50 Best Science Fiction TV Shows of All Time - Rolling Stone
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50 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

Red galaxy with stars and nebulae in deep space. Elements of this image were furnished by NASA.; Shutterstock ID 1667435359; Purchase Order:  ; Other:

Red galaxy with stars and nebulae in deep space. Elements of this image were furnished by NASA.; Shutterstock ID 1667435359; Purchase Order: ; Other:

photo illustration images: Mark Hall/HBO, 2; Disney +,2; Netflix; John P. Johnson/HBO,2; Artsiom Petrushen/Shutterstock

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 50 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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20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterst


‘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



‘The Mandalorian’ (2019-Present)

You had us at “Baby Yoda.” Jon Favreau’s Star Wars spinoff series has become the stuff of memes, thanks to its inclusion of the almost painfully adorable critter who gives the nameless bounty-hunter character (Game of Thrones badass Pedro Pascal) a chance to have Lone Wolf and Cub–style adventures in a galaxy far, far away. Plus you get plenty of bantering stormtroopers, killer droids and card-carrying members of Mos Eisley’s hive of scum and villainy engaging in various side adventures. At a time when the film franchise seems to be faltering, this Disney+ launch show delivers the popcorn-worthy goods, with fantastic actors from Giancarlo Esposito to Werner Herzog (!) coming along for the X-wing ride. STC

Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor - Doctor Who _ Season 12, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: James Pardon/BBC Studios/BBC America

James Pardon/BBC Studios


‘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 13 so far; currently it’s Jodie Whittaker, the first female incarnation of the good doc). 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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Sci-Fi Channel/Kobal/Shutterstoc


‘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



‘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. (Something Jordan Peele’s stellar 2019 update has managed to keep intact.) 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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Paramount Television/Kobal/Shutt


‘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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