The cancellation of The Cape was disappointing, but not surprising. There have been some truly great shows cut off in their prime. Call them one-season wonders. Here are the top ten sci-fi shows that remain great, even though they didn't last long.
The Time Tunnel (1966) - When two scientists get lost in the show's namesake, they are forced to travel through history at random to find their way home. The series took viewers to a wide variety of places and times, thanks to its use of stock footage from the film library of 20th Century Fox. The show was actually very popular, but ended up canceled after one season because of bone-headed scheduling decisions by the network. Though the writing wasn't always scientifically accurate, the format influenced many sci-fi shows that followed like Voyagers, Sliders, Stargate SG-1, and Quantum Leap.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) - Kolchak had a simple but bold premise; Carl Kolchak was an investigative reporter who pursued bizarre stories, often leading to supernatural creatures. Each episode featured Kolchak chasing a different monster, usually a modern twist on old creatures like werewolves and zombies. Kolchak was preceded by two successful TV movies, but the show ended up canceled after one season. Even then, the show lived on through a series of TV movies composed of previous episodes. Kolchak was a very inventive series that is most notorious as the chief inspiration for the later hit TV show, The X-Files.
The Flash (1990) - A live-action adaptation of the comic book series, The Flash was about a police scientist who gets caught in a freak accident and becomes the fastest man alive. The Flash started out with fighting regular criminals, but over time began fighting his rogues gallery of supervillains brought to life. The show remains the most accurate and satisfying TV adaptation of a superhero ever, and was mainly canceled due to the high production costs. The show's greatest legacy was Mark Hamill's performance as the Joker-like character the Trickster. Hamill went on to use the same voice as the real Joker in Batman: The Animated Series.
Nowhere Man (1995) - Nowhere Man was about Thomas Veil, a photographer whose entire life disappears when he goes into a bathroom at a restaurant. His wife, his friends, and even his mother don't remember him, and Veil finds himself pursued by a mysterious organization for one of his photographs. Part of the flood of shows attempting to copy the success of The X-files, Nowhere Man kind of got lost in the shuffle and ended up canceled after the first season. The best part about this show is that the final episode of the season answered the big question of how Veil's life got erased. And unlike Lost and X-Files, it was a satisfying conclusion.
Firefly (2002)- When Gene Roddenberry first pitched Star Trek, he famously described it as "Wagon Train to the Stars." His description was more about promotion than accuracy, but Firefly took that concept more literally. The show about a starship with a ragtag crew of thieves and con men in a lawless galaxy achieved a perfect mix of sci-fi and Western genres. The show suffered from an erratic schedule and poor promotion from FOX, and was canceled in one season. Yet DVD sales and fan support remained so high that Firefly had the unprecedented gift of a feature film (Serenity in 2005) when far longer and more popular shows have not.
5. Max Headroom (1987) - Most people know Max Headroom for his "catch the wave" commercials, but he wasn't just pitching Coca-Cola back in the eighties. He was also the star of a blisteringly satirical sci-fi series. Set "20 minutes into the future," the show was about an apocalyptic near-future where TV networks run the world, and ratings are worth killing for. Max Headroom was a cyberpunk masterpiece that featured hackers at a time when the World Wide Web didn't exist, and a vision of a thousand channels before satellite TV. The show's depiction of interactive television is just now being realized, and the dark satire of a TV-addicted society is more timely than ever.
4. Alien Nation (1989) - When a spaceship crash-lands with a crew of thousands of alien slaves, the city of Los Angeles finds itself with a new minority to absorb. Based on a so-so movie, Alien Nation tackled issues of immigration and prejudice in ways no other sci-fi show has before or since. A significant indicator of its power is that the show inspired a highly popular series of novels that also led to a series of TV movies, an unprecedented move at the time. This was before the current era of long-dead shows being revived through other networks like Family Guy. I have no doubt Alien Nation would have simply been renewed if the cancellation had happened today.
The Jetsons (1962) - A lot of people might be surprised to see The Jetsons on this list. That's because the show has become an icon of pop culture, as well as the most well-known satire of American science-fiction. The name alone conjures images of flying cars, food pills, and robots. But when the series originally aired, it was not that popular and lasted only one season. The fact that it's become so successful in syndication proves it really was ahead of its time. A new version that aired in the eighties only proved how great the original was.
2. Battlestar Galactica (1978) - Battlestar Galactica was an ambitious show about a fleet of starships carrying human survivors battling a robotic alien race. Perhaps too ambitious - the ratings didn't support the high production costs, and ended the show after one season. But not only did BSG have special effects that set a new standard for sci-fi television, and not only did it create a dedicated fanbase that carried the torch for the series for decades, BSG inspired a new version in 2004 that became a sci-fi milestone on its own. I know some will argue that the show lasted two seasons, but any real fan would agree that
The Prisoner (1967) - It's been called the first television masterpiece. Books have been written about its impact alone. The Prisoner was a darkly surreal series about a man known only as Number Six trapped in a mysterious British village. The Village turned out to be a prison for secret agents, where the residents were subjected to physical, emotional, and psychological torture to extract information. Yet the show is best known for the way it broke the rules of TV storytelling with layers of mystery, symbolism, and enigma. Despite its short life of seventeen episodes, the Prisoner's themes of conspiracy, confusion, oppression, and allegory have been an inspiration to countless shows from Twins Peaks to X-Files to Lost. Even forty years later, the show continues to inspire discussion and debate.
Of course, this isn't a comprehensive list of great one-season wonders. Any other shows you would add to this list? Sound off in the comments