Sci Fi TV Genre Gems: Forgotten magic and hidden treasures from the worlds of sci fi TV
What Is It? This short-lived series offered a modern day take on the old movie serials and it combined three ongoing segments into each episode: the action/adventure Stop Susan Williams, the sci fi / western The Secret Empire, and the supernatural tinged Dracula 79.
Aired: NBC, 1979, 1 Season Totaling 11 Episodes
Created By: Kenneth Johnson
Starring: Susan Anton, Geoffrey Scott, Michael Nouri
Why It Stands Out: This attempt to capture the magic of the old movie serials may have been a bit cheesy, but it was still a ton of fun and ahead of its time with its creation of the season-long anthology format.
Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi? No. But it is still plenty of fun and fans of the old movie serials will certainly enjoy it.
The Skinny: This blink-and-you-missed-it series bowed on NBC in February of 1979 and brought with it an interesting idea of having three shows in one, each which would tell a complete story over about a half a season’s episodes or more. The plan was to bring back the segments that proved popular while rotating out the less-watched serials for new entries. The first season offered the segments Stop Susan Williams, a modern take on the Perils of Pauline with a lead actress that could better handle those perils, The Secret Empire, a near remake of the Gene Autry-starring cowboys and aliens serial The Phantom Empire from 1935, and Dracula 79, a modern take on the vampire tale. I enjoyed The Secret Empire the most, and loved the fact that the western scenes were in black and white with alien city scenes in color. But all three of the serials were good cheesy fun even if they could slip into bad camp at times. It was tongue-in-cheek and didn’t take itself to seriously, but it still managed to deliver some decent yarns and Kenneth Johnson (who developed The Incredible Hulk for television and later created V) set up a show that could have worked. Just not necessarily at that particular point in television history and not in the timeslot it was given (going head-to-head with top-rated Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley). This show disappeared from the schedule by season end and has since been mostly forgotten. But it was a great concept for a show and is worth searching out for those who are curious.
Cancelled Too Soon? Yes. NBC was struggling in the late 70’s and had already cancelled most of its new Fall shows. It was going through “one of the most dramatic midseason revisions of a prime-time program schedule since three-network competition began” and that included Cliffhangers. The network knew that the Tuesday 9 PM EST timeslot was a tough one with Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley having locked in that hour for ABC for several years. But NBC execs thought those shows may have been past their prime (the former had been airing since 1974 and the latter since 1976) and believed that the young audience tuning into those two might switch-over and give Cliffhangers a chance. But, no. Cliffhangers struggled mightily in that hour and quickly found itself one of the least-watched shows on television. Add to that the fact that it was also one of the most expensive to produce and that NBC was already stinging from the flop that was Supertrain, and Cliffhangers found itself sent to the Network Executioner by season end. The final episode of the show (which wrapped up Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire with Dracula 79 having ended the previous week) never aired in most markets.
Should It Be Rebooted? Absolutely. In many ways, this show was well ahead of its time with serialized episodes and season long story arcs, and it would work perfectly in the current television environment. There are any of a number of well-known sci fi characters from the old serials that could lead this show off (Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon aren’t doing anything of note lately). Plus, a reboot could mine the old pulps and comics, and a ton of those characters are in the public domain these days. It could also be used as a try out for original ideas with the ones that register well with audiences possibly spinning off into their own shows or sticking around to headline this series. And since it can reboot itself in part or completely each season, it’s quite a versatile format. There’s so much that could be done with this concept, that it’s almost criminal nobody has given serious thought to a reboot. And it doesn’t even have to be tied to the original series in case there are any rights issues with using the name. Come up with a new name and put in three good installments each week and you have a potentially breakout show.
Interesting Fact: The series kicked off with the appearance that the serials were already in progress with Stop Susan Williams starting at Chapter 2, The Secret Empire starting at Chapter 3, and Dracula 79 starting at Chapter 4. The “previously on” sequences caught up viewers on the story, but this may have proved confusing to those expecting the serials to start from the beginning. You can read much more about the series in the excellent coverage given to it at the Television Obscurities site at this link.
Where Can You Watch It? Unfortunately, this show has never had an official DVD release and it has not found its way to any of the streaming services yet. You can find bootleg DVDs on the internet and episodes show up on YouTube from time to time, but the video quality varies widely.