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Fantastic TV: fan-tastic book!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 12:52

It is a rarity these days that I find myself being able to recommend any book that considers itself a tome dedicated in any shape or form to ‘Cult TV’. Simply put, the majority of titles released in this arena are written by people not up to the job.  Yes, that makes me sounds like a pompous bitch, but I am sick to death of building up a head of virulent steam by uttering “wrong”, “wrong”, “not true” as I plough through one commissioning error after another.

“Fantastic TV” by Steven Savile managed to avoid this fate.  Granted there are still a handful of prize howlers in the manuscript, and this is hardly anything like an exhaustive analysis of “50 Years of Cult Fantasy and Science Fiction” – but blame the editor for trying to build up the stature of this title in the marketplace via an inaccurate subheading. This book will make you want to go and revisit some of the best TV ever made, and also investigate series that you’ve never given much attention to.

Fantastic TV - A book that rewrites the rulesSavile’s introduction admits that this is his own, personal, set of favourites from the myriad worlds brought to us by the goggle box. So, we can only assume that the works of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were never on his radar, as everything SF in that franchise from Supercar to the new version of Captain Scarlet is missing.  Indeed, the only mention of productions from APF, Century 21 and so on comes in the intriguing ‘round robin’ Q&A which acts as the afterword at the end of the book.

In this, the likes of Joe Ahearne, Paul Cornell, Andrew Cartmel, Stephen Volk and Kenneth Johnson try to nail down the appeal of extraordinary fiction, its history and future. This adds an intriguing aspect to proceedings, as I can imagine the person with just a casual interest in Fantastic TV will have their head spinning from mentions of series that have not cropped up in the 253 pages that preceded it.

Where this book really scores is that it bridges a gap between fan analysis and academic texts on the subject area. There are not many titles which accurately consider the lineage of the TV shows they cover, or indeed try to get under the bonnet and work out what the appeal of these series might be. “Fantastic TV” does this admirably, and avoids the yawn-inducing trap of so many cultural and media studies tomes in this arena – that is, to gain academic credits for name dropping learned works of other scholars in this particular university enclave.

There are some comparisons that made me howl out with laughter.  Regarding Torchwood, Owen Harper is described as “The poor man’s Dexter Fletcher”, and Ianto Jones “comes across as a slightly autistic gofer”.  To really enjoy this humour, you have to be familiar with the subject matter – that said, for every show there’s an extremely punchy ‘Brodie’s Notes’-esque description to give you a Bluffer’s Guide on all the series that are discussed in detail.

Fans of Danger Man (in the piece on The Prisoner) and The Tomorrow People will spot the technical gaffs made in the text, but now I’ve given you another reason to check this book out!

“Fantastic TV” starts from the theory that the days of the short story are long gone, and that the great pulp science fiction magazines of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s have been replaced by a much more direct and vital form of entertainment via “genre” television.

What you will find within the pages are the usual suspects such as Doctor Who, Star Trek, Lost In Space, and The Twilight Zone, but also more recent additions to the fantasy canon such as The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Lost.

Cult TV shows are perhaps built up way beyond their significance, in saying that they are the lifeblood of modern popular culture. Granted many of the new shows have helped bolster interest in science fiction and fantasy genres, but their true worth will only be seen when they are out of production. To escape being a fad and to become a fully-fledged cult, they have to be able to support an afterlife of appreciation; for instance the credibility of the likes of The X-Files and Babylon 5 is starting to wane considerably as fans get their fixes elsewhere.

Each classic TV show has its own cult audience that will remain with it – from an archive series like the original The Outer Limits to the recent ‘re-imagining’ of Battlestar Galactica, which was acclaimed by both Time magazine and the American Film Institute as one of the TV series of the year. What price that the 1978 Galactica eventually ends up with a bigger cult audience as fans of the ‘new’ show drift off elsewhere?

The only other limitation to the text is that already it is out of date when talking about shows which were still in production at the time of writing.  The manuscript was submitted prior to the conclusion of Lost, so it only speaks in general terms about the possible resolutions, without knowing where the plot finally ended up. There is also gushing praise for Heroes, before it turned virtually all its fans off, and an analysis of that colossal error and how it happened would have been extremely interesting.

As for the author, he’s a lifelong genre fan, and it shows in the positive approach within the writing. Savile has written franchise fiction in the Doctor Who, Torchwood, Primeval, Stargate, Guild Wars, Warhammer, Star Wars and Jurassic Park series, as well as adapting the cult comic Slainé, and in 2009 won the International Media Tie-In Writer’s Scribe Award for his bestselling novel based upon the cult UK science-fiction series Primeval: Shadow Of The Jaguar. He won the Writers of the Future Award for his novella, Houdini’s Last Illusion. His debut thriller, Silver, has been translated into 14 languages.

So, if like me you’ve been bored by the copycat approaches of many books covering extraordinary fictional television, this is a chance to regain your optimism. Split into thematic chapters, this one’s easy to read in chunks (although if you take it in only a handful of sittings you’ll realise that some information is repeated, mainly to ensure the chapters can be consumed as ‘stand-alones’).

“Fantastic TV: 50 Years of Cult Fantasy and Science Fiction” is out now in 230mm x 170mm format, 270 pages with 130 monochrome photos, and a RRP of £14.99 – or get it for less at

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37