

Can't do a definitive top 10 list without giving this topic a lot more thought... but other shows I enjoyed include: Millennium, Angel, Sliders, Babylon 5, Smallville, Max Headroom, Neverwhere, and (although it lost the plot in its later seasons) Alias.

Glad to see it missing from Stephen's list, and perhaps the most overrated 'sci-fi' TV show of recent years is the wretched Farscape..?

Author:  PaulJ [ Mon Mar 05, 2007 10:23 pm ]
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A couple on that list I have to admit are new to me <hides face in shame>, but I'd agree about Ultraviolet, and partly about Second Coming, which though it was a one-off drama, made quite an impact.

And I disagree about "Dalek", which was out of character in the new Doctor Who. (There were highs and lows in both of the new series, but on the whole I think the Tennant series has been better -- though perhaps more variable).

Edge of Darkness and Twin Peaks were both landmark series, for different reasons. I'd add Bird of Prey, as a drama ushering in the information age.

Author:  PaulJ [ Mon Mar 05, 2007 10:27 pm ]
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...oh, I forgot Torchwood, which must surely be destined for a list like this... :D

Author:  Stephen Volk [ Tue Mar 06, 2007 11:58 am ]
Post subject:  top ten tv

I never watched Angel (or Buffy) or Sliders or Babylon 5 or Neverwhere (maybe it's my age), but I was asked to write Max Headroom (didn't get it). Alias I found superficial and boring, but then I think the same about 24. Torchwood I find well-made and clever but glib and imitative, and I couldn't care less about the smug characters. It doesn't strike me as the "adult" fare it was touted as.

Author:  pendragon [ Tue Mar 06, 2007 10:39 pm ]
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Ultraviolet was criminally mis-handled by C4; Edge of Darkness is just sublime - I was too young to watch it originally, but the dvd is just fantastic - Clapton & Kamen's score perfectly complements a stunning production, directed intelliently by Campbell with a tour-de-force performance from Peck plus Joe Don Baker who does steal the show.

But, is it sf? Speculative of course, but telefantasy? It has elements, being the daughter's ghost.

If I were to increase the number of programmes, I'd also add Threads to the list: scared the fucking shit out of me as a ten year-old.

Author:  Stephen Volk [ Thu Mar 08, 2007 11:31 am ]
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Threads was on my list, narrowly missed inclusion.

I think the harrowing ending of Edge of Darkness justified its place in speculative fiction. That, and the "ghost" of his daughter, which wasn't exactly naturalistic!

Author:  chitman13 [ Thu Mar 08, 2007 1:04 pm ]
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I must admit that I haven't seen most shows on the list, but I can agree with those (few!) that I have.

I remember Star Trek, both TNG and Voyager as notable shows for myself and one of the main reasons I started getting interested in sci-fi. Since then I've watched many of the 'big' series' that have been on tv, but have lost out to many without have satellite tv - I've grown up on the 4 basic channels in the UK.

The one programme that stands out for me more than any other, and the one that I love to this day, is Red Dwarf. The setting, comedy and characters just hit the spot with me, and although they evolved during the eight series' the magic was never lost.

Author:  Roy [ Tue Mar 13, 2007 11:03 pm ]
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I thought Ultraviolet was all surface and no substance.

Where was Red Dwarf though? One episode, where the robot detaches his hand to send for help after an accident, was the funniest TV I've ever seen and a nice piece of SF too. Others, like the 'Game of Life' episodes were almost as good. I missed later series so maybe the magic faded but, for a while, it was up with the best.

HHTG on TV never quite worked so it maybe has no place in the top 10.

Author:  friendlygun [ Wed Mar 14, 2007 10:26 am ]
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Red Dwarf series 3 through 6 is classic SF TV, and the first 2 series are pretty good as well, but 7 and 8 really dragged the name through the mud (despite having their moments).

Author:  Rich [ Mon Mar 19, 2007 11:16 am ]
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I have to admit, I've not really watched any of the programmes mentioned. Only the X-Files, which I kept tuning into, until it went a bit haywire (aka rubbish).

I thought about what I've liked watching and realised they don't fit into the last 25 years. Twlight Zone, Blakes 7 (you can laugh, but it was way better than Star Trek, more down and dirty/realistic for want of a better phrase).

So, maybe not the best in the last 25 years, but here's my list: New Battlestar Galactica - entertaining. LOST - the only programme in recent history which has made me look forward to it each week.

*Brainstrain at the moment!*

I totally agree with Red Dwarf, although it had its weak points, it was entertaining and funny.

Emmerdale Street and Coronation Farm rate high on my list too.. succulent SF entertainment in an alternate reality, probably on a close timeline as we are now.

Reading the above comments makes me think I'll probably check out some of the more interesting sounding programmes in the IZ25 list... :shock:


Author:  friendlygun [ Mon Mar 19, 2007 12:12 pm ]
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It's quite far outside the '25 years' range, but I wanted to say that I watched Quatermass and the Pit for the first time a few weeks back and it is bloody brilliant. Highly recommended to any other younger fans who put off watching it as long as I did.

And I enjoyed Babylon 5 when I first saw it (after not watching any TV for maaany years) but, looking back at it, it's really quite rubbish isn't it? Stilted dialogue, wooden acting, characters who often veered from being flat to being banal, the unimaginative set design... it wasn't without its highlights, mainly thanks to the long-term plotting and backstory, but it doesn't belong in any best-of list.

Author:  Roy [ Mon Mar 19, 2007 7:06 pm ]
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I'm old enough to have watched the original b&w tv 'Quatermass and the Pit' and it was scary. I was 14 or so and it left an impression.

I remember the things that made it so scary was that it all hung together so well. It seemed seamless. And then he did it again with 'The Stone Tapes'.

Author:  Icarus [ Fri May 04, 2007 10:21 pm ]
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I'd put Edge of Darkness in there, and not just because I was eighteen when it came out and Joanne Whalley was in it. Sigh. That must qualify as mundane science fiction surely?

I think there are a few suggestions in the thread which had some superb moments, but were pretty inconsistent: Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, the new Doctor Who & Sliders. No one mentioned Firefly. That had its moments but it was flawed too. TNG was good. Voyager was better.

If the so-bad-it's-good-fest was the original Battlestar Galactica can be transformed so brilliantly - it has to be the best looking reanimated corpse on television - then maybe Aunty Beeb should charge up the defibrillators for Blake's 7. The sets were rubbish and the acting was pure play-school, but the ideas were okay. Actually, no that's a bad idea. The Beeb would probably bring it back as part of the Holby franchise.

What about The Tomorrow People? Am I being sentimental? That had Peter Davidson, Dave Prowse and Sandra Dickinson doing bit-parts, so you could argue that it launched a few glittering sci-fi careers. Sort of.

Author:  Foxie [ Sat May 05, 2007 8:40 am ]
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It's great to see Red Dwarf get the mention it deserves (absolutely agree with friendlygun), and I'm surprised that no one's mentioned DS9 - surely the best of the Star Trek efforts.

What I'm even more surprised about it that no one's mentioned Wild Palms. Oliver Stone's masterpiece of freedom and the corporation surely warrants a mention on the list of greatest T.V. moments of the last 25 years, let alone sci-fi moments. Maybe it wouldn't look so good ten years down the line, but when I was sixteen that show defined everything which, for me, creative media could and should be. It's such a shame that the proliferation of channels means that the beeb are so terrified of losing their audience that they dare not deviant from the mainstream. BBC2 used to be a place where you could tune in at eleven at night and guarantee to either be confused or fall in love with something. Now all we get is snooker and repeats of The Apprentice.

Oh, and as for classic sci-fi, Buck Rogers surely should be mentioned. Under the thick layers of camp and seventies styling, there were some really good ideas in there.

Second Coming was genius, I have to add, and Dalek?? Surely the worst Doctor Who episode since Delta and the Bannemen?

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