By Todd Ciolek
If there was ever a golden age of stupid television, it lay within the ?90s. Compelling network hits like The X-Files and the rise of such syndicated schlock as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys paved the way for all sorts of brief, marginal attempts at small-screen fantasy and science fiction. Most disappeared within a season.
Sure, shows like The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and American Gothic later became cult classics, but others were fated to scrape by on whatever geek-ladder rung lies just below James Bond Jr. It?s time we saluted these failed attempts at courting a generation of fans who had nothing better to do than watch TV every night of the week.
10. Viper (1994-1999)
For the creators of Viper, it was never too late to imitate Knight Rider, Airwolf, Street Hawk and other ?80s series that didn?t need tight scripts or magnetic leading men as much as they needed cool vehicles. Viper found its base by selling out like few shows before: in a near-future right out of Robocop, the mob could only be brought to its knees by a brainwashed former criminal and his Dodge Viper, which transformed into?an armored Dodge Viper. Outfitted with all sorts of budget-friendly weaponry, this rolling product placement chased down criminals driving their own reliable, affordable Dodge vehicles.
Lifespan: Four seasons, believe it or not. While Viper died on NBC in 1994, it was revived for three more seasons in syndication, alongside such epic series as Renegade and Vanishing Son.
Legacy: Somewhere out there, a die-hard fan has wasted a real Viper by turning it into the show?s super-powered version.
9. Space Rangers (1993)
A show loved so little that the only YouTube footage is some jackass? MST3K attempt, Space Rangers was a blip on CBS? radar in 1993. Though TV executives were likely inspired by the proven success of Paramount?s Star Trek: The Next Generation, the show itself seems to borrow from Saturday morning serials, judging by special effects that frequently scrape Power Rangers territory. The show?s stock characters include a reticent alien played by future Mortal Kombat villain Cary-Hiroyuki ?Shang Tsung? Tagawa, a take-no-crap pilot played by future Babylon 5 rebel Marjorie Monaghan, and a commander played by none other than Oscar winner Linda Hunt.
Lifespan: 4 out of 6 episodes were aired. Oddly enough, all of them came out on videotape.
Legacy: Poisoning the well for science fiction at the three major networks for a good nine months, until Seaquest DSV arrived.
8. M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994)
Even director Sam Raimi?s B-list projects tend to get some attention, hence two actual sequels to Darkman. M.A.N.T.I.S., however, gets no remakes, no YouTube clips that we can find, and no fans devoted enough to tell you that the title stands for Mechanically Automated Neuro Transmitter Interactive System.
Like Batman, M.A.N.T.I.S. had relatively down-to-earth origins: an obscenely wealthy scientist named Miles Hawkins gets paralyzed by some thug?s bullet and reinvents himself with a hovercraft and a cybernetic suit that, if you squint in the dark, makes him look a little like he?s about to snatch up a robot aphid in his mandibles.
M.A.N.T.I.S. drew some attention for being the rare prime-time superhero series with an African-American lead, but its production was troubled at best. Raimi and the show?s writer both left the project after disputes with Fox, and M.A.N.T.I.S. went through a desperate mid-season change that involved more monsters and more nonsense, culminating in a final episode that pit Hawkins against a dinosaur.
Lifespan: 20 out of 22 episodes aired, plus the Raimi-directed pilot.
Legacy: Some former fat kid still carries the emotional scars from being called M.A.N.T.I.T.S. by his fellow nerds for a school day or two in 1994.
7. Roar (1997)
Heath Ledger was bound for better things than Roar, but this brief medieval TV series was, if our ten seconds? worth of research is true, his first major role. Ledger played a Celtic hero forced into leading his nation?s clans into war with a freakish Roman immortal. Yes, it?s roughly the same plot as the first Highlander film. And the Highlander anime film, for that matter.
While Roar was loaded with predictable bathos and a soundtrack full of moan-y morose dirges, it wasn?t silly enough to survive. Shows like Xena: Warrior Princess made mockeries of legends and historical fact, but Roar paid its setting a fraction of respect, thus making it all the more jarring when scheming Celtic royals looked and talked like they?d been pulled from a Mel Brooks period piece. Roar didn?t satisfy the Xena crowd?s love of rampant T&A and self-indulgent stupidity, and kids were likely disappointed when Ledger didn?t live up to the title and turn into a werewolf.
Lifespan: 13 episodes (8 aired) and two novels.
Legacy: Providing several seconds in the more drawn-out Heath Ledger tribute videos.
6. VR.5 (1995)
There was a time, just before Clinton was re-elected, when a good percentage of TV viewers still believed that the Internet and Virtual Reality (always capitalized) would create astounding realms of fantasy indistinguishable from the actual world. And then AOL and the PlayStation ruined it all.
The first of Fox?s many attempts to play off The X-Files? popularity, VR.5 hid its somewhat shaky vision of virtual space with moodily shot scenes and a soundtrack pieced together from alternative rock up-and-comers. It hit a snag in the first episode when emotionally withdrawn heroine Sidney jumped into Virtual Reality (with ?5? being a real-life simulacrum) by plugging in a noisy old modem, thus earning the disdain of 1995?s entire online chatroom population. That, and the show felt a bit too much like an X-Files leftover, particularly when Sidney ran across a shadowy group called ?the Committee.?
Lifespan: 10 out of its 13 episodes aired.
Legacy: Convincing the earliest species of gullible male Internet users that attractive women were online and lonely.
5. Earth 2 (1994)
Earth 2 is perhaps the least ridiculous of any space-opera series backed by a network in the ?90s, but if you caught in the middle of an episode, you might mistake it for some ABC family movie about sick children losing the family dog during a camping trip. Building on the implicitly environmentalist premise of mankind abandoning Earth, the series sent several families, including one of Clancy ?The Kurgan? Brown?s nicer characters, to a far-off planet that looked a lot like Canada. Earth 2 had a survivalist tone and a somewhat credible look at cyborgs and near-future space colonies, but most of its realism went astray after the colonists found subterranean creatures whose saliva could cure diseases. Eww.
Lifespan: 22 episodes and three novels.
Legacy: In an episode of The X-Files, the Lone Gunmen invite Mulder to a meeting where they plan to address ?the scientific inaccuracies of Earth 2.?
4. Seaquest DSV (1993-1996)
It may seem strange to label Seaquest DSV a failure, as it ran for three seasons, inspired a bunch of merchandise, and even won an Emmy for its soundtrack. Yet its longevity was also plagued by disputes and constant ?re-tooling.? For its first season, the show presented a cast of down-to-earth military characters and scripts drab enough to make Star Trek: Voyager look like a Leslie Nielsen film. After getting renewed for a second season, Seaquest ditched half the cast in favor of more outlandish stuff: sexy psychic women, sexy bio-engineered mermaids, and other things that uptight old nerds sneeringly describe as ?sci-fi.?
By the time the third season arrived as Seaquest 2032, star Roy Scheider was publicly labeling the show ?total childish trash? and trying to be in it as little as his contract would allow. He was replaced as the underwater Enterprise?s captain by Michael Ironside, but the series wouldn?t survive its third round, leaving lazy TV critics everywhere to inflict nautical puns upon the show and undeserving readers.
Lifespan: Three shakily connected seasons, a comic series, some novels, three videogames, model kits, and a line of trading cards.
Legacy: Ensuring that any book, movie or TV series with an intelligent dolphin is, regardless of quality, automatically compared to Seaquest DSV.
3. Dark Skies (1996-1997)
Easily the most blatant of X-Files rip-offs, Dark Skies traded monster-of-the-week horrors for a unified tale of parasitic alien invasion. Just like the overarching episodes of The X-Files, the show followed a man and a woman in their investigation of extraterrestrials, with one twist: the aliens had already taken over in the 1940s.
That was all well and good, but Dark Skies gave away too much too soon. The X-Files strung viewers along for years, but Dark Skies went straight for alien money shots, often trading the suspense of the lurking unknown for scenes straight out of R.L. Stine?s Goosebumps. The show?s mysteries were similarly revealed in too pat a way, leaving viewers with little to speculate about. It did, however, mark the first case of Jeri ?Seven of Nine? Ryan being shoehorned into a flagging series.
Lifespan: 20 episodes.
Legacy: Probably the only place you?ll see paranormal-wacko radio host Art Bell playing CBS mastermind William Paley.
2. Night Man (1997-1998)
Most forgettable superheroes of the ?90s died in print, but Steve Englebert?s Night Man inexplicably spawned a TV series. Perhaps that had something to do with the title character?s easy-to-recreate super powers: after a brush with lightning, faux jazz musician Johnny Domino is able to telepathically sense evil. This somehow leads him to create a superhero costume that allows him to fly, see in the dark, and resemble a Chinese bootleg Batman. Backed by a bland cast of supporters and a limited budget, Night Man not only exemplified the lower points of first-run syndicated TV, but even borrowed the previous decade?s worst sci-fi TV series: one episode co-stars Dr. Jonathan Chase, hero of the unforgettable ?80s spectacle known as Manimal.
Lifespan: Two seasons. 44 episodes. Good God.
Legacy: The implied promise of producer Glen A. Larson giving this decade its own hilariously low-caliber superhero series, one that?ll bring back both Night Man and Manimal.
1. Space: Above and Beyond (1995)
Fox trumpeted that Space: Above and Beyond was created by two X-Files writers, but equal promise lay in the show?s obvious inspirations: Joe Haldeman?s The Forever War and other classic tales of grindingly realistic warfare in space. It had a strong base: five new-meat marines, all cast in the multi-ethnic Captain Planet style, and their commander are caught up in mankind?s massive interplanetary war against flea-like aliens called ?chigs.? Yet the show diluted its gloomy vision of the future with frequently banal scripts. The tone was unfortunately set in the first episode, when the presumed hero is inspired by a recording of his girlfriend saying ?I believe in you.?
Space also made the mistake of going in too many directions, bringing in traitorous androids, vat-grown humans, psychics and every other science fiction clich? short of time traveling robots shooting lasers from alternate universes. The show even went so far as to call on R. Lee Ermey for a cameo as a drill sergeant. Unfortunately, TV standards rendered Ermey?s Full Metal Jacket reprisal free of profanity, underscoring just how neutered the show felt compared to nothing-sacred war dramas.
In some ways, Space: Above and Beyond was ahead of the game, as its better moments could pass for scenes from the dour new Battlestar Galactica. Most of the time, though, Space seems like a Quaalude-addled version of Paul Verhoeven?s Starship Troopers film, the main difference being that Space is unintentionally shallow.
Lifespan: 24 episodes, the last of which kills off at least one main character.
Legacy: Inspiring awful jokes about space being infinite and thereby having nothing above or beyond it. Kristen Cloke pioneering the ?hot in a face-punching way? mystique later popularized by Michelle Rodriguez.