As with movies, no one sets out to make bad TV show. Producers, actors, writers, whoever – they all usually want to make it as good and as popular as possible. It therefore makes perfect sense to stick with recognizable franchises. The spinoff is one of the time-honored ways of extending a franchise by exploring the original story’s universe through the perspective of some of the lesser known characters. More than any other genre, science fiction, with its rich world-building and expansive universes, is a natural fit for spinoffs.
However, not every sci-fi spinoff in the world of television can be a ratings hit. Sometimes, creators and producers make wrong choices. Sometimes the TV network bungles things up. And sometimes, the spinoff series simply fails to connect with its audience the way that the original series did.
Here, we present the 10 Least Successful Science Fiction TV Spinoffs.
10. Total Recall 2070 (1999)
The sci-fi series Total Recall 2070 was Canadian-German co-production that, in theory, sounded wildly ambitious. It drew inspiration from not just one, but two of the most successful Philip K. Dick movie adaptations. Similar to Paul Verhoeven’s darkly humorous blockbuster Total Recall, the story revolved around modified memories and took place on a futuristic version of Earth as well as the newly-colonized Mars. But Total Recall 2070 also followed policemen hunting renegade androids in a neo-noir megalopolis akin to the one in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Philip K. Dick wasn’t mentioned in the show’s credits though, as the series barely resembled original stories these movies were based on.
Total Recall 2070 premiered on Canadian TV channel CHCH in January of 1999. It also aired on Showtime, where network executives toned down show’s violence, nudity and strong language considerably for an American audience. Total Recall 2070 aired for one 22-episode season before being canceled.
9. Stargate: Universe (2009)
Roland Emmerich’s 1994 science fiction actioner Stargate followed a modern-day military team as they travel though an ancient Egyptian space portal to another world. Three years later, this movie became a basis for a popular sci-fi series called Stargate SG-1 that continued its story, first on Showtime and then on Sci-Fi. Stargate SG-1 ran for a staggering ten seasons with over two hundred episodes and two direct-to-DVD movies.
In 2004, Stargate: Atlantis premiered on Sci-Fi. Despite being a spinoff of a sequel series to a feature film, this show also became a hit among viewers and ran for five seasons. It’s no wonder then that in 2009 producers created a second spinoff series. Stargate: Universe tried to emulate the look and feel of Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot in a story about a crew of civilians and soldiers stuck on an alien space ship. Stargate: Universe aired for two 10-episode seasons, but this was a far cry from the other Stargate TV shows.
8. Caprica (2010)
Battlestar Galactica is a show so nice, it had to be included twice. In December of 2003, Sci-Fi launched their reboot of Battlestar Galactica with a miniseries co-written by Ronald D. Moore. While the original was classic space opera somewhat inspired by Erich von Däniken’s books about ancient astronauts, the reboot was heavily influenced by political events in post-9/11 USA. Battlestar Galactica was a critical success and aired for four seasons.
January of 2010 saw the premiere of Caprica – a spinoff series about the roots of human-Cylon war set some sixty years before the events of Battlestar Galactica. The series had distinctly different flavor as it told stories about creation of artificial life forms in a decadent society at the peak of its power. Critical reception was generally positive but viewer ratings were low and Caprica got canceled after 19 episodes.
7. Planet of the Apes (1974)
French writer Pierre Boulle wrote his satirical science fiction novel La Planete des Singes in 1963. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling co-wrote a movie adaptation of the novel entitled Planet of the Apes a few years later. When the movie starring Charlton Heston got released in 1968, it became so popular that it spawned four sequels, an animated TV show and Marvel comic book series. 40 years later, Hollywood still makes Planet of the Apes movies: War of the Planet of the Apes is scheduled for 2017.
But being part of popular franchise doesn’t guarantee success. In September of 1974, CBS premiered its TV series Planet of the Apes. Similar to first two films, its story followed astronauts marooned in the post-apocalyptic Earth where apes run the world and enslave people. But the show faced some tough competition from other networks in the same timeslot. Due to low ratings, CBS cancelled Planet of the Apes after 14 episodes.
6. Crusade (1999)
Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 was an ambitious science fiction series aiming at bringing the epic sweep of literary space operas to TV, but constrained within reasonable budget. Therefore, most of the stories were set on a titular space station that was a neutral meeting point for various alien races. Babylon 5 aired for five seasons from 1993 to 1998, first on PTEN and then on TNT.
Straczynski’s next project was Crusade – a spinoff series set in the Babylon 5 universe. Crusade followed the crew of a military spaceship looking for anything that might help to cure a plague that threatened mankind. However, the production of the series was halted even before the pilot aired in June of 1999, as TNT executives saw no significant overlap between their target audience and viewers of Babylon 5. Only 13 episodes of Crusade were produced.
5. The Lone Gunmen (2001)
Created by Chris Carter, X-Files debuted on FOX in September of 1993 and quickly became global pop cultural phenomenon. Throughout its nine TV seasons and two feature films, X-Files followed two investigators of the paranormal in a world where even the craziest conspiracy theories were real. At the time of this writing, new X-Files miniseries is scheduled for 2016.
There were two FOX-produced spinoff shows set in the X-Files world. The psychological thriller Millennium premiered in October of 1996 and aired for three seasons, despite declining ratings. The Lone Gunmen first aired in March of 2001 but was cancelled after only 13 episodes. In retrospect, this is hardly surprising. Revolving around the titular trio of sidekick characters from the original series, Lone Gunmen tried to somewhat clumsily balance the shadowy world of political paranoia with a more light-hearted tone. Despite being co-created by the future Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, the series failed to draw in audience.
4. Tremors: the Series (2003)
Released in 1990, Tremors was a low-budget horror-comedy starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as denizens of a tiny Nevada town besieged by Graboids – giant carnivorous worm-like creatures. This low-budgeted spoof of 1950s sci-fi movies proved surprisingly successful, earning about five times its budget. Over the next twenty years or so, four direct-to-video sequels followed with the last one, Tremors 5: Bloodlines, coming out in 2015.
In 2003, the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) tried to turn Tremors into a weekly TV series, continuing the storyline from the movie Tremors 3: Back to Perfection. Without most of the first movie’s characters and struggling to expand its original premise, Tremors: the Series failed with its audience and got canceled after a single 13-episode season. Recently, however, there were rumors about a possible Tremors TV reboot with Kevin Bacon reprising his role from the original movie.
3. Galactica 1980 (1980)
Created by Greg A. Larson, Battlestar Galactica debuted on ABC in September of 1979. Following on the success of Star Wars, it told a story of a space fleet running away from robotic Cylons in search of a lost planet called Earth. Its viewer ratings were initially high but quickly plummeted which, combined with the show’s high production costs, lead ABC executives to cancel the series after its first season.
By that time, Battlestar Galactica had a vocal fans who began an unprecedented write-in campaign to save the show. ABC green-lighted a less expensive spinoff to the original series entitled Galactica 1980. The story took place on Earth in the present day (that is, 1980) with the survivors of Cylon persecution hiding among the Earth’s population some thirty years after the events in the original series. Galactica 1980 first aired in January of 1980 but with its premise so drastically altered and most of the original characters gone, it failed to gain audience and was canceled after mere ten episodes.
2. Beyond Westworld (1980)
If there’s one thing late Michael Crichton enjoyed writing almost as much as stories about futuristic technology breaking down, it was stories about futuristic fun parks breaking down. In 1973 Crichton wrote and directed Westworld, a sci-fi thriller about a Western-themed amusement park populated by androids. When the robots go berserk, protagonists find themselves pursued by an unstoppable mechanical gunslinger played by Yul Brynner.
After Westworld earned about ten times its budget, making a sequel became a foregone conclusion. Released in 1977, Futureworld failed in cinemas with its muddled story about the evil corporation Delos trying to switch key political figures with identical-looking androids. And yet, in March of 1980, CBS debuted a TV series called Beyond Westworld. The title was apt, as the story had barely anything to do with first two movies, except for the androids and the Delos corporation. The show’s ratings were so miserable it got canned after mere three episodes. Recently, HBO announced their own Westworld reboot starring Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris that will, hopefully, fare better than its predecessor.
1. K9 and Company (1981)
As the longest running sci-fi series in TV history, Doctor Who is somewhat of a cultural institution, at least in the UK. During its 50 years of broadcasting, it was inevitable that BBC would try to spin the Doctor’s adventures through time and space and into a new series. While most fans are familiar with Torchwood, first Doctor Who spinoff actually came about decades earlier.
One of the most beloved side characters in Doctor Who universe was Doctor’s companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). In early 1980s BBC producers tried to create a spinoff TV series revolving around her character as well as another of Doctor’s companion – a robotic dog called K-9. Although the pilot episode of K-9 and Company attracted viewers during its premiere in December of 1981, the series was never picked up. It was only in 2007 that Sladen finally got her own successful Doctor Who spinoff with Sarah Jane Adventures.
What were your most – and least! – favorite science fiction TV spinoffs? Share them with us in the comments!