I recently spent a week at my cousin’s, house and doggie sitting. My cousin has cut the TV cable, but not the internet cable. So while I wrote and worked, I binged-watched My Favorite Martian on Hulu. Also, last year, I was at a LitQuake event in Palo Alto, and I was talking with a couple guys about old TV shows. One guy talked about these old sci-fi shows, and how wonderful they were, but his shining example was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I joked about how it was not a good show. He got pretty huffy about that.
So I got to thinking about which old sci-fi television withstand the test of time. Old like within or close to the black and white era of TV.
My Favorite Martian. Smart and sharp and silly humor, and perfect performances from Bill Bixby and Ray Walston. Ray is perfect as the super-intellectual martian, Bill every bit as perfect as the goofy young sidekick. Listen to them deliver snappy dialog and watch their slapstick stunts, and you will know why they kept getting work for the rest of their lives.
Lost in Space. It would not have lasted so long in reruns if not for Jonathan Harris as that most hammy of villains, Doctor Smith. Oh, the pain, the pain, I mean the joy, the joy, the utter rapture of watching an old vaudevillian-type pro at work.
The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. To borrow from Comic Book Guy: Best anthology shows EVER!
Batman (Adam West) was always in color, but it came in right at the end of black and white TV. Adam West GETS IT. Perfect straight-face performance for a witty super spoof. And the villains! A parade of high calibre Hollywood talent: Vincent Price, Frank Goshen, Cliff Robertson, Julie Newmar (DEEPEST SIGH!!!), and on and on, that show attracted talent like ants to a sugary picnic.
Wonder Woman. Yes, this was always in color as well, but I HAVE to mention it. The first season had tasty, nasty, love-to-hate Nazi villains. When Wonder Woman was brought into the present later on, the stories and the villains dried out and the writing could get downright painful. But Lynda Carter brought such GLEE to the role! She did pretty big stunts too, like twenty foot jumps, lifting cars, and running while looking gorgeous but not girly-goofy. (edit March 2020: Okay, Lynda and Lyle did not do their stunts because as Lyle pointed out in an interview with Andy Mangels, you do not risk your stars. Silly of me to not know that.) There are a few actors who wink at the viewer and say via actor telepathy, Hey, it is fun up here, and if you watch, I’ll send some of that fun your way! Lynda Carter did that every time she strode onto the screen. Oh, did I mention she looked great in the costume, and that is an achievement? TV superhero costumes did not always work well back then!
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. An endless line of white males, followed by white males, followed by more white males. Can you say bleached sausage fest? And the writing? Aliens from another planet learn American English on the theory that sound never dies. NO, human voices cannot travel millions of miles through hard vacuum! (The writers were too dumb to have the aliens listen to our radio and TV broadcasts.) Then there was the bad guy backing up while holding the crew at gunpoint, and a good guy says one of the worst lines in TV history: “Don’t go in that corridor, it’s full of plankton!” Now, I want SO BAD for Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants to be in that corridor and say, “Yes, come in here and I shall RULE THE KRUSTY KRAB, HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!” But what was in the corridor? A bunch of quivering rubber tentacles that the bad guy backs into without even glancing over his shoulder. Why do villains NEVER glance over their shoulders and thus ALWAYS back into ravenous rubber tentacles? I now know why Harlan Ellison tried to kick one of those executives in the face. (EDIT Dec 13, 2020: The kickee was actually Adrian Samish, the man in charge of looking over the scripts for the network. Adrian wanted a rubber mask ripped off of the woman spy so that “Instead of being beautiful, she’s really OOOOGLY!” Harlan said of him, “He was a gibbering gargoyle who was a failed advertising man, a failed college man, a failed homosexual — he couldn’t even make it in that area — and they put him in charge of censors…”)
The Time Tunnel. James Darren was wasted, instead catch him in Star Trek Deep Space 9 as the holographic Vegas singer Vic Fontaine, your ears will thank you forever. Anyway. The plot done over and over every single week is two time travelers go to different time periods, usually to great moments in history where history will go off the rails unless Doug and Tony fix it with their fists. Can you imagine the lust of those old fat white male TV executives? “Yeah, lissen to dis, it’s an hour show, but we only gotta shoot half of dat, cuz dah rest can be old stock movie footage of Vikings and knights and cowboys and dinosaurs! And a giant beehive, cuz bees was giant in duh dinosaur days. Ooo, duh money we’ll save! Haw haw haw!” (With each “haw,” balloon-bloated steak-stuffed bellies bounce and ripple.) And did you know that in the future and on all alien worlds, everyone is painted silver?
Land of the Giants. Also in color, but too awful not to mention. A cheap clone of Lost in Space. Without Jonathan Harris, it falls flatter than a Swedish pancake. (Well, Jonathan did show up on that show as the Pied Piper, and only he—no one else—could do that without looking ridiculous.) The heroes were handsome and dull, the stories range from slightly watchable to rubbing a cheese grater on your frontal lobes. The kid on that show gives the kid in Star Wars 1 a run for his money on the that-dog-won’t-hunt scale. Will Mumy he ain’t.
Notice a pattern here? Irwin Allen shows. To borrow a line from someone who wrote about one really bad story in the sad puppies Hugo controversy, Irwin made shows that are exactly like what people who never watch science fiction think all science fiction is like.
THE AIMLESS. (I formerly said “THE UGLY, and doing that to Julie Newmar is quite an accomplishment!” But I changed my mind. Or rather, Julie changed it.)
My Living Doll, take 2. I watched a few other shows on Hulu. And Julie Newmar was funny. She played her dancer’s body and smooth voice like musical instruments. And she played a tune to get laughs. The flourish of her arms when she played classic piano (episode where she was entered in a beauty contest, and Julie knew how to play classic piano, so it could have been her belting out that tune). Her in a courtroom hurtling her amazon long legs over that little wall between spectators and the judge and jury, instead of using the silly little door. Her throwing a pseudo tantrum when purposely missing the eight ball in the seventh pocket and breaking the pool cue. Her intense face when reciting long tech exposition. Her goofy happiness when her robot character is learning something new. So I did enjoy her performance. A lot. Problem was that no one else on the show held much of a candle to her. The lead actor was just a tad this side of bland, his goofy guy friend (or relative, whatever) was supposed to be funny, but just came off as selfish. Goofy sidekicks MUST have a redeeming virtue! I think that when I watched the pilot, I was irked that Julie was not front and center. Julie was great in post-pilot episodes, but the show was cancelled in the first season. That freed Julie to play Catwoman, where she had a great guy to play off of: Adam West. Ah, the campy fireworks!
My Living Doll, take 1. (I leave this paragraph here to show that I can change my mind when I am mistaken. The first episode was awful, but the show got better.) Even Julie Newmar, whose Catwoman in the Adam West Batman helped me get through puberty, could not save this. (Yeah, I’m that old, sue me.) My cousin’s Hulu cued up the pilot of My Living Doll after an episode of My Favorite Martian. I was used to sharp witty LOL dialog, then I got every single line being about how hot Julie the robot is. After the twentieth line about ogling Julie, it gets really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really tedious. To steal a line from my friend Valerie Frankel, that is pretty much the whole plot. Julie is not given much to work with, you’d think writing robot dialog would not be hard. Look at Julie’s energetic sexy slinky purring and FUNNY performance as Catwoman, and then watch this, and then try not to claw out your eyeballs with a fork. You just TRY not to do that!
P.S. ONE MORE THING! To the gentleman (I use the word loosely) from LitQuake who thinks Irwin Allen made great TV, and who got hot and huffy when I did not bow and WORSHIP your cheesy boring whiter-than-bleached-vanilla-ice-cream rubber-tentacled creature-from-the-bottom-of-the-slush-pile pseudo-sci-fi (your exact phrase, delivered with a big fat obnoxious Trumpian smile was, “Now that’s REAL science fiction!”), your taste in sci-fi SUCKS. Speaking as a geek and a nerd who has watched and loved and hated over half a century of sci-fi and cartoons and comic books, who has dined upon plenty of Asimov and Clarke and Niven and Brown and Ellison and Stan Lee and Peter David and J. Michael Straczynski, who for over a decade has seriously studied writing AND has been seriously writing AND has performed my writing at open mics, who has had my writing critiqued by dozens of other writers and a few professional editors, who has critiqued other writers for years to often grateful results, and thus who earned every scrap of my considerable sci-fi fanboy cred, I am telling you: