Science fiction has been a big part of television since the very beginning. It makes sense. What better medium to show off strange new worlds, unique alien species, and a bunch of speculative future tech?
Prior to TV, sci-fi serials were popular on radio and science fiction will always have its place in novels, short stories and flash fiction. But there’s just something about a visual medium that is so attractive to fans of the genre.
Over the past century television has hosted science fiction in all its glory. From aliens, space/time travel, and robots to seemingly normal premises with bizarre twists, sci-fi has delighted minds of all ages as it encouraged all to reach for the infinite.
In the past, present, and even the future, there is a plethora of unique and unforgettable sci-fi series that are just waiting to be consumed. But there are so many, where to begin? Here are 15 shows that if you’re not already watching them, you definitely should be.
Before Game of Thrones, HBO had more or less avoided the sci-fi/fantasy genre in their original programming. But now that the dragon-based series is making HBO more money than there are White Walkers in the north, the proverbial floodgates have opened.
Enter WestWorld. Based on the 1973 B-movie of the same name, this visionary series is HBO’s first venture into science fiction since Perversions of Science, which ran for just over a month in 1997.
WestWorld takes place at a fictional amusement park where the world’s richest people go to live out an authentic old west experience. This involves riding with cowboys, drinking at saloons, shootouts with bandits and numerous adult options that are subtly itemized on the bill as “recreation with horse.”
But wait, how could an old west shootout be authentic without anybody getting hurt? Well, that’s what makes WestWorld unique. The park is home to thousands of robot hosts who live and die believing they are 100% the real deal. And while the guests’ lives are never in danger (until the park’s mad scientist owner does some off the books “tweaking”) it’s easy enough to get lost in the fantasy.
14. 12 Monkeys
Also loosely based on the movie (Terry Gilliam’s 1995 masterpiece), 12 Monkeys delves deeper into the film’s premise. It’s a show about time travel, but unlike the classic trope of traveling to either past or future from the present, this show begins in a desolate future. And in order to make things right, someone must travel back to our present to stop the virus that doomed everyone in the first place.
The story follows Cole, a hapless drifter who happens upon a group of scientists as mad as they are genius. Cole’s travels with Dr. Cassandra Railly, a CDC doctor from 2015, are worth the price of admission alone. However, it’s the gorgeously loony Jennifer Goines who truly steals the spotlight. Loosely based on Brad Pitt’s character from the film, Jennifer breaks out of sanatorium after sanatorium, drops numerous pop-culture references and regularly interacts with a future version of herself in hopes of righting the world and her own sanity.
13. The Expanse
The Expanse is an example of hard sci-fi done right. Taking place in the distant future, generations after the colonization of Mars, this story revolves around Earthlings, Martians, and “Belters” who are citizens living on various space stations in the asteroid belt.
While Earth and Mars are in a perpetual state of conflict over resources, the Belters have their own issues. Having no direct water source to call their own, ships are routinely set out on ice runs to temporarily sate their stations’ water supply.
It’s on one such run that a ship known as the Canterbury is destroyed after receiving an unknown distress signal. Five crewmembers survive and are unwittingly swept into the mystery of why their ship and crew were eviscerated. Meanwhile on a different belt station, Detective Miller is tasked to find a missing girl and return her to her rich parents in NYC. However, this trust-fund brat’s story is far more complex than imagined, involving radical separatists, the distress call that led to the destruction of the Canterbury, and a previously undiscovered alien species. Intrigued? Well, that’s only the first episode.
12. Black Mirror
Take The Twilight Zone, set it in the not too distant future, have its anthology tales revolve around the potential pitfalls of modern technology, and you have Black Mirror.
This British/Netflix series focuses on a different aspect of modern technology in each episode. It prophesizes a worst case scenario, and then lets the negative backlash rain down like a perfect storm.
In the 13 episodes that have aired so far we’ve seen: a world where a person’s worth is determined by their popularity on social media; ethnic groups cleansed because they’re perceived as man-eating monsters; an eye-phone that records every second of your life; reality shows designed to humiliate the poor or mentally torture criminals; and most ridiculous of all, a foul-mouthed, cartoonish pervert winning a national election.
Cleverly named Black Mirror because that is what a computer, smartphone, tablet, etc. look like once turned off. These mirrors reflects their users at their darkest and most vulnerable moments.
11. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
Based on satirist Douglas Adams’ greatest works after the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Dirk Gently… is not the first small screen adaptation of this book series, but it is certainly the most imaginative.
Dirk is a holistic detective from Greater Britain (Lesser Britain being in France and therefore not a proper place for his specific skills), who, through circumstances beyond his control, finds himself in America.
Once in the colonies he comes across: a time traveling millionaire; a cult of body swapping beings; a shark in the body of a cat; a woman who hallucinates pain; a holistic assassin and her friend, Ken; a secret government program; and most importantly, his new best friend, Todd.
If none of what’s written above makes sense to you, don’t panic, it’s all part of a case that needs solving. Because in holistic detection, everything is connected. Developed by Max Landis (son of director John Landis), Dirk Gently is a sci-fi showcase, too bizarre to miss.
10. Attack on Titan
This one’s for those who enjoy doses of fantasy mixed in with their sci-fi. At first glance this Japanese anime looks like a tale about giants (some who look like a 3-D diagram of the human muscular system) that takes place in some far off, semi-industrial land.
However, once you become immersed into the world of Attack on Titan, you’ll discover it takes place on Earth, 300 years in the future. And while the giants may appear like something out of H.G. Wells, they are regular humans that have been genetically engineered to live part time as “titans,” for the benefit of a warring faction that has retained access to science from the time before.
In essence, AoT is a cautionary tale about modern technology running amok, much like the tales of Black Mirror. But this series is the continuing adventures of a group of young soldiers tasked with protecting humanity’s last refuge.
A bold mixture of action adventure, horror and sci-fi, Attack on Titan is an innovative series that masterfully reveals secrets through storytelling. The art and animation is world class, and both the Japanese and English voice acting is superb. Word of advice: avoid the live-action movie, as it’s rumored to be the worst thing to come out of Japan since those erotic tentacle videos.
9. Orphan Black
Let’s hand it to the Canadians for creating a cloning saga that isn’t a low-budget, poorly executed disaster, or a goofy romp like that Michael Keaton movie from the 90s. Orphan Black is led by the uber talented Tatiana Maslany, who plays 5 major characters and about half a dozen minor clones, all with different looks, mannerisms and accents. It’s a tour de force of acting with plot and intrigue to match.
It begins with a British conwoman who happens upon three of her quirky “sister clones,” but soon evolves into a stylish spy/conspiracy story with more twists and turns than Lost. But don’t worry, the show’s creators are likely to deliver a satisfying conclusion because they are obsessed with their universe, and are anal about looping all the plotlines back together creating a far richer experience than a show designed for casual viewing.
The only problem you may come across with this show is deciding if your favorite character is Alison, the high-maintenance, drug-dealing soccer mom, or Helena, the psychopathic, yet lovable Ukrainian assassin.
8. Quantum Leap
Quantum Leap was a procedural show from the early 90s, so different from anything else. This soft sci-fi concept used a loose understanding of string theory to enable protagonist Dr. Sam Beckett to go on weekly adventures.
Lost in time, Sam was forced to leap into past person’s bodies in order to “correct” the timeline. This unique premise enabled actor Scott Bakula to dress in period costumes, dresses, and even diapers as his character “leaped” into the body of eccentrics, women, and even a chimp one time (for some reason).
While light on the science, Quantum Leap asked questions about the meaning of life and presented two empathetic characters hoping to find their way home. Unfortunately, Leap was cancelled unexpectedly resulting in a rushed finale that failed to answer most of the show’s larger questions. There is, however, a rumored second finale with none of the original actors going back to save Princess Diana from her very real death, but the less known about that debacle, the better.
Doctor Who is a successful sci-fi/fantasy series that has been running on and off in the U.K. and elsewhere for almost 35 years. After the show’s most recent revival in 2005, a spinoff entitled Torchwood was created featuring the popular supporting character Jack Harkness who stumbled his way into working for the shady government group that pursued the titular Doctor of the original series.
Torchwood (an anagram for Doctor Who, by the way), was designed to be a more adult version of Doctor Who with much less time travel and far more weirdness. Harkness, an immortal man incapable of dying, and his team of paranormal investigators were tasked to investigate anomalies resulting from a crack in space/time that was conveniently located in downtown Cardiff, where the team resided.
With each year, the show gained popularity. The first season aired on BBC3, the second on BBC2 and the third on the most popular parent station, BBC. Unfortunately the fourth season moved to American TV and aired on premium channel Starz. That season was so bad it, in essence, led to the program’s cancelation.
6. The Prisoner
The Prisoner is the only show from the 1960s on this list. Not that there weren’t other great sci-fi series at that time, but if you’re unfamiliar with the greatness of Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits, you should definitely start with them and adhere to this list later. However, once you’re done with those three shows, you should check out The Prisoner.
Airing only 17 episodes between 1967 and 1968, this miniseries was a masterpiece of the strange. The story revolved around an unnamed man who one day decides to quit his job and leave the country. Before he can do so, he is gassed and taken to a mysterious “village,” that is continuously monitored. Given the moniker Number 6, the man is interrogated and mind-freaked by a wide array of people known as Number 2, in hopes of obtaining information for the unseen Number 1.
Sound complicated? Bizarre? Annoying? The Prisoner is all those things, wrapped around Number 6’s need to retain individualism over collectivism. This is illustrated by his numerous escape attempts, often thwarted by waves of “junk” science. The series ends with Number 6 finally confronting Number 1, discovering the most about himself in the process.
5. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Star Trek is a rite of passage for every science fiction fan. And while the original series and TNG are much beloved, the later series are often overlooked.
Deep Space Nine premiered in 1993 and ran for seven seasons. It was the first, and arguably the only, Trek series that didn’t rely solely on space travel and general exploration. DS9 took place primarily on a space station (the titular Deep Space Nine), and was a hotbed for a political conflict between two major alien races; the Bajorans and the Cardassians. While still employing a basic Star Fleet unit, its commander and crew dealt with keeping the peace between the warring factions, entertaining dignitaries, and putting together peace talks whenever possible.
DS9 was the most linear of the Star Trek series with each episode building off the previous one. So, in later years there was less diplomacy and more action/mayhem after the peace talks didn’t work out as planned.
Overall, this series worked because it wasn’t a clone of the previous iterations and came into its own as far as plot and world building within the greater Star Trek universe.
4. Dark Matter
Dark Matter is an original SyFy series that began after the success of more established properties on the network, such as Battlestar Galactica and StarGate. This series is lighter fare than other space exploration serials and really plays up the campiness of sci-fi technology. Dark Matter follows a six member crew, who all mysteriously had their memories wiped leaving them confused about their identities and their overall mission.
In the first season, the crew slowly come to the realization that they were heartless mercenaries with little compassion. In the second season, the producers realized that six blank slates weren’t intrinsically interesting and therefore turned up the drama and cut any unnecessary fat.
So a show that once relied on kooky androids and Star Wars 30 jokes, was remodeled into a character based drama involving mercenaries with slight memory issues.
Remember Blade Runner? While watching that film did you ever think that the Replicants were quite empathetic and the hunters, like Rick Deckard were kind of knobs?
Well, the creators of Humans just may be on board with that theory. This British drama follows the lives of five sentient robots that see great injustice in their non-sentient brethren being forced into servitude for their entire lives. Helped by select friendly humans along the way, this family of Synths work from the shadows in hopes of “awakening” their compatriots to evening the odds between their people and those that came before.
2. The Man in the High Castle
What if Germany and Japan had won WWII? Would Germany control much of the world, including the Eastern United States? Would Japan live under Germany’s boot and revel in such gifts as control of California? That’s what The Man in the High Castle theorizes.
Based on a novel by visionary Phillip K. Dick, this story delves into the greatest “what if” of all time. When Juliana Crain comes across a film reel that depicts the world we know, with the Allies winning the war, she at first doesn’t know how to process the information. However, after coming across a secret Nazi and a morally questionable resistance group, she’s thrown directly in the center of the madness.
Will she be able to make sure the correct events happen to make the film a reality or will she become yet another victim of the Axis powers? In this case the journey may be more interesting than the destination, as this is a beautifully crafted show that has no problem taking its time.
Just because something’s a comedic cartoon, doesn’t mean it can’t be a legitimate sci-fi series. Futurama is a clever, emotional program developed by Harvard educated mathematicians, and is much more than just The Simpsons in space.
Thawed out after 1000 years, delivery boy, Philip J. Fry awakens in the year 3000, to a world he no longer recognizes. After obtaining a parcel delivery job from his great-great-etc. nephew, Hubert, Fry goes about making a life for himself in the sometimes frightening distant future.
He makes friends with a one-eyed mutant pilot, a spoiled Martian, a crustacean surgeon, and a robot who certainly doesn’t have a drinking problem, and soon feels more at home in the future than he ever did in the past… or the former present?