Television shows are like sports teams: Sometimes they just have an off season. (And sometimes they just dive down a terrible hole and get trapped forever.) When a science fiction or fantasy show has a terrible no-good year, it's especially noticeable, because the fantastical plot devices get dumber and the world-building gets sloppier.
Almost every beloved science fiction or fantasy show will have a bad year, if it lasts long enough. But some shows have gone so far off course that "disappointment" doesn't begin to describe the experience of watching them. Here are 10 seasons of science fiction and fantasy TV that left us downright mortified. Spoilers ahead...
10) True Blood season four
Since this just aired, we'll be light on the spoilers. (You can always read our exhaustive recaps for the down and dirty on just where this show went so horribly wrong.) Suffice to say, this season felt like a horrible mockery of the previous years — it lacked a cool villain, and meanwhile Vampire Eric was mistreated in the worst way. Not to mention what happened to Jason.
9) Space: 1999 season two
Some people would probably try to claim that this show was always campy, and the second season was just a continuation of the same ridiculous "Moon traveling through space fast enough to reach new planets every week but somehow the Moonbase inhabitants survive" storyline. But season one was at least creepy and weird, and seemed to be trying to do something a bit different and ambitious. Season two, meanwhile, was retooled into a terrible Star Trek copycat. (Not unlike the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.) The addition of Maya the shapeshifter was sorta fun, but the plots became much less trippy and much more like standard TV space opera stories.
8) Galactica 1980
Sure, the one season of the original Battlestar Galactica wasn't exactly a masterpiece — but Lords of Kobol, the one-season spinoff in which the Galactica finally discovers Earth was a veritable Viper-crash. From the zany flying motorcycles to the child savant, to the weird storyline where the Colonials give a small child a mind-control device to torment his classmates, to the whole "some Colonials want to give the Nazis super-technology" plot arc. And on and on. Not to mention the awful blow-dried Apollo and Starbuck replacements, Dylan and Troy. At least the original BSG is a fun Star Wars knock-off — this sequel is just soul-scarring.
7) Alias season three
This is the "Sydney has amnesia and can't remember the last two years" season. Not to mention the "Vaughn is married to someone else, who's secretly evil but nobody can figure it out" season. The show just started to lurch off the rails, without nearly as much of a coherent mythology and less of an interesting setup than in the first two seasons. Even show creator J.J. Abrams reportedly admitted that the show got out of hand in its third season and had to be reined back in. (Although I can't find the interview where he said that, just people citing it in various articles.)
6) Earth: Final Conflict season five
There should be a separate list for "shows that tried to revamp drastically in their final season, only to run into trouble." Consider that a running theme for the next few entries on this list in any case. (Another candidate: Sliders.) Earth: The Final Conflict had already abandoned a lot of its ideas after its first season (as this message-board poster points out) Basically, by season five, the entire cast of the show was pretty much gone, and so were the original antagonists, the Taelons — instead, they were replaced by some weird vampire aliens, and the show's new hero was a Buffy knock-off named Renee.
5) The X-Files season nine
Annnd... then there's this show, in which they tried to keep it going without Fox Mulder. Instead, the show's creators had the brilliant idea of flipping the traditional Mulder/Scully dynamic, with Scully now being the true believer paired with a skeptical agent. But also, this show just sort of ran out of juice and no longer seemed to have any real stories to tell.
4) Andromeda season five
Andromeda was nearly cancelled at the end of its fourth season, following a couple of years during which the show was limping creatively. (The original developer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, had been forced out during season two, in the hopes of making the show less complex and more focused on Kevin Sorbo.) But instead of being put out of its misery, Andromeda was renewed for one last season by the Sci Fi Channel, except that the budget was slashed and the whole show was drastically reinvented — now, Dylan Hunt and friends were trapped in the small Seefra star system. All of the characters get drastically revamped, to the point where they're unrecognizeable, and meanwhile Dylan Hunt develops godlike powers over time and space because his father turns out to have been a Paradine. The end result is somewhat baffling and distressing.
3) Heroes season three
This is a tough one to choose — why not Heroes season two, in which nothing much happens until the show is driven off a cliff by the writers' strike? Or season four, with the evil carnies and Sylar brainwashed to be Nathan? Still, season three stands out as the worst of the bunch, and causes the most headaches when you contemplate it, because the show was just trying so damn hard, and so many weird plot developments still feel like an icepick in the skull. The season was divided into two nonsensical "chapters," for maximum insanity, including the "Sylar becomes a good guy and everybody else becomes a bad guy" chapter. And the "mutants are rounded up and sent to Guantanamo, so we can have War on Terror metaphors" chapter. This was the season where we were promised President Worf and then the show gave us Boring Papa Petrelli instead.
2) Doctor Who: Trial of a Time Lord
There are a few contenders for "most face-clawingly awful season of classic Doctor Who," but luckily "Trial of a Time Lord" leaves them all in the dust. Colin Baker's tenure as the Doctor had gotten off to a somewhat rocky start, and the show was skirting the edge of cancellation — so the producers decided the show was on trial, so its hero should be as well. Cue a dozen episodes of the Doctor and a group of Time Lords sitting around watching Doctor Who, while stopping every few minutes to comment on how crap it all is. And then there's the ending — first writer Robert Holmes died in the middle of writing episode 14, then the script editor rewrote the episode and then quit — leaving the show unable to use any of his story ideas for the season finale. The show hastily hired replacement writers, and gave them a weekend to write a new concluding episode from scratch. Resulting in the greatest line of dialogue ever: "You cannot prevent the catharsis of spurious morality!" (If only the season had ended on a cliffhanger as originally intended, they could have resolved it by introducing a new Doctor, instead of putting Sylvester McCoy in a blond wig.)
1) Star Trek: The Next Generation season two
It's really hard to imagine that a show could get this bad in its second season and still come back for a third. Thank goodness for syndication, I guess. TNG's second season was hit by a writer's strike, so that Gene Roddenberry and company were digging around and repurposing old scripts for the nixed 1970s Trek show Phase Two, plus whatever else they could find. Meanwhile, due to behind-the-scenes tensions, Gates McFadden was replaced by Diana Muldaur, who was super-talented but had way less chemistry with the rest of the cast. The result was some of the most dreary storytelling that Star Trek has ever given us, including stories that clearly didn't fit this crew. This was the year of "Data learns stand-up comedy from Joe Piscopo," "Troi has a wacky pregnancy," "Riker gets trapped in a casino," etc. — culminating in the worst clip show ever, the "Riker relives his most emotional memories to get rid of a parasite" episode.
Thanks to Annalee and Meredith for suggestions!