About the only thing worse than seeing a brilliant SciFi television series with lots of potential be prematurely canceled is seeing it worn down over a year or two into something outrightly unrecognizable, its stories dumbed down, its cast members purged and its potential wiped away.
This is the story of how it happened to five Science Fiction TV series.
Arguably Sliders remains one of the most notorious examples of this in part because of just how brilliant the premise of Sliders was. Television had its share of time travel and space travel SF series but Sliders was something else, a brilliant and simple premise of travelers moving between alternate universes in which history had taken another turn at some point and produced an entirely different outcome creating worlds similar to ours and yet different. Worlds in which the United States lost the Cold War or the Revolutionary War. Worlds where the gender balance was different resulting in a matriarchal rather than a patriarchal society and worlds where your parents never met or where your own life had come out in dramatically different ways.
A project of Star Trek The Next Generation writer and producer Tracy Torme, Sliders launched on FOX to high expectations and high acclaim. Yet FOX had managed to destroy more unique and promising Science Fiction TV series than anyone else and Sliders would prove to be no exception.
Beyond the promising premise a good deal of the series’ appeal came from the charm of its cast, with Jerry O’Connell as Quinn Mallory, an obtuse but brilliant physics student who with the help of an alternate universe double produces a device capable of punching a wormhole through universes, John Rhys Davies as Professor Maxmillian Arturo, Sabrina Lloyd as Wade Wells, Quinn’s naive computer store colleague with a crush on him and Cleavant Derricks, as Rembrandt Brown, a singer known as “The Crying Man” trying to get his career back on track. Strange as it might seem the foursome clicked instantly and while they were together even the more mediocre episodes of Sliders were watchable.
Yet what the menaces of alternate universes could not do, FOX did, cancelling Sliders twice and finally bringing in David Peckinpah who proceeded to wreck and destroy the series both on FOX and after its relocation to the SciFi Channel. John Rhys Davies who had provided much of the show’s charm and gravity was fired in a vicious fashion and replaced by Kari Wuhrer, a B Movie actress with no acting ability whose career was mainly premised on a willingness to appear naked on camera. Then Sabrina Lloyd was disposed of in an even more vicious fashion than John Rhys Davies had been. Jerry O’Connell insisted on bringing his brother on board who couldn’t act. Both of them left the show leaving Cleavant Derricks as the only remaining cast member who had been transformed into a soldier. By then no one was watching anymore.
After five years, Sliders had not only become a shadow of its own self but had been warped and distorted, its creators and original actors driven off and the show transformed into something outright repulsive, as well as being used by David Peckinpah as a forum for payback against actors he didn’t like, portraying the character of Maxmillian Arturo being killed several ways and Wade Wells being raped in a breeding camp. Much of this was the doing of FOX as well as later SciFi Channel executives who failed to interfere and put a stop to what was going on. The tragedy of Sliders is only outmatched by the loftiness of its premise and potential.
2. Earth Final Conflict
The first attempt to create a TV series, supposedly based on Gene Roddenberry’s own plans by his widow Majel Barrett Roddenberry, Earth Final Conflict debuted as a sensitive thoughtful series about the arrival of the Taelons, an alien race to earth, seemingly possessed of wisdom and yet also ruthless and determined to achieve their purposes. Some worship the Taelons and others fear them but the Taelons have their own plans for humanity.
At least that was the original premise. The first season was a promising collection of episodes that balanced William Boone’s need to learn about the Taelons with his desire to bring down the Taelons and see justice done for the murder of his wife by Sandoval, a servant of the Taelons, implanted with a device that makes him absolutely loyal to the Taelons.
By the second season William Boone had been killed off and replaced with Robert Leeshock as Liam Kincaid. Unfortunately unlike Kevin Kilner who had played Boone, Robert Leeshock couldn’t act. Still Earth Final Conflict continued on with an amazing second season finale that saw a staged assassination and the imposition of Taelon enforced martial law on earth at the direction of the President.
The third season saw Lilly killed off and replaced with Reene Palmer, Jayne Heitmeyer whose acting skills were equal to Robert Leeshock. Jonathan Doors, a mainstay of the series was killed off too. Season Four took the series off the rails and with the entire original cast of the characters besides Sandoval dead, it finished off by wiping out the Taelons too. The fifth season became Renee the Atavus Slayer, now on her own, fighting vampiric aliens who were basically vampires with more makeup. By then the show had completely come apart. A brief attempt to bring back Boone failed. A series finale that had Renee turn into Captain Kirk and go exploring through the stars failed to redeem what Earth Final Conflict had been
3. Star Trek
It isn’t the first series that springs to mind but the original Star Trek was cancelled by the end of Season 2 and while the series did go on to a third season, it was a pale shadow of its former self, deprived of Gene Roddenberry who had departed the series. Season 3 was responsible for some of the worst episode of the classic Star Trek TV series and perhaps even the franchise as a whole, generating such stinkers as the infamous Spock’s Brain, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, The Way to Eden, The Cloud Minders and Turnabout Intruder.
With Season 3, Star Trek the original series was cancelled. It returned later as an animated series and then as a series of films but the show which had begun it all was over.
The second series to be launched after Gene Roddenberry’s death supposedly inspired by Roddenberry’s notes, Andromeda got off to a troubled start that only grew more troubled. Possessing a promising premise of the Captain of a massive intelligent starship with a visible avatar in the Commonwealth, a vast confederation of worlds destroyed in a nietzscheans attack and finding the Starship Andromeda thrust forward into the future where nietzscheans rule over Earth as well as many of the worlds in the former Commonwealth, Kevin Sorbo as Captain Dylan Hunt and a ragtag crew was meant to rebuild the Commonwealth. Instead the series avoided the story of rebuilding the Commonwealth instead focusing on one shot stories. By the second season, Tribune Entertainment did to Andromeda what it had done to Earth Final Conflict and what it would later do to Mutant X.
Andromeda’s creator, former DS9 producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe was gone and was replaced by SeaQuest’s Engels in a coup masterminded in part by series star Kevin Sorbo. The series had alienated its fans by then and the series became increasingly uneven and confused. What had been a promising premise devolved into chaos. RevBem, the series’ spiritual alien left the series. Trance, its purple skinned other alien, got a sexier makeover. The show ran for several more seasons but few knew it even existed by that point and primarily focused on foreign resale rights.
5. SeaQuest DSV
SeaQuest DSV was meant to be the underwater answer to Star Trek The Next Generation. Frequently filled with derogatory references to the space program, this was one of a number of Stephen Spielberg’s ill fated TV ventures. Yet audiences demonstrated a limited interest in the show’s original more realistic take on undersea explorations. That’s when the aliens entered the picture and everyone went off into space to fight a war with the aliens. The show’s Captain played by Roy Scheider, departed the series in disgust and was replaced by Michael Ironside. The cutesy factor was gone replaced by militarism and a war against some sort of evil Micronesian empire and then genetically engineered soldiers. It was a sad state of affairs in a handful of seasons for a formerly top rated series with a high pedigree and an impressive cast that had been at the center of a battle royale with Lois and Clark.
However executives and producers and studios and cast members contrive to ruin a series, it is always sad to see the descent of a promising TV show into something worse than oblivion, but the perdition of botched efforts and missed opportunities.