With E4 sci-fi comedy commissions, Tripped and Aliens, and in-development Channel 4 projects, Space Ark and Graham Linehan/Adam Buxton collaboration The Cloud, in the works, a new crop of sci-fi sitcom could be making its way to UK TV.
Making funny sci-fi on a small-screen budget is tough enough without the additional pressure of having to attract viewers more traditionally down-to-earth in their sitcom tastes. Sci-fi sets and effects can be seen as prohibitively expensive by comedy commissioners (which is perhaps why the best UK sci-fi sitcoms of recent years has been on BBC Radio), and the genre’s niche status doesn’t scream mainstream hit. Over the years, one or two stand-outs have managed to straddle the sci-fi and comedy TV worlds, but plenty more have stumbled in the attempt.
This list is dedicated to the UK sitcoms with a sci-fi bent that didn’t achieve either the popularity, plaudits or cult status of Red Dwarf or The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. What lessons can new sci-fi comedies learn from eleven less-than-fondly remembered examples of the genre?
The Adventures Of Don Quick (1970)
As suggested below by commenter Robin Amlot, LWT series The Adventures Of Don Quick is a perfect fit for this bill. Conceived in the wake of Apollo 11’s moon landing, six 50-minute episodes of this sci-fi satire aired in 1970 before cancellation struck. The entire first episode, The Benefits Of Earth, is currently available to see on YouTube, courtesy of the Ian Hendry Website, where you can read more about the show.
Don Quixote in space was the series’ high concept, which saw titular intergalactic captain Don Quick and sidekick Sam Czopanser (er, geddit? Of course you do) travelling the stars to right various wrongs and chiefly succeeding in making a royal mess of things. Ian Hendry, better known for his roles in The Avengers and The Informer, played Quick, with a young Ronald Lacey (Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Last Crusade) as Czopanser.
Unfortunately for fans, the first episode is thought to be all that remains of this one.
The first post-Goodies sitcom written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie and script-edited by UK comedy greats Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Porridge, The Likely Lads, Auf Wiedersehen Pet), Astronauts arrived on ITV bearing the weight of expectation. The scenario of three opposing characters—a posh scientist, a working class leftie and an upper middle-class commander—trapped together in close confines recalled The Goodies’ premise, but failed to deliver the earlier show’s success.
One explanation is that Astronauts didn’t put Garden or Oddie in front of the camera. The roles of three mis-matched characters on a lengthy space mission, Commander Mattocks, Dr Foster and David Ackroyd, went respectively to Christopher Godwin, Carmen Du Sautoy and Barrie Rutter. The only Goodies star to recur was space-dog, Bimbo.
The sitcom, which can be considered fiction about science rather than sci-fi proper, ran for two series in the early eighties (longer than many on this list) but ultimately failed to live up to its comedy pedigree.
Among the complaints of ‘What about Being Human/In The Flesh/Gavin And Stacey/The Mighty Boosh?’ when BBC Three’s online move was first mooted, notable for its absence in the argument to keep the channel on TV was 2008 sitcom Clone. If you saw it at the time, you might understand why.
Clone was the product of a blended American and UK production team headed up by Friends’ Adam Chase and commissioned by Lucy Lumsden before she went over to make Sky the coolest kid in the comedy playground. It was written using the US writers’ room system, and, even being kind, isn’t what you’d call an advert for it.
The show’s sci-fi premise (scientist creates the world’s first human clone, invoking the ire of the military when it turns out not to be a killing machine but a wet-behind-the-ears unsophisticate who makes Father Dougal look like Peter O’Toole) failed to marry with its fish-out-of-water comedy. Despite the efforts of the cast and writers, the end result was rather a damp squib that left you wondering if the production team had dirt on Jonathan Pryce and Mark Gatiss.
Come Back Mrs Noah (1977-78)
Mrs Slocombe in space? Surely nothing could go wrong. Well, to judge by Come Back Mrs Noah’s repeat appearances on ‘worst sitcom’ lists, plenty did. This late-seventies comedy was one dud note in the otherwise much-admired comedy careers of writer producers David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, between whose CVs feature UK classics Are You Being Served?, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi! and ‘Allo ‘Allo!, and Dad’s Army.
Its premise sees Mollie Sugden’s titular Mrs Noah, winner of Modern Housewife Magazine’s 2050 cookery competition, accidentally transported into space on board the new craft she’s touring as star prize for baking the year’s best Bakewell Tart. It’s another fish-out-of-water deal, squeezing comedy out of the collision between Mrs Noah’s lack of scientific nous compared to her particle physicist ship-mates. In that light, you could think of it as a prototype The Big Bang Theory, but you probably shouldn’t. Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo’s Ian Lavender and Gordon Kaye also starred.
If Mollie Sugden floating around in zero gravity, replicators making fart sounds and ironic topical 1970s comedy about the relative health of the German and UK economies is your bag, er, this could be a hidden gem?
Goodnight Sweetheart (1993-1999)
Long before HBO realised the on-screen potential of polygamy in Big Love, comedy writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (Birds Of A Feather, The New Statesman) based a six-series BBC sitcom around a man with two wives. Meet Gary Sparrow (Nicholas Lyndhurst), a TV repairman/fake WWII intelligence officer/antiques dealer who leads a double life after stumbling upon a time-tunnel between the 1990s and the 1940s.
The emphasis here was firmly on the sitcom rather than the sci-fi, playing to Nicholas Lyndhurst’s likeability (considering he’s an inveterate liar and adulterer, Gary needed to be made such). The long-running BBC show was a fresh-enough angle on the genre’s fish-out-of-water convention, but overplayed scenarios such as Gary rushing between dates with two women on the same night meant that many of the jokes felt overly tried and tested (a great deal of them by Back To The Future).
That said, episodes involving evil doppelgangers, visitors from the future and a trip back to Victorian times, as well as faked suicides, real miscarriages and its bigamist lead, made this sitcom intermittently darker and stranger than it’s sometimes remembered as.
The only sitcom to come from the pen of much-respected screenwriter Nigel “Quatermass” Neale, Kinvig isn’t regarded with much fondness in hindsight, despite a contemporary review from The Times preferring its “relaxed wit”, “deft direction” and “splendid cast” to the “tiresomely hysterical” realization of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Following Neale’s move out of the BBC where he’d written a great many popular series including several Quatermass stories, The Stone Tape and The Year Of The Sex Olympics, Kinvig was produced for LWT, where it ran for a single series. It was a sci-fi spoof, the story of Des (Tony Haygarth), an unmotivated electrical repairman who—depending on your interpretation—either becomes involved in fixing the spacecraft of a band of stranded aliens from the planet Mercury led by Prunella Gee’s Miss Giffin (barely dressed in a series of revealing space-leotards), or has a seven-episode hallucination of the same inspired by his interest in UFOs.
Some have touchily interpreted the comedy as Neale’s swiping at UFO conspiracy theorists and sci-fi fans, with whom his BBC work would presumably have brought him into contact. To watch it now, it’s an interesting, low-key and low-budget relic of the time, by no means terrible, but a difficult one to warm to. Neale’s reputation as Mr Popular Television and the creator of some sci-fi classics however, remains unblemished.
Hyperdrive – a show with all of Red Dwarf’s jokes but none of its wit or charm is the somewhat cruel consensus reached by critics on this one. After a closer look though, Hyperdrive is an altogether dafter, lighter affair than Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s show, a comedy affectionately mocking sci-fi clichés through its own kind of retro silliness.
Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley wrote two series of this space sitcom, set on board the HMS Camden Lock, a craft tasked with protecting British interests across the galaxies. Nick Frost led a well-regarded and likeable cast including regulars Kevin Eldon, Miranda Hart, Dan Antopolski and Morwenna Banks, with guest appearances from across UK comedy talent including Paterson Joseph, Sally Phillips, Steven Mangan, Sarah Solemani, Katy Brand and more.
With its space corridors, love of slapstick and daffy jokes, it feels more akin to UK comedies of old than something in step with its post-millennial peers. On your most optimistic day, you might think Galaxy Quest. On your grumpiest, you might er, not.
My Hero (2000-2007)
Like Goodnight Sweetheart before it, regular BBC viewers of the period (and Gold viewers of today) would likely disagree that this one could be considered “largely forgotten”; it felt impossible to get away from at the time. Even on its best day though, nobody’s under any illusion that My Hero might feature in the sitcom hall of fame
In the vein of Mork & Mindy, Third Rock From The Sun and other aliens-out-of-water comedies, My Hero, created by Paul Mendelson (May To December, So Haunt Me) was the story of Thermoman, a super-powered native of the planet Ultron living under an assumed identity on Earth. Cue lycra suits, wacky neighbours and six series of secret identity shenanigans.
Stand-up Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Ted, Robbie The Reindeer) played the lead for five very popular series, before being replaced for the last run by Gimme Gimme Gimme’s James Dreyfus. Even O’Hanlon didn’t fight the show’s corner according to this interview, admitting that the “tame and inoffensive” comedy wasn’t “great really” but also defending it as not pretending to be “clever or witty”, or anything other than a mainstream sitcom “meant for children and old people.”
No Heroics (2008)
Largely forgotten about? Not on Den Of Geek, where we’re proud to have maintained a small yet persistent campaign (chiefly involving nagging creator Drew Pearce about it in interviews and on Twitter) to get this underappreciated one-series superhero comedy back into print on DVD.
ITV2’s first original sitcom, No Heroics was the tale of a group of modern-day lycra-wearing superheroes, kicking back in “Capes-only” pub, The Fortress after a hard day of not particularly impressive super antics. It’s as steeped in comic-book gags and references as you’d expect from a Drew Pearce joint (co-written by Mongrels, Misfits and Not Going Out’s Jon Brown and Daniel Peak), and boasts a great cast including Rebecca Staton, Patrick Baladi, James Lance, Clare Keelan, Jim Howick and Nicholas Burns, with guest appearances from Joe Cornish, Adam Buxton, Mark Heap, Tony Way and more.
In February 2014, Pearce told us “It’s actually BBC Video that hold the rights to it. And while it’s exciting that copies of the original DVD are changing hands for upwards of £200, it is also ridiculous. So yeah, Netflix, Hulu, whoever wants to take it, I wish we could get it on them all. […] Free No Heroics!” Hear hear.
Not With A Bang (1990)
Few comedies take their titles from poems by T.S. Eliot. Perhaps it’s not a good omen, as this LWT sitcom, set after an apocalypse that destroys Earth’s population save for a few surviving stragglers, was put to bed after seven episodes in 1990.
With no DVD reissue or repeats, only the pilot’s opening moments are available to see now on YouTube, so we’ll have to take online reviews’ word for the fact that despite a strong start, this one fizzled out pretty quickly. Not because of its cast, we’d bet, which included the terrific Stephen Rea, Ronald Pickup, Josie Lawrence, and Mike Grady.
Writers Mike Walling and Tony Millan’s premise, as illustrated by the series’ opening spoof of Tomorrow’s World, saw Judith Hahn accidentally release a chemical agent into the world that obliterated humanity, save for four people who, one year later, are holed up together in a country cottage.
Rob Grant’s The Strangerers (2000)
A solo-penned TV series from Red Dwarf co-creator Rob Grant, The Strangerers was commissioned by Sky before it enjoyed a reputation for creating ace, original comedy (see Psychobitches, Yonderland, Trying Again…). Seven episodes of this aliens-on-earth comedy aired in 2000 and failed to make much of a splash.
Mark Williams (The Fast Show, Harry Potter) and Jack Docherty (Spitting Image, Absolutely) played two vegetal aliens stranded on Earth without their leader and forced to try to fit in with inexplicable human habits such as walking and eating. They were joined by a host of comedy favourites including Sarah Alexander, Mark Heap, Milton Jones, Morwenna Banks, David Walliams, Meera Syal and Doon Mackichan. Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who’s Paul Darrow added some sci-fi legacy to that bunch.
In his autobiography Camp David, Walliams puts the show’s lack of success down to its tumbleweed channel. “It was on Sky at a time when no-one watched Sky,” he writes, adding, “The Strangerers was probably watched by two people, Rob Grant, and Doug Naylor on the quiet.”
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