“The Series Killer” - Can we all please stop calling Fred Freiberger that now?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/10/09
Fred Freiberger was a television producer with a long and successful career, which is impressive if you’re the kind of person who’s impressed by that sort of thing. I’m not, personally, but it’s more than I’ve done, so perhaps I should be. He’s also a writer, which is a bit more impressive, but given the stuff that he wrote, not vastly much more so. He was one of the anonymous faces behind the camera, the names at the credit crawl at the end of the episode that no one outside of the industry, and obsessive fans (like me) ever tended to notice.
If you’ve heard of Fred at all, it’s likely because you’re a Trekie, or a fan of Space: 1999, and if that’s the case, then probably you’ve called him “The Series Killer” three or four hundred times, and blamed the demise of your favorite culty show on him. I’m here to tell you that’s not really the case, and although I don’t know you, you could very well be a fool for saying that sort of stuff. Again, I don’t know you, so I can’t say for certain, but, y’know, calling him names like that does strongly suggest that you’re ignorant at best.
Granted, the evidence does seem pretty damning at first glance:
He came on board Star Trek, and a season later it was cancelled. He came on board Space: 1999, and a season later it was cancelled. He came on board The Six Million Dollar Man, and a season later it was cancelled. He came on board Josie and the Pussycats, and a season later it was cancelled. He wasn’t actually connected to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but that got cancelled at the end of its second season, so that must have been his fault, right? Certainly Fanon squarely places the blame on his shoulders, but in fact that was actually Bruce Lansbury. Kind of.
Now, I’m not going to stand here and lie and tell you that Fred was the brightest, most brilliant guy in the room, but I am going to say that he doesn’t deserve your enmity. In fact, you folks should get down on your lousy, stinking knees and kiss Fred’s comedicaly oversized feet and beg his ghost’s forgiveness, because what you little doofuses neglect to consider is that Fred didn’t *kill* your shows, he got them all stays of execution.
Take Trek, for instance: Horribly expensive, horribly unpopular at the time, fraught with production delays, and helmed by producer Gene Roddenberry, a man with psychological problems out the ying-yang, and whom no one at NBC or Desilu really wanted to deal with, THE SHOW HAD ALREADY BEEN CANCELLED. Twice! The first time, Gene managed to start a now-legendary write-in campaign that confused the suits at the network just enough to give the already-troubled show a second shot. By the end of the season, the show was dead, dead, dead. It was in the crapper, ratings-wise, and Roddenberry had become even more difficult to deal with. The network and/or studio flat-out refused to deal with him anymore. Fred Freiberger agreed to step in, and since he was already an accomplished and successful producer - a guy who was known to make the trains run on time and on budget - they agreed to let him come on board. If Gene had stayed on board, there would have been no third season. Now, I’ll be the first person to admit that season 3 was the weakest of the bunch, but let’s face it: Season 2 was far inferior to season 1 as well. And there were some really good episodes in the third and final year, even if on the whole the average was pretty low. Fred didn’t kill your show, ya’ frackin’ dweebs, it was already dead! He simply managed to get them to avoid putting a bullet in the series’ brain for another year. You got 23 more episodes out of it to feed your perpetual OCD, and this is how you thank him?
Take Space: 1999: Again, horribly expensive, horribly unpopular at the time, fraught with production delays, and helmed by producer Gerry Anderson, who’d had a long and illustrious career making puppet shows. (Really good puppet shows, it must be admitted.) The show’s survival was contingent upon it being a hit in the UK and the USA, but it just wasn’t. In the US in particular, it was quite the bomb, and it was dead. Cancelled. Anderson managed to fast-talk his American backers in to giving the show another shot if it was retooled somewhat, and if an American producer were brought in to run roughshod over the British crew. Enter Fred, a man with a pretty successful track record on TV, and a history with one of the most high-profile SF productions ever. He was a heavy hitter, and he was willing to take a chance on yet another doomed show. Now, I’m not going to say that he didn’t make a lot of serious production blunders while he helmed it, but the fact remains that the show wouldn’t have made a 2nd season if it hadn’t been for him. The fact remains that without Fred Freiberger, you’d only have 24 episodes of Space: 1999, and with him you’ve got 48.
The Six Million Dollar Man gives us a similar, but not quite as fatal, situation: The show was in trouble. It has passed it’s prime, and ratings were boiling away, but it hadn’t been cancelled. Regardless of whether Fred Freiberger were there or not, you would have had a fifth season, but it’s extremely unlikely there would have been a sixth, even if Stephen Speilberg and Orson Welles were jointly producing the show. That’s not carved in stone, but there was a perception among the suits that the show had more-or-less run its course. The quality of scripts were dropping, the necessity of multi-part crossovers with the spinoff were growing tedious, the show was getting increasingly mired in its own continuity, and most of the people working on the series were getting tired of it and were looking to move on. Added to which, there was a perception at the time that five season is ideal for syndication, anything more is overkill. (That is, after all, why the Enterprise was on a Five Year mission, and not a four or six-year one). So Fred didn’t really save the show here, but, again, the man was perceived as having a solid background, and he *was* willing to take a chance on an SF show. SF wasn’t highly regarded in those days, and most serious folks felt themselves ‘above it.’ Hell, it’s not terribly highly regarded these days. I mean, just go ask any random 15 year old girl - a pretty one - if she likes Science Fiction, and see what reaction you get. Go ahead and ask. I’ll wait here. Back again? What did she say? No, I mean *Before* she called the mall cops on you? Yep: exactly what I meant: The teenage girls don’t dig it, and network executives are, essentially, 15 year old girls trapped in fifty-year-old men’s bodies. Unpleasant, but there it is.
Or shall we take Josie and the Pussycats? Well, again, that show was cancelled. Done. 16 episodes, and out, which was standard for Saturday Morning kidvid in those days. Fred cooked up the idea of a spinoff, and “Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space” was born. I’ll be the first person to admit it’s crap, not even up to the very lax standards of the original, but the fact remains that thanks to Fred you’ve got 32 episodes to indulge your frankly unsettling fantasies about Melody, and without him you’d have only had 16.
I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: You need to stop calling Fred “The Series Killer.” In fact, he’s more like a guardian angel who swoops in and saves doomed series, managing to give them a bit more life. Not particularly great life, it’s true, but a bit of life just the same. More than you would have had without him. You should be grateful. I know I am.
I mean, we’ve all wondered at one time or another, “Gee, what if my favorite show had lasted one year more,” you know? What if there was a 5th season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or a sixth season of The Wild Wild West, or a sixth year of I Dream of Jeanie. Well, Fred answered that question gave us something to base the answer to that question on: That bonus year would have been kind of semi-crappy and bittersweet, but better than nothing. And in the end, better than nothing really is better than nothing.