British television science fiction

Last updated

British television science fiction refers to popular programmes in the genre that have been produced by both the BBC and Britain's largest commercial channel, ITV. The BBC's Doctor Who is listed in the Guinness World Records as the longest-running science fiction television show in the world [1] and as the "most successful" science fiction series of all time. [2]

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters are at Broadcasting House in Westminster, London, and it is the world's oldest national broadcasting organisation and the largest broadcaster in the world by number of employees. It employs over 20,950 staff in total, 16,672 of whom are in public sector broadcasting. The total number of staff is 35,402 when part-time, flexible, and fixed-contract staff are included.

ITV (TV network) TV network in the United Kingdom

ITV is a British free-to-air television network with its headquarters in London, it was launched in 1955 as Independent Television under the auspices of the Independent Television Authority to provide competition to BBC Television, that was established in 1932. ITV is also the oldest commercial network in the UK. Since the passing of the Broadcasting Act 1990, its legal name has been Channel 3, to distinguish it from the other analogue channels at the time, namely BBC 1, BBC 2 and Channel 4. In part, the number 3 was assigned because television sets would usually be tuned so that the regional ITV station would be on the third button, with the other stations being allocated to the number within their name.

<i>Doctor Who</i> British science fiction TV series

Doctor Who is a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC since 1963. The programme depicts the adventures of a Time Lord called "the Doctor", an extraterrestrial being, to all appearances human, from the planet Gallifrey. The Doctor explores the universe in a time-travelling space ship called the TARDIS. Its exterior appears as a blue British police box, which was a common sight in Britain in 1963 when the series first aired. Accompanied by a number of companions, the Doctor combats a variety of foes while working to save civilisations and help people in need.


Early years

The first known science fiction television programme was produced by the BBC's prewar television service. On 11 February 1938, a thirty-five-minute adapted extract of the play R.U.R. , written by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek, was broadcast live from the BBC's Alexandra Palace studios. Concerning a future world in which robots rise up against their human masters, it was the only piece of science fiction to be produced until the BBC television service resumed after the war. [3] Only a few on-set publicity photographs survive. R.U.R. was produced a second time on 4 March 1948, this time in a full ninety-minute live production, adapted for television by the producer Jan Bussell, who had also been responsible for the screening in 1938. The BBC did begin producing more science fiction, with further literary adaptations such as The Time Machine (1949) and children's serials like Stranger from Space (19511952).

Science fiction on television television genre

Science fiction first appeared in television programming in the late 1930s, during what is called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Special effects and other production techniques allow creators to present a living visual image of an imaginary world not limited by the constraints of reality.

BBC Television company

BBC Television is a service of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The corporation has operated in the United Kingdom under the terms of a royal charter since 1927. It produced television programmes from its own studios since 1932, although the start of its regular service of television broadcasts is dated to 2 November 1936.

<i>R.U.R.</i> 1920s play introducing the word robot

R.U.R. is a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti. However, the English phrase "Rossum's Universal Robots" had been used as the subtitle in the Czech original. It premiered on 25 January 1921 and introduced the word "robot" to the English language and to science fiction as a whole.

In the summer of 1953, the six-part serial The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast live. An adult-themed science-fiction drama specially written for television by BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale, [4] its budget consumed the majority of the finances reserved for drama that year. This successful serial ultimately led to three further Quatermass serials and three feature film adaptations from Hammer Film Productions. The Quatermass Experiment is also the first piece of British television science fiction to partially survive, albeit only in the form of poor quality telerecordings of its first two episodes. The second serial Quatermass II (1955) is the earliest BBC science fiction production to exist in its entirety.

<i>The Quatermass Experiment</i> British science-fiction serial

The Quatermass Experiment is a British science-fiction serial broadcast by BBC Television during the summer of 1953 and re-staged by BBC Four in 2005. Set in the near future against the background of a British space programme, it tells the story of the first manned flight into space, supervised by Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Experimental Rocket Group.

Nigel Kneale Film and television screenwriter

Thomas Nigel Kneale was a British screenwriter. He wrote professionally for more than 50 years, was a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and was twice nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best British Screenplay. In 2000, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association.

Hammer Film Productions

Hammer Film Productions is a British film production company based in London. Founded in 1934, the company is best known for a series of gothic horror films made from the mid-1950s until the 1970s. Many of these involved classic horror characters such as Baron Frankenstein, Count Dracula, and The Mummy, which Hammer re-introduced to audiences by filming them in vivid colour for the first time. Hammer also produced science fiction, thrillers, film noir and comedies, as well as, in later years, television series. During their most successful years, Hammer dominated the horror film market, enjoying worldwide distribution and considerable financial success. This success was due, in part, to their partnerships with major United States studios, such as Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros.

Kneale could not rely on sophisticated special effects to convey his narratives. Instead, he based his stories around characterisation and characters' reactions to the strange events unfolding around them, using science fiction themes to tell allegorical stories such as paralleling real life racial tensions with the Martian "infection" of Quatermass and the Pit (195859).

Martian extraterrestrial life

A Martian is a native inhabitant of the planet Mars. Although the search for evidence of life on Mars continues, many science fiction writers have imagined what extraterrestrial life on Mars might be like. Some writers also use the word Martian to describe a human colonist on Mars.

<i>Quatermass and the Pit</i> British television science-fiction serial

Quatermass and the Pit is a British television science-fiction serial transmitted live by BBC Television in December 1958 and January 1959. It was the third and last of the BBC's Quatermass serials, although the chief character, Professor Bernard Quatermass, reappeared in a 1979 ITV production called Quatermass. Like its predecessors, Quatermass and the Pit was written by Nigel Kneale.

On 12 December 1954, a live adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four , produced by the Quatermass team of writer Nigel Kneale and director Rudolph Cartier, achieved the highest television ratings since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953. It was so controversial that it was debated in Parliament, and campaigners tried to have the second performance the following Thursday banned. The BBC's Head of Drama Michael Barry refused to concede.

George Orwell English author and journalist

Eric Arthur Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic, whose work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a British television adaptation of the novel of the same name by George Orwell, originally broadcast on BBC Television in December 1954. The production proved to be hugely controversial, with questions asked in Parliament and many viewer complaints over its supposed subversive nature and horrific content. In a 2000 poll of industry experts conducted by the British Film Institute to determine the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four was ranked in seventy-third position.

Rudolph Cartier television director

Rudolph Cartier was an Austrian television director, filmmaker, screenwriter and producer who worked predominantly in British television, exclusively for the BBC. He is best known for his 1950s collaborations with screenwriter Nigel Kneale, most notably the Quatermass serials and their 1954 adaptation of George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Science fiction productions were rare and almost always one-offs. A for Andromeda (1961) (which starred a young Julie Christie) and its sequel ( The Andromeda Breakthrough , 1962) were exceptions.

<i>A for Andromeda</i> British television science fiction drama serial

A for Andromeda is a British television science fiction drama serial first made and broadcast by the BBC in seven parts in 1961. Written by cosmologist Fred Hoyle, in conjunction with author and television producer John Elliot, it concerns a group of scientists who detect a radio signal from another galaxy that contains instructions for the design of an advanced computer. When the computer is built, it gives the scientists instructions for the creation of a living organism named Andromeda, but one of the scientists, John Fleming, fears that Andromeda's purpose is to subjugate humanity.

Julie Christie British actress and activist

Julie Frances Christie is a British actress. An icon of the "swinging London" era of the 1960s, she has received such accolades as an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. She has appeared in six films that were ranked in the British Film Institute's 100 greatest British films of the 20th century, and in 1997 she received the BAFTA Fellowship.

The Andromeda Breakthrough was a 1962 sequel to the popular BBC TV science fiction serial A for Andromeda, again written by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot.

Creation of Doctor Who and ITV

Britain's first commercial television network ITV initially explored science fiction for programming purposes in the early 1960s. A proponent for such experimentation was Canadian-born producer Sydney Newman, who had become Head of Drama at ABC. At ABC, Newman produced the science-fiction serial Pathfinders in Space (1960) and its sequels Pathfinders to Mars (1960) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961) and oversaw the science-fiction anthology series Out of This World (1962), the first of its kind in the UK. ITV also made an attempt at children's science fiction, with its short-lived programme Emerald Soup (1963), which coincidentally aired the same night that Doctor Who premiered.

Two important events for the future of the British television science fiction occurred in 1962. The first was that the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment, Eric Maschwitz, commissioned Head of the Script Department Donald Wilson to prepare a report on the viability of producing a new science-fiction series for television. The second was that Sydney Newman was tempted away from the ABC to take up the position of Head of Drama at the BBC, officially joining the Corporation at the beginning of 1963.

The BBC developed an idea of Newman's into Britain's first durable science-fiction television series. Taking advantage of the research Wilson's department had completed, Newman initiated the creation and along with Wilson and BBC staff writer C. E. Webber oversaw the development of this new series, which Newman named "Doctor Who".

After much development work, the series was launched on 23 November 1963. The importance of Doctor Who to British television science fiction cannot be overstated. It lasted for twenty-six seasons in its original form, through which first emerged many of the writers who until the 1980s would create most of the genre's successful British shows. One of the few science fiction series to have become part of the popular consciousness, its success led the BBC to produce other efforts in the genre. Of particular note being its own science fiction anthology series Out of the Unknown (196571), which ran for four seasons.

Some of the ITV companies were imitating American styles of production, shooting some of their series on film rather than in the multi-camera electronic studio for lucrative sales in the 'international' market. One producer who was keen to make science fiction for the commercial network was Gerry Anderson, who initially used puppets for his shows. His science fiction shows in 'Supermarionation' such as Supercar (196162), Fireball XL5 (196263), Stingray (196465), Thunderbirds (196566), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (196768) and Joe 90 (196869) remain popular among followers of archive television.

Their success led his backers ITC to finance the live-action shows he most wanted to develop. The first of these was UFO (197071), which featured American actor Ed Bishop as the head of an undercover military organisation with responsibility for combating aliens who came to Earth in the eponymous space craft. A planned second season was delayed and eventually reformatted as a new show, entitled " Space: 1999 " (197577), which ran for two seasons and was a moderate success.

Television science fiction in the '70s

The 1970s is viewed by fans of the genre as a 'golden age'. Doctor Who was going through its strongest period with first Jon Pertwee (19701974) and later Tom Baker (19741981) in the leading role, already firmly entrenched in the public consciousness.

Various former Doctor Who alumni had moved on to produce their own acclaimed genre programmes as well. The series' former scientific adviser Dr Kit Pedler and former script editor Gerry Davis collaborated to create Doomwatch (197072), a series which recounted the story of a governmental scientific group formed to investigate and combat ecological and scientific threats to humankind. In the Quatermass tradition of allegorical storytelling (Nigel Kneale was invited, but declined to contribute scripts to the programme), it used its science-fiction basis to try to convey real warnings about the state of the world, as well as telling tense, dramatic stories and not being afraid of shocking its audience, such as in the killing off of popular lead character Toby Wren (played by Robert Powell).

Writer Terry Nation had created the Dalek race for Doctor Who in 1963, and thus assuring much of its early popularity. For the rest of the 1960s Nation had concentrated on writing for ITV film series, but in the early 1970s he returned to science fiction, contributing Dalek stories to Doctor Who again from 1973 to 1975 and in 1975 creating his own science-fiction show, Survivors (197577).

Survivors was a post-apocalyptic tale of a small group of people who were the only humans left after a plague caused by biological warfare lab accident has wiped out most of humanity. It ran for three seasons and was generally well received. Nation followed it by creating Blake's 7 (197881).

Pitched by Nation as "the Dirty Dozen in space", Blake's 7 was originally centred around righteous freedom fighter Roj Blake, his battle with a corrupt Galactic Federation and the rag-tag group of pirates, criminals and smugglers who are reluctantly forced to work with him after an escape from a prison ship. Running for four seasons, the early evening series had a hard edge. The moral ambiguity of the leading characters made them interesting, and as with Doomwatch it was not afraid of shocking the audience by killing off leading characters, climaxing by wiping out the entire crew in its final episode.

ITV was continuing to produce science fiction in this era. Keen to catch some of the young audience who followed Doctor Who, some of the ITV companies sought to create their own youth-oriented genre programmes, such as Timeslip (1970) and The Tomorrow People (197379). Although it presented some intriguing (if bizarre) storylines, it never rivalled Doctor Who, possibly because unlike the BBC programme it attempted to identify with children by featuring children, thus making the crossover appeal to an adult audience much more difficult.

A much more respected show, produced by ATV in a similar production manner to Doctor Who (i.e. on videotape using a serial form) was Sapphire & Steel (197982). The tale of two "time detectives" played by David McCallum and Joanna Lumley, Sapphire & Steel was a superbly atmospheric piece of television, although its production run was often hampered by the unavailability of its two leads.


Longer-running science-fiction series became few and far between. Although Doctor Who was still running, in terms of audience it was struggling to compete with US imports in the genre which began to re-emerge following the box-office success of contemporary films like the Star Wars franchise. For the television channel controllers, these had the benefit of transmission rights having a lower cost than any domestic productions. Dr Who's place in the Saturday schedule was briefly lost when it was moved to a weekday slot.

Nonetheless, in the early part of the decade there were several serials produced, albeit mainly by the BBC; the bought in series mainly aired on ITV. Adaptations of novels such as The Day of the Triffids (1981), The Invisible Man (1984) and The Nightmare Man (1981, from the novel Child of the Vodyanoi) were produced, and the BBC began an adaptation of The White Mountains novels, under the name The Tripods (1984–85).

The Tripods had run for two of its planned three series when it was cancelled by the Controller of BBC1, Michael Grade. At the same time Grade abandoned a whole season of Doctor Who , the series was rested for eighteen months.

It appeared to be generally felt at the BBC that science fiction was more expensive to produce than other types of programme but did not return any higher audiences for the outlay or particular critical acclaim. Some BBC popular and critical successes such as Edge of Darkness (1985) had science-fiction as a secondary element. The industry's shift in drama productions being entirely mounted on film rather than using the old film/video 'hybrid' form, with increased costs edged out genre's thought marginal.

Perhaps the very last original series of its kind in the multi-camera era of BBC science fiction was Star Cops (1987), which ran for only nine episodes to poor viewing figures on the corporation's second channel, BBC2. It was written by Chris Boucher, who had contributed scripts to Doctor Who and Blake's 7 , and was script editor for the later series entire run.

The 1980s also saw the arrival on the BBC of two science fiction comedy series both of which had their origins on radio. The first was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981) by Douglas Adams which amalgamated aspects of the original radio series with that of the subsequent novel. The second was Red Dwarf (1988–99, 2009–present), created and originally written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. It parodies most (if not all) of the subgenres of science fiction but is first and foremost an 'odd couple' type comedy (the couple in question being the characters of Rimmer and Lister). Running for more than eight series, the idea was originally developed from the Dave Hollins: Space Cadet sketches introduced on Grant and Naylor's 1984 BBC Radio 4 show Son of Cliché.

Doctor Who revival and other developments

The original version of Doctor Who lasted until 1989. Apart from a television movie in 1996, Doctor Who did not re-emerge in a bigger budget version until 2005. Affected by rights issues for some years, many of those behind the new series were fans of the show when they were younger. Doctor Who returned to television screens on 26 March 2005, gaining a profile reminiscent of the earlier series at its peak.

Perhaps the most high-profile of those behind the movement to return Doctor Who to the screens is writer Russell T Davies, who initially worked in the BBC children's department earlier in his career, and contributed to British TV science fiction there. Davies' first sci-fi serial was the six-part Dark Season (1991), which co-starred a young Kate Winslet as well as former Blake's 7 star Jacqueline Pearce. Two years later Davies wrote a second, much more complex serial called Century Falls (1993). ITV contributed a new version of The Tomorrow People (199294) made as an international co-production with US and Australia companies, and there were various other child-oriented sci-fi type series such as ITV's Mike & Angelo (1989–99) and the BBC's Watt on Earth (1991), although these lacked the crossover adult appeal that Davies' shows had possessed.

The interest in making British TV science fiction seemed to return to broadcasters towards the middle of the 1990s in that companies began to see the possibility of lucrative overseas sales and tie-in products that other genres could not match. In the mid-1990s the BBC screened four seasons of the glossy sci-fi action adventure series Bugs (199598) made by independent company Carnival. They co-produced the six-part serial Invasion: Earth (1998) with the US Sci Fi Channel, and ITV began attempting to market British sci-fi again with serials such as The Uninvited (1997) and The Last Train (1999).

The BBC also produced several children's science fiction shows in the late 1990s to mid-2000s. The most known examples of which being Aquila (TV series) (1997–1998) based on the novel by Andrew Norriss and Jeopardy (BBC TV series) (2002–2004) which won the 2002 BAFTA for Best Children's Drama.

A 'live' remake of The Quatermass Experiment was broadcast on BBC Four on 2 April 2005. Various series have followed the new success of Doctor Who, including two spin-offs entitled Torchwood (20062011) and The Sarah Jane Adventures (20072011), a new time travel drama Life on Mars (BBC 20062007), Eleventh Hour (ITV 20082009), Primeval (ITV 20072011) and in 2009 new story for Red Dwarf , now shown exclusively on Dave rather than the BBC, followed by Red Dwarf X in 2012. A short-lived by lively show Dirk Gently was made from the Douglas Adams' book Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" in 2010.

Related Research Articles

<i>Out of the Unknown</i> television series

Out of the Unknown is a British television science fiction anthology drama series, produced by the BBC and broadcast on BBC2 in four series between 1965 and 1971. Each episode was a dramatisation of a science fiction short story. Some were written directly for the series, but most were adaptations of already-published stories.

Bernard Quatermass fictional scientist

Professor Bernard Quatermass is a fictional scientist, originally created by the writer Nigel Kneale for BBC Television. An intelligent and highly moral British scientist, Quatermass is a pioneer of the British space programme, heading the British Experimental Rocket Group. He continually finds himself confronting sinister alien forces that threaten to destroy humanity.

Quatermass may best be known as the surname of the title character of a British science fiction franchise of several television serials and films, and a radio production. Other notable uses of the word were inspired by this franchise.

<i>Quatermass II</i> British science-fiction serial

Quatermass II is a British science-fiction serial, originally broadcast by BBC Television in the autumn of 1955. It is the second in the Quatermass series by writer Nigel Kneale, and the oldest of those serials to survive in its entirety in the BBC archives.

<i>Quatermass</i> (TV serial) television series

Quatermass is a British television science fiction serial produced by Euston Films for Thames Television and broadcast on the ITV network in October and November 1979. Like its three predecessors, Quatermass was written by Nigel Kneale. It is the fourth and final television serial to feature the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass. In this version, the character is played by John Mills.

<i>The Quatermass Memoirs</i>

The Quatermass Memoirs is a British radio drama-documentary, originally broadcast in 5 episodes on BBC Radio 3 in March 1996. Written by Nigel Kneale, it was born out of his Quatermass series of films and television serials, which had first been broadcast in the 1950s. The idea for the show appeared as BBC radio intended to create a season of programming looking back at the 1950s, and it was the final piece of writing Kneale completed relating to the character.

David John Lee Maloney was a British television director and producer best known for his work on science-fiction series for the BBC.

BBC television drama

BBC television dramas have been produced and broadcast since even before the public service company had an officially established television broadcasting network in the United Kingdom. As with any major broadcast network, drama forms an important part of its schedule, with many of the BBC's top-rated programmes being from this genre.

Chris Boucher is a British television screenwriter and script editor. He is known for his frequent contributions to two genres, science fiction and crime dramas, and worked on series such as Doctor Who, Blake's 7, Bergerac, The Bill and Star Cops.


Nebulous is a post-apocalyptic science fiction comedy radio show written by Graham Duff and produced by Ted Dowd from Baby Cow Productions; it is directed by Nicholas Briggs. The series premiered in the United Kingdom on BBC Radio 4. Set in the year 2099 AD, the show focuses on the adventures of the eponymous Professor Nebulous, director of operations for the eco-troubleshooting team KENT (the Key Environmental Non-Judgmental Taskforce) as they combat various catastrophes and try to set the world back on the right path following a worldwide environmental disaster known as "The Withering". As well as being a parody of a number of famous science fiction programmes, including Doctor Who, Quatermass and Doomwatch, Nebulous is considered a cult radio programme, attracting a number of guest appearances from famous actors.

<i>The Year of the Sex Olympics</i>

The Year of the Sex Olympics is a 1968 television play made by the BBC and first broadcast on BBC2 as part of Theatre 625. It stars Leonard Rossiter, Tony Vogel, Suzanne Neve and Brian Cox. It was directed by Michael Elliott. The writer was Nigel Kneale, best known as the creator of Quatermass.

<i>The Stone Tape</i> 1972 television film directed by Peter Sasdy

The Stone Tape is a television play directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Michael Bryant, Jane Asher, Michael Bates and Iain Cuthbertson. It was broadcast on BBC Two as a Christmas ghost story in 1972. Combining aspects of science fiction and horror, the story concerns a team of scientists who move into their new research facility, a renovated Victorian mansion that has a reputation for being haunted. The team investigate the phenomena, trying to determine if the stones of the building are acting as a recording medium for past events. However, their investigations serve only to unleash a darker, more malevolent force.

Peter J. Hammond is a British television writer and novelist.

<i>Kinvig</i> television series

Kinvig is a sci-fi comedy television series made by London Weekend Television in 1981.

<i>Doctor Who</i> (season 7) seventh series of Doctor Who

The seventh season of British science fiction television series Doctor Who began on 3 January 1970 with Jon Pertwee's first story Spearhead from Space and ended with Inferno.


  1. "Dr Who 'longest-running sci-fi'". BBC News. 28 September 2006. Retrieved 30 September 2006.
  2. Miller, Liz Shannon (26 July 2009). "'Doctor Who' Honored by Guinness – Entertainment News, TV News, Media". Variety. Retrieved 23 November 2009.
  3. Telotte, J. P. (2008). The essential science fiction television reader. University Press of Kentucky. p. 210. ISBN   0-8131-2492-1.
  4. Ezard, John (1 November 2006). "Nigel Kneale". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 September 2014.