This article was originally published at showwatcher.com on May 16, 2012.
Television has had a long history of taking hit motion pictures and adapting them as television series. Occasionally the TV shows are better than the movies they are based on or have more of an impact on the public consciousness. While many comedies and dramas have successfully made the transition from the big to small screen, here are five science fiction movies that made very good television (sorry, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, that’s fantasy/horror, not science fiction).
Before Roland Emmerich began destroying the world, he made the cool science fiction adventure Stargate, about a military team and a nerdy cartographer/linguist travel through some mysterious gate dug up in Egypt and find themselves on another planet fighting an ancient god that is really an alien. While the movie was a fun escapist diversion, the most memorable thing about it was the potential it had. It was a great concept that ultimately turned into a rally-around-the-flag battle with spaceships and explosions. It only made sense that this story be continued and explored more in depth as a TV series. Stargate SG-1 recast the roles and retooled them a bit (Colonel Jack O’Neill was no longer so suicidally sulky), arguably an improvement over the film. Fans responded to the show, which lasted a whopping ten seasons, first on Showtime and then on Sci-Fi Channel. It spawned two live action spin-offs, an animated sequel, and a couple of direct-to-video movies. Second only to Star Trek, this series has made more impact on science fiction television than any other by telling intricate story arcs in a complex universe.
It’s common for movies in a series to ignore previous installments, but Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is possibly the only TV series based on movies to selectively continue the story from one film but ignore its sequel. In this case, the TV show is a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, but pretends that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines never existed. It picks up a few years after T2 with Sarah and her teenaged son John (AKA the future leader of the human resistance against the machines that want to wipe out all humanity) in hiding and once again being tracked by a time-traveling robot. Through plot contrivances, they access the same time-displacement device that has made this entire story possible and go forward in time, thereby placing them in 2009 and avoiding either a continuity problem of changing the time period of the movies or being saddled with having to make a period piece. This show was filled with terrific action and special effects, great acting (Lena Headey almost made us forget about Linda Hamilton, and Brian Austin Green was surprisingly effective as John’s uncle Derek Reese), and a serialized storyline that both honored James Cameron‘s films and expanded this universe into a thrilling and compelling production that had a life of its own. Unfortunately, it only lasted two seasons and concluded with a twist that acted as either a huge cliffhanger or an indication that the previous plot had been resolved and left us to imagine how John’s situation would eventually lead him to become the rebel fighter in the future war.
As with Stargate, the film Alien Nation had a great concept that wasn’t executed as well as the creators wanted. In fact, the title was supposed to state the theme (alienation), but a typo wiped that out by separating it into two words. Like the critically-hailed District 9, the story picked up years after an alien space craft crashed on Earth, leaving its inhabitants as unwelcome guests on our planet, though instead of CGI insects, we were given humans with prosthetics on their heads who integrated into our society as second-class citizens. The main characters were a pair of human/alien cops played by James Caan and Mandy Patinkin solving a crime, so the themes of one race being subjugated by another was overshadowed by a standard police procedural with a duo of contrasting buddies much like what was satirized in The Last Action Hero. The TV series took this concept and developed the themes of racism and other social issues, led by series creator Kenneth Johnson, who did similar things with The Incredible Hulk and V. Gary Graham and Eric Pierpoint made the characters more relate-able with light banter and a true friendship that grew between the characters. In addition to the social commentary, the lives and culture of the Newcomers are explored to a greater extent than the movie was able to do. FOX cancelled the show after one season (at least they gave Sarah Connor slightly more air time), but produced five follow-up TV movies.
Hollywood has gotten a lot of mileage from Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des Singes with five movies in the original film series and two reboots. In 1974, the year after the fifth movie hit the theaters, CBS premiered a TV version of Planet of the Apes that sort-of followed up the original film. Using sets and makeup from the films, the TV show was about a pair of astronauts who crash on Earth of the future, finding themselves in an era of taking apes who are in control. They meet Zaius (now played by Booth Colman), who tells them that a previous astronaut arrived there ten years prior, which apparently was a reference to Charleton Heston‘s character from the first movie. There are quite a number of discrepancies from the movies to the TV show (for instance, humans now talk and have a society rather than being wild animals), so the television version not quite a sequel (if it was, it would have set the precedence followed by Sarah Connor in ignoring movie sequels in favor of its own timeline of events). Roddy McDowell plays his third ape character, Galen, a chimpanzee who is sympathetic to the plight of the lost astronauts trying to cope in this crazy world. Only 14 episodes were produced that were later re-edited as TV movies. While lacking the social themes of most of the feature films, the TV series was still a rousing adventure and is a must for Apes fans. This show was followed up by a very good animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes that showed the apes living in a modern civilization
The guy from Airplane! taking over the role that earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award nomination? How much wronger can a TV adaptation go? Actually, the television series Starman got a lot of things right. Instead of being a remake like most series based on movies, it was a direct sequel to the John Carpenter film that told the story of an alien stranded on Earth who takes the form of a dead man and teams with his widow to get back to his people; in the course of the film, the two fall in love despite being of different species. The series picks up 15 years later (getting trapped in the paradox that Sarah Connor avoided by having to shift the time frame of the movie from 1984 to 1971, creating more continuity problems) with Starman returning to Earth and assuming the form of a recently-killed photographer played by Robert Hays. His beloved Jenny (why are the loves of protagonists always named Jenny?) is missing and her teenage son (Christopher Daniel Barnes) is in foster care. Starman and his son go on the road searching for Jenny, staying one step ahead of a government agent. Despite sounding like an alien version of The Incredible Hulk, this show found its own voice, mostly in the touching father-son relationship as the boy teaches his father what it means to be human while learning of his own alien powers. The show ran for one season, and the producers had enough foresight to see that cancellation was imminent, so they provided a two-part resolution to their journey (oddly followed by one more episode) when they finally find Jenny. There are some nice flashbacks to the movie, though remade with Erin Gray, who took over the role from Karen Allen.
© 2012 Jamie Helton
- Notes from the Future–The Terminator Series (FilmVerse)
- Classic TV Shows Turned Into Films (Show Watcher) (FilmVerse)
- Battle of the Airbenders: TV Series vs Film (FilmVerse)
- You won’t have to complain about Fox cancelling your favorite science fiction shows any more [Television] (io9.com)
- ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ Rises to the Top of “The DirecTV Top 10″ (tvbythenumbers.com)