What a strange 10 years it’s been for the sci-fi geek. We’ve seen the rise and fall of entertainment empires. Old friends have returned in unexpected new form, rebooted or reinvented for the 2000s — whatever that means.
Here’s a look back at the decade in sci-fi, with 11 stories that, for good or for ill, made us sit up and take notice. And geek out. Always, and forever, geek out.
Star Wars prequels disappoint, but Clone Wars saves the day
We finally returned to the Galaxy Far, Far Away in 1999, but it just wasn’t the same. Jedi deliberated but did little else, Jar Jar Binks annoyed universally and the future Darth Vader squealed like a little boy.
In 2002, things got a little better in Attack of the Clones, when the Empire began to take shape and Yoda busted out his lightsaber for the first time. 2005’s Revenge of the Sith was the high point in the prequel trilogy, finally delivering what fans wanted in the climactic duel between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But it still left many fans feeling empty.
George Lucas went a long way toward making amends with Clone Wars on Cartoon Network. While the animation isn’t perfect — at times it feels like watching stone statues of his characters acting out the scenes — it felt like he finally did what he should have done with the prequels and went all-CGI (they felt like they were, anyway). Perhaps most significantly, Lucas spread around the writing and directing duties, which had worked so well for 1980’s beloved The Empire Strikes Back.
Now, as we head into the next decade, we have a live-action Star Wars TV series to look forward to. But will Lucasfilm be able to return to the real world of human beings after mastering the digital domain?
Holy redemption! Batman Begins and The Dark Knight returns
Also in the category of making amends, the Batman franchise surged back onto the big screen after fading into welcome obscurity following the Bat-films of the 1990s, which had devolved rapidly into a long-running joke after the acclaimed 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson into something more akin to the campy 1960s childrens show.
Christopher Nolan took charge and gave us an angst-ridden Caped Crusader, played by Christian Bale, in Batman Begins. This version of Bruce Wayne was darker than all the rest, and it resonated because he lived in a world that resembled our own moreso than any previous Batman film endeavor.
The sequel, The Dark Knight, was even more over-the-top, and unlike the ’90s films it was in a good way. Heath Ledger, in a powerful farewell performance captured before his death, brought the Joker to life like never before — and scared the hell out of everyone in the process.
Superman Returns – and flops
Lois Lane said it herself in this long-awaited sequel to Richard Donner’s 1978 masterpiece with her fictitious Pulitzer Prize-winning article “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” But even she caved when the boy in blue returned after a soul-searching galactic pilgrimage to the shards of Krypton. The reaction wasn’t universal; Superman Returns failed to win over audiences and critics, and a sequel, which should have been a slam-dunk for such an iconic property, has become just another shade in the Phantom Zone. If anything, the next Superman movie will be yet another reboot.
Smallville is still around
Debuting on The WB in 2001 before leaping to The CW in 2006, Smallville has been going nowhere for a long time. I have no idea why I’m still watching this show. Does anyone? Half the cast has turned over — gone are Lex and Lionel Luthor, Lana Lang and both elder Kents — but with additions like Tess Mercer and Green Arrow, it’s hard to look away. Everyone wants to see Clark Kent become the Man of Steel he was born to be, and that apotheosis is so close you can almost touch it. The problem is, it’s been that way since Season One. I feel used.
The Lord of the Rings makes it to the big screen
Seeing J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel faithfully translated into live-action cinema had been a lifelong dream for generations of fans — one we thought would never be realized satisfactorily. Boy, were we wrong! A little-known filmmaker named Peter Jackson, with more than a few Hobbit-like tendencies of his own, assembled a dream team and a cast of thousands to make it happen, finding a real Middle-earth in New Zealand and populating it with Rings-fan stars like Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler and Orlando Bloom. Now, after a tense legal battle over profits from the hugely successful trilogy, the adventure is set to begin again with Jackson producing and Guillermo del Toro directing a two-part adaptation of prequel The Hobbit.
Battlestar Galactica returns and makes sci-fi cool
Frak yeah! Everyone had their doubts about a remake of Battlestar Galactica, a late 1970s TV answer to Star Wars that doesn’t exactly stand the test of time. By mixing in the paranoia of having the Cylons be able to look like any human and really, deeply exploring the consequences of near-extinction, the Sci Fi Channel original series crossed genre lines with its appeal and had audiences on the edge of their seats with each new revelation in the story where all had happened before, and would happen again. The prequel series, Caprica, promises even more philosophical exploration as the origin of the Cylon race (one of them, anyway) unfolds among a cast of realistic, flawed human characters.
The new Star Trek
It’s truly remarkable that an A-list producer like J.J. Abrams managed to reboot an iconic series like Star Trek without unintentionally sparking an incident of homegrown nuclear terrorism masterminded by a band of disgruntled Trekkies, aghast that someone dared to mess with the sacred timelines in such an epic fashion. By adding some sex and action to the famously cerebral franchise, and creatively cherry-picking from more than 40 years of canon, Abrams has everyone wondering what elements of the classic series will appear in the already-announced sequel. Meanwhile, the franchise is poised to make the trek to its most interactive form yet with an online roleplaying game, Star Trek Online, launching in February. The game goes to the other end of the canon spectrum by propelling the action into the 25th century, long after the events of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Doctor Who returns to television
The British cult TV sensation Doctor Who ran originally from 1963 to 1989, and starred no less then seven men in the title role of the exiled Time Lord from Gallifrey gallivanting around time and space with all manner of Earthling companions. The series survived in the form of original novels, stage productions, a magazine and even full-cast audio productions starring original cast members — but nothing compared to the franchise’s 2005 rebirth as a weekly television series. Christopher Eccleston (pictured with co-star Billie Piper) was the Doctor, a free spirit haunted by his role in the recently ended Time War that left his own race and half the galaxy in ruins. After one season in the role, Eccleston gave way to David Tennant — and, in the grand tradition of the saga, Tennant will hand the reins over to Matt Smith next year as the Doctor suffers another death and regenerates into a new form with its own quirks and personas. But always he is a champion of the downtrodden.
Joss Whedon gets out-Foxed … twice
After Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon got burned by Fox’s burying and then cancellation of his beloved “space cowboy” series Firefly, many thought he had learned his lesson. They were wrong, because he entered into the unholy union once again with Dollhouse, a show with such promise that it is already in its death throes. Hopefully we won’t be put through this emotional wringer again, gorram it.
WoW takes fantasy roleplaying mainstream
Once upon a time, if you wanted to pretend you were an elf it had to be in the privacy of your own basement, or that of a trusted friend. Now, thanks to Blizzard’s MMORPG World of Warcraft, it’s hard to find classmates or coworkers who don’t indulge in fantasy roleplaying of some kind. Elements of computer RPGs have even infiltrated the pen-and-paper tabletop RPG industry that spawned it, with many fans and critics of the most recent edition of Dungeons & Dragons pointing to gameplay features and concepts that seem to mimic the MMO experience. And who can forget the many amusing nods to WoW in popular culture, from The Simpsons and, more memorably, South Park (pictured) to The Guild, an entire series produced online and now available on DVD.
Disney buys Marvel
Just this year, The Walt Disney Co. announced it is buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion, adding 5,000 beloved comic-book characters to its ranks and gaining an instant foothold in the key demographic of young American men, who are inexplicably unimpressed with Disney Channel faire like “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “JONAS.” This brings Disney into direct competition with Warner Bros. in the comics-to-movie arena and opens up a world of possibilities with the Marvel Island attraction at Universal Orlando. It’s a risky move for Disney, which must face the fact that most of Marvel’s most popular characters have already been adapted for the big screen, and now they must turn to Marvel’s second-string heroes and hope they find something worth the wager. Bub.
Cheyenne Mountain might actually release a Stargate game after all
Mesa-based developer Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment was formed to create an MMORPG based on MGM’s popular Stargate franchise, a 1994 feature film that has spawned three spinoff TV series — and not one video game to date, save for a 16-bit video game in the days of Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Cheyenne’s quest dragged on for years with no product release in sight — until earlier this month, when they announced that instead of the promised Stargate Worlds, we’d soon be getting a third-person shooter called Stargate Resistance. The company assures us that the MMO is still in development, and the shooter is, in fact, sort of a delaying tactic to keep the company alive by getting a product to market sooner rather than later. Time will tell if this is Stargate World’s salvation or just another entry for the vaporware file.