Screenwriter Wendy Hanna looks back on the boom in live action science-fiction and fantasy television created for Australian tween audiences during the 1990s.
Back in the 1990s, television meant a lot. It was a world before mobile phones or streaming, before TikTok or Harry Potter, before (gasp!) the word ‘tween’. Us kids and teens of the 90s relied on television (and Dolly Doctor) to show us how we fitted in and how the great wide world worked.
Looking back, it’s significant then to note what a boom there was in Australian children’s TV during the 90s, brought on by the convergence of a few key factors. First, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) had hit its stride in championing quality screen storytelling for kids after forming in the early 1980s.
The advertising world was keen to cash in on the purchasing power of pre- and young teens, singling them out as a specific marketing niche. Finally, broadcasters not only had the advertising dollars of a pre-internet world, but also the will (not to mention enforced government quotas) to commission lots of tremendous telly for kids in that liminal space between childhood and young adulthood.
Australia has always punched above its weight in drama for kids and teens. But the decade also saw a jump in live action genre shows for this same audience. Hefty budgets, aided by international co-productions, made it possible to tell convincing science-fiction and magical fantasy stories. Producers and writers could now be more ambitious with their screen stories, knowing that jumping through time, across space or underwater was possible, with Australian crews and for Aussie kids.
The transition from childhood to young adulthood is a time of huge self-discovery and growth. You’re developing your independence outside of the family unit, working out who you want to be, how you fit in and what you believe. As tweens start to understand their place in the world, they also begin to formulate opinions on justice and community, who should be in charge and what their future will look like. Emotions are felt intensely when they’re so new, and you find yourself feeling like an outsider or an alien, or wishing you could magic all your problems away!
Combining the novelty of whimsical, escapist storytelling with relatable, real-world themes, it's no wonder then that science-fiction and fantasy stories are so perennially popular for this audience. What science-fiction and fantasy television does is bring to life real fears and preoccupations in metaphorical ways, allowing young audiences to explore those complex, difficult ideas removed from the pressures of ‘reality’.
In their own ways, both family sci-fi Ocean Girl (1994–97) and post-apocalyptic adventure Thunderstone (1999–2000) are about kids fighting against climate crisis. Alternate universe adventure series Spellbinder (1995), and its follow-up Spellbinder 2: Land of the Dragon Lord (1997), are concerned with the injustices of authoritarianism. Even the magic realist classic Round The Twist (1990–2001), known for its laugh-out-loud, unhinged comedy, is fundamentally about a grieving family looking to start afresh after the death of their mum.
The 90s saw so many more of these types of live action tween series, fully embracing the potential of fantasy and sci-fi forms to engage and entertain. Elly & Jools (1990) captured both fun and poignancy in its haunted house drama, while The Genie From Down Under (1996–98) used culture and class clashes to drive its spirited episodic comedy. There was the madcap ‘aliens in suburbia’ farce of The Miraculous Mellops (1991–92), a stark contrast to the portal to another time drama of Mirror Mirror 1 (1995) and 2 (1998).
The inter-dimensional tech adventure Finders Keepers (1991–92), along with futuristic thrillers Escape from Jupiter (1994–95) and its sequel series Return to Jupiter (1997), explored what it means for humanity to live completely in space. The Girl From Tomorrow (1990–91) looked one thousand years into the future to ask what potential there was for humanity, while Crash Zone (1999–2001) grappled with the very near-future concerns of video games, the internet and artificial intelligence.
This bumper time for genre tween telly echoed well into the next couple of decades as creators and producers found their feet establishing feasible production models and reputations for high-quality content. Notably, Jonathan M Shiff Productions has managed to maintain the success it first achieved with Ocean Girl with other hits like H2O: Just Add Water (2006–10) and Mako Mermaids (2013–16), among others. And I can’t fail to mention wunderkind Jeffrey Walker, a child actor who seemed to be in almost everything in the 90s, who’s since become one of Australia’s most prolific television directors.
However, locally produced television for tweens has reduced considerably since the heady days of the 90s. As a working television writer today, who enjoyed so many of these shows at the time, it’s somewhat bittersweet to reflect on this era. Save for the notable efforts of our public broadcaster and a handful of committed players, slick sci-fi and fantasy shows for tweens are generally few and far between nowadays. And you can understand why – the media landscape has fundamentally changed. Genre series are expensive, there’s no local incentive to produce them, and many key players seem convinced that tweens are too fickle or ‘adult’ to watch this stuff anyway (except, when done well, they absolutely do!).
So, I’m always thrilled to see contemporary tween science-fiction or fantasy live action battling against the odds to get made, and make an impression (for example, a major success of recent years, Nowhere Boys, ran for four seasons). These genre stories certainly have a place. And we can be grateful that with the advent of streamers, some of the best television of the past is perhaps more accessible than it’s ever been too. I hope that like me back in the 90s, the tweens of today can still discover the unique joy, perspective and catharsis these shows, old and new, can bring.
Wendy Hanna is a screenwriter and script editor, based in Sydney.
Main image: Round the Twist: Season 2, Australian Children's Television Foundation,1992.
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