40 Best Science Fiction TV Shows of All Time - Rolling Stone
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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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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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UNITED STATES - APRIL 23: 100482_011 -- LOST - (Photo by Bob D'Amico/ABC via Getty Images)

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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

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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

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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

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