The Best 2010s British Sci-Fi TV Series (When the Genre Outgrew Doctor Who)

We didn't know we had it so good.

Emily Berrington as Niska in Channel 4 series Humans
Photo: Channel 4/AMC

Over 50 years of British sci-fi television, the genre went from one golden age to another. The 1970s gave us bleakly devastating visions of the future, the 1980s gave us space invasions and comedy, the 1990s blended crime drama with sci-fi, and the 2000s remade shows from the 1970s and gave us Christopher Eccleston as two kinds of god.

Then came the 2010s, the birth of transatlantic co-productions and streaming. British sci-fi television was no longer the cheaper, shoddier counterpart to its US equivalent. The production values were glossy, the cast reached A-list heights, and the writing was what you’d expect from the most recent golden age of television. The age of cheap and cheerful sitcom-adjacent British science fiction was over… almost.

Dirk Gently (2010)

Stream on: BritBox (US); purchase-only on Prime Video (UK)

One final homemade hero! Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is Douglas Adams’ less well-known creation. He’s a private detective who believes in “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”, who may be a con man, a genius or a psychic, it’s never entirely clear which.

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During the 2010s, Netflix produced a glossy TV adaptation starring Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood. This isn’t that. This is the BBC series (if you can call a pilot and three episodes that) starring Green Wing’s Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd, striking the tone of a wildly surreal Jonathan Creek, where coincidence and counter-intuitiveness are the orders of the day.

Does it feel like a throwback? Yes, but in the best way.

Black Mirror (2011)

Stream on: Netflix

Black Mirror meanwhile, was frightfully forward thinking. Its opening episode, “The National Anthem”, might not appear to be science fiction. It contained no technology that wasn’t in common use in 2011, even if a later anecdote about former prime minister David Cameron made its plot appear positively prescient.

Black Mirror showed that we are already living in the future, in a reality watched and controlled by forces we don’t know and who probably don’t know what they are doing. It became popular enough that people began dismissing it as ‘that grim show where phones are evil’, and its early 100% hit rate of bangers petered out to a more even ratio in later seasons, but at its best Black Mirror harks back to the golden age of The Twilight Zone while breaking genuinely new science fiction ground.

Outcasts (2011)

Stream on: Roku (US); purchase-only on Prime Video and Google Play (UK)

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One area where TV science fiction was suffering by the 2010s was out on the final frontier. Star Trek had been off the air a while, the Stargate franchise had recently petered out as the cast of Universe climbed into hypersleep never to awaken, and aside from the occasional jaunt spacewards in the TARDIS, TV had largely decided to confine itself to Earth.

So Outcasts was a genuinely exciting prospect. Following the adventures of a nascent space colony, whose accommodations were mostly made out of shipping containers, the show was largely a Police Procedural in Space, but with ongoing mysteries surrounding the genetically enhanced “Cultivars” and possible alien life.

Of course, like all one-season-wonders, it began to show promise of really getting good just as it was cancelled.

In the Flesh (2013)

Stream on: BBC iPlayer, Sky (UK); Prime Video, Hulu, Vudu (US)

In 2013 the noughties love of the zombie apocalypse was still going strong, although by now the genre was about six levels deep in ironic subversions.

One of the cornerstones of the zombie apocalypse genre is that being a zombie is a disease you can catch through no fault of your own which makes it ethically fine to mince up your skull with a chainsaw. In the Flesh asks, “But what if then you got better?”

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With zombies medicated, rehabilitated and given cosmetics to make them look a bit less obviously dead, In the Flesh follows one young zombie as he returns to his Lancashire community and deals with the consequences of the outbreak. It uses the genre to provide useful metaphors for coming out and mental health struggles, mixed with political comment on bigotry and intolerance.

Utopia (2013)

Stream on: BritBox (UK & US); Prime Video (US)

If I had a pound for every time a cult British sci-fi series had a main character falsely accused of molesting children in its first episode, I’d have two quid. Which isn’t much, but it’s weird it happened twice. From Dennis Kelly, the writer of Matilda: The Musical, Utopia is, above all, extremely Channel 4. It is blackly comic, mysterious, and constantly wrong-foots its audience from scene-to-scene and moment-to-moment.

Its cast, including Misfits Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Alexander Roach and Adeel Akhtar, play the kind of unpleasant, messed up people you immediately want to protect from all bad things. Meanwhile, Neil Maskell’s villain shows how effective it can be to just have a character walk around killing people.

You are probably best going into Utopia without much idea as to the actual plot, but suffice to say the plot threads about imminent pandemics and vaccine conspiracy theories definitely feel a lot more on-the-nose today than they did ten years ago. If you’ve managed to go this long without watching it, it’s a great time to go back and catch up without anyone spoiling it for you.

Humans (2015)

Stream on: BritBox (UK); Hoopla (US)

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However much robot stories try to be about the encroachment of technology, the nature of machine intelligence or what it is that truly makes us human, they can never get too far from their original subtext – slavery.

Humans leans into it. There are a lot of things going on in this series. It feels equal parts like a series-long Black Mirror episode and Scandi-noir drama, which makes sense as it is a remake of the Swedish series Real Humans.

It is also surprisingly prescient in terms of how it writes its “Synths”. While some of them are undeniably sentient, the way it writes people’s need to anthropomorphise devices speaking in little more than Google search responses anticipates how some people have responded to ChatGPT. But the opposite is also true. Over and over again, in its storylines, relationships and worldbuilding, Humans comes back to the consequences of people treating people as things.

The Aliens (2016)

Stream on: (UK); Prime Video, Hulu, Fubo (US)

And while we’re talking about metaphors that don’t waste time on subtlety, let’s look at The Aliens, another Channel 4 series. It stars Michael Socha doing his best everyman-out-of-his-depth work as Lewis Garvey, a border guard of a city ghetto occupied by alien refugees.

Written by Fintan Ryan, who also contributed to Dominic Mitchell’s In the Flesh, it makes no secret of being here to talk about racism and anti-migrant hatred.

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Class (2016)

Stream on: BBC iPlayer, Sky, BritBox (UK); purchase-only on Apple TV, Prime Video (US)

An odd by-product of Doctor Who’s rebirth is that its spin-offs keep trying to invent a British Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even though the best version of that is probably post-2005 Doctor Who itself.

Class at least brought in the right talent for the job, as it was run by Patrick Ness, the author of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, a book about students at the monster-infested high school who aren’t the Chosen One.

Ness brings that energy to Class, set in the high school the Doctor’s granddaughter was attending way back in the show’s first-ever episode. It threads the needle between The Sarah Jane Adventures’ kid-friendly antics and Torchwood’s sex-cloud-vagina-monsters, but while it offers monsters and threats that have a distinct flavour all of its own, it accomplishes something just slightly outside of what you’d expect the TARDIS to turn up and fix.

Electric Dreams (2017)

Stream on: Prime Video (UK & US)

A show that Channel 4 might have titled “We’re not mad that Black Mirror went to Netflix at all, honest.”

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A US/UK co-production anthology series that adapts some of Philip K Dick’s less-well-known works, Electric Dreams boasts great production values and a fantastic cast, but it is definitely not Black Mirror. That said, it manages to catch the weirdness and unease that is so central to Philip K Dick’s work, where movie adaptations like Paycheck, Minority Report, and yes, even Blade Runner often try too hard to turn them into high-tech action movies.

The City and the City (2018)

Stream on: BritBox (UK & US)

Based on China Miéville’s novel, The City and the City concerns two fictional Eastern European cities that co-exist in the same geographical location, with the residents of each city “unseeing” the other. Starring David Morrissey at his downbeat best, the way the show realises Miéville’s vision of two cities, one laid upon the other, is hugely visually impressive, and its plot is the kind of intricate and thought-provoking you expect from Miéville.

Hard Sun (2018)

Stream on: BritBox, BBC iPlayer (UK); Hulu (US)

For a long time, the big differentiator between British and American TV science fiction was that British science fiction went harder in terms of how bleak and depressing it could get. Hard Sun, written by Luther’s Neil Cross, returns to that proud tradition with a police procedural set in a London on an Earth that has about five years before it is due to be destroyed by a devastating solar event.

It is not a series about saving the world or evacuating the human race to safety. It is about how you keep a civilisation functioning when everyone in it knows they’ll be dead in five years.

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The War of the Worlds (2019)

Stream on: BritBox (UK); AMC+, The Roku Channel, Fubo (US)

Arguably every alien invasion story ever to grace a screen, including quite a few episodes of Doctor Who, is on some level an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. There are quite a few films and TV series that even share its title. Yet despite the undeniably visual nature of the story, there has never been a proper big-budget direct adaptation of the novel itself.

Enter the BBC. As the benchmark in sumptuously costumed and furnished period dramas, with 14 years of blockbuster-level Doctor Who production behind it, the Beeb was perfectly equipped to finally put a The War of the Worlds on screen that resembled the book it was based on.

This isn’t that version. The War of the Worlds is a very straightforward travelogue through post-apocalyptic Victorian London, sprinkled with satire on the hubris of the British Empire. This version can’t resist trying to add in a mystery element, some non-linear storytelling and a subplot based on H.G. Wells’ own marriage to his cousin.

Yet it does the best job outside of Jeff Wayne’s cover art of visualising Wells’ invasion, from the tripods to the red weed. Until a truly faithful adaptation comes along, this will do.