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40 Best Science Fiction TV Shows of All Time

From superhero shows and space operas to creepy anthology series, the greatest small-screen sci-fi of all time

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It’s odd to think that, once upon a time, a TV show set in space — one that declared, in its opening narration, as the cosmos being the “final frontier” — was considered the pop-cultural equivalent of an unwanted party-crasher. Yes, a concept like Star Trek was both of its time and clearly ahead of it; history has more than vindicated Gene Rodenberry’s notion of boldly going where no man had gone before. But given the number of top-notch shows set in the far reaches of the galaxy and that used genre for pulpy and profound purposes over the last 30 or so years, it seems crazy to think that one of the most groundbreaking SF series was a network pariah and a ratings dud. Today, there’s an entire cable network devoted to this kind of programming. You can’t turn on your TV/Roku/cut-cord viewing device without bumping into spaceships, alien invasion and wonky sci-fi food-for-thought.

Science fiction has been around in one form or another since the early-ish days of television, both here and abroad, and its legacy now looms larger than ever. So what better time to count down the 40 best sci-fi TV shows of all time? From anime classics to outer-space soap operas, spooky British anthology shows to worst-case-scenario postapocalyptic dramas, primetime pop hits to obscure but beloved cult classics, here are our choices for the best the television genre has to offer — submitted, for your approval.

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40

‘Humans’ (2015-Present)

This British import that showed up on AMC last the summer was drowned out by buzzier shows; we're hoping the upcoming second season will draw more viewers to its unique mix of Blade Runner, A.I. and Parenthood. Set in a near future where lifelike androids function as humanity's servants, the series cuts between enlightened rogue robots and the mechanically aided government agency trying to capture them, with frequent stops in the household of a dysfunctional flesh-and-blood family caught in the middle. It's brainy and thrilling, balancing fantasy, drama, and trippy "Who's the real automaton, man?" philosophizing. NM

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39

‘Aeon Flux’ (1991)

Created by Peter Chung — a veteran of Rugrats, of all things — this unique animated series began as a series of shorts on MTV’s still-mindblowing experimental-animation showcase Liquid Television. Once it developed into its own separate show for one season, this dystopic drama added an unmistakably, uncomfortably sexual vibe to its story of the titular leather-clad secret agent, battling against a repressive futuristic society and her very intimate enemy Trevor Goodchild. Some of Flux's images — a fly trapped by the lashes of a human eyeball; two tongues intertwining like worms in a wrestling match — still haunt us. STC

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38

‘Red Dwarf’ (1988-Present)

For a certain generation of nerd, this comedy lived up to the promise of its title — a deep, dense, radiant cult classic that sucked its diehard fans into its gravitational maw and never let go. Combining the BBC's charmingly ramshackle, distinctly non-Hollywood sci-fi style with a Britcom set-up about antagonistic coworkers stranded together in deep space, it's been revived multiple times to international acclaim; new seasons are due later this year. STC

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37

‘Thunderbirds’ (1965-1966)

A peerless example of the innovative, creative spirit of the genre infecting its production as well, this beloved British children's series used an elaborate puppeteering process called "Supermarionation" to give the jet-setting heroes of International Rescue its distinctive look. (Matt Stone and Trey Parker dug it so much they lifted it wholesale for their War on Terror satire Team America: World Police.) Generations of kids on both sides of the pond have thrilled to those magic words: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds are go!" STC

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36

‘The 100’ (2014-Present)

Loosely based on a series of YA novels by Kass Morgan, the CW show takes place a century after Earth has been wiped clean by nuclear devastation. A group of juvenile delinquents get sent down planetside from mankind’s last outpost — a failing space station — to see if the ground is safe once more. What began in its first episodes as Lord of the Flies with hot people quickly established itself as the precocious stepchild of Battlestar Galactica and Lost, marked by unsolvable moral quandaries, deepening mysteries and a rogue’s gallery of fascinatingly screwed-up characters. JS

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35

‘Now and Again’ (1999-2000)

Born just a few years before viewers went crazy for Lost's cliffhangers and conspiracies, this ambitious CBS series imagines what would happen if the brain of an affable suburban family man were stuck into the body of a government-engineered super-soldier. Moonlighting creator Glenn Gordon Caron pitched the show as an action-adventure version of the Broadway musical Damn Yankees, and considered it to be primarily a show about the dashed dreams of the middle-aged. But the Saturn Awards were rightly impressed by the wild plots and superheroics, and ranked it among the best science-fiction TV of its era. NM

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34

‘Max Headroom’ (1987-1988)

As a character, computer-generated TV host Max Headroom is remembered as a very Eighties-centric send-up, mocking vapid MTV VJs and the media's embrace of corny-looking "futuristic" digital technology. But he's also the anarchic hero of this dystopian cyberpunk series, set in a universe where pirate broadcasters and anti-consumerist rebels resist being controlled by corporate conglomerates. The TV show had a hard time catching on in the Reagan era, but today it looks remarkably prescient — like a Bernie Sanders campaign speech run through Video Toaster.

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33

‘Man in the High Castle’ (2015-Present)

Philip K. Dick's 1963 novel entertained a popular thought experiment: What would the United States be like if the Axis powers had won World War II? This Amazon TV adaptation presents its alt-America is a slate-gray nightmare of pick-your-poison oppression, with Japanese imperialists in the West, Nazis in the East and Midwest, and a "neutral" no-man’s-land running along the Rockies. Hitler's declining health, combined with an ongoing East-West Cold War, turns a bad situation worse; don't even get us started about that mysterious reel of film that everyone is after. If the series departs from Dick's book by necessity, its paranoiac grimness perfectly honors the author in spirit. ST

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32

‘Misfits’ (2009-2013)

Though it's about a bunch of felonious kids with uncanny abilities, it would be a misnomer to call Misfits a superhero show. These ne'er-do-well teens aren’t out to save the day so much as make it through the drudgery of their daily lives without accidentally killing anyone. Darkly funny and tinged with a punk sensibility, this cult favorite explores what happens when the disenfranchised find themselves literally empowered — sometimes in terrifying ways. Though the cast turned over several times in the course of the series' five seasons, it never lost its sense of twisted fun. JS

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31

‘The Six-Million Dollar Man’ (1974-1978)

"We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better … stronger … faster." As science-fiction classics from Star Trek to The Twilight Zone had long proved, opening narration can set the tone for everything to come, and few shows have ever begun with a spiel as confident and urgent as this Seventies TV staple. The story of test pilot Steve Austin, who survives a crash thanks to bionic implants that enhance his speed, strength, and vision, the Lee Majors–starring series was an action-packed proto-superhero thriller that'd make Tony Stark proud. STC

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30

‘Futurama’ (1999-2013)

Arguably the nerdiest sitcom ever to air on network TV — so sorry, Big Bang TheoryThe Simpsons' 30th-century sci-fi cousin is full of jokes only a PhD could love. (There were three on the writing staff.) But it's an absurdist workplace comedy at heart, suggesting there's no technological innovation that will eliminate incompetent bosses or shiftless, alcoholic co-workers, even if the latter happen to be robots. SA

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29

‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ (2013-Present)

While only sticklers tend to append the possessive sobriquet "Marvel's" to this show's title, it's absolutely worth noting: After all, S.H.I.E.L.D.'s mission is to dance between the raindrops of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's constant stream of big-screen blockbusters, reflecting changes to the status quo while still telling an engaging story about a team of super-spies in its own right. Ambitious action set pieces and likable performances from series leads Clark Gregg and Chloe Bennett ensure that it succeeds. STC

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28

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (1981)

Douglas Adams' tale of a wayward Earthling cast into the world of space travel is so great that even its third-best version — after the original radio play and Adams' series of novels — is a classic. Forged in the same crucible as Monty Python, Adams did for space opera what Holy Grail did for medieval epics, smartly subverting the genre and in the process creating one of its masterpieces. So long, and thanks for all the fish. SA

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27

‘Stargate SG-1’ (1997-2007)

One of the unlikeliest success stories in sci-fi TV history, this show's origins lie in the offbeat 1994 film by future Independence Day impresarios Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Sensing something special, MGM snapped up the rights and spun it into a sprawling, ambitious saga of ancient alien civilizations and human soldiers and scientists tasked with uniting with the good ones against the bad ones. Strong, Egypt-inspired visuals and a memorable cast headed by MacGyver's Richard Dean Anderson helped generate several spinoffs and made the show the longest-running sci-fi series at the time. STC

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26

‘V’ (1983-1985)

Children of the 1980s had their brains rewired by the first V miniseries, which introduces a seemingly benevolent alien race and then exposes them as rat-eating Earth-conquerors, acquiesced to by a world yearning for saviors. The subsequent sequel and short-lived weekly TV show continue in that vein, encouraging viewers to question authority by pitting scrappy rebels against overlords who offer easy answers. We also recommend the 21st-century remake, which works those same "be careful what you wish for" themes into the age of Obama. NM

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25

‘Jessica Jones’ (2015-Present)

Melissa Rosenberg's Marvel sleeper hit works precisely because it lacks the bells and whistles of other superhero tales. There's nary a cape nor a clean white hat to be found in the Netflix show's morally gray universe, and super powers almost feel like an afterthought for the titular heroine. It just so happens that Jessica (Krysten Ritter), a world-weary, hard-drinking P.I., happens to have advanced reflexes and an out-of-this-world strength, and that she's squaring off against a mind-controlling megalomaniac (David Tennant). It’s a gritty fiercely feminist noir with just a dusting of sci-fi around the edges — which ends up being the perfect combo to hit a genre fan right in the gut. JS

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24

‘Life on Mars’ (2006-2007)

One of the damnedest cop show that's ever been, this British series concerns a comatose Manchester cop who's slipped through time — or is perhaps just hallucinating — and finds himself solving crimes in 1973. Like the best speculative fiction, Life on Mars features a hero who questions what's happening to him and why, all while exploring a strange alien world. It's just that this exotic locale isn't the Red Planet so much as a smoky gray city from the recent past, where violent bigots decide what's right and wrong. (Warning: Avoid the U.S. remake, which misses the flavor and context of the original, and changes the ending to something mind-bogglingly stupid.) NM

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23

‘The Flash’ (2014-Present)

You can keep your cinematic universes: The best comic-book adaptation of all time is going into its third season on the CW. Although Grant Gustin's scarlet speedster gets his powers from a particle-accelerator meltdown, the show's perfect mixture of giddy adventure and heart-tugging drama feels less like a matter of science than magic. It's grown-up enough to realize there's nothing juvenile about enjoying comics' lighter side. Let's face it: The movies have their dark knights and stoic avengers, but if you're craving a hyperintelligent telepathic gorilla, there's only one place to get your fix. SA

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22

‘Space: 1999’ (1975-1977)

When Star Trek became a belated hit in syndication, smart producers set out to capitalize on the "space is the place" trend — which is how "Supermarionation" mavens Gerry and Sylvia Anderson ended up making this stylish, high-toned live-action series. Their highly Trek-esque plots saw Earth’s human-inhabited moon hurtling through the universe after an explosion and getting embroiled in interplanetary conflicts. Today, fans love the show for its snazzy disco uniforms and elaborate spaceship models — both of which resemble a certain blockbuster motion picture that was still in production at the time. If only the show had stayed on the air just one year longer, it could've ridden that Star Wars wave to bigger glory. NM

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21

‘Quantum Leap’ (1989-1993)

Who among us hasn't wished we could go back to the past and set things to right? And who wouldn't want a charming, funny holographic companion for buddy-comedy shenanigans along for the ride? These two elements constitute the core appeal of Quantum Leap, in which Dr. Sam Beckett leaps through time and inhabits people's bodies to fix the mistakes of the past, egged on all the while by his advisor Admiral Al Calavicci. Starring Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, two of the genre's most endearing actors, it made its high concept work with down-to-earth heart. STC

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20

‘Babylon 5’ (1994-1998)

Imagine a five-mile-long space station that doubled as a sort of intergalactic U.N., in which humans and aliens have a neutral ground in which to work out trade relations, solve cosmic tiffs and hopefully avoid the sort of warfare that almost destroyed the universe in the only-slightly-distant future. Having done time in the writers' room of the 1980s Twilight Zone update, creator J. Michael Straczynski was no stranger to the genre's metaphorical possibilities. But this show became a fan-favorite because it wasn't content to just use tales of outer-space diplomacy as a cover for ideological beard-stroking — this was unabashed hard sci-fi, full of its own self-contained mythology and blessed with a kick-ass make-up department. DF

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19

‘The Quatermass Experiment’ (1953)

Created by sci-fi Hall of Famer Nigel Kneale for the BBC, the hero of this gamechanging British TV series — Bernard Quatermass, a professor with a keen interest in extraterrestrials — would become iconic shortly after this first series' broadcast; not even a technical glitch during the airing of the final episode could derail the show's impact. Reginald Tate was the first of numerous actors to portray the alien-fighting intellectual, who'd further capture the public's imagination via radio programs, movies (including a big-screen remake of this serial in 1955, known as The Quatermass Xperiment) and several other TV shows; the 1979 four-episode miniseries, in which John Mills battles postapocalyptic hippies with a cosmic Stonehenge obsession, is a highpoint of U.K. sci-fi. But you never forget your first. DF

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18

‘Dollhouse’ (2009-2010)

Set in an underground facility where "actives" like Echo (Eliza Dushku) are imprinted with temporary personalities and offered to rich clients, Joss Whedon's series had the built-in flexibility to do something new with its characters every week. The show initially sent Echo on episodic adventures, ranging from prostitution to kidnapping negotiation. But as Dollhouse continued to evolve through its first and improbable second season, it grew into an immensely disturbing hour about corporate conspiracies, fluid identities, and — in a surprise twist — a tech-fueled Armageddon. ST

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17

‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (1987-1994)

At a time when an all-female Ghostbusters remake has a legion of mouthbreathers ready to riot in the streets (or at least the tweets), it's hard to imagine a sequel/reboot not only winning over fans of the original but actually coming close to surpassing it. Such is the strength of Gene Roddenberry’s update on his own legendary show, in which provocative philosophical quandaries, world-class new enemies (Q, the Borg), and a lovable cast centered on Shakespearean Patrick Stewart's erudite Captain Jean-Luc Picard earned this spinoff, set decades after the first series, a place in the pantheon alongside its forerunner. STC

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16

‘Torchwood’ (2006-2011)

Doctor Who's earthier spinoff started simple, tracking the two-fisted alien-hunting exploits of polysexual immortal Captain Jack Harkness (played by John Barrowman), his Cardiff-based lover Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) and his right-hand woman Gwen (Eve Myles). But as the series developed — and moves into the complex multi-part stories such as "Children of Earth" and "Miracle Day" — it turned into something like a tense, taut political thriller with laser-guns. Forget good guys and bad guys; at its best, the show delved into the dreadful moral compromises that the powerful make on our behalf. NM

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15

‘Fringe’ (2008-2013)

Beginning life as a so-so X-Files knockoff, this Fox series blossomed when it went from investigating unexplained phenomena to exploring other universes. Shifting between worlds allowed the show to indulge some fanciful "what-ifs" — What if the Statue of Liberty was gold? What if traveling by blimp was all the rage? — but it also gave the cast, including John Noble and the great Anna Torv, a chance to riff on multiple personalities years before Orphan Black hatched its first clone. SA

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14

‘Lost’ (2004-2010)

Sure, the ending was considered to be a letdown by many viewers. But only the stingiest purist would let that spoil a show that for six years packed in more lovable characters and spine-tingling moments than any serialized science-fiction series ever has. From teleporting polar bears to time-hopping super-islands, Lost's core creative team of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse kept coming up with ideas that sent fans scrambling to the Internet to theorize. All the while, the writers divvied a rich mythology into memorable individual episodes, telling stories filled with wit, awe, and heartbreak. NM

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13

‘Astroboy’ (1963-1966)

Imagine if Walt Disney also created the Marvel Universe and you're close to understanding the impact of Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese comics and cartoons alike. First appearing in print, then on TV in the show that established this particular animation genre's style, the titular character was a wide-eyed, ultra-powerful young robot, formed in the image of his scientist creator's late son, who uses his extraordinary abilities to fight off science-fictional enemies like a pint-sized Superman. It introduced an entire generation of kids to anime, both in its native country and outside of the land of the rising sun, and you can see its influence everywhere. STC

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12

‘Utopia’ (2013-2014)

"Who is Jessica Hyde?" There are paranoid-conspiracy thrillers, and then there's Dennis Kelly's extraordinary, sui generis show about a bootleg graphic novel that may contain hidden clues about a government plan too nefarious to mention. And when the members of an Internet chat forum devoted to the comic come across the last remaining copy … well, let's just say there are people in power who'd do anything to make sure all traces of it are erased. Featuring creepy sadistic assassins, a diverse cast of every-men and -women heroes, and a strong contender for the single most badass antisocial female character ever to grace the small-screen (we bow before you, Fiona O'Shaughnessy), the series started out weird and only proceeded to get weirder during its second season — and better. We're sorry that David Fincher's American version was ixnayed by HBO; we're even sorrier that the original show has never been officially shown on those shores. We blame "the Network." DF

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11

‘Orphan Black’ (2013-Present)

This genre-spanning thriller about human cloning is so committed to its out-there premise that it employs a science advisor to keep its fringe genetics on the up and up. Like all great science fiction, the BBC America show spins out from an all-too-real premise: the commodification of women's bodies by those in power. But Orphan Black's true secret weapon is virtuoso actor Tatiana Maslany, who's slipped into the skin of 11 different characters and counting, from a cockney con artist to a tightly wound soccer mom to a fanatical serial killer. A show that could get bogged down in its million conspiracies remains compulsively engaging thanks to whip-smart dialogue and that mesmerizing central performance. JS

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10

‘The Outer Limits’ (1963-1965)

Its reputation suffered from being born in the shadow of The Twilight Zone, but in the eyes of some genre fans, the original Outer Limits is the superior sci-fi show, with pulp heroes confronting alien villains in fully imagined, smartly crafted plots. Creator Leslie Stevens took advantage of his low budgets and lower profile, letting a staff of young writers, directors, and technicians take creative chances. The result is a B-movie-inspired anthology series that looks like a European art film — one that's aged surprisingly well. NM

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9

‘Black Mirror’ (2011-Present)

Judging science fiction by how much it gets right is a tricky business: Is 2001 any less great because we're not flying Pan Am space shuttles to the moon? But this stellar British anthology series — seven episodes so far, with more coming to Netflix — is positively eerie in how accurately it diagnoses the potential perils of technology. Maybe we won't one day be able to download images from our brains like recordings from a DVR, or block people in person the way we do on social media. But the show's extrapolations feel logical, even inevitable: It's less a matter of if they'll happen, but when. SA

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8

‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003)

Resurrecting his horror-meets-high-school movie as a TV show, Joss Whedon took full advantage of the serial medium, turning the silly-seeming premise of a ditz with supernatural powers into an expansive, witty, emotional, and creatively adventurous seven seasons. In addition to the humor and teen-angst-with-fangs drama, you could always find numerous sci-fi aspects popping up: an Internet-connected demon, a Frankenstein's monster of a cyborg, an evil-dad android — even a Buffybot. And like a lot of genre-based shows on this list, it kept circling back to a lot of the same big-picture issues: Specifically, what does it mean to be humanity's guardian? And what makes us worth saving, anyway? ST

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7

‘Firefly’ (2002-2003)

Combining the space adventure with the Western was always going to test the limits of primetime television, but Joss Whedon's one-season wonder was doomed from the start thanks to network indifference. Still, the show's diehard fans (who'd eventually call themselves "Browncoats") helped make this ambitious series about a band of rebels fighting both a galaxy-wide government and cannibalistic "reavers" a posthumous cult hit; Whedon would eventually continue its story on the big-screen with the 2005 movie Serenity. At its best, Firefly felt like the essence of Han Solo distilled into 14 episodes. ST

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6

‘The X-Files’ (1993-2016)

Like its shape-shifting alien bounty hunters, Chris Carter's pop-paranoia series could be a different show every week. David Duchovny's true-believing Mulder and Gillian Anderson's skeptical Scully might be hot on the trail of a government conspiracy, then track down a supernatural mystery or stumble straight into a horror movie. Its mutability gave writers and directors a chance to develop their own distinctive styles — you knew that if Kim Manners showed up in the credits you were in for a treat — and its visual sophistication paved the way for bringing cinematic values to the small screen. But the consistent way it treated paranormal phenomenon gave The X-Files some serious sci-fi bona fides regardless of the route it took. It made you want to believe. SA

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5

‘The Prisoner’ (1967-1968)

When mercurial writer-actor-director Patrick McGoohan parlayed his experience playing a secret agent on the British show Danger Man to create an espionage thriller of his own, he unexpectedly created the prestige drama 30 years ahead of its time. The Prisoner is a frightening, funny, philosophical, absolutely mesmerizing allegory in which McGoohan's nameless title character, a retired spy dubbed Number Six by his mysterious captors, is imprisoned in a bizarre place called the Village. While crafting an escape plan, he's subjected to psychological experiments designed to break him by a series of interchangeable superiors all named Number Two. It's one of the mot visually striking and bracingly bleak shows ever;  everything from Lost and Twin Peaks to The Americans owe it a debt. STC

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4

‘Doctor Who’ (1963-Present)

Longevity is the name of the game for this 52-year-old BBC series, which at this point is as hallowed a British institution as the monarchy. Despite decades of lore, the premise is winningly simple: A charming alien travels through time and space in a dinged-up blue box, doing his level best to save the day. He picks up traveling companions along the way, and every so often he regenerates into a brand-new body. Everyone has "their" Doctor, depending on when they first picked up the show (there've been 12 so far; currently it's Peter Capaldi). Doctor Who slides giddily between silliness and profundity without ever losing momentum or heart. Like the TARDIS, it's bigger on the inside; there's space for all of it. JS

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3

‘Battlestar Galactica’ (2004-2009)

You can't throw a remote without hitting one of TV's infinite reboots, but none has done it better than new, vastly improved BSG. Working from the original idea of humanity's last remnants seeking out a new home, (re-)creator Ronald D. Moore explored how societies are born and how they almost die, the temptations toward religious zealotry and fascism, and whether the human race was really worth saving at all. Its notorious finale polarized even diehard fans — but its turn toward mysticism was always part of the show's abiding interest in the power of faith, and even that sting has faded over time, leaving it as one of the genre's greatest accomplishments. So say we all. SA

40; Best; Sci-F;i TV; Shows; Star Trek; The Twilight Zone; The Flash; Max Headroom

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2

‘The Twilight Zone’ (1959-1964)

When Rod Serling got tired of TV networks watering down the social commentary in his scripts, he had a bright idea: to couch his politics in science-fiction scenarios. That was the original hook for The Twilight Zone, yet the reason this particular anthology series outshines all others is not because of the  metaphor-heavy moralizing in its tales of "ugly" plastic-surgery patients, living dolls and tyrannical teens who can make adults disappear. Rather, its the way the spooky premises tapped into primal fears — hey, what's that out on that plane wing?! — and how Serling’s cynical take on human nature manifested in memorably ironic twists. (Take care of your eyeglasses after the apocalypse, kids; and beware of alien cookbooks.) And what makes this show really creepy is how it suggests that ordinary American homes and workplaces can suddenly transform into something straight out of our collective nightmares. The monsters are due on Maple Street — and they are us. NM

40; Best; Sci-F;i TV; Shows; Star Trek; The Twilight Zone; The Flash; Max Headroom

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1

‘Star Trek’ (1966-1969)

Nearly every word of its opening monologue entered the popular parlance. Nearly every nuance of its actor’s performances became (in)famous. Nearly every science-fiction series to come afterwards owes it a huge debt, up to and including the oh-so-similarly titled Star Wars. Yes, Gene Roddenberry's groundbreaking show is the sun around which the entire SF genre orbits. Its yin-and-yang leads, hotheaded Captain James T. Kirk and coolly logical science officer Mr. Spock, rightfully made actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy icons. Its aliens and enemies — Tribbles and Klingons and Khan, oh my! — remain indelibly entertaining. And its muscular, humane cold-war liberalism still holds up, as does its New Frontier zeal for exploration and optimism. May the Starship Enterprise never stop boldly going into the hearts and minds of the sci-fi faithful. STC