‘Super Sci-Fi Saturday Nights’


by Doug Snauffer

There’s an abundance of science fiction and fantasy on TV these days, and you can find it just about anywhere. The Syfy Channel, for example, produces its own line of original series’ like Aftermath, Incorporated and Channel Zero. Of course, such programming is their stock-in-trade.

However, even the major broadcast networks are churning out their share of similar content, with such titles as ABC’s Agents of Shield, NBC’s Timeless, and Fox’s Gotham. The CW in particular has jumped on the comic book craze currently dominating big-screen box offices. They became home for the displaced Supergirl after she proved incompatible with CBS’ older-skewing demographic last season. At the CW she now keeps regular company with Blade, Arrow, and the Legends of Tomorrow.

I enjoy many of these shows myself, but none of them possess that special magic like the programs I grew up with. The special effects weren’t always that special, the scripts were far from groundbreaking, and the science was far more fiction than fact.

But sci-fi fans of that era, the Baby Boomers, (aka, the first TV Generation) possessed something that today’s younger viewers don’t — a greater ability to suspend disbelief. And each subsequent generation since — the Gen-Xers, Gen Y-ers, and Millennials — have demanded more plausibility in their science fiction.

That’s to be expected of course; with time comes change, and change is inevitable. But personally, I still favor those programs from the 1960s and ‘70s. When it comes to TV, I’m a Gen-Xer at heart. So rather than Syfy, I get my weekly fix of otherworldly adventure from MeTV.

Their Super Sci-Fi Saturday Nights is a twelve-hour marathon of classic titles guaranteed to invoke feelings of excitement and nostalgia in anyone who grew up with their head in the stars.

Ross Martin (left) and Robert Conrad (taking his best shot) in The Wild Wild West.

The reminiscing begins each Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. with The Wild Wild West (CBS, 1965-69), a program which looked to cash-in on the ‘secret agent’ craze of the 1960s (Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, James Bond) by placing a pair of Secret Service agents in the Old West. The series, which featured Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, is well-remembered for its elaborately staged fight sequences.

At 7:00 p.m. comes The Incredible Hulk (CBS, 1977-82) with Bill Bixby as cursed scientist Dr. David Banner, who when angered transforms into a huge, raging green beast (played by Lou Ferrigno). This show still holds up as the best-ever screen adaptation of the Marvel comic-book character.

Then at 8:00 p.m. a D.C. Comics superhero takes center-stage with Wonder Woman (ABC/CBS, 1976-79). Several attempts have been made in recent years to bring the Amazonian demigoddess to both TV and movie screens, but at present Lynda Carter’s portrayal is still considered the definitive Wonder Woman. Despite being produced during the Feminist Movement, the show relied heavily on Carter’s ability to jiggle and bounce her way through most episodes.

Lynda Carter as that ’70s All-American girl, Wonder Woman.

Next up, at 9:00 p.m., comes classic Star Trek (NBC, 1966-69). If Gunsmoke was an “adult Western,” then Star Trek was the sci-fi equivalent. Compared to other genre programs of the era, Trek could be considered exceptionally literate. The show was set aboard a 23rd century starship, the Enterprise, as it explored the farthest regions of space seeking to make first contact with alien races.

Star Trek laid the groundwork for an empire. As of 2016, there have been five spin-off series (with number six in the works) and thirteen feature films. But nothing beats these 79 episodes from the shows original run on NBC.

From 10:00 p.m. to midnight, MeTV revisits another programming concept made popular back in the 1960s — the late-night horror TV host. The honors here belong to Emmy-winning Chicago TV personality Rich Koz, who dons a black cape and top-hat and assumes the identity of his alter-ego, Svengoolie.

Rich Koz in the guise of MeTV horror-movie host Svengoolie.

Koz has a predilection for the old Universal movie monsters — Dracula, the Werewolf, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. All films which likewise appeal to the same audiences who adore classic ‘60s TV.

Then, at the midnight hour, comes a double-dose of the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder (Adam West and Burt Ward) , with two episodes of Batman (ABC, 1966-68), typically the first and concluding segments of a two-part story.

Unlike those series’ mentioned above, Batman was enacted very theatrically (the third season even did away with physical walls, opting instead for infinity backgrounds), and directed with a very particular and surreal style in mind. It was intentionally campy.

If you accept it on those terms, it’s an enjoyable program. If you choose to view it as a serious attempt at breathing life into the Dark Knight character, as director Tim Burton did with his 1989 feature film, you’ll be sorely disappointed. And that would be a shame, because Batman is a pleasant and enjoyable diversion, especially the fight scenes.

It would’ve been nice, however, if the producers of Batman had put as much effort into choreographing their brawls as the producers of The Wild Wild West had. They were often staged very skillfully, while at other times it seemed as if they were improvised on the spot.

Rehearsals didn’t necessarily guarantee success though. Actors Don ‘Red’ Barry and Robert Conrad were both badly injured performing stunts for The Wild Wild West:

The following four hours are then dedicated to a sub-marathon of programs from legendary producer Irwin Allen.

Leading off is Land of the Giants (CBS, 1968-70), a visually challenging series to film about the crew of a futuristic, commercial shuttle flight that breaks through a dimensional barrier and winds up in a world populated by giants.

At the time, Land of the Giants was the most expensive series ever produced for television at a cost of $250,000 per episode. Due to the cost, CBS demanded a reduction in the budget for Lost in Space, which had originally been renewed for a fourth season. Allen balked at the proposed cuts, and when CBS announced their fall 1968 schedule, Lost in Space was absent. Gary Conway, Don Marshall, and Deanna Lund star.

Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel.

The giants are followed at 2:00 a.m. by The Time Tunnel (ABC, 1966-67), which at one season was the shortest-lived of Allen’s programs. When the government threatens to shutter his incredibly expensive time travel program, scientist Tony Newman (James Darren) leaps into his ‘time tunnel’ to prove its viability, and ends up on-board the Titanic. His friend and partner on the project, Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), follows him, and the two become lost in time.

At 3:00 a.m. comes Lost in Space (CBS, 1965-68), the most popular of Allen’s shows, which follows the adventures of the first family sent to colonize deep space. Just before launch an enemy agent sabotages the mission, but is unable to get off the vessel before liftoff. He, the Robinsons, and their pilot escape near calamity, but the Jupiter 2 is thrown hopelessly off-course and the party must all work together for survival in the wilderness of space. Guy Williams, June Lockhart, Billy Mumy, and Jonathan Harris star.

The Irwin Allen theme comes to a close with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (ABC, 1964-68), the first and longest-running of the producer’s 1960s sci-fi superfecta. The series is based on Allen’s own 1961 feature film of the same title starring Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, and Peter Lorre. It’s set aboard a technologically advanced submarine, the Seaview, as it patrols the world’s oceans in the then-future of the 1970s! Richard Basehart and David Hedison star in the TV version.

MeTV’s 12-hour marathon finally wraps up from 5:00 to 6:00 a.m. with Planet of the Apes (CBS, 1974), a short-lived spinoff from the popular movie series. Ron Harper and James Naughton star as two astronauts who are thrust forward to the year 3085, a time when the Earth is ruled by intelligent simians. Roddy McDowall, who had appeared in four of the five feature films, also stars as Galen, a sympathetic chimp who befriends the astronauts. Together these three go on-the-run as fugitives from the gorillas, who maintain dominance, as the men search for a possible way back to their own time.

Roddy McDowall, James Naughton, and Ron Harper in Planet of the Apes.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that twelve-hour science-fiction marathons are not everyone’s idea of an enjoyable evening, beginning with those who have lives. But even so, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can always pick and chose your preferences and DVR them for later viewing. I love them all, and being a writer have no life, so for me it’s a perfect way to spend a Saturday night.

And while few of these programs are likely to appeal to those under age 35 — in mass numbers anyway — middle-aged viewers who grew up during those eras are likely be swept back to childhood, and racing home from school to catch the latest adventures of their sci-fi heroes.

Douglas Snauffer is an Ohio-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in myriad publications and on SyFy Channel and includes several cult horror films and the books The Show Must Go On and Crime Television.