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John Scalzi – The Best and Worst Television Adaptations of SciFi Classics

I’m going to engage in a bit of shameless self-promotion and tell you that this Friday marks the debut of Stargate: Universe, a television show for which I am the Creative Consultant, and if you wouldn’t mind watching it (whilst, of course, setting your DVR to record AMC’s scheduled offering Field of Dreams, and promising to watch all of it, including the commercials), I would be deeply appreciative. Appalling personal advertisement out of the way, the debut of Stargate: Universe is also notable because the television series has cinematic roots in 1994’s Stargate, directed by Roland Emmerich, who would go on to make Independence Day and the upcoming 2012. And while Stargate has been the most successful science fiction movie-to-television crossover (SG:U is the third series that can trace its ancestry back to the movie) of course it’s not the only one; a number of science fiction flicks have beamed down from the silver screen to the the small screen. How did they do? Let’s take a look.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Defrosted astronaut Buck Rogers debuted in a comic strip, but made the jump to movies in a 1939 serial from Universal Pictures starring Buster Crabbe. Rogers actually jumped to TV twice: Once in 1950 for a single season on ABC (and for which no recordings exist), and then in 1979 for NBC, in the rather more well-known series starring Gil Gerard. NBC actually released the series pilot to movie theaters, where it did the modern equivalent of $60 million at the box office — enough for the network to greenlight the project, which would last for two seasons. Incidentally, Buck Rogers may head back to the big screen; Frank Miller (The Spirit) is reportedly prepping a new version.

Flash Gordon
Take everything I wrote about Buck Rogers above and apply it here to this jock-turned-planet saver, including comic strip incarnation, 1930s movie serials (also starring Buster Crabbe), 1950s single-season TV series (starring Steve Holland), and disco-era theatrical release (the 1980 camp classic featuring Sam Jones, Max Van Sydow and the music of Queen). Flash’s most recent televised foray was on the SciFi Channel (now Syfy) in 2007, where it lasted again for just a single season.

Logan’s Run
The 1976 movie, in which a man runs from a civilization where you get blown up at the age of 30, was made into a 1977 series for CBS. The show made a number of changes from the movie — including having the civilization being run by a secret cabal of old people, and giving Logan a kicky android sidekick — but it didn’t matter: The series’ crystal flashed after just 14 episodes.

Paul Verhoeven’s great 1987 movie had two tragically crappy sequels as well as this 1994 Canadian television series, in which the truly awesome ultraviolence of the movies was squashed to make the show teen-friendly. This worked about as well as you would expect, and when combined with the high per-episode production cost, the series lasted a single season.

Alien Nation
In the far-off year of 1991, aliens live among us! And run drugs! And dissolve in salt water! The 1988 flick paired a human and alien cop to solve a crime, and did only moderate business. But it was enough to convince the then-scrappy Fox Network to commission a series in 1989. Though it lasted just a single season — which had as much to do with Fox’s own precarious situation as it did with ratings — the show continued on after cancellation though five successful made-for-TV movies.

Total Recall 2070
Total Recall, as you may recall, was a huge hit in 1990, in which the memory-impaired Arnold Schwarzenegger ends up starting a revolution on Mars. But do you recall the 1999 television series Total Recall 2070? It was set up as a prequel to the events of the movie, but was in reality only tangentially related to anything, instead borrowing a couple of elements from the flick and then going off to do its own thing. It lasted a single season before falling down the memory hole.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius
Don’t mock it: it was nominated for an Oscar (the inaugural Best Animated Feature award, which went to Shrek). Similar to the 1979 Buck Rogers, this 2001 movie about a big-headed boy genius was originally a TV series pilot, but was promoted to the big screen when executives at Nickelodeon liked what they saw. It was smart decision: The flick did $80 million in business and helped propel the television series to three seasons of animated goofery, with a spin-off series Planet Sheen scheduled for 2010.

Your thoughts on these movies-to-series? Any that I missed? Drop ’em in the comments, folks.


Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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