I’m going to show off my inner dork here, so bear with me. I just spent about a half-hour checking out this list of (supposedly) the 20 best Sci-fi television shows of all time. It’s a pretty good list, with what I consider to be a couple of glaring omissions. I also have an issue or two with the criteria used for what makes a show sci-fi. Three of the shows on the list, The X Files, The Twilight Zone and Lost are amongst my favorite shows, but I’ve never considered any as sci-fi despite undertones and elements in each. For all it’s alien conspiracy jumble, The X Files was at its best as more of a horror show with Mulder and Scully hunting down the monster of the week. The Twilight Zone and Lost, on the other hand, defy easy description, but science fiction isn’t my first thought with either. So, reveling in geekdom, I’ve decided to make my own list of the best sci-fi television of all time.
This is the only show on my list currently still on the air, which accounts for its low listing. Thus far, I’ve been impressed and it definitely has the potential to climb, but I have to see it first. A bad ending can make all the difference in the world to a show’s long-term reputation (see Battlestar Galactica later on). How can you not love a show with alternate universes, shape-shifters, and a constantly hallucinogen-tripping doctor? And best of all, Leonard Nimoy, who appears on this list three times (five, if you count guest appearances). Unfortunately, this show is on Fox, which means that the better it gets, the more risk it is for cancellation (see: a list of excellent shows killed too early by the network that is too long to detail).
Speaking of shows killed off by Fox just as they were starting to roll, we have this gem brought to you by the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But don’t hold that against this futuristic outerspace western. Firefly ran for all of 14 episodes before the axe fell, cutting off what was becoming a great, textured show. With Nathan Fillion’s excellent work as the captain of this makeshift crew, Adam Baldwin as the hardass Jayne and Summer Glau foreshadowing her later work as a hot terminator in the Sarah Connor Chronicles (also killed by Fox) by playing a hot, genetically enhanced genius, the cast is great. The show had such a fan following that it was later made into an actual, honest-to-goodness theatrical film.
OK, so technically this show isn’t science or fiction, but come on! For six years, In Search Of… did the documentary thing into all kinds of scientific and pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, including numerous topics that ended up as subject matter for episodic sci-fi and horror shows of all stripes. And again, Leonard Nimoy! As writer and narrator, Nimoy brought all of the bizarre and off-beat subjects to life. To this day, every time I hear his voice, I think of “lost civilizations, extra-terrestrials, myths and monsters, magic and witchcraft…” A lot of these episodes were better than fiction, and about as truthful.
For five years, I watched this show in awe. It wasn’t only one of the best, if not the best, sci-fi shows I’d ever seen, but one of the best shows of any kind. Then I watched the series finale. Over the past few months, I’ve been able to put my sheer disgust for that unconscionable, nonsensical, potentially series-ruining conclusion in proper perspective and not allow it to destroy the enjoyment I got from the rest of the series. Still, this would be much higher if not for that ending. I just don’t get it. The whole series was about sticking together and surviving to save the human race, yet they get to a habitable planet, send all of their technology into the sun and scatter into the wild, untamed wilderness. Like any of these people survived for more than a couple months. If they were going to commit mass suicide, they all should have just flown into the sun. And what’s with “All Along the Watchtower”? Were they implying that Bob Dylan is God? Or Jimi Hendrix, since they used his version in the finale? And if it’s Hendrix, does that mean that even God covers Bob Dylan? Still, the rest of the series was very good to excellent. Just skip the last 45 minutes.
This show handled the whole people-with-abnormal-abilities thing a whole lot better than Heroes ever has. And their setup makes a lot more sense, or any sense at all as Heroes just seems to be people have powers because. Unlike the show that’s still on, The 4400 actually acknowledged the many subtle levels on how society and our government would handle such an outbreak of super-powered beings, particularly with the front-line agents Tom and Diana’s much more convincing intermingled relationships with some of the 4400. Unfortunately, this series was cut off after 4 seasons, and we never did get a resolution to any of the big questions, like who exactly were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The ambiguous nature of the show was one of the things I liked about it, and I guess I’ll just always be left not quite sure of which end was up.
For all of the cheesy makeup and so-so special effects, this show ended up being a really solid and entertaining, character-driven story. Plus, the Sci-Fi Channel did something most other networks refuse to do. After canceling the show, they actually allowed them to do a series wrap up, feature length movie that tied everything up neatly. HBO, Fox, USA, etc., take note: that’s how you close a series with a rabid fan base, even if they aren’t all that large. Ben Browder and Claudia Black were constantly entertaining as the on-again, off-again, cloned, off-again, on-again duo. And Browder’s constant obscure pop-culture references always kept me thinking, even though, logically, no one in that part of the galaxy would know who the Electric Mayhem are. Unless, of course, old transmissions of The Muppet Show are just getting there now.
For entertainment value alone, there are other shows lower on this list (and some not even on it) that I enjoy more than this one. But for sheer impact and influence, I felt obligated to put it near the top of any sci-fi list. Star Trek is one of the rare forward-looking series that actually was hopeful about the future, not just planting us in the seemingly inevitable post-apocalyptic or fascist, big-brother-esque nightmares. That’s not to say there weren’t problems in the 23rd century, just that human-kind had figured out many of the issues that plague us today. The interracial kiss episode alone makes this a worthwhile entry, done as it was at a time when folks were still being lynched in parts of the south. Star Trek is the forerunner to modern sci-fi, with so many of today’s seemingly over-used plot elements having originated here. Plus, whether you like him or not, the world would be somehow lessened without William Shatner. And who can forget the classic episode where Kirk enters the alternate reality where everyone’s evil twin has a goatee? Oh yeah, Leonard Nimoy was in this, too, I think.
Unlike The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits was unquestionably a science fiction series. It was also pretty damned creepy as far as old, black-and-white television goes. The original series didn’t even make it through its second season before getting cut by the network, but that’s a testament to its quality that the show still thrives to this day with near-perfectly written, thought provoking subjects, much more so than The Twilight Zone that too often fell into the trap of hanging entire episodes on a last minute surprise twist; a trend that gave us the unfortunate experience with having to later deal with M. Knight Shyamalan. Like The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits episodes were written by some of the best writers going, and guest stars abounded nearly every week. I was first turned on to the old series through the 1990s version, which is pretty entertaining in its own right, if not quite as deeply thought provoking as the original. There was even a take on Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot” in the new series starring, you guessed it, Leonard Nimoy.
For a series based on a rather lame movie starring Kurt Russell, James Spader and that guy from The Crying Game, this show turned out to be pretty damned good. The discovery of the Stargate opened Earth up to the entire galaxy, good and bad. The first thing I liked was the obvious suggestion that virtually every deity in Earth’s history was actually an alien of some sort, from the helpful Asgard to the outright evil Go’ould. They even had a pretty plausible (relatively speaking) excuse for coming across English-speaking humans all over the universe, as they had been previously harvested through the Stargate as slaves by the Go’ould. I like the notion that the universe is much bigger than we believe, and that the possibilities are endless. This series held up well over the course of eight seasons (I know there were actually 10 seasons, but the last two were just throw-aways, in my opinion). One of my childhood heroes, Richard Dean Anderson of MacGyver, was the leader of a group that included an alien turncoat, a nerdy archeologist and a super-smart hot chick that traveled all over the place through the Stargate. SG1 was far superior to the spinoff series Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe (what I’ve seen of it) that followed. The team interactions were superb, and there was constantly a moral, ethical or political dilemma going on that complicated matters greatly. A constantly shifting story arc didn’t hurt, either, keeping the show from getting bogged down in one tired storyline as so often happens. Unlike other shows, Stargate SG1 allowed regular people from Earth to use their own ingenuity and technology to hold their own against alien forces out to destroy us in ways that didn’t seem ridiculous (like using an Apple laptop to destroy an alien spacecraft in a feature film that doesn’t deserve mention.) If you haven’t seen this show, check it out.
Where the original series laid the groundwork for all sci-fi that followed, this series, debuting in 1987 in syndication, back when there were still unaffiliated networks, put sci-fi back on the map. Some of the characters were undeniably annoying (I’m looking at you Counselor Troi), but the pair of Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner as Captain Picard and Data make this show well worth watching. Picard frequently showed an enviable approach to leadership, being both a stickler to the rules and allowing his crew to explore their own lives and problems so long as they understood the consequences to be paid. The Next Generation, like the original series, frequently dealt with larger philosophical and moral issues, and some of my favorite episodes explored ideas other shows wouldn’t touch, often doing so with a deft hand. I can remember Picard arguing in a hearing that Data wasn’t actually the property of Star Fleet in one episode, and later coming to the defense of a crew member who was being railroaded because of Romulan descent that he had tried to hide out of fear and embarassment. And I defy you to find a better time travel episode of any series than “Yesterday’s Enterprise” where a previous incarnation of the starship appeared and altered the course of history for the worse. Overall, this show had its ups and downs, but it was and still is the most consistently entertaining sci-fi I’ve ever seen. And by the way, in the fifth season, Leonard Nimoy did a guest spot as Spock in a two-part episode. This guy is the Vincent Price of science fiction.
Highlander- This show played to my immortal 12-year-old urge to swordfight. And who can’t love a show where someone gets beheaded every week? More mysticism than sci-fi, though.
Futurama- I didn’t like this so much when it was still on Fox, only coming to it through DVD, but now it’s one of my favorite all-time cartoon shows. And I watch a lot of cartoons.
The Dead Zone- The first four years of this show were just fantastic, and then it all fell apart. Still, watching Johnny sort through the maze of past and future visions was consistently fascinating.
V- Lizard aliens disguised as people! What more do I need to say?
Six Million Dollar Man- Actually, the only episode I remember was Lee Majors fighting it out with an alien bionic bigfoot. And the line, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.” That’s good enough for me.