The Best 1980s British Sci-Fi TV Series (That Still Aren’t Doctor Who)

TV

The 1980s enjoys a privileged, some might even argue inflated position in the sci-fi pantheon. In the US, it was the decade that gave us two thirds of the original Star Wars trilogy, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Terminator and Tron. In TV land, Star Trek got a brand new Generation, Quantums Leapt, Knights Rode, and of course, ALF.

But on the other side of the pond, British science fiction television was doing things the way we British always have – for less money, and a bit more bleak. But it wasn’t all creepy John Wyndham adaptations and hostile alien invasions, the 1980s also delivered a couple of British space comedy classics, along with the most underrated series in sci-fi history.

The Day of the Triffids (1981)

Stream on: purchase-only on Sky Store, Google Play, Amazon (UK); disc import only (US)

For our money, still the only decent adaptation of John Wyndham’s killer plant novel to ever grace a screen. Rather than the puppets in the 1960s movie version, or the CGI creations in the 2009 version that seem to desperately want to be Jurassic Park’s velociraptors, these Triffids look like actual plants. Like the Triffids in Wyndham’s book, these aren’t deadly monsters. They are just a lifeform that has, by chance, gained two very important Darwinian advantages – numbers, and the fact that the human race is suddenly blind.

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It is also the grittiest of the adaptations, showing humanity going to dark places when the chips are down, while other adaptations lean far too quickly into B-movie camp. Less of a cosy catastrophe than you may have been led to believe, and very much the stuff of young nightmares.

Tripods (1984-1985)

Stream on: disc-only (UK & US)

And now for another three-legged invader (in case you didn’t know why Triffids were called that). In 1988, American TV saw a War of the Worlds TV series– a sequel to the 1953 George Pal movie where we all just collectively forgot the global alien invasion for 30 years until the aliens started waking up again for another go.

Tripods, meanwhile, while actually based on the series of YA novels by John Christopher, makes for a much more convincing portrayal of H.G. Wells’ Martians than most other attempts.

Humanity is reduced to a medieval state of living, except that every aspect of their lives is overseen by the titular Tripods. It’s not aged brilliantly. The inexperienced child actors aren’t helped by a script that definitely has the occasional bit of slack, but it’s still a great bit of alien resistance fighting action.

Red Dwarf (1988 -)

Stream on: BBC iPlayer, Sky, UKTV Play (UK); BritBox (US)

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Go back to 1988 and ask someone to bet whether Red Dwarf wold still be on air in 2020 (and potentially beyond) and you’d make some easy money. When the show started, you had no Starbug, no Kryten, no GELFs or Psy Moons or Simulants or Wild West Artificial Reality Programmes. As Fergus March, a host on the new Red Dwarf podcast Better Than Life puts it, “Red Dwarf started out as the odd couple in space – Lister, the last human in the universe, alone with Rimmer, essentially a ghost whose job it is to keep him sane by driving him insane.”

Despite the spaceship setting, this was intended to be a sitcom set between a corridor and a bunk bed. And yet despite (or perhaps because of) those limitations, it is where we see some of Red Dwarf’s tightest character-based storytelling.

Chocky (1984)

Stream on: Not officially streaming

Another John Wyndham adaptation, this time the story of a father, a son, and the son’s imaginary friend who may turn out to be terrifyingly non-imaginary after all. The adaptation was successful enough that it span-off two sequel series, “Chocky’s Children”, and “Chocky’s Challenge”. What starts off as a surprisingly small-scale story about the parental terror of not knowing who or what is influencing your child beyond your protection, evolves into a story about humanity and our desire to turn even the greatest gifts into a new way to blow things up.

Play for Tomorrow (1982)

Stream on: Not officially streaming

We love an anthology series. It is the perfect combination of constraints – time, budget, and freedom – no need to worry about continuity or long-term arcs. It’s an area dominated by the big names –The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Inside No. 9, Black Mirror, but there are loads of others that have fallen through the cracks – Channel 4’s Electric Dreams, B J Novak’s The Premise, and, back in the eighties, Play for Tomorrow.

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Play for Today was already a household name – running for 13 seasons, featuring writers such as Ian McEwan, Dennis Potter, and Stephen Poliakoff, with several episodes running off into their own series – such as Rumpole of the Bailey. But where its predecessor focused on contemporary social realism, Play for Tomorrow told stories of the future.

We say the future – most of its “future” is already in our past. One of the more future-set episodes is called Easter 2016. But in one episode teenagers born in the mid-eighties slave away on computers while complaining their parents have ruined the environment, so it wasn’t a million miles off.

Kinvig (1981)

Stream on: Not officially streaming

Nigel Kneale is one of the great giants of TV science fiction. The 1970s version of this article already talked about the impact Quatermass has had. But one of his less-remembered shows was Kinvig, Kneale’s only venture into the sitcom genre.

The plot – an electrical repair shop owner is enlisted to fight a covert alien invasion, feels like pure Kneale, but it is immediately clear he’s about as comfortable with the sitcom conventions of the time as modern viewers. Canned laughter lands at random moments. That awkward brand of specifically-British-sitcom misogyny peeks out at every turn. Still, it is worth watching just as an artefact of TV history.

And it does show you can put together a pretty decent alien spaceship on the budget of Open All Hours. The costumes, however – well, there’s that British-sitcom, Carry On movie sexism again.

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The Invisible Man (1984)

Stream on: Not officially streaming

There are quite a few literary adaptations on this list, and the eighties was a bit of a golden age for putting really good versions of science fiction books on screen. The Invisible Man is not short of adaptations. Before the nuclear bomb was invented and changed everyone’s priorities, science fiction movies could be split almost equally between versions of The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Organ Transplants: Oh No We Used A Serial Killer Donor Again.

But this version, made by the BBC in 1984, is by far the closest to the actual H G Wells novel, keeping to the original period and closely following the events of the book. They were bound to get it right eventually.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1981)

Stream on: purchase-only on Amazon, Google Play, Apple TV & disc (UK); BritBox (US)

Most fans will duke it out over whether Douglas Adams’ books or the BBC radio series are the “definitive” version, but this TV series has a lot going for it. Yes, the budget is clearly stretched, even by 1980s standards, and even with that, they’re pushing at the limits of what was technically possible at the time.

But let’s be honest – the best CGI in the world will fall down in the face of “floating in exactly the way that bricks don’t” or “The blackness of it was so extreme that it was almost impossible to tell how close you were standing to it.”

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The cast and the writing that make Hitchhiker’s legendary are all here, and this was a story that would always be better served by specials effects closer to the sticky-back plastic end of the spectrum.

Star Cops (1987)

Stream on: Not officially streaming

Sometimes, when you know for a fact that you are all alone, you will sense something. A presence, watching you. And that presence is me, about to explain why Star Cops is the most slept on series in sci-fi TV history.

What’s that? You liked The Expanse because of its realism? Compared to Star Cops, The Expanse is fricking Star Wars.

It is set in the far future year of 2027, when mankind has mastered science fiction technologies such as video calls, frozen embryos, and the Channel Tunnel. An old-school Scotland Yard detective finds himself transferred to the International Space Police Corps, policing the Moon and Earth’s orbit.

There’s always been a certain kind of sci-fi fan who fetishises “hard science fiction” as if they’re a bit ashamed of liking made-up stories, but Star Cops really shows that science fiction stories can be told while staying fully within the boundaries of possible science.

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Some of the series listed above have aged well, some poorly, but 37 years after the fact, the future Star Cops presents still seems like it could happen in three years’ time.

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