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Friday Five: 5 Classic TV Show Opening Narrations

This week's guest host is Dave Bradley. Dave (@SFXDaveB) is the editor-in-chief of market-leading sci-fi and fantasy magazine SFX, which is soon to celebrate its 250th issue. The latest issue is available in newsagents right now with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the cover.

It used to be that no TV show felt properly exciting unless it boasted an opening narration, but there's a dearth of them these days. "Previously on..." doesn't cut it: we want a voiceover explaining the cool premise of the series, preferably narrated over a montage that's so heart-thumpingly thrilling the actual story feels like an anticlimax. The best opening narrations explain who the characters are, what's happening to them, and - most significantly - why we're supposed to care about them; and the most iconic have added phrases to the language that are familiar even to non-viewers. There are a few shows still keeping the tradition alive (Person Of Interest, Almost Human) but the golden age is surely behind us, as this week's Friday Five demonstrates...

Adventures of Superman

"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" The classic show featuring George Reeves ran from 1952 to 1958 and in many ways defined the "mild mannered" DC superdude that we know today. Across its 104 episodes the opening narration – which was adapted from that of the earlier 1940s radio show – was spoken by Bill Kennedy and quickly explains who Superman is and what his abilities are, giving every generation since the opportunity to spoof "is it a bird? Is it a plane?!" A little silly, but upbeat and unforgettable – this is how to introduce a TV hero. 

Star Trek

It's been said that Star Trek's "final frontier" introduction is the perfect mission statement. The dullest member of the Enterprise crew can understand why they're trekking, how long they'll be trekking for and how they're supposed to feel about it - to seek out new life, for five years, boldly. Influenced by a 1958 White House booklet on space (which celebrates "the thrust of curiosity that leads men to try to go where no one has gone before"), Captain Kirk's introduction was first broadcast in September 1966 and is now one of the most famous speeches in television history. People who aren't sci-fi fans and who have never seen a single episode still know the all the words, and that's a mark of something extraordinary. With The Next Generation in 1987, Captain Picard's version extends the mission from five years to "ongoing", and de-genders it to "where no one has gone before." 

Knight Rider

Did composer Stu Phillips and producer Glen A Larson realise how mesmerising their introductory music was going to be when they first put that baseline together? It's a theme tune that 32 years later people can recognise from the first bar alone, and that's forever being sampled into rap songs by the likes of Panjabi MC and Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes and So Solid Crew. Its words conjures Michael Knight as an avenging superhero, a "champion" who helps "the powerless." From the name to his avenging mission to his dark steed, the series - which ran from 1982 until 1986 in its original form and was rebooted more than once - gives us a new knight errant, a pale rider, a lone ranger, a "man who does not exist." In fact the intro doesn't even mention KITT, his magical horse, although it dominates the moving images accompanying the narration.

Quantum Leap

Oh boy. Time travelling Sam Beckett and his holo-buddy Al are lumbered with elevator-worthy soft-synth theme music, but a kick-ass introductory text. "And so Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap... home…" It gets you every time, that tiny pause, that plaintive note in the word "home" - it's one of the most moving things about the whole TV show, and it explains in a single line what Sam's personal motivation is.

Buck Rogers in The 25th Century

It's such a dark, stirring introduction for what is ultimately a disco pantomime. Forget the camp villain-of-the-week cheese of each episode; just look at what's happening in the background – nuclear apocalypse, basically – as William Conrad's deep voice tells us that a freak mishap freezes Ranger 3's life support system, returning Captain William “Buck” Rogers to Earth 500 years later. That's right, kids: we dropped the bomb but Buck slept through it. As the figure of our hero tumbles clumsily through concentric rings into the future, we get to watch the Earth burn while an orchestra thrums. It'll give you goose bumps every time. Just switch off before Twiki biddybiddybiddy ruins the vibe. (The second season featured an extended narration by Hank Sims, but let's be honest: the second season is shit.)

Of course there are others: we all have fond memories of Battle Of The Planets, The Incredible Hulk, Babylon 5, The Outer Limits and The A-Team (despite the latter not being SF or fantasy). You can think of more that deserve a shout, of course! Celebrate your favourites in the comment thread...