The years of 2003 to 2007 were great for science fiction on TV. No, I’m not talking about the premiere of “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica.” I’m not referring to the relaunch of “Doctor Who,” or the one-season wonder “Invasion.” No. I’m talking about “Phil of the Future” and “That’s So Raven,” two of the best TV shows Disney Channel ever created.
Okay, yeah, maybe we all like to romanticize the shows we were irrationally obsessed with when we were kids. But I recently went back and re-watched a couple episodes of “Phil of the Future,” and they hold up! Aside from the ridiculous overabundance of sound effects that characterized Disney shows of the time, the show is fun, thoughtful, funny and surprisingly emotional.
People tend to dismiss stories targeted at children once they get older. When I bring up “Phil of the Future” in casual conversation, people laugh, because they remember it as a show they kind of liked back in elementary school, but not one that still holds any significance to them. I get the same reaction when I tell people that last year, I read the entirety of the “Animorphs” series, most known now for its iconic covers of tweens morphing into animals.
Just because something is written for kids, though, doesn’t mean the writers don’t put real thought and care into it. I mean, sure, there are some kids’ shows that only do the bare minimum to keep kids watching with simplistic morality lessons and ugly, uninventive animation. But for every shitty show like “Caillou,” there’s something thoughtful out there. After all, it’s not like these shows are being written by kids. They’re written by adults with kids in mind, and many of them have a lot to offer to adults, too. I mean, have you seen “Adventure Time?” It’s imaginative, funny and dark when you least expect it.
Last year, I touted “Inside Out” as the best science fiction film of 2015, because it uses its fantastical concepts to establish essential truths about human nature while providing a rich world of cool sci-fi details to take in. “Phil of the Future” does the same thing. When you sit down and take it seriously instead of seeing it as some juvenile program from back when our brains weren’t developed enough to know when TV was good or bad, you can see that many of these Disney Channel shows pull off science fiction better than most of the sci-fi shows that make it to air now.
There’s a tendency now for science fiction to get bogged down in a mass of undecipherable mythology, even in the best shows. “Lost” became notoriously convoluted because of the number of questions it raised, and “The X-Files” did the same, even this year during its return. “Orphan Black” is almost always better when it backs off the complicated conspiracy theories and luxuriates in the inherent coolness of its premise: a bunch of clones played by the same (amazing) actor.
“Phil of the Future” is never convoluted, and sure, maybe that’s because it’s made for kids, but so what? Maybe if the writers of “Lost” had kept a possible adolescent audience in mind, its reputation wouldn’t have taken a nosedive in the eyes of half its fan base.
The first episode of “Phil of the Future” I re-watched was “Unification Day,” in which Phil Diffy (Ricky Ullman, who briefly returned to acting for a cameo in “Broad City” last season) and his family celebrate the day when the Earth will, in the future, achieve world peace. Phil and his dad (Craig Anton, “MADtv”) have a tradition of playing a game of “laser squash” each Unification Day, but this year Phil blows him off to go to a party with his friends, including Keely Teslow (Aly Michalka, “Easy A”). Eventually, Phil inevitably decides to ditch the party and play some laser squash with his dad, and I swear, guys, I almost teared up seeing Lloyd Diffy smile with pride and relief at his son coming back home. Watching your kids grow up is hard, even in the future.
In any normal sitcom, this would be a Christmas episode, or a Thanksgiving episode. “Phil of the Future,” though, manages to hit the traditional emotional beats of a holiday episode while filtering it through a sci-fi lens. There’s something fun and unusual about seeing a kid and his dad playing laser squash where a regular sitcom would just use basketball. And there are these little giddy moments of world-building that sci-fi fans crave, like the future sport of laser squash, or the spray cans of meatloaf that Pim (Amy Bruckner, “Rebound”) uses, or the strange finger-wiggling gesture Phil and his family casually make to somehow indicate their appreciation of Unification Day. But for the most part, “Phil of the Future” is content to use these sci-fi elements as little cool touches to enhance the fun of an episode that’s otherwise concerned with the same reliable themes of growing up and parenthood that other family sitcoms use.
You can also find this with “Wizards of Waverly Place,” or “So Weird,” or any other Disney Channel show with paranormal or fantastical elements. Every episode of “That’s So Raven” involves Raven (Raven-Symoné, “The View”) getting a glimpse into the future and using that information to solve some human crisis — urging her best friend to break up with the boyfriend Raven sees cheating on her, for example, or trying to save her dad’s job after a vision of him getting fired. And the writers are still able to imbue these human stories with cool world-building flourishes. One of the most memorable episodes, for example, is “Clothes Minded,” which involves Raven getting a vision of the school bullies putting a wheel of smelly cheese in the hot air vent. Raven approaches the group and says, “Uh, you guys weren’t planning on putting the cheese in the vent, were you?” They reply, “Well, we weren’t … until you just said that.” It doubles as a great joke and a classic example of the self-fulfilling prophecy concept that crops up in practically every time travel plot.
Look, I’m not saying people should drop whatever they’re watching and regress to the TV they loved when they were toddlers. We should read widely and watch widely. But part of that means making a space for stories traditionally designated “for kids.” If you’re an artist, what you consume when you’re little can be enormously influential in what you create as an adult, but you don’t have to be a child to form those connections. Just because you watched it as a kid doesn’t mean it can’t offer you anything as an adult.