1990s Kids’ Sci-Fi TV Was Surprisingly Hardcore

The kids sci-fi TV scene was WILD in the 1990s...

Alana shooting lasers from her headband in 1990s Australian series The Girl From Tomorrow
Photo: Film Australia

The 90s has a not-entirely unearned reputation as a bit of a dead zone for television sci-fi outside of the USA – especially in the UK. However, the truth is that the 90s was actually something of a golden age. It’s just that in Britain, this golden age happened exclusively between 3:25 pm, when everyone got off school, and 5:30 pm, when everyone watched Neighbours. These homegrown and Australian shows ran the entire gamut of what science fiction could do, from hilarity to terror.

The budgets were low, the special effects had a short shelf life and most of them are now almost impossible to find outside of the memories of some nostalgic Millennials, but they introduced an entire generation to the sci-fi genre, as well as to some banging theme tunes.

Mike and Angelo (1989 -2000)

Mike and Angelo, a show whose title caused a generation to wonder why it had been named after a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, has one of the catchier theme tunes on this list. Lasting from 1989 all the way into the year 2000, it followed the adventures of the comically inept alien Angelo, and a series of children, many of them called Mike, because nobody wants to let a good pun title go to waste. 

But as well as its impressive longevity, Mike and Angelo also spawned an entire micro-sub-genre of children’s science fiction sitcom, as we’ll see further down.

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The Girl from Tomorrow (1991-1992)

Among those banging theme tunes, the best might be The Girl from Tomorrow. In The Girl from Tomorrow, 13-year-old Alana from the utopia of the year 3000 is kidnapped by a criminal who has hitched a ride on her mum’s time machine from the dystopia of the year 2500, and she’s then taken back in time to the year 1990.

The show had everything to capture a young imagination – the giant, crystalline “Time Capsule” that looked straight off The Crystal Maze, the year 3000’s telekinetic “transducers” that were just begging you to steal your little sister’s Alice band and walk around with it on your forehead.

After the first series followed the eponymous girl’s quest to return to the future, it was followed up by The Girl from Tomorrow Part II: Tomorrow’s End, which threw a history-altering plotline into the mix.

Time Riders (1991)

Meanwhile, back in the UK, we had Time Riders on CITV. Starring Haydn Gwynne years before she would play Camilla in The Windsors, it was a four-part drama about a scientist who accidentally abducts a 19th-century street urchin and then has to escape on a motorbike-mounted time machine to save him from being dissected (scientists in kids’ shows always want to dissect stuff), with the bulk of the action seeing our heroes trying to survive the perils of the 17th century English Civil War.

Watt on Earth (1991)

It’s hard not to see Watt on Earth as at least partially the BBC’s attempt to do Mike and Angelo, but at risk of starting a war in the comments, this one was quite a bit better. For starters, it had the writing talent of Doctor Who’s Pip and Jane Baker behind it. It also had something of a plot in place of Mike and Angelo’s gone-wrong-invention of the week. The alien Watt was the heir to a throne, and on the run from his murderous uncle, hiding with the aid of his flawed shapeshifting abilities.

On top of that, the opening titles felt like a kid-friendly take on those of The Twilight Zone, and Watt’s shellsuit was the very height of fashion chic if you were eight years old.

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Dark Season (1991)

As we’ve already seen, if you take Doctor Who off British telly, it immediately starts trying to invent it again. So Dark Season gave us a pair of spine-chilling, multi-part science-fiction adventures about an evil computer company, with a villain played by Blake’s 7’s own Jacqueline Pearce. Perhaps that’s scant evidence to suggest the show’s writer was trying to revive the spirit of Doctor Who, but in 2005 he went on to do just that. Because Dark Season was the first TV genre series (not counting the storyline-by-stealth of kids’ summer holiday magazine programme Why Don’t You?) of Russell T Davies. In 1993 Davies would follow this up with Century Falls, which took the same approach to terrifying kids, but this time through the folk horror genre.

Dark Season starred a young, as-yet-unknown actor by the name of Kate Winslet. She returned to record an audio drama sequel for Big Finish last year, but has also taken on the odd acting role in the meantime.

Spacevets (1992 – 1994)

If The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was before your time, and Red Dwarf was on after your bedtime, the odds are that this show was your first introduction to the world of science-fiction comedy. Satirising and subverting sci-fi concepts its audience probably hadn’t even seen yet, Spacevets featured the adventures of the veterinary starship Dispensable and its crew, including Dogsbody, an anthropomorphic dog puppet that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Farscape.

Dogsbody even went on to have a career beyond Spacevets, in shows such as CBBC’s Cartoon Critters.

The Tomorrow People (1992)

No, not the 1973 series full of mullets and brown knitwear. And no, not the 2013 series where the “teens” all looked about 25 and the guys were all incredibly ripped. This series, which ran from 1992 to 1995, features three kids who actually looked like children (I mean, maybe all teens in the 1970s looked like they could reasonably buy a pint without ID, we don’t speculate), including a young Naomie Harris years before she was fighting zombies in 28 Days Later.

The series used the time-honoured (even before the original series) plot device of teenagers developing superpowers at puberty and having to keep them concealed from the authorities while seeking each other out, and trying not to linger too long on how it serves as a Coming Out metaphor.

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Over time, the show also featured some Grade A villain performances, ranging from Doctor Who and Return to Oz’s Jean Marsh, to Christopher Lee himself.

Escape from Jupiter (1994)

Spacevets aside, the majority of these series restrict most of their action to the present day. This makes sense – kids’ TV has historically not been awash with cash, and so being able to use present-day locations and costumes is often an essential money-saver.

Escape from Jupiter doesn’t care about that, however, telling the story of a crew of desperate colonists attempting to pilot a derelict space station back to Earth after a volcanic eruption destroys their Ionian mining colony.

The highlight of the show was its CGI spaceship work, which has dated massively, but at the time was breathtakingly cool.

The Demon Headmaster (1996-1998)

The best story about the actor Terrence Hardiman is this one:

The reason why was, of course, his role as the titular Demon Headmaster, a man who could hypnotise you with a look in the eye. Hardiman did go on to take other acting roles after this one, many of which were not pure evil. But no matter the part, he would never be quite trusted by viewers of a certain age.

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That said, it was not just his performance that made The Demon Headmaster terrifying. It was the way the characters were isolated, with other teachers, parents and even other students all falling under his spell, leaving them isolated as they attempted to thwart his evil schemes.

The Tribe (1999-2003)

On a list dominated by the BBC with a few appearances from CITV, this is a rare appearance by Channel 5, and while it aired first in the UK, this series was filmed in New Zealand.

A mysterious virus wipes out all the grown-ups on the planet, leaving behind children and teenagers who immediately band together into gangs and start putting on excessive amounts of face paint, which to be fair is exactly what our generation would have done given half a chance. While most of the dramas on this list were relatively contained miniseries, The Tribe lasted a whopping five seasons and 260 episodes, taking it out of the 90s and well into the 21st century.

Aquila (1997-1998)

Two children find a dead Roman centurion and an alien spaceship. They decide to keep the spaceship. The plot of the first series largely followed the book by screenwriter Andrew Norriss. Each episode ended on a cliff-hanger, and either revolved around the characters desperately trying to cover up something else that would reveal they’re harbouring an actual alien spaceship, or the ship itself doing something weird, like turning one of the kids’ arm into a super powered lizard arm.

It was fun, with the gradual unearthing of ship the Aquila’s history keeping you hooked. Tragically the show was cancelled after only two series – even more tragically, given the cliff-hanger to series two would have seen the boys get their hands on a full sized battle cruiser…

My Parents Are Aliens (1999)

Even as Mike and Angelo was still on the air, CITV brought out another kid’s sci-fi sitcom about children acting as guides to aliens disguised as humans (with Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong among the writing crew).

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With a winning title, and double the aliens (two of them!), My Parents Are Aliens saw three orphans adopted by foster parents who turn out to be (um, spoiler alert?) aliens who’ve crash-landed. Tony Gardner and Barbara Durkin (and later Carla Mendonça) make excellent aliens-disguised-as-humans, and the series’ sense of humour is pitched just enough above children’s telly that as an older kid, you could tell yourself you were appreciating it on a higher level than your younger siblings.