As Doctor Who continues its blockbuster run on BBC Wales in the UK, it has seen favorable viewing figures on the Sci-Fi Channel in the US.
Yet there are many science fiction programs that have found some difficulty in finding an audience in their home country making the likelihood of them ever making it across the pond very slim.
So here are two of them.
1. The Strangerers (2000)
After developing the long running program of TV sci-fi’s dark age (1989-2000), Red Dwarf , Rob Grant and Doug Naylor split up. Naylor continued to work on the remaining two seasons of Red Dwarf (with varied quality as seen in Red Dwarf – Series 8) and Grant developed the incredibly bizarre program, the Strangerers… with little commercial success.
Strangerers is the straight-faced absurdist comedy featuring a botched alien mission in which the leader becomes decapitated early on in their visit and his incompetent inferiors are left to figure things out for themselves. Bumbling Cadets Niven and Flynn (played by hilarious physical comedians Mark Williams and Jack Docherty) cart their headless alien supervisor through the streets of London with two detectives (played by the amazingly versatile and brilliant Mark Heap (of Spaced and Green Wing) and the impossibly stunning Sarah Alexander (of Smack the Green Pony and Green Wing).
The series is not for everyone and even I felt that it took a long time to gain my attention, but I was glad that I stuck by it. The opening credits music reminiscent of the The Third Man and guest appearances by David Walliams (Little Britain), Blakes 7 stars Gareth Thomas and an inspired and truly creepy beyond words Paul Darrow bring a unique flair to the program that assists the performances by the leads by leaps and bounds.
It’s Darrow‘s character, C.D. (read: ‘seedy’) who steals the show. Replete with ill-fitting disco shirts and toupee, he runs the dirty hotel that the two cadets try to rent and perform the ‘sleeping ritual.’
In fact, every little thing that we humans do is an incredible and annoying mystery to these aliens. Their bodies experience audible pain and they have to research a handbook to discover the need to eat. Sleeping and dreaming are a nuisance to them and a brief erection causes one alient cadet to view his genitals as troublesome, hideous and worthy of ‘pruning’ (let the shrinks make of that what they will). In one later episode (after deciphering the science of eating leading to the consumption of numerous mini-hamburgers), Cadet Niven is horrified to find that black snakes are trying to escape his bottom.
Like I said, not for everyone, but if you like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams-style humor, this might be worth furious investigation. The program was a flop in the UK and it took me ages to find a recording so you should set yourself up for a long search.
2. Hyperdrive (2005)
Long time friend of Simon Pegg‘s, Nick Frost, is starting to become a bit of a minor celebrity. Starting with Spaced, he went on to ‘Two Pints and a Packet of Crisps,’ ‘Danger: 50,000 Volts’ and then ‘Hyperdrive.’ More recently he was in Shaun of the Dead and the film ‘Hot Fuzz.’
The only program that ever came close to attaining the mantle of sci-fi comedy greatness that the hugely successful Red Dwarf saw, Hyperdrive made a valiant effort. The crew of a super-futuristic space ship full of civil servants trying to promote a small English village to aliens as the ideal place to set up business is one of the funniest concepts I’ve ever run across for a TV series.
The crew consists of the idiotic and bumbling Commander Henderson to the xenophobic and gun-happy Mr. York (played Jam‘s Kevin Eldon). A straight send-up of Star Trek, the crew encounter alien cultures whose main weapon is a death ray that asks the victim to stay still while it works and a lost space traveler who has gone completely insane from isolation and only talks to her coffee mug that tells her men are scum.
The crew are rubbish at alien encounters, as seen here when the Commander tries to remind them to not use derogatory terms for the visiting aliens.
The program has impressive special effects, stunning design and inventive storylines including my favorite one where mousy officer Vine buys an unstable moon on ebay because he’s sick of being outbid. This leads to him to knocking out the crew-mate who egged him on to bid, the insane navigator Jeffers, as they try to have a pleasant stay on his planetoid… as it slowly explodes around them. After an attempt by Vine to befriend Jeffers, the enraged and antisocial crewman expounds on this deeply saddening tale. The scene goes on to see Vine deeply touched that Jeffers opened up to him and he attempts to tell a person story of his own only to get yelled at “Is this story better than mine?? Can it possibly TOP MINE!? NO?! THEN SHUT UP!”
The ship, obviously a joke on the super-sophisticated ships of Star Trek: The Next Generation, DS9, Voyager… etc, even has a ‘sex room’ where a sexually frustrated Commander Henderson invites crew mate Teal for some ‘meaningless sex,’ unaware that she pines hopelessly for him, with disastrous and depressing results.
It’s these science fiction settings for all too familiar situations that make the series work for me. They show the comedy and pathetic quality of the human condition that I adore.
With a recent announcement that BBC America may air the series, you may get the chance to see this one. Yet the channel did choose to show all of the episodes of Spaced in one evening and never again, so set your TiVo or you’ll miss it.