The Best 1990s British Sci-Fi TV Series (When There Was No Doctor Who)

Doctor Who's 'wilderness years' weren't entirely free of UK science-fiction

A man in a brain-shaped helmet from Dennis Potter's TV series Cold Lazarus on Channel 4
Photo: Channel 4

Come, sit, and hear sad stories of what it was like to be a young British millennial nerd. The nineties were, in many ways, a dark age for British science fiction. Doctor Who was gone, apart from one Children in Need crossover with EastEnders – Dimensions in Time in 1993 – and an American co-produced movie simply called “Doctor Who” (which we would all pretend to hate while treasuring our VHS recording and commemorative Radio Times issue).

Over the pond, TV sci-fi was in the middle of a golden age, with three Star Trek series, Babylon 5, Farscape, The X-Files and Stargate SG-1 only marking the tip of a science fictional iceberg. But British fans could only watch these episodes months or even years after the fact, particularly if they had only access to terrestrial television, and were forced to paw through magazines and websites for reviews and plot summaries to sate their hunger.

Yet, throughout this long, dark decade, there were still occasional glimpses of hope. Every once in a while someone would step up and attempt to create that mythical beast, the “Good” British Sci-Fi TV Show (because it was a rule at the time that everyone had to be very snarky and dismissive of all the shows in our 1970s and 1980s lists).

And here they are.

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Bugs (1995-1999)

Disc-only, not officially available to stream

Bugs was a sly one. It snuck into the TV schedules under the guise of an “adventure” series, about a team of independent security consultants. The crimes they were hired to combat were certainly high-tech, but definitely not science-fiction. A stolen satellite? A plane hijacked by remote control? Sure, it could be outlandish but nothing you wouldn’t see Piers Brosnan’s Bond taking on at around the same time.

But as the series progressed, stuff began to sneak in. They did a two-parter set in space. An episode about genetically modified insects. An intelligent computer virus that can infect human brains. The end result is that at a time when you couldn’t mention British sci-fi telly without people cracking hilarious jokes about wobbly cardboard sets, Bugs managed to keep a science fiction show on the air in a prime-time slot on BBC One for four years.

Crime Traveller (1997)

Disc-only, not officially available to stream

For a short time in the nineties, Chloë Annett was the biggest thing in British science-fiction. In a short period of time, she became a Red Dwarf regular as the new Kochanski, and Holly Turner, the mad inventor from The Crime Traveller, co-starring EastEnders Michael French as detective-who-doesn’t-play-by-the-rules-but-gets-results Jeff Slade.

The show was the brainchild of Anthony Horowitz, who is best known now for the Alex Rider books, but who is an absolute powerhouse of TV writing. The show’s time travel logic didn’t always make sense, but was at least clearly defined – history could not be changed, so the job was to solve the crime, not prevent it. Also, time travellers had to get back to the time machine before they caught up with the present, or else they would get “lost in time”.

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The show regularly garnered over eight million viewers, but fell through the cracks of a regime change and sadly never made it past the first eight episodes.

The Last Train (1999)

Not officially available to stream

Bugs tried to stealth their sci-fi onto TV, Crime Traveller mixed it in with a police procedural to make it marketable. The Last Train meanwhile, went back to the sub-genre Britain has always done best – bleak as hell post-apocalypse.

A train crashes on the way between London and Sheffield, and a gas canister breaks open to cryogenically freeze everyone on board. They wake up to discover they’ve slept through an apocalyptic asteroid collision and another 50-odd years after that. The show followed the survivors’ journey across post-apocalyptic Britain to find a mysterious “Ark”, with the British staples of miserable-looking weather and morally complex characters who occasionally act like utter bastards for no reason.

The Vanishing Man (1997-1998)

Not officially available to stream

British sci-fi isn’t all bleak. Take The Vanishing Man. It starred Neil Morrissey, who is best known these days as the voice of Bob the Builder, but back in the 90s was the go-to casting choice for a relatably nice but thick everyman. Still one of the better career arcs for someone named Morrissey over the last 30 years.

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Morrissey’s character, Nick Cameron, was wrongfully imprisoned and subject to medical experiments that turn him invisible when he comes into contact with water. By the end of the pilot episode he had acquired clothing and a motorbike that also turned invisible, but these were quickly discarded because people being naked is funny.

He went on to work with a government agency and have what can only be called hijinks. 

Cold Lazarus (1996)

Stream on: in the UK

It is sadly largely forgotten now, but on release Cold Lazarus was a massive TV event- and some of the weirdest and most original science fiction worldbuilding ever to grace a TV screen.

It was the last work of legendary playwright Dennis Potter. As per his last wishes, it was one of two co-productions between Channel 4 and the BBC. The lead character of the first of these two dramas, Karaoke, returned as a cryogenically frozen head, giving characters in a dystopian 24th-century Britain a view of 20th-century life.

Invasion: Earth (1998)

Disc-only, not officially available to stream

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In the wake of mega-hits such as Independence Day and The X-Files, the BBC set about launching its own blockbuster alien invasion in a co-production with the Sci Fi Channel (back before it was known as “SyFy”).

With a plotline that went back to mysterious UFOs crashing during the Blitz, extensive use of CGI that had really mastered rendering “sinister jelly”, and lots of scenery shots of rural Scotland, this series was a brave attempt to go toe-to-toe with America’s glitzier offering, but despite a cliff-hanger ending, it never quite found enough audience to justify a second series.

The Uninvited (1997)

Not officially available to stream

While Invasion: Earth was trying to compete with American sci-fi, The Uninvited offers a decidedly more British invasion. This mini-series, produced by Anglia Television and filmed primarily in and around Norwich, feels like a pleasant throwback to the days of Nigel Kneale. Here the tools of alien invasion are bureaucracy and media, wrapped up in anxieties about nuclear power, while the hero is just one ordinary man unfortunate enough to have seen too much.

The show’s novelization, written by Paul Cornell, even featured a cheeky unnamed cameo by Doctor Who’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, making it technically part of the Whoniverse, if you like.

Space Precinct (1994-1995)

Stream on: BritBox (UK); Peacock, Fubo (US)

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In the 1970s, Gerry Anderson took the model work that had made shows such as Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet household names and turned it to live-action TV, making shows that were far weirder, bleaker and more cerebral than is typically associated with the Anderson name.

But when he returned to live-action TV with Space Precinct, the tone was much more in keeping with his Supermarionation series. With a name that told you the entire plot (Star Cops was already taken) Space Precinct was about big action, cheesy dialogue, and aliens with giant prosthetic heads. Though a UK production, it was primarily aimed at the US market, and aired first in America.

It also, at one point, featured a futuristic pizza delivery boy played by an up-and-coming actor named Idris Elba

Ultraviolet (1998)

Stream on: Channel (UK), Roku, PlutoTV, Crackle Freevee, Plex (US)

And a few short years later that same actor would be starring in this, one of the few perfect TV series to have ever existed. The premise is a simple and maybe even overdone one – a secret organisation fights vampires.

Where Ultraviolet differentiated itself was by having its vampire slayers bring the full weight of modern science and technology to bear. UV torches and a carbon-tipped bullet can do the job of sunlight and a wooden stake through the heart. If a mirror can’t pick up a vampire’s reflection, a rifle-mounted video camera will make sure you’re shooting the right people.

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Meanwhile, the vampires themselves (“Code 5s” or “Code Vs”- get it?) were using voice synthesisers, since their own voices wouldn’t show up on recordings. When our heroes come face to face with them, they are not cackling villains – on the contrary, they are just so bloody reasonable, even as their horrifying agenda is revealed. It’s a flawless series no other modern vampire take has matched yet.