Friday 25 March 2016

Gratuitous Lists: The Twenty Best SF TV Shows of All Time

In the grand tradition of Gratuitous Lists, here's a look at the twenty Best Science Fiction TV Shows of All Time (that I can think of today). The list is in alphabetical order, not order of quality, nor is there a #1 choice as I'd probably have a totally different choice tomorrow. So rather than argue about arbritary placements on the list, you can instead yell at me at what got left off.

In case you're wondering, the list contains only overtly science fictional TV shows. No fantasy (that'd be another, different list) and no anime, as I'm not well-enough versed in the field. After some debate, also no superhero stuff as the SF credentials of those shows can vary wildly and there's enough of them now to make for another list.

Babylon 5
Comprises: 5 seasons (110 episodes), 6 TV movies
Aired: 22 February 1993-25 November 1998
Spin-offs: Crusade, Legends of the Rangers, The Lost Tales

Premise: In the mid-23rd Century (spanning the years 2257-62), five powerful interstellar empires and a host of smaller worlds agree to send representatives to Babylon 5, a massive space station serving as a centre for trade, diplomacy and travel. Babylon 5 is seen as the greatest hope for maintaining peace and prosperity. However, several of the major powers fall into war and civil war and the return of a powerful, engimatic and overwhelmingly hostile alien race threatens the entire galaxy. It falls to the crew of Babylon 5 to lead the fight back against overwhelming odds.

When it comes to "proper" science fiction on the small screen, Babylon 5 may represent one of the greatest achievements of the genre and the medium. Created, produced and mostly written (91 out of the 110 episodes) by hardcore, old-school SF fan and writer J. Michael Straczynski, the series is remarkable on several levels. It was the first TV show to use CGI to create all of its effects, it was the first TV show designed to tell a single story with a beginning, middle and end unfolding over a hundred episodes and it was the first (and only, until Battlestar Galactica and Farscape) American space opera TV series to go more than two seasons since Star Trek. The storylines veer from pulp to musings on hard SF ideas, but overall the series is remarkable for its consistent and broad vision which analyses everything from philosophy to religion to politics to economics. The story is told through a broad away of three-dimensional, deeply conflicted and troubled characters. Light-years from Star Trek: The Next Generation's "perfect" heroes, the show made the future more relatable, grittier and a little more human place.

The show has not aged as well as some others on this list: the show was made on a challenging budget and it occasionally shows. Straczynski also wrote many of the episodes in just a few days (some of them in a few hours) and absolutely joyful, brilliant dialogue sits alongside hammy exposition and some wince-inducing attempts at comedy. Also, almost fully half of the fifth season is a dire slog due to some severe pacing, production and acting issues. But at its best Babylon 5 can comfortably be called one of the greatest SF TV shows of all time.

Five unmissable episodes: Chrysalis, The Coming of Shadows, In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum, Severed Dreams, Sleeping in Light.

Battlestar Galactica
Comprises: 4 seasons (74 episodes), 1 mini-series (2 episodes), 2 TV movies
Aired: 8 December 2003-20 March 2009
Spin-offs: Caprica, Blood & Chrome

Premise: The Twelve Colonies of humanity are home to fifty billion people, united in fear of the Cylons, their robotic servitors who disappeared into deep space following a devastating war. Forty years later, they return without warning, shut down the Colonial Fleet with a computer virus and nuke the colonies into the stone age. The battlestar Galactica survives the attack and gathers together 50,000 survivors in a fleet of ragtag ships. With little choice, the survivors escapes into deep space, pursued by the Cylons and driven by one goal: to find the mysterious Thirteenth Colony, known in legend as "Earth".

The original Battlestar Galactica (which actually wasn't far off making this list) was a Star Wars-influenced Biblical epic which was actually, considering when it was made (1979), not that bad a show. It was fairly cheesy and had some baffling plot decisions, but it was entertaining. Its dire spin-off, Galactica 1980, not so much. But the general feeling in American TV circles was that there was something fundamentally awesome about the premise which the original series had not exploited properly.

Fast forwards to 2003 and ex-Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore, bruised from a failed attempt to bring greater realism and grit to Star Trek: Voyager, was given the task of updating BSG for the post-9/11 world. His take was extraordinary, bringing together religion, politics and war into a story that was often eerily prescient of real-world developments in how it handled the freedom of speech, the rights of the individual in the face of existential threats and the interaction of the military and the civilian population it is sworn to protect. BSG is actually a stronger and more interesting meditation on terrorism and freedom fighting than either 24 or Homeland, which is extraordinary. The series is also remarkable for its flawless cast - led by the magisterial Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell - and amazing effects: one of the first shows made in HD throughout (including the CGI) it still looks beautiful today. To cap things off, the show also has one of the most accomplished musical scores of any TV show in history, provided by the versatile Bear McCreary.

Unfortunately, the show did develop significant issues as it went along. The opening mini-series and the first two seasons, lasting into the fourth or fifth episode of the third season, are almost flawlessly great (okay, Black Market excepted). But in the third season the lack of forward-planning and the producers' insistence on changing their original ideas without any regard for the backstory and an increasing desire to do things because they were "cool" rather than logical became highly problematic. The decision to reveal the identities of several Cylon agents in the fleet as familiar characters using a baffling choice of song to trigger them arguably saw the show mortally wounded, not helped by a lengthy wait for the final season and broadcast dates interfered with by the network. It's a tribute to the actors and writers that, despite these enormous problems, the show remained watchable right up to the (highly contentious and still fiercely-debated) end and great episodes could still be found amongst the increasing levels of mysticism and lazy plotting. But if there was any show that showed that the journey matters more than the destination, it is BSG. If it had been cancelled after the second season, it would simply be remembered as the greatest SFF TV show ever made, and one of the very best TV shows full stop, and everyone should certainly check those episodes out.

Five unmissable episodes: 33, Kobol's Last Gleaming, Pegasus, Downloaded, Exodus Part II.

Blake's 7
Comprises: 4 seasons (52 episodes)
Aired: 2 January 1978-21 December 1981

Premise: A thousand years in the future, Earth and its colony worlds are ruled by a tyrannical government known as the Terran Federation. A freedom fighter named Blake led a rebel army against the Federation but was defeated and captured, his memory erased and turned into a puppet and model citizen. When his former allies contact Blake and help restore his memories, the Federation frames him as a child molestor and sentences him to life imprisonment on a remote penal colony. But on the way Blake and a motley collection of fellow prisoners escape on a powerful alien starship which they turn against the Federation. But as Blake's personal crusade continues, he finds his idealism may not be enough to justify the bloodshed.

Blake's 7 is a show that was so far ahead of its time that it's really quite remarkable that it was even made. It started in 1978 in the aftermath of the release of Star Wars, but it made quite a contrast with that glossy story of heroes and villains. Blake's 7 is morally murky and ambiguous. Its central characters sometimes do horrendous things in the name of the "greater good" and the Federation is presented as a more complex, nuanced organisation than simply a collection of black hats: the initial presentation of villains such as Travis, complete with robotic gun-arm and eyepatch, and then adding layers of complexity to them was simply unthinkable for a low-budget 1970s British SF show but Blake's 7 did it anyway. The show is also notable for its most popular character being Avon (Paul Darrow), an amoral, opportunistic and greedy genius who doesn't share Blake's vision at all but only uses him for his own ends. The cynicism of the show is quite startling, the willingness to brutally kill off recurring characters with no warning even moreso.

Of course, the show has not aged tremendously well in the areas of production design or costumes and the acting can veer wildly from sublime to outright pantomime. And the visual effects never rise above serviceable and more frequently dip down to terrible. But if you can live with its visuals, Blake's 7 is a remarkable show that is cleverly-written, excellently-characterised and still has one of the most startling series finales of all time.

Five unmissable episodes: The Way Back, Seek-Locate-Destroy, Star One, Terminal, Blake.

Doctor Who
Comprises: 35 seasons (826 episodes forming 263 serials), 1 TV movie, 2 feature films.
Aired: 23 November 1963-6 December 1989, 12 May 1996, 26 March 2005-present
Spin-offs: K9 & Company, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Class

Premise: The Doctor is a Time Lord, a member of a race of highly advanced humanoid aliens who have mastered the art of time travel. Bored of life at home, he steals a TARDIS (time machine) and goes on the run, planning to explore the universe. Drawn to the planet Earth and often accompanied by human companions, the Doctor fights against forces for evil and chaos and champions the helpless and the oppressed, a journey that will last for thousands of years.

Doctor Who is the longest-running SF TV show in history: its first episode was delayed due to the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, gunned down in Dallas just a day earlier. It ran for 26 continuous seasons until 1989, when declining ratings and poor scheduling saw it removed from the screen. The BBC and Fox Studios collaborated on a one-off TV movie which was unexpectedly successful in the UK, leading to a full revival of the show in 2005. The show remains ongoing, with at least two further seasons planned.

The secret of Doctor Who's success is down to two things. First of all, the premise is extremely fluid, adaptable and versatile. It's extremely simple - the Doctor and his companion (or companions) show up, get involved in a situation and resolve it - but can lead to complex stories asking difficult questions. The tone is also remarkable malleable, with the show moving between comedy, drama and tragedy with ease. The second major component of the success was the decision to have the Doctor be able to "regenerate" into different forms and thus different actors. This has given the show its longevity, as it is no longer tied to the whim of the lead actor in how long he hangs around. As of right now, twelve different lead actors have played the role, each playing the same person but bringing a different sensibility to the character.

Given the sheer number of episodes produced across radically different periods of television production, it's unsurprising that there's a lot of poor episodes and weak stories in the classic series. There's also some quite remarkable, far-ahead-of-their-time stories dealing with issues including genocide, genetic engineering and chemical warfare. There were even periods when the show tried to be hard SF, as well as outright pantomime. The newer incarnation of the series boasts much-improved production values but has also dialled back the SF quotient in favour of stories based around magic and resolved through hand-waving. But ultimately Doctor Who works by using an alien and in many ways unrelatable being to explore what it means to be human.

Ten unmissable serials: An Unearthly Child (first episode only), The War Games, Day of the Daleks, Genesis of the Daleks, City of Death, The Caves of Androzani, The Girl in the Fireplace, BlinkThe Day of the Doctor, Heaven Sent.

Comprises: 1 season (14 episodes), 1 feature film
Aired: 20 September-20 December 2002

Premise: Earth-That-Was has been abandoned, the planet unable to support humanity any more. The human race has evacuated in its teeming billions to another star system, one with dozens of planets and hundreds of terraformable moons. The rich Inner Planets have formed the Alliance, where prosperity and riches are the order of the day. The poor Outer Planets are exploited for resources and labour. An attempted rebellion has been crushed. Malcolm Reynolds, a soldier on the wrong side of that war, now captains the Firefly-class trader ship Serenity, along with his crew of misfits and renegades. When two fugitives take up residence on the ship, Reynolds sees an opportunity to continue the fight against the Alliance.

Firefly is aptly-named, for it was  show that burned briefly but brightly. Created by Joss Whedon, hot off the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the show was supposed to run for multiple seasons and explore a number of different issues and ideas relating to authoriarianism, liberty and the notion of the state versus the individual. Instead, Fox interfered with production, messed up the running order of the episodes and treated the show badly, cancelling it before the first season had been completed. Such was the show's critical acclaim and high DVD sales, however, that Whedon was able to produce a movie, Serenity, which did (more or less) tie everything up.

What makes Firefly so appealing is its extraordinarily talented cast, most of whom have gone on to bigger and better things. Leader actor Nathan Fillion is now a bona fide American TV star due to his long run on Castle, whilst Morena Baccarin has proven a major hit on Homeland and in the movie Deadpool. Even guest actors went on to big things, most notably Christina Hendricks who became a staple of Mad Men. The show even had time to give a very young Zac Efron his first TV role. But beyond the unassailable cast is the show's writing and atmosphere, mixing Western and SF tropes together in an unusual manner and also evoking a remarkable tone of comedy, tragedy, nostalgia and bittersweetness, best-evoked in the perfectly-paced and remarkably-structured episode Out of Gas.

It's easy to be a bit cynical about Firefly, and to reflect that with another few seasons under its belt it might have jumped the shark or crashed and burned. But the fact that fourteen years on from transmission it is still cited as one of the best SF shows of all time shows that it does have something very special going for it.

Five unmissable episodes: Serenity, Shindig, Our Mrs. Reynolds, Out of Gas, Objects in Space, but seriously, it's only fourteen episodes and a movie. Just watch the whole thing.

Comprises: 5 seasons (100 episodes)
Aired: 9 September 2008-18 January 2013

Premise: FBI Agent Olivia Dunham, based in Boston, investigates an unusual event which draws her into a shadowy world of weird experiments, bizarre individuals with strange powers and technology driven out of control to unknown ends. She recruits a team of experts from inside and outside the FBI, most notably eccentric scientist Walter Bishop, to investigate the strange events as they grow exponentially in number and danger, hinting that something cataclysmic may be happening to our world, and maybe the entire universe.

Fringe is one of the less well-known shows on this list, although it aired on Fox TV for five seasons relatively recently to critical acclaim and was created by J.J. Abrams. Its relatively low profile and limited ratings (it actually stayed on the air more due to the goodwill of several Fox executives who simply loved the show) may be a result of viewer wariness. Fringe is, very deliberately, a spiritual successor to The X-Files and was produced by some of the same team as Lost. Given the way both shows developed, viewers may have simply been unwilling to trust the producers to create a coherent series rather than yet another muddled mess of confusing mythology and retcons.

Against the odds, that's exactly what they did. Fringe tells one coherent, linear (more or less) story over the course of its five seasons, a story with a beginning, middle and end that hangs together, makes sense and is tremendously satisfying. The show does a great job of explaining its premise, rationalising dramatic plot conveniences and furthering both the plot and character without sacrificing one for the other. None of this would mean a lot if the series didn't also have a note-perfect cast, dominated by sheer brilliance of John Noble as Walter Bishop. Not since Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard has an actor come along and brought such a devastating range and intensity to their role that makes every scene they are in electric to watch.

The show certainly isn't perfect. Early episodes are a little too procedural and stand-alone, and a few plot points and characters get inconsistent development based on actor availability. The show also took dramatic licence in its fourth and fifth season with its premise, basic set-up and character relationships which some fans found difficult to accept. But Fringe stands as a show that was never afraid to experiment and innovate and ended up all the stronger for it.

Five unmissable episodes: There's More Than One of Everything, White Tulip, Peter, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, Letters of Transit.

Comprises: 7 seasons (140 episodes)
Aired: 28 March 1999-4 September 2013

Premise: A pizza delivery boy named Fry is accidentally frozen on the eve of the new millennium. He wakes up a thousand years later to find that Earth is now part of an interstellar community of worlds and life still mostly consists of doing really boring and underpaid jobs. He gets a new role working for the Planet Express delivery corporation and learns more about the insane world in which he has arrived.

SF comedy is a rare beast, with most shows that attempt it falling back on the lazy trick of simply taking the mickey out of SF tropes. Those that succeed, however, allow comedy to arise naturally out of character and the situation rather than the genre. Futurama, at its best, falls into that category by creating a memorable bunch of relatable (but never too lovable) characters and letting them loose in a crazy universe.

Futurama works as a culture clash comedy and also an examination of politics, religion and entertainment using the futuristic society as a mirror to our times. More to the point, it's often very funny and occasionally outright surreal, able to drop in one-liners as well as elaborate gags set up over multiple episodes and everything inbetween. The show even occasionally uses actual hard science fiction ideas to drive some episodes. It also helps that the show organically develops characters such as Fry and Leela over the course of the series and allows that audience to invest in them and their relationships. In this sense, not to mention its considerably more restrained number of episodes, Futurama outstrips its parent show The Simpsons in quality.

There are some weak episodes in the mix, of course, and the show being cancelled and revived several times certainly hurt its momentum, but overall Futurama is a smart and humane slice of SF that also happens to be frequently hilarious

Five unmissable episodes: Jurassic Bark, The Why of Fry, Where No Fan Has Gone Before, The Prisoner of Benda, The Luck of the Fryrish.

The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Comprises: 1 mini-series (6 episodes)
Aired: 5 January-9 February 1981

Premise: Arthur Dent wakes up to discover that his house is being demolished to make way for a motorway bypass. This problem is rapidly eclipsed when the alien Vogons show up to demolish the entire Earth to make way for a hyperspace transit route. Rescued from flaming death by his best friend Ford Prefect (now revealed to be an alien from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse), Dent finds himself adrift in a hostile and bizarre universe. In order to survive, he has to know where his towel is, insert a small fish into his ear, keep hold of his copy of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (its vital cover blurb advice: "DON'T PANIC") and discover the Ultimate Question to Life, the Universe and Everything.

It's often said that the best version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the one you experienced first. For some people it's the original radio series, for others the novel or the computer game, and for many it's the TV mini-series. Obviously it's never the 2005 movie, which is just bad.

The TV mini-series of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams, is how I first encountered the franchise and remains my favourite version of it. The main reason for its superiority is its focus. By having to cram in the first two radio series/novels into just six epsiodes, Adams is able to drop a lot of the dead wood and padding from those versions and focus instead on the best elements. The result is six episodes jam-packed with humour, pathos, tragedy, hope, humanity, existentially-compromised whales and some talking white mice. The circular nature of the story, the wonderful animated entries from the Guide (and its fantastic narration) and the final (and near-heartbreaking) use of Louis Armstrong in the final moments of the series are all the icing on the cake to a story which ultimately encompasses the entirety of human history and civilisation, the end of the universe and the reason for the existence of life. Not bad for six episodes made by the BBC with what can charitably be called a "low" budget.

Six unmissable episodes: All of it.

Comprises: 6 seasons (121 episodes)
Aired: 22 September 2004-23 May 2010

Premise: On 22 September 2004, Oceanic Flight 815 is flying from Sydney to Los Angeles when it abruptly vanishes over the Pacific Ocean. In reality, the aircraft breaks up over an unusual island. Improbably, more than forty passengers survive. Dr. Jack Shephard, a medical doctor, becomes the reluctant leader of the survivors as they try to find shelter, food and water and devise a plan to escape or attract rescue. But there is something strange roaming the woods and one of the survivors, John Locke, becomes convinced that the island is much, much more than it appears.

Lost's first season aired to tremendous critical acclaim and popular success in 2004, winning plaudits for its writing, its remarkable focus on characterisation and its sense of mystery and family. As the show went on, the critical reception died down, optimism giving way to cynicism that that the writers and producers had no idea what was going on and they were making it all up as they went along. Yet the show's finale in 2010 did a better job than many expected of wrapping up the stories and mysteries, and ultimated provided a reasonable, if still bizarre, finale (although a late subplot revolving around the characters reuniting in a possible afterlife is probably best forgotten).

At its best, Lost developed characters in the most remarkable way possible, using entire episodes to flesh out single characters whilst also furthering their story on the Island. Sometimes they ran out of ideas for character backstory and this led to tangents best left unexplored (such as the infamous "Jack's Tattoo" episode), but overall it was a remarkable form of storytelling. Even better, Lost was willing to admit when the creative well was running dry and shift its paradigm accordingly. So in the fourth season the flashbacks were replaced by flash-forwards into the future, and then in the fifth season a bunch of characters were transported to another time period where they set in motion many of the events and mysteries they would later encounter in the present. Along the way, numerous factions, allies and adversaries were introduced and developed. Lost was also the most ruthless show on television, not afraid to kill off even very major characters when their purpose was achieved

At its worst, Lost was muddled and confusing, not being afraid to spend numerous episodes on what appeared to be a pivotal plot point (such as the Numbers and Jacob's cabin) and then abruptly dropping them and ignoring them after that point. The show also had a rather disconcerting habit of revealing key pieces of mythology in spin-off media (such as The Lost Experience, an online puzzle game) rather than on the main show, meaning that 99% of viewers missed that information. But Lost was also an honest show where the producers would acknowledge mistakes and course-correct. The series, as a whole, remains more coherent and comprehensible than it might be remembered for.

Of course, if you don't care about the backstory but more about the journey of the characters then Lost rarely put a foot wrong (apart from the tattoo episode, obviously, that was terrible). Even better, J.J. Abrams and his writers would learn from the mistakes they made on Lost on their next show, the rather better, tighter and more streamlined Fringe.

Five unmissable episodes: Pilot, Walkabout, Live Together, Die Alone, Through the Looking Glass, The Constant.

Orphan Black
Comprises: 4 seasons (40 episodes)
Aired: 30 March 2013-present

Premise: Sarah Manning returns home to reunite with her daughter, only to instead meet a woman who is her exact duplicate. This woman then commits suicide, leaving behind her belongings and access to her bank account. Broke and struggling to make ends meet, Sarah takes on the other woman's identity...only to discover that things are far more complicated than she realised.

This is the newest entry on this list, and one of the few still in production (Season 4 debuts in April and the show is set to conclude with a fifth season next year). Orphan Black is an interesting show because it is fundamentally about the ethics, morality and practicality of human cloning, but it approaches the story from the bottom up. We get to know one of the clones first, then a couple of her fellow "sisters" and it's a long way into the first (and perfectly-paced) season before we start getting to "the science bit". The show delves more deeply into the actual hard SF of the process of cloning than it's often given credit for, musing on ethics, the nature vs. nurture argument and the dangers that accompany the process.

But what makes Orphan Black shine the most is its fantastic, often jaw-dropping performance of lead actress Tatiana Maslany, who has to play multiple versions of the same character (some of them impersonating the others) and colour them with their own individuality. Some of the other shows on this list have also done this - Battlestar Galactica and Fringe most notably - but none as consistently well as Orphan Black.

Five unmissable episodes: Natural Selection, Instinct, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, To Hound Nature in Her Wanderings, Certain Agony of the Battlefield.

Quantum Leap
Comprises: 5 seasons (97 episodes)
Aired: 26 March 1989-5 May 1993

Premise: Dr. Sam Beckett discovers a way of travelling through time by transmitting his consciousness into the body of someone in the past. Unfortunately the process goes wrong and Sam finds himself "leaping" from person to person during his own lifespan at random. He is helped by Al, one of his colleagues who uses a holographic imaging chamber to visualise what is going on and provide advice and research on what Sam is experiencing. But Sam's one wish is to finally go home.

Quantum Leap is only really nominally science fiction: it has a bit at the start and end of each episode but for the rest the time the show is mostly a morality play. However, it does occasionally deploy clever use of its time travel premise. Most notably is the fact that Sam can actually change history and that as far as everyone else is concerned, history has already been this way. At key points it is revealed that our history originally unfolded different and only became the way we remember it thanks to Sam's actions. Quantum Leap may be the slightest show on this list in terms of SF content, but it is also one of the best at doing tonal variations and it does also have one of the most memorable and powerful conclusions.

Five unmissable episodes: The Colour of Truth, MIA, Killin' Time, A Leap for Lisa, Mirror Image.

Red Dwarf
Comprises: 10 seasons (61 episodes)
Aired: 15 February 1988-5 April 1999, 10-12 April 2009, 4 October 2012-present

Premise: Dave Lister is the lowest-ranking technician on the five-mile-long mining ship Red Dwarf. When it is discovered that he has smuggled a cat on board at Titan, he is sentenced to two years in stasis. When he wakes up, he discovers that a radiation leak has killed the crew and the ship's controlling AI, Holly, has taken the vessel into deep space to avoid contamination. Oh, and three million years have passed. Lister's only companions on his long voyage home are the holographic recreation of his officious superior officer, a humanoid being who evolved from his pet cat and a neurotic android with a cleaning fixation.

Red Dwarf, like Futurama many years later, works as a science fiction comedy because the the SF background is treated like that, a background, and the comedy emerges naturally from the (brilliantly, sometimes tragically) well-drawn characters and storylines. But Red Dwarf is also frequently cutting edge in its approach to hard science ideas, like nanotechnology, parallel universes, genetic engineering and cloning. A note-perfect cast is backed up - for its second through sixth seasons anyway - by smart and witty scripts and an impressive depth of characterisation.

The show did go off the rails in its seventh and eighth seasons, after original co-writer Rob Grant departed, and the less said about the terrible ninth season the better, but the most recent reboot of the series was surprisingly good, with the show making effective commentary about ageing and mortality. Two more seasons have been filmed for transmission in 2016 and 2017, and hopefully will continue this welcome return to form.

Five unmissable episodes: Kryten, Thanks for the Memory, Marooned, Polymorph, Back to Reality.

Stargate SG-1
Comprises: 10 seasons (214 episodes), 2 TV movies, 1 feature film
Aired: 27 July 1997-13 March 2007
Spin-offs: Atlantis, Universe

Premise: The United States uncovers an ancient device, a stargate, linking Earth to remote corners of the universe. A special team is formed to explore other worlds through the stargate, but in doing so they draw hostile attention to the planet and also allow the formation of new alliances.

The 1994 movie Stargate was only a modest success, more notable for launching the career of Roland Emmerich than anything else, but Showtime took the unusual (for the time) move of making the sequel on television. Starring the mighty Richard Dean Anderson, the show somehow went on for ten seasons and over two hundred episodes. It did so by being an effectively entertaining and fun show, swapping the earnestness of Star Trek and seriousness of Battlestar Galactica for an embracing of cheese, camp and comedy. However, it was also canny enough to know when to switch gears to present more dramatic stories when necessary. It was successful enough to spawn two spin-offs, Atlantis which was made in a similar vein and proved highly popular, and Universe which tried to switch tones to something far darker and grimmer and only lasted two seasons. There's an awful lot to criticise about Stargate SG-1, but it's difficult to resist its old-school sense of fun and adventure.

Five unmissable episodes: Children of the Gods, Thor's Chariot, Reckoning, The Shroud, 200

Star Trek
Comprises: 3 seasons (79 episodes), 7 feature films (original cast), 3 feature films (reboot)
Aired: 8 September 1966-3 June 1969
Spin-offs: The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise

Premise: In the 23rd Century humanity has joined forces with several other alien races (most notably the Vulcans) to form the United Federation of Planets, dedicated to peace and exploration. One of its most powerful starships, the USS Enterprise, is on a five-year mission into deep space under the command of Captain James T. Kirk.

When it began airing in 1966, Star Trek completely rewrote the rulebook on science fiction on television. Gene Roddenberry's series mixed together Horatio Hornblower, life in the US Navy and the (then) cutting-edge field of space exploration. It was forward-thinking, having a black woman as a senior officer on the ship (even if she didn't get that much to do) and, at the height of the Cold War, showing American and Russian crewmembers cooperating peacefully. But what the show did best of all was establish a core, unimpeachable dynamic between actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley that would carry the series on through 79 episodes and seven (well, six-and-a-half) feature films.

This is all in spite of the fact that most of the final season of Star Trek was extremely poor, and dodgy episodes would blight its run. In its homage episode, even Futurama had to suggest that Star Trek was "seventy-nine episodes, about thirty good ones". But at its best, Star Trek was great science fiction and great, human drama, as well as giving us, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of the best SF movies of all time.

Five unmissable episodes: Balance of Terror, Space Seed, The Trouble with Tribbles, The City on the Edge of Forever, Amok Time.

Star Trek: The Next Generation
Comprises: 7 seasons (178 episodes), 4 feature films
Aired: 28 September 1987-23 May 1994

Premise: In the mid-24th Century, a hundred years after the time of Kirk and Spock, the Galaxy-class USS Enterprise (the fifth starship to bear the name) begins a new series of voyages as the flagship of the Federation. However, its seven-year mission will see it become pivotal in a Klingon civil war, renewed relations with the Romulans, and the discovery of a terrifying, remorseless foe known as the Borg.

The notion of reviving Star Trek with an all-new crew was an interesting but risky one, and one that almost blew up in Paramount's face when Gene Roddenberry turned in a first season that had an awful lot of terrible episodes in it. Some face-saving rejigging of the creative crew and the bringing in of some excellent, fresh writers saved the show and saw it, especially from its third season, start hitting new heights of excellence. In particular, the third season cliffhanger saw the show become a cultural phenomenon and step out of its predecessor's shadow.

One of the best things about The Next Generation was seeing the characters change and grow, and none moreso than Patrick Stewart's absolutely fantastic portrayal of Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The entire cast did great work, and were better served than the original series (which often left many of the supporting characters with nothing to do for dozens of episodes at a time). The Next Generation also benefitted from better effects and also a less stringently episodic structure, with ongoing storylines and returning characters helping sell the idea of this future being an evolving, busy place.

If the show does have a problem is that it took a long while to find its feet, and the final season is a bit of a disaster (the production team unwisely focusing on the movies rather than winding the show down), but things do come together for a note-perfect finale. The success and appeal of Star Trek: The Next Generation pretty much created the 1990s science fiction boom, leading us to where we are today. On those grounds, it may be the most important and influential show on this list (but not the best).

Five unmissable episodes: The Measure of a Man, Q Who?, Yesterday's Enterprise, The Best of Both Worlds, The Inner Light.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Comprises: 7 seasons (178 episodes)
Aired: 3 January 1993-2 June 1999

Premise: After forty years of brutal occupation by the Cardassians, the planet Bajor desperately needs help. The Federation steps in to take command of an abandoned Cardassian space station and to lend aid in the rebuilding efforts. When a stable wormhole linking the Bajoran system to the distant Gamma Quadrant of the galaxy is discovered, the balance of power in the sector radically changes and it falls to Commander Sisko and his crew to maintain the peace.

Deep Space Nine, the third spin-off show from Star Trek and the first from The Next Generation, was the Star Trek show that dared to do things differently. It was more tightly serialised, had a much bigger cast - including an entire recurring cast of villains in the last few seasons - and took the themes of co-existence, peace, war, terrorism, religion and politics further than any Trek show had previously. Whilst certainly not as bleak as Battlestar Galactica (many of whose key writers started out on DS9), this was a distinctly darker and more uncomfortable incarnation of Star Trek.

It's also the best, featuring the highest hit-to-miss ratio of any of the Trek series and a consistency of quality that even The Next Generation cannot match. A de-emphasising of technobabble and magic button solutions (the bane of TNG and especially Voyager), a clear focus on character development, natural humour and a desire to humanise the occasionally sterile atmosphere of Star Trek all make this a compelling, hard-to-miss series. In characters like Weyoun and Dukat it even has villains to challenge Khan, as well as nailing Trek's most morally ambiguous character with "simple tailor" Garak. Later seasons would also feature still-impressive fleet battle sequences and see the ideals of the Federation (and Gene Roddeberry) tested as never before when full-scale war erupts between the Federation and the Dominion.

The show has its weak points (whilst the first two episodes have few outright awful episodes, there are a few dull hours, and the Bajoran political-religious stuff is fascinating to some but tedious to many), but ultimately it emerges as one of the greatest SF shows of all time: more consistent than TNG or Babylon 5 and with a far better ending than Battlestar Galactica, it's aged much better than the other Star Trek shows and is well worth a watch now.

Five unmissable episodes: Duet, The Visitor, Call to Arms, In the Pale Moonlight, Far Beyond the Stars.

The Twilight Zone
Comprises: 5 seasons (156 episodes),
Aired: 2 October 1959-19 June 1964

Premise: An anthology show exploring many different stories about science and the supernatural.

The oldest show on this list, The Twilight Zone is also one of the most impressive. Each episode had its own cast, locations, sets and costumes to arrange, lacking even the nominal recurring elements of a show like Doctor Who. The fact that the show hit such a consistently high rate of quality despite production limitations is a tribute to the production team, most notably the producer and most important writer, Rod Serling.

Even more startling is how well the series has aged. The notion of a show which has an overt morality lesson at the end seems quaint by today's standards, but the messages of episodes like The Invaders (in which we root for the plucky farmwife to see off the invading miniature "aliens" only to realise they're us) and The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street (in which civilisation collapses and turns in on itself simply by having electricity cut off for a few days) still resonates strongly. Whilst some of the episodes have aged less well, The Twilight Zone is still a remarkable achievement in writing and atmosphere.

Five unmissable episodes: It's a Good Life, To Serve Man, The Invaders, Time Enough at Last, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.

Comprises: 1 season (26 episodes)
Aired: 16 September 1970-24 July 1971

Premise: Alien spacecraft are covertly visiting Earth to abduct and run strange experiments on humans. The SHADO organisation, equipped with trained soldiers, orbital interceptors and scientific research facilities, has been formed to combat the alien menace, to understand it and to ultimately destroy it.

UFO is the lesser-known of Gerry Anderson's three major live-action SF series (the others being Space: 1999 and Space Precinct, the former being merely awful and the latter being totally unwatchable), which is a shame as it is by far the best. The notion of a secret military organisation combatting a series of stealthy alien attacks on Earth is highly compelling and in fact was rather blatantly borrowed by British video game developer Julian Gallop for his 1993 strategy game, UFO: Enemy Unknown (XCOM: UFO Defence in the USA). More recently these games have been remade as XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2, so the premise certainly has legs.

What marks out UFO as a different kind of show is its grim tone. The aliens have superior technology and completely inscrutable motivations. The "heroes" are deeply flawed, with realistic adult flaws such as alcoholism and PTSD (maybe standard today, but in 1970 pretty edgy stuff). UFO, particularly its more psychedelic moments, is in fact more influenced by The Prisoner than the likes of Doctor Who, and a clear line can be drawn from it to Blake's 7 and onwards to things like the remade Battlestar Galactica. Particularly dominant is the theme of total secrecy even over moral concerns: the episode The Square Triangle has SHADO discover a woman plotting to murder her husband when they encounter one of the aliens. SHADO alerting the authorities would also risk revealing the existence of the aliens, so they have to allow the woman to carry out her crime.

UFO is an underrated gem and, despite the crazy hairstyles, the extremely high production values for the time mean that it's aged quite well. A reboot/remake has been promised for years now, and like Blake's 7 it's a very good premise that could do with a modern reinterpretation.

Five unmissable episodes: Identified, A Question of Priorities, The Square Triangle, Mindbender, Timelash.

Comprises: 1 mini-series (6 episodes)
Aired: 15 September-20 October 1998

Premise: A London detective, Mike Colefield, is puzzled when his best friend disappears on the eve of his wedding. Investigating, he encounters a secret government taskforce which has been set up to combat the greatest threat the human race has ever known. Recruited into this force, Colefield has to balance his new role's requirement for secrecy with his personal life...and the fact that his friend has been recruited by the enemy.

Ultraviolet is a bit of a cheat to put on this list, because it's about vampires. But it's a show which treats vampires like nothing before or since: a scientifically-explained plague and threat to the human race which has to be fought with brains and intelligence as much as with stakes (well, carbon-tipped bullets) and daylight (ultraviolet-emitting torches). It's a vigourously, logically-thought-out show which takes the traditional vampire narrative and spins it on its head to turn it into a science fiction series.

As with all good vampire shows, it makes the life of an immortal being seem appealing but does so by appealing to more basic desires: a way of escaping cancer or continuing to control the company you set up decades ago by posing as your own grandson. But Ultraviolet pushes things in directions no-one was expecting. One episode uses the possibility of a woman impregnated by a vampire to explore abortion issues in a surprisingly confrontational, head-on way. Several of the characters have lost loved ones to the vampires and are suffering from emotional trauma. The show can be viewed as being much closer to the tone and spirit of The X-Files rather than Buffy, with the exception that Ultraviolet wraps up most of its mysteries by the end of its short run.

The show is also notable for giving Idris Elba his first big starring role (several years before The Wire) and featuring several of most beautifully-choreographed and intelligently-designed vampire kills in screen history (Elba's character turning a vampire in a cryo-suspension device into a makeshift explosive device is particularly memorable). An intelligent, gripping and smartly-written thriller, it's well worth seeking out.

Six unmissable episodes: All of them, natch.

The X-Files
Comprises: 10 seasons (208 episodes), 2 feature films
Aired: 10 September 1993-19 May 2002, 24 January 2016-present
Spin-offs: Millennium, The Lone Gunmen

Premise: Fox "Spooky" Mulder is an FBI agent in charge of the "X-Files", matters pertaining to the paranormal and supernatural which no-one else takes seriously. Special Agent Dana Scully is assigned to assist him, but in reality is supposed to debunk his theories. Instead, they form a surprisingly effective team as they uncover evidence of aliens and conspiracies stretching back decades.

The X-Files was one of the biggest TV shows of the 1990s. Its first season is a masterclass in tension, writing, direction and drama, an almost flawless exercise in asking questions, raising stakes and giving the audience just enough information to keep them hooked for the next episode. It also raised the bar for production values and horror on television. It couldn't sustain such a high level of quality, of course, and ultimately the audience began losing interest somewhere around the sixth or seventh season when it became clear that the producers were more interested in spinning the series on for money than in actually providing any sense of closure or cartharsis.

But before it reached that point - and still regularly afterwards - The X-Files delivered some of the most effective small-screen slices of SF of the decade. It tapped into a pre-millennial feeling of paranoia, surveillance and helplessness which, if anything, is even more relevant today. This has been emphasised by the show's recent return for a shorter "event" run which seems likely to be repeated, perhaps, finally, giving us the answers that have been so long in coming. But The X-Files, like Lost later on, is also good enough to show that the journey is sometimes worth more than the destination, especially when you consider how amazing some of the one-off "monster of the week" episodes are.

Five unmissable episodes: Squeeze, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, Jose Chung's From Outer Space, Home, Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Bubbling Under

Shows which I also considered for the list but didn't make the grade include the following:

The 100 (2014-present)
After a few ropey opening episodes, The 100 has evolved into one of the more compelling SFF shows currently airing. It has some great performances but really benefits from its rich post-apocalyptic worldbuilding, utter ruthlessness to its characters and its constant attempts to find moral quandaries that put the characters in impossible situations. However, it also suffers from being a bit too magpie-like in how it borrows tropes from other, better shows (like BSG and Lost, both of which it inherits castmembers from).

Alien Nation (1989-90)
An alien spacecraft lands outside Los Angeles, carrying thousands of alien refugees. The aliens integrate into Californian society, facing bigotry and persecution. It's a very straightforward premise which allows the show to tackle topics such as drugs, prostitution and racism in a manner that a more straight-up drama series couldn't have done, especially amidst the explosive tensions in LA of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a great show that only lasted for one season. A reboot has been occasionally mooted.

Battlestar Galactica (1978-79)
The original BSG is cheesy, weird, outrageously sexist (at least to start with) and reuses its special effects to a ridiculous extent. However, by the standards of 1978 it's also quite well-made with some innovative use of serialised storytelling. The special effects may be overused but they're also jaw-droppingly good for the time and the surreal "Ships of Light" storyline ultimately ends up selling the mystical elements of the premise far better than the reboot. But in every other respect, the reboot is by far the superior series.

Dark Skies (1996-97)
It was easy to dismiss Dark Skies as an X-Files cash-in, mainly because it clearly was designed to be so. However, it was also a stylish and smart series. Beginning in the 1960s, it chronicles a clandestine alien invasion of the Earth, opposed by the Majestic-12 organisation. It featured star-making turns for Eric Close and Jeri Ryan, but unfortunately it was cancelled after only one of its planned five seasons had been made. Originally the show would have covered one decade per season, culminating with a real-time finale for the millennium. Better-planned then The X-Files and featuring a vivid period setting, it's a shame we never saw the show's promise reach fruition.

The Expanse (2015-present)
A gritty and more realistic look at how we might really colonise the Solar system over the next 200 years. An excellent first season hints at a show that could easily make this list further down the line.

Farscape (1999-2003)
Farscape was bizarre, funny, surreal, action-packed and dramatically intense. It was also wildly inconsistent in quality and never quite ended up matching other space operas in what they were trying to do (Babylon 5 was more epic, DS9 was a better war story, BSG was grittier and Red Dwarf was much funnier). But it also had some great stories, some good actors (Claudia Black finding gainful employment on other SF shows, in the film Pitch Black and in voice acting) and an overall storyline that was interesting, if not always told in the best manner.

The Invaders (1967-68)
Devised by Quinn Martin as a replacement for The Fugitive, The Invaders had a rather similar premise - desperate guy on the run tries to convince people of an outlanding fact by helping them - but an even bleaker atmosphere and tone, all the moreso by the fact that the show was cancelled before it could get a proper ending. One of its more notable successes was featuring non-humanoid aliens who have to use technology to infiltrate the human population, giving them a weakness that can be exploited, and the near-constant feeling of paranoia that the show kept up for the better part of fifty episodes.

Space: Above and Beyond (1996)
At its best, this was a compelling space opera TV series. At its worth, which unfortunately was rather more frequent, it was a tonally muddled and incoherent series with lazy worldbuilding (the characters are both combat pilots and ground troops at the same time?) and very ropey dialogue. But it's worth watching as a testing ground for the Battlestar Galactica reboot and also for David Duchovny's gloriously unhinged turn as an android pool shark.

V (1983-85)
V started off by stealing the opening to Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End and showcasing the arrival of an invading force of aliens on Earth. The aliens pose as our friends and allies, but a darker side emerges and is exposed by the "Resistance". The two mini-series which open the franchise are watchable (if not very smart) popcorn entertainment, but the short-lived ongoing series is awful. The show was briefly revived in 2009-11 for an uninspired reboot.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see Stargate SG:1 on here. I know it often gets a bad rap for being too cheesy and over-the-top and having a lot of bad episodes mixed among the good, but I feel like it fills a niche that not a lot of other SF shows fill. It really nails the whole "Exploring a new world" aspect of SF, since many of the episodes were just that: Basically "planet-of-the-week" episodes. A lot of them weren't great, but then again a lot of them were, and the show was also really boosted by having really lovable characters. They didn't get a lot of actual character development, but instead the show went the route of establishing who they were and just sort of letting the audience enjoy them being themselves, odd as that sounds. Plus, most of the actors were great and really seemed to be having a blast in their parts, like Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping, and the guy who played Hammond (spacing his name). Sure, not super-serious "important" SF, and very rarely was it truly great, but it's hard for me to think of another TV show that's just as plain "fun" as SG:1.

Ghost said...

BSG should not be on this list. I always thought it was vastly over-rated. The last few seasons were terrible.

Bob/Sally said...

I have to admit, I'm a sucker for the classics I grew up with, so I'd probably have slipped Alien Nation, Battlestar Galactica, Space: Above and Beyond, and the original 'V' into the top 20. Very happy to see that Quantum Leap and Red Dwarf made the list, though.

Only glaring omission (in my mind) is Max Headroom.

Anonymous said...

You make me curious about UFO. I think it was noteworthy that Blake's 7 had 7 crewmembers for one or two seasons only. Eventually losing Blake himself. While slightly funny, I don't think it has ever been done since then. Also some shows there... couldn't disagree more. Fringe, Lost... they were awful. Firefly I should rewatch because I don't understand how it is different from a bad western. BSG was great the first two seasons. I totally agree with that.

Adam Whitehead said...

Blake's 7 had 7 crewmembers more or less throughout, apart from the final episode of Season 1 through the fifth episode of Season 2, when they had 8, then it got knocked back down when Gan died.

The caveat is that they count Zen and ORAC (and why not, they are full "proper" AIs) which was originally not the plan but the BBC realised it would save money to drop down one actor.

Anonymous said...

You have missed Survivors the original series from the mid-70's. I loved that show. The collapse of civilization brought about by a virus spreading rapidly through air travel is a premise that still has validity. Plus I enjoyed the almost unrelenting gloom spice with the occasional touch of humour.

JoshC said...

Glad you included Fringe on the list. After it got over it's "monster of the week" first season and they really started with the two universes arc story it became a great series. And yes John Noble was brilliant.

Puzzled by the exclusion of Farscape considering how other series made it onto the list whilst having the same flaws... not to mention your inclusion of the excellent but not really science fiction Ultraviolet. Yes Farscape's plots could be pretty thin but the same could be said of about half of Firefly's episodes too... and SG-1 too come to think of it. Where they all succeeded was in the excellent casts and the humour in the scripts. Seems a bit arbitrary to include some but not others based on the same criteria.

Joe said...

This list makes me want to unearth my DS9, Farscape, and SG1 DVDs and have a marathon. Sadly, I'm busy today.

If you're going alphabetically, shouldn't DS9 be above TNG on your list? However, it does feel like it's in the right place.

Anyway, thanks for this. It's good stuff.

Rich Lynch said...

I would add SyFy's "12 Monkeys" to the list. Far exceeded my expectations.

Falkoblogt said...

Very good post, well done. i always had a soft spot for lexx myself. don't know if that's just because of nostalgia.

Occult Realms said...

Great list but will you ever do a best fantasy TV shows of all time version of it?

Adam Whitehead said...

Quite possibly.

Stephen said...

Very convincing list, but Farscape should be on it. If this were a ranked list, it would be in the top half, maybe top third. It's great, for all that it has flaws.