Okay, so maybe the past decade hasn’t exactly been the golden age of science fiction television. With many recent productions gravitating towards the fantasy genre, it’s getting harder and harder to find a charismatic star captain or desperate rogue scientist on TV these days. But just because sci-fi programming isn’t making as big of a splash as it once did doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any good additions to the category. Surprisingly, there have been some absolutely fantastic original science fiction series and spin-offs released over the past 10 years that would probably blow the socks off anyone who took the time to watch them. So if you’re ready to finally satisfy your craving for quality sci-fi programming, here are nine shows you should seriously consider watching.
9. Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Anyone who hasn’t watched any of The Clone Wars TV series might dismiss it as a mere kids show, and sure, that might be what it started out as, but it quickly grew into something much more serious. The show is an intense examination of the grim situation faced by the clone troopers—who are all ostensibly enslaved soldiers born and bred to fight for the Republic. The relationship between Anakin Skywalker and his young apprentice Ahsoka also explores a lot of dark territory in terms of moral values that few cartoons have ever dared to touch on.
8. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Unlike the recently released Terminator Genisys, which seemed to only honor James Cameron’s original two films by including shot-for-shot remakes of certain scenes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles went in a direction that further explored the ramifications of time travel. It’s a continuously complex plot that sees the future constantly shifting as both man and machine dispatch fighters through time to safeguard their own existence. Whenever Connor’s group encounters a fellow time-traveller they ask them, “What’s your Judgment Day?” in an effort to keep up with the shifting date as the two sides battle for control of the future. Viewers might not have expected to find so much deep introspection and psychological layering from a show based on The Terminator series, but that’s exactly what they got with The Sarah Connor Chronicles. It demonstrated that science fiction TV could prove just as thematically dense and morally charged as any primetime drama series.
Originally described as Skins-meets-Heroes, Misfits managed to do what almost no other show in history has by appealing to both mainstream audiences and the receptive geek demographic. Its sharp writing and clever take on the superhero genre grabbed the attention of the flagrantly fickly teen audience with its radical disregard for traditional narrative constraints as they relate to format, genre, character, and nearly all other aspects relating to storytelling. And even though it looks like it was made with practically no special effects budget, the thing that makes Misfits so interesting is how well it blends drama and comedy. The jokes are cutting and the super powers are often quite ridiculous, but there’s also a side to it that’s much darker and more complex. It’s a show that doesn’t seem to care who it appeals to but has somehow captured the attention of many divergent groups and proved to the world that great science fiction TV doesn’t need to be limited by budget, convention, or preconception.
6. The Venture Bros.
When The Venture Bros. first premiered in 2004, it appeared to be a pretty straightforward parody of Johnny Quest but, since then, it has grown to be so much more. Sure, it’s still about boy adventures and super science, but it’s also about bigger things like the nature of evil and overcoming failure and American decline. It’s also really funny. But layered in between all the hilarious setups and punchlines are many profound and insightful observations about relationships and humanity. Venture Bros. actually has a lot in common with the sitcom Arrested Development because it provides a kind of dark satire on the illusory promises of a more naive age and, at its core, it’s all about a family coming to terms with itself. Even though the humorous antics and cartoony animation might be off-putting to more hardcore fans of science fiction, how can you not love a show that features David Bowie secretly running a guild of super villains?
5. Doctor Who
Sure, its been around for over 50 years, but the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who turned out to be quite different than the original series. Today the show exhibits much more of a fantasy soap opera feel. The storytelling tone is much more urgent and exciting, with the fate of the universe seemingly dependent on what happens in almost every moment of each episode. It’s preposterous and exhausting to watch, but also completely refreshing and wildly entertaining. The show also benefits from a inherent awareness of its own mortality; renewal and rebirth are actually built into series’ premise through the “regeneration” idea, which was initially created as and ad hoc method of dealing with the show’s loss of its original star. Over the years this regeneration has become curiously elegant; with each new iteration of The Doctor we half expect the show to recreate itself entirely. And it’s that built-in drive towards novelty that helps keep the show fresh and ward off stagnation.
4. Sense 8
Sense 8 is one of the most promising science fiction shows to come along in recent years and it owes much of the acclaim to its commitment of placing characters first and foremost. During the first few episodes the show really takes the time to introduce all the players (eight of whom are linked through a psychic bond) so that, once the action starts, the audience is deeply invested in the way things play out. However, the show’s real breakthrough has to be its unparalleled embrace of human diversity and the way it elegantly incorporates a plethora of issues relating to sexuality, race and gender identity. Gay and transgender characters are center stage and their internal struggles are integral elements of the show’s core themes and narrative. If Sense 8 can maintain the kind of thematic ingenuity and emotional appeal that it has displayed in its first season, Netflix could have another major winner in its stable.
3. Orphan Black
Orphan Black isn’t just one of the best science fiction series currently airing, it’s one of the best shows of any genre, and it owes much of its success to the careful planning that went into the story before shooting even started. Several years ago, BBC America, not content to keep riding the coattails of Doctor Who and other imports from across the pond, decided to give screenwriter Graeme Manson and director John Fawcett free rein to develop an insanely deep character drama framed around a cloning conspiracy. They also gave the pair enough time to develop a plot framework for not just the first season, but for future seasons. This allowed them to plant seeds early and slowly start peeling back the layers to the point where viewers are never sure if they’re getting to the bottom of things, or just scratching the surface. Orphan Black also presents an interesting look at the scientific ethics and moral dimensions surrounding human cloning, and demonstrates that stories involving complicated conspiracy theories don’t always have to be ripoffs of The X-Files.
After kicking things off with a ponderous “parallel universe” storyline that most series probably would have held back until later seasons, Fringe remained fearless and dove right into the deep end with some of the most shockingly creative storylines of the modern TV era. It pushed the boundaries of television science fiction by combining an intricately outlined mythology with numerous sub-plots that subtly lend credibility to many of the fantastic notions that inevitably arise. Several other shows have tried to emulate this sort of realistic weirdness in their storytelling, and most have failed, but Fringe managed to pull it off—and, in doing so, forever redefined the sci-fi genre.
1. Black Mirror
Serious science fiction fans will often turn to novels in order to find stories that explore complex ideas and challenge existing fundamental paradigms. So, to come across a show such as Black Mirror—which seems as smart as a book but is bereft of all the baroque flourishes and unfamiliar jargon that usually accompanies fine literature—is instantly refreshing. Black Mirror makes use of an anthology format that allows it to take various perspectives and analyze the myriad of ways in which society and technology overlap. And although the concepts in the show might seem straightforward, the plot lines are anything but simple, as stories are often chock-full of more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan production. But rather than featuring a lot of flashy space stuff or futuristic gadgetry, Black Mirror focuses more on the boring existence of everyday life, and the numerous ways it can instantly transform into a horrific nightmare. Typically, the story’s protagonist will be going about their daily routine when some seemingly innocuous aspect of technology brings their world crashing down around them. And the really cool (terrifying) part about the stories is that all of them seem totally believable in a very near future. That said, the ultimate responsibility for the dreadful circumstances that befall characters in each and every episode lies with humanity because, in the end, we are the people who construct and embrace the technology we use—be it for good or otherwise.