The 20 Best SyFy TV Shows of All Time

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The 20 Best SyFy TV Shows of All Time

The Sci-Fi Channel launched on Sept. 24, 1992, with a dedication to two giants of science fiction, Gene Roddenberry and Isaac Asimov, both of whom served on an advisory board for the network before their respective deaths less than a year before its debut. In the 25 years since, the channel, now rebranded as Syfy, has aired 100-odd scripted series, some of which have lived up to the vision of those legends, some of which have had more in common with the schlocky made-for-TV movies than the imaginative worlds of Roddenberry and Asimov.

The best of those science fiction and fantasy series not only stir our imaginations but offer a reflection back to the plain old Earth that we live on today. Bundled in the stories we tell of alien races and futuristic technology are the politics, ethics, culture and religion of the present, the problems of which—depending where on the spectrum from dystopia (Firefly) to utopia (Star Trek) it falls—are either magnified or solved in the fantastical society on screen. In either instance, they provide a commentary on our own society. And if they’re great, that commentary is subtly wrapped up in believable characters and an engaging story. At their worst, the commentary is preachy, the characters are cartoons and the story is predictable.

We’ve looked back at a quarter century worth of original programming on SyFy and selected our 20 favorite series, which captured our imagination the ways only great science fiction and fantasy can. Some of these were released in partnership with foreign networks like the BBC or Canada’s Space or continued from other networks, but SyFy distributed them all for at least part their existence as first-run episodes in the U.S.

Here are the 20 best SyFy shows of all time:

20. 12 Monkeys

Creator: Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett
Stars: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, Noah Bean, Todd Stashwick, Emily Hampshire, Barbara Sukowa
SyFy Original Run: 2015-present

12 Monkeys co-creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett set themselves up with a pretty difficult task for their show’s first season. Not only did they have to juggle time-travel paradoxes, the post-apocalypse and the nefarious organization behind it all, they also had to make believers out of skeptical fans of the Terry Gilliam cult classic that inspired the sci-fi series, mostly succeeding. Seasons 2 and 3 have expanded the story both in scope and theme, exploring philosophical questions like the meaning of free will. —Rick Mele

19. Killjoys

Creator: Michelle Lovretta
Stars: Hannah John-Kamen, Aaron Ashmore, Luke Macfarlane
SyFy Original Run: 2015-present

This Canadian co-production debuted with minimal fanfare two seasons ago, and turned out to fill the hole left behind by Joss Whedon’s dearly departed Firefly. As the series heads into its third season this summer, it promises even more space bounty hunter action, all wrapped up in a world on the verge of all-out war. Even better, it features breakout star Hannah John-Kamen, who will be all over the big screen this year in Tomb Raider, Ready Player One and Ant-Man and the Wasp. See what all the fuss is about before she’s famous. —Trent Moore

18. Lexx

Creator: Paul Donovan, Lex Gigeroff, Jeffrey Hirschfield
Stars: Brian Downey, Eva Habermann, Michael McManus, Xenia Seeberg, Jeffrey Hirschfield, Tom Gallant
SyFy Original Run: 1997-2002

The crew of Lexx (a plant-ship shaped like a dragonfly that can blow up worlds) is a motley one: a human courier, an emotionless undead assassin, a renegade love slave and a robot head that thinks it’s a love slave. If you think George R.R. Martin’s spins a high body count, check out Lexx. Aside from being oddly sex-charged for a B-grade space opera, Lexx sees the population of two whole universes wiped out (including our Earth), all while half the crew of this insect-shaped ship are on-again-off-again trying to kill (or eat) the other half. And they’re not even all alive to start with! After premiering on CityTV in Canada, the show was eventually picked by by the Sci-Fi Channel, where it ran for four absolutely bizarre seasons. —Ellie Decker & JD Jordan

17. Helix

Creator: Cameron Porsandeh
Stars: Billy Campbell, Hiroyuki Sanada, Kyra Zagorsky, Mark Ghanimé, Matt Long
SyFy Original Run: 2014-2015

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Helix is a claustrophobic quarantine thriller that begins with a throwback virus running wild in a Greenland research station. The show takes a couple of episodes to generate the momentum needed to override its missteps. Two days into its outbreak, Helix just about keeps ahead of its logical inconsistencies and muted performances by ratcheting up the horror quotient. The most intriguing aspect of the series may actually be the contagion itself, a kind of “contained rage” virus that promises an intelligent (and equally malevolent) version of the enemies found in The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later. The show skips any initial mystery about who’s behind the infection, with the lead villain—Hiro, the head of the Arctic Biosystems lab—identified in the opening scene. Hiro comes across one of his scientists, Peter, in the grotesque throes of the disease, which he coolly calls “Progress.” As the show progresses, it delves deeper into paranoia, hallucination and self-mutilation. If you like your sci-fi with a slice of madness and horror, Helix may be for you. —Andrew Westney

16. Warehouse 13

Creators: Jane Espenson, D. Brent Mote
Stars: Eddie McClintock, Joanne Kelly, Saul Rubinek, Genelle Williams, Simon Reynolds, Allison Scagliotti, Aaron Ashmore
SyFy Original Run: 2009-2014

SciFi rebranded to SyFy in early 2009, with the aim of being more inclusive of all parts of the genre television spectrum. Cue that July’s premiere of Warehouse 13, the South Dakota-based sister series to Eureka which focused on a tiny team of irrepressibly quirky federal agents whose job it was to track down supernaturally empowered historical artifacts to store safely away from humanity in a remote and extremely top secret storage facility. Death and destruction and the total annihilation of the known timestream and/or universe were always on the table—and major characters did die—but, like with Eureka before it, Warehouse 13 was far more interested in the jokes and sight gags and arrestingly odd interpersonal shenanigans its endlessly game cast could always be depended on to deliver.

That cast, which originally included Joanne Kelly and Eddie McClintock as classic odd couple co-lead Agents Myka Bering and Pete Lattimer, Saul Rubinek as grumpy Warehouse guardian Artie Nielsen, Allison Scagliotti as punk teen hacker Claudia Donovan, and Genelle Williams as aura-reader Leena, added two bold doses of LGBTQ representation in later seasons with Aaron Ashmore as Claudia’s new partner, the proudly out human lie detector, Steve Jinks, and Jaime Murray as Myka’s new romantic foil, the proudly bisexual, proudly chaotic neutral classic science fiction writer, lady H.G. Wells. Every part of this show was over the top and ridiculous—Lewis Carroll’s mirror, Mata Hari’s stockings, and Lizzie Borden’s compact all played pivotal roles in early seasons, while the marquee from 42nd Street from the Mark Strand Theater trapped the whole main cast in an endless tap dancing routine in the series finale (see above)—and the wild twists of artifact magic were executed, generally, with bluntly obvious CGI effects, but that was what made Warehouse 13 so fun, and such a great legacy for the all-inclusive SyFy rebranding. —Alexis Gunderson

15. Ghost Hunters

Creator: Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson
Stars: Craig Piligian, Tom Thayer, Alan David, Rob Katz
SyFy Original Run: 2004-2016

In terms of sheer influence, Ghost Hunters was one of the most successful shows that SyFy ever produced—or any cable network, for that matter. You’ve surely seen an episode at some point, but were you aware that Ghost Hunters was on the air, showing new episodes, for 12 YEARS and 230 episodes? Through infighting, drama and a grand total of zero confirmed ghost discoveries, this show pioneered an entire format—the “BS paranormal investigation meta-drama.” Rarely has a simpler, more successful formula been so perfectly codified: In each episode, the group travels to a “haunted” location with a good story, does their investigation, wanders around in the dark saying “what the hell was that?!?” and gathers a scant collection of evidence. They then show that evidence to the property owner, pack up, and do it all over again in a new location. And my, how other networks scrambled to rip off that exceedingly basic format. In the years that followed, we got everything from Ghost Adventures and Paranormal State to Ghost Lab and Ghost Asylum, plus about a dozen more. Hell, even Animal Planet’s disgustingly successful Finding Bigfoot was just another Ghost Hunters rip-off that transplanted Sasquatch in for spirits, while keeping the exact same format. All of the most successful variations upon this theme came to the same basic conclusions, the most important of which is this: It doesn’t matter in the least if you never deliver on the title of the show. Audiences aren’t turning in to see you succeed at your goal; they’re watching for the interpersonal relationships and conflicts, in true reality TV fashion. For better or worse, the modern reality TV landscape is deeply indebted to the (non-paranormal) discoveries made by Ghost Hunters. —Jim Vorel

14. Defiance

Creators: Rockne S. O’Bannon, Kevin Murphy, Michael Taylor
Stars: Grant Bowler, Julie Benz, Stephanie Leonidas, Tony Curran, Jaime Murray, Graham Greene, Mia Kirshner, Jesse Rath
SyFy Original Run: 2013-2015

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Defiance was ambitious, a key to any TV show filled with aliens and spaceships. In the near future, seven alien races collectively known as the Votans traveled thousands of years to Earth, not knowing it was inhabited. While some colonists were allowed to settle, the bulk of the refugees remained in stasis on their ships while humans and Votans negotiated for their settlement. When the ships were mysteriously destroyed, the Pale Wars broke out and alien terraforming technology was chaotically unleashed upon the planet, reshaping the landscape and introducing dangerously altered creatures from the Votans’ home worlds. It’s a well-developed backstory, complete with languages developed for the Castithan and Irathiant races by David J. Peterson, the same linguist who created the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones. Grant Bowles stars as Joshua Nolan, a former marine who makes his living scavenging Arkfalls, the scraps of alien transport ships that periodically drop like meteors into the earth, destroying whatever is in their path but providing technology to the highest bidders. But in the pilot, he finds himself thrust into the role of sheriff of Defiance, a common trope in sci-fi shows (think Eureka or Terra Nova) that essentially turns them into police procedurals with a twist, allowing for self-contained episodes where mysteries are solved—and slowing down the overarching epic storyline. The town itself is a futuristic St. Louis, now a small secluded valley with the ruins of the Arch. Unfortunately, during its three-season run, the storytelling and character development could never quite keep up with its sprawling ambitions. —Josh Jackson

13. Happy!

Creators: Grant Morrison, Darick Robertson
Stars: Christopher Meloni, Ritchie Coster, Lili Mirojnick, Medina Senghore, Patrick Fischler
SyFy Original Run: 2017-present

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, sometimes bravery comes in the form of an overly peppy animated blue unicorn voiced by Patton Oswalt. In the latest TV trend of adapting beloved grizzly source material (see also: AMC’s Preacher, FX’s Legion), this brand-new series, based on Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson’s cult comic, is a violent, grim and sarcastic tale of what it takes for a former cop (Christopher Meloni’s Nick Sax) to get it together and save a missing girl who’s been kidnapped by a demented drug addict dressed as Santa Claus. Consider Happy!, which also stars character actor Patrick Fischler as a homicidal maniac who truly enjoys his job, to be the antidote to Hallmark holiday movies that nonetheless manages to make you feel warm inside. —Whitney Friedlander

12. Channel Zero

Creator: Nick Antosca
Stars: Paul Schneider, Fiona Shaw, Amy Forsyth, Aisha Dee, Rutger Hauer, Holland Roden
SyFy Original Run: 2016-present

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Drawing inspiration from the Internet urban legends known as “creepypastas,” the anthology series Channel Zero assembled a deeply unsettling locale, featured solid performances (especially from Paul Schneider) and wove a steadily mounting tapestry of dread. I can’t stress enough how refreshing the format is—an hourlong horror drama that is seriously attempting to frighten, one where each season is compressed into a mere six episodes, with the audience knowing in advance that they’ll get a real conclusion. The result, therefore, is almost like a prestige horror miniseries: It reminds one of nothing so much as Stephen King’s IT, with its simultaneous stories in different timelines and themes of horror built around the moments when childhood psyches are shattered. It’s a series that featured one of the year’s best, genuinely frightening pilot episodes, which pulls its protagonist back into a web of small-town secrets and supernatural mystery, full of nightmare-inducing imagery and a persistent feeling of uneasy familiarity. Watching Channel Zero: Candle Cove is a bit like walking past the an abandoned house you were afraid of in your childhood, and then suddenly remembering the repressed story of the one time you ventured over the threshold and discovered the ghosts within. Jim Vorel

11. Eureka

Creator: Andrew Cosby, Jaime Paglia
Stars: Colin Ferguson, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Joe Morton, Debrah Farentino, Jordan Hinson, Ed Quinn, Erica Cerra
SyFy Original Run: 2006-2012

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Set in the quirky, scientist-saturated, totally top-secret Pacific Northwestern town of the same name, Eureka was then-SciFi’s big swing of a counterargument to the gritty seriousness of Battelstar Galactica, which had premiered two years earlier and launched SciFi into the pop culture mainstream. Where Battlestar Galactica was all grays and blacks and cramped metal hallways, Eureka was open sky and lush PNW forests and a cheerful whistling theme song; where Battlestar’s resident geniuses colluded with genocidal humanesque clones, Eureka’s lot over at Global Dynamics tinkered with technological goo and android dogs and pheromonal peptides that cause love stampedes; where Battlestar’s uniformed officers strategized space war against those same genocidal humanesque clones, Eureka’s solitary two—eternally gobsmacked outsider Sheriff Jack Carter (Colin Ferguson) and eternally exasperated insider Deputy Sheriff Jo Lupo (Erica Cerra)—used their practical training and relatively astronomical EQ to save the town’s various head-in-the-clouds quantum physicists from the comedic excesses of their own geniuses. This is not to say that Eureka didn’t deal with complex, dark-ish arcs—long before he was the scheming Papa Pope, Joe Morton nearly set Eureka on fire with Dr. Henry Deacon’s grief at losing his wife—but those more serious stories were always offset with Jack’s banter with his Smart House, or Jo’s flirtatiously combative slapstick with bad boy scientist Zane Donovan (Niall Matter), or bumbling super-genius Fargo (Neil Grayston) doing just about anything—including guest starring on sister goofball series, Warehouse 13. The more serious stories were fine, but it was those effortlessly light, entirely un-self-serious touches that made Eureka’s short five seasons such refreshing fun to watch. —Alexis Gunderson

10. Continuum

Creator: Simon Barry
Stars: Rachel Nichols, Victor Webster, Erik Knudsen, Stephen Lobo, Roger Cross
Original Network: Showcase
SyFy Original Run: 2013-2015

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

9. Dark Matter

Creators: Joseph Mallozzi, Paul Mullie
Stars: Melissa O’Neil, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari Jr., Jodelle Ferland, Roger Cross, Zoie Palmer, Marc Bendavid
SyFy Original Run: 2015-2017

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 recently 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

8. Wynonna Earp

Creator: Emily Andras
Stars:: Melanie Scrofano, Shamier Anderson, Tim Rozon, Dominique Provost-Chalkley
SyFy Original Run: 2016-present

Syfy has managed to make femininity a central feature of its recent slate. Wynonna’s past is deeply bruised by men snatching away her bodily autonomy (shock therapy in psychiatric hospitals), and her present by the weaponization of her body (the Earp family’s demon-killing curse). Played by Melanie Scrofano, Wynonna uses her body and freedom for pleasure whenever and wherever she can, because she knows what it means to have neither. We see girls not being believed; girls being told they’re crazy over and over and over until they believe it; girls being committed for refusing to lie about what they know to be true; girls being blamed for the evils of men—for a show about demon outlaws cursed to be shot to death by Earps over and over until an heir breaks the cycle, this one sure hits closest to home of the three at hand. As do every one of Wynonna’s boob and blowjob jokes, which play not to the fourteen-year-old boys in the audience (although I’m sure they love them), but, just like the fierce protectiveness she shows Waverly once they move back to the old homestead, to Wynonna’s need to control her own narrative. And when you’ve been through shock therapy, and now are cursed to aim the demon-killing gun that killed your own father, gross jokes and sisters are what keep you sane. That, and the hundred-year-young immortal ghost of Doc Holliday, who, along with fire-breathing Deputy Marshall Xavier Dolls (Shamier Anderson), knows well enough to be supportive, but to also step back and let independence bloom. —Alexis Gunderson

7. The Magicians

Creators: Sera Gamble, John McNamara
Stars: Jason Ralph, Stella Maeve, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman, Arjun Gupta, Summer Bishil, Rick Worthy
SyFy Original Run: 2015-present

Based on Lev Grossman’s fantasy trilogy, The Magicians tells the story of Quentin (Jason Ralph) getting into to Brakebills, a school for learning magic. While they learn intricate spells, Quentin and his friends and frenemies Eliot, Margo (Summer Bishil), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Penny (Arjun Gupta), Josh (Trevor Einhorn), Kady (Jade Tailor), and Julia (Stella Maeve) discover other magical worlds and complicated magical problems that they never knew existed—like baby-stealing fairies. Within zany storylines and a fast-moving plot, The Magicians is also grounded in the mental health issues experienced differently by each of the main characters. Quentin has been depressive his whole life and has been hospitalized for depression in the past. In Season One, he’s trapped in a hospital in his head, as if he were stuck in a dream. Quentin begins to question his reality and wonder if he made up Brakebills as part of his mental illness. A big theme on the show is that you can’t magic depression away. (They tried it. In Season One, several characters literally bottle their emotions. When the emotions come back, it’s an almost unbearable flood.) By including mental illness in these characters’ stories, it not only adds emotional truth to the show, it provides drama and conflict. And hopefully it lets people know that mental illness is a regular part of life—even in other worlds, and even when there’s magic. —Rae Nudson

6. Farscape

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
SyFy Original Run: 1993-2003

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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

5. Stargate SG-1

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
SyFy Original Run: 2002-2007

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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, takes 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

4. The Expanse

Creator: Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
Stars: Thomas Jane, Steven Strait, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Paulo Costanzo
SyFy Original Run: 2015-present

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

3. “Mystery Science Theater 3000

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Creator: Joel Hodgson
Stars: Felicia Day, Patton Oswalt, Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn, Hampton Yount, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Frank Conniff, Michael J. Nelson, Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, Patrick Brantseg
SyFy Original Run: 1997-2004

From the depths of Minneapolis public access TV came MST3K, the show that forever changed how comedians (and comedy audiences) viewed the act of watching bad movies. Joel Hodgson’s brainchild transformed an act carried out by stoned college kids watching late night TV into some of TV’s sharpest comedy writing, leaving an indelible mark on the comedy world and inventing an entire subgenre of professional comedic exploration while he was at it: Movie riffing. At its creative peak during both the Hodgson and Michael J. Nelson years, there wasn’t a show on television that featured denser, more joke-packed episodes, while simultaneously covering such a wide, eclectic range in its pop cultural references. That cosmopolitan comedy legacy now lives on via the Netflix revival of the show, MST3K: The Return, which has one season in the tank and another on the way. Although the reboot hasn’t quite reached the heights of the show’s original run just yet, there’s reason to hope that it will continue rounding into form in its second season, just as the original series did. For now, it’s just good to have MST3K back. While waiting for season 2, feel free to check out our massive ranking of all 191 episodes of MST3K ever made. —Jim Vorel

2. Doctor Who

Creators: Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Donald Wilson
Stars: Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith
SyFy Original Run: 2006-2009

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It’s easy to forget that when The Doctor returned to the TV screen in 2005, it was on the Sci-Fi Channel for four seasons before moving to BBC America in 2009 when Steven Moffat took over as showrunner. With Russell T. Davies at the helm, the Ninth (Christopher Eccleston) and Tenth (David Tennant) Doctors traveled through time and space in his iconic TARDIS, that antiquated and surprisingly spacious blue police box. The special effects might have marginally improved since its original 20th-century run, but the camp stayed the same. During that first season, episodes ranged from silly fun (“Aliens of London,” written by Davies) to genuinely terrifying horror (like 2005’s “The Empty Child,” written by Moffat). Soon, there’ll be a new Doctor—Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the role—to continue, and evolve, the tradition. —Josh Jackson

1. Battlestar Galactica

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
SyFy Original Run: 2003-2009

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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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