20 of the most epic failures in network science fiction TV

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:31 PM EST

The new TV season starts in earnest this week, and as usual it brings with it the promise of all kinds of new sci-fi, fantasy and horror treats for us to watch. And all too soon it will also bring with it an inevitable round of cancelations as shows that seemed like they were just getting going get cut short when the ratings take a sudden downturn (or maybe a slow decline).

Before we fall in love with too many new darlings only to lose them too soon, we thought it was a good time to look back over some of the most promising new network shows in the last 10 years that also seemed fresh and young ... only to flame out spectacularly.

The list could go well past 20 of course, but all of these stood out in some way during their brief time in the sun, either because so many viewers tuned in at first that cancelation seemed impossible, or because creatively they seemed a cut above the average TV fare.

None of what follows is a comment on quality. These shows may have been some of the best and brightest, but without the huge ratings network show need to survive, even good shows can quickly find themselves on the wrong side channel changer:


Network: Fox
Premiere: Sept. 2002
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 12 (15 were produced)
What It Was About: In the distant future, man has colonized the cosmos. And in this frontier-esque tomorrow, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion)—and his mostly faithful crew, made of doctors, prostitutes, preachers, mechanics and the mentally damaged—plies his trade as a thief, scoundrel and occasional big damned hero.
Interesting Facts: Of all of Joss Whedon's TV shows, this one had the shortest life—and has the biggest, most active fan community. There are Browncoat fan films, charity events and even miniconventions.
What People Said About It: The critical response swung between rapturous ("Firefly benefits enormously from Whedon's ability to take the clichés of any genre and give them a good, hard yank," said Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker) and savage ("To call Firefly a vast disappointment is an understatement. Whedon has proven he's capable of brilliance, but this is mere folly," said Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle).
Ratings: Firefly averaged just over 4.5 million viewers and ranked 98th in the Nielsens, which was well below expectations. Fans blamed this on the fact that Fox showed the episodes out of order and didn't run the actual pilot until very late in the run.
Fallout: Whedon was able to continue the story he began in Firefly in the cult-hit feature Serenity. And, even though he was burned by the way Fox treated his show, he got back into bed with the network for Dollhouse. Which ended only marginally better.


Network: ABC
Premiere: Sept. 2009
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 22
What It Was About: A mysterious event causes everyone on the planet to black out, at the exact same time, for 137 seconds, during which they saw visions of their own personal futures. An FBI task force is then assigned to get answers.
Interesting Facts: Co-creator and executive producer Brannon Braga got his start as a young writer on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
What People Said About It: Critical response was generally favorable, with critics like the New York Times' Ginia Bellafante writing "FlashForward has the sobriety and charge of the best, early days of 24 but builds its tension more gracefully and feels reluctant to be get subsumed by its own philosophizing."
Ratings: FF was a monster out of the gate, nabbing an audience of 12.5 million viewers. But by the time the first season ended, the show had lost more than two-thirds of its audience.
Fallout: It's still a little early to say, but ABC probably isn't going to position another show as "the next Lost" anytime soon.


Network: NBC
Premiere: March 2009
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 13
What It Was About: This modern-day retelling of the biblical story of King David followed a young soldier (Chris Egan) who crosses into the world of his country's monarch, Silas (Ian McShane)—who sees in the idealistic, noble upstart a kindred spirit and a potential rival. Power struggles, romance, intrigue: Kings was an adult drama that crackled.
Interesting Facts: Even though Kings was an overtly religious show, very faithful to the biblical story on which it was based, the marketing campaign shied away from that, much to creator Michael Green's dismay. "The marketing stayed away from it. To their detriment, they spent their money on a campaign that tried to sell the sci-fi aspects of a monarchy. And that utterly failed to generate any interest in the show," Green told Newsarama.
What People Said About It: The critical reception was mostly positive, with Heather Havrilesky of one of Kings' early champions: "The dialogue is just so artful and poetic, the characters are so appealing, the whole damn package is so original and daring and lovely, that after watching the first four hours, it's impossible not to feel inspired and cheered by the fact that a drama this ambitious and unique could make it onto network TV."
Ratings: Kings' March 15th premiere was the lowest-rated program between 8 and 11 p.m. on a major network that week, pulling in a mere 6 million viewers—and given that the pilot cost a reported $5 million, that just didn't cut it. By the time Kings finished its run—long after it'd been canceled and displaced from its Sunday-night berth—it had only 1.8 million viewers.
Fallout: You don't see any Bible-based dramas on TV, do you? This is why.


Network: ABC
Premiere: August 2009
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 8 (of 12 produced)
What It Was About: Eight astronauts prepare for a mission to Mars in the spaceship Antares. Less about the science fiction and more about the interpersonal entanglements, it was shorthanded as Grey's Astronomy.
Interesting Facts: Defying Gravity was inspired by a 2004 BBC docuseries called Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, and the ABC version was co-produced by the BBC.
What People Said About It: Not particularly good things. "Defying Gravity, which is set only four decades in the future, is less consumed with the end of the world than with the conspiracies of power and the ethics of abortion," wrote the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley. Alan Sepinwall of the Star Ledger said "Defying Gravity ... feels too slight, or silly, to treat as anything but the cheap, disposable summer programming it is."
Ratings: This was a summer series, so the ratings were never going to be huge, but with the pilot nabbing 3.8 million viewers, Gravity's fate was sealed.
Fallout: Ron Livingston is still waiting for the project that'll serve him as well as Office Space and Band of Brothers did.


Network: NBC
Premiere: Never happened.
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 0
What It Was About: As far as we can tell—given that we are not among the select few who have seen the pilot—Day One (created by Heroes and Lost alum Jesse Alexander) followed a group of apartment-building residents who survived a global cataclysmic event.
Interesting Facts: Day One was initially conceived as a TV series to fill Heroes' timeslot for the 2009-2010 TV season. Then, it was downgraded to a miniseries. And then NBC decided to air the pilot as a TV movie ... which never made it on the air.
What People Said About It: Nothing. It never aired, so no one ever got a look at it.
Ratings: Yeah, um ...
Fallout: NBC has been increasingly iffy when it comes to genre TV. Chuck perseveres because of a vociferous fan base that delivers solid ratings. And the 2010 TV season sees only one new genre show on NBC: The Event.


Network: ABC
Premiere: Nov. 2002
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: A three-night miniseries and 6 (of 13 produced) episodes
What It Was About: Based on James Gurney's best-selling books, the series followed a pair of American kids who discover an uncharted continent, one in which dinosaurs have evolved to form their own civilization and peacefully coexist with humans.
Interesting facts: A pre-Prison Break Wentworth Miller played the lead in the miniseries.
What People Said About It: They savaged it. The San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman called it "a stunning train wreck, an artistic implosion so bad it merits watching."
Ratings: The miniseries did quite well, which led ABC to green-light the TV series—which got 5.7 million viewers, a performance that doomed the expensive show.
Fallout: Dinosaur-based programming has never been overwhelmingly popular; maybe Steven Spielberg's Terra Nova can change that.


Network: CBS
Premiere: Sept. 2007
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 16
What It Was About: Mick St. John (Alex O'Loughlin) is a steamy-hot 85-year-old vampire private investigator in Los Angeles who wrestles with his base desires as well as an undead community that frowns upon his actions.
Interesting Facts: Between green-lighting the show and shooting the pilot, the entire cast—save star O'Loughlin—was replaced to give the enterprise a younger feel.
What People Said About It: A small but vocal fanbase loved everything about this show, but the critics were less than kind. Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune laid into it: "The direction is flat-out awful (there are many choppy shots from bizarre, if not inexplicable, angles). Much of the dialogue is groan-inducing, the acting by some of the guest actors is jaw-droppingly wooden, and I guessed who the villain was way before the halfway mark."
Ratings: The pilot debuted to 8.5 million viewers—finishing in first place—but the show never recovered from the loss of momentum caused by the 2007 Writers Guild strike.
Fallout: O'Loughlin went on to star in CBS' short-lived medical drama Three Rivers; this season, he's in CBS' Hawaii Five-O update. And, clearly, Moonlight's demise didn't affect the vamp genre one whit.


Network: Fox
Premiere: Nov. 2001
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 9
What It Was About: Based on Ben Edlund's indie comic book—and the beloved animated series that followed it, The Tick starred Patrick Warburton as the titular big, blue nigh-invulnerable hero who comes to The City to serve as its protector. Refitted as a sitcom, the live-action Tick featured little actual heroism—but it did boast Nestor Carbonell as the masterfully chauvinistic Batmanuel.
Interesting Facts: Chris McCulloch was one of the writers on the animated series who made the leap to the live-action show as well. McCulloch was so taken with Warburton that when he created The Venture Bros. for Cartoon Network—under the pseudonym Jackson Publick—he cast Warburton as Brock Samson.
What People Said About It: Everyone but the public seemed to love it. EW's Dalton Ross said "It was too smart. Too funny. Too weird. So, of course, it failed." Noel Murray of the Onion's A.V. Club gave it the following backhanded compliment: "For all The Tick's failings, it was better than most of its broadcast competition two years ago, and it was improving right up until it was yanked off the air."
Ratings: Unavailable, but it's safe to say that in the months just after 9/11, audiences weren't overly excited about a silly superheroic sitcom.
Fallout: Edlund would go on to join the Whedonverse, writing fan-favorite episodes of Angel ("Smile Time") and Firefly ("Jaynestown").


Network: NBC
Premiere: Sept. 2007
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 13
What It Was About: Dan Vasser (Kevin McKidd) is a newspaper reporter who suddenly finds himself jumping back and forth through time—and each jump finds him having to solve a particular problem before he can return home. The time-traveling places an inordinate amount of stress on his family and friends, who never know when Dan will vanish and when he'll return.
Interesting Facts: Creator Kevin Falls cut his teeth working for Aaron Sorkin as a writer on Sports Night and The West Wing.
Ratings: The first episode attracted 9.5 million viewers, but by the third episode, that viewership had eroded to 6.9 million, and it never recovered.
What People Said About It: Karla Peterson of the San Diego Union Tribune kinda liked it: "the pilot is a deft mix of supernatural wizardry and grown-up drama."
Fallout: McKidd, as rugged a lead actor as you'll find—he proved it in HBO's Rome—was forced to abandon the derring-do for the McScrubs of Grey's Anatomy. Boo hiss.


Network: NBC
Premiere: Sept. 2007
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 8
What It Was About: You remember how this goes, right? Jaime Sommers, spunky young woman, is badly injured in an accident, so, naturally, the government spends millions of dollars to make her stronger, faster, better than she was before. And, perhaps, she fights crime.
Interesting Facts: The lead, Michelle Ryan, is a Brit best known for the long-running nighttime soap EastEnders, as well as co-starring in Steven Moffat's brilliant Jekyll.
What People Said About It: Looking back on the show, Mary McNamara of the L.A. Times said "I do wish the rest of NBC's Bionic Woman had been as good as the pilot and that they had given Katee Sackhoff the lead." On the other coast, at the New York Times, Alessandra Stanley was similarly unenthused: "Bionic Woman ... follows the current fad for serialized confusion: There is a mysterious conspiracy surrounding the bio-military experiments at a research center that keeps the plot murky and drives characters to speak in terse, enigmatic undertones."
Ratings: Bionic Woman debuted huge, scoring almost 14 million viewers—NBC's highest-rated midweek premiere since The West Wing—but declining quality, and the 2007 Writers Guild strike, led to diminished ratings. The eighth and final episode lured only 5.99 million viewers.
Fallout: One would hope that the abject failure of a highly touted show that never had a creative mind at the helm—BW had a rotating roster of executive producers, including David Eick (Battlestar Galactica), Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island), Jason Smilovic (Karen Sisco), Glen Morgan (The X-Files) and Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights)— would serve as a cautionary tale. We'll see.


Network: Fox
Premiere: March 2008
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 8
What It Was About: John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a 400-year-old detective in the NYPD who, thanks to a Native American spell that was cast on him in 1642, cannot die. Until, of course, he finds true love.
Interesting Facts: The pilot episode was directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom.
What People Said About It: As Entertainment Weekly's Annie Barrett put it, "The creators have this potentially mind-blowing immortality-in-Manhattan theme ... and we're going to have to sit through modern-day amnesia victims and boring, standard-issue crime scenes? More flashbacks to centuries past, please!"
Ratings: The pilot episode killed the competition, pulling in 13.5 million viewers and winning its timeslot. But by the third episode, the audience shrank to 8.8 million and kept on slipping.
Fallout: After New Amsterdam was canceled, Coster-Waldau saddled up for another ill-fated Fox show: Ronald D. Moore's Virtuality, the pilot for which was burned off as a two-hour movie.


Network: NBC
Premiere: Sept. 2008
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: A TV movie and 17 episodes
What It Was About: You know: Talking car and its crime-fighting driver. Justin Bruening played the improbably named Mike Traceur, the son of Michael Knight.
Interesting Facts: Arrested Development's Will Arnett was initially cast as the voice of K.I.T.T., but was replaced by Val Kilmer due to a conflict of interest (Knight Rider was underwritten by GM, and Arnett did voice-overs for GMC ads).
What People Said About It: The Hollywood Reporter's Ray Richmond was not kind: "Everything that made the original fun and unique has effectively been scrubbed away from this new edition that's all about high-tech gadgetry, speed and sex."
Ratings: The TV movie/pilot nabbed 12.8 million viewers, but the series was creatively botched from the beginning and the ratings reflected it—averaging 6.1 million viewers.
Fallout: Between the failures of this and Bionic Woman, NBC got out of the nostalgia business rather quickly.


Network: ABC
Premiere: Sept. 2005
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 22
What It Was About: A hurricane strikes Florida, and in its wake the water is filled with luminescent creatures that may or may not be taking over the populace, Body Snatcher-style.
Interesting Facts: ABC pulled much of its early advertising due to sensitivity over Hurricane Katrina.
What People Said About It: Entertainment Weekly's Gillian Flynn found the Shaun Cassidy-created series promising: "Invasion applies the imagery of transformation and infection to the modern family."
Ratings: Invasion starting strong, retaining 17 million viewers from its Lost lead-in. But after a series of breaks and hiatuses and routine ratings drubbings at the hands of CSI: NY, Invasion lost nearly half its audience.


Network: CBS
Premiere: Sept. 2005
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 13
What It Was About: We'll let the opening monologue, delivered by Carla Gugino, explain it: "My name is Molly Caffrey, and I work for the federal government. I deal in worst-case scenarios, the unthinkable. On Sept. 16th, 2005, the unthinkable happened. An extraterrestrial object appeared off the bow of a naval freighter. The entire crew was exposed to a high-frequency signal. Some died instantly. Others began to change. They are now stronger, more resilient. They dream of alien landscapes. And they are driven by the impulse to infect others. Several of the crewmen are now loose in the United States. They will strike anytime, anyplace, anyone. Their goal: to turn us into them. But I have a plan to stop them. That plan is called 'Threshold.'"
Interesting Facts: Executive producers Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer would reunite for ABC's FlashForward, which had a marginally longer lifespan.
What People Said About It: Critical reception went both ways, with the Philadelphia Inquirer coming down firmly in the negative camp: "There's nothing inviting about the ponderous Threshold. Portentous music plays. Scared smart guys, rounded up by the government to figure out what's really happening, say smart-guy stupid stuff."
Ratings: The first couple of episodes performed well, pulling in 8.5 and 9 million viewers each, but it couldn't retain enough of its Ghost Whisperer lead-in to keep its slot in the schedule.
Fallout: Now one of the architects of the Batman and Superman movie franchises, Goyer seems to have left television behind.


Network: Fox
Premiere: Oct. 2003
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 26
What It Was About: Eliza Dushku played Tru Davies, a morgue employee who could both talk to the dead and relive the deceased's last day—while looking for a way to save their lives.
Interesting Facts: Zach Galifianakis played Tru's socially awkward best friend and supervisor.
What People Said About It: EW's Gillian Flynn was not wowed: "If as much attention were paid to the scripts as to the oiling, painting, and glossing of Dushku's pouty lips, we'd have a funky cross of CSI, The Sixth Sense, and Groundhog Day."
Ratings: In its two seasons, Tru Calling never averaged more than 5 million viewers. The series' ad-hoc finale never aired on Fox—instead, the Syfy Channel aired it during a marathon. Ironically, it got the show's best-ever ratings, pulling in 7 million viewers.
Fallout: Clearly, Fox liked what it saw in Dushku, even though it took the network seven years to find another show for her—Joss Whedon's Dollhouse.


Network: Fox
Premiere: Feb. 2009
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 26
What It Was About: Echo (Eliza Dushku) is one of the "Actives" employed by the Dollhouse, an underground facility that imprints personalities on the Actives and then rents them out to wealthy clients for any number of "engagements." Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is an FBI agent obsessed with finding Echo and discovering the secrets behind the Dollhouse.
Interesting Facts: Dollhouse was created by Joss Whedon, who swore off working in television after the cancellation of Firefly and Angel. Dushku lured him back over lunch.
What People Said About It: Critical response was decidedly mixed. USA Today's Robert Bianco described Dollhouse as "a show that [Whedon's] most devoted fans will debate and embrace, and a mass audience just won't get" while Tom Shales of the Washington Post called it "a pretentious and risible jumble."
Ratings: Were never very good. The first season averaged only 4.6 million viewers, and the surprise second season only got half that.
Fallout: Whedon has since moved on to the movies, having been chosen by Marvel to write and direct its tentpole ensemble flick, The Avengers.


Network: ABC
Premiere: Oct. 2007
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 6 (of 13 produced)
What It Was About: Allegedly some kind of racial allegory, Cavemen followed three Cro-Magnon roommates as they sitcommed their way through a world ruled by Homo sapiens. Hilarity was planned to ensue, but never did.
Interesting Facts: This show was inspired by the popularity of the GEICO ad campaign, which used the cavemen as pitchmen.
What People Said About It: Man alive, they hated it. The Chicago Tribune named it one of the 25 Worst TV Shows Ever.
Ratings: It premiered decently, to 9 million viewers, but by the second week, it lost a third of its audience and dropped like a rock after that.
Fallout: Amazingly, the Cavemen still pop up in GEICO ads, most recently seen during the coverage of the 2010 U.S. Open tennis tournament. But there hasn't been another network show based on an ad campaign.


Network: ABC
Premiere: Oct. 2008
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 17
What It Was About: Based on the lauded BBC drama, this period police drama followed NYPD detective Sam Tyler (Jason O'Mara), who, after a car accident, wakes up in 1973. He's got to navigate the peculiarities of the '70s while both solving cases and investigating the mystery of his own condition—is he dead, in a coma, crazy or actually a time traveler?
Interesting Facts: In the original pilot—which was reshot with most of the characters recast—Star Trek's own Chief Miles O'Brien, Colm Meaney, played the role of Gene Hunt. Harvey Keitel would replace him for the series.
What People Said About It: Critics loved it. The San Francisco Chronicle's Tim Goodman couldn't praise the pilot enough: "The American version is impressively loyal to the original as it switches out Manchester for New York City, but most important, it works on its own as an intriguing, exceptionally well-cast pilot."
Ratings: Mars started strong; the premiere nabbed 11.3 million viewers, but a couple of hiatuses doomed any chance of the show keeping that audience. By the time Mars was canceled, it was getting 5.6 million viewers.
Fallout: Even though ABC canceled the show, they did so early enough that the producers could bring their story to a satisfying end. Or, at least, the ending they wanted—the big reveal of Sam Tyler's condition differed greatly from the BBC show's finale, much to some viewers' chagrin.


Network: Fox
Premiere: Sept. 2002
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 21
What It Was About: The man who calls himself John Doe (Dominic Purcell) woke up naked on a beach, every personal memory wiped clean. However, he did have the sum total of human knowledge at his fingertips. Using that amazing information, John tries to piece together his own past while righting wrongs along the way.
Interesting Facts: Rekha Sharma, who would go on to make quite the impression on Battlestar Galactica, had a recurring role
Ratings: It averaged 5.7 million viewers for the 2002-2003 season, which just wasn't enough to survive on a broadcast network.
Fallout: In talking to Entertainment Weekly after Doe was canceled, the show's co-creator Mike Thompson revealed that they never came up with John Doe's real name.


Network: ABC
Premiere: Sept. 2005
Episodes Aired Before Cancellation: 6 (of 10 produced)
What It Was About: After his wife is murdered, L.A. Beacon investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Stuart Townsend) looks into other strange killings, hoping that they'll shed some light on the crime that wrecked his world.
Interesting Facts: Night Stalker was an update of 1974's Kolchak: The Night Stalker, one of the touchstone influences on Chris Carter's The X-Files.
What People Said About It: No one was overly enthused by this remake. Jon Condit at said "The characters in this program could have been lifted from Melrose Place as easily as they could have any cookie-cutter horror movie."
Ratings: Unavailable, but they couldn't have been good if the last four episodes premiered on iTunes rather than TV.
Fallout: Townsend hasn't had much luck with genre roles: He was the first man cast as Aragorn in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, only to be replaced by Viggo Mortensen because Townsend looked too young.