The 20 Best Sci-Fi Shows on Netflix

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The 20 Best Sci-Fi Shows on Netflix

Netflix’s commitment to fans of sci-fi shows can be seen in the fact that two of the best sci-fi TV series on the streaming service are Netflix originals, Stranger Things and Sense8. But if you like your sci-fi old school, there’s also the original Star Trek series, Twilight Zone and tons of shows from the ’90s. Joss Whedon fans can enjoy both the cult hit Firefly and the under-rated Dollhouse, which found its footing in the second season after Fox finally allowed the showrunner to explore a more serialized arc. Sure we’d love the return of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica to Netflix, but what we have is a pretty deep catalog of sci-fi TV shows to enjoy.

Here are the 20 Best Sci-Fi TV Shows on Netflix:

20. Continuum
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Creator: Simon Barry
Stars: Rachel Nichols, Victor Webster, Erik Knudsen, Stephen Lobo, Roger Cross
Original Networks: Showcase
I’m starting to grow suspicious: Do Canadians plug into the walls at night? Orphan Black has made its mark in the U.S. (with Tatiany Maslany finally winning an Emmy), but it’s far from the first noteworthy Canadian sci-fi import. Continuum rises above both the usual fare we find on Syfy and on network television. The show follows the efforts of Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) to thwart the ambitious and destructive terrorist group Liber8. The hook: Cameron and the terrorists are accidental transplants from the year 2077, where corporations subsidized global debt with the subordination of the world’s governments. The collision is not about the obliteration of one perspective, but the slow formation of compromised strengths. The political disconnect encourages us to remain impartial. The show’s character development can come in waves, but Nichols remains capable of carrying whatever material she’s handed to evocative, substantial places. Plus: She takes down do-badders towering over her like ogres more convincingly than any other actress on television.—Kyle Burton

19. SeaQuest DSV
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Creators: Rockne S. O’Bannon
Stars: Roy Scheider, Jonathan Brandis, Stephanie Beacham, Don Franklin, Michael Ironside
Original Network: NBC
It’s easy to sort of deride seaQuest DSV as essentially “Star Trek underwater,” but in its earlier episodes that comparison was only half right. Roy Scheider of Jaws fame starred as the captain of a research and diplomatic envoy vessel in a future where depletion of the Earth’s resources has led to the only cities remaining underwater, where they harvest the bounty of the ocean. As the show progressed to a second season, the sci-fi elements grew stronger with the discovery of aliens and various “monster of the week” episodes in the vein of those types of Star Trek or X-Files episodes. Scheider was particularly unhappy about the direction the show was heading and stepped down before the third season, which was oddly set 10 years further into the future. Michael Ironside replaced him and played the new, more militaristic captain, but ratings were bad, dooming one of network TV’s quirkier series.—Jim Vorel

18. Star Trek: Voyager
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Creators: Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor
Stars: Kate Mulgrew, Robert Beltran, Roxann Dawson, Jennifer Lien, Robert Duncan McNeill, Ethan Phillips, Robert Picardo, Tim Russ, Jeri Ryan, Garrett Wang
Original Network: UPN
Voyager has a particularly cool initial premise—after a freak accident, the ship is stranded 75,000 light years from home, and even with access to warp drive, its crew is facing an estimated 75-year trip to friendly space. This essentially gave the writers a blank check to embrace any part of the Star Trek mythos they wanted, because any time a new alien species was introduced it was always simply a denizen of the uncharted space lanes where they were traveling. Likewise, there was always a driving plot point available in their quest to get home—how will the crew try to shorten the journey or take a short cut this week? Unlike so many other Star Trek series that were about exploration, this one was the inverse—exploration gone awry.

17. 3rd Rock from the Sun
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Creator: Bonnie Turner, Terry Turner
Stars: John Lithgow, Kristen Johnston, French Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jane Curtin, Simbi Khali, Elmarie Wendel, Wayne Knight
Original Network: NBC
3rd Rock successfully took the Mork & Mindy premise and expanded it to an entire family unit of aliens who land on Earth and attempt to study mankind by blending in among them. There wasn’t much here that you would call “highbrow humor,” but the strong cast always made the best of things, especially Jonathan Lithgow as frenzied High Commander Dick Solomon and future A-lister Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tommy. Later seasons saw the aliens become more interested in their human lives than the mission at hand, and even had the bonus of appearances by the family’s supreme commander, “The Big Giant Head,” played by William Shatner. You gotta love the dual references to The Twilight Zone and its film adaptation that Shatner and Lithgow share in this scene.

16. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
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Creator:   George Lucas
Stars: Matt Lanter, Ashley Eckstein, James Arnold Taylor, Dee Bradley Baker, Tom Kane
Original Network: Cartoon Network/Netflix
Contrary to popular belief, Lucasfilm did manage to create an engaging storyline set in the “prequel” universe. Enter Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Acting as a bridge between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the show finds Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, along with new character Ahsoka Tano, battling against the forces of Dooku and General Grievous. What started as a series full of fun, exciting space battles, however, soon grew into a much deeper and richer story that explored the complications and brutality of war. Moreover, The Clone Wars did more to set the stage for Anakin’s inevitable turn to the Dark Side than any moment in the films. While the show’s brand of photo-realistic animation may not be for everyone, there are few who will deny that the sophisticated storytelling on display would not have been greatly welcome in the traditional Star Wars movie universe.—Mark Rozeman

15. Black Mirror
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Creator: Charlie Brooker
Original Network: Channel 4 (UK)
There are probably times in most of our lives when we see our technological world as more of a dystopia than a utopia. The way it curbs our freedom, diminishes our privacy, and subjects us to anonymous attacks can feel like an unforgivable violation. But the worst part is, we’re complicit—we’ve accepted the intrusion, and in some cases, or even most cases, we’ve become addicted. The ubiquity of technology is a reality that we can’t fight against, and to maintain our sanity, we have to accept it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth questioning, which is exactly what Black Mirror is all about. The title is nearly perfect, as explained by creator Charlie Brooker: “The black mirror of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.” The job of this show is to reflect our society in an unflattering light, and they do it with a new cast and a new story in each episode. This is not fun watching—it’s mostly horrifying—but even if our brave new world is inescapable, the show represents a kind of protest that feels more necessary than ever.—Shane Ryan

14. Quantum Leap
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Creator: Donald P. Bellisario
Stars: Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell
Original Network: NBC
What a goofy show Quantum Leap truly was. Scott Bakula plays Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist who becomes trapped in a morphing time loop after an experiment gone awry. In each episode, he leaps into the body of another person (man, woman or child) in a different historical time and must “put right what once went wrong” before jumping into a new body. It’s perfect episodic structure, and it allowed the sci-fi series to set each episode in literally any time period and setting it felt like taking on that week. Likewise, the body-jumping mechanic meant any number of guest stars could appear and Dr. Sam could go anywhere—he even leaps into the body of a chimpanzee in one episode. Despite the silly premise, though, the series actually had a surprising amount of heart as well, largely motivated by Beckett’s unfailing resolve to return to his own time and body and reclaim his own life and identity. In some respects, it’s like a time-traveling version of The Prisoner.—Jim Vorel

13. Sense8
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Creators: The Wachowskis, J. Michael Straczynski
Stars: Tuppence Middleton, Brian J. Smith, Doona Bae, Aml Ameen, Max Riemelt, Tina Desai, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Jamie Clayton, Freema Agyeman, Terrence Mann, Anupam Kher, Naveen Andrews, Daryl Hannah
Original Network: Netflix Original
There is no bigger WTF TV show in the world right now than Sense8. This globe-trotting and glitzy sci-fi series, created by Lana and Lily Wachowski (co-directors of The Matrix trilogy) and former Babylon 5 showrunner J. Michael Straczynski, drops us into a world where eight strangers in different parts of the planet are somehow psychically and emotionally linked. Through the first season’s 12 episodes, we follow this assortment of confused and beautiful people as they try to understand this connection, use their newfound abilities to help one another out, and engage in a raging, somewhat unintentional orgy. As wacky and over-the-top as Sense8 can often get, the series remains important as it deals with important issues of sexuality and identity through the work of trans actress Jamie Clayton and the relationship that the show’s character Lito gets into involving his longtime partner and a female friend.—Robert Ham

12. Dollhouse
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Creator:   Joss Whedon
Stars: Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix, Fran Kranz, Tahmoh Penikett, Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, Olivia Williams
Original Network: Fox
Between Buffy and The Avengers, Joss Whedon had a habit of creating good shows that got canceled too soon. Dollhouse was no Firefly, but after a weak first season that focused on singular missions from Eliza Dushku’s character, it expanded into a fascinating sci-fi universe. The premise of the show was that brain-wiping technology could allow the techs of the Dollhouse to install different personalities and skills in their blank-slate agents. In the first season, this just felt weirdly exploitative for the viewer, but the sweeping arc of the second season began to question the ethics of imagined technologies and turn the first season’s plotlines on their heads. And the payoff was huge with an epic two-episode apocalyptic flash-forward that ended each season, starring Felicia Day as a survivor of the Dollhouse technology gone viral.—Josh Jackson

11. Farscape
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Creator: Brian Henson, Rockne S. O’Bannon
Stars: Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Virginia Hey, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgley, Paul Goddard, Lani Tupu, Wayne Pygram, Jonathan Hardy
Original Networks: Nine/Sci-Fi
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. Farscape is an ensemble-driven space drama in the vein of Firefly. Unlike, Firefly, it has more than one season. Episodes explore sci-fi premises like alternate realities, omnipotent aliens and space bugs (y’know, those space bugs) while also developing each of the Moya’s crew members and filling in their backstories. Think Mass Effect if Shepard made a bunch of nerdy pop culture references. Plus, if the living spaceship thing didn’t tip you off, things get pretty weird, and occasionally pretty silly.—Harry Mackin

10. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
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Creator: Rick Berman, Michael Piller
Stars: Avery Brooks, René Auberjonois, Terry Farrell, Cirroc Lofton, Colm Meaney, Armin Shimerman, Alexander Siddig, Nana Visitor, Michael Dorn, Nicole de Boer
Original Network: Syndication
Deep Space Nine was an experiment in a different type of Star Trek property, one not built around a spaceship/warship traveling and exploring the edges of the known universe. Rather, DS9 was an advanced but static outpost where emissaries of various alien races came to congregate, trade and conduct business. The show featured the first and still only black commander-in-chief as lead protagonist and was noted for the diversity of its alien cast and their well-defined characters. It also tackled topics of religion more effectively and extensively than any of the Star Trek series to date, as the Bajoran Wormhole near DS9 was integral to both the series’ plot and the religious beliefs of the Bajoran people, several of whom served as crew. It was never quite as popular as Next Generation, but that was a tough assignment to follow.—Jim Vorel

9. Torchwood
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Creator: Russel T. Davies
Stars: John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Bum Gorman, Naoko Mori, Gareth David-Lloyd, Freema Agyeman, Bill Pullman
Original Network: BBC
A spin-off of long-running BBC series Doctor Who, Torchwood retained some of its predecessor’s campy fun, but also seemed to be reaching for the gritty realism that had understandably escaped most sci-fi shows until Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica remake redefined what sci-fi could be. By the second season, creator Russel T. Davies seemed to conclude that Torchwood would be better suited to leave the frivolity for the good Doctor, and let Harkness go to darker places. The five-episode story-arc “Children of the Earth,” is a nail-biting, epic story that never lets up and finishes with its biggest punch to the gut. Like Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, Davies has not only reimagined a classic series, he’s used his new extraterrestrial platform to explore human nature.—Josh Jackson

8. Star Trek: The Original Series
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Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig
Original Network: NBC
The original Star Trek introducing a broad audience to the joys of science fiction and providing a more optimistic view of the future at the height of Viet Nam, the Cold War and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Gene Roddenberry’s vision saw the Earth united with a multi-cultural crew, including a Japanese helmsman, a Russian ensign and a black communications officer. Despite its cancellation after just three seasons, it’s the most influential TV show on this list, popular in syndication throughout the 20th Century and now available on Netflix so that we can cherry pick iconic episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Space Seed” and, of course, “The Trouble With Tribbles.”—Josh Jackson

7. The Twilight Zone
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Creator: Rod Sterling
Original Network: CBS
From the bitter social critique of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” in Season One with its eery comparison to Cold War America to the William Shatner-starring “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” about a salesman who discovers there’s something on the wing of his plane, it’s worth noting how well The Twilight Zone has aged. If you’re just going to watch one episode, we recommend “The Eye of the Beholder” from Season 2, which combines everything that makes this a cherished television series. The audience is dropped in media res as Janet Tyler lies hospitalized with gauze wrapped around her head. The camera movement and light is inventive and screens the audience from truly discerning what’s going on. The slow unwrapping of the gauze is possibly the most tense moment in the entire series, and the surprise that follows has left an indelible mark on television and audiences alike.—Darren Orf

6. Star Trek: The Next Generation
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Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton
Original Network: Syndicated
The only question is, great Star Trek series or greatest Star Trek series? The debate will always rage on endlessly, but I think time has been especially kind to peoples’ fondness for Next Generation, to the point where I expect it would be the winner of a poll of 1,000 Trekkies. And with good reason—TNG basically takes the original Star Trek’s exploration premise and goes further with it, expanding the boundaries of the universe and creating a richer, more compelling backdrop to the action. Everyone loves Patrick Stewart as the empathetic, cordial Captain Picard; the dude’s appeal is universal. Likewise, there are so many other fan-favorite characters, from good-guy Klingon warrior Worf to Brent Spiner as the charming android, Data. It’s probably the best pure cast in terms of acting talent that any entry in the series has ever had. Its reruns still draw good ratings—what other sci-fi show that started airing in 1987 can make that claim?—Jim Vorel

5. Futurama
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Creator:   Matt Groening
Stars: Billy West, Katey Sagal, John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Maurice LaMarche, Lauren Tom, Phil LaMarr, David Herman, Frank Welker
Original Network: Fox
Totally underappreciated in its original run, which just caught the tail end of the ’90s, one gets the sense that Futurama at first suffered from misplaced expectations. Knowing it was coming from Matt Groening, perhaps people expected a futuristic version of The Simpsons, but Futurama is fundamentally different in quite a few aspects. Although it was similar in its satirical lampooning of modern (or futuristic) daily life and media, it was also capable of being surprisingly—even shockingly—emotional at times. Just ask anyone who remembers the end of “Jurassic Bark” or “The Luck of the Fryrish,” among other episodes. Likewise, its self-contained continuity was unlike almost every other animated sitcom, with events unfolding in both its first and second run on TV that fundamentally affected the viewer’s perception of earlier plot points. It’s now rightly recognized as one of the best animated comedies ever.—Jim Vorel

4. Lost
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Creators: J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Damon Lindelof
Stars: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Naveen Andrews, Michael Emerson, Terry O’Quinn, Josh Holloway, Jorge Garcia, Yunjin Kim, Daniel Dae Kim
Original Network: ABC
When J.J. Abrams first marooned his plane-crash survivors on a remote island, no one realized the show’s name was a double entendre: It took crowd-sourced blogs to make sense of all the hidden clues, relevant connections, time shifts and intertwined storylines, and each season has given us far more questions than answers. But there’s something refreshing about a network TV show that trusts the mental rigor of its audience instead of dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it’s good to be a little lost.—Josh Jackson

3. Firefly
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Creator:   Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Original Network: Fox
Leave it to Joss Whedon to dream up a space show without aliens. The smart writing he brought to Buffy turned the universe into one big frontier, where those who didn’t conform to authoritarian rule were forced to eke out their livings among outlying planets where the long arm of the law can’t follow. The characters might explore space, but the should simply explores humanity. Watch the way-too-short lived series in full before finishing with Serenity.—Josh Jackson

2. Stranger Things
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Creators: The Duffer Brothers
Stars: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Cara Buono, Matthew Modine
Original Network: Netflix
The only question viewers tend to ask about the quality of Netflix’s Stranger Things isn’t “Is this a fantastically entertaining show?” but “Does it matter that the show is so homage-heavy?” Our take: No. Since springing into the cultural consciousness immediately with its release a month ago, Stranger Things has been hailed as a revival of old-school sci-fi, horror and ‘80s nostalgia that is far more effective and immediately gripping than most other examples of its ilk. The influences are far too deeply ingrained to individually list, although imagery evoking Amblin-era Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper films drips from nearly every frame. With a stellar cast of child actors and several different characters whose hidden secrets we desperately want to see explored, Stranger Things hits every note necessary to motivate a weekend-long Netflix binge. As questions now swirl about the direction of Season Two, following the first season’s explosive conclusion, we’re all hoping that the same group of characters will be able to re-conjure the chilling, heart-pumping magic of a perfectly constructed eight-episode series. Please, TV gods: Don’t let Stranger Things go all True Detective on us.—Jim Vorel

1. The X-Files
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Creator: Chris Carter
Stars: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Mitch Pileggi
Original Network: Fox
Today, after more than 200 episodes, two feature films, a spinoff and two-plus decades of history, being an X-Files fan is a lot like being a fan of a long-running comic book. Namely, there are peaks and valleys in writing quality, the continuity becomes a convoluted mess if you stop to think about it for even a second and—in spite of whatever monumental changes occur—the story always seems to revert back to a certain status quo. And yet there’s no question that what initially started as creator Chris Carter’s take on Kolchak: The Night Stalker has since become an indelible cornerstone in the history of television. Long before the likes of Buffy or Lost, The X-Files legitimatized the viability of serialized genre storytelling. Alongside stand-alone case episodes, the series incorporated ongoing arcs involving vast government conspiracies, alien invasions and the mystery surrounding a missing loved one. Perhaps more impressive than its long-term thinking, however, was the flexible tone the creative team established as a template for its various installments. Episodes could be scary, funny, surreal, emotional—sometimes all in the same hour. In the world of The X-Files, a horror-filled hour centered on deformed cannibals could fit right alongside a hilarious take-off on Cops. Writing and directing aside, what really tied everything together and made it pop was the legendary chemistry between David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder and Gillian Anderson’s Dana Scully. At the risk of courting controversy, those who simply reduce the two’s dynamic to a simple “will they, won’t they?” are being somewhat reductive. What Mulder and Scully had was more than simple sexual tension; it was a loving and respectful partnership between two intelligent individuals whose differing attributes perfectly complemented one another. It assured us that, despite all the monsters and aliens at play, there was an inherent humanity rooted firmly at the show’s center.—Mark Rozeman

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