15 forgotten science-fiction TV shows of the 1980s

These ancient aliens, telekinetic teens, dystopian soldiers and time travelers may not have lasted long, but they set the mold.

Image: The Everett Collection

The Eighties were a golden era for science-fiction. Cineplexes were chockablock with blockbusters like The Empire Strikes Back, Back to the FutureAliens and The Terminator. On the small screen, you could get your space fix with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sitcoms had aliens and androids as their stars in ALF and Small Wonder. Even the cars could talk on Knight Rider.

Of course, not everything was a hit. For every smash, there were scores of knock-offs. Every network attempted to launch its own time travel adventure, it seems. While these shows rarely made it to a second season, they remain cult favorites of those who watched them. They might have thrived today, in our geek culture of a thousand options.

Let's see if any of these set off your memory sensors.

1. Hard Time on Planet Earth (1989)


Martin Kove, the sinister Cobra Kai sensei in the Karate Kid movies, headlined as the hero in this short-lived cult series from Disney. He played an alien military commander who is exiled to earth after an interplanetary war. Alongside him was a floating robot with a dry wit, Control. Somewhat like Quantum Leap, the pair traveled America (including a stop at Disneyland, naturally) helping those in need.

Image: Disney-ABC Domestic Television

2. Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987–88)


Essentially, this syndicated show knocked off the flash-forward dystopian scenes in The Terminator. A hundred years from now, intelligent machines have subjugated the human race. Captain Jonathan Power and his soldiers fight back against the robots, with lasers. It was mostly an attempt to sell toys, as Mattel launched a line of Captain Power action figures. But the children's show found its true nemesis when parents complained about its excessive violence.

Image: Landmark Entertainment Group

3. The Highwayman (1987–88)


Sam J. Jones already had a table reserved for him at Comic Cons thanks to his role as Flash Gordon in the hit 1980 film. Seven years later, he was more of a Mad Max type in The Highwayman, a ten-episode wonder set in the near future. The Highwayman cruised the roads in a massive, black truck, stuffed with computers, some of which were recycled from Knight Rider.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. Werewolf (1987)


Chuck Connors, the tough-as-nails star of MeTV favorite The Rifleman, worked one of his final regular roles in this early Fox Network horror series. By 1987, Connors was no stranger to darker roles, as he turned to playing fantastic villains and horror baddies in the 1970s. The chilling synthesizer score and smoky atmosphere made it a solid piece of '80s genre television for those still giddy from the "Thriller" video.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. Starman (1986)


John Carpenter's wonderful 1984 science-fiction classic Starman launched Jeff Bridges into… well, superstardom, earning him an Oscar nomination. Two years later, ABC adapted the premise into a series, ripping out the romance and replacing Bridges with Robert Hays, best known as Ted Striker from the farcical Airplane! Needless to say, the tinkering ruined the formula.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. Misfits of Science (1985–86)


A favorite of ours from the era, Misfits of Science centered around a team of superhumans, not unlike the X-Men or Runaways. Courtney Cox was the telekinetic teen. Mark Thomas Miller, a hunky former Van Halen bodyguard, played a rock musician with electrical powers. The towering 7' 2" Kevin Peter Hall, who also portrayed "Harry" in Harry and the Hendersons, could shrink himself. A brilliant, bold opening title sequence introduced this irreverent, forward-looking show for the MTV generation. It lasted 16 episodes, alas.

Image: The Everett Collection

7. Shadow Chasers (1985–86)


A stuffy British anthropologist partners with a cocky tabloid reporter as agents of the Paranormal Research Unit, headed by Dr. Julianna Moorhouse. Together, they looked Ron Reagan starring as Marty McFly in an episode of Murder, She Wrote. ABC threw the series to the lions, putting it up against The Cosby Show and Magnum, P.I. The network had Ron Howard proclaiming, "Shadow Chasers can make you feel like a kid again!" in promos. They didn't work.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. Otherworld (1985)


A sort of cross of Lost in Space and Stargate, this action series built an elaborate world. A family touring the Great Pyramid of Giza is thrown into a parallel universe, where humans are divided into strictly defined "zones" and androids mine for a radioactive material called "sarlax." Jonathan Banks ("Mike" of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) was the big baddie, Commander Kroll, who hunts the family for revenge. From the Mad Max motorcyles to the young daughter playing drums, the synth-heavy opening is perhaps the 1980s-est sequence you will ever see.

Image: Universal Television

9. V: The Series (1984–85)


Perhaps it only worked as a miniseries. After V (1983) and V: The Final Battle (1984) drew in millions of viewers, NBC green-lit a full series of the alien invasion epic. Only, it ended up being another miniseries, of sorts, as only 19 episodes were produced. Part of the problem was the cost, a whopping million bucks an episode, making it the most expensive show on television at the time.

Image: Warner Bros. Television

10. Automan (1984)


Clearly, some television executive saw Tron with his kid and thought, "Let's build a show around those awesome glowing costumes." Hey, some action series have been built upon flimsier premises, especially in the 1980s. Here, Desi Arnaz Jr. played a computer programming cop who builds a holographic man, "Automan," who springs forth from the digital world to fight crime at night. A dozen episodes aired before the plug was pulled on poor Automan.

Image: The Everett Collection

11. Benji, Zax & The Alien Prince (1983)


"The Alien Prince" had nothing to do with the guy who made Purple Rain, but you are forgiven for thinking that this show might have something to do with that Prince, because stuff like that happened in the 1980s. No, the Prince here was Yubi, the kid in the picture, who escaped an uprising on his home planet Antars with his droid pal, Zax. (Zax was a bit like a mix of Jinx from Space Camp and Orko from He-Man, for those who know their '80s references.) Of course, Benji was the same ol' lovable dog. Well, not the same dog. The original Benji actor, Higgins, the pooch seen in Petticoat Junction was dead by 1983, after a long, wonderful life of 17 years. His daughter, Benjean starred as Benji in this, the only Benji television series. It lasted 13 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection

12. Manimal (1983)


The crime-solving adventures of a shape-shifting man, Manimal was pure, delicious 1980s cheese. It opened with the roar of a panther, but William Conrad, the legendary actor best known for Cannon and the Gunsmoke radio program, was the real beast behind the microphone, providing uncredited narration for the action hour.

Image: 20th Century Fox Television

13. The Powers of Matthew Star (1982–83)


Peter Barton starred alongside Lou Gossett, Jr., in this 1982 superhero series. Production began in 1981, though was put on hold after Barton fell onto a pyrotechnics flare, suffering severe third degree burns. Production was shut down, as the actor healed for several months in a hospital. Barton had edged Tom Cruise for the lead role, an alien prince hiding out in high school on earth. Star Trek fans take note: Leonard Nimoy directed an episode, and Walter Koenig wrote one.

Image: The Everett Collection

14. Voyagers! (1982–83)


Child star Meeno Peluce was the bookish history expert aiding the time-traveling Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum) in this lighthearted adventure. Though Bogg was the time traveler, he was not the best student and far more interested in blondes. Thus, he needed to rely on the precocious kid to navigate through history.

Image: The Everett Collection

15. The Phoenix (1982)


Ancient aliens are a trendy subject for modern sci-fi, from shows on the History Channel to those recent Ridley Scott Alien prequels. But the concept has been done before, briefly. Judson Scott, who at the time was best known to sci-fi fans as the main henchman of Khan in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, starred Bennu of the Golden Light, an ancient alien awoken from a sarcophagus in Peru. He seeks his companion and lover, Mira. This show, too, traces its ideas back to Chariots of the Gods?, the 1968 book by Erich von Däniken that posited the whole ancient aliens idea.

Image: The Everett Collection

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TheFanFromUNCLE 23 months ago
There was a pilot called The Infiltrator for CBS. It started Scott Bakula as a scientist who in the vein of David Banner suffered an accident and transform into a cyborg when threatened.
KevinLassiter 29 months ago
Great list. Does anyone remember either a tv show episode (or movie) from 1981, 1982 that had these people in a van riding down a dirt road or a field of some sort. They were apparently trying to get away from this laser / maser weapon that was on the back of a vehicle being aimed at them. I remember the laser was like a large ray gun with big red square where the energy was radiating from. When it was fired at the bus, it immediately turned the people inside into this burnt white ashy powder. Always wondered what that show was. As an 8 year old with a vivid imagination, it was pretty intense. Once in a while my mom would be slightly late to pick me up from school. I was so relieved when she arrived and knew she didn't wind up like the people on the bus. lol! ??
LaneFree 29 months ago
Name of TV show/mini series/ failed pilot- late 70s early 80s aired on wpix or wor in the northeast. The premise was (like omega man) a vaccination makes some humans super strong regressed humans (like Neanderthals) that live above ground and the none affected humans live underground in modern sophisticated more advance society . It appeared to be a rip off of Roddenberry’s Genesis (I and II) with a viral plague aspect (omega man thrown in. I can not find the name or any clue to whether it was a pilot/ min series all I know it did not take off.
stevebeme LaneFree 18 months ago
The name of the movie is Island City. I have a copy I recorded on VHS tape. It was a made for t.v. movie that came out in 1994.
MarylouSchmidt 32 months ago
i loved the show "The Phoenix". Judson Scott was awesome. it was ahead of it's time.
Balboa1234 32 months ago
I can’t seem to find this movie title, movie was made probably somewhere from 1976-1987 a sci fi movie. I can describe the end, woman and guy run onto plane escaping I think an island of lizard monsters, but one lizard was behind the curtain on the plane. The ending scene looked red with lizard jumping out. Anyone have any ideas ?
J3BeeMan 34 months ago
I remember a show where aliens sent a message/music/tones through space that, when listened to, changed human skin into a lizard like skin that protected humans from increasing radiation from the sun. That is the best I describe what I remember. Anyone else remember this?
ShannonV J3BeeMan 33 months ago
I'm pretty sure this was an episode of The Outer Limits (the 80's version) or one of the other anthology shows on. I remember it pretty well. All the teenagers and children could hear the sound and were physically changed but the adults could not & did not change. Good episode.
Leob7 38 months ago
Does anyone remember a show featuring two male leads, one of which had a gadget-filled-silver prosthetic hand?
Alun Leob7 34 months ago
Yes. It was called ‘A man called Sloane’
Leob7 38 months ago
Does anyone remembera show (maybe from the 70s) with a bald black character who had a gadget-filled prosthetic hand? He was the co-star/sidekick.
VBartilucci Leob7 34 months ago
A Man called Sloane, starring Robert Conrad and Ji-Tu Cumbuka as "Torque", the character you remember.

DAMN I loved that show.
DaleCasanovaLeggett 46 months ago
some were good shows
Did you watch "The Visitor"? A man stole an alien ship from his abductors to return to earth to change the future and save humanity. They taught him things that gave him god-like healing, among other powers. I think the star of the show might have been on Twin Peaks.
Do you remember Starcrossed? James Spader and Belinda Bauer were the leads. Bauer also was the love interest of Fred Ward (may he rest in peace) in Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982) I have a commercial VHS copy of Timerider, and a copy I made myself of Starcrossed.
stevebeme stevebeme 18 months ago
Not Twin Peaks,... Northern Exposure. John Corbett. He played Adam Mac Arthur in The Visitor.
Don 60 months ago
Salvage 1 with Andy Griffith
safeinsanity 61 months ago
Cool article! Forgot about most of those. 👍
eddiec 65 months ago
There were a lot of those shows on this list that I really enjoyed when they first came out, including 'Voyagers'. Tragic what happened to its lead actor, Jon-Erik Hexum. I also enjoyed 'V', but the series recycled scenes from the miniseries. I thought Benji, Zax & The Alien Prince was a fun show to watch on Saturday mornings, a great change from those cookie-cutter cartoons of that time.
Amalthea 65 months ago
OMG! I loved so many of these (NOT "Manimal"). "Matthew Starr" and "V" hold special places in my heart, and "Otherworld", "Phoenix", "Highwayman" and "Hard Time" my husband & I never missed. This was really a nostalgia shot for me!
stevebeme Amalthea 18 months ago
Did you remember Earth Star Voyager? It was a Disney made for tv movie from 1988.
MichaelPowers stevebeme 4 months ago
ESV was a well done television-movie which also served as a pilot.
MichaelPowers stevebeme 4 months ago
Despite being a Saturday morning television series, Captain Power presented very adult & sophisticated scripts. It was also an early user of CGI for the deadly mechanical Bio-Dreads. Otherworld was also an intriguing series where we saw a family struggling with its encounters on this parallel Earth & its many zones which were different from one another. Somewhat similar to Sliders that came later.
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