In the dumpster fire that is 2020, it’s not uncommon for folks to wish that we could all find a way to hit a major reset button and start the decade fresh. Enter sci-fi, the TV genre that simultaneously gives us escapism from the present and anxiety about the future. From classics like the original 1966 Star Trek (and every subsequent spinoff thereafter) to more recent shows like The 100 (aka teen drama meets post-apocalyptic reality series), there are no shortage of takes on what possibilities the not-too-distant future might hold for us.
It’s fitting, then, that so many sci-fi series take place in outer space, the vast and unknown frontier that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are presently elbowing each other to dominate. But these days, space-based series are moving well beyond the realm of pointy ears and little green men; in Netflix’s new original series Away, the future is now, and being a space traveler is a job in the same way that being a consultant is a job: it necessitates a lot of time away from family, and long hours spent up in the air.
Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best space-based TV series from the last few decades in anticipation of this most recent newcomer to the sci-fi genre. From cartoon classics to cult favorites (Doctor Who, anyone?), here are the shows to binge when you’re ready to throw the towel in on Planet Earth and go deep-diving into the dark unknown instead.
Created by: Joseph Mallozzi, Paul Mullie
Stars: Melissa O’Neil, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari Jr., Jodelle Ferland, Roger Cross, Zoie Palmer, Marc Bendavid
Original Network: Syfy (U.S.), Space (Canada)
Watch on Netflix
Based on the Dark Horse Comics series of the same name, Dark Matter kicks off as six people wake up on a spaceship with no memories of who they are or how they ended up there. What follows are three seasons of adventures that gradually ratchet up the stakes while still focusing on glorious character development. Because when you don’t know whether you’re a hero or a villain, you have to redefine your identity. Dark Matter also boasts three kickass female protagonists, including one of the most endearing Androids on television. So it was disheartening when Syfy made the shortsighted decision to cancel the show. We need more three-dimensional leading ladies interacting on our screens, and Dark Matter has them in spades. Luckily, you can still binge every season on Netflix. —Frannie Jackson
Created by: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Walter Koenig
Original Network: NBC
Watch on Netflix
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
Created by: Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Stars: Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Paulo Costanzo
Original Network: Syfy / Amazon
Watch on Amazon Prime
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.
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
Created by: Rob Grant, Doug Naylor
Stars: Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Chloë Annett, Norman Lovett, Hattie Hayridge
Original Network: BBC Two
Watch on Amazon Prime via Britbox
The British have a unique way of turning the end of the human race into a laugh. And like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf sees the human race reduced to a population of one with hilarious results. More of a riff on the Odd Couple than is typical of spaceship crews, Dave Lister wakes up three-million years after the rest of the Red Dwarf’s crew are killed by a radiation leak only to find himself alone in a titanic mining ship except for a hologram, a cat and a robot. Lister and his inhuman companions navigate too many twists and turns on their way back to Earth (or to get his girlfriend, whichever happens first) to recount here, but at least the working-class Liverpudlian gets his long-sought chicken vindaloo. The beloved series lasted five years before its first hiatus, and has been revived three times since. —Ellie Decker & JD Jordan
Created by: Irwin Allen
Stars: Molly Parker, Toby Stephens, Maxwell Jenkins, Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall, Ignacio Serricchio, Parker Posey
Original Network: Netflix
Watch on Netflix
Lost in Space’s Molly Parker and Parker Posey generate much the same excitement as the series’ (many, mostly effective) action sequences. Its motor isn’t the force of the soldier, as represented by Toby Stephens’ gruff John Robinson, but the logic of the scientist (Parker), the guile of the con woman (Posey), the problem-solving acumen of Will (Maxwell Jenkins) and his older sisters, Penny (Mina Sundwall) and Judy (Taylor Russell). From using magnesium to melt ice and commandeering a “chariot”—a cross between a Jeep and a tank—to determining the cause of engine distress, the Robinsons are at their best untangling dilemmas, rather than blasting through them. At one point, facing a more complicated calculation than she expected, Maureen quips, “I’m gonna need a bigger whiteboard,” and it resounds as Lost in Space’s central proposition: That there’s room in the genre, and indeed on television, for the “science” in science fiction to be more than the expression of humankind’s worst instincts. In fact, though it’s been (not unreasonably) described as “darker” than Irwin Allen’s original, which aired on CBS from 1965 to 1968, the most important changes in Netflix’s remake—Parker’s top billing, Posey’s casting—reflect more depth than darkness, at least not darkness for its own sake. The series premiere aside, Maureen is John’s equal, if not, at times, the dominant figure in their relationship, one that turns out to be much thornier than it might seem. —Matt Brennan
Created by: Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, Ben Nedivi
Stars:: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Wrenn Schmidt, Sarah Jones, Shantel VanSanten, Jodi Balfour
Original Network: Apple TV+
Watch on Apple TV+
America has never lost gracefully. Exploring alternate histories where America loses usually involves the country’s moral stance defeated by a great political evil. The Nazis win World War 2; the British suppress the revolution. But what if the loss was more complicated than that? More ideologically gray. Less focused on Superman’s truth and justice, and more on his American Way. Apple TV+ asks this question with alt-history For All Mankind’s opening, where the Soviet Union stuns a watching world by beating the U.S. to the moon, and answers it with an enthralling drama dedicated to the flawed pursuit of greatness.
It’s certainly appropriate for a show about the best pilots in the world to have a great pilot episode, but its early success is matched by a show where politics and science branch in ways pleasing for space junkies and astro-nots alike. The sprawling sociopolitical butterfly effects—like how the Nixon administration reacts to, and is affected by, losing the first leg of the space race—are just one of the pleasures to be found in Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi’s creation.
NASA, pushed as much by a president needing a political victory as by their own wounded pride, shoots for sci-fi. And the writing is smart. Potentially saccharine rah-rah patriotism is undermined by dashed hopes and a permeating need for American exceptionalism that is, in this version of events, proven untrue. Instead, the series works towards a new national culture in its large scale and quiet, workhorse dignities in its small scale. America gets back to its scrappy roots through its space program.
Those scrappy (bordering on irresponsible) elements—government employees doing their best at the behest of their overlords—see a powerhouse turn underdog. Nothing’s more humanizing than trying to break ground with equipment from the lowest bidder. Avoiding the truly sappy by showing the scars left by the program (the fuck-ups, the deaths, the near-misses, the battered relationships) earns the show its most moving moments. Rather than pure golden glow, For All Mankind leaves you smiling and ugly crying at the same time, amazed that humanity has achieved so much despite all its stupid pettiness. Unlike the space program it follows, For All Mankind pursues greatness, succeeds, and plants an Apple flag for the world to see.—Jacob Oller
Created by: William Hanna, Joseph Barbera
Stars:: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Janet Waldo, Daws Butler, Mel Blanc, Don Messick, Jean Vander Pyl, Howard Morris
Original Network: ABC
Watch on HBO Max
Meet George Jetson! Zipping through the clouds of Orbit City in his flying saucer, he’s off to work in the morning with his family. He drops off his son, Elroy, at elementary school, his teenage daughter, Judy, at high school, and his wife, Jane, at the mall. He arrives on a moving sidewalk for his job at a sprocket company, where he simply has to press buttons. This is the future of The Jetsons, the Space Age equivalent of The Flintstones, where everyone lives in elevated Space Needle-type platforms high above the Earth and technology isn’t just commonplace, it’s a way of life. As with The Flintstones, the setting is less the subject of social commentary than a backdrop for the show’s sitcom format and an excuse for period-themed jokes and gags. Much of the technology we use regularly today didn’t exist when The Jetsons was produced, including cell phones, personal computers and the Internet. But in today’s world, where everyone’s got their nose in a laptop or iPhone, it’s nice not to see everyone in The Jetsons’ version of the future doing the same. For all the perks of the 21st century, we might still have some growing up to do. —James Charisma
Created by: Jason Rothenberg
Stars: Eliza Taylor, Marie Avgeropoulos, Bob Morley, Isaiah Washington, Henry Ian Cusick, Lindsey Morgan, Richard Harmon, Zach McGowan
Original Network: The CW
Watch on Netflix
The 100 is what happens when you combine a classic CW teen drama (or to throw it back a little further, a WB teen drama) full of dynamic characters with fancy sci-fi terminology, vivid visuals, and really complicated storylines. The series, which premiered on the CW in September 2014, is set 97 years post-nuclear apocalypse, when thousands of survivors are now living in an impossibly large space station called the Ark. As a last-ditch attempt to figure whether or not Earth is actually still inhabitable or not, the powers that be send 100 juvenile detainees down to the planet to essentially survive or die trying. While on Earth, the really attractive cohort encounters a few different groups who’ve actually weathered the apocalypse: the grounders, who’ve organized themselves into clans; the Reapers, grounders who are now cannibals, thanks to the Mountain men; and the Mountain Men, who are essentially the descendants of the ultimate doomsday peppers, those who locked themselves away prior to the apocalypse. Chaos ensues whenever the different groups collide, but by the end of the seventh season, there’s another group the juveniles have to worry about: humans from another world, the Disciples. The sort of series that sucks you in and spits you back out in another reality, The 100 is not for those looking to just dip their toes into a new series. Get in or get lost. —Joyce Chen
Created by: Brian Henson, Rockne S. O’Bannon
Stars: Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Virginia Hey, Anthony Simcoe, Gigi Edgley, Paul Goddard, Lani Tupu, Wayne Pygram, Jonathan Hardy
Original Network: Syfy (Sci-Fi)
Watch on Amazon Prime
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
Created by: Jon Favreau
Stars: Pedro Pascal, The Child
Original Network: Disney+
Watch on Disney+
As one would expect from a Star Wars property, a fully-formed fantasy universe is immediately presented to us here, filled with interesting characters and lively backgrounds. It’s a TV show with undeniable cinematic quality, and it’s alive: things click and whir and bleep and boop alongside foreign chatter and a host of interesting creatures. The world of The Mandalorian immediately feels lived in, throwing us right into the middle of the story of the bounty hunter Mando himself (Pedro Pascal) and The Child (aka Baby Yoda) with unknown powers who he must protect as he travels across the galaxy.
With wonderfully short episodes that play with a number of different genres, The Mandalorian is both warm and action-packed, sparsely and carefully populated with characters who—however short their tenure—all make a memorable mark. Not enough can be said about Pascal’s husky voice work, as he somehow makes the masked Mando (whose face we don’t see until the very end) a fully-realized character. And yet, the show is absolutely stolen out from under him by a tiny puppet with whom everyone in the production (including Werner Herzog) and every viewer watching became obsessed with. Favreau’s choice to ground as much of the series as possible with practical effects (including The Child, the pinnacle of the form) was key in making this story about a ragtag group of space travelers feel wonderfully tangible and emotionally grounded. —Allison Keene
Created by: Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Jodi Whitaker, Peter Capaldi
Original Network: BBC
Watch on HBO Max
Originally launched in 1963, The Doctor returned to the TV screen in 2005, traveling through time and space in the TARDIS, an antiquated and surprisingly spacious blue police box. The special effects may have gotten marginally better, but the camp has stayed the same. With Russell T. Davies at the helm and David Tennant playing the 10th doctor, the show was never better. Now there’s a new Doctor—Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the role—to continue, and evolve, the tradition.
In his second season as showrunner, Chris Chibnall hasn’t been shy about messing with the 75 years of Doctor Who canon that preceded his reign, but Whitaker’s charmingly manic portrayal of the Doctor has given him some cover with fans. And most importantly, he’s kept it interesting, surprising us with a historic new incarnation of the Doctor, and a massive revelation about the Doctor’s own origin story in the Series 12 finale, “The Timeless Children”—featuring not just one, but two of the Doctor’s most iconic nemeses. Ultimately, the new team has kept the long-running sci-fi series feeling as fresh and vital as ever. —Josh Jackson
Created by: Joss Whedon
Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Original Network: Fox
Watch on Hulu
Josh Whedon is, without a doubt, a prescient storyteller. The complicated mind who dreamed up Buffy the Vampire Slayer had his eyes set on the future when he created Firefly in 2002; now, nearly 20 years later, it’s hard not to acknowledge that a lot of what Whedon’s short-lived series predicted is more possible than ever. The series is set in the year 2517, after humans have debunked their current solar system for a new star system with its own set of rules and norms. The titular Firefly refers to a renegade crew of nine people who live on Serenity, a “Firefly-class” spaceship. In this future, the United States and China are the only two surviving superpowers, and they’ve now merged into a central federal government called the Alliance. Sound familiar? There’s a lot of criminal activity that goes down aboard the spaceship, including smuggling rings, bounty hunters, and frozen bodies, and plenty of sexual tension between Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin). Great for a long weekend binge, given that the series was cancelled after just one season, much to its loyal fans’ unending disappointment. —Joyce Chen
Created by: Hajime Yatate
Original Network: TV Tokyo
Watch on Hulu
Every debate over whether or not Cowboy Bebop—Shinichir? Watanabe’s science-fiction masterpiece—is the pinnacle of anime is a semantic one. It is, full stop. Its particular blend of space-based cyberpunk intrigue, Western atmosphere, martial arts action, and noir cool in seinen form is unmatched and widely appealing. Its existential and traumatic themes are universally relatable. Its ragtag group of bounty hunting characters are complex and flawed, yet still ooze cool. The future it presents is ethnically diverse and eerily prescient. Its English dub, boasting some of America’s greatest full-time voiceover talents, somehow equals the subtitled Japanese-language original. Its 26-episode run was near-perfect, and episodes that might have been filler in another series are tight, taut, and serve the show’s thesis even as they do not distract from its overarching plot, which is compelling but not overbearing. It’s accessible to new hands and still rewards old-timers with every repeated watch. Yoko Kanno’s magnificent, jazz-heavy soundtrack and score stand on their own. Its opening credits are immaculate. It’s an original property, not an adaptation. It feels like a magnum opus produced at the pinnacle of a long career despite being, almost unbelievably, Watanabe’s first series as a director. It is a masterwork that should justly rank among the best works of television of all time, let alone anime. We eagerly await a rival. We’re not holding our breath. —John Maher
Created by: Glen A. Larson (original), Ronald D. Moore, David Eick
Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Jamie Bamber, James Callis, Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, Tricia Heifer, Grace Park, Tahmoh Penikett
Original Network: SyFy
Watch on Peacock
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 then we read novels with minimal plots to see people like ourselves make the same stupid mistakes we do and come out on the other side having changed. Science fiction is almost entirely the domain of epic stories-working through a relationship gets completely overshadowed with the fate of humanity on the line. This is one of the main things sci-fi fans love about the genre and also what many people hate about it. So when people say that Battlestar Galactica is a show with a broader appeal than sci-fi, this is partly what they’re getting at.
Creator Ronald D. Moore took the bare bones of a campy 1970s series and completely reimagined it, bringing a realism that sci-fi 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. 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. (Note for new viewers, make sure you watch the miniseries first) —Josh Jackson
Created by: Gene Roddenberry
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton
Original Network: CBS
Watch on Netflix
Watch on Hulu
The original series was pioneering. Deep Space Nine and Voyager had their moments. But TNG was head-and-shoulders the greatest Star Trek franchise (And one of the best sci-fi series of all time). Jean Luc Picard. Data. Worf. The holodeck. The Borg. Gene Roddenbury must not have had a cynical bone in his body, and watching his characters explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before, I didn’t either. —Josh Jackson
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