Home TV TV Lists

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC-America/Everett

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.

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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.

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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

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

CBS/Getty, NBC/Photofest, BBC America/Everett

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