Review: Fantastic TV – 50 Years of Cult Fantasy and Science Fiction

Fantastic TVAuthor: Steven Savile
Price: £14.99 (Amazon price: £8.54)
ISBN: 978-085965420-3
Pages: 272
Publisher: Plexus Publishing
Published: May 2010

What do you want from a non-fiction book about television, specifically science-fiction and fantasy TV? It’s a good question, since there are so many possible options.

Do you want a reference book like the Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction that’s exhaustive, gives a good description of each show and its themes, maybe an episode guide, and some production details?

No? How about a book like Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text that really goes to town on analysis, explaining the imagery, history, concepts, et al of a show so that you truly understand where it fits into modern culture and what it’s emblematic of?

No? How about a memoir like Paul Magrs’ The Diary of a “Dr Who” Addict, in which the author explains why a show holds personal appeal to them?

No? How about an ungainly, inaccurate mismatch of all three, where the author randomly cherry picks shows based purely on what interests him and that he either recalls quite well or has at best only a passing knowledge of; he then scribbles down a few ‘facts’ about the show, some of them wrong, together with descriptions that explain very little about the show to anyone who hasn’t seen it and misses out most of the characters and things that made them important; and then adds some meandering attempts to analyse the themes, importance to the genre and issues that would make a sixth-form media studies essay seem focused?

Yes? Then have I got the book for you: it’s called Fantastic TV and although it does have some things going for it, you do have to wonder not only why anyone would publish it, but whether it’s really an epic advert for the importance of book editors.

Steven Savile has written rather a lot of fantasy fiction in his time, including plenty of Torchwood, Primeval, Doctor Who, Stargate and Star Wars books. His Primeval novel Shadows of the Jaguar was actually pretty good and won an award. But he really needs to steer clear of non-fiction if this is his approach to writing it.

Fantastic TV is divided into chapters based around particular themes that have some commonality: “The Stars Our Destination” is about shows set on spaceships or on space stations; “They Came From Outer Space” is about shows with aliens coming to Earth; “The Body Electric” is about shows where the concept of the human body and soul are challenged in some way; and so on.

Then there are chapters where everything’s been roughly lumped together: “A New Kind of Hero” piles together Wonder Woman, Xena, Buffy, Smallville, Ultraviolet and Lost, among others; and “Just Because They’re Out To Get You, It Doesn’t Mean You’re Paranoid” bizarrely lumps together The Prisoner, The X-Files and Torchwood.

Weird.

Collectively, there’s no real game plan to what shows are included. Although the press release says it’s about all the shows that inspire a passionate devotion (ie cult shows), Savile’s foreword says this is ‘a loving tribute to everything that is great about the goggle box that I love”. So it’s basically the shows he likes or grew up with, rather than ones that are actually important or have cult status. There are essays on Star Trek: DS9 and Star Trek: Voyager, but nothing on Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Enterprise; Tru Calling gets a look in while A For Andromeda, The Avengers, all the ITC shows, Survivors, Timeslip, Ace of Wands and indeed the vast majority of important US and UK sci-fi and fantasy shows of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are overlooked – that’s one or two cult show left out then, don’t you think?

Each chapter is broken up into essays on each show. The shows are all listed chronologically but there’s no real reasoning behind how much coverage each gets: Lost in Space is first up with eight pages; Star Trek gets five; BSG gets eight; while the Amazing Spiderman gets five and a half.

There’s no consistency between what each essay will be about either. The Six Million Dollar Man analysis is more or less a comparison between Michael Caidan’s Cyborg and how the pilot movie and TV episode turned out in comparison – if you’re looking for any real analysis of the show, its depiction of cybernetic technology and Steve Austin’s feelings regarding it, how the disabled responded to it, how the show evolved, production history, or the influence of Fred Freiberger, you’re out of luck.

But then if you turn to the section on Wonder Woman, you get a massive (slightly inaccurate) tract on the history of the character in comics, long analyses of how newspapers and magazines greeted the arrival of the show, its legacy and so on. The analysis of Xena (Hercules and his legendary journeys get barely a nod) manages to focus almost exclusively on Xena’s backstory and later seasons, without so much as mentioning Xena’s various thematic battles or even her enemies: Callisto representing her past sins that she’s trying to escape, Caesar representing the things that turned her to darkness, and so on.

Mistakes
Each essay is normally littered with vast amounts of irrelevant or completely off-base material: the analysis of Sapphire and Steel‘s fifth assignment suggests that the plague that would have been released was related to the then-recent announcement of unexplained deaths from AIDS, which is, of course, blatant cock, since it was hardly a plague at that point and hardly anyone in the UK knew about it; there are several pages of the Stargate essay on the history of religion; Tru Calling‘s failure is put down to Buffy fans not liking Tru’s lack of brutality and raunchy sex, rather than it airing on Fox say and there’s absolutely no mention of the second season or even the underlying mythos the show’s writers had developed; and the analysis of The Prisoner almost spends more time talking about Lost than the show itself.

There are even quite glaring omissions and inaccuracies:

  • the Babylon 5 essay fails to mention the spin-off pilot movie Babylon 5: The Legend of the Rangers yet only includes photos from that pilot, none from the series itself;
  • the Doctor Who essay has photos of Colin Baker and Peter Davison in the wrong order;
  • the Battlestar Galactica essay suggests the humans worship the Greek gods Aries (that would be a goat, not the god of war, Ares) and Aurora (Roman goddess, since Eos was the Greek goddess of the dawn), and goes into all kinds of irrelevant speculation about where Helo got his name from that is basically a straight rip from Wikipedia;
  • the Ultraviolet essay gets a key scene wrong (there are three vampire coffins in the warehouse scene with Idris Elba, not one); and
  • the Sapphire and Steel essay
    • uses the fan-created but inaccurate alternative titles for episodes
    • incorrectly credits PJ Hammond as the creator of Ace of Wands (that was created by Trevor Preston and Pamela Lonsdale)
    • claims Adventure 4 has obvious references to paedophilia because there are old pictures of children in the shop
    • mixes in Friday the 13th as the only show to blend the inexplicable and the arcane, despite The Lost Room, for example, having aired before the book was written.

And I’ve barely started picking holes, let alone highlighting typos or sticking pins in Steven Savile dolls for his repeated use (and occasional misspelling) of the word ‘utilise’.

The problem
The basic problem is that the author is really trying to write about the shows he loved and why he loved them, putting down every single one of his thoughts on paper no matter how ill-thought-through they might be. If he happens to know someone involved in a show, no matter how tangentially involved, he’ll really go to town on them. In extremis, the show is used merely as a peg on which to hang essays on other subjects and shows altogether.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I really don’t care what Steven Savile’s favourite TV shows are. I don’t care that he thinks I should know that V spawned a licensed Commodore 64 computer game, purely because he happens to write licensed fiction. I don’t care that he thinks the problem with the original Star Trek was they wrote themselves into a corner by “mentioning things”. I don’t care that he thinks Sylvester McCoy was an excellent Doctor Who that was undermined by a dwindling budget and “diminishing public interest”.

If he wrote in a funny, entertaining and concise manner, I might be, even though I don’t share his enthusiasm for certain shows (eg Torchwood). But he doesn’t. He probably could – what this book really needed was someone to come along, tell him to stop, redraft, rethink and maybe check some facts as well. Book editors have a purpose you know.

But in this book, he doesn’t.

Now, Fantastic TV isn’t without merits. Its final chapter is a round robin interview between various noted writers, including Joe Ahearne, Kenneth Johnson, Stephen Volk, Andrew Cartmell and Paul Cornell, in which they discuss fantasy as a genre. A lot of Savile’s analysis does actually hit the spot, some of his essays are interesting, and he does provide some information on a few shows that’s actually quite useful. Best of all, some of the picture captions are paralysingly funny in their stupidity (“In order to ensure that the Fox network aired Firefly in widescreen format, creator Joss Whedon often deliberately placed actors at the extremities of the shot”, and on a shot of Angel fighting a giant insect “Angel employed many film noir tropes as a stylish means of framing its core themes of redemption”).

But it’s such a scattergun, inaccurate, meandering book that honestly, you just shouldn’t buy it. Just don’t. Because the good bits really don’t merit the asking price. Seriously, get that Roger Fulton’s Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction cos that’s much better.

  • OUCH! As someone who read and much enjoyed the Primeval novel (thanks v much!) this caused me to pause in recognition of Savile’s name.
    Oh Dear – there really is a problem with books like this and that is there are a LOT of books like this and adding something to the glut takes a carefully thought-out reason and good editorial checking (because you don’t even have to be a nerd to spot things that are wrong).
    A shame, but hopefully he’ll stick to the fiction.

  • MediumRob

    I hear there were a lot of production issues which I won’t go into, so a lot of the issues aren’t Savile’s fault (including some of the show choices).
    But every time I look at a page, something stares out at me that makes me go “Huh?” – just noticed, for example, he claims in The Prisoner article that Danger Man was 39 episodes (that was the first season – it’s 89 eps in total IIRC) and that Sarah Greene gets possessed in Ghostwatch, when she’s actually abducted/trapped by the ghost and it’s Michael Parkinson who gets possessed. That’s simple fact-checking and someone needed to do that.