The existence of the 21st century itself is almost inconceivable. Ask any one who was around in 1999 how they felt about the incoming year 2000 and they’ll be happy to tell you how surreal it all felt. Hell, they may even be nice enough to give you a non-perishable treat from their Y2K bomb shelter.
The fact that we’re even in the 2000s and have been for many years feels like science fiction to begin with. It’s only fitting then that television, a very 20th century innovation, has been at our side the whole time to make sense of it.
Sci-fi TV in the 21st century was both a friendly companion and a bold boundary pusher. Whether it took us to the heights of outer space, alternate universes, or even just around the neighborhood, science fiction stories truly enriched our pop culture landscape. What follows are our ranked choices for the best science fiction shows of the 21st century.
Note: This article was adapted and updated from our previous “Best Sci-Fi TV Shows of the Past 15 Years.”
Stream on: Netflix (US & UK)
Eric McCormack of Will & Grace teamed with Stargate SG-1 creator Brad Wright on Travelers, a wholly unique time travel series that featured visitors from the future taking over bodies of those in our present at the moment of their historically recorded death. The goal was to infiltrate key positions in the past to avoid a future catastrophe, giving the show a conspiratorial spy thriller feel.
Sadly, Travelers was cut short after only three seasons on Netflix, just as the show was starting to question the driving force behind these changes to the past, an all-powerful artificial intelligence known only as The Director. Because the operatives from the future inevitably grew close to the inhabitants of the past and learned more about each other, they began to expose moral conflicts and dissent within their ranks. Luckily, the finale did provide some closure, but fans were still left wanting more. – Michael Ahr
39. 12 Monkeys
Stream on: Hulu (US); ITVX (UK)
Although 12 Monkeys is ostensibly based on the 1995 film of the same name starring Bruce Willis, the Syfy television show is its own thing, going well beyond the deterministic pessimism of the movie. The four seasons followed James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and a wonderful ensemble cast which included Amanda Schull of Suits and Emily Hampshire of Schitt’s Creek, the latter of whom played a much more nuanced and mythology-oriented version of the character made famous by Brad Pitt in the film.
After focusing on the worldwide pandemic from the film in season one, 12 Monkeys went deeper, exploring the true nature of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which sought to destroy time itself. The show played around with every paradoxical time travel trope imaginable and executed them all perfectly, particularly with its Groundhog Day episode, but it solidified its place on this list because of its amazing finale, which provided more closure and poignant satisfaction than almost any science fiction series before or since. – MA
38. The 100
Stream on: Netflix (US); ITVX (UK)
Initially, The 100 sounded like a typical CW teen drama with a sci-fi premise: one hundred incarcerated juvenile delinquents (all beautiful young people) from a space station orbiting Earth are sent down to test the viability of returning to the surface after decades of deadly radioactivity. The survival tale could easily have been relationship drama in a post-apocalyptic setting.
Although The 100 took a questionable path in later years, the first three seasons were unparalleled greatness with heartbreaking tragedy on a Shakespearean scale. Between the tribal culture of the Grounder clans who survived the nuclear holocaust, the motivations of the A.I. who caused the original disaster, and the struggle for power between the young protagonists and the adults that soon joined them planetside, The 100 explored every possible avenue for conflict, and the results were glorious. – MA
Stream on: Netflix (US); not available to stream in the UK
Syfy imported Continuum from Canada’s Showcase network before the time travel sci-fi trend really took off in television, and it was the first of its kind to really indulge in causal loops, paradoxes, and other brain-melting concepts associated with this subgenre. Kiera Cameron, a cop from the future played by Rachel Nichols, follows a group of terrorists who manage to travel to our present just before their execution. Trapped in 2012, she must contain the threat and get back to her family.
The beauty of Continuum lies in its blurring of the lines between good and bad. The so-called terrorists, whose methods are admittedly extreme, are on the side of freedom in an oppressive corporate oligarchy, and if not for the danger of erasing herself or her child, Kiera may not actually want to preserve the future she came from. Continuum ended before it had the chance to really plumb the depths of its mythology, but it stands as one of the best early attempts at a more cerebral time travel show. – MA
36. The Power
Stream on: Prime Video (US & UK)
It’s testament to how many great sci-fi series are out there currently (see also: Foundation) that The Power came and went in May 2023 without leaving much of a ripple. It’s one seriously classy show with a budget that lives up to the book’s globe-traveling vision, and looks beautiful.
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2016 sci-fi novel of the same name, The Power imagines a world where teenage girls start to develop the ability to shoot electricity from their fingertips. It’s not a superhero-radioactive-spider deal, but a latent organ in the female anatomy that awakens to – as one character puts it – even things out. Faster than the world can keep up, girls and women in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Eastern Europe, the USA and London use their ability to protect themselves, fight back and lead revolutions both personal and political. Once on top though, power retains its ability to corrupt… Hopefully season two will follow. – Louisa Mellor
35. The Man in the High Castle
Stream on: Prime Video (US & UK)
Of all the hypothetical questions the world likes to ask, “what if the Nazis won World War II” always finds itself near the top of the list. It’s a question that legendary sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick decided to confront in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle and it’s one that Prime Video decided to return to with its 2015 streaming adaptation of the same name.
Picking up in 1962 with a triumphant Germany and Japan having divided the United States into the Greater Nazi Reich in the east and the Japanese Pacific States in the west, The Man in the High Castle really runs with its alternative history premise in the early goings. What makes this a uniquely sci-fi experience, however, is the discovery of newsreels from a seemingly alternate universe where the Axis Powers were defeated…among other realities. This show isn’t just about pulling the thread on a historical hypothetical, it’s about confronting the unnerving reality that perhaps the timeline you live in is not the “correct” one. – Alec Bojalad
Stream on: Peacock (US); ITVX (UK)
When Heroes first premiered on NBC in 2006, superhero films Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and the comic book industrial complex they wrought were still a couple years away. Instead of being a harbinger for the era of superhero storytelling to come though, Heroes was more like network television’s last gasp at creating something truly big.
Created by Tim Kring, who admitted to having little interest in comics or superheroes, Heroes was really more about many separate individual paths to superpowered self discovery than anything else. Season 1’s early episodes had a ball with characters like Nathan Petrelli (flight), Claire Bennet (invulnerability), and Hiro Nakamura (time and space manipulation) finding their way in the world all the while setting up an epic confrontation between power mimics Peter Petrelli and Gabriel “Sylar” Gray. While the show infamously quickly lost steam in its season 1 finale and subsequent three seasons, we’ll always have those thrilling first 20 episodes of sci-fi mythmaking. – AB
Stream on: not available to stream in the US; Channel4.com, Sky (UK)
Remember back when we thought that AI would arrive packaged up to look like Gemma Chan and take care of our kids, instead of looking like a dull webpage and taking apart our creative industries? The naivety is almost sweet.
Humans was adapted from Swedish original Äkta Människor, and ran for three seasons between 2015 and 2018 on Channel 4 and AMC. It took place in a parallel present where humanoid “Synth” domestic servant robots are the latest home accessory. When a rogue group of conscious Synths escape their creator and attempt to hide among their peers, a drama unfolds that takes in politics, philosophy, religion, prejudice, radicalisation and love. Colin Morgan (Merlin) starred alongside Chan, William Hurt, and a host of new and established UK talent. – LM
32. Voltron: Legendary Defender
All Voltron: Legendary Defender needed to be was a show filled with giant robot action to satisfy its audience’s nostalgia receptors. Instead it made itself into something so much more. You wouldn’t expect a show like Voltron to devote whole episodes to alien politics but Legendary Defender did it in gripping fashion. The show was like the politics of Star Trek meets the action of Star Wars, with a huge dose of anime inspired direction to send it all over the top.
Plus there was that time the loveable cast all visited a space mall and ended up leaving with a free cow. Voltron: Legendary Defender is a show that will satisfy any sci-fi fan, young or old, and is filled with plenty of fan service for old school Voltron fans. And yes, the giant robot action really is superb. We don’t want to spoil it, but that transformation sequence in season 7? Damn. – Shamus Kelley
The existence of super-powered individuals doesn’t make any given show a science-fiction series by default. While superhero characters like Jessica Jones, Wanda Maximoff, and Barry Allen all whave powers that could be safely described as “supernatural”, they’re missing a certain space ship-y element to truly be considered science fiction. What sets Invincible, Amazon’s brilliant adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic series, apart? Well…it’s the outer space stuff, you see.
We chose a photo of Allen the Alien (voiced by Seth Rogen) above to illustrate the point that Invincible has a hell of a lot more going on than just super heroic action on Earth. The series’ central hero, Mark Grayson a.k.a. Invincible, is half-alien himself thanks to his father, Nolan a.k.a. Omni-Man’s heritage. Within the first few episodes alone, Omni-Man enters into a transdimensional alien dimension to absolutely lay waste to some Flaxans. And you know what? It’s all so, so, so, so cool. Invincible captures the best elements of superhero and sci-fi storytelling and blends them together in one slick, wildly entertaining package. – AB
30. The OA
To many, the premature cancellation of The OA is still a cause of actual-can-be-tested-on-a-medical-scale pain. Creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij apparently had a five-season vision for their mystery sci-fi Netflix drama, but fans were left three seasons short and on a cliffhanger that promised to change everything.
Even so, that shouldn’t put anybody off spending two seasons with this ambitious, mind-bending show. It starts as the story of Prairie Johnson (Marling), a young blind woman who returns home after a seven-year disappearance, having regained her sight. She attracts a devoted group of followers, and together they perform a ritual that aims to open dimensions. From there on in, it spirals out into a compelling and unforgettable sci-fi fantasy. The story shifts all over the world(s) and has ideas to spare. Maddening, yes, but a total antidote to bland television. – LM
29. Wynonna Earp
The little queer sci-fi show that could, Wynonna Earp ran for four glorious seasons of supernatural shenanigans on SyFy before coming to an end last year. Loosely based on a comic book series of the same name by Beau Smith, Wynonna Earp is the story of Wyatt Earp’s great-etc. granddaughter Wynonna, who inherits a curse that dictates she must send the reincarnated outlaws that Wyatt killed back to hell with the use of a magic gun called Peacemaker.
That is the plot, but, in execution, the show was so much more bonkers and complex than the premise suggests: a story of biological and found family, a celebration of so many different kinds of love, and an unabashedly feminist western tale. It was all held together by showrunner Emily Andras who infused the sometimes discordant parts into a hilarious and love-affirming whole. – Kayti Burt
28. Altered Carbon
Stream on: Netflix (US & UK)
Sometimes “sci-fi” on TV can be an amorphous concept. In fact, we’re sure you’re ready to argue the sci-fi bona fides of several shows on this list. Thankfully, however, there will be no such debate about Netflix’s Altered Carbon. This two-season series is as pure science fiction as they come. Based on a 2002 novel of the same name by British author Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is set in a futuristic world where a person’s consciousness can be recorded and then transferred into another human body.
While that concept alone is wild enough, Altered Carbon wouldn’t have been a worthwhile experience if it didn’t take the story anywhere. Through two seasons it did just that, even going so far as to recast its lead role from Joel Kinnaman to Anthony Mackie just to really commit to the body switching bit. Altered Carbon was well received but was also a victim of Netflix’s burgeoning “cancel everything after two seasons” strategy. – AB
Stream on: Hulu, Roku, Pluto TV, Freevee (US), Channel4.com, Sky (UK)
The power of lacto-manipulation, or believing that you’re a Jack Russell Terrier, are top of nobody’s ‘what superpower would I choose?’ list, but when a mysterious storm dishes out a variety of abilities to the people of the UK, that’s what some lucky fellows receive. Not our leads though, five young offenders who meet doing community service. They get invisibility, telepathy, time reversal, immortality – all the classics and more. And with great power comes great… ability to make a monumental mess of things.
Few shows on this list share Misfits’ ability to blend proper comedy (largely courtesy of The Umbrella Academy’s Robert Sheehan in series one and two) with intrigue and peril. Filthy, violent, funny and with an excellent cast that started out with Sheehan, Lauren Socha, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Iwan Rheon and Antonia Thomas, think of this Howard Overman comedy-drama as a sibling of The Boys.
(And yes, we know it’s technically fantasy and not sci-fi, but there had to be some British TV shows on this list.) – LM
26. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Disregarding the events of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Fox’s fantastic, canceled-too-soon Terminator series followed battled-tested Sarah Connor (Lena Headey) and her son John (Thomas Dekker), the future leader of the human resistance movement against the machines, as they jumped in time to 2007 and tried to ward off cybernetic assailants from the future with the help of their own android, Cameron (Summer Glau). Tapping into the same concepts as the original techno thrillers — the exploration of fate vs. character — The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the most deeply human entry in the franchise, anchored by a powerhouse performance from Headey (Game of Thrones), who takes Linda Hamilton’s template and makes it her own.
Steely, yet vulnerable throughout, Headey goes deep into the more maternal aspects of Sarah and the show has time that the movies do not to explore the psychological toll that a life on the run and knowledge of impending doom can have on a person. The series also featured great visual effects for a television series of its time and managed to consistently deliver anxiety-inducing action sequences. If only we could travel back in time and stop Fox from terminating this fantastic continuation of the Terminator franchise. – Nick Harley
25. The Umbrella Academy
Netflix’s adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s The Umbrella Academy comic series reimagines an X-Men or Doom Patrol style team as a family of superpowered adopted siblings raised by a fascistic scientist. Following the siblings in their post-wunderkind, superhero days, the estranged team must reunite to stop an impending apocalyptic event. Featuring strange powers, a hefty amount of time travel, and some impressive world-building, The Umbrella Academy is a pulpy thrill ride boosted by dry humor and memorable characters.
We also be remiss not to mention the show’s killer soundtrack and ace performances by actors such as Elliot Page, Robert Sheehan, and Emmy Raver-Lampman. Slightly more left of center than your traditional superhero TV series, The Umbrella Academy stands out in what’s becoming a saturated market. – NH
Stream on: Apple TV+ (US & UK)
Plagued by thoughts of the job in the wee small hours? Can’t stop home worries from invading your work time? Come to work for Lumon Industries and undergo “Severance” – a new brain procedure that splits your consciousness in two to create a work-you (an innie) and a home-you (an outie). Problem solved!
Spoiler: problem very much not solved. The Severance procedure is extremely disturbing and messed up, but makes an excellent premise for this sinister sci-fi TV show from Apple TV+. When newcomer Helly (Brit Lower) volunteers to be Severed and join the Macrodata Refinement department, a mystery unfolds around her colleagues and the mystifying work they do. Just what is going on at Lumon, and what is it that everybody wants to forget during office hours?
With a great cast led by Parks & Rec and Party Down’s Adam Scott, along with Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, and Christopher Walken, this atmospheric 2022 sci-fi drama is one of the most exciting new shows in some time. – LM
23. The Orville
Stream on: Disney+, Hulu (US); Disney+ (UK)
When does parody cross over into pure imitation? If there ever were a case on television in which it did, it is surely The Orville. This sci-fi “comedy” series started as a good-natured parody of the idealistic Star Trek episodes that creator and star Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) grew up loving. Sometime near the end of its first season, however (and definitely by its overtly dramatic second season), The Orville decided to just basically become those old Star Trek episodes.
The show follows the crew of the titular USS Orville as they engage in peaceful interstellar exploration and solve the problems of the universe in a way that would make the USS Enterprise proud. The show lasted for two seasons on Fox before getting a third (and likely final) season on Hulu. Whether it was attempting comedy or drama, The Orville was always good sci-fi through and through. – AB
Stream on: Prime Video, BritBox (US), ITVX, BritBox (UK)
Before Thanos snapped his fingers on screen in Infinity War, another scary entity came up with a plan to solve overpopulation. Utopia’s The Network is the shadowy organization whose unethical experiments were set out in a legendary comic book manuscript that their agents would stop at nothing to find. (Literally nothing, from torture to child-murder to… every other kind of murder.) When a group of comics fans come into possession of said manuscript and cross paths with the mysterious Jessica Hyde, things get weird.
Dennis Kelly’s Utopia blasted onto UK screens in January 2013 as an ultra-violent, twisting conspiracy thriller that put average Joes inside a high-stakes story. It made bold moves, took infamous swings, and ended all too soon. There’s a US remake starring Rainn Wilson, which had a much bigger budget but didn’t manage to stand out from the crowd. – LM
2021’s Loki is a reminder that it’s never enough to just be a superhero show in the modern entertainment landscape. So saturated is television with super-powered heroes and villains than any show wishing to make a mark will have to trot out something new as part of its package. Thankfully for us all, Disney+’s Loki decided that its missing piece was some high concept science fiction.
As run by ex-Rick and Morty writer Michael Waldron, Loki is a shockingly satisfying exploration into science fiction concepts like time-bending, alternate universes, and predetermination. Following his daring escape from a new Battle of New York timeline in Avengers: Endgame, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) finds himself in the clutches of the Time Variance Authority. Instead of stamping him out of the Sacred Timeline, the chrono-bureaucrats decide to use his services to find a chaotic Variant: another Loki. What follows is some of the best sci-fi a TV viewer can enjoy on a superhero series or any other. – AB
Few TV shows ask as much from the viewer as German-language time travel epic Dark, which spans generations and universes, trusting its audience to put many of the pieces of its supernatural conspiracy together on our own. What begins as the story of one missing child in the fictional town of Winden masterfully unravels over the course of three seasons into something much larger and more complex.
Our current era of highly-serialized genre TV too often has audiences sitting through episodes or even seasons of beautifully-shot but ultimately pointless wheel-spinning, but Dark is the rare high-concept genre show that earns its ambitious premise, and pays off the audience’s attention and persistence again and again. – KB
19. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Stream on: Paramount+ (US & UK)
The 21st century has been a pretty busy time for the Star Trek franchise. Since 2002, Gene Roddenberry’s creation has churned out four movies, one traditional TV series, and a whopping six streaming series on Paramount+ (previously named CBS All Access). Of those many hours of space-faring content, though, how many were actually good? Welp … Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is good. We can say that at least.
A spinoff of Star Trek: Discovery, the series follows Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and his intrepid USS Enterprise crew in the years before James Tiberius Kirk took command. Strange New Worlds is the most thrilling Star Trek property released in some time because it’s the most familiar Star Trek property in some time. Gone is the bombast of J.J. Abrams action films and the serialized memberberries of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard (last season was good though). In its place instead is just some good old-fashioned Trekin’. Sometimes Strange New Worlds is a continuity mess but it’s also never anything less than fun. – AB
18. The Mandalorian
Star Wars has long been a little too beholden to one particular corner of its mythology. The Skywalker Saga looms large, perhaps too large, in pop culture consciousness. Deviate too much from it, or fail to pay sufficient homage to childhood classics, at your peril. But The Mandalorian managed to deliver everything longtime fans want from Star Wars, while also making the galaxy far, far away equally appealing to those who might be experiencing it for the first time. As much a space Western or a riff on Lone Wolf and Cub as it is an actual science fiction show, The Mandalorian is every bit as cinematic as the most famous entries in the franchise, exploring deeper corners of the Star Wars universe than we’re accustomed to seeing in live action (with apologies, of course, to the brilliant Rogue One).
Alternately as episodic as the vintage movie serials that first inspired George Lucas and as intricately woven as any other prestige TV effort, it’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s anchored by a riveting performance by its lead (Pedro Pascal), who spends all but moments of the show’s entire runtime so far hidden completely behind a mask. And then there’s Grogu (Baby Yoda), a character who should feel like the cloying, craven little cash grab he is who instead became an instantly (and deservedly) beloved Star Wars fixture. – Mike Cecchini
Alex Garland’s surprisingly bright and deceptively linear 2020 miniseries Devs was a complex and ambitious sci-fi diversion for a world being thrown into some very real turmoil. Exploring themes of free will and determinism in a way that only Garland can, the series follows Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), whose boyfriend and co-worker Sergei gets a coveted job in the Devs section of a large tech company run by the emotional-but-detached Forest (Nick Offerman).
In his first day on the job, Sergei mysteriously dies, and it seems to be up to Lily to uncover both the mystery behind his shocking “suicide” and the mystery behind the company itself, Amaya, which is attempting to use cutting edge tech to look into the truth of the past and an uncertain future. The show slowly unwraps the key to solving the riddle at the centre of Amaya’s dangerous endeavor, but as it does so it delicately delivers a haunting experience that belies its mind-boggling concept. Devs, like Garland’s various other critically acclaimed projects, will stay with you. – Kirsten Howard
Eight strangers discover a mental bond that allows them to interact with one other despite being continents apart. Netflix’s Sense8 takes that premise and absolutely runs with it, utilizing the mental bond to not only plumb the depths of its extremely diverse cast’s souls but also to deliver cinematic action that utilized each of its characters unique skills and talents.
The talents of The Wachowski sisters plus Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski gave us a show that says, as Straczynski put it, “that we are unique, but that we are bound by the common coin of our shared humanity, and that curious alloy makes us strong.” Queer viewers especially will find a lot to latch onto here, with muiltiple queer couples and plenty of plotlines devoted to solely to them. While the series ended far too early, the fan demanded finale movie helped give the story a solid conclusion. – SK
15. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
If there’s one show on this list that best earns the adjective “delightful,” it’s Legends of Tomorrow. But it’s also almost impossible to properly describe. Legends has changed so much from its early days, but the core concept: C-list superheroes who have time-travel (mis)adventures remains the same. Yes, it’s part of the wider “Arrowverse” of TV shows, and sure, much of the roster at one time or another have been DC characters…but this isn’t a superhero show. It’s a workplace comedy with time travel, aliens, sorcerers, the occasional trip to Hell, and rules that exist only to be broken.
Legends has built up a dense mythology all its own, but it’s also so self-contained and episodic that you can jump into most of the later seasons and pick it up. Some whisper that the first two seasons are less than enthralling (don’t believe them) but don’t forget it took no less than Star Trek: The Next Generation a full two seasons to achieve greatness, too. Start at the beginning if it suits you, or jump into season three when things start getting weirder, hornier, and funnier. Delight in the (usually) wholesome fun, one of the best sci-fi ensemble casts of this century, and the coolest ship to grace your TV screen. – MC
Season one of HBO’s Westworld gave sci-fi fans probably the greatest communal TV watching experience since Battlestar Galactica. It too was adapted from a 1970s story about robots, updated and expanded to take in themes of consciousness, free will and faith. Westworld looked incredible, had a killer soundtrack and boasted a cast rarely bettered on TV. The real thrills though, were the twists.
Set in a playground for the mega-rich filled with humanoid robot ‘hosts’ there to indulge guests’ every fantasy, showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan gave Michael Crichton’s theme-park-goes-wrong original a bitingly relevant update. They wove in the ethics of AI, data harvesting and omnipotent corporations to a story that bucked and shifted. The show pulled off conceptual twists of such magnitude that its audience sort of… broke, becoming wary of accepting anything on trust. – LM
13. Person of Interest
Stream on: Freevee (US); Sky, NOW, Freevee (UK)
While much of the internet was focused on the streaming world in the early 21st century, one major sci-fi offering was still plugging away on boring-old network television. Person of Interest is one of the new millennium’s better science fiction series that very few people acknowledge. Perhaps this is due to CBS’s “uncool” factor (or the fact that its star has lost his mind a touch) but nevertheless this Jonathan Nolan-created show deserves its due.
Person of Interest follows eccentric billionaire computer programmer Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) who has developed an algorithm called “The Machine” that he claims can predict terrorist acts across the world before they’re even committed. With the help of CIA operative John Reese (Jim Caviezel), Harold and The Machine try to stop threats before they happen, while also confronting the complicated ethics of their preventative measures. If nothing else, Person of Interest was the perfect sci-fi training ground for Nolan in advance of HBO’s much bigger Westworld. – AB
12. The Expanse
The Expanse is special, that rare TV show that has a good story with something to say and the right people telling it. In the case of the political space opera that started on SyFy and finished its six-season run on Amazon Prime Video, the right people were book authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, as well as showrunner Naren Shankar. They were a passionate and talented ensemble of actors, including women of color Cara Gee, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Frankie Adams, and Dominique Tipper. They were the countless other cast and crew members who helped bring this epic to life.
The good story was a complex exploration of a future in which humanity has colonized the Solar System, taking our systems of inequality and exploitation with us. And the something to say perhaps best boils down to a series-ending voiceover from Tipper’s Belter engineer Naomi Nagata: “The universe never tells us if we did right or wrong. It’s more important to try and help people, and to know that you did. More important that someone else’s life gets better, then for you to feel good about yourself … It doesn’t matter if you ever know. You just have to try.” – KB
11. Rick and Morty
At its core, Rick and Morty is an animated family sitcom dressed in the most outlandish sci-fi concepts and served with a healthy dose of cynicism. The show plays fast and loose with all of the best tenets of the genre — futuristic tech, alternate dimensions, exotic alien worlds, existential philosophical quandaries — and delivers them with a hearty burp. Creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon perfectly toe the line between high and low brow comedy, mixing in improvisational riffs just to keep the chaos swirling and the audience on their toes.
Something of an homage to Back to the Future, the series finds titular mad scientist Rick, an alcoholic with a God complex, dragging his naive high school-aged grandson around the galaxy and multiverse with almost no other purpose than to fight off his own crippling boredom. The show can get seriously dark, but it also knows how to bring levity and deliver the typical heart-warming family sitcom moment. Thrilling in its ambition and absurdity, Rick and Morty is a sci-fi high-wire act that continues to surprise and delight. – NH
Foundation‘s mere existence is a big win for sci-fi nerds of all ages. The fact that it’s also very good just happens to be icing on the cake. This centuries-spanning series based on Isaac Asimov’s classic novels is set in the Galactic Empire run by three cloned emperor “brothers” (one of which is played by Lee Pace). Though the Empire seems stable, “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon (Jared Harris) predicts that its dissolution is fast approaching. To hasten the rebuild of the world to come, Seldon establishes a “Foundation” at the edge of the galaxy and recruits all manner of scholars and survivors to enact his master plan.
Despite running on the, let’s say, lesser-subscribed-to Apple TV+, Foundation is quite simply one of the biggest shows to ever air on television. It looks mind-bogglingly expensive, taking Asimov’s already expansive imagination and casting it out into breathtaking reality. Many thought that Asimov’s series of Foundation novellas-turned-novels would prove unadaptable. But those commentators failed to foresee an entertainment environment that encourages trillion-dollar companies to hand VFX departments a blank check. – AB
Fringe became a natural successor to The X-Files when it first debuted in 2008, and though this was a much, much slicker sci-fi project from the minds of J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci, they’d really done the hard work during the casting process. The show itself, which follows the outlandish casework of the Fringe Division (a Joint Federal Task Force supported by the FBI), simply throws the buttoned-down Agent Olivia Dunham into a working relationship with “mad scientist” Dr. Walter Bishop and his irreverent son Peter, and stands back to watch them cope with one ridiculous scenario after another. But the core acting trio of Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and John Noble had all the chemistry needed to make the show work on another level.
The series still took some time to hit its stride. Again, like The X-Files before it, that breakthrough happened when the show’s mythology deepened in Season 2 and beyond. If you were still watching at that point, Fringe soon became appointment viewing with its wild take on parallel universes and alternate timelines, and still makes for an extremely bingeable cult classic. – KH
Stream on: Hulu (US), Disney+ (UK)
For years after its one-season cancellation in 2003, space western Firefly transcended the identity of mere TV show and became a death lament. Wherever fans would gather, the “f**k you, Fox” cry would echo as tears fell over the loss of this work of staggering genius.
And then the genius in question – creator Joss Whedon – took a mighty dive in popular opinion following misconduct allegations, cast-member Adam Baldwin threw his support behind climate change-denier, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT bigot Ted Cruz in 2016, and Firefly’s premature cancellation no longer seemed like the main story.
Personal mileage on the above will vary, but these 14 episodes (and a movie) following the adventures of the renegade crew of the Serenity led by Nathan Fillion’s Mal remain great viewing. Han Solo-style quipping, a Buffy-ish superpowered kickass girl, a government conspiracy, multiple romantic threads, and terrifying space cannibals who eat you alive…all in a handful of installments that could have been so much more. Can’t stop the signal. – LM
7. Russian Doll
There are very few TV series that can be described as “perfect”, but Netflix’s Russian Doll is one of them. Initially imagined by the viewing public as just the streaming service’s fluffy take on Groundhog Day, Russian Doll caught everyone off-guard with its distinctively weird, crass, and occasionally very unsettling time loop plot, soon becoming that incredibly rare and most wonderful combo: a word-of-mouth smash hit AND a critical darling.
The show follows game developer Nadia (series co-creator Natasha Lyonne in a career best performance), whose 36th birthday turns into a seemingly never-ending therapy cycle when she’s caught in a deteriorating time loop. It’s no coincidence that Nadia is also at a stage in her life when she has settled into a routine she seems a little too comfortable in, so when she finds herself dying repeatedly and coming back to life at the exact same moment during her birthday party, she has to figure out how to escape the loop and make peace with the past before she can even start exploring the future … and that was all just the first season. – KH
6. Orphan Black
Sometimes heavy sci-fi can come across as a little soulless or removed from humanity. Orphan Black, the BBC America thriller developed by Graeme Manson certainly ran the risk of alienating sci-fi-phobic viewers with its high concept plot about a grand cloning conspiracy featuring shadowy corporate machinations and complex themes. Ultimately, however, Orphan Black is one of the most accessible series on this list thanks to one very important factor: Tatiana Maslany.
Maslany puts in some incredible work on Orphan Black. The Canadian actress portrays countless cloned versions of the same character with five, Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix, Cosima Niehaus, Helena, and Rachel Duncan, serving as major ones. Maslany’s brilliant subtle distinctions between multiple identical characters goes far beyond mere novelty and helps the show’s explorations of identity feel far more real and personal. – AB
Stream on: Hulu, Freevee (US); Disney+ (UK)
OK, let’s get one thing out of the way first. No, Lost showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse didn’t know where the show was going at any given moment (and according to Mo Ryan’s reporting, that’s not all they didn’t know about when running the show). But what I would like to put forth right now is a big fat “so what?” Lost is quite simply one of the best and most influential sci-fi television experiences of all time.
Starting with its incredibly ambitious and expensive pilot (directed by J.J. Abrams) and continuing on through its controversial ending (of which I will explain to you if you ask nicely…or even if you don’t ask at all), Lost captivated viewers’ attention spans like little else in its era. A perfect fit for the pit of conspiratorial thinking that was the burgeoning internet, this story about plane crash survivors on a weird ass island was just damn good TV. It also fully embraced its more fantastical elements in later seasons, serving as a good sci-fi Trojan horse for unsuspecting network TV audiences. – AB
4. Stranger Things
Science fiction can be a vehicle to explore complex questions about fate, humanity, and the universe in ways that boring old normal life just can’t accommodate. Some of the best sci-fi stories, however, understand that the genre has a more pure, elemental appeal – that of adventure. Like many of the George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Stephen King genre projects that inspired it, Stranger Things uses science fiction as a jumping off point to tell some truly exciting stories. Through three, soon-to-be-four seasons on Netflix, the Duffer Brother’s sci-fi/horror mashup is far more than just a concentrated dose of ’80s nostalgia. It’s pop entertainment at its finest.
The fictional Hawkins, Indiana is not unlike many other medium-sized Midwestern towns of its era. It’s got a school, a police station, a mall – the whole nine yards. It also just happens to be home to a mysterious psychic research station that unlocks the key to the terrifying Upside Down dimension. Each season of Stranger Things unfolds a compelling sci-fi/horror yarn thanks to some smart storytelling sensibilities and the sheer power of its young cast. Mike, Eleven, Lucas, Dustin, Will, Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve have all grown in fascinating, yet logical ways through the show’s run. In that way the show’s arc is not entirely unlike that of a well-played game of Dungeons & Dragons. Everyone grows closer and everyone gets better. That’s the magic of good sci-fi. – AB
3. Doctor Who (2005)
Stream on: Max (US); BBC iPlayer (UK)
Putting Doctor Who in a ranked list of the best sci-fi shows is like putting London Zoo in a ranked list of the best animals. Doctor Who isn’t one thing; it’s loads of things in roughly the same place (specifically: Cardiff). Even just counting from the 21st century TV revival, there are three showrunners, 14 series, six – soon to be seven – lead actors, a minibus-full of Companions and hundreds of episodes with thousands of opinions on them. It’s more ecosystem than TV show.
Taking all that into account, this story of an alien with the power to regenerate into different bodies, who travels around the universe(s) having adventures in time and space with their pals – definitely deserves to be placed at the top of this list. And somewhere around the middle. And right at the bottom. Hence: top three. – LM
2. Black Mirror
If Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones hadn’t made Black Mirror, we wouldn’t only lack a twisted anthology series of the highest order, we’d also lack a shorthand for describing any scenario which is, well, a bit Black Mirror. You know the kind of thing – uneasily intrusive modern technology, or advances that get hijacked by humanity’s worst impulses. Whenever something that should be a Gene Roddenberry-style utopian breakthrough only ends up reflecting our essential weakness as people, that’s Black Mirror. Robot bees. Robot husbands. Robot stuffed toys containing the trapped consciousness of your comatose mother…
Or at least, that was Black Mirror. In its later life, other modes crept into the storytelling. Its Twilight Zone-ish tales expanded to include romance and hope. There was comedy that wasn’t entirely dark-hearted. There was the odd win. And there was ‘San Junipero’. Brooker’s ability to create the nastiest and most woeful scenario out of any technological premise broadened, and the show became all the stronger for it. – LM
1. Battlestar Galactica
Stream on: purchase-only on Apple TV and Amazon (US); BBC iPlayer, Sky (UK)
Battlestar Galactica isn’t just the best sci-fi TV show of the 21st century, it practically recreated sci-fi TV for the 21st century. No disrespect intended to the Star Treks, Stargates, and Babylon 5s of the world, but this 2004-2008 Sci-Fi (now Syfy) series expanded both science fiction and nerd culture itself to a whole new audience.
Of all the concepts to have breakaway mainstream appeal, Battlestar Galactica was one of the least likely going into its late 2003 miniseries debut. The miniseries-then-show was created by Ronald D. Moore (who wrote on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and was a remake of a 1978 series that very few regarded as a classic. The original Battlestar Galactica sought to recapture the magic of Star Wars but instead came to be remembered as a corny pastiche of the regrettable space opera genre.
Impeccably timed for the post 9/11-era, the dark Battlestar Galactica remake was an immediate critical darling and fan favorite. Like the original, this BSG followed the remnants of humanity as they escaped annihilation from their robotic creations known as the Cylons and drifted out into space in search of a new home, protected only by the titular Battlestar Galactica. While things got admittedly a little loopy in the end, Battlestar Galactica’s four seasons, one miniseries, one spinoff, and two TV movies represent some of the most thrilling science fiction the medium of television has to offer. – AB
Honorable Mentions: Torchwood, Colony, Dollhouse, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Lost in Space (2018), Dark Angel, Snowpiercer, Counterpart, Dark Matter, Killjoys, Avenue 5, Raised By Wolves