Thursday, September 5, 2013

Sci Fi And Sitcoms Pt. II

While comedy can be a fun mix with science fiction, not every comedy using it involved a friendly alien visiting earth. Some had fun with the future. The pilot for "Quark," interestingly enough, was broadcast May 7, 1977 a few weeks before "Star Wars" came out in the theaters in what would seem was a spate of growing interest in science fiction space opera (the original "Battlestar Galactica" first premiered in 1978 and "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" a year later). Richard Benjamin played Adam Quark, a dashing and intrepid space captain who none the less commanded a garbage scow. His team, including Betty I and II (a woman and her clone played by Cyb and Tricia Barnstable), Gene/Jean (a humanoid with both sets of gender hormones played by Tim Thomerson) and Ficus Pandorata (a life form from a sentient plant race played by Richard Kelton) picked up the refuse left behind by ships on more important missions. Yet somehow, Quark managed to get into situations where the fate of the universe rested on his shoulders. The show, created by Buck Henry, lasted only eight episodes, the blending of science fiction and comedy at times awkward and the effects a little dicey. Who knows what might have been if the show had been given more of a chance to find an audience and hit its stride. But it seems that that while audiences at the time were willing to watch their space opera spectaculars on the big screen, they were not so willing to do so on the small screen.

A much better version of comedy in space is "Red Dwarf", originally airing on the BBC. Dave Lister, played by Craig Charles, a lowly worker on the Red Dwarf mining ship who was in stasis when a radiation leak courses through the ship and kills everyone else. When he awakes, three million years later, the crew is dead and he's left alone to figure it all out. Well, he's not completely alone. He does have company in the hologram of Arnold Rimmer, immediate superior whose memories were stored on the computer. Trouble is that he never got along with Rimmer when he had a body. Rimmer's digital self isn't exactly an improvement. There is one more unexpected passenger roaring through the halls of the ship. The descendant of the pregnant cat that Rimmer smuggled on board three million years ago. Only this is no little kitty. Rather he's a humanoid (Danny John-Jules) evolved from the cat with a human's body and the crazy vanity and predatory reactions of a cat. The British seem to have a better handle on the sort of absurdity needed to do this right and "Red Dwarf" premiered in 1988 at a time when alternative comedy in Britain had taken on some of the anarchy of the recently emerged punk scene. At the heart of the show is Lister's attempts to beat loneliness while holding tight to his hope of returning to Earth. Like Lister, the show has spanned the decades, with series running from 1988-93, 97-99 and 2009 and 2012. It has a very loyal cult following who often discuss the merits of each "set" of series (and consequently, which is the better set of series).

In the animated, "Futurama," the main character Philip J. Fry, mild mannered pizza delivery boy, winds up being cryogenically frozen and waking up a thousand years later. He finds himself trying to make the best of life as an alien in his own land (of course he wasn't exactly at home in his own time), making friends, making enemies, traveling the galaxy as a delivery boy for an intergalactic shipping firm. Created by "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, the series premiered in 1999 and had a shaky run on FOX until 2003 when it was finally axed. Like Fry himself, the show was resurrected and ran on Adult Swim from 2003-07 and from there the show jumped around from direct to video to Comedy Central until it's final show which aired recently on Sept. 4, 2013 thus making it one of the longest running, shows continually flirting with cancellation in the history of television. Not a bad record really. And considering its legion of die-hard fans, it just might make another try for it somewhere, sometime.

Another, older, animated sitcom that mined the possibilities of the future for its material eventually became a classic despite a very short run. Meet George Jetson. His boy Elroy...well you probably know the rest. While it's counterpart "The Flintstones" made the most of prehistory, "The Jetsons" found its comedy in the space age future (albeit the space age future to be found in 2026, the possibilities of which must have seemed very space age in 1962). George Jetson has a wife named Jane, A daughter, Judy, his son Elroy and a lovable mutt named Astro who smothers him with kisses when he gets home from his job at Spacely Sprockets (where his four-hour work week was killing him). Looking for a new take on sitcoms featuring the average "American" family, producers Hanna-Barbera decided to set this tale of the average Joe and his family in the future when people flew in cars, lived in houses in the sky, and worked four-hour work weeks. Little did they know that their dream technology, when it came about, would not be quite so fantastic, not quite so helpful, and would actually put many George Jetsons out of their forty-hour work week.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which premiered on Cartoon Network in 1994, is particularly off beat (even considering the genre mash-up), using the actual animation from the old 1960s Space Ghost series and re-editing to fit the format. The show takes the celestial crime fighter Space Ghost from the Hannah-Barbera cartoon superhero series of the same name, ditches his odd, teen-supertwin companions and their pet monkey and puts SG on the set of his own talk show. His arch nemesis and sidekick/bandleader Zoltar provides banter and music (when he's not being blown up by Space's wristband after saying something out of turn). Real live celebrities visit, via a monitor effect, that comes down on the cartoon set (the interviews of the celebrities were filmed separately then superimposed on the monitor. Snippets of the interviews were then collected and patched together to fit the segment of the show). Half the fun of this imaginative and bizarre show was seeing how well the celebrities rolled with the questions being fed to them during their taping. The other half was just the notion that the galaxial crimefighter Space Ghost would have a talk show at all, let alone one featuring three of his fiercest enemies as sidekicks.

Coming back down to earth (so to speak) a favorite animated comedy of mine premiered in 1994 on FOX Kids Saturday morning block of cartoon nonsense that I none the less got up early for just to watch. "The Tick" (based a spoof of comic book superheroes from New England Comics, a Boston area comic book store) chronicled the adventures of the mighty superhero The Tick and his side kick Arthur (dressed as a moth). Together, they patrolled The City looking for chances to fight crime. The problem was that The City was filled with superheroes looking for chances to fight crime (Die Fledermaus, American Maid, Sewer Urchin). The place was swollen with them. So competition was high on the list of things for our interpret heroes to prepare for when coming up against such villains as The Breadmaster, Chairface Chippendale and Dinosaur Neil.

Honorable mentions go to two specials that starred one of my favorite comic actors: Rowan Atksinson. "Blackadder" ran for four series ("The Blackadder", "Blackadder II", "Blackadder the Third" and "Blackadder Goes Forth") and was one of the sharpest comedies ever produced especially considering that each series took place in a different time period. The two constants were Rowan Atkinson, starring as some branch of the Blackadder tree (depending on the time period), and Tony Robinson portraying his faithful, much abused servant Baldrick. Curiously, as the centuries pass, the Edmund Blackadders actually mentally evolved with each series while his standing in society lowered. In the meantime, the intelligence of Baldrick devolved (his social standing pretty much moving laterally). As we hit the Millennium, it was decided that another installment of the Blackadder sage needed to be told so a special was filmed to be shown near the Millennium Dome in the SkyScape Cinema in South London. "Blackadder: Back and Forth" tells the story of the late 20th century answer to Edmund Blackadder who in this incarnation is Lord Blackadder. In a scheme to swindle his friends, Blackadder tells them at a New Year's Eve dinner party that he's managed to build a time machine and betting them that he can bring back proof of his travels through time. The machine is basically a facade but unbeknownst to him, during construction, somehow Baldrick has built a time machine that actually works. As he realizes that he's traveled back in time, Blackadder's plan to swindle his friends becomes a quest to get back to his own time. Guest starring many of the folks who appeared in the previous series, it's a fitting installment in the series.

Also in 1999, Atkinson appeared in a parody of "Doctor Who" that was filmed to be shown at Comic Relief's Red Nose Day in Britian. In "Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death," Atkinson as the Doctor has asked for a meeting with his arch nemesis The Master played by Jonathan Pryce because he plans to retire and wed his companion, Emma (Julia Sawalha). The Master has his own plans, however and a deadly game of chronological cat and mouse ensues as each goes back in time to one up the other. At some point however, in a showdown with a Dalek, the Doctor is mortally wounded and begins the regeneration process. Continually cut down, he regenerates into a number of surprising (guest star) incarnations lastly Joanna Lumly who is a particularly fun female Doctor (and who proves that the right female actress could indeed play the Doctor). The special has lots of good natured fun with the trappings and tropes of the classic "Doctor Who" universe and actually illustrates that Atkinson himself could have made a good Doctor.

So, the bottom line is, even in the future, there'll always be time for a little laughter.


  1. great stuff Laura! love the Dr. Who episode - never seen it before, genius!

  2. Yeah, that Dr. Who special was really clever. I really like Rowan Atkinson. The full Blackadder special is great too. It's fun to see the gang all together again. Thanks for commenting.