Here’s a show with a solid cast, a great premise, and all the potential in the world that appears to have been noted to death by the network. Watching the first season play out in 1995, episodes would seemingly be aired out of order. You’d weirdly see the resolution to a cliffhanger for an episode that would premiere weeks later. It was frustrating as a viewer. Yet, the cast had great chemistry — and there was so much for the show to explore as they jumped through alternate versions of Earth. It should have been an above-average series that combined Quantum Leap with the Twilight Zone. As the show went on, it got louder and dumber. Simply put, it didn’t live up to those expectations. Still, those first two seasons are fantastic science fiction and worth checking out.
Image Source: Richard Cartwright/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images
A bawdy, irreverent story of five young delinquents who, while on community service, get caught up in a strange thunderstorm and quickly discover that they’ve been given narratively ironic superpowers. The show would grow and evolve from that initial premise, adding new characters and exploring some of the mythology around the how and why people have gained extraordinary abilities. With that said, it would never lose its pitch black yet still wildly silly comedy.
Image Source: Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images
23. The Mandalorian
The best of the Disney+ Star Wars series, The Mandalorian is as much a western as it is a piece of science fiction. The adventures of the ever-helmeted bounty hunter Din Djarin and the infinitely adorable Grogu are certainly compelling, but the show is elevated by an endless parade of fantastic guest stars. The only black mark on this series is an over-reliance on fan service moments. Here’s hoping future seasons move away from the familiar Jedi and Imperial Star Wars stuff, and show us something new in this franchise.
Image Source: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images
A blistering satire of corporate office culture, Severance is a well-crafted mystery box of a show that is equal parts fun, witty, chilling and nightmarish. The story takes its time, both in its pacing and in how it delivers a steady diet of questions and answers — all building to a final episode that is one of the most gripping hours of television you’ll find. If you’ve been on the fence, Severance is reason enough to sign up for that free month of Apple TV+.
If it manages to sustain this level of quality going forward and properly pays off its high concept premise, Severance will skyrocket up this list.
Image Source: IMDb
21. The Prisoner
We’re of course talking about the original 1967 series starring Patrick McGoohan and not the inferior remake produced by AMC in 2009. The Prisoner is a bizarre, mind-bending 17 episode show about a former high-level government agent who is kidnapped and sent to a mysterious “Village” after resigning his post. There he encounters, among other things, human chess boards, duplicate prisoners, telepathy and a guard named Rover that looks like a giant inflated weather balloon. Quirky, unsettling, and sometimes just outright surreal, it is worth experiencing at least once even if it doesn’t ultimately give firm answers to its many mysteries.
Image Source: Archive Photos/Getty Images
20. Black Mirror
Charlie Brooker’s modern take on the Twilight Zone, Black Mirror is a well-acted anthology series with slick production and occasionally fantastic writing. Not every episode works ; episodes sometimes veer from insightful social commentary into the realm of heavy-handed moralizing. When Black Mirror hits, it produces some fantastic television. “San Junipero” and “USS Callister” stand out as the series’ two best entries. The interactive film “Bandersnatch” is a notable curiosity. Black Mirror has done an admirable job re-popularizing the anthology series.
Image Source: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage
19. Quantum Leap
It’s a tough business, putting right what once went wrong. Yet, that’s what Dr. Sam Beckett is fated to do as he (quantum) leaps from body to body through the last 50 years of history. Thankfully, he’s assisted by his friend Al, projected to Sam through space and time as a hologram, and the powerful supercomputer Ziggy. It’s a mouthful of a premise (that is spelled out during the opening credits of every episode) delivering an endless series of fish-out-of-water stories. Drama, comedy, horror, war, mystery, Quantum Leap has an episode in every genre imaginable.
Image Source: Gary Null/NBCU Photo Bank
Often held up as the classic “canceled too soon” show, Firefly is an interesting mashup of Sci-Fi swashbuckling and reconstruction-era westerns. It’s created by Joss Whedon, and contains all of his strengths as well as his weaknesses. What works best here is the core cast of nine crew members. Each has a strongly defined and unique set of core values that shapes how they deal with their place in this universe. All are united under the common goal of cobbling together enough money to limp on to the next adventure. The first and only season was a smash hit on DVD despite poor ratings. I feel as if it’s slightly overrated today. Though, had it not been canceled, there could have been a great couple of seasons of television here.
Image Source: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
17. Babylon 5
Give J. Michael Straczynski a ton of credit for how ahead of his time he was with Babylon 5. When most shows were desperate to return to the familiarity of the status quo at the end of every episode, Straczynski’s was instead producing highly serialized television where the events of an episode or season arc would have far reaching implications for the rest of the series. It was a big ask for audiences in the ’90’s, but those that were able to follow the story were treated to a rich and arresting experience. Also worth noting that of the 110 episodes of Babylon 5 produced, Straczynski wrote 92 of them. It’s quite the achievement.
Image Source: IMDb
Fringe started off as an X-Files style monster of the week show with the occasional episode that would hint at its larger mythology. Later seasons would become much more serialized. It joyfully careens completely off the rails, assaulting the audience with twists, turns, reveals and rewinds. It’s completely ridiculous, pulpy b-movie science fiction. Yet, it is incredibly watchable thanks mainly to John Noble and his all-timer performance as Dr. Walter Bishop. The mad scientist is responsible for almost every terrible thing that happens on the show. This isn’t going to be confused with high art, but Fringe is extremely enjoyable nonsense.
Image Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
15. Neon Genesis Evangelion
Despite being an entry in the oversaturated genre of mecha anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a wholly singular piece of science fiction. Creator Hideaki Anno was clearly working through some things while creating and writing this show, as it uses the trapping of mecha and an apocalyptic narrative to tell a deeply personal story about characters dealing with psychological trauma. This is arguably the most challenging series on this list, with a controversial final few episodes and some shocking imagery for a mainstream American audience to digest. Regardless, this series and the reboot (or possibly sequel) films are worth seeking out.
Image Source: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP via Getty Images
14. Station Eleven
A post-apocalyptic miniseries about how the world can be healed through the power of theater.
Okay, so that’s being overly reductive, but it’s not entirely untrue. Taking place during and also many years after a dangerous flu wipes out most of humanity, what sets Station Eleven apart from shows that have covered similar ground is that it approaches its dark, heavy themes with an unquenchable optimism. It believes that humanity can carry on — can actually make things better (despite even the worst of circumstances). Because of the subject matter and slow pacing, it isn’t for everyone. However if you’re able to get over those humps, there’s a lot of great here.
Image Source: IMDb
Good news everyone! Futurama is rumored to be returning to televisions in 2023 via Hulu. The science-fiction cousin of The Simpsons, Futurama is a brilliant animated series that is equal parts hilarious and incredibly deft at telling compelling science fiction stories. It is also a show written by nerds, for nerds, with many jokes narrow-cast towards mathematicians, engineers and scientists by way of fart jokes. The brilliant thing is, these don’t simply fly over the heads of the rest of us, but are enriched if you have the additional knowledge. It’s this commitment to combining high-minded scientific theory and crude, low-brow humor that makes Futurama a unique and enduring series.
Image Source: Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Fox
Westworld finds itself at this position on our list based upon the strength of its first season alone. That isn’t to say the second and third seasons are completely without merit (each has its moments). With that said, that first season is a singular, brilliant piece of science-fiction television. The unconventional narrative structure is almost dream-like, hypnotic even, with the repetitive nature of the lives of the park’s “hosts” used to obfuscate the timing or context of scenes and events. On a lesser show this would simply frustrate the viewer. Here, it helps to reinforce the show’s themes. It creates some mind-bending reveals that will have you excited to start back over at episode one to see if you can untangle the creators’ tricks.
The climax, thankfully, fully satisfies the narrative of the season — meaning it can stand alone as a story or be the jumping off point to the rest of the show. It is completely up to the viewer.
Image Source: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images
11. Cowboy Bebop
Cowboy Bebop’s strength is that it is a jumble of ideas and genres: A mix of classic sci-fi, the western, neo-noir and pulp fiction seasoned with an appreciation for music and a wry sense of humor. Everything about Cowboy Bebop is dripping with cool. Because it borrows from so many disparate sources, there’s a familiarity that makes it more inviting for American audiences than some other anime. It is also the rare instance where the dub is almost as good as the sub. Pay no attention to the live action remake, Cowboy Bebop remains one of the best anime series ever produced.
Image Source: IMDb
10. Stargate SG-1
Despite what others have written, the original 1994 Stargate movie isn’t that bad. It’s no masterpiece, but it is still an enjoyable if not somewhat sleepy piece of early ’90’s sci-fi. That being said, it’s still nowhere near as good as the show that it spawned, Stargate SG-1, the first and inarguably the best series in the franchise. Stargate SG-1 is comfort television. Unlike other sci-fi in the 2000’s, it never takes itself too seriously — nor does it ask much from its audience. It also benefits from having one of the great television actors of his generation: Richard Dean Anderson. Much like the charming and steady Stargate SG-1, Anderson is just so watchable.
Image Source: Shane Harvey/Syfy/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine committed to long term story arcs and status quo-shattering cliffhangers unlike any other Star Trek show that came before it. It might seem common now, especially when modern Trek shows like Discovery and Picard essentially tell a single story over the course of a season, but in the ’90’s this was groundbreaking stuff. The entire latter half of the series, for example, is dominated by the “Dominion War” storyline (which also added layers of cynicism and darkness to the franchise that persists to this day). There are plenty of clunkers in the series, particularly in the first few seasons. However, the best DS9 episodes stand shoulder to shoulder with anything The Next Generation or the original series can offer.
Image Source: CBS Sports via Getty
No, they didn’t quite stick the landing. But that shouldn’t invalidate the six seasons of incredible television that built to the conclusion. In its initial run, Lost was a legit phenomenon. Discussing the previous night’s episode became something of a sport, with people brandishing wild theories and speculation on what the next twist or reveal might be.
And those twists? There are at least four jaw-dropping moments in the series that will send you reeling. It’s not all perfect, and some of the obvious filler episodes (particularly in season 3) can be frustrating, but there’s just too much great here to dismiss this show outright. Lost is a sci-fi classic.
Image Source: CHRISTIAN ALMINANA/AFP via Getty Images
7. Stranger Things
Forget about the Upside Down, black spores, telekinesis, mindflayers, demogorgons, and other assorted creepy crawlies/supernatural goings-on that the Duffer Brothers have conjured up in their fantastic sci-fi horror series. The real appeal of Stranger Things is its relationships between the characters. In the latest series, for example, you almost completely forget about Vecna’s machinations the first time Eleven and Mike are reunited. That’s the good stuff.
From the beginning, the ’80’s nostalgia fest has always been grounded by the innocent charms of childhood friendship. Of course, that’s evolved over time as the characters have aged and their circumstances have changed. However, it’s still what keeps the show interesting. It’s also worth noting that Stranger Things is never afraid to be genuinely scary and at times quite disgusting (even with such a young cast). It stays true to its ’80’s roots and doesn’t soften any edges. That’s quite refreshing in 2022.
Image Source: Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images
6. The X-Files
Here’s another high concept series that is always at its best when it is less concerned for its mythology than it is the central relationship between the two leads. From episode one, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have palpable chemistry. Not necessarily romantic (though that’s eventually there), but as two people with professional respect for one another despite having diametrically opposed world views on the supernatural.
Keeping mostly to its monster of the week structure broken up by the occasional greater lore episode, X-Files has a wide array of high quality episodes of television, some hilariously funny and others genuinely upsetting. Sure, it falls apart in later seasons. It has to make choices and provide concrete answers. However, that doesn’t mean this isn’t some of the best sci-fi you can find.
Image Source: FOX Image Collection via Getty Images
5. Star Trek
One of the most influential science fiction programs in the history of television, there’s little new to be said about the show that launched one of the most lucrative media franchises in history. So much of the show is so foundational to pop culture, and has been borrowed from/parodied in every way possible. As such, we take its greatness for granted. Take William Shatner’s performance as the iconic James T. Kirk. For years, his acting choices became a punchline. In the context of the show, they are often actually borne from character moments. Shatner is a confident and boastful captain putting on a brave face for a desperate crew.
Sure, there are some stinker episodes — especially in the third and final season. With that said, most of Star Trek continues to hold up as a great television show 55 years later. Hopefully we will get access to the non-remastered versions of the series on streaming. The enhanced effects added to the blu-ray releases are good, but they lack some of the charm of the originals.
Image Source: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images
4. The Expanse
It begins as two different shows crammed together: One about the ill-fated crew of an ice freighter that makes a dangerous discovery, the other a noir story of a burned-out detective on Ceres station trying to solve a mystery and clear his conscience.
The brilliance of The Expanse is the way it begins on these relatively small stories and then allows itself to (ahem) expand into the broader socio-political issues the show will become about. We are introduced to new characters, new factions, new double and triple crosses in such a confident and measured way that the audience never feels lost or overwhelmed. By the end of the final season, you’ll have become an expert in the science and politics behind the world of The Expanse.
Incredible action, relatable characters, plenty of surprise twists and narrative gut punches. It is one of the greatest sci-fi series of all-time. Here’s hoping Amazon gives them the chance to produce a final few films to finish out the rest of the story.
Image Source: IMDb
3. The Twilight Zone
The oldest show on our list, running from 1959 to 1964, but also one of the most influential. Led by the brilliant Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone cleverly used the trappings of fantasy and science fiction to hold a mirror up to contemporary society He did it in a way that would hopefully slip under the noses of sponsors (particularly when addressing more controversial topics). There are too many superlative episodes to possibly list here, though you’re likely already at least vaguely familiar with many of them through cultural osmosis. Some episodes are chilling, others quite funny, and they span nearly every genre of the medium. There have been many attempts to reboot this classic anthology series, including Jordan Peele’s currently uneven but occasionally intriguing take on the format. With all of that said, none have come close to having the cultural impact as the original.
Image Source: CBS via Getty
2. Battlestar Galactica (2004)
Like Lost, Battlestar Galactica historically suffers from having an unsatisfying conclusion. For some that may be the case, but on recent re-watch it feels like a lot of the disappointment simply came from the large break that was taken in the middle of the final season (thus hurting its narrative momentum). With the ability to binge, that gets thrown completely out the window.
Beginning with the fantastic mini-series and following that up with “33”, arguably the best episode of the series, Battlestar Galactica grabs you from minute one with its dark, propulsive story of human survival. Every episode feels like a desperate crawl away from annihilation for the dwindling population of the Twelve Colonies. It isn’t always perfect, but there are few sci-fi shows that will leave you as breathless as Battlestar Galactica.
Image Source: Carole Segal/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images
1. Star Trek: The Last Generation
Producing a follow-up series to the original Star Trek was an impossible task, considering there were no returning cast members and every element of the show was completely reconsidered and redesigned. It took them two entire seasons to work it out. But eventually, The Next Generation would not only become a satisfying sequel to Star Trek, but would ultimately surpass the original in every way.
It all starts with the new captain. Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard brought a dignity and professionalism to the cast that elevated everyone and everything around him. He is a diplomat and an explorer. The Next Generation writers would lean into that with stories that were more about answering big questions and thinking your way out of problems rather than double backfisting a Gorn. The rest of the cast also developed a wonderful chemistry. Despite this being a largely episodic show, these characters organically grew and changed as people over the seven seasons. Other Star Trek shows now have the same problem The Next Generation did, coming into existence in the shadow of a giant. An impossible task.
Image Source: CBS via Getty