Photos and YouTube links updated 5/7/09.
I suffer from insomnia, and you benefit. Here are my picks for 10 Best and 10 Worst Opening Credits for Genre TV Shows.
By “genre,” I mean science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I only included shows made in English. I also decided to limit myself to those credits sequences I could find online – but this turned out not to be a problem. Hooray for YouTube! Hooray for copyright violations!
I was worried that I would subconsciously rate the title sequences not on their own merit, but based on the quality of the show overall. But I ended up with one of the worst shows of all time on the “Best” list, and one of the best on the “Worst” list. And they both have the same title!
Numerical order is approximate.
The 10 Best
10. “Battlestar Galactica” (1979)
One of the most common mistakes made by sci-fi TV openings is the “expository monologue,” with which jittery television executives try to explain the show’s premise to viewers who don’t “get” sci-fi. As I researched this list, I learned how ubiquitous this problem is. Blah blah blah.
The original BSG features a long, long, loooong expository monologue. Yeah yeah, Toltecs and Mayans, got it. But the monologue is well written, and it’s read with tremendous gravity by the brilliant Patrick Macnee, who also voiced the Imperious Leader. The theme song kicks ass. And most importantly, the edited scenes (viewed through a circle — why?) really make the show look impressive. Too bad it sucked ass.
9. “The Greatest American Hero” (1981-83)
It’s all about the theme song, baby. Mike Post’s theme song is goofy, poppy, cheesy, and almost but not entirely unrelated to the content of the show. And once you hear it, you will NEVER get it out of your head. This credits sequence is fun, funny, and engaging, and it has no expository monologue whatsoever. That UFO, left over from one of Steven Spielberg’s garage sales, is also very cool.
8. “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (1988-1999)
“Robot roll call!” We’re only concerned with the first two credit sequences here, the original Joel Hogdson credits and the first Mike Nelson opening. After Frank Conniff left, the show jumped the shark; and once it moved to the Sci Fi Channel, well, it’s just best not to think about it. Catchy song, goofy models and puppets, and the iconic “corridor crawl” a la “Get Smart.” And the theme song doubled as the expository monologue, which was a real time saver.
7. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994)
What do you get when you cross the theme from “Star Trek The Motionless Picture” with the Shakespearean monologing skills of Patrick Stewart and a clever tribute the opening of the original “Star Trek?” Um, this opening, duh. By the way, the original “Star Trek” opening was pretty weak (“whoosh! whoosh!), although nowhere near bad enough to make the “worst” list. As far as I can tell, “Space… the final frontier…” invented the expository monologue.
6. “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (1993-1999)
There was nothing special about the DS9 opening until season four, about the time the show started to not completely suck. The morose theme song got a boost from a bouncy backing track, and the CG guys added a bunch of business involving spaceships, little space-suited construction workers, and the Defiant flying into the wormhole. Suddenly, Deep Space 9 became a place you might conceivably care about. Then, in season seven, they screwed the whole thing up. This award goes to seasons 4-6 only. (Special props to DS9 for dropping the “Final Frontier” speech.)
5. “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995-2001)
Finally, the “Star Trek” credits sequence perfected. Great theme, excellent effects. Voyager actually interacts with its surroundings, which gives the sequence more reality.
Of course, in 9 out of 10 episodes, once the opening credits ended it was all downhill from there.
This show was saved near the end by exactly two things — marginally better writing, and Jeri Ryan.
First let’s discuss that theme song. When some hack isn’t ruining it by trying to “update” it, Ron Grainer’s “Doctor Who” theme is spacey, dramatic and memorable. Most of the “Doctor Who” credits sequences have been mediocre or terrible (see this – Jesus Christ, did that Zardozian giant floating head just wink at me? Exterminate! Exterminate!), but two really stand out. Coincidentally, they’re the openings for the two best Doctors to date. Tom Baker’s (1974-81) was modeled after previous openings, and included the dreaded “head shot.” But the music was great, the effects were cool, and you got to see the TARDIS fly around. In the Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant credits (2005 – present), the music was great, the effects were cool, and you got to see the TARDIS fly around. And no headshot! Plus, “Doctor Who” has never burdened us with an expository monologue. Can you imagine trying to explain “Doctor Who” in 30 seconds?
3. “The Six Million Dollar Man” (1974-78)
The awkwardly-titled series that made Lee Majors a star had opening credits as heart-pounding and dramatic as anything on TV. Steve Austin’s whole origins story was presented in under a minute – and they didn’t tell us, they showed us. Sure, Richard Anderson (no relation to Dean) talks through the credits, but he’s in the story, trying to convince his unnamed listener that blowing $6,000,000 in 1970s dollars to turn a crippled astronaut, and the astronaut’s girlfriend and dog, into cybernetic freaks isn’t a violation of the public trust. This opening is artistic and beautifully edited; and the cheesy theme song doesn’t cut in until the last 15 seconds.
2. “Space: 1999” (1975-77)
This is a really interesting case. Some openings, like “The X-Files” or “Farscape,” were good, but not good enough to make it onto the “Best” list. (To answer your question – “The X-Files” had a great theme, but the visuals were dorky as hell. Oh look – Mulder is falling into an eye! Spooky!) Some were bad, but not terrible enough to make the “Worst” list (see “Lost In Space”). Only “Space: 1999” almost made it onto both lists.
The great: brilliant music, heart-pounding action, real drama, and no expository monologue. The terrible: it’s overwrought to the point of silliness – “SEPT 13!!!! 1999!!!!” In the end, the good beats out the bad. BTW, we are ignoring the hideous second season opening, just as we ignore the hideous second season.
(For more Gerry Anderson goodness, check out “Thunderbirds,” which just barely missed the Best list.)
1. “Firefly” (2002)
Wow. Just… wow. I’m not going to ruin it with words. If you don’t get it, nothing I say can help. Burn the land and boil the sea – you can’t take the sky from me.
(And Gina Torres gets to be the only actor on both the Best and Worst lists, unless you count Richard Hatch.)
Now read… the 10 Worst!