Now, tune your time machines back to the quaint days of the 1980s, a time when cable TV was a pipe dream for much of the nation and video rental stores were just beginning to bloom. Sure there was plenty of fantasy and sci-fi back then, but not so nearly as much as there is now. Why? The answer is simple.
The problem for producers of sci-fi and fantasy visual entertainment had always been effects. Special effects and how realistic they appeared, how expensive they were to create, and how they stacked up to what had come before. In 1977, Star Wars blew the doors off in terms of visual effects, but not every TV studio or Film Company had Lucas’ deep pockets or box office success. Lucas was coming off the critical success of American Graffiti, was working with Francis Ford Coppola on the critical darling Apocalypse Now, and had earned a little trust from producers, enough to get Star Wars green lit.
Steven Spielberg had yet to really get going as a director and creator of quality science fiction fantasy. Sure Jaws was a hit, but could he repeat it? If you grew up in the 1980s waiting patiently for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to be released, there wasn’t much to satisfy your appetite for quality escapist speculative entertainment. But, there were some.
For this list, I’ve kept the fare family friendly, and limited the scope of my search to the late 70s and early 80s in a time when the sci-fi genre was beginning to grow anew. I have also looked for shows that sought to be different, whether that entailed upending current gender norms or adding an educational bent to the entertainment.
5. Battle of the Planets. Sandy Frank Entertainment.
1978 saw the American version of the Japanese anime hit Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which features G-Force, a team of five teenagers—Mark, Princess, G-yop, Tiny, and Jason—who protect Earth from the forces of Spectra. Kids in the late ‘70s could come home, eat some cookies, and watch G-Force transform their spaceship, Phoenix, into a fiery bird impervious to destruction.
Battle of the Planets featured a character for nearly every type of kid, and the team was always better together than alone—a reflection of the collectivist Japanese culture that created it. Future anime knock-offs like Voltron, would echo this style. Though Princess was the only female character, she still embodied traditional female roles while wearing the mantle of superhero. The gender role-busting days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Hunger Games were fifteen and twenty years away, while Ripley of the Aliens franchise had yet to abandon the scream queen persona and pick up a pulse rifle.
4. Voyagers. 1982-1983 James D. Parriot Productions.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Instant Video. NBC offered Voyagers, a family-friendly show about time travel that featured a rascally Phineas Bogg (a homage to Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days mad scientist Fogg), and his smart kid sidekick Jeffrey Jones, who—with the help of the Omni, a steampunk-looking pocket watch—could travel through time. Every week featured an adventure, a romantic liaison for Bogg, and a chance for Jones to show off his intelligence. The show only ran a season. Each episode championed learning, history, and even encouraged kids to go to the library.
The time-traveling element appealed to parents, adults, and kids, and synthesized some of Jules Verne’s best ideas into a quality family screen time. Jones’ character was like a boy version of Hermione to Bogg’s dashing Han Solo rouge traveler. He always had the answer, even if he couldn’t pull of the rescue himself.
3. Thundarr the Barbarian. 1980-1982, ABC, 1983 NBC. Ruby Spears Productions.
Fans of post-apocalyptic dystopia who craved swordplay and lasers found them united for the forces of good in the cartoon inspired by the classic comics and, of course, by Star Wars. The action takes place on Earth in 3994 AD after a cosmic disaster transforms Earth. Thundarr is the classic male sword swinger: strong and fearless. He is aided by the Chewbacca-like Ookla the Mok and the Princess Ariel, a sorceress with super powers.
The power trio travel the earth righting wrongs and narrowly escaping danger. Ookla’s freakish appearance gave viewers something other than a pretty face to root for, and Princess Ariel was always in the mix, more often donning the role of warrior Princess rather than ballroom-and-crown Princess.
Thundarr gave kids the post-apocalyptic mojo of the Road Warrior without the adult content or taciturn Mad Max Mel. It was like a kid-friendlier Conan the Barbarian whose Starsword was as cool as a lightsaber.
2. Battlestar Galactica. 1978. MCA/Universal. ABC.
Creator Glen A. Larson’s epic short-lived TV show offered sci-fi fans the best special effects on network TV, if only for a season. The show’s premise, the last vestiges of humanity on the run from a race of evil robots known as Cylons, allowed for writers to explore the vast reaches of space as the fleet headed towards Earth. It was like Wagon Train with starfighters and laser blasters. While it raised the bar for effects, the show did not have the chance to dig as deep into characters or themes as the rebooted/re-imagined 2003-2009 series, which earned a Peabody award for its production.
Still, Galactica had plenty of adventure, with Apollo and Starbuck offering as much caution and swag as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo respectfully. It was also a major network show, and families could sit around together and discuss the possibility of “life began out there, far across the universe.” The show featured an African-American, Boomer (played by Herb Jefferson, Jr), and two female leads—Lt. Athena (played by Maren Jensen) and Cassiopeia (Laurette Sprang), who were given just a bit more than the usual female leads. Athena was a Colonial Warrior, and Cassiopeia was a medtech with a checkered past and a bead on Starbucks heart.
1. Star Blazers. 1979. Claster Television. Streaming on Netflix.
2. We turn once again to Japan, whose Space Battleship Yamato was Americanized into this serial space opera. Of all the late 1970s and early 1980s science fiction shows, Star Blazers was the closest to Star Wars in terms of scope, character, and vision. Only Battlestar Galactica came as close. Star Blazers let youth cast their imagination into the cockpit of Tiger fighter spacecraft and wage inter-galactic war with the planet Gamilon. Though there were no light sabers and no force, the depth of the series offered young viewers something close to a mythology—a world paralleling our own that was deep and ready-to-explore.
Star Blazers had two seasons, the second featuring Space Marines with blazing attitude and tech, a pale fore-shadowing of James Cameron’s space marines from the aforementioned Aliens franchise. There were also the space commandos of current game universes such as Halo. The show was brilliantly layered with adult themes like loss, honor, and death. Oh, and let’s not forget the catchy and rousing theme song.