It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a lot of science fiction on television is bad. Lots of science fiction books and movies are bad too. Not that the genre is the problem, it's that, as science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once put it, “90 percent of everything is crap.”
Scc-fi on TV can go wrong for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the people involved think science fiction is juvenile or silly and write accordingly. Maybe a show recycles formulas and tropes viewers are sick of. And then there's bad acting, or unconvincing, low-budget special effects and sets. Some shows have massive, horrible flaws, while others are just utterly mediocre.
While bad movies such as Plan Nine From Outer Space or Robot Monster often become cult favorites, terrible television isn’t that lucky. It’s simply forgotten, even by people who used to watch it. Rather than let all that badness fade away unwept and unhonored, this list drags a score of shows out for a last, withering look.
Of course, every bad show has its defenders and fans. Some treat the show as a guilty pleasure while others make passionate arguments why it's a neglected, underrated classic. Sci-fi fans are nothing if not a passionate bunch.
Read on for 20 Terrible Sci-Fi Shows You Completely Forgot.
The J.J. Abrams-produced Alcatraz (2012) revealed that the real reason the government shut down the once-infamous prison was that in a single night, the entire population — prisoners, guards, staff — vanished. The government covered it up, but in the present the inmates suddenly reappear and resume their criminal careers. Can a crack team figure out what’s going on?
Who cares? While Alcatraz was supposed to harbor the worst of the worst, none of the criminals on the show seemed particularly more violent, cunning, or dangerous than those viewers could see on Criminal Minds, CSI or other cop shows. The time travel angle didn’t do much to enliven things.
Perhaps if the show hadn’t been canceled after one season the villains’ agenda would have made it worth watching. But it would be foolish to bet money on it.
19 Painkiller Jane
The trouble with a groundbreaking hit such as The X-Files is that it spawns endless inferior knockoffs. In X-Files’ case, black ops agencies tackling the paranormal became as commonplace as goofy sitcom dads. Case in point, 2007’s Painkiller Jane.
In the pilot DEA agent Jane Vasko (Kristanna Loken) gets drafted into one of those black ops agencies, in this case targeting muties — er Inhumans — no, in this one the genetically enhanced outcasts are called “Neuros.” As Jane turns out to have Wolverine-class healing factor, she can handle Neuros, but nobody in the audience cared.
The series was based on the Painkiller Jane comic, but had no more relation to the source material than to X-Files or X-Men.
18 Phil of the Future
Paranormal sitcoms involving ETs, witches, robots and ghosts have been around since the 1950s. Disney's Phil of the Future (2004-6) was one of the less memorable efforts.
As the theme song explained, the 22nd-century dwelling Dicks family’s time machine crashed while on a visit to the 21st century. They had to settle in and pretend to be ordinary, contemporary people until they could repair the machine and go home.
With teenage son Phil as the focus, the series offered viewers standard sitcom-teen shticks, with the Dicks’ future technology sometimes solving things, sometimes making them worse. In one episode, for example, Phil’s best friend turns herself into an adult only to find a teacher hitting on her.
Even Disney hasn’t made that much effort to remember the show — a decade later, and only four episodes have been released on DVD.
Instead of humans hunting Neuros/Inhumans/ETs, some series have the outsiders hunting us as … Prey. In this 1998 series, anthropologist Parker (Debra Messing) discovers that serial killers aren’t mere sociopaths, they’re actually “Dominants,” a separate species from homo sapiens.
Smarter, stronger, more aggressive, and with some degree of psi-power, most Dominants despise humanity and kill us without a qualm. Complicating the fight against the master race are human traitors willing to sell out humanity in hopes of surviving when the Dominants replace us.
Messing is a good actor and the premise is workable, but this dull show died after thirteen episodes. One critic summed it up as lab workers staring at genetics tests and muttering “Oh my god!” while cornered Dominants snarled “You will all die!”
Freakylinks (2000) was another X-Files riff about paranormal investigators. Protagonist Derek Barnes had turned his late brother’s (who died under Mysterious Circumstances) paranormal-research website into Freakylinks, a for-profit site no better than a supermarket tabloid. Then his brother’s ghost nudged him into real paranormal adventures variously involving pterosaurs, genetic engineering, the lost colony of Roanoke, and hints of a sinister conspiracy behind everything. What kind of X-Files knockoff wouldn’t have a sinister conspiracy somewhere?
The show was created by Haxan, the creators of The Blair Witch Project and that influence was mixed in: when the Freakylinks team discovered anything, they’d stream the footage to the website. Like other X-Files wannabes, Freakylinks failed to secure the same ratings and folded after a season.
Like Bill & Ted, 1997’s Timecop tried and failed to turn a successful movie (starring Jean Claude Van Damme) into a successful series.
The premise — time cop Jack Logan stops criminals from changing the course of history — seemed workable for a TV series, but the execution was routine. Logan, you see, is a rule-breaker and risk-taker who trusts gut instinct when cracking cases, whereas his aide Hemmings insisted he rely on number-crunching and analysis.
Stronger actors might have made that stock set-up lively but T.W. King and Cristi Conaway were not up to snuff. It didn’t help that despite the premise that changing history is bad, Logan was quite happy to tamper with time if it would help some pretty young guest star get a better deal out of life.
TV Guide described the UPN’s Freedom (2000-1) as “right at home on a network rescued from oblivion by pro wrestling.” Set in the near future, Freedom takes place after domestic terrorism has plunged the country into chaos, culminating in the president’s death. The military stepped in, proclaimed martial law, and established a police state. Stability returned, but freedom didn’t.
The protagonists were a quartet of military officers who refused to cooperate with the takeover. They were imprisoned, then released by the resistance to fight the tyrants with martial arts and action movie-cliches.
UPN hoped it would hook a young male audience, but it didn’t hook anyone: it departed the network with five of the twelve episodes unaired. Some critics compared it to a badly made video game.
13 Baywatch Nights
Perhaps we should give the Baywatch creators credit for trying something new, rather than an obvious spinoff like Baywatch Florida. But given the results, we probably shouldn't.
In Baywatch Nights’ first season, Ellerbee, a cop from the main Baywatch series, quits the force to become a private eye, with David Hasselhoff’s Mitch providing assistance (other lifeguards popped in and out) alongside PI Ryan (Angie Harmon) and a friendly psychic.
That didn’t draw viewers so the second season borrowed from something that did: X-Files. Now Mitch and Ryan worked for a paranormal expert (Dorian Gregory). Baywatch fans could see Hasselhoff possessed by a demon and battling sea monsters.
Hasselhoff as Agent Mulder did not ignite the ratings, so the second season was Baywatch Nights' last.
12 Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures
The 1990-1 Saturday morning cartoon Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures proved that “Ted” Theodore Logan and Bill S. Preston Esquire could work well on television: set up a problem and have them take a time trip to find a solution,then add in lots of goofy humor and the guys’ distinctive speaking style. The 1992 live-action version demonstrated that the concept could also flop.
The show followed the same set up as the cartoon, with slight changes such as giving them after-school jobs with a boss from hell. This time, though, the humor just fell flat. It didn’t help that Alex Winters, Keanu Reaves, and George Carlin were not playing the roles (they’d lent their voices to the cartoon) and their replacements didn’t generate the same magic. The series vanished from the air after seven episodes.
11 Flash Gordon
Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comic strip defined planetary romance for an entire generation. Stranded on the exotic planet Mongo with beautiful Dale Arden, Flash led the native resistance against the tyranny of Ming the Merciless. With Raymond’s breathtaking art bringing Flash’s adventures to life, it’s no surprise the strip generated three film serials, the (in)famous 1980 movie, a cartoon, a possible new movie, and not one but two forgotten TV series.
The 1950s syndicated series rebooted Flash and Dale into space adventurers, but suffered from a low, low, low budget. The 2007 SyFy series decided to dispense with its space setting almost entirely. Instead, the setting was an American city targeted by Mongonians traveling there through wormholes. Can Flash and his ex-girlfriend Dale get their act together to stop them? It turned out viewers didn’t care.
Bronson Pinchot is a talented actor best known for his bit part in Beverly Hills Cop and his role in the long-running Perfect Strangers. It’s unlikely 1997’s Meego will figure as highly in his CV.
Meego was an ET who crash-landed on Earth in the backyard of a single father with three kids. Bonding with the supposedly adorable youngest child, Meego decided to stick around as their new caregiver. He explained his eccentricities by claiming to be Canadian.
The following thirteen episodes used tropes familiar to anyone who’d seen My Favorite Martian or Mork and Mindy, as Meego struggled to make sense of Earth life, used his powers to teach the kids life lessons, and tried to conceal his true origins. Seven episodes were never aired.
9 Time Trax
Time Trax (1993-4) reversed the Alcatraz premise — this time the criminals came from our future, not our past. Criminal scientist Sahmbi had found a way to send wanted men into the past, for a price. To bring them back, the future sent top agent Darien Lambert (“A special breed of man”) to recover them.
Lambert also thwarted Sahmbi’s other schemes — nuclear waste disposal by sending it into the future — with the help of Selma, the AI in his wrist unit. And of course, he spent lots of time trying to figure out how life in the present was supposed to work.
While the series had a respectable two-season run before cancellation, it’s seems unlikely to displace Quantum Leap in anyone’s time-travel affections.
8 Aliens in the Family
Think The Brady Bunch, if Carol Brady and her kids had been extraterrestrials. That sums up Aliens in the Family (1996), yet another paranormal sitcom. Doug Brody was the human abductee who’d fallen in love with Cookie, his alien kidnapper and eventually married her. As they both had kids, their married life on Earth was complicated by the usual sitcom tensions in blended families. Oh, plus the fact Cookie’s youngest, Bobut, was rightful Emperor of the Universe.
This show only made it to two episodes in its original prime-time slot, but ABC used up a few more episodes on Saturday mornings. Its main claim to fame — okay, fame is too strong a word — is that the ETs were life-sized puppets designed by Jim Henson Studios.
7 Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince
This 1983 Saturday-morning show combined a spinoff and a knock-off to very little success.
The spinoff was Benji, an adorable pooch who'd appeared in a string of movies starting with 1974’s Benji. The knockoff was Zax, a stuffy robot strongly reminiscent of C-3PO.
The alien prince was Yubi, a child targeted for death by the evil aliens who’d conquered his planet. To survive, he’d fled to Earth with Zax, where they met up with Benji. Together the robot and the dog kept Yubi safe from the alien hunters constantly driving around in a black van to catch up with them.
While dogs and kids are supposed to be irresistibly cute, Yubi and Benji combined couldn’t keep Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince on the air past the initial thirteen episodes.
6 Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills
Much like X-Files, the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers spawned a number of imitators, most of which could qualify for this list. 1994’s Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighter From Beverly Hills will have to stand in for all of them.
The premise is that the alien conqueror Gorganus has set his sights on Earth because it’s the basis for a network of dimensional portals he can use to rampage throughout the universe. Nimbar, the counterpart to the Rangers’ Zordon, recruits four Beverly Hills teens to oppose Gorganus, providing them with tattoos that summon the kids to his chamber. They can then stand upon “transo discs” that turn them into their superheroic selves, the Galactic Sentinels.
They successfully fought against Gorganus, but they couldn't fight against viewer disinterest or generate the same enthusiasm as the Power Rangers.
5 The Phoenix
Another timeworn trope of TV sci-fi is to have a not-quite-human hero wandering across America, helping out everyday people while staying one step ahead of Men in Black or the like. Case in point, The Phoenix.
The pilot movie and four episodes starred Judson Scott — understandably better known as Khan’s son in Wrath of Khan — as Bennu, an ET preserved in a Mayan temple where he’d once been worshipped as a god. Bennu sets out to find his lost mate Mira, assisting people he meets with his psi-powers. In the pilot he’s pursued by a Mexican official, but the series switched that to a ruthless US agent.
The main takeaway from the series is that if you’re relying on Judson Scott’s acting talent to hook viewers, you should give up before you start.
4 Now and Again
In the opening episode of this 1999-2000 series, Michael Wiseman (John Goodman) dies in a freak accident. That’s wonderful news for a covert government operation which promptly plops Michael’s brain into a genetically engineered, superhuman body. Presto! We have a superhuman agent to send after terrorists, spies and other threats.
Unfortunately the missions weren’t that different from any other TV spy thriller. The personal side of Now and Again was more interesting: Michael couldn’t let go of his old life and kept connecting to his family, despite the agency’s warnings what would happen if they knew the truth.
All of which might have been fascinating if they’d had a superhuman John Goodman in the lead. As the reboot Michael, Eric Close didn’t have Goodman’s talent or presence which meant the emotional drama felt as dull as the espionage stuff.
3 Secret Agent Man
In the 1990s, Costas Mandylor seemed to be the go-to guy if you wanted a manly protagonist who sweated machismo and you didn’t care whether he could act. Secret Agent Man (2000) was patterned after 1960s TV spy adventures such as Patrick McGoohan’s Secret Agent, with a virile hero engaged in tongue-in-cheek battles with evil while every woman around him melted like butter.
Like some 1960s series, Secret Agent Man frequently veered into sci-fi, whether with the gadgets Mandylor wielded or the threats he faced, such as a telekinetic threatening to activate nuclear missiles or a flesh-eating virus contained in an alien meteorite.
After Austin Powers hit big, it's not surprising this set-up seemed like a winner, but Mandylor was no Mike Myers. UPN cut the cord after six months.
Part of the inspiration for Automan (1983-4) lies in Tron, the hit 1982 film about living computer programs. The difference is that Automan comes to life in our world, not in cyberspace.
Accidentally created by Walter, a police IT expert, Automan can fly, control other computers and electronics, and pass through walls. Backing Automan up lets Walter finally get out from behind a desk and really fight against crime.
One of the problems of 1970s/1980s superhero series was that they stuck firmly to mundane ordinary villains — no Inhumans, no Captain Colds, no Malcolm Merlyns. For all his powers, Automan doesn’t get to fight anyone who wouldn’t turn up in another cop show, which makes the show automatically less interesting.
If remade today, Automan might work a lot better, but as is, it’s just forgotten and forgettable.
1 First Wave
If you wanted to stop aliens invading Earth, what would you use? The lost prophecies of Nostradamus, of course!
In First Wave, former thief Cade Foster discovers that the alien Gua have infiltrated Earth in a first wave preparing for an armed invasion. The aliens are everywhere, manipulating everything, but a copy of Nostradamus predicts the invasion plans, though too cryptically to understand easily. The codex also prophesies an Earth hero who might be able to stop the Gua apocalypse — hmm, who do you suppose it could be?
The alien schemes Cade uncovers are strictly formulaic — they could easily have come from the 1960s Invaders series or the 1980s War of the Worlds. Unlike most of this list, though, First Wave did last long enough for a true finale episode, in which the Gua go down in defeat and Cade ends up with ally Raven, played by Traci Lords.
There's no shortage of other deservedly forgotten sci-fi shows. If you're disappointed with our picks, offer your own in comments.