Sitting around watching television might not be as useless as you think. Certain shows have been remarkably accurate in their forecasts of the future. The list suggests that British TV producers are far more prophetic than their American counterparts. But that's OK; when someone invents Warp Drive, I'll revise the list.
1. The Troubleshooters (1965-1972)
This drama about Mogul, a British multinational oil company, had its finger on the pulse. Three days after BP struck oil in Alaska, viewers saw Mogul do the same "“ in an episode that had been filmed months earlier. In another episode, Mogul took over a chemical firm. BP did the same later that week. One episode included a huge explosion on an oil rig, but it wasn't even broadcast before a real explosion happened on the North Sea. Troubleshooters even showed people living in underwater houses as they probed the sea for oil. Within three years, even this piece of science fiction was a reality. Thankfully, none of the episodes portrayed nuclear disaster. "I am staggered how accurate they are in technical matters," said a Shell executive. "Of course, in real life we don't have blondes lying about on beds. We miss this facility."
2. The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)
Ah, I bet that got your attention! Unfortunately, this British TV play wasn't as arousing as the title suggested, but it was still amazingly prescient. In the future, 98 percent of people depend on television for everything. To quell the population explosion, they watch "applied pornography" to put them off sex (which is the only excuse for that title, I'm afraid), and they watch gluttony programs to put them off food. But when they lose interest, the network execs have a great new idea: send a family to a deserted island and film them 24/7 in a show called The Live Life Show. Yes, in the space of one episode, the show predicted reality television "“ and predicted that the masses would go wild for it. No network has yet been allowed to try the show's main ratings stunt: dropping a murderer on the island to hunt them down. (Though I wouldn't rule it out...)
3. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
This wasn't meant to be prophetic, but the celebrated British TV show (formerly a radio serial and a trilogy of best-selling novels) has been hailed as a visionary work. In the series, the Guide was an electronic, hand-held book that, with a few keystrokes, could provide detailed information on any planet or alien race. Fans of the late Douglas Adams, the series' creator, suggest that he envisioned both the web and e-books. Adams was bemused by this. "When I originally described the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, over 20 years ago, I was only joking," he said in 2000. "I didn't see myself as a predictive kind of science fiction writer, like Arthur C. Clarke who more or less single-handedly invented the communications satellite"¦ But it turns out that I, inadvertently, had a terribly good idea. I really didn't foresee the internet. But then, neither did the computer industry."
4. MI5 (2002-)
Yet another British series, this spy thriller (known in the UK as Spooks) seems to follow in the prophetic footsteps of The Troubleshooters. "It's almost like reading series six by opening the newspaper," said lead actor Rupert Penry-Jones in 2007. "Sometimes the scripts are coming out when the newspapers are coming out with almost the same stories. It's uncanny." This hasn't always been good news. In one of the more unfortunate coincidences, scenes in which bombs went off around London were filmed only a day before the 2005 London terrorist bombings. "We had to change quite a lot of it because it was all a bit tasteless," said Penry-Jones. "It seemed like we were cashing in on what happened, when we'd pretty much already shot it the day before it happened."
5. The Lone Gunmen (2001)
Finally, an American show "“ and this prediction was perhaps the most amazing of them all. In the pilot episode of this short-lived X-Files spin-off, broadcast on March 4, 2001, the heroes uncovered a U.S. Government plot to fly a passenger jet into the World Trade Center (by remote-control) and blame terrorists, thereby justifying an increase in the military budget. On television, this scheme was averted. In reality, of course, two jet planes did indeed hit the World Trade Center barely six months later. (Despite the conspiracy theories, most people don't blame this on the U.S. Government.) Still, the plot was tragically prescient. After 9/11, many broadcasters banned reruns of this episode for reasons of sensitivity. The whole series (all 13 episodes) is now on DVD, though naturally, this light-hearted show now seems somewhat darker than it was trying to be.
Mark Juddery is a writer and historian based in Australia. See what else he's written at markjuddery.com.