12 totally cool science-fiction TV movies of the 1980s

Remember these androids, undercover aliens and Ewoks?

Family drama is the typical stuff of made-for-TV movies. When you flip through old issues of TV Guide, you'll see ads for titles like Something About AmeliaPlease Don't Hit Me, Mom and The Burning Bed. Domestic suspense is cheap to film.

But occasionally, the networks go all out and splurge on genre pictures. In the 1970s, horror movies became all the rage on television. Slasher stories and scares were selling tickets at the box office, thanks to blockbusters like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror, so TV rode the wave.

When the 1980s rolled around, the hit flicks of the days were all science-fiction spectacles. E.T., Back to the Future, The Terminator, Tron, Dune, Return of the Jedi, Flash Gordon… and so on. Once again, the small screen looked to the big screen for inspiration. Sci-fi and fantasy were hot. Thanks to ALF, furry aliens could even headline sitcoms.

The sci-fi TV movies of the '80s range from brainy to silly to dystopian. Today, most of them go overlooked. Here are twelve that stick in our mind and bring back memories of microwave popcorn on the couch.

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1. The Lathe of Heaven

1980

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the few sci-fi masters of the 20th century. Her novels explored notions of identity and nature. The Lathe of Heaven, which blurred the psychological line between dreams and reality, was the author's tribute to Philip K. Dick. But when the film adaptation first aired on PBS (and, by the way, it was the Public Broadcasting Network's first direct-to-TV movie, one with a sizable budget of $250,000) Le Guin could not watch in her hometown of Portland, the setting of the film, due to a massive power outage in the Northwest. It remains one of the more philosophical sci-fi movies ever made for the medium.

Image: PBS

2. The Return of the King

1980

Rankin/Bass, the animation studio behind all your favorite holiday specials, adapted the third and final part of J.R.R. Tolkien's immortal Lord of the Rings trilogy for ABC in the dawn of the decade. Oddly, it was not an official sequel to Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated film The Lord of the Rings, which adapted just the first two books of the trilogy. It was, however, a sort of follow-up to Rankin/Bass' 1977 cartoon The Hobbit. So, two studios told the complete tale, in two completely different animation styles, with no coordination. You are excused if this confused you as a child.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. The Day After

1983

The Cold War drummed up enough nuclear angst for an entire genre of films. The Red Scare filtered down into action films Red Dawn. The Day After took a more realistic approach to the question, "What would happen if a nuclear war broke out between the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R.?" Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams and Steve Guttenberg were enlisted to tell the tale. A whopping 100 million or so Americans tuned in to watch, about half of all television households.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. V

1983

Ever get the sense that some people you meet are reptilian aliens hiding under human skin? That's the premise behind this franchise-starting TV sensation. A flying saucer of seemingly peaceful Visitors arrives the U.N. But one TV cameraman (Marc Singer) discovers they're truly sinister lizards in disguise. It's all a bit like They Live meets Battlestar Galactica. And it spawned a sequel (V: Final Battle) and series (V: The Series), not to mention tie-in novels.

Image: The Everett Collection

5. The Blue Yonder

1985

Art Carney of The Honeymooners played an old man who builds a time machine in this Disney movie. His 11-year-old neighbor travels back to 1927, where he meets his grandfather, the genius who came up with the plans for the time machine. The movie also called Time Flyer, which was probably a lot less confusing and Air Force-y.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor

1985

The Star Wars Holiday Special get knocked as the ultimate low point in the Star Wars franchise (and it is) but at least is remembered, and even somewhat ironically enjoyed. The '80s Ewoks movies, on the other hand? They've been wiped from our collective memory like a Jedi mind trick. The two live-action, made-for-TV productions were set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Warwick Davis (Wicket) was the only major actor from the major Star Wars flicks to work on these. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor was the second of the two, but we're focusing on it because it simply sounds a lot cooler than its predecessor, 1984's Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure.

Image: The Everett Collection

7. Babes in Toyland

1986

The made-for-TV movie gathered an unlikely assortment of talent — in hindsight, at least. Drew Barrymore, hot off cinematic horror hits Firestarter and Cat's Eye, starred in this retelling of the traditional operetta. Oh, and it had Keanu Reeves, in one of his earliest lead roles, not to mention a scary cyclops bird monster that sticks in our memories/nightmares. These budding stars were under the direction of Clive Donner, who had helmed Woody Allen's What's New Pussycat? (1965) and The Nude Bomb (1980), the big-screen Get Smart movie.

Image: The Everett Collection

8. I-Man

1986

Before Scott Bakula became a sci-fi legend thanks to his lead role in Quantum Leap, he was starring in this Disney TV movie, which gave him Wolverine's accelerated healing powers (if not the claws). Around the same time, he was also starring in the sitcom adaptation of Gung Ho.

Image: Disney

9. The Worst Witch

1986

See if this plot sounds familiar: A kid attends a prestigious wizarding school in England, where an evil professor plots to take over the magical world. Yep, years before Harry Potter came around there was Mildred Hubble (Fairuza Balk), who flew around on a broom and took potions class at Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. It also brought to mind The Facts of Life, considering Charlotte Rae played Miss Cackle. The delightful Tim Curry helped this one stick in our minds for years.

Image: The Everett Collection

10. Not Quite Human

1987

Take the dad from Growing Pains and the plot from Small Wonder and you had a success. Alan Thicke plays a scientist who builds an android "teenage son." Naturally, he calls him "Chip." It all goes a bit Short Circuit from there. Not Quite Human II followed in 1989.

Image: The Everett Collection

11. Earth Star Voyager

1988

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987, the one nit that many fans picked regarded Wesley, the whiney teenage son aboard the Enterprise. A year later, Disney boldly went where no Trekker had gone before, and essentially made a Star Trek clone where the entire crew was adolescent. But Earth Star Voyager did have some cool synthesizer music and retro graphics.

Image: Disney

12. The Incredible Hulk Returns

1988

Thor and Daredevil were on screens decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix made them famous. The two characters turned up as foils to the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk Returns and Trial of the Incredible Hulk, which returned Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno to their beloved roles as vagabond and beast. Just look at how Viking-y Thor looked.

Image: The Everett Collection

SEE MORE: 13 Oscar-worthy TV movies of the 1970s

It's hard to go wrong with names like names like Spielberg, Hepburn, Elvis and Carpenter. READ MORE

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RobChapman 1 month ago
The Day After had the benefit of starring several famous movie actors and having a well known Hollywood director. As a result, it had the feel of a theatrical film, more than a tv movie. The dvd version includes scenes not shown on NBC (about 8 minutes worth). I just wish they could have released the full, unedited version that was about a half hour longer. Sadly, that can never happen as the footage has been destroyed.

Now, let's talk about BBC's "Threads" which aired a year later in the UK. Essentially the same concept as The Day After, but set in Sheffield, England. It was grittier, more graphic, and far more disturbing.

And, finally, the third of the "nuclear scare" films of the 80's......Testament. It's set in a typical American suburb north of San Francisco. Produced on a much lower budget. There are no "special effects", no scenes of destruction. It's entire character driven. IMO, it's the best of the three. It's also the most gut wrenching. It had a limited theatrical run, before airing on PBS. Jane Alexander, who played the lead role, actually received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her role.
jvf 6 months ago
What does number 7, Babes in Toyland, have to do with the title of this posting: "12 totally cool science-fiction TV movies of the 1980s"?
DuanneWalton 6 months ago
Mention should be made of Special Bulletin, which came out the same year as The Day After. A Charleston news crew becomes part of the story when they're taken hostage by terrorists with a nuclear bomb. You can find it on You Tube.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Bulletin
Lacey DuanneWalton 5 months ago
There was also "Countdown to Looking Glass" in 1984.
RobChapman Lacey 1 month ago
Special Bulletin wasn't sci-fi though. It was about domestic terrorism.
Barry22 6 months ago
Some of these I never heard of. The Day After was pretty good. The first V mini-series was really good, the second one so-so, but the weekly series was terrible. And don't get me started on the reboot.
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