Science fiction has always been one of the most enduring genres. For some, the mere mention of ‘sci-fi’ conjures up images of die-hard fanboys who are obsessed with the minutiae of their favourite shows. However, sci-fi has always been an accessible and popular genre, especially in television. Some of the most popular TV shows of all-time have dabbled with science fiction and they often broke new barriers in the way they used the medium to tell their stories.
Has there been a show which fiercely divided its fans as much as Lost did? Each week, the show seemed to tantalise and frustrate fans in equal measure. Constantly teasing the origins of the strange island which the characters were stranded on, Lost typically answered one mystery by coming up with two more to take its place. However, there’s no denying that it wasn’t a fascinating TV show. The allegorical sci-fi story kept the audience guessing until the very end and Lost became true event television.
Futurama may not be as challenging as some other shows on this list (although it certainly has its moments), but the animated series always took its sci-fi premise seriously. It’s clear that its creators were huge nerds and each episode was lovingly jam-packed with smart references to other sci-fi properties as well as surprisingly insightful and thought-provoking ideas.
Although Fringe was at times a little bit too concerned with its mythology for its own good, it eventually developed into one of the most creative sci-fi shows on television. Often unfairly dismissed as an X-Files rip off (although to be fair the two do have a fair share of similarities), Fringe was dedicated to building its own little universe and anytime it seemed in danger of becoming formulaic or procedural the show changed gear and completely shook things up. With a huge multi-season story arc which brought in high-concept sci-fi ideas like parallel universes and alternate timelines, Fringe was an underrated sci-fi gem.
7. Doctor Who
Sheer longevity has helped Doctor Who become one of the most popular and well-known sci-fi TV shows ever made. First broadcast in 1963 and enjoying hot and cold success for decades before it reached global levels of popularity thanks to a reboot in 2005, Doctor Who certainly made the most of its characters ability to regenerate. Eleven actors have played the role so far and each regeneration has pushed the show in a new direction and given it a renewed lease of life. Of course, it also helps that Doctor Who is a legitimately great TV show in its own right. its creators and show runners have created a long-running legacy with a rich mythology which simply cannot be rivalled by any other sci-fi property.
Patrick McGoohan’s short-lived series The Prisoner was a wonderfully weird sci-fi show which took delight in building up mystery week after week. Set in a surreal, mysterious place which housed hundreds of people who were only referred to as numbers, the show follows a British spy called Number Six who suddenly finds himself in ‘The Village’ with no means of getting out. The Prisoner was like a paranoid acid trip as each week Number Six tried to figure out where he was and how he could escape but he didn’t even know who he could trust and why they wanted him. It was at times a frustrating show which didn’t spoon-feed its audience with obvious answers (the finale famously outraged millions of baffled viewers who didn’t know what had happened), but The Prisoner was well ahead of its time and its themes of social indoctrination and surveillance are more prescient now than they have ever been.
It’s hard to talk about Firefly on its own merits without discussing the huge legacy the show has left behind. Created by Joss Whedon, Firefly only managed to film 14 episodes before being cancelled. However, in that short space of time it managed to build a fervent fan base who, to this day, are still hopeful that it will return (the series did manage to get a movie – Serenity – and a comic book series which managed to wrap up some plot threads and show what happened to the characters). Of course, it’s easy to say that many fans are wearing rose-tinted glasses, but the short-lived series really was brimming with potential. Blending the adventurous tone of the American Wild West with a sweeping space opera, Firefly took place in an intriguing and very different universe than typically seen in science fiction. One of the great ‘what could have been’ stories, Firefly is widely considered to be the biggest missed opportunity in television.
4. The X-Files
The X-Files was one of the few sci-fi shows which managed to break into the mainstream and enjoy huge success. It wasn’t a show which had a small dedicated fan base or enjoyed cult success after it aired; The X-Files was one of the biggest shows of its time. Following FBI agents Mulder and Scully, the show investigated the paranormal and sought out an answer to seemingly unexplainable crimes. Many people tuned in just to enjoy the conflicting, sexual dynamic between the scientific, sceptical Scully and the true believer Mulder, and the two became one of the biggest ‘will they won’t they’ romantic couplings of the 90s. Although some fans of the show don’t particularly have fond memories of its attempts to develop a mythology, it was actually one of the first major TV series which took a gamble in creating an over-arching plot. Sure, the later seasons did get bogged down in the increasingly convoluted alien conspiracy, but the shows real strengths always lay in its standalone ‘monster of the week’ episodes. When a show produced some of the best episodes of any TV show (Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, Drive, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose), it can be forgiven for being ambitious.
3. Battlestar Galactica
Few people could ever have predicted that the 2004 reboot of 70s sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica would become one of the best shows on television. Set against the backdrop of an interstellar crisis which threatened the very future of all humanity, the show received almost universal critical acclaim (a rare feat for any TV show, let alone a genre show) for its expertly crafted storytelling ability. It’s decidedly rare for any show to approach tough philosophical, religious, military, social and political issues, but Battlestar Galactica was a rare mature space opera which somehow managed to pull it off.
2. The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone is often credited with being a horror show, but the anthology series frequently dealt with themes and stories which were firmly grounded in science fiction. One of the most influential shows ever made, The Twilight Zone is still revered for its storytelling magic and social commentary which always explored the human condition. Although its sci-fi elements were a lot more muted when compared to other shows on this list, it’s hard to deny that this was a genre that the Twilight Zone kept coming back to time and time again. For example, some of the show’s most well-known episodes – To Serve Man, The Parallel, Time Enough at Last, The Invaders – featured the likes of aliens, strange powers, post-apocalyptic futures and parallel universes. A show which was always ahead of its time, the Twilight Zone introduced many key sci-fi elements to viewers who were otherwise completely unfamiliar with the genre.
1. Star Trek
It’s weird to think that the original Star Trek TV show is almost 50 years old. Thanks to further spin-off shows and a series of movies, it feels like Star Trek never left our screens. The original show only ran from 1966 to 1969 and produced 79 episodes, but it became an important and inescapable part of pop culture. Nowadays, many people may not have seen a single episode of Star Trek but they are well aware of its legacy. Whether they recognise the iconic Starfleet Insignia or mutter the phrase “Beam me up Scotty”, it’s hard to deny that it hasn’t become a part of our modern world. The effects may be dated and the acting at times hammy, but Star Trek perfectly encapsulated everything which is great about science fiction. It’s exploratory, adventurous attitude offered a positive and optimistic outlook for humanity’s future and it broke new ground on TV by exploring themes of morality and social commentary (Uhurua was one of the few black characters who wasn’t playing a ‘black role’ and it had the first interracial kiss on TV). Not bad for a sci-fi show.