The 90s/00s was a golden age for sci fi and fantasy series in my opinion. Then again I am a 90s baby so having growing up with the genre series from this time I am naturally going to hold a special affection for them.
Still looking at it from a more impartial point of view I think those two decades marked many significant and positive changes in the sci fi and fantasy genres, and also produced some of their most enduring and iconic series and characters, such as Xena the Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Babylon 5, The X-Files and the various Star Trek sequels.
In this article I am going to run through the common tropes and characteristics of series from these decades as well the influence they have had on the current generation of genre series such as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
1/ American Genre Series vs British Series
During the 90s America completely dominated the sci fi and fantasy market. In the United Kingdom meanwhile the genre was for all intents and purposes dead on television.
Doctor Who had finally come to an end in 1989 whilst Blake’s 7 had ended many years prior. Though Red Dwarf still endured throughout the decade it was often messed about by the BBC with there being several years between series 6 and 7 and later 7 and 8. for instance
The reason for this was because many high profile figures who ran British television during the 90s hated sci fi. The most notable example of this was of course Michael Grade who launched a calculated campaign against Doctor Who in the late 80s which eventually succeeded in finishing the show for close to 20 years.
It wouldn’t be until the 00s before sci fi and fantasy series were capable of becoming mainstream successful television again in the United Kingdom, thanks largely to the massively successful revival of Doctor Who.
However even then almost all of the British genre series in the 00s, including the revived Doctor Who followed all of the same tropes that the the American genre series of the 90’s and 00s such as Buffy, Babylon 5, Xena and Smalllville had laid down.
Of course at the same time the irony is that many of things that 90s American genre series pioneered from story arcs, to anti heroes, to characters dying regularly, to downer endings all originated in a British sci fi series from the late 70s, early 80s. Blake’s 7.
Now I am not saying that Blake’s 7 inspired all of these American genre series (though it did directly inspire some with the creators of Lexx and Babylon 5 being huge fans of Blake’s 7.)
Still ironically I think that Blake’s 7 really represents the start of the 90s and 00s style despite coming over a decade earlier. Though often dismissed by modern critics as a dated, cheesy, low budget series, Blake’s 7 ironically was decades ahead of its time in terms of its story telling.
Whilst I am not going to deny that its production values are shoddy, ultimately if you can get past that, then there really is little to no difference between Blake’s 7 and indeed any classic genre series for the next 30 years.
British and American Sci Fi and fantasy have obviously always had a habit of copying each other. At various points one will dominate the market, and so naturally the other will then try and emulate their style. There’s nothing wrong with it, but normally I feel that whenever the Americans or the British try and copy each other then there are still some notable differences as obviously the American and British entertainment industries and markets are very different.
For instance Blake’s 7 obviously borrowed a lot from Star Trek, right down to the teleporters, yet its really is the anti Star Trek.
Similarly Red Dwarf took a lot from Lost in Space yet the two shows sense of humour is as different as day and night. Lost in Space is upbeat, whimsical and family friendly, whilst Red Dwarf is more dry, cynical and certainly much darker all around.
In the case of the 90s and 00s series however what’s interesting is that for once there was really very little difference between British and American series in terms of style.
Take a look at say Merlin and Xena, or Doctor Who and Buffy and Angel and their styles, sense of humour are all pretty much the same. For whatever reason I feel that the 90’s/00’s style was able to perhaps translate better over seas than many others.
2/ Leading Roles For Women
A key feature of fantasy and sci fi series in the 90s and 00s is that they have much stronger roles for women compared to previous decades.
Now I am not saying that previous decades sci fi and fantasy were sexist.
I think shows like Star Trek TOS and Classic Who get a hard time from many contemporary critics, as though there are certainly some examples of vintage sexism in them, by and large both shows were actually very progressive for their time. Martin Luther King himself even said that Star Trek played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement!
Sci Fi and Fantasy were actually often the most progressive genres during the 50s, 60s, but still even with that its true that there weren’t as many roles for women, as after all the entertainment industry in general was more male dominated back then.
However times change and I think that really throughout the 70s we start to see more and more leading roles for women emerge in some of the most iconic and successful genre series, from Wonder Woman, to the Alien film series, to The Bionic Woman, to The Survivors.
By the time of the 90s I don’t think anyone had any issues with a leading character being a woman, but what changed during this decade was that for the first time female led shows actually became dominant. Indeed the three longest running and most successful genre series of the 90s, Buffy, Xena and Charmed all starred female heroes.
It wasn’t just simply a case of women started to take on leading roles however. Throughout the 90s we started to see shows where the majority of the supporting characters were women, and the most dangerous and evil villains were women too.
There were of course still plenty of male led series during this decade such as Hercules, Angel and Babylon 5. Still even in these series there were plenty of strong roles for women. In Angel for instance the most powerful character is a woman, Illyria.
The 90’s was really a golden age for female heroes, not just in the sci fi and fantasy genres. Many non sci fi and fantasy female led shows such as Alias also enjoyed huge success during this time too. Still undeniably the most famous original genre characters from this time, both heroic and villainous were all women.
3/ A Character Suddenly Becomes LGBT
Again as a sign of the times becoming more progressive, 90s shows not only featured a greater representation for LGBT characters, but would often part way through their run turn a character that had previously been assumed to be straight; gay or bisexual.
Examples of this include Willow from Buffy, who became a lesbian in its fourth season when she entered into a relationship with Tara Maclay. Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5, who was in a relationship with telepath Talia Winters, and later Marcus. And finally Xena and Gabrielle themselves who were in many heterosexual and homosexual relationships throughout the shows 6 year run.
In the case of Xena and Willow their gay relationships ended up becoming more popular with the fans, prominent in the show itself, and iconic and long lasting in general.
All of these characters remain LGBT icons to this day with Xena in particular having a huge following.
At the same time however there was some criticism directed towards the likes of Xena and Gabrielle, Willow and Tara and Ivanova and Talia’s relationships as they all ended in tragedy. Indeed this gave rise to the phrase “bury your gays” that refers to the apparent habit genre series have of never giving their LGBT characters happy endings.
Personally however I think that the “bury your gays” criticism is bogus. In actual fact the vast majority of relationships, be they heterosexual, or LGBT end in tragedy in genre series.
Take a look at Angel and Cordelia, she dies. Wash and Zoe? He gets impaled. Cole and Phoebe? He goes evil and she kills him and shows no remorse whatsoever. Anya and Xander? She is killed in battle after a very bitter break up where he dumped her at the altar and she tried to curse him! You could argue that Tara and Xena were less tragic as at least they were still in loving relationships with their spouses.
Even all of Buffy, (a leading heterosexual characters) relationships go sour. Angel and Riley both leave her (after Riley goes to see Vampire prostitutes) whilst Spike burns up in the Hellmouth.
Wesley and Fred is another heterosexual relationship that ends with both of them dying horrible, slow, lingering, pointless deaths.
So much for it always being a happy ending for straight characters.
People love a tragedy more than a happy ending and thus when we started to see LGBT relationships they too by and large would be portrayed as tragic. Though even then it was not always the case that LGBT relationships didn’t have happy endings either. Willow and Kennedy for instance is in fact the only romantic relationship from Buffy that ends on a positive note.
The 90s really broke new ground with its depiction of LGBT characters. Again it wasn’t the first time we had seen same sex relationships in popular television series. The first ever gay kiss occurred on British television in the 70s, whilst there had been prominent drama’s that tackled the subject of homosexuality before such as The Naked Civil Servant.
Still again much as with leading female characters then the 90s I feel saw LGBT characters become much more frequent and popular than before.
At the height of its success Xena was the most popular show in the world in terms of overseas sales. Its hard to imagine a television series starring an LGBT woman being so popular in the 60s.
Of course the success of these 90s show would lead to more shows featuring LGBT characters into the 00s, with Torchwood having an entire cast of LGBT characters.
4/ Story Arcs
Prior to the 90s most cult series did not have ongoing story arcs. The likes of Doctor Who, Lost in Space, the original Star Trek, The Avengers, Doomwatch all had self contained episodes. The reason for this was because when selling these shows abroad the makers had to take into account the fact that the entire series might not be brought, and thus they decided to make each story one that could effectively introduce a new audience to the series.
There were some exceptions, such as the already mentioned Blake’s 7 and the Key to Time story arc in Classic Who.
However it would really be during the 90s that story arcs not only became practically mandatory for sci fi and fantasy series, but where many new types of story arcs were pioneered too.
Babylon 5 marked the first time a story arc spread out across an entire series from start to finish. Most of the show was written by the one man, Joseph Michael Straczynski who had mapped out the entire series before he had even written it. Though he had to make a few adjustments along the way, including replacing certain characters when their actors left.
Still the show was praised for how well it was able to develop its story across 5 years, and indeed many series since have attempted to similarly tell a story spanning several years.
Examples of this can be found in the revived Doctor Who. The story arc surrounding Tennant’s Doctors severed hand for instance began in series 2 and though initially it seems like nothing more than a throwaway scene, it later ends up playing key roles in Torchwood series 1, and Doctor Who series 3 and 4’s story arcs.
Similarly the entire Matt Smith era follows one story arc, the war on Trenzalore, fall of the 11th prophecy, and the threat of the Silence.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer meanwhile would pioneer a new type of story arc, the Big Bad formula.
Now the Big Bad formula is where a major villain or sometimes a few villains will emerge, usually at the start of a series, though sometimes it might be as late as half way through.
The Big Bad will be the head of many of the lesser villains who appear in each episode. Their master plan may be slowly revealed over the course of the series. Their end game will obviously be a bigger threat than any other villain that year, and as a result they will be defeated in the season finale in a spectacular battle where they will usually be killed.
The next year a new villain will emerge to take their place and the pattern will repeat once more.
The Big Bad formula has been copied by almost every major cult series since. Being Human, Doctor Who, Smallville, Once Upon A Time, Supernatural, Charmed, Arrow, The Flash etc.
Whilst it would be wrong to say that story arcs in genre series began in the 90s, it was certainly during this decade that through the likes of Buffy and Babylon 5 they became more prominent than ever before.
5/ Characters Seeking Redemption
There had been anti heroes before the 90s, with both Doctor Zachary Smith from Lost in Space and Kerr Avon from Blake’s 7 being two classic examples.
However in the 90s they not only became a lot more common, but I feel were taken to a whole new level.
Where as Avon was merely ruthless and self serving, 90s anti heroes such as Xena, Angel, and G’kar had all been murderers of women and children in the past!
It was quite a risky thing to make characters we were meant to root for be guilty of such deplorable things, from advocating genocide, to rape, to cold blooded torture. But that was often the point of 90s shows, that people can change.
These characters will often have to face someone they wronged at some point and try find a way to earn their forgiveness. Sometimes it doesn’t work, like Angel and Holtz, whilst in others such as G’Kar and Londo, Angel and Giles and even Xena and Callisto the atoner is able to earn forgiveness from the person they wronged more than anyone else.
At the same time however these series would often play around with the idea of the former villains never being able to truly make up for what they have done, and thus characters like Xena, Angel, G’Kar and Londo are often denied their happy endings.
A fairly large amount of 90s/00s genre series have a character like this. In Xena there is obviously Xena herself. Xena was once an evil warlord who slaughtered countless villages before being redeemed by Hercules and Gabrielle.
Charmed meanwhile has Cole who was once one of the worst Demons but later finds redemption (eventually) through his love for Phoebe.
In Smallville there is Lionel Luthor who starts out as the shows main villain, but ends up becoming a father figure to Clark Kent.
In Babylon 5, G’Kar and Londo both qualify. G’Kar starts out as a vicious racist would be conqueror. Though his people the Narn were genuinely wronged by the Centauri, the Narn still went on to conquer other worlds, and bully other races they way they had once been. They also sought to not just simply get back at the Centauri, but to exterminate their entire race from the universe.
As time goes on however G’Kar after all he endures, sees the error of his ways and ironically ends up becoming an almost messiah like figure preaching love between all races of the universe.
Londo his rival/friend (though only in the later series) starts out desperate to reclaim his species former glory at any cost. This of course leads him into a very dodgy deal with the Shadows that almost destroys two worlds (including his own) and costs millions of innocent people their lives.
However as time goes on he too sees the error of his ways and does all he can to rectify the wrongs he caused and later ends up sacrificing himself to save his world.
Doctor Who has also played around with this idea too with both Captain Jack and the Doctor during the Russell T Davies era having been guilty of terrible things in their past, such as the time war (before it was retconned).
Finally Buffy and Angel have a seemingly never ending supply of these types of characters. From Angel and Spike, two of the worst Vampires in recorded history, to Anya a former vengeance Demon, to Doyle a coward who left his people to be butchered, to Illyria a former Demon who killed Fred, to Willow who flayed a guy alive and nearly destroyed the world, to even Giles whose reckless actions in his youth let loose a Demon that killed several innocent people.
These characters helped the 90s/00s genre series be somewhat more morally grey than many of their predecessors such as the original Star Trek series.
6/ Lovable Lovestruck Rogue
A popular character in 90s shows, this character was always a man.
He will start out as a villain, maybe the major enemy of the female hero. However as time goes on it will be revealed that he is in love with her. This will of course horrify him at first, not only because he has fallen in love with his enemy, but being in love will be contradictory to his nature, as he will be a creature of evil.
After realising his love for the female hero he will then try and become good. His love for her will motivate him to do some good things, but it may also motivate him to do some horrifying things too.
Eventually however his good side will win out, and he will even become more human and vulnerable, requiring the female hero to protect him. Throughout the story the female hero will struggle with feelings for him, which she will give into frequently. Ultimately however they will never get together, though usually by the end the female hero and male villain have a more respectful and caring relationship.
Cole from Charmed, Spike from Buffy and Ares from Xena all fit this template perfectly. All start out as major enemies of the main female heroes, Buffy, Xena, and the Charmed ones, all are creatures of evil who are not supposed to feel love. A Vampire, a God, and a Demon respectfully. All try and do good to win round the heroine they are in love with and all do manage to do great things. Ares gives up his Godhood to save Xena’s daughter, Spike is almost tortured to death by Glory to save Dawn, whilst Cole saves the Charmed ones lives many times.
However all 3 do horrible things as a result of their infatuation. Spike almost rapes Buffy, Ares tries to blackmail Xena into giving him a child by threatening to go to the Gods, whilst Cole rewrites time itself, murdering Paige in the process to win Phoebe back.
All 3 lose their powers or become more human. Ares and Cole literally become human, whilst Spike gets a human soul.
Finally all 3 do not get the girl in the end, but still they all develop a more respectful relationship with her, with Ares telling Xena that he wouldn’t ever want her to go evil again as he loves her for who she is now, Cole helping Phoebe find love again, and Spike sacrificing himself to save Buffy and her friends.
A further similarity between Spike and Ares can be found in their relationship with the main male heroes of their respective franchises too, Hercules and Angel.
Spike and Ares initially start out as darker characters on the series starring a male hero. They both have nothing but hatred for the hero and thus get a chance to be more genuinely evil characters.
As time goes on however Ares and Spike both become more comical characters as we discover their hatred of Hercules and Angel is actually more shallow and petty. The two villain are both just jealous of Herclues and Angel and at times seem more like a squabbling brother than a true archenemy.
Naturally these characters were always very popular. Both James Marsters and Julian McMahon who played Spike and Cole went on to have fantastic careers afterwards. Sadly Kevin Smith who played Ares was tragically killed in an accident not long after Xena finished.
In many ways I think this character represented how the 90s and the 00s became more female dominated.
Normally in the past the role of the more romantic, lovestruck villain desperate for the heroes attention was taken by a woman. Catwoman in Batman, Maxima in Superman, Black Cat in Spider-Man and in some versions Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes. The role of the more vicious, unsympathetic, evil villain who wanted to kill the hero meanwhile was obviously taken by a man. The Joker in Batman, Lex Luthor in Superman, Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes.
In 90s series however this classic set up was completely reversed. The hero and the evil, psychotic, villain who was a rival to the hero were occupied by women, Xena and Callisto, Buffy and Faith, whilst the lovestruck villain is now a man, Ares, Spike etc.
It was good to give both women and men a chance to play different types of characters.
Many 90s and 00s series were part of a larger franchise. Again this was something that we didn’t really see that often before or indeed since (apart from the Arrowverse which is already based on a shared universe, DC comics)
The various Star Trek series, Voyager, Next Generation Deep Space 9, all obviously took place in the same universe and had crossovers with one another.
The revived Doctor Who franchise during the 00s also had two spin off series, Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures, both of which had crossovers with the parent show.
Xena and Hercules also obviously took place in the same universe, as did Buffy and Angel. Finally even Babylon 5 had its own short lived spin off series too.
Personally I always liked the fact that these series took place in a shared universe for many reasons. To start with it obviously allowed the writers to expand the fictional universe to a much greater extent. Also it was interesting watching what were similar ideas but from both a female and a male perspective as was the case with Xena and Hercules and Buffy and Angel.
Hercules and Xena were both fantasy series set in ancient Greece, whilst Buffy and Angel were both Vampire series set in modern day. However the fact that Angel and Hercules featured male heroes meant they were more straight forward action series, whilst Buffy and Xena the two female led series had more of a soap opera element to them.
Also the fact that many characters would cross over between both series was interesting as we got to see how they interacted with the heroes of different series.
As already mentioned on Buffy and Xena, Spike and Ares were more complicated, romantic, conflicted, sexy, even sympathetic characters, whilst on the show starring a male hero they were comical, jealous, petty, and humorous characters.
Faith meanwhile is almost the reverse. On the show starring a female hero, Buffy, she is her archenemy, whilst on Angel he takes on the role of a mentor to the troubled Slayer.
Then of course there is the debate about which characters worked better on each show. Worf for instance many would agree was far more effective on Deep Space 9 than on Next Generation, whilst similarly there are many fans who preferred Captain Jack as the lovable, cheery sidekick to the Doctor on Doctor Who as opposed to the depressed, angst ridden anti hero on Torchwood.
And finally many fans are split on whether Spike was better on as the hilarious, sarcastic, rival to Angel, or the more complex, but wimpy, weepy love interest of Buffy.
8/ Ancient Villain Who Returns
Many 90s and 00s shows feature an overarching villain who was once one of the most powerful and dangerous creatures in all of existence, but who was banished eons ago in a great war. Their followers however remain, and seek to try and find a way to bring them back. The heroes are always terrified of what will happen if they come back, and have to do everything they can to try and stop that from happening.
Examples of this trope in action include the Old Ones from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dahak from Xena and Hercules, The Shadows from Babylon 5, and the Daleks from the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who.
The Old Ones were once the masters of the earth. They were god like Demons whose power was beyond mortal comprehension. However they were banished from the earth through a portal to hell. Many lesser Demons throughout the course of Buffy seek to open the Hellmouth and bring them back. Buffy knows that if the monsters were to return there is nothing she could do to stop them and thus has to prevent the Hellmouth from being opened above all else.
The Daleks in the Davies era of Doctor Who had similarly been the most powerful and evil creatures in the entire universe. They however were seemingly destroyed centuries ago in the Time War, but a few of them have survived and are trying to rebuild their race.
The Doctor throughout the Davies era is desperate to prevent that from happening to the extent that he even considers killing everyone on earth in the season 1 finale, The Parting of the Ways to stop the Daleks from regaining their power.
The Shadows meanwhile were similarly once one of the most powerful creatures in the entire universe who were driven away in a war, but much like the Old Ones, traces of them as well as followers survived throughout the Galaxy and they now plan to return which serves as the main threat throughout the first 4 seasons of Babylon 5.
Finally Dahak in Xena and Hercules was also said to have once been the most evil and powerful creature of all, even the Gods were terrified of him. However he too was banished from our reality before the rise of man. Just like with the Old Ones and the Shadows and the Daleks, traces of his evil remain, and years later his followers attempt to bring him back from the nothingness the Gods banished him too.
All of these characters were inspired to some extent by the old ones from the Cthulu mythos created by H.P Lovecraft, who were similarly ancient Demons who were sealed beneath the earth, yearning for a chance to return.
Indeed even the designs for monsters like the Shadows and Dahak were somewhat Lovecraftian.
9/ Best Friend Who Is In Love With The Hero
This character is also popular in 90s/00s shows. They are the heroes rock. They would do anything for them, are there when the hero needs them the most, often help the hero through their darkest days, will take any secrets the hero has to the grave. Yet sadly the hero barely notices them. Certainly not in the way they would like.
Eventually this character will tell the hero how they feel and even perhaps try and make the hero feel guilty for not seeing them the same way they do. Things will be awkward for a while after until eventually the friend gets over their crush and gets a new love interest, whilst still remaining the heroes greatest friend.
Examples of this character include Martha Jones from the New Doctor Who, Chloe Sullivan from Smallville, Xander from Buffy and Joxer from Xena.
Romance never had as big a role in Sci Fi and fantasy series before the 90s. The likes of Doctor Who, the Avengers, and Lost in Space feature no romance at all (other than an implied attraction between Peel and Steed). In Star Trek meanwhile Kirk obviously had many love interests, but they were all one offs, whilst Nurse Chapel’s infatuation with Spock didn’t play as large a role which leads me to my next point.
10/ More Soap Opera Elements
Perhaps as a result of the genre series of these decades becoming more female dominated, many of them tended to make a move towards being more of a soap opera.
Charmed, Buffy, the new Doctor Who, Torchwood all at times focused more on the characters relationships and personal drama rather than any supernatural threat.
One episode of Buffy called The Body, featured just one Vampire that appears at the end. The rest of the episode revolves around the death of Buffy’s mother from natural causes.
The decision to take the fantasy genre into more of a soap opera territory was somewhat controversial. On the one hand it did at certain points allow the writers to flesh their characters out more, but at the same time its true that it was at other points at the expense of the Fantasy and Science Fiction.
11/ Annoying Child of One Of The Main Heroes
Another character type that emerged in 90s, 00s shows. This character often starts out as a baby who is born through some special, mystical means. The baby stays a baby for a short while until the writers realise that its difficult to have an action hero constantly look after a baby.
So the baby gets aged and later resurfaces as an adolescent. The adolescent will be evil and want to make their parent pay, and do heinous things, worse things than even the heroes worst enemies.
However they will be forgiven at the last minute and redeemed.
Naturally these characters were never too popular among the fans. Eve from Xena and Connor from Angel follow this pattern completely whilst Chris and Wyat Halliwell together also fit this pattern loosely.
12/ Mixture Of Camp And Darker Material
Whilst its true that previous decades series could sometimes get a bit silly (not always on purpose) I don’t think there was ever quite as extreme a variation between darker and lighter material as there was in series such as Xena and Buffy.
Some episodes of Xena and Hercules can only be described as outright parodies such as the musical and modern day episodes.
Yet at the same time other episodes actually pushed the boundaries as to what was acceptable on television. For instance in the first episode to feature Callisto, Xena’s archenemy, the villain makes her entrance by casually slicing the throat of a 3 year old boy open.
Buffy similarly could waver between extreme camp and some of the darkest television ever made.
See for yourself.
I must admit that I didn’t think merging such extreme humour with such dark content always worked as sometimes it could feel quite jarring and off putting.
However that said it was true that it did give the 90s and 00s shows a somewhat wider range of stories they could draw on.
13/ Self Pitying Archenemy
Many 90s/00s series will often have a nemesis who tries to paint themselves as a poor, misunderstood victim. To be fair they will have been genuinely wronged. Maybe even by the hero. At first the audience will have sympathy for them, but eventually it will reach a point where it doesn’t matter what a shitty life they’ve had their crimes will be so great. Often it will be a supporting character who will point this out to them in a defining moment and the villain will not be able to take it.
Eventually however this villain may be able to find redemption, but if not then they will at least finally take responsibility for the monster they became.
Callisto from Xena, Holtz from Angel, Faith from Buffy, the Master from the new Doctor Who, Grey from Torchwood, and Ethan from Primeval all follow this pattern.
Callisto was originally just a nice young girl from a small village called Cira. Unfortunately however when Xena raided the village she accidentally caused a fire which burned it to the ground. All of Callisto’s family including her little sister were burned to death and Callisto was driven completely insane.
Though obsessed with getting revenge on Xena above all else, Callisto doesn’t care who she has to hurt in order to make the Warrior Princess pay. In her first appearances she begins slaughtering hordes of men, women and children simply so she can frame Xena for their deaths. In her second appearance she murders scores of innocent people (including Gabrielle’s husband) because she knows Xena will feel guilt for their deaths as she ultimately made Callisto.
Eventually however Callisto pushes Xena too far when she plays a key role in the murder of her only son, Solon. To be fair Xena had been shown to be willing to murder Callisto before, but it was only from a practical point of view of she couldn’t let Callisto go around killing people, and she knew no prison would ever hold the lunatic (think on Batman!)
After Solon’s death Xena genuinely despises Callisto and even refuses to kill her at one point because she knows that will ease her pain. Incredibly enough however the two are able to forgive one another after Xena (who has become an Angel at this point) finally takes responsibility for making Callisto and uses her Angelic power to purge her soul of darkness.
Holtz in Angel meanwhile was once a noble Vampire hunter and rival of Angelus, the most twisted and evil Vampire of them all. Angelus later rapes and murders Holtz’ wife, snaps the neck of his infant son, and turns his child daughter into a Vampire, forcing Holtz to kill her himself by throwing her into the sunlight.
Holtz naturally wants to make the Vampire pay, even when Angelus is cursed with a soul and becomes a hero in his own right, Angel.
Angel much like Xena obviously feels guilt over the role he played in Holtz turn to the darkside. Holtz much like Callisto doesn’t care who he hurts in order make Angel pay. At one point he is even prepared to snap Angel’s infant son Connor’s neck!
Just like Callisto, Holtz finally pushes his archenemy too far when he goes after his son. Interestingly in both cases, Holtz and Callisto are only able to hurt Xena and Angel’s children thanks to one of their closest friends, Gabrielle and Wesley, betraying them. Xena and Angel subsequently try and kill Wesley and Gabrielle as a result in what are two of the most shocking moments in either series.
Holtz never achieves any kind of redemption however (though his sins were never as great as Callisto’s to be fair.) Still at the very least he does show some self awareness, telling his closest companion Justine that he knows he is headed for hell. Also rather interestingly he calls Angel, Angel rather than Angelus in his final letter to Connor.
Before he had always seen his vendetta against the Vampire as righteous and made no distinction between Angelus and his souled counterpart, but his last moments show that at the very least he now knows that Angel is not evil, and that he is motivated solely by vengeance.
Faith in Buffy also follows this template to some extent. Throughout her entire life Faith was completely rejected by everyone close to her, except for her Watcher who was brutally tortured to death by the Vampire Kakistos right in front of her. All of this makes her a somewhat unstable, unpredictable character, but its only when she accidentally kills an innocent man who she mistakes for a Vampire that she is finally pushed over the edge.
Its quite a nice twist on the idea as unlike Callisto and Holtz who had horrible things happen to them, in Faith’s case she did something heinous by mistake and simply couldn’t own up to it.
Much like Callisto and Holtz she goes around blaming everyone else for her turn to the dark side. At first Buffy actually feels bad for Faith, even at one point saying that it could have been her in Faith’s shoes. Of course just like Holtz and Callisto, Faith eventually pushes Buffy too far when she poisons Angel and Buffy tries to murder her. Prior to this Faith is also brilliantly called out by Willow, in much the same way as Callisto often was by Gabrielle.
Faith however later manages to achieve redemption and though she and Buffy never become great friends, they do end the series fighting against the First evil side by side.
Finally the Master during the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who fits this template too. In the Davies’ era it was revealed that the Master had been driven insane by a constant drumming in his head that he gained when he first stared into the untempered schism as a boy.
Just like Callisto, one incident as a child twisted the Master’s personality and turned him into a monster. As a result of this the Doctor during the Davies’ era is more sympathetic towards the Master than he had ever been before.
In the classic era the Master was not insane. He was a megalomaniac who sought power, and though he and the Doctor had been friends, the Doctor had no quams about killing him. Indeed in The Mind of Evil he goes out of his way to try and murder him, whilst in The Deadly Assassin the Doctor says the Master is the one person in the universe he would wish death on.
The dynamic was completely changed however in Tennant’s time as the Doctor now wanted to help the Master and believed that deep down he wasn’t really evil. The Master also later redeems himself (though it doesn’t stick) in his last appearance in the Davies era where he seemingly sacrifices himself to save the Doctor by blasting Rassilon, the evil timelord who implanted the drumming in his head and thus made him a monster.
Of course all 4 of these villains in some respects were inspired by the Joker. Not only are many of them portrayed as cackling, hysterical psychopath’s, but they all (with the exception of Holtz and Angel) have a gay subtext with the hero too. Also finally the idea of the villain not only being driven completely insane by one bad day, but being created by the hero too is reminiscent of Batman and the Joker.
The Joker was originally a small time crook named the Red Hood who tried to rob a chemical plant, but when Batman intervened he inadvertently knocked the Hood into a vat of chemicals which horribly disfigured him and drove him insane.
The Joker is often quick to point out how Batman made him and therefore is really responsible for the evil he causes.
It makes sense that villains in the 90s and 00s would draw on the Joker for inspiration. Though he had always been a cultural icon, the Joker’s popularity really skyrocketed during this decade thanks to Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill’s stellar performances as the villain. Obviously this would continue into the 00s when Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance really cemented the clown prince of crime’s place as the most iconic comic book villain of all time.
14/ Killing Major Characters
This was less common in genre series pre the 90s (again apart from Blake’s 7 which was a trailblazer in this respect.)
There were a few instances of characters being killed off in genre series from the 60s, 70s and 80s such as Adric in Classic Who.
However generally speaking in series such as the original Star Trek, Lost in Space and Doctor Who main characters were never killed off.
In a post Blake’s 7 world however the reverse was certainly not true. It wasn’t even just that 90s series killed main characters. They would often do it suddenly, without warning. Fan favourites wouldn’t die in some big glorious battle. It would just be a sudden horrible accident, like Warren shooting Tara as he ran off, or Wash getting impaled, etc.
Of course this has only increased to the point where now shows like The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones regularly kill main characters off. Still its important to mention that it was during the 90’s that this darker and bolder style really came into fashion.
15/ Downer Endings
Yet another thing that Blake’s 7 pioneered, but really became the norm in the 90s. To be fair not all 90s and 00s shows had downer endings. Some such as Charmed and Buffy had reasonably happy endings.
Still many of the series from this time often featured quite bleak endings. Xena ends with the main character being decapitated, whilst Angel similarly ends with all of the main characters facing certain death. Even in Buffy though she and Willow succeed in making the world a better place, Anya and Spike two of the shows main characters both die. Similarly in Babylon 5 the lead character Sheridan dies before his time too.
In previous decades many genre series such as Star Trek and Lost in Space actually didn’t even have endings. They were often sadly cancelled before their time. Still even then it would have been unlikely for a series like Lost in Space or say Doctor Who to end with any of the main characters dying horribly.
16/ Greater Focus On The Paranormal
Throughout the 60s, 70s and 90s sci fi tended to dominate fantasy on tv. Writers and general audiences were interested in the idea of exploring other planets and meeting other races and where technology would take us in the future.
When you look at things like the original Star Trek and Dan Dare, there’s a certain optimism to them that’s charming even after all this time.
Back in the 60s people did genuinely believe that we would be living on the moon in 30 years time and flying to work in a space ship.
Hence why many sci fi series were set only a few decades into the future, such as Lost in Space, Space 1999, Dan Dare, and even various Doctor Who stories.
Sadly however by the 90s as this future failed to materialize, and audiences had had their fill of stories about space exploration, then they turned to stories about old myths and legends about creatures like Vampires, Werewolves and Demons, reinterpreted for modern audiences.
The 4 longest running, most successful, influential and culturally significant series of the 90s/00s period, Buffy, Xena, The X-Files and Charmed all featured supernatural creatures such as Vampires, Demons, Gods, and Witches. Though the Vampires and other supernatural creatures in The X-Files were given a more rational explanation in The X-Files.
Of course there was a still a place for Sci Fi series like the Star Trek sequels and Babylon 5 and the Doctor Who revival.
Still even then many of the creatures in these series still had a somewhat supernatural aspect to them such as the Vorlons and the Shadows, who though still aliens were for all intents and purposes Demons and Angels in space, or the mysterious soul hunters in Babylon 5.
In the modern Doctor Who meanwhile creatures like the Daleks, and even the Doctors own people the Time Lords have also demonstrated supernatural like powers such as being able to revive the dead.
Demons have also been featured in both the modern Doctor Who and Torchwood, whilst the grim reaper himself also was introduced to the Doctor Who universe via Torchwood.
17/ Historical Series That Make No Attempt To Be Historically Accurate
A style that was really pioneered with Hercules and Xena. These series were set in the past, but would often not only feature many glaring historical inaccuracies, but would figures and events from various different periods, separated by thousands of years living together. For instance the Xena/Hercules franchise depicts Julius Cesaer, Vlad the Impaler, and Ulyssess all living at the same time.
Many subsequent fantasy series would be made in this mould over the course of the next two decades. The most successful was unquestionably the BBC’s version of Merlin, but others included The Legend of the Seeker, The Adventures of Sinbad, and the BBC’s version of Robin Hood.
Whilst many people may have knocked the historical inaccuracies of these series, I also rather liked them, as it added to the surrealist nature of all series.
18/ Series Set In Modern Day
Prior to the 90s not that many genre series had been set in modern day. Star Trek, Lost in Space, Blake’s 7 and Space 1999 were all set in the future. Whilst episodes of Doctor Who were set in modern day, and other series like Quatermass also favoured a contemporary setting, as the focus was on sci fi stories, meeting alien races, and the future, then naturally shows set in modern, everyday surroundings were not the norm.
This of course changed in the 90s as the focus shifted to the paranormal. In some ways this made the 90s shows more effective. On the one hand they weren’t as able to create new and fascinating worlds like Star Trek could, but the fact that the monsters exist in everyday surroundings and in some case, such as with the Mayor in Buffy, are able to use our own system against us.
As Jon Pertwee who played the Third Doctor once said “There’s really nothing more alarming than coming home and finding a Yeti, sitting on your loo in Tooting Bec.”
The 90s/00s era took advantage of this to a greater extent than ever before with series like Buffy, Angel, The X-Files, Charmed, Torchwood, Being Human, and Primeval.
19/ A Future Where Technology Has Marched On, Yet Nothing Else Has
The final most common main setting for 90s genre series was a future where technology had improved, man had made contact with aliens, yet all of the same problems of today still persisted. They had simply moved to a different location.
Examples of this include Babylon 5 which is basically the UN in space, Firefly and Star Trek Deep Space 9.
Whilst its true that many previous sci fi series would use villains like the Daleks and the Klingons as metaphors for problems of the present like the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Overall the future in most sci fi television series and films tended to broadly be divided into two categories.
Either things had worked out for us like in Star Trek and Dan Dare, or humanity had gone evil like in Blake’s 7, or we had been conquered by evil monsters like the Daleks.
It was quite rare to see a mixture of both where the future was better and worse in some ways. Once again this became the norm for this generation of sci fi and fantasy series.
20/ Influence Of Chinese Horror and Fantasy Films
Throughout the 80s and the 90s there was a massive horror boom in Hong Kong cinema. These included the likes of the Mr Vampire film series, Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind, A Chinese Ghost Story and The Bride with White Hair and Heroic Trio film series.
Now many of the tropes of 90s genre series can actually be found in the 80s Hong Kong horror boom.
The makers of series such as Xena, have openly cited Chinese horror and action films as being major influences. Rob Tapert, the creator of Xena even listed the Bride with White Hair as the single biggest influence on Xena, this would be reflected in the two parter The Debt, which featured a Chinese woman as Xena’s mentor, and in the final episode of the series which was very heavily inspired by the classic A Chinese Ghost Story.
The Chinese horror movies blended horror and action like never before. We had kung fu Vampires, Demons, Witches and Zombies, all of which would go on to feature in shows like Buffy, Angel and Charmed. In the first episode of season 7 of Buffy, Dawn even jokes that the latest Vampire doesn’t seem to know all of the crazy Kung Fu moves they all seem to pick up.
Furthermore the Vampires in Chinese movies are always depicted as being monstrous and ugly. They were as single minded as animals and nothing but rip their victims to pieces. They didn’t even speak! Again you can see how this was reflected in later 90s and 00s series like Buffy with the Turok Han.
The Chinese Horror movies also regularly blended overt horror alongside slapstick comedy too, which Buffy, Xena and Charmed would all become known for.
The Chinese horror movies also featured strong, complex heroic and villainous roles for women too. In films like The Dead and the Deadly you’d see female characters beat the absolute shit out of Demons, Vampires and monsters long before their counterparts would in western television series.
Michelle Yeoh’s character in the Heroic trio and the leading character from The Bride with White Hair, played by actress Brigitte Linn are the forebears to the likes of Faith, Callisto and Xena. They are all evil, psychotic, villains who eventually change their ways and become heroes.
Yeoh’s character from the Heroic Trio, much like Xena later dies a violent death in order to achieve a proper redemption.
As you can see the 90s/00s pioneered a new style that managed to spread out across both fantasy and sci fi, and arguably travel better overseas than any other before.
However it would eventually be replaced by a darker, grittier style that was pioneered in 10s genre series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
In some respects however modern genre series just pick off where the 90s/00s style left off. Like 90’s/00’s genre series they still feature ongoing story arcs, the big bad formula, and more soap opera elements, and they obviously kill characters off more often.
However what has been dumped from the 90s/00s style is the overt camp and humour. Most modern genre series tend to take themselves very seriously and indeed the likes of Xena and Hercules are sadly often looked down on by contemporary critics as being too camp.
Still the 90s/00s style does still persist in some genre series such as The Flash, Once Upon A Time and of course the revived Doctor Who.
Whilst mass audiences generally may prefer sci fi and fantasy (and indeed most forms of entertainment) to be dark and gritty nowadays, its nice to see 90s classics like Buffy and Babylon 5 not only still maintain a devoted following, but also their influence and style still continuing to influence series to this day.
Thanks for reading.