The 100 Best Sci-Fi TV Shows of All Time

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25. Babylon 5 (1994-1998)

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Creator: J. Michael Straczynski
Stars: Bruce Boxleitner, Michael O’Hare, Claudia Christian, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Richard Biggs, Andrea Thompson
Network: PTEN, TNT

Babylon 5 was certainly one of the decade’s most mature science fiction series, set in a universe where man has taken to the stars and come together with other spacefaring races to build a massive space station for trade, diplomacy and cultural exchange. A rare example of a series that carried out the exact number of seasons (five) it initially planned, it was as such well-planned from the start and featured deep continuity. Compared to the various Star Trek series of the decade, it most closely resembled Deep Space Nine, which aired its pilot only weeks before Babylon 5 debuted. Unsurprisingly, there were myriad accusations out there of which show had the more original idea, but despite lacking the prestige of the Star Trek name, Babylon 5 more than managed to hold its own. —Jim Vorel

24. Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007)

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Creator: Brad Wright, Jonathan Glassner
Stars: Richard Dean Anderson, Michael Shanks, Amanda Tapping, Christopher Judge, Don S. Davis, Teryl Rothery, Claudia Black, Ben Browder, Beau Bridges
Network: Showtime, SyFy

The Stargate movie was really a perfect choice to spin off into a sci-fi series because the Stargate itself is quite the piece of deus ex machina—it can transport people all over the galaxy to different planets, so there was always somewhere new and strange to visit, even over the course of 10 seasons and 214 episodes. MacGyver himself, Richard Dean Anderson, took over the role that Kurt Russell played in the film, but the greatest role is probably Teal’c, the “warrior race” alien (let’s be honest, they were thinking “Klingon”) with a rather disturbing biological secret: He’s an incubator to a parasitic monster that gives him enhanced abilities but will one day kill him. Just hearing him talk about the sentient worm in his “abdominal pouch” made for some great, icky sci-fi moments. The show originated on Showtime, but Syfy took over with a slightly lower budget for the final five seasons (2002-2007) before launching two inferior spin-offs (Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe). —Jim Vorel

23. Torchwood (2006-2011)

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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 the depths of human nature. —Josh Jackson

22. The Expanse (2015-)


Creator: Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Stars: Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Paulo Costanzo
Network: SyFy

In Syfy’s The Expanse, Mars and Earth are two superpowers racing to gain the technological upper hand, while those who live in the Asteroid Belt mine resources for the more privileged planets and become more and more prone to radicalization. Sound familiar?

In its relationship to our own age of authoritarianism, the series offers a kind of storytelling that seems essential: It manages to paint a portrait of a divided universe without vilifying one group and raising the other to god-like status, as evidenced by the complexities of hardboiled detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) or U.N. official Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo). The Expanse shows us a possible future, a future in which women can be leaders without the bat of an eye, in which racially diverse groups can unite in common cause, but it is also a warning about keeping institutions in check, about recognizing inequality wherever it might exist, in order to avoid past mistakes. In other words, it’s must-watch television for our time. —Elena Zhang

21. Westworld (2016-)


Creators: Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy
Stars: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, Jimmi Simpson, Shannon Woodward
Network: HBO 

Westworld debuted with some big shoes to fill. The would-be successor to HBO’s Game of Thrones got weird fast and didn’t care who was along for the ride. There’s something commendable about that, even if its first season offered more frustration and pretension than fun. Its sophomore season shakes off the shackles of expectation and embraces the characters that (against all odds) dot its endless mysteries with pockets of genuine depth. Rather than having to answer a trick question, viewers have been allowed to experience the android-driven theme park/bacchanalia in the context of the people (and robo-people) living in and around it. Some of the best female performances on TV are lodged inside a show which was so male-gazey in its first season that the irony is as thick as its plot—but if ever there was an award for Most Improved Series on Television, Westworld deserves it. —Jacob Oller

20. Farscape (1993-2003)

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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

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

19. Orphan Black (2013-2017)

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Creators: Graeme Manson, John Fawcett
Stars: Tatiana Maslany, Dylan Bruce, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Hanchard, Michael Mando, Maria Doyle Kennedy
Network: BBC America 

Having one actor play several characters in a single show is nothing new. But that doesn’t take away from what Tatiana Maslany accomplished in the first season of BBC America’s Orphan Black. Maslany plays a host of clones on a sci-fi show that’s not just for sci-fi fans. Her main character, Sarah Manning, is a young British mother living in Canada. A small-time con artist, she’s trying and failing to get her life together when she sees her doppelgänger commit suicide by stepping in front of a train. After stealing the woman’s purse and identity, Sarah the con artist becomes Beth the cop, scrambling to fool her partner and discovering more women who look just like her. Each one she comes across—the uptight suburban mom, the gay hipster scientist, the Ukrainian religious fanatic—feels like such a different character that it’s easy to forget that the same actress is behind them all. And though there are elements of sci-fi—human cloning and the Neolutionists who believe in scientifically improving themselves (one character has a tail)—most of the characters aren’t the type who would even watch sci-fi. The show is as much about identity and motherhood as it is the consequences of technology. But none of it would work without the humanity Maslany brings to each of the clones she portrays in the show. —Josh Jackson

18. Legion (2017-)


Creator: Noah Hawley
Stars: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jean Smart, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder, Katie Aselton
Network: FX

The last few years have seen, if not the creation of the bat-shit crazy fantasy, at least its blossoming. Shows like Preacher, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Happy! are all packed with the weird, the impossible and the insane, each seemingly trying to outdo the others. Each character is more outlandish than the next: an Irish vampire, a holistic assassin, an imaginary flying unicorn voiced by Patton Oswalt. But the champion of bat-shit crazy TV is FX’s Legion, whose characters, both real and imagined, meet in an actual ward for the insane. The first season of Legion proved that Marvel was willing to experiment with a very different kind of superhero show from their movie, ABC and even Netflix formulas. But the second season has somehow found a new gear of surreality now that David and his friends work for the shadowy Division III that was hunting them down in Season One. It’s headed by a guy wearing a basket on his head who communicates through a trio of mustachioed Auto-Tuned mechanical women. The security forces are made up of children. And the story is often broken up with eccentric interstitials narrated by Jon Hamm. Like all good bat-shit crazy TV shows, every scene feels like a riff on the dream sequences from Twin Peaks. But what really separates Legion from its absurdist brethren is acting and writing usually reserved for the rarified airs of prestige drama. Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza were all given scenes to ravenously devour, and Navid Negahban was introduced as the year’s best villain not named Killmonger. But it’s creator Noah Hawley’s vision, ambition and impishness that has made a comic-book show about mental illness so bleak and yet so fun. —Josh Jackson

17. Mobile Suit Gundam (1979)

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Creator: Yoshiyuki Tomino
Stars: Tôru Furuya, Alaina Burnett, Chris Kalhoon, Michael Kopsa
Network: Nagoya, Animax, Cartoon Network 

In 2018, it’s easy to forget—considering the countless spinoff series, films, manga, and model kits—that this legendary 1979 mecha anime was… really, really freakin’ good. The animation may look dated. The mechanical designs and character models may not move with the consistency of the later series. And the implications of its world-building, in which a separatist faction of humans abandons Earth for space colonies, hadn’t been perfectly fine-tuned. Nonetheless, Mobile Suit Gundam’s core arguments hold up four decades later: The people we ask to fight for us—often before they can maturely engage with the world—come back broken or don’t come back at all; Nazis and Nazi-lookalikes are bad; and giant robots are compulsively watchable. —Eric Vilas-Boas

16. Quantum Leap (1989-1993)

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Creator: Donald P. Bellisario
Stars: Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell
Network: NBC

What a goofy show Quantum Leap truly was. Scott Bakula plays Dr. Sam Beckett, a quantum 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

15. Agent Carter (2015-2016)

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Creators: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Stars: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj, Shea Whigham
Network: ABC

Agent Carter, Marvel’s post-S.H.I.E.L.D. series, knew exactly what it was and what it wanted to be from day one: A pulpy, women-centric series of deeply retro sensibilities, built around one of Marvel’s best-liked supporting characters, Peggy Carter, the great love of Steve “Captain America” Rogers and a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. in its fledgling stages. Everything about Agent Carter rings with confidence: The tone and the setting, the style and the characterization, the humor and the action. It’s true that S.H.I.E.L.D. has vastly improved in its subsequent seasons, but Agent Carter didn’t need time to figure itself out (mostly because it didn’t have time to do so). The show doesn’t miss a beat, from its debut all the way up to its finale, rarely winking and nudging along the way with appearances by characters who only matter tangentially in the long run of Marvel’s universe. Most of all, it had Hayley Atwell, whose good looks belie her indomitable toughness, and lead both her audience, her allies, and her enemies alike to underestimate her. She’s the heart of Agent Carter, a story whose female concerns and casting act as a blueprint of sorts for today’s lauded Netflix series Jessica Jones. Captain America might be the first Avenger, but Peggy Carter is the first lady of Marvel ass-kicking. —Andy Crump

14. Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-2013)

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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
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

13. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)

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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
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

12. The Prisoner (1967-1968)

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Creators: Patrick McGoohan, George Markstein
Stars: Patrick McGoohan
Network: ITV

It almost seems like an insult to call The Prisoner a sci-fi show—it’s really not science fiction, at least not in the way that Star Trek or Dr. Who are. Patrick McGoohan’s cult classic is a surreal psychological thriller where almost everything remains a mystery, both to the viewer and to McGoohan’s character, who is only known as Number 6. It’s an allegorical look at humanity’s role in society and how power structures crush the individual, like a more confusing cousin to 1984. It’s also impossible to argue that it’s not sci-fi, though—between the psychedelic atmosphere of The Village, the otherworldly set design of Number Two’s control room, the often futuristic edge to Number Two’s various schemes to break Number Six, and the straight sci-fi horror of Rover, the giant white balloon who kept prisoners from escaping The Village, it’s prime speculative fiction that could’ve been written by somebody like Harlan Ellison (who once hosted a Prisoner marathon on cable in the early ’90s). It’s a better show than it is a sci-fi show—and should be seen by anybody who takes TV seriously as a narrative medium—but its sci-fi aspects can’t be denied. —Garrett Martin

11. Rick and Morty (2013-)

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Creators:   Dan Harmon, Justin Rolland
Stars: Justin Rolland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer, Sarah Chalke
Network: Adult Swim 

Anticipation for each new season of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s series peaks higher, and for good reason: It’s one of the most brilliant shows on television. Unlike The Big Bang Theory, it uses its nerdiness and intelligence not as a gimmick, but as a way to open the (literal) dimensions of creative possibility, whether the ideas are original (interdimensional cable, a sentient gas cloud named Fart) or tongue-in-cheek homage (to The Purge, Inception, even its own interdimensional cable episode). But behind the innovation is a Eugene O’Neill-ian dysfunction that probes the depths of familial unhappiness, and it’s when Rick and Morty leans into this (especially in episodes like “Total Rick-all” and “The Wedding Squanchers”) that it reaches its most sublime moments. Season Two, in particular, took protagonist Rick Sanchez into a profound depression matched only by BoJack Horseman among animated series. —Zach Blumenfeld

10. Stranger Things (2016-)

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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
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 2016 release, 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. In Season One, the stellar cast of child actors and several different characters whose hidden secrets we desperately want to see explored hits every note necessary to motivate a weekend-long Netflix binge. Season Two is full of the same kinds of joyful moments of television—’80s nostalgia, plucky kids, pre-teen awkwardness, scary-but-not-terrifying monsters, goofy minor characters and emotional reunions. The world gets a little bigger than Hawkins, Indiana, and the stakes get a little higher, but at its heart, six kids must face up to their monsters, metaphorical and real, to a perfect ’80s soundtrack. —Jim Vorel and Josh Jackson

9. Firefly (2002-2003)

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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
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 couldn’t follow. When Whedon created Malcolm Reynolds as the centerpiece of Firefly, he wanted a hero who is “everything that a hero is not.” Once a sergeant in the losing war for independence, Mal captains a team of misfits in smuggling operations on the edge of the galaxy. His main goal in life is to be left alone and avoid the Alliance government—until he discovers (in the movie Serenity), their heavy-handed plan to fix (i.e., medicate and subdue) the world, at which point he aims to misbehave. He’s broken, bitter and faithless. He’s also damn funny and the one person his crew can count on without reservation. Through his crew, Mal slowly comes to terms with what he’s lost in himself. As Nathan Fillion describes the team his character surrounded himself with: “In Wash, he has a lust for life and a sense of humor he’s lost. In Jayne, he has selfishness. In Book, he has spirituality. In Kaylee, he has innocence. Everybody represents a facet of himself that he has lost and that’s why he keeps them close and safe, and yet at arm’s length.” That dynamic complexity in Mal and in his interactions with the crew are what drew us to Firefly and how a TV show canceled midway through its first season sold 500,000 copies on DVD, launched a major motion picture, spawned two comic book series and inspired rabid fans still actively championing the show. —Paste Staff

8. Lost (2004-2010)

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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
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 gave us far more questions than answers. But there was something refreshing about a network TV show that trusted 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. The writers seemed to want to cram every genre into one TV show and the result was something completely original. Season 1 started as an action-packed thriller, which morphed into mystery, romance, science-fiction and eventually, religious allegory. But there’s certainly enough sci-fi elements—the island’s bizarre magnetic field, the Dharma Initiative experiments, the frozen wheel, time-travel—to put it on this list. —Josh Jackson

7. Cowboy Bebop (1998-2000)

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Creators: Shinichir? Watanabe, Masahiko Minami, Keiko Nobumoto
Stars: K?ichi Yamadera, Beau Billingslea, Megumi Hayashibara, Aoi Tada
Network: TV Tokyo, WOWOW

Often revered as the Citizen Kane of anime programs, Cowboy Bebop’s highly Americanized amalgamation of Western tropes, Beat culture and William Gibson-esque steampunk made it a show for all tastes. While much of its 26-episode run consisted of individual adventures that could be viewed in any order, the show’s serialized portions built to a incredible crescendo with the final two-part finale. Set in the year 2071, the premise concerns the various missions of a bounty hunter crew, led by the show’s slick, leisure suit-wearing protagonist, Spike Spiegel. Visually, the creative team takes cues from a proverbial smorgasbord of influence—from steampunk sci-fi to spaghetti westerns to French New Wave— all the while augmenting the show’s striking imagery with a propelling jazz-filled soundtrack. Despite its unquestionable cool sheen, however, Cowboy Bebop is never a style-over-substance experiment, with many episodes probing notions of existential loneliness as well as characters’ deep-seated emotional damage. If ever there was a show that transcended its niche market and achieved greatness, this was the one. Though now two decades old, Cowboy Bebop remains an undisputed masterpiece and a standard by which all other modern anime must aspire. —Mark Rozeman

6. Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969)

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Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig
Network: NBC

What began as a pitch by writer and producer Gene Roddenberry about a small spaceship exploring the galaxy has since grown into a worldwide cultural phenomenon inspiring millions of viewers (as well as astronauts, scientists and inventors) for more than half a century. A multi-billion dollar franchise spanning eight TV series, 13 films, countless books, comics, magazines and videogames—that all starts here. Four pinging notes ring out in the silence of space. The voice of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) suddenly echoes out among the stars, explaining his crew’s five-year mission via voiceover narration. Their vessel is the Starship Enterprise, which appears in all its glory, orbiting planets and traveling at high warp, faster than anything that 1960s audiences had ever seen, as fast as progress itself. An alien operatic soprano suddenly wails out, then the theme song by composer Alexander Courage, then the titles: STAR TREK. Everything about this new science fiction TV show would break the mold, from its diverse cast and thought-provoking plots to its art direction. At the end of Season Two, when word had spread that Star Trek was at risk of cancellation, NBC received hundreds of thousands of letter in protest from fans, including doctors, professors and even New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.The Original Series would be canceled in 1969, the last episode airing fewer than two months before Apollo 11’s successful manned mission to the Moon. But its effect was permanent and immeasurable. Roddenberry had built a series that dared to face the unknown, overcome impossible challenges and stretch social conventions for the better. His dream of the future set the stage for a show that would boldly go where no other TV series had gone before. —James Charisma

5. The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-2018)

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Creator: Chris Carter
Stars: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Robert Patrick, Annabeth Gish, Mitch Pileggi
Network: Fox

Today, after more than 200 episodes, two feature films, a spinoff and a revival, 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

4. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)

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Creator: Rod Serling
Stars: Rod Serling
Network: CBS

It is, in the estimation of any sane person, one of the greatest science fiction series of all time without a doubt, with its myriad episodes about technology, aliens, space travel, etc. But The Twilight Zone also plumbed the depths of the human psyche, madness and damnation with great regularity, in the same spirit as creator Rod Serling’s later series, Night Gallery. Ultimately, The Twilight Zone is indispensable to both sci-fi and horror. Its moralistic playlets so often have the tone of dark, Grimm Brothers fables for the rocket age of the ‘50s and ‘60s, urban legends that have left an indelible mark on the macabre side of our pop culture consciousness. What else can one call an episode such as “Living Doll,” wherein a confounded, asshole Telly Savalas is threatened, stalked and ultimately killed by his abused daughter’s vindictive doll, Talky Tina? Or “The Invaders,” about a lonely woman in a farmhouse who is menaced by invaders from outer space in an episode almost entirely without dialog? Taken on its own, a piece of television such as “The Invaders” almost shares more in common with “old dark house” horror films or the slashers that would arrive 20 years later than an entry in a sci-fi anthology. —Jim Vorel

3. Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-)

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Creators: Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith 
Network: BBC

To begin his second season in the titular role of Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi appeared out of the mist driving a tank, wearing Ray-Bans and strapped to a knock-off Fender Stratocaster. It’s an anachronism in so many ways, not least of which in that the scene is set in the English village of Essex in the year 1138. Anachronisms are just part of the DNA of the show, as the Doctor lives across space and time, anchored to present-day England only by his traveling companion, who may need to get back from a Viking-era village or the moon or a space-train centuries into the future in time to teach school. Each episode or two-part arc not only takes place in a different time and location, but often shifts into a different genre, from slapstick action-comedy to moving philosophical drama to some of the most memorable horror elements to ever hit the small screen (like the Weeping Angels, terrifying statutes who only move when you’re not looking at them). An iconic series during its original run on the BBC from 1963 to 1989, the show began with an educational mission to introduce its family audience to both British history and science, and so often alternated between episodes set in the past and future. When it was revived in 2005 by executive producer Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who episodes remained varied, but with larger arcs following the Ninth and Tenth Doctors as they traveled across the history of the universe. When Stephen Moffat, who’d been writing for the show since 2005, took over as showrunner in 2010, creating with that kind of unpredictability for Doctors #11 (Matt Smith) and #12 (Capaldi) was paramount. Dinosaurs in space. Ghosts on an underwater base. Robots in Sherwood Forest. And plenty of the shows’ most iconic monsters, like the Daleks and Cybermen. Soon, there’ll be a new Doctor—Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the role—to continue, and evolve, the tradition. And as long as the story is good and the Doctor is traveling through an old, blue police box that’s bigger on the inside, audiences will tune in across the globe. —Josh Jackson

2. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)

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Creator: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton
Network: Syndicated

Star Trek: The Next Generation had a lot to overcome in its first couple of years. Besides having to live in the shadow of its legendary predecessor, the show suffered through a admittedly poor first season before finally finding its footing in year two. Subsequent episodes would deliver countless hours of entertaining and thought-provoking science-ficion, particularly with the addition of future Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore in season three. After seven seasons and one of the most satisfying finales in TV history, the only question remaining 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? —Mark Rozeman and Jim Vorel

1. Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009)

battlestar galatica 75.jpg
Creators: Glen A. Larson (original), Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tricia Heifer, Grace Park, Tahmoh Penikett
Network: SyFy

There’s often a dichotomy in art between the epic and the personal. Smaller stories, those dealing with the kinds of challenges we regularly experience-family, romance, friendship, work, money-connect because they’re familiar. We watch epic films like Braveheart or Lord of the Rings to get caught up in struggles much greater than we face and vicariously inherit the satisfaction of seeing them overcome. But we read novels with minimal plots to see people like ourselves make the same stupid mistakes we do and come out on the other side having changed. Science fiction is almost entirely the domain of epic stories-working through a relationship gets completely overshadowed with the fate of humanity on the line. This is one of the main things sci-fi fans love about the genre and also what many people hate about it. So when people say that Battlestar Galactica is a show with a broader appeal than sci-fi, this is partly what they’re getting at.

Certainly, it’s an epic tale-it begins with the near annihilation of humanity, a culture spread across 12 planets but with many similarities to 21st-century Earth. The villains are Cylons, intelligent robots who believe that human extinction is the key to their own survival. And nearly every episode takes place aboard a single spaceship. On paper, it’s got everything to set off those with sci-fi allergies. But over seven seasons, it does a better job than any sci-fi film, book or TV show, of telling small stories. Unlike the Utopian crew of Star Trek’s Enterprise, each of the major characters has significant flaws. Even with only 50,000 survivors facing a single oppressor, humanity has a difficult time uniting. First, there’s the issue of the military taking control of a society used to its freedom. The tension between President Laura Roslyn (Mary McDonnell) and Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) is among the show’s most compelling threads. An inexperienced education minister, Rosyln finds herself promoted to the top post when no other senior government officials survive the initial attack. She pushes for a restoration to democracy, while Adama is hesitant to reliquish any decision-making in the face of the Cylon threat. Complicating things are Roslyn’s religious visions-a controversial experience among polytheistic cultures of varying degrees of observance. The challenges the leaders face are of a higher magnitude than we’ve experienced on earth, but the moral squirming and self-justification are all too familiar in politics today.

Creator Ronald D. Moore took the bare bones of a campy 1970s series and completely reimagined it, bringing a realism that sci-fi hadn’t quite seen before. The ship itself is aging and cramped. Quarters are claustrophobic, leading their inhabitants to live in a hyper-sensitive fishbowl-everyone is in everyone else’s business. Characters like Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff) and Adama’s son Lee “Apollo” (Jamie Bamber) are forced to drag their emotional baggage into the uncomfortable open, which frequently causes them to snap. Ordinary life-love, marriage and raising kids-doesn’t cease just because there’s a war going on. Rosyln keeps a whiteboard with an updated population count, and each of the principle characters changes with every right or wrong decision.

But where Battlestar Galactica trumps other sci-fi stories in the minutia, it also beats them at their own epic game. Each season propels the main story arc along at light speed. A limited number of Cylon models are perfect human replicas-”skinjobs” who’ve infiltrated the human fleet. Their relationship with humanity grows more complex as disagreement arises within their ranks. And humanity’s search for the mythical Earth is full of constant surprises. Nearly every season is better than the last (even the misguided mess of a finale has its emotionally wrenching moments). With no alien civilizations to discover, Moore turns his lens inward on the species we know best. All the tensions in life are examined: religion vs. science, safety vs. freedom, the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few, conscience vs. loyalty, passion vs. commitment. And the show’s big question—”What does it mean to be human?”—is explored on every level, big and small. —Josh Jackson

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