We know roughly when the eighth series of Doctor Who will hit our screens (sometime in August), but that means we have a summer’s worth of time before we can see our favorite Time Lord brandish his sonic screwdriver again. Luckily, British science fiction television has been more than prevalent over the years, giving us some of the finest, and weirdest, storytelling of the small-screen age. And, lucky for you with limited time, most of them aren’t 50 years old and 800 episodes long. Below, I’ve compiled a list of 10 great British sci-fi program(me)s for you to tackle in the interminable gap between now and Whodom’s return. Chronologically of course, and each series has fewer than 50 episodes, so it’s not that big a time commitment.
The Quatermass Serials (1953, 1955, 1958-59, and 1979)
Total Episodes = 22 (18 exist)
Being the continuing adventures of the brilliant, stalwart head of the British Rocket Group, Professor Bernard Quatermass, this set of four serials was one of the earliest televisual marriages between science fiction and horror. Written by the incomparable Nigel Kneale, 1953’s The Quatermass Experiment tells of a mission to space that goes wrong and the rocket returns to Earth with only one of the crew alive, and badly infected by something. It eventually turns the man into a giant, hideous alien plant thing. Quatermass II two years later has the titular scientist looking into, and then being swarmed by, strange falling objects that turn into spores and could be the beginning of an alien invasion. The third serial, Quatermass and the Pit, featured an investigation into an apparent unexploded Nazi bomb, but is actually evidence of alien life on Earth long before humanity reared its head. These three serials were recorded by having a camera pointed at a live broadcast, a primitive but mostly effective method of keeping them intact. Only the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment exist, but they represent some of the earliest examples of British television still available.
In 1979, a fourth serial, simply titled Quatermass, was broadcast, on ITV this time instead of the BBC. It has Quatermass looking for his granddaughter who may have joined a cult of alien-worshiping young people, who may also be the pawns in an extraterrestrial scheme. This one’s not as good as the others, but it’s still enjoyable enough. The first three serials were also adapted into films by Hammer in 1955, 1957, and 1967, respectively. While the first two of these are fine, the third one is one of my favorite sci-fi movies ever.
The Prisoner (1967-1968)
Total Episodes = 17
Boasting easily one of the coolest, and longest, opening title sequences in the history of television, The Prisoner, the brainchild of star Patrick McGoohan, is a paranoid fever dream from start to finish. McGoohan plays an unnamed secret agent who suddenly and mysteriously resigns his post, wanting to lead a quiet and spying-free life somewhere else. His bosses don’t seem to believe him and think he’s going to defect. They capture him and take him to the seemingly idyllic and isolated village called The Village where he is given a number (Number 6) and has to endure repeated questioning and attempts at coaxing the real reason for his resignation by the person designated Number 2, who gets replaced all the time for failing to achieve their goal. Number 6’s will is stronger than most, and by the end, he’s pushed everyone to the breaking point.
McGoohan initially had an idea for seven episodes, but ITV had him do 12, and then eventually 17, for sale in America. As a result, the four or so episodes toward the end are incredibly weird and out there, even more than the show usually is. The series also has one of the most troubling and ambiguous final episodes of any television series ever made. Ride your penny farthing bicycle and say “be seeing you.”
Total Episodes = 26
Not the last Gerry Anderson-produced show on this list. Anderson made his fortune creating and producing the “Supermarionation,” meaning puppets (Team America is aping Anderson’s work). UFO is his first live-action series and first not aimed at children, but it still employs a great deal of the hallmarks of Supermarionation in the special effects department. The series follows the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization, or SHADO, as they attempt to thwart a constant threat of aliens from a dying planet who want to abduct humans and harvest their organs. They have to use their highly advanced technology to battle these aliens while keeping the imminent danger a secret from humankind. Despite having aired in 1970, and being set in 1980, there is perhaps no show that screams “THE 1960s!!!” at you like this one. It’s a delight.
Space: 1999 (1975-1977)
Total Episodes = 48 (but really you could just watch the first 24)
Another Gerry Anderson show, and another awesome title song. This series had the dubious honor of being the most expensive series ever produced at the time and also the final series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson as a duo. In the first episode, nuclear waste deposits on the far side of the moon explode, sending the moon and all 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha hurtling through space. Earth, we can assume, is completely screwed now without the moon to control the tides and things. The series is known for its gorgeous special effects and visuals, as well as having the tone and style of the show entirely changed between seasons, following a brief cancellation. Season 1 is like sci-fi morality plays with the people on the moonbase having to learn to coexist while strange things happen around them. Season 2 was made a bit more Star Treky, with the addition of alien characters and laser battles and things like that. Many of the Season 1 cast, aside from leads Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, were completely replaced before the second season also, making it as close to a new show as possible. I personally prefer the first year, but there’s plenty to enjoy in Year 2.
Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982)
Total Episodes = 34
Quite simply one of the strangest and spookiest television shows ever made, Sapphire & Steel is like science fiction ghost stories with the theory that time disruptions cause spectral anomalies. The leads, Sapphire played by Joanna Lumley and Steel played by David McCallum, are, it can be reasoned, the actual human embodiment of their namesake metals/gems. They are agents for some strange and otherworldly organizations whose job it is to correct these temporal anomalies, using psychic abilities and their vast knowledge of time. They are certainly cold and inhuman, which also adds to the tension and creepiness factor. Each of the series’ six stories, or “Assignments,” consist of multiple 25-minute episodes. The beauty of the show is its simplicity. Each of the Assignments takes place only within one location, albeit with many rooms a lot of the time. The first serial, for instance, takes place in a country home in which a young boy’s little sister is trapped by time ghosts in her room. The second, and my favorite, is in an old rundown train station in which soldiers killed in the World Wars appear at random intervals during the night. The casts remain small, but the atmosphere is chilling.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
Total Episodes = 6
The televised version of Douglas Adams’ award-winning radio show turned into a novel and an LP and a stage show and then much later became a feature film about a simple Earthman in his pajamas named Arthur Dent who, along with his friend, the alien Ford Prefect, narrowly escape the destruction of Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. They travel through space along with the two-headed egomaniac Zaphod Beeblebrox and brilliant mathematician and scientist Trillian. Arthur’s out of his element, of course, but luckily he has The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book which talks to him, and us, about the various weird things you can see in the universe. It’s probably one of the most well-written pieces of fiction in the modern age and the television series loses none of Adams’ signature wit and witticism. I mean, how could you not find the depiction of Marvin the Paranoid Android endearing, like a metallic Eeyore?
The Day of the Triffids (1981)
Total Episodes = 6
Another short one based on a book, and a movie, The Day of the Triffids is a pretty terrifying concept, wherein people watching a freak meteor shower go blind from the sight of it, all except a man who just happened to be in hospital with his eyes bandaged, and a few other people as well. He’s also a Triffid farmer, which is interesting being that triffids are something this story made up: mobile carnivorous plants. With most of the British population having been made sightless, the Triffids begin to run amok and devour the helpless populace. It’s really good survivalist fiction, and quite apocalyptic, especially for low-budget 1980s British television.
Life On Mars (2006-2007)
Total Episodes = 16
Jumping way into the future, but also into the past (time, meet wime), Life on Mars plays like a regular cop procedural with a bit of Quantum Leap and some paranoid delusion thrown in. As it says in the opening scrawl, Sam Tyler is a police officer from present day who gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973 wherein he joins the Manchester and Salford Police as a Detective Inspector working with the self-proclaimed “Sheriff of Manchester,” Gene Hunt. The two are constantly at odds with each other, what with Gene’s beat-people-up-to-keep-order mentality clashing severely with Sam’s modern, by-the-book approach. There’s also a lot in the series about whether or not Sam actually is back in time or if he’s just a crazy person or if he’s caught in some kind of netherworld between life and death. It makes for interesting throughlines for both series, and Sam uses cases he’s working on in the present to help with cases in the past, and vice versa.
Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010)
Total Episodes = 24
If you like Life On Mars, you may as well watch this one too. A spinoff of the first show, this series follows Alex Drake, a Detective Inspector looking into the disappearance of Sam Tyler after his brief return from the past. While being called out on a kidnapping case, Alex is shot in the head and wakes up in 1981 London, where, somehow, Gene Hunt and two of his cronies from the 1970s are also working/in charge. Alex believes herself to be inside a delusion, or within Sam Tyler’s delusion, and she wants to get out as quickly as she can, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. By the end of the series, the true nature of these trips to the past, as well as Gene Hunt himself, come into the light, and it’s a lot darker and more apocalyptic than you could have imagined. I like both series, but I think I actually like Ashes to Ashes more, despite the music in Life On Mars being infinitely superior.
Total Episodes = 37
And finally, a series that just finished last year. Five young people in community service for various reasons are caught in a freak lightning storm and they each develop a distinct superpower based somewhat on their own flaws. Unlike most times this happens, these kids are not who you want to have powers, and they are more of a curse than anything else. Lots of other people living on or around their housing estate also obtain powers, and our main characters have to stop them, usually through a lot of violence and the death of at least one probation worker. It’s a surprisingly dark series, but with a great deal of humor along the way. It’s got a little bit of horror mixed in there, but it’s mainly about how average screw-ups would deal with getting these amazing abilities and how it’s probably not the best for anyone involved. It’s like Heroes but without the nobility.
So there you have it, ten series for you to pick at and enjoy whilst we await the return of Doctor Who. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing larger write-ups of some of these, my favorite ones, so if you’re still not sold, come back and you’ll get the full treatment.