Welcome back to Geek Life! This time around, I figured I would take a look at a cable television channel that really shaped my tastes in science fiction, horror, and even comedy. You see, there’s that one station that shows all those god-awful monster movies that use what has to be the computers George Lucas uses as toilet paper to make their special effects. You know the one I’m talking about – the SyFy Channel. I could rant for hours about how the rebranding irritates the crap out of me, but I won’t. I want to remember SyFy as it once was – the Sci-Fi Channel.
Before Sci-Fi Became SyFy and Made Crappy Movies…
In 1992, I was a teenage lad who survived his awkward middle school years and made my way to my sophomore year in high school. By then, I was still awkward. Hell, I’m awkward now, but I had a good grasp on pop culture and often made people want to laugh more than to pants me, so all was good. I had been a comic collector, but my love at the time was moving more toward movies. I never let go of the movies I loved as a kid. I’d watch the hell out of Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Saturday afternoon monster movie marathons on one of the local television channels.
By this time, I was one of the lucky kids who had cable in his bedroom along with a VCR. So, while my mom worked nights, I could avoid going to bed too late by watching television in bed before going to bed. I had already discovered E! Entertainment and their awesome half-hour movie preview show every late night. I would have done just about anything to go to a movie or rent something from the video store. My tastes were wide open and I was willing to watch just about anything. It was the Fall of 1992 that I discovered something brand new… The Sci-Fi Channel.
Already well versed in a lot of science fiction television and movies, there were some programs I remembered from being a kid, but never really saw for myself. The Sci-Fi Channel created a monster in me. They gave me a lot of classics like Lost In Space, Dark Shadows, and Twilight Zone. In the evening, I could watch all my favorite Star Trek episodes, or catch a movie I had seen a million times before. Of course, there was also the two or three times a year when Sci-Fi Channel would dedicate a week’s worth of primetime scheduling to airing the original V miniseries.
As I mentioned before, the classics were the most fun to watch. Lost In Space, though kinda silly compared to Star Trek, was great for afternoon watching. Dark Shadows often aired during a time when you’d expect to see soap operas. Being a bit of a soap opera itself, it was the perfect time to check out Barnabas Collins and his fiendish tastes. In the mornings, I could finally watch The Incredible Hulk without being scared out of my wits like I was when I was a little kid. But it was the horror themed shows that I liked to watch the most.
Tales from the Darkside was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid and I got to see a lot of those episodes again. As I watch them now, though, I realize how silly that show really is. It’s kinda sad because that show, and in particular, the opening, always creeped me out. Anymore, it’s easier to laugh at the show than be scared by it. Even the horrific Grither episode doesn’t scare me like it used to. Then, there were shows like Night Gallery, Rod Serling’s post-Twilight Zone series, that was awesome to see for the first time (even though I had heard of the series).
Serling’s The Twilight Zone was the star of the channel, though. Even going back to the earliest days, almost every long weekend featured a marathon of Twilight Zone. I would glue myself in front of the television and wait patiently for my favorite episodes. Two of my favorites, naturally, starred William Shatner. The enormously famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is known by just about anyone who’s ever seen the series, but one of my very favorite episodes is Shatner’s other episode, “Nick of Time”. In that one, Shatner became obsessed with a table top fortune teller box with a bobbling devil head on top. He and his wife were waiting for their car to be fixed and, thanks to the obsession, the box is able to keep a terrible accident from befalling them.
Jeez… I could spend an entire article talking about the classics of The Twilight Zone. Episodes like “Time Enough At Last”, “Long Distance Call”, “It’s a Good Life”, and “To Serve Man” all had ironic, or creepy aspects to them. There are several other episodes that are even more famous than that, but whether the episode was in it’s brief one hour format or the more common thirty minute format, almost every episode was brilliant. There are so many episodes featuring famous actors like Batman’s Pat Hingle, Donald Pleasance, Carol Burnett, and the list stretches on to near infinity.
As the years passed, the Sci-Fi Channel didn’t change that much. They would bring on other series like Battlestar Galactica, the original Batman, and even Buck Rogers. I guess I could have seen the writing on the wall with some of their other additions to the schedule. Shows that lacked a great big following like Seaquest, Swamp Thing, The Flash, and Friday the 13th: The Series started to take up slots in the schedule. Yeah, there was Kolchak to help save some of that, but I found myself tuning in less. I still have the Sci-Fi Channel to thank for something that really changed my view on horror movies that has stuck with me to this day.
It was around Halloween one year late in the 1990s. I was wrapped up in a deep addiction to the Playstation game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The game stirred something inside me that was probably always there. Symphony of the Night was steeped in atmosphere and used the classic ideas of monsters and vampires and werewolves. That October, I was looking for something to watch on TV, and all of a sudden, there’s Sci-Fi showing some classic Universal monster movies. Dracula, Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and so on… From that moment on, monsters were my cup of tea in horror movies. Don’t get me wrong, I still love a good old zombie flick as much as the next guy, but I was instantly done with the slasher flicks and the torture porn that seemed to be really popular in the previous decade. Just because I like vampires and werewolves, don’t think I like Twilight or anything. I don’t even watch True Blood. I’m all about the idea that atmosphere, sound effects of creatures of the night, and mad scientists can make for a brilliant horror movie. Who needs blood and gore when all that really does is make people barf. You want to scare someone, submerge them in creepy settings and fog and uncertainty of what’s out there. It’s brought me a new appreciation for all those Godzilla movies I watched as a kid, King Kong, and many of the 50s horror flicks. It’s one of the reason why I loved doing the Comic Book Monsters series last October and will do it again this year. (Oh yeah, nothing wrong with a little shameless self-promotion there…)
It wasn’t long after that that Sci-Fi brought Mystery Science Theater 3000 over from Comedy Central. That only fueled my appreciation of both the good monster movies and the awful. Faithfully, I’d tune in every week to watch Mike, Crow, and Servo add their hilarious commentary on some of the worst movies ever made. If anyone can confirm or deny it, that’d be great, but I seem to remember a brief period in time when MST3K would air twice each weekend. Seems like there was a Saturday morning airing and another on either Saturday or Sunday night. Anyway, the more I watched, the more I wanted to see. I later got more familiar with Joel’s era and the differences between his and Mike’s comedic styles. Later when MST3K got DVD releases, I bought up as many as I could. It was there that I found some of the episodes I always go to when I want something hilarious to watch. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched The Legend of Boggy Creek II or Space Mutiny.
Thanks to the Sci-Fi Channel, I got exposed to classic ideas of monsters or the classic, stylized science fiction that I still love to see in movies or even in comics. Characters like Adam Strange who have the old school uniform and jet pack thrill me to no end. These classic horror and sci-fi characters and tones gave me a great appreciation for what I like to call “genre work”. Whenever you read a review of mine from a book outside the superhero genre, like Footprints, Reasonably Priced Comics, or Jack Hammer, you can see how much I enjoy the usage of the boiled down essence of their genres. That love and enjoyment had always been there within me thanks to MonsterVision from TNT, or growing up watching Star Trek or Godzilla movies, but Sci-Fi really helped me enjoy it even if it was on the sillier side like Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Right before the end of my heavy viewing of the Sci-Fi Channel, I got one last great show that I always loved to watch. Each Sunday night, they aired a collection of short films called Exposure. Sometimes they were themed like when they focused on Star Wars, showing George Lucas’ original THX1138 short from his USC days along with several other Star Wars inspired shorts. Most of the time, though, they just showed weird, but intensely interesting short films that ranged from the flat out strange to the truly brilliant from such filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Clive Barker, and Tim Burton. It was on Exposure that I learned of indie comic book creator James Kochalka when they showed his music video for Monkey Vs. Robot. Exposure also started a computer generated animated show called Tripping the Rift that parodied Star Wars and Star Trek.
Once Exposure went away, it really signified an end for me with Sci-Fi Channel. The unaired episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 were running out, and the programming wasn’t quite as interesting to me as it once was. While I was never a big fan of original shows like Tripping the Rift, Farscape, or Lexx, it was clear those shows did have a huge following of sci-fi fans. Considering some of the female characters of these series were either scantily clad or just simply sexed up characters (Lexx featured a character that served the purpose of a consort), it’s understandable why mostly single guys enjoyed the original programming, but these series cost a lot of money to keep on the air. They weren’t pulling in the numbers to keep them around so they faded away. It was becoming increasingly difficult to bring in consistent numbers with their syndicated reruns. After a while, most everyone will have seen all the Incredible Hulk or Star Trek episodes. Plus, television series were becoming more common on DVD… So it was getting harder to keep showing old shows and keep the commercial monies coming in.
Sci-Fi did hit it big more recently by recreating Battlestar Galactica. The series was able to pull in fans that were never big fans of science fiction, or would have never thought they would like a show like that. I always kicked myself for never jumping on board with that series because it never failed that I’d be asked if I watched the most recent episode because big time cool stuff was happening. The series completely reinvented the original show and breathed new life and serious themes to what came before. On top of that, Sci-Fi brought the first season of the relaunched Doctor Who to America, but that didn’t last long when it became clear that BBC America could handle the series much better. Either way, Doctor Who gave me a reason to check out Sci-Fi once again.
Battlestar Galactica was yet another very expensive show, so to compensate for that, it really seemed the network decided to go a different direction for most of their other series. For the most part, a lot of the network’s other shows were much more character and situation driven than effects driven. They weren’t flashy shows. They asked you to invest in the characters instead of the action or aliens. I didn’t really want anything to do with something I had to give that much attention to in order to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I like character driven stuff, but I have to be engaged and really want to see what these characters have to give me, and I just wasn’t getting it. I had no idea what I was going to get from the Original Sci-Fi Movies, though…
Oh boy. How do I even confront the topic of the SyFy Original Movies? Okay, I’ll just say it… The movies on the recently rebranded SyFy Channel are utter shit. Giant sharks, killer piranhas, crappy special effects, crappier acting, sequels to crappy horror movies, and an awful lot of 80s pop star Tiffany… Not a single one of these movies have ever been any good. They tend to also air many of the films created by shit-fest masters, The Asylum. The Asylum is usually who’s behind some of the worst of the worst of SyFy’s original movies, but man… They can also manage to produce some of their very own diarrhea-stained movies. Most of those star C. Thomas Howell and are laughable at best.
I will admit that I like to sometimes torture myself by watching some of these poopy movies, just so I can get a good laugh out of them. However, these movies might just be worse than anything I’ve ever seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000. So I really need to be in a very special state of mind to watch them. If I’m not in the right state of mind, I honestly believe films by The Asylum would cause one of two things to happen – 1) make me go crazy like the people who looked into the book in In the Mouth of Madness, or 2) visually and audibly lobotomize me. Either way, if I’m not careful, these movies could cause serious brain damage.
As far as I was concerned, the final nail in the coffin for the network came in the Summer of 2009. It was the official rebranding of the network. The Sci-Fi Channel had become the Syfy Channel. Now, I’m not stupid, despite what my wife may sometimes think, or those who have to endure my rants and ramblings might instictively believe, I understand the idea of the rebranding. It came from the idea that Syfy can be trademarked and helped differentiate between a network showing movies and shows of a multitude of different genre and the generalized idea of the science fiction genre, often shortened to simply “sci-fi”. Okay, I get it. However, it definitely seemed to separate itself from what it once was. Once upon a time, the Sci-Fi Channel was a place to go to see the roots of the genre and the classic shows, and sometimes movies, that guys like me loved as a kid. Sure, the occasional crappy movie or silly TV show aired, but the bulk was quality stuff. In my mind, Syfy seemed to signify quality on par with what I leave behind in the bathroom after a day long burrito bender. I can’t even tell you what the channel number is for Syfy on my cable service. It’s just not what I used to love.
What makes me feel less like a cranky old bastard is that I’m not the only one who feels Syfy is suffering from channel drift. A joke about how to pronounce the new name has appeared on The Big Bang Theory. Stephen Colbert has made a joke about the reasons for changing the name on his popular The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Most importantly, the fans have raised the biggest stink over the change. The fans are turning away from Syfy claiming the mining for a more lucrative audience undermines the original idea of the network. The network is not shy about wanting to have more reality-based series (like there isn’t enough of that everywhere else). Sure Who Wants to Be a Superhero had its moments and, even though I’m really not a fan of it, Ghost Hunters is very popular, it looks like Syfy is going to go to even more reality TV. At this point, maybe they should just try to digitize a turd and have it appear on your HDTV. I might even tune in once to see how that works out for them.
That just about sums up my feelings for the Sci-Fi Channel. Come back in two weeks when I celebrate the anniversary of Marvel’s favorite web-slinger finally getting his big screen bow. That’s right, I’m going to be talkin’ the Spider-Man movies! I’ll give some background on the looooong process of bringing Peter Parker and the gang to theaters, the record-breaking first movie, the truly brilliant sequel, and the much-maligned third movie. If you’re good, I may even give you my thoughts on the relaunch that is making its way to theaters in July 2012! So, be sure to come back to check it out!