Six o'clock on BBC2...

When I was in my formative years, I most looked forward to a specific time of day – six o'clock in the evening, because it was then that BBC2 had its science-fiction slot. Naturally I didn't know this at the time, but obviously this was an attempt to imitate the success that shows such as Star Trek had achieved in syndication in the States being run opposite news shows, and whoever was the controller of BBC2 at the time had evidently opted to try the same tactic. Although I will not swear to it, the first time I was consciously aware of this slot opening up for science-fiction was when they began to air Star Trek: The Next Generation – and yes, I can just about remember watching it for the first time as it aired. It must have filled up pretty quickly, because by the time I was in secondary school, around 1993, there was an SF show on every night at that time on that station.

This was at a time when television science fiction in Britain was at its nadir. Doctor Who had been the last remnant of a once-proud tradition, and it had finally petered out in 1989 with Sylvester McCoy walking off into the sunset. There had been a few abortive attempts at shows in the 1980s, and there would be the occasional resurgence in the 1990s, but British TV SF was pretty much dead at that time. Red Dwarf was the sole exception – but that existed largely in a vacuum (no pun intended) and even that series was struggling on life support. There was a general perception that the BBC didn't have the means to compete with the Americans, and the commercial stations just didn't seem to have the interest. Whether this was true or not was unclear; certainly the BBC managed lavish historical dramas in this period, I suspect requiring some sort of a budget for them – a general view is that the British television establishment of the day didn't 'get' science fiction. (One of the best books to highlight this is Script Doctor, an account of the McCoy era from the point of view of the last script editor of 'classic' Who, Andrew Cartmel; I can recommend it highly.)

So, there were the American efforts; and it was those I grew up watching. I would not 'discover' Doctor Who, still less (IMHO) greater works such as Blake's 7 and Quatermass until they became available on VHS or DVD – so my primary visual influences are certainly American in origin. And quite a lot they were too! Oddly, TOS didn't appear for ages on British TV during this period; I strain to remember it at all, but TNG was prevalent, run alongside shows from the late 70s and early 80s. I discovered Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers, those gloriously mad and entertaining Glen A. Larson shows this way, as well as Space: 1999 and UFO from the Gerry Anderson stable (both ironically originally produced for ITV, run against Star times changed...) I have some vague memory of Thunderbirds turning up for a while – but that got things kicked off.

Then, oh, then came 1994. Glorious time – because Deep Space Nine turned up in Britain, taking another of the 6pm slots, and with it a run of other shows as well. Babylon 5 was snapped up by Channel 4, a rival station, giving me a difficult decision on occasion, but given that I remember following them both, I don't think they clashed. In between Star Trek seasons – and by now, TNG was being re-run as well – there were shows such as Sliders, another one I have surprisingly fond memories of, but that's probably because I still have never watched beyond the end of Season 3. My DVD collection stops abruptly there, and it's going to stay that way. Still the older classics filtered in and out of the schedule, and I have the feeling that whoever was running that slot in those years was a real fan of the sort of science fiction I liked to watch.

Then came Voyager, and things began to peter out a bit here; probably they felt they were running out of material. Stargate never made it into the slot, though it would have been perfect in it; I think Channel 4 bought it, but pretty much buried it in a dead slot. I think the X-Files didn't help. That show, in a sense, would have been great for the 6pm time slot, but back then putting it on before the watershed would have been out of the question – so things began to twist around, and science-fiction's little place in the schedule started to look less exclusive. I changed as well; as secondary school evolved to college, I had less time, and was less likely to be home at the right time to watch it, and finally when I went to university...well, I didn't even have a TV for a year. Didn't actually miss it that much, oddly enough. By the time I became aware of it, the slot had faded into history, I suspect killed as much by DVD boxed sets as anything else. I know I have essentially reconstructed those days in a series of shelves on my wall; I think I might actually get around to sorting the shelves based on what would have been on in that slot. Unless I've missed something, I've got pretty much everything they aired in it...which shows what sort of an impression it made.

I'm a huge fan of the idea of 'build your own programming schedule', either with DVDs or internet streaming; I don't even have my television connected to an aerial. Still, it is a little sad that a moment like this has passed into history. I wonder how many of the teenagers who watched those shows back then have grown up influenced by them today; this is unlikely to ever happen again. Oddly sad.

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