In these trying times, its not uncommon for folks to wish that we could all find a way to hit a major reset button and start the decade fresh. Enter sci-fi, the TV genre that simultaneously gives us escapism from the present and anxiety about the future. From classics like the original 1966(and every subsequent spinoff thereafter) to more recent shows like(aka teen drama meets post-apocalyptic reality series), there are no shortage of takes on what possibilities the not-too-distant future might hold for us.
Its fitting, then, that so many sci-fi series take place in outer space, the vast and unknown frontier that the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are currently elbowing each other to dominate. But these days, space-based series are moving well beyond the realm of pointy ears and little green men; in Netflixs original seriesAway,the future is now, and being a space traveler is a job in the same way that being a consultant is a job: it necessitates a lot of time away from family, and long hours spent up in the air.
Here, weve rounded up some of the best space-based TV series from the last few decades. From cartoon classics to cult favorites (Doctor Who, anyone?), here are the shows to binge when youre ready to throw the towel in on Planet Earth and go deep-diving into the dark unknown instead.
Created by:Joseph Mallozzi, Paul Mullie
Stars:Melissa ONeil, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari Jr., Jodelle Ferland, Roger Cross, Zoie Palmer, Marc Bendavid
Original Network:Syfy (U.S.), Space (Canada)
Based on the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name,Dark Matterkicks off as six people wake up on a spaceship with no memories of who they are or how they ended up there. What follows are three seasons of adventures that gradually ratchet up the stakes while still focusing on glorious character development. Because when you dont know whether youre a hero or a villain, you have to redefine your identity.Dark Matteralso boasts three kickass female protagonists, including one of the most endearing Androids on television. So it was disheartening when Syfy made the shortsighted decision to cancel the show. We need more three-dimensional leading ladies interacting on our screens, andDark Matterhas them in spades. Luckily, you can still binge every season on Netflix. Frannie Jackson
Stars:William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig
What began as a pitch by writer and producer Gene Roddenberry about a small spaceship exploring the galaxy has since grown into a worldwide cultural phenomenon inspiring millions of viewers (as well as astronauts, scientists and inventors) for more than half a century. A multi-billion dollar franchise spanning eight TV series, 13 films, countless books, comics, magazines and videogamesthat all starts here. Four pinging notes ring out in the silence of space. The voice of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) suddenly echoes out among the stars, explaining his crews five-year mission via voiceover narration. Their vessel is the Starship Enterprise, which appears in all its glory, orbiting planets and traveling at high warp, faster than anything that 1960s audiences had ever seen, as fast as progress itself. An alien operatic soprano suddenly wails out, then the theme song by composer Alexander Courage, then the titles: STAR TREK. Everything about this new science fiction TV show would break the mold, from its diverse cast and thought-provoking plots to its art direction. At the end of Season Two, when word had spread thatStar Trekwas at risk of cancellation, NBC received hundreds of thousands of letter in protest from fans, including doctors, professors and even New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.The Original Serieswould be canceled in 1969, the last episode airing fewer than two months before Apollo 11s successful manned mission to the Moon. But its effect was permanent and immeasurable. Roddenberry had built a series that dared to face the unknown, overcome impossible challenges and stretch social conventions for the better. His dream of the future set the stage for a show that would boldly go where no other TV series had gone before. James Charisma
Created by:Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Stars:Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Paulo Costanzo
In SyfysThe Expanse, Mars and Earth are two superpowers racing to gain the technological upper hand, while those who live in the Asteroid Belt mine resources for the more privileged planets and become more and more prone to radicalization.
In its relationship to our own age of authoritarianism, the series offers a kind of storytelling that seems essential: It manages to paint a portrait of a divided universe without vilifying one group and raising the other to god-like status, as evidenced by the complexities of hardboiled detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) or U.N. official Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo).The Expanseshows us a possible future, a future in which women can be leaders without the bat of an eye, in which racially diverse groups can unite in common cause, but it is also a warning about keeping institutions in check, about recognizing inequality wherever it might exist, in order to avoid past mistakes. In other words, its must-watch television for our time. Elena Zhang
Stars:Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Chloë Annett, Norman Lovett, Hattie Hayridge
The British have a unique way of turning the end of the human race into a laugh. And likeThe Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,Red Dwarfsees the human race reduced to a population of one with hilarious results. More of a riff on theOdd Couplethan is typical of spaceship crews, Dave Lister wakes up three-million years after the rest of theRed Dwarfs crew are killed by a radiation leak only to find himself alone in a titanic mining ship except for a hologram, a cat and a robot. Lister and his inhuman companions navigate too many twists and turns on their way back to Earth (or to get his girlfriend, whichever happens first) to recount here, but at least the working-class Liverpudlian gets his long-sought chicken vindaloo. The beloved series lasted five years before its first hiatus, and has been revived three times since. Ellie Decker & JD Jordan
Stars:Molly Parker, Toby Stephens, Maxwell Jenkins, Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall, Ignacio Serricchio, Parker Posey
Lost in Spaces Molly Parker and Parker Posey generate much the same excitement as the series (many, mostly effective) action sequences. Its motor isnt the force of the soldier, as represented by Toby Stephens gruff John Robinson, but the logic of the scientist (Parker), the guile of the con woman (Posey), the problem-solving acumen of Will (Maxwell Jenkins) and his older sisters, Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell). From using magnesium to melt ice and commandeering a chariota cross between a Jeep and a tankto determining the cause of engine distress, the Robinsons are at their best untangling dilemmas, rather than blasting through them. At one point, facing a more complicated calculation than she expected, Maureen quips, Im gonna need a bigger whiteboard, and it resounds asLost in Spaces central proposition: That theres room in the genre, and indeed on television, for the science in science fiction to be more than the expression of humankinds worst instincts. In fact, though its been (not unreasonably) described as darker than Irwin Allens original, which aired on CBS from 1965 to 1968, the most important changes in Netflixs remakeParkers top billing, Poseys castingreflect more depth than darkness, at least not darkness for its own sake. The series premiere aside, Maureen is Johns equal, if not, at times, the dominant figure in their relationship, one that turns out to be much thornier than it might seem. Matt Brennan
Created by:Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi
Stars:: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Wrenn Schmidt, Sarah Jones, Shantel VanSanten, Jodi Balfour
America has never lost gracefully. Exploring alternate histories where America loses usually involves the countrys moral stance defeated by a great political evil. The Nazis win World War 2; the British suppress the revolution. But what if the loss was more complicated than that? More ideologically gray. Less focused on Supermans truth and justice, and more on his American Way. Apple TV+ asks this question with alt-historyFor All Mankinds opening, where the Soviet Union stuns a watching world by beating the U.S. to the moon, and answers it with an enthralling drama dedicated to the flawed pursuit of greatness.
Its certainly appropriate for a show about the best pilots in the world to have a great pilot episode, but its early success is matched by a show where politics and science branch in ways pleasing for space junkies and astro-nots alike. The sprawling sociopolitical butterfly effectslike how the Nixon administration reacts to, and is affected by, losing the first leg of the space raceare just one of the pleasures to be found in Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivis creation.
NASA, pushed as much by a president needing a political victory as by their own wounded pride, shoots for sci-fi. And the writing is smart. Potentially saccharine rah-rah patriotism is undermined by dashed hopes and a permeating need for American exceptionalism that is, in this version of events, proven untrue. Instead, the series works towards a new national culture in its large scale and quiet, workhorse dignities in its small scale. America gets back to its scrappy roots through its space program.
Those scrappy (bordering on irresponsible) elementsgovernment employees doing their best at the behest of their overlordssee a powerhouse turn underdog. Nothings more humanizing than trying to break ground with equipment from the lowest bidder. Avoiding the truly sappy by showing the scars left by the program (the -ups, the deaths, the near-misses, the battered relationships) earns the show its most moving moments. Rather than pure golden glow,For All Mankindleaves you smiling and ugly crying at the same time, amazed that humanity has achieved so much despite all its stupid pettiness. Unlike the space program it follows,For All Mankindpursues greatness, succeeds, and plants an Apple flag for the world to see.Jacob Oller
Created by:William Hanna, Joseph Barbera
Stars:: George OHanlon, Penny Singleton, Janet Waldo, Daws Butler, Mel Blanc, Don Messick, Jean Vander Pyl, Howard Morris
Meet George Jetson! Zipping through the clouds of Orbit City in his flying saucer, hes off to work in the morning with his family. He drops off his son, Elroy, at elementary school, his teenage daughter, Judy, at high school, and his wife, Jane, at the mall. He arrives on a moving sidewalk for his job at a sprocket company, where he simply has to press buttons. This is the future ofThe Jetsons, the Space Age equivalent ofThe Flintstones, where everyone lives in elevated Space Needle-type platforms high above the Earth and technology isnt just commonplace, its a way of life. As withThe Flintstones, the setting is less the subject of social commentary than a backdrop for the shows sitcom format and an excuse for period-themed jokes and gags. Much of the technology we use regularly today didnt exist whenThe Jetsonswas produced, including cell phones, personal computers and the Internet. But in todays world, where everyones got their nose in a laptop or iPhone, its nice not to see everyone inThe Jetsons version of the future doing the same. For all the perks of the 21st century, we might still have some growing up to do. James Charisma
Stars:Eliza Taylor, Marie Avgeropoulos, Bob Morley, Isaiah Washington, Henry Ian Cusick, Lindsey Morgan, Richard Harmon, Zach McGowan
The 100is what happens when you combine a classic CW teen drama (or to throw it back a little further, a WB teen drama) full of dynamic characters with fancy sci-fi terminology, vivid visuals, and really complicated storylines. The series, which premiered on the CW in September 2014, is set 97 years post-nuclear apocalypse, when thousands of survivors are now living in an impossibly large space station called the Ark. As a last-ditch attempt to figure whether or not Earth is actually still inhabitable or not, the powers that be send 100 juvenile detainees down to the planet to essentially survive or die trying. While on Earth, the really attractive cohort encounters a few different groups whove actually weathered the apocalypse: the grounders, whove organized themselves into clans; the Reapers, grounders who are now cannibals, thanks to the Mountain men; and the Mountain Men, who are essentially the descendants of the ultimate doomsday peppers, those who locked themselves away prior to the apocalypse. Chaos ensues whenever the different groups collide, but by the end of the seventh season, theres another group the juveniles have to worry about: humans from another world, the Disciples. The sort of series that sucks you in and spits you back out in another reality,The 100is not for those looking to just dip their toes into a new series. Get in or get lost. Joyce Chen
Created by:Brian Henson, Rockne S. OBannon
Stars:Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Virginia Hey, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgley, Paul Goddard, Lani Tupu, Wayne Pygram, Jonathan Hardy
Modern day astronaut John Crichton (sci-fi names) is testing an experimental aircraft when he is hurled through a wormhole and winds up in a living spaceship called the Moya with a crew desperately trying to get away from space fascists called peacemakers.Farscapeis an ensemble-driven space drama in the vein ofFirefly. Unlike,Firefly, it has more than one season. Episodes explore sci-fi premises like alternate realities, omnipotent aliens and space bugs (yknow, those space bugs) while also developing each of the Moyas crew members and filling in their backstories. ThinkMass Effectif Shepard made a bunch of nerdy pop culture references. Plus, if the living spaceship thing didnt tip you off, things get pretty weird, and occasionally pretty silly. Harry Mackin
As one would expect from aStar Warsproperty, a fully-formed fantasy universe is immediately presented to us here, filled with interesting characters and lively backgrounds. Its a TV show with undeniable cinematic quality, and its alive: things click and whir and bleep and boop alongside foreign chatter and a host of interesting creatures. The world ofThe Mandalorianimmediately feels lived in, throwing us right into the middle of the story of the bounty hunter Mando himself (Pedro Pascal) and The Child (aka Baby Yoda) with unknown powers who he must protect as he travels across the galaxy.
With wonderfully short episodes that play with a number of different genres,The Mandalorianis both warm and action-packed, sparsely and carefully populated with characters whohowever short their tenureall make a memorable mark. Not enough can be said about Pascals husky voice work, as he somehow makes the masked Mando (whose face we dont see until the very end) a fully-realized character. And yet, the show is absolutely stolen out from under him by a tiny puppet with whom everyone in the production (including Werner Herzog) and every viewer watching became obsessed with. Favreaus choice to ground as much of the series as possible with practical effects (including The Child, the pinnacle of the form) was key in making this story about a ragtag group of space travelers feel wonderfully tangible and emotionally grounded. Allison Keene
Created by:Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars:Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Jodi Whitaker, Peter Capaldi
Originally launched in 1963, The Doctor returned to the TV screen in 2005, traveling through time and space in the TARDIS, an antiquated and surprisingly spacious blue police box. The special effects may have gotten marginally better, but the camp has stayed the same. With Russell T. Davies at the helm and David Tennant playing the 10th doctor, the show was never better. Now theres a new DoctorJodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the roleto continue, and evolve, the tradition.
Showrunner Chris Chibnall hasnt been shy about messing with the decades ofDoctor Whocanon that preceded his reign, but Whitakers charmingly manic portrayal of the Doctor has given him some cover with fans. And most importantly, hes kept it interesting, surprising us with a historic new incarnation of the Doctor, and a massive revelation about the Doctors own origin story in the Series 12 finale, The Timeless Childrenfeaturing not just one, but two of the Doctors most iconic nemeses. Ultimately, the new team has kept the long-running sci-fi series feeling as fresh and vital as ever. Josh Jackson
Stars:Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Josh Whedon is, without a doubt, a prescient storyteller. The complicated mind who dreamed upBuffy the Vampire Slayerhad his eyes set on the future when he createdFireflyin 2002; now, nearly 20 years later, its hard not to acknowledge that a lot of what Whedons short-lived series predicted is more possible than ever. The series is set in the year 2517, after humans have debunked their current solar system for a new star system with its own set of rules and norms. The titular Firefly refers to a renegade crew of nine people who live on Serenity, a Firefly-class spaceship. In this future, the United States and China are the only two surviving superpowers, and theyve now merged into a central federal government called the Alliance. Sound familiar? Theres a lot of criminal activity that goes down aboard the spaceship, including smuggling rings, bounty hunters, and frozen bodies, and plenty of sexual tension between Malcolm Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin). Great for a long weekend binge, given that the series was cancelled after just one season, much to its loyal fans unending disappointment. Joyce Chen
Every debate over whether or notCowboy BebopShinichir? Watanabes science-fiction masterpieceis the pinnacle of anime is a semantic one. It is, full stop. Its particular blend of space-based cyberpunk intrigue, Western atmosphere, martial arts action, and noir cool in seinen form is unmatched and widely appealing. Its existential and traumatic themes are universally relatable. Its ragtag group of bounty hunting characters are complex and flawed, yet still ooze cool. The future it presents is ethnically diverse and eerily prescient. Its English dub, boasting some of Americas greatest full-time voiceover talents, somehow equals the subtitled Japanese-language original. Its 26-episode run was near-perfect, and episodes that might have been filler in another series are tight, taut, and serve the shows thesis even as they do not distract from its overarching plot, which is compelling but not overbearing. Its accessible to new hands and still rewards old-timers with every repeated watch. Yoko Kannos magnificent, jazz-heavy soundtrack and score stand on their own. Its opening credits are immaculate. Its an original property, not an adaptation. It feels like a magnum opus produced at the pinnacle of a long career despite being, almost unbelievably, Watanabes first series as a director. It is a masterwork that should justly rank among the best works of television of all time, let alone anime. We eagerly await a rival. Were not holding our breath. John Maher
Created by:Glen A. Larson (original), Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Stars:Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tricia Heifer, Grace Park, Tahmoh Penikett
Theres often a dichotomy in art between the epic and the personal. Smaller stories, those dealing with the kinds of challenges we regularly experience-family, romance, friendship, work, money-connect because theyre familiar. We watch epic films likeBraveheartorLord of the Ringsto get caught up in struggles much greater than we face and vicariously inherit the satisfaction of seeing them overcome. But then we read novels with minimal plots to see people like ourselves make the same stupid mistakes we do and come out on the other side having changed. Science fiction is almost entirely the domain of epic stories-working through a relationship gets completely overshadowed with the fate of humanity on the line. This is one of the main things sci-fi fans love about the genre and also what many people hate about it. So when people say thatBattlestar Galacticais a show with a broader appeal than sci-fi, this is partly what theyre getting at.
Creator Ronald D. Moore took the bare bones of a campy 1970s series and completely reimagined it, bringing a realism that sci-fi hadnt quite seen before. The ship itself is aging and cramped. Quarters are claustrophobic, leading their inhabitants to live in a hyper-sensitive fishbowl-everyone is in everyone elses business. But whereBattlestar Galacticatrumps other sci-fi stories in the minutia, it also beats them at their own epic game. Each season propels the main story arc along at light speed. A limited number of Cylon models are perfect human replicasskinjobs whove infiltrated the human fleet. Their relationship with humanity grows more complex as disagreement arises within their ranks. And humanitys search for the mythical Earth is full of constant surprises.
Nearly every season is better than the last (even the misguided mess of a finale has its emotionally wrenching moments). With no alien civilizations to discover, Moore turns his lens inward on the species we know best. All the tensions in life are examined: religion vs. science, safety vs. freedom, the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, conscience vs. loyalty, passion vs. commitment. And the shows big questionWhat does it mean to be human?is explored on every level, big and small. (Note for new viewers, make sure you watch the miniseries first) Josh Jackson
Stars:Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton
The original series was pioneering.Deep Space NineandVoyagerhad their moments. ButTNGwas head-and-shoulders the greatestStar Trekfranchise (And one of the best sci-fi series of all time). Jean Luc Picard. Data. Worf. The holodeck. The Borg. Gene Roddenbury must not have had a cynical bone in his body, and watching his characters explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before, I didnt either. Josh Jackson
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