There's no secret as to why science fiction and fantasy are popular: Reality is boring. That's why even TV shows that supposedly have no fantasy elements wind up having episodes where they introduce clones, time travel, aliens or zombies. Here are nine TV shows (and one literary character) that suddenly went science fiction.
Here is proof that this tendency existed long before television. Even Doyle’s ultra-rational detective slipped into science fiction in one story. “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” begins with a young woman complaining to Holmes that her father, an elderly professor, suddenly developed a violent temper. He also seemed to have gotten great strength and agility, and his dog has begun to attack him. Sherlock heads over catches the man in some animal-like behavior - including taunting the dog and climbing the vines near the house — notices that his knuckles have become thick and overdeveloped, and uncovers . . . a serum that has changed the professor into a were-monkey. It turns out the professor loved a young woman, and wanted to return to his younger days so he could court her. A serum distilled, somehow, from a langur, restored his youth — but gave the man the bestial traits of the monkey it came from. The dog attacked the professor, and his monkey days came to an end. Understandably, this was not one of Doyle’s most popular stories.
I’m not surprised that Happy Days did a science fiction episode. It ran long enough to do every other kind of episode, including one where Fonzie jumps over a shark — thus giving us an immortal phrase for shows that go on too long. In “My Favorite Orkan,” Ritchie is almost kidnapped by an alien named Mork. He’s saved by Fonzie, and the whole thing is revealed to be a dream . . . until a little show called Mork and Mindy. As soon as that show aired, it’s clear that poor Ritchie and Fonzie weren't dreaming, and probably got their minds erased at the end of their adventure. Mork remains at large.
This show poses a sticky problem. Time travel is science fiction. But witches are fantasy. So what happens if your journey through time is facilitated by a witch and, later, a wizard? Well, it turns out that what happens in the show is, you go out and try to fix your love life instead of grabbing the lottery numbers like any sane person would. At the very least, she should have rethought the haircut that tanked the show and caused the then-WB-now-CW network to institute a policy against actors getting haircuts.
Community is wacky enough that it’s hard to call it a non-genre show. It’s full of references to science fiction, and even hovers right on the border a few times. “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” could arguably be a claymation fantasy episode, and “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which looked at the timelines of possible alternate universes, could be science fiction. For both of these, though, watchers could at least argue that it was all in Abed’s head. “Epidemiology,” however, was not ambiguous at all. It was a zombie outbreak, and included everything from a consistent way to transmit the zombie plague to a logical (by zombie show standards) way to kill the virus. It even featured an evil government conspiracy. Yes, it was a silly zombie outbreak, but you don’t want to tune into Community and see The Walking Dead.
Another comedy show succumbs to its baser urges. Newsradio was a show about a news radio station that for the most part traded in quirky comedy. It had some strange situations, but its craziest premise, up until the end of season three, was that any human being on Earth could be into ventriloquism. In “Space” the entire radio crew gets reimagined, for no perceptible reason, as a crew on a space radio station. At one point, Phil Hartman reads a commercial for Soylent Green. The show goes out of its way to reassure its fans that this is a one-off episode. Nothing says, “We won’t continue this premise,” like the cast killing off the entire human race by the end.
There are some shows that dip their toes in the water of science fiction of fantasy. There are some that wade. And there are some that drown and never come back. Family Matters belongs in that last category. Steve Urkel, a nerdy teen on Family Matters, became a beloved and central character on the show despite having a voice like a war crime. He's always conducting experiments, but at one point, he decides to mix himself up a potion that will turn him into Stefan, a cool guy, and the show never came back from that. Soon, there were clones, shrink rays, and rockets. Then there was merciful cancellation.
Meanwhile, on Baywatch, someone decided to liven up the show with a sea monster in the episode "Nightmare Bay." And just like with Family Matters, this opened the floodgates — and soon, there were mermaids and aliens running around. And then this turned into Baywatch Nights, which was a weird X-Files clone. At least they still had Hasselhoff.
This was a basic sitcom that depended on sexual chemistry, Ryan Reynolds' charm, and the idea that the American public would want pizza even if they only saw it on TV. The premise was in the title. It was about the travails of a few twenty-somethings and a restaurant. Until a Halloween episode, “Mind Over Body,” when suddenly a mad scientists switched the casts’ brains around. Having only a half hour, the show mainly looked at the age-old question – is it okay to molest someone’s body if it’s temporarily your body? Since this was only a half hour long, no one had to make the question moot by either showering or going to the bathroom.
You know them all. Don’t pretend that you don’t. Which one was your favorite? Mine was "Citizen Kang," the one where the aliens took over Bill Clinton and Bob Dole’s bodies. Remember, we must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.
This is not technically scifi, but it was so bizarre and horrifying that it made me feel like I got sucked into another universe, and that's scifi enough. Punky Brewster was the last gasp of the genre of shows about a plucky orphan moving in with a curmudgeonly old person. Or maybe I just hope it was. As I child, I regularly tuned in to episodes that taught me things like: It’s important to learn to read, you must pay attention during CPR demonstrations, and never play in an abandoned refrigerator — often all in the same episode. It took two episodes, but that show also taught me real fear. Punky and her friends go on a camping trip. They end up in a haunted cave, tell stories, and in a Inception-style-twist, we don’t really know whether what we’re seeing is a story or real events. (The story is interrupted at one point and we are not sure if we return to the story itself or to the real world.) Punky goes to defeat the evil spirit haunting the cave. She's treated to her friends disappearing, to hearing their desperate screams for help but being unable to find them, and eventually to them coming back to her as a zombie horde telling her that she’s going to die, too. That’s right, Punky Brewster went Evil Dead on us.
Unlike Evil Dead, Punky decides that she’s going to love the creature that did this to her, and it blows up when it senses her unshakable compassion. There was probably a lesson to be learned there, but by that time the children of America were too busy scrubbing urine stains out of carpeting. Although some shows in this list were bad, and a few were too confusing to even manage to be bad, this is the episode that should be held up as a reason to be careful when venturing, even temporarily, into genre. Never again! Never again, Punky!
Many thanks to Amanda Yesilbas for helping me research these shows!