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The best sci-fi movies are often cherished by fans and placed up high upon the mantle, but it’s TV shows that make up the bread and butter of any geek’s media diet. A good TV show gives the dedicated fan a chance to get to intimately know the characters, rules and setting that make up the universe.
It could be argued that no show has explored more worlds, concepts, story arks and technologies than Star Trek. I would also argue that just about anyone with a vague interest in sci-fi knows about it, and that it’s pretty touch-and-go in places. That’s why this list is looking beyond the Enterprise and exploring some other sci-fi greats of years gone by.
Don’t forget to opine, correct me and suggest your personal favourites in the comments at the end of the article.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
Inspired by Star Wars, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was produced by Universal for TV and based on the original character created by Philip Francis Nowlan in 1928. When the show’s namesake awakes from suspended animation after 500 years, he learns that civilisation has since been rebuilt after a devastating war and he is now faced with the task of integrating into 25th century society.
The pilot was a two-part episode of the same name initially released as a film (which you can watch on YouTube) and quickly followed by a cult hit series that ran for three years. Since then Buck Rogers has been referenced in everything from pop music to a two-part South Park episode.
Stargate SG1, Atlantis & Universe
In 1994 Kurt Russell starred in a film called Stargate which fused the concepts of exploration, scientific advancement and archaeology together into one sweet but ultimately flawed package. Three years later Stargate SG1 arrived to tell the full story, having replaced Russell with ex-MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson and kept the best of the rest. The show ran for 10 seasons, providing a perfect blend of humour, epic storylines, futuristic weapons and terrifying enemies and even now fans of the series are hungry for more.
Stargate Atlantis was born from the (then burning) fires of SG1, and once the series had run its course along came Universe with big name Robert Carlyle, though unfortunately this has too now been cancelled. As a massive Stargate fan myself, I sincerely hope there’s more to come.
If you’re a fan of dystopian, slightly unsettling TV shows featuring early 3D modelling and concepts that are well and truly ahead of their time then it might be worth your while to check out Max Headroom, a British-produced sci-fi show based on a character of the same name for the American network ABC in 1987.
In the future it is illegal to turn off your TV. Network 23 runs a successful news show with a star reporter called Edison Carter. Carter becomes involved in an experiment to create a virtual personality called Max Headroom, who becomes an intrinsic part of the network’s daily grind.
Running for four seasons between 2004 and 2007, The 4400 tells the story of 4,400 missing persons who suddenly turn up overnight with no clue as to where they have been or why there are there. None of the missing persons have aged at all between their disappearance (the first occurring in 1946) and the present day, and initial evidence suggests that a comet was the vehicle on which they arrived.
Already you’ve got a very interesting concept, with more revealed about the affected group as the story progresses. Unfortunately the show was cancelled in 2007 due to low ratings, the ongoing writers’ strike and budget constraints which led fans to petition for the completion of the series to no avail. It’s still worth a watch, though you’ll get no closure from this one.
Joss Whedon’s oft talked about but short-lived sci-fi show, Firefly is a space western set 500 years in the future following a renegade crew of a ship called Serenity. The show quickly gained cult status, though reviewers weren’t so sure with the Boston Globe summing it up as a “wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility”. No positivity could prevent it being cancelled by Fox after the first season.
Despite pleas from fans never received a second season, though it did gain a cult following which led to the 2005 film Serenity. There are a lot of references to Firefly in other sci-fi shows, among them Stargate SG1 and Battlestar Galactica. Some might find the transition from horseback to spaceship a little disconcerting, but there’s no ignoring the huge impact Firefly had on a generation of sci-fi fans.
There’s a lot of Battlestar Galactica to sink your teeth into if you’ve not seen it before, and where else to start but with the 1978 original series. The story follows the last remaining fleet of human refugees in search of the legendary planet Earth while being pursued by an evil enemy known as the Cylons. It ran from 1978 to 1979, before being re-made as a mini-series in 2003 and eventually spawning a successful mainstay from 2004-2009.
Babylon 5 takes place in the year 2258 aboard a five-mile long cylindrical space station of the same name from which much of the galaxy’s diplomacy must be carefully curated. Commander Sinclair must try to placate and diffuse in a bid to avoid interstellar conflict all the while fighting problems from within the Earth Alliance.
Babylon 5 is a highly regarded series which ran from 1994 to 1998 during a time many felt that sci-fi had began to stagnate. It’s definitely a show where you won’t want to miss an episode or you might run the risk of losing track of the on-going plot which sucked you in in the first place.
The Twilight Zone
Last but certainly not least is The Twilight Zone, a show that has seen numerous iterations since the 1959 original. While not typically sci-fi as we know it today, there is often a cosmic or supernatural twist to Rod Serling’s cult show which cast ordinary people in not so ordinary situations and often finished each episode with a twist or revelation that would force the viewer to think about what they had just seen.
The original 1959 show is must-watch material, but there was another three-series run from 1985 till 1989 and another (weaker, less sci-fi) series produced in 2002 which will appeal to fans of the formula. There’s no mainstay cast or rules to follow, just eerie happenings and a sense of “what if it happened to you?” to contemplate as you watch with wonder from behind the sofa.
The following are also notable for their sci-fi content, with some requiring no introduction and others pushing the boundaries of sci-fi altogether. They’re all worth a watch, I just couldn’t fit them into this article.
What other sci-fi shows do you watch which haven’t been mentioned here?