Wrong-footed Four

By Carl Ellis

Over the last twenty years, Channel 4 can be rightly praised for many things, but sadly its treatment of science-fiction/fantasy programming isn't one of them. That's not to say that the channel hasn't shown any, it has, but the way it has shown them has often left a lot to be desired.

Early Channel 4 series that we might class as telefantasy were largely archive offerings. Terrestrial channels today might shy away from showing anything in black and white, but in its early days Channel 4 had no such problems with this sort of material. US series such as The Addams Family and The Munsters - which whilst not science-fiction clearly have a fantasy element to them - were dusted down and repeated in a pre-News early-evening slot, while the station's links to the ITV companies meant archive series such as ABC's The Avengers and Everyman Films/ITC's The Prisoner were given repeat runs for the first time in years.

For many viewers, this would have been the first time they had seen the two British series in colour. The Avengers had begun as a black-and-white videotaped series, transferring after three seasons to film, and a year later moving to colour, but its final episode was shown six months before the BBC and the larger ITV regions converted to colour. Even the repeat run in 1970 would still have been seen in black and white by the majority of viewers.

The 1980s weren't exactly a highpoint for the genre in television terms, so unsurprisingly, Channel 4 continued to rely heavily on repeats, often in an early evening slot - The Prisoner being a notable exception.

Granada's adaptation of The Owl Service was given a rerun in May-July 1987 - its first since a run on ITV in the summer of 1978. As the channel expanded its broadcast hours in the late 1980s, it repeated a succession of Irwin Allen series from the 1960s in a Sunday lunchtime slot. Since the series' original ITV runs (although the BBC were the first to show The Time Tunnel, with a 13 episode run in 1968) had been subject to the usual regional variations, this was the first time they had been given a network broadcast on British television.

However, the early 1990s saw an upsurge in new sci-fi/fantasy programmes on Channel 4, albeit with the usual heavy reliance on US imports. Sadly the competitive nature of US television meant that by the time UK viewers got to see the likes of Eerie, Indiana (shown by Channel 4 from March to July 1993), American Gothic (June to October 1996) and Dark Skies (January to May 1997) they had already been cancelled Stateside.

Interestingly, Channel 4's transmissions of American Gothic also included four episodes that weren't shown as part of the original run on CBS, and that were first seen in the US as part of a repeat run on the Sci-Fi Channel. Channel 4 might not have shown these episodes in creator Shaun Cassidy's preferred order, but since many US imports had been given incomplete runs in the UK, it was still impressive that the channel made the effort in the first place.

One series that did run for more than one season was Babylon 5, although unlike the three above series it wasn't shown by one of the US networks, which perhaps explains why it managed to survive for five seasons. However, B5 does show many of the difficulties that UK broadcasters have with science fiction and fantasy-based programming.

The series first arrived on Channel 4 in May 1994, and was initially shown in an early evening slot. This necessitated one episode, TKO, being pulled from the run because of its violent content and eventually turning up in a late-night slot five months later. However, whilst Channel 4 often cut the series, actually pulling an episode was the exception rather than the rule, as several episodes actually received their world premieres in the UK since they were held back in the States and shown as part of the following season. Later seasons were shown in late-night slot, although as with many series, a run that starts out in a reasonably accessible slot often ends up drifting later and later until episodes ended up being bunged out around midnight.

Bizarrely, after four seasons that had seen the series move from early evenings to a more sensible late night slot, the series' fifth and final season was shown at Sunday lunchtimes. Billy Mumy, who played Lennier might have felt at home there since it was effectively the same slot that Lost in Space - in which he'd played Will Robinson - had occupied nearly a decade earlier.

Naturally, this scheduling outraged many fans - the slot itself was bad enough, but it also meant episodes would have to be cut once more. In Channel 4's defence, it's perhaps worth noting that the series' structure, which was much more akin to an epic novel on the scale of The Lord of the Rings rather than a series of largely standalone episodes, wasn't exactly conducive to pulling in new viewers, especially after four years of arc-heavy storylines. Even so, it was hardly the ideal way for the series to sign off with British viewers.

Within a couple of weeks, there was late-night (or rather early morning) uncut repeat to placate those upset by any cuts, but for many, the damage had been done and Channel 4's credibility with sci-fi fans took a serious knock, but this was nothing compared to its handling of its next big fantasy import.

Over on BBC Two, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been an immediate success ever since its terrestrial debut in December 1998, with audiences peaking at over 4.5 million. Naturally Channel 4 wanted a slice of this action, and the launch of a spin-off series, Angel, provided it with the ideal opportunity. Or so it thought.

Rumours that Channel 4 had acquired the series began with an interview Andi Peters gave to Heat magazine in early 2000. Commenting on Buffy, Peters said that he'd wanted to buy the series but hadn't because of the anticipated level of cuts required for an early evening slot, noting the different regulation that the BBC and the commercial channels were subject to. However, Channel 4 had now acquired an imported series, except that he wasn't allowed to name it at that point in time, although it was clearly Angel.

Naturally fans were horrified. It was bad enough that Buffy went out at 6.45pm, but at least BBC Two now gave it a late-night repeat that was supposedly unedited. Yet instead of being the teen-friendly series Channel 4 clearly imagined (or perhaps, hoped) it to be, Angel was much darker in tone, with several episodes later given an 18 certificate by the BBFC for video release. This meant that even a subscription movie channel couldn't show them before 10pm, yet Channel 4 was planning to target them at an audience that was barely in its teens.

Few fans had expected the sort of primetime slot that BBC-2 had given The X Files, but the sort of late-night scheduling that Channel 4 had given its own vampire mini-series Ultraviolet in 1998, would have found favour with many.

However, when the series finally arrived in September 2000, it was in the much-feared 6pm slot. Within three weeks a viewer had appeared on Right 2 Reply to complain about the cuts, which saw the hour-long timeslot padded out with almost twenty minutes of T4-style nonsense. Meanwhile, viewers complained to Channel 4 about what it was cutting out, and to the ITC about was still left in.

Unbelievably, when the series was rescheduled, it wasn't to a more suitable late-night slot, but to 5.25pm, with two episodes now shown back-to-back. Eventually, the ITC would judge Channel 4 to have breached its Programme Code, but this was small comfort for those Buffy fans that had waited for the series' terrestrial debut. Not only had episodes been cut to ribbons, but also three episodes had to be dropped altogether, eventually turning up as part of a late-night repeat run the following year.

Channel 4 did finally bow to the inevitable, with the last six episodes of the season going out in three late-night double-bills just before Christmas. Yet the damage had been done, and the series' chance of attracting a reasonably sized audience had all but gone.

Yet despite the flak it had attracted over the Angel fiasco, Channel 4 continues to stick to a belief that science fiction is for kids. This year, Smallville and Enterprise have been given the sort of early evening slots they would have got on BBC-2, and more recently, Alias has followed suit. Like Angel, Alias is shown at 9pm in the States, yet Channel 4 still seem to think it's a series that's suitable for younger viewers.

But as it celebrates its twentieth birthday, perhaps it's about time that Channel 4 realised that there is an audience out there that is prepared to watch series with a fantasy element to them, even in primetime. After all, the exploits of a 240-year old vampire, the crew of a starship called the USS Enterprise or a student-turned-spy on the trail of centuries old manuscripts are hardly any less realistic than events in Brookside Close, are they?

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Article ©2003 Carl Ellis

Compilation ©2003 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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